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Turning and Churning
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

C lerics have been able to turn undead since the earliest days of the game. Of course, that doesn't mean I like the turn undead mechanics. I have to admit that I am horribly biased. I love undead monsters. I have more painted undead metal minis than any other type of critter. Dawn of the Dead is one of my favorite all-time movies. There's something compelling about a creepy, ancient crypt, but nothing kills that sense of dread and fear for me like a cleric flicking his or her holy symbol at the endless, devouring hordes of the living dead and turning them into piles of ash or, even worse in my eyes, the equivalent of whimpering puppies. Dragons and orcs get to keep their dignity in defeat. Why must my carefully painted undead cower in terror at the sight of a holy symbol?

As I'm starting up my D&D campaign (as I described last week), I've decided to introduce a new take on turn undead. I've created it to fill what I see as the role the ability plays in the world of D&D. Here are the key beats I want to hit:

  • I like the literal idea of turning, as in turning away the undead from the cleric rather than blasting them with holy energy.
  • When undead show up, the cleric's first impulse should be to at least consider turning them. On the other side of the screen, the DM shouldn't feel that turning makes undead-themed adventures a chore to create.
  • The mechanic must be both simple to use and something that makes undead-heavy adventures more interesting with a cleric, rather than simply easier.
  • Turn undead is its own thing. It's not a specific use of a channel energy type ability, which goes away under my rules.

In my mind, the challenge with turning undead is that it has morphed over time from a tool to ward off skeletons and zombies to a sort of fireball tuned specifically for the undead. That progression makes a lot of sense. It's fun to blast monsters! On the other hand, I think having turn undead work like a fireball makes turning a little too much like a spell. In my mind, turn undead should either become a spell or become something unique. I've opted for the latter in my home game. Here's what I have:

When a cleric attempts to turn the undead, he or she makes a Charisma check (presumably with a bonus based on cleric level—maybe +1 per 2 levels?). All the undead within a 30-foot cone in front of the cleric are subject to the turn attempt. Each undead creature has a turn DC embedded in its description. If the cleric succeeds against a creature, the creature suffers the effects described alongside its turn DC. If the check fails, the cleric's attempts to turn that specific creature automatically fail for the next 24 hours.

This approach places the effects related to a turn attempt within the individual creature's description, which allows DMs and designers to determine what happens when you turn a specific type of undead monster. Here are some examples that I've created:

Skeletons and Zombies: They can do nothing but move away from the cleric, and they stop moving when they can't see the cleric anymore. If attacked, the turn effect immediately ends.

Ghouls: Ghouls move at least 20 feet away from the cleric and they approach no closer. They can take all other actions (including ranged attacks if they have them) as normal.

Ghosts: Ghosts phase out of existence for 5 minutes. If they are possessing a creature, that effect ends.

Keep in mind that these are rough and serve more to show that each undead creature has its own DC and special effect when turned. I haven't considered durations yet, and I haven't decided whether the cleric has to keep spending effort to ward away the undead.

I like this approach for a few reasons:

  • We can create effects that are useful but that don't give an automatic victory to the cleric. In most cases, turning is a good tool for evading or escaping the undead.
  • The cleric player needs to learn only one simple mechanic. The DM has the effects of turning embedded in a stat block.

The first point is really big for me. As I mentioned earlier, I love using undead in my adventures. I think the first point resolves the tension between making turning useful and preventing turning from becoming overpowered. Ideally, clerics see turning undead as a way to gain an advantage over the undead—a tool used to help achieve success rather than an "I win" button.

What about evil clerics? Traditionally, turning has allowed them to seize control of the undead. I thought about that a bit, and my thoughts veered to the spell animate dead. Rather than allow evil clerics to control vampires and other intelligent undead, why not build a rule into the spell or ritual that sets a DC for others who attempt to control such undead? That same DC could also allow good or neutral clerics to undo the spell and dust the undead. With this rule, we keep the idea of destroying undead but limit it to effects created by spells or rituals. This rule also marks a big difference between undead created by a caster and those that have other origins.

When expanding on the concept of building a rule for controlling undead into a spell or ritual, I like the idea of including similar mechanics in spells or rituals that allow casters to summon and bind undead. For example, a creature that you can summon or bind might have both a DC and the benefits for binding that creature included in its description. I always liked the references to true names, compelling demonic service, and so forth in older editions. In some ways, by giving concrete benefits for binding a vrock, you might tempt more PC casters into trying it. Even better, those benefits don't have to be only that "the monster fights for you" but instead can be more flavorful and subtle. A vrock can grant you the ability to fly, and a devil might give you better stats, a magic item, or magical abilities as part of a bargain. This topic goes beyond turning undead, but it's something I'll think about more as I plan my campaign.

Last Week's Poll

Which of the following best represents what you'd like to have in the D&D game?
I would like to see save or die effects in the D&D game, working specifically as described above: Give them a hit point threshold trigger. 2411 43.7%
I don't want to see save or die effects in the D&D game at all. 1319 23.9%
I would like to see save or die effects in the D&D game, working in a different way than they did either in earlier editions or as described above. 967 17.5%
I would like to see save or die effects in the D&D game, working as they did in earlier editions. 826 15.0%
Total 5523 100.0%

This Week's Poll

 What do you think of Mike's approach to turning the undead?  
I prefer this approach to turning undead over previous versions.
I like the version of turning found in basic D&D, AD&D, and 2nd Edition D&D.
I like 3rd Edition's version.
I like 4th Edition's version.
I like the idea of turning undead, but I don't like any of these versions.
I don't think turn undead should be in the game.

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