Monday, May 13, 2013

On Turning Undead

Now, since I don't play with clerics in my own D&D games, I don't interact very much with the Turning Undead ability any more. But it did come up in my friend Paul's "Back to Basics" D&D game a few weeks ago.

In the classic texts, Turn Undead is usually silent on the duration of its effect. It pops up in Original D&D Vol-1 for the first time without any text at all -- there's just a table at the end of the combat & spells rosters titled, "Clerics versus Undead Monsters" (it doesn't even specify when or how often clerics can use this). To my mind, the implication is simply that undead "run offstage" and everyone can forget about them at that point.

Now, the interpretation that Paul used in his game -- that was novel for me -- was that the cleric in question has to continue presenting his holy symbol and chanting in order to sustain the "turn" effect. So it's a bit like someone holding a vampire at bay, just out of reach, with a cross -- the cleric can't take other actions or spells or else the turning effect ends and the undead possibly come back. To me, this was surprising, as I'd think the effect effect was like casting a fear spell -- the power hits the undead and they're stricken, so then you can go on with other stuff like other PCs.

Interestingly there's no comment on this or any duration for the effect in OD&D, AD&D, Holmes or Moldvay Basic, Allston Rules Cyclopedia, etc. The AD&D DMG does say that when evil clerics use the power to control undead, they "serve for a full 24 hour period" (DMG p. 66). There's also a Skip Williams Sage Advice column (seemingly meant as cross-edition information) that asserted the effect lasted for the same time: "Q: What happens when a cleric turns undead? Does the turning have a duration? A: The undead run away from the cleric for one turn, then avoid the cleric for a full day, unless the cleric attacks them." (Dragon #134, p. 36). If that's the case, then it seems unlikely that a cleric is chanting all day to maintain the effect.

So I'm wondering what you think. Do clerics have to keep up the holy symbol to sustain a turn effect (kind of like keeping Dracula at bay)? Or does the effect hit the undead once and allow the cleric to do something else (more like an Exorcist drive-it-out for good)? And does the 24-hour duration sound right, or is there any book that says differently?


Edit: Sir Gawain in the comments points out that AD&D does include an explicit duration:  "not less than 3 nor more than 12 rounds, moving at full speed for the duration if at all possible. The turned undead will be able to come back again, but they are subject to further turning by the cleric". [DMG p. 76]

17 comments:

  1. These days I think the undead just run off-stage and join the unspecified number of wandering monsters of the setting. If somebody were to tag the undead and perform measurements, I guess 24h doesn't sound too bad. I also allow clerics to keep turning for ever and ever.

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  2. Turning undead has always been one of those I understand it in concept, but it doesn't translate into playability. The majority of the time my group would interpret it as the undead would run run run for a while, but then they could come back. You would have to apply the turn ability once again or when the undead return the party has time to set up something.

    A few campaigns back I tweaked the turn undead ability. A mindless undead would take damage from the presentation. I think I came up with something like 1d4 damage for every point the cleric succeeded in his turn attempt. Intelligent undead would flee or be stunned. It worked well for the game, but not sure how well it would translate to another campaign.

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  3. I've always run it in the past as "the undead run off-stage and sort of just vanish". I think that now, I'd go with the 1 turn run/24 hour avoidance. If I wanted it to be more like the movies that inspired the concept, probably the best thing to do would be to make the more powerful undead cringe in the face of the cleric's holy power for a round or two (possibly being attacked by the cleric's compatriots), then run. Maybe they could stick around for one round per four hit dice or something.

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  4. My house rules specify that undead will attempt to flee the turning cleric for 24 hours, and if unable to do this they will cower and not voluntary come closer than 10'.

    The more I think about it, though, the more I like your friend's solution, at least from the standpoint of imagining such a scene.

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  5. "the cleric in question has to continue presenting his holy symbol and chanting in order to sustain the "turn" effect."

    This is exactly how I handle the situation. The cleric is already powerful enough (repeling a ghoul at level 1 is an amazing feat not to be taken lightly).

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    1. I second this.

      It is always how I have handled this situation.

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  6. Similar to Paul, I have always treated it as the cleric raising a holy symbol and turning the creature with the follow notes:

    -Don't lose your holy symbol or . . .
    -No holy symbol, no turning ability. You need this to channel.
    -One turn attempt per undead creature (i.e. you cannot keep trying to turn the same undead creature).
    -Turned undead get as far away from the cleric as possible to "let them be" and "let them by." They are still a threat . . .
    -If a turned undead creature is attacked, the turn is "broken" and the undead's will to survive is more powerful (e.g. they can attack and are in play as if they were not turned).

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    2. Oh, yes, and just like Paul - that is all the cleric is doing to maintain the turn.

      I'm okay with the cleric walking/maneuvering while doing so, but dropping the holy symbol and performing another task breaks the turn as well.

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  7. I do the “maintain the turn” thing. But it usually only comes into effect if the cleric has cornered the undead. Otherwise they run “off stage”.

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    1. I'm assuming by that that undead who run from the room don't immediately return if the cleric then does something else?

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  8. These days, I've defaulted back to the OD&D interpretation, which I actually think is fairly clear (despite the limited text): turning undead is not an ACTION taken...it is an EFFECT that a (lawful) cleric has on undead.

    As in, the bishop walks into the place and some creatures just take to the hills, while others lose their shit completely and explode.

    The "cleric effect on undead" table simply shows what the effect is based on the level of the cleric and the types of undead present. The cleric doesn't DO anything...he (or she) can go about his business smiting or casting spells or whatnot. "Strongly presented holy symbols" only apply to vampires...and are not limited to clerics alone. THIS is the chanting Van Helsing character with the cross...it is NOT the general uproar/mayhem caused by the aura of a holy saint (i.e. the "turning" effect).

    As to what happens thereafter, I assume that creatures turned are "forever turned" having once proven their susceptibility to the particular cleric in question. Now if that cleric dies...well, then they come a-creeping back...
    ; )

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    1. Now that's a really different interpretation that I'd never heard of before. Thanks for that!

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    2. Very interesting !
      However, I'll stick with my deviant interpretation.

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  9. In AD&D 1e (DMG p.76) undead creatures turned by a good cleric "move directly away from his or her person, and stay as far away as possible for not less than 3 nor more than 12 rounds, moving at full speed for the duration if at all possible. The turned undead will be able to come back again, but they are subject to further turning by the cleric".
    I have however some doubts about a cleric whishing to turn undead after having already failed against the same creatures: according to the DMG (p. 76) "no further attempt by the cleric may be made with respect to the particular undead". This seems a bit too harsh to me, and in my house rules the inability to have a second try works for a single encounter only: if the cleric faces again (in a further encounter) the undead he wasn't able to turn, he gets another chance to affect it.

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    1. I'm so glad you posted that, because I just couldn't find that (being as it's on the page with the psionic combat table and almost lost in the margin). It's definitely a much shorter duration than we seem to intuit from any other source (standard AD&D wonkiness, I might say).

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