Building a Better D&D
Returning to the Subject at Hand
Yep, I'm talking about turning undead. Okay, so it's a lame pun. Sue me. Oh, and just in case you actually READ these entries, hitting that bookmark faithfully looking for updates on a regular basis it's not that I haven't been working on the project, just not working on it as heavily and devoting a bit of time to other needs and interests. I've scanned the DMG up to the list of magic items. I got an email from at least one person who read what I have so far and another from someone who has already done all the scanning work and may save me from some further OCR tedium. [Note: I wound up doing all the scanning myself anyway.]
Turning undead seems to me to be too much an all-or-nothing affair. It's pass/fail when it seems to me that degrees of success would be more appropriate and certainly more useful and interesting. Although it IS a class feature for clerics it really has to be adjusted based upon the portfolio of the clerics deity. A deity of, say, romance or wealth should have clerics exerting far less effect – if any – upon undead. The chart should also account for more than just hit dice of the undead (indeed a LOT of AD&D is based on HD which becomes inappropriately important) and instead factor in their other relative strengths and importance to the scheme of things overall. For example: zombies and skeletons in books and movies are never, ever turned or destroyed by PC presentations of religious power except when hit with something more akin to a Mace of Disruption. I think this stems from their being mindless undead, mere animated corpses rather than beings of cursed spirit and corrupted soul who willfully perpetrate evil. Wights, wraiths, ghosts, vampires, mummies, and similar undead fill those roles.
Ghosts, as a further example, may be held back or briefly, literally turned away, but are rarely permanently banished in drama and fiction with a simple wave of the hand and brief incantation. Permanently destroying them or laying them to rest requires investigation and ritual. One must discover the ghosts cause of creation and/or motivations and then enact an involved, formal process. That process might be a seance, or performing some action specific to their curse to eliminate them or remove the curse, or just being able to communicate with the ghost and convince them to finally abandon their reluctant grip on the mortal world. Note that these changes would quickly move ghosts away from being dull, but feared age-drainers to being interesting and often NOT evil obstacles or even resources or compatriots. Turning a Ghost does tend to drive it off as an immediate threat in fiction though. Spectres are in many ways similar to ghosts but since they're separate monsters in D&D we can give them separate attacks, defenses, etc. So perhaps a spectre won’t run as a ghost will if turned but will instead take damage from it. Damage may prompt it to run but it won't go out of direct effect. Obviously then we wouldn't want to allow PC's to just keep turning a spectre until it runs out of hit points, but then it becomes a greater challenge than a normal ghost. Vampires of course are only driven back to their grave where they must ultimately be dealt with (but then I've talked elsewhere about some heavy changes to vampires). A wraith has a dual-existence on the ethereal plane so their material form can be repeatedly destroyed but they will re-form it until their alternate form is also destroyed. Wights are underground/nighttime threats destroyed by sunlight and existing to spread fear and despair among the living.
Turning each of these various creatures should have differing effects because they are each different creatures with different relationships to the curse of being undead, to their former lives, to spiritual power, to the places they inhabit, the reasons that PC's might encounter them, and more. In particular, as you deal with ever more powerful undead it doesn't play as well to see them simply turn tail and run or vanish in a puff of "I win" force that is invoked by a single die roll. That just sucks all the individuality, interest and potential right out of the monster and turns every one of them into a mere hit-point punching bag for PC's to grind for xp. There is certainly room for some undead to BE just that mundane, where the reason that they are dangerous is simply that they are melee killing machines. But just as we need more variety in the effects of their attacks (not just level drain but things like strength drain, mummy rot, memory loss, possession, and more; we also need variety in the means needed (or just additional means possible aside from merely whacking at them) to defeat them. And that is not something that should be packaged under the single banner of "turn undead" and handed to every cleric.
This winds up being a rather significant change that permeates the whole game. First and foremost there are changes to be made to 12 or so undead monsters from the MM (leave the others to the individual DM to spice up as desired). Then there are changes to Turning and how PC's can combat the menaces of the various undead. Those changes to turning need to factor in the specific deity (if any) that a cleric is devoted to. Life/protection type deities would have the most effective priests at turning undead. So maybe the PC rolls 1d12+level and compares to monsters unique Turning score. Those results have degrees of success and will vary by exact undead type. A deity less oriented in opposition to undead might mean the PC rolls a d20 instead of the d12, or perhaps is unable to achieve certain effects against them. In any case, turning should never really be capable of being an "I Win" button for a PC, but rather a useful tool to combat the Undead. Equally as undesirable would be that Turning is the only way to fight these monsters effectively. Too often I've seen PC's without magic weapons (or without enough magic weapons) come up against undead and find they are unable to defeat them by brute force (including turning) and watched the scramble on both sides of the screen just to prevent a TPK. There's definitely a gap between skeletons/zombies and even simple Ghouls with 3 attacks/round and a barrage of saves against paralyzation.
