It’s a classic scene from the world’s oldest roleplaying game. The party of stalwart adventurers enter the dark and foreboding crypt. The flickering of their torches only half-illuminates the inky darkness around them. Then they hear a groaning and a shuffling, and before they know what is happening, they are beseiged by a host of animated cadavers. The priest chuckles, gives the rogue a quick wink, and pulls out his holy symbol. It glows with an intense white light, turning back the undead horde and saving the party from certain death.
That’s never happened in any of my D&D games. For as long as I can remember, I have been of the opinion that gods whose portfolio has nothing to do with the undead would never grant their clerics the ability to turn undead. Turn Undead therefore became like any other granted power in the game. And it didn’t come up very often. After ten years of running the third edition game, I still have to look up the turning rules.
But clerics turning undead is at the heart of D&D, don’t you think? It’s up there with mind flayers, and dragons, and tricking the paladin into looking the other way while you beat up the local peasents. When considering HD&D, I began to think that I should give more prominence to the Turn Undead power. Obviously, it’s going to be a talent in HD&D – but I wanted to make that talent more widely available. I wanted Turn Undead to be something that any cleric could do.
The question was: how could I justify such a thing?
The Anatomy of Turning
In third edition it was all very simple. Undead creatures were suffused with negative energy. Negative energy was evil. Therefore they could be turned by being exposed to large quantities of positive (good) energy. Clerics who could turn undead were therefore good clerics. Evil clerics could bolster the undead by feeding them excess negative energy. Of course in the context of Iourn, that’s a load of old tosh.
Iourn subscribes to the second edition (Planescape-sponsored) mantra that negative and positive energy are not inherently good or evil. They are treated just like any other type of energy – hence the six elements and the six Moon Gods of the Iourn setting. Therefore, even if undead are shot through with negative energy, it doesn’t make them inherently bad people. Sure negative energy is antithetical to life, but so’s cancer. And cancer isn’t evil.
Negative or necrotic energy is the essence of death. All living things are made of six elements: earth, air, fire, water, life and death. They only exist because those six elements are in balance. Unbalanced elements (or humours as healers may call them) result in sickness. If a character is running a fever, then their body has too much Fire. If they have rampaging diarrhoea, then their body has too much Water. And if they die, then their body obviously had too much Death in it. That’s the level of medicine that the people of Iourn live with, and as Iourn is a fantasy world, this understanding is entirely correct.
I’ve covered this ground before in the blog, but what I’m getting at here is my intention to disassaociate clerics with positive and negative energy. There’s no alignment in HD&D. No rigid definitions of good and evil. Just as positive and negative energy are not inherently good or evil, neither are the clerics that wield them. Therefore, there is no need for Turn Undead to be associated with good or evil clerics, or for Turn Undead to require the use of positive energy at all.
In second edition, Turn Undead is described thusly: “Through the priest or paladin, the deity manifests a portion of its power, terrifying evil, undead creatures or blasting them out of existence.” This is something that comes up time and again in second edition. Turn Undead is the awesome manifestation of raw deific power. It’s not positive energy, it’s allowing the undead a glimpse of the divine – and that’s something that absolutely terrifies them.
Which inevitably leads to the next question: why does it terrify them?
Consider the Undead
There’s a very good essay on the nature of undead in the fourth edition preview book, Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters. Those preview books really are an excellent read – so much better than the actual fourth edition game. Anyway, in that book Chris Sims says that all creatures are made up of three components – the body, the soul and the animus. The first two are familiar to any long term D&D player, but the third requires a little more explanation.
The animus is defined as “… the intangible bridge between body and soul that is born and that exists with the physical form. It provides vitality and mobility for the creature, and unlike the soul, it usually remains with the body after death.” Where the soul is the source of a creature’s morality and personality, the animus encompasses its animalistic desires and survival instincts.
When a creature dies, the soul departs. The animus remains with the body. If you cast the speak with dead spell, you are talking to the animus and not the soul. If the animus is exposed to sufficient negative (necrotic) energy then it has the power to animate the body in a mockery of its former self. Without a soul, the undead creature is composed purely of body and animus. It is a feral, corrupted being that acts instinctively to fulfil its desires; there is no check on its behaviour because it is has no higher ideals to guide it (no soul). The more necrotic energy the animus is exposed to, the more powerful the undead creature becomes. The least powerful undead are mindless and unreasoning, but as more energy is devoted to the animus, the undead creature’s intelligence grows, and it will eventually recall the memories of its past life. However, even such intelligent beings are still without a soul, and still little more than savage killers.
So how does an undead creature become exposed to this necrotic energy? It might be provided by a necromancer, using his powers to animate the dead. It might seap in from the elemental realms. It might be that the deceased was so depraved or driven in life, that he actively attracts such energy. Or he might be the victim of a curse, doomed to become an undead creature upon his own death. Remember, necrotic energy is not evil. It is not the same as Taint. However, most undead creatures will be tainted. They may come into existence ready-tainted because of the fell and terrible means that have been used to create them, or they may quickly acquire taint based on what they do. A zombie is a mindless creature with no concept of good or evil. However, a weekend spent eating the brains of the living is more than enough to attract Taint.
So how does all this make the undead afraid of divine power? Well, the undead are incomplete creatures. They don’t have a soul. Deities are all about souls. The gods only exist because of souls: they need the devotional energy of their followers while they live, and the souls of those followers after death. Without them, the god would simply cease to exist. In the history of Iourn (quite ancient history) the existence of mortal souls led to great wars between the Ancients.