I'm not saying that there HAS to be a continuous progression of undead and the level of challenge they present, but it sure would be an improvement if there were gradual degrees of threat as well as degrees of success in how they can be fought.
An anecdote that I read recently, which I have little cause to doubt, is that the only reason clerics gained this ability to turn undead in the first place was due to one-upsmanship among players. Dave Arneson had a player whose PC became a vampire and started to run roughshod over the game. Another player, seemingly fed up with the characters antics created a new character of his own whose concept was that he was some kind of undead hunter, witchfinder or the like, and thus was given the ability to turn undead - which of course he then used against the first player. I guess I only mention this to demonstrate that I don't particularly feel that turning undead is an ability that is so intrinsically tied with every cleric of every deity that it can't be futzed with. Turning undead is FAR from being inseparable from clerics. But what IS sensible is that clerics be given vaguely similar abilities based upon the nature of the deities they choose to follow. These abilities do not need to be equal in power or usefulness. They would instead be another means by which a campaign setting can be made interesting and unique. Clerics should indeed generally lead the way given the spiritual orientation of both that class and the undead as foes, but that doesn't mean other classes might not actually be BETTER at turning than some clerics, depending on the religion/deity the cleric actually follows.
Just as a fer-instance, imagine a setting where the curse of Undeath is a wholly new phenomenon. Turning undead is not a standard cleric ability simply because as far as the players know their PC's will be the first ones in the world to ever encounter undead and have to fight them. But then, after a time they dig up information that once, long ago, there was a similar phenomenon but the temple of priests who learned to fight the undead faded away. The PC's could then find the last temple of priests who fought these undead and learn FROM THEM or their records the ability to turn undead with religious power, and then anyone consecrated to a certain deity, or to that temple could be given the ability. Or perhaps the temple is in ruins and the power is gained by drinking from a sacred fountain devoted to a now-priestless and forgotten god. Not only could all the PC's then gain some form of turning ability but they could devote themselves to protecting the fountain from a lich who wants to have his minions destroy it, and a league of necromancers who want to use the power to CONTROL the undead as their private army and take over the world.
Just a few possibilities (and I like that previous paragraph SO much I vow to use that in my next campaign) but certainly it's gotta be better than what AD&D has now.
And speaking of the undead, let's talk briefly about the love-to-hate-it-for-valid-reasons life-energy drain. Sorry for all the emphasized words to follow, but in my opinion there’s just never a good excuse for a DM to penalize a character experience points unless the player is found cheating or the like. Energy drain should drain hit points, do ability damage of varying duration, stun, slow, immobilize, etc. but NOT drain experience points. It is a STUPID mechanic to use. I forgive Dave and Gary for their original crimes simply because at the time there wasn't decades of RPG game design and playtest experience to note how bad of an idea it was. But that was then. EVERY version of D&D since then which has failed to make SWEEPING changes to that mechanic has NO EXCUSE WHATSOEVER. Shame on them.
Characters should not “forget” how to perform skills and abilities but could perform at penalties equivalent to being a level or more lower than they actually are. At the very least, if a character IS penalized xp for energy drain he MUST be allowed some means of FULL recovery of every point (and that does NOT mean just having to re-earn lost points anew), and/or suitably, repeatedly warned of potential, permanent loss and/or allowed means of avoiding the point loss in the first place. Yeah, energy drain and petrification are serious Old School terrors but let’s drag ourselves into at least the shadow of the light from modern game design theory.
Experience Points are a meta-game mechanic whose ENTIRE practical purpose in the game is to regulate the rate of advancement of characters. That rate need not, and should not be slowed just because the DM has the ABILITY to fuck with it. If the DM has a need or desire to slow advancement there are vastly better way of handling it than playing with bullshit mechanics in-game. The loss of xp is something a player/PC CANNOT control. It is something the DM chooses to INFLICT on the PC's. This effect is then VERY disproportionately handed to those who are more likely to be in melee with the level-draining undead.
Level-draining is an artifact of what was once the nascent field of RPG design. Gary (or whoever) dreamed it up and put it to use, but that doesn't mean it was a good idea. There were better ways it could have been handled - and SHOULD have. Anyone who clings to the classical notion of level-draining as a viable, sensible mechanic for an RPG - ANY RPG of ANY era - needs to be shot with the hammergun in the face until they become open-minded and some light is let into the dark recesses under their skulls. Even in an RPG there are reasons why we do the things we do - and why we DON'T do certain things as well. This is not killing sacred cows - it is a matter of eliminating a genuinely BAD choice in nearly 40-year-old game design and replacing it with something superior.
Return to 1E Project Page
Return to D&D Page
Return to Home Page