To look upon the power of a god, gives the undead a taste of what they have lost. It is an overwhelming and horrific revelation for them. They flee from the truth, and for some the truth is so overwhelming that it destroys them where they stand. That is why divine power has the capacity to turn undead.
That’s all well and good, but what about the undead who do have souls? The most powerful undead beasties such as vampires, ghosts and death knights do retain their souls in addition to their bodies and the animus. Having a soul is quintessential to such monsters – they are often cast as tragic figures, in addition to being malign. But even these beings are beset by the feral urges of their powerful animus. Some of the ensouled undead may overcome this, and be beneficent characters. Others may embrace their infamy. Regardless of whether ‘good’ or ‘evil’ these beings are still under terrible curses. Their souls are not truly their own. They are still imprisoned by their own nature. The glimpse of divine power would still unsettle and depress even these beings – although it would be much harder for a cleric to influence them.
Turning not Commanding
The lengthy preamble above, can be summarised as follows: all undead creatures quail in the presence of divine energy, because it reminds of them of what they are, and what they can never be. Therefore, any cleric of any religion has the potential to be able to reveal the splendour of his god in order to force back undead creatures. It’s nothing to do with positive or negative energy, it’s nothing to do with good or evil – it’s simply born of raw power.
Therefore turning works the same way for all clerics. There is no rebuking undead, or commanding undead. There is only turning undead – the clergy of Vecna turn undead just as effectively as the clergy of Pelor. Gods with undeath in their portfolio might grant powers and spells to snare the minds of undead, to summon them or dominate them – but these would remain abilities specific to certain clergies. Turning works the same way for all clerics.
How Turning Works
After the justification, comes the mechanics. Turn Undead is a talent that is open to any cleric or paladin of any religion, and can be taken from 1st level. Unlike previous editions of the game, paladins can turn undead just as well as clerics. Their connection to the divine is equally strong, it simply manifests in different ways. So have a look at the talent, and the accompanying feats and see what you think. It has a rather old-school feel about it, and is closer to the second edition mechanics than third. I think it’s evocative.
Turn Undead (Cleric Talent)
You draw upon raw divine power to cow the undead creatures before you.
At-Will | Supernatural, Fear
Area of Effect: Close Burst 60 ft. radius
Target: All undead creatures in area of effect
Attack: Spellcraft vs. Will
You channel the power of your god through your holy symbol to drive away (and potentially destroy) undead creatures. You must have your holy symbol to hand in order to use Turn Undead and you must present that symbol in a bold and forthright fashion. Your power affects all undead within range, except those that have Total Cover. Line of Sight is not required for Turn Undead to work.
Make one attack roll and compare it to the Will defence of all the undead in the area. A successful attack against undead creatures of half your level or less instantly destroys them. They burn away in less than a round, leaving nothing but a pile of fetid ash to remember them by. All other affected undead flee until they are outside the area of effect of this talent. They are also Shaken (a -2 morale penalty on all defences, saving throws, skill checks and ability checks) for as long as your maintain the turning effect.
Affected undead outside the area of effect will not attack the cleric or paladin, even if they have ranged, close or far attacks they could use without coming within 60 feet. They can use ranged, close and far attacks against allies of the cleric within the area of effect. The cleric (or paladin) and his companions are free to use ranged attacks against turned undead without breaking the turning effect. However, if you move toward the undead and manoeuvre them into a situation where they cannot retreat outside the area of effect, then the turning effect is broken for that undead creature, and it may act normally.
You can maintain the turning effect by spending a Move action each round. You do not need to make further attack rolls unless new undead enter the area of effect. In this case make a second turning attempt as a standard action. You must still spend a Move action to maintain your turning, in the round you make the second turning attempt. However, subsequently the effects of both turning attempts can be maintained with one Move action.
Any undead that are unaffected by your turning attempt, are immune to any subsequent turning attempts by you for one hour.
Absent-Minded Turning (Cleric Feat)
You can turn undead while directing your full attention elsewhere.
At-Will | Supernatural
Prequesite: Turn Undead talent
Effect: You can choose to maintain your turning effect by spending either a Move action or a Swift action. Normally, it costs you a Move action each round to maintain the effects of the turn undead talent.
Quicken Turning (Cleric Feat)
You can turn undead more swiftly than other clerics.
At-Will | Supernatural
Prerequisite: Turn Undead talent
Effect: You can use the Turn Undead power as a Swift action instead of a Standard action, if you desire.
Translocate Turning (Cleric Feat)
You can direct the power of your god to manifest some distance from you.
At-Will | Supernatural
Prerequisite: Turn Undead talent, 11th level
Effect: Rather than emenating from yourself, you can denote any other point within range of this feat to be the centre of your Turn Undead effect. The Area of Effect of your Turn Undead power changes from “Close Burst 60 ft. radius” to “Far Burst 60 ft. radius within 100 ft. + 10 ft./level”. Normal rules for Far bursts apply to the attack, including the possible provocation of attacks of opportunity. The effects of the feat Widen Turning still apply if your use Translocate Turning.
Turn Resistance (Racial Feat)
You are more resistant to the deific power conjured by clerics.
Continuous Effect | Supernatural
Prerequisite: You must be undead
Area of Effect: Personal
Effect: You gain a +5 bonus to your Will defence to resist Turn Undead attempts.
Widen Turning (Cleric Feat)
The power of your deity can be used to terrify undead creatures that a further away.
At-Will | Supernatural
Prerequisite: Turn Undead talent
Effect: The radius of your Turn Undead talent increases from 60 feet to 120 feet. All undead within that radius can be affected with your god’s power.