HD&D: Turning Undead

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
Standard Action

Duration: Concentration
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
No Action
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
No Action

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
No Action

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
No Action
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
No Action

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.


4 thoughts on “HD&D: Turning Undead

  1. I think your rationale behind turning using the animus is fine. I agree that turning undead should be more commonplace but as you say justifying it was the trick. I assume that plethora of feats in third edition to use turning to do something else will be a thing of the past. The feats seem fine but where would you stand on a heightened turning which treats the cleric as a higher level for the purposes of determining the level of undead that is immediately destroyed?

  2. Yes. As Turn Undead is now an at-will ability, it’s not suitable for powering the lorry-load of Divine Feats that third edition introduced. That’s not to say we won’t see those divine feats crop up in HD&D in some capacity, they just won’t be related to Turn Undead.

    In principle: yes. I’m all for Heighten Turning, or something similar. A feat of that name was introduced in Defenders of the Faith and was not, to my knowledge, revised for version 3.5. However, your suggestion for the feat’s effect bears little resemblace to its third edition namesake.

    In third edition, Heighten Turning let you increase the result of your turning check at the expense of your turning damage. It didn’t make you an effectively higher level for the purpose of destroying undead.

    I’ve nothing against an HD&D feat doing this though, only it is rather powerful. It would probably something I would delay until 11th level.

  3. Neil says:

    You could just as easily say that the power of a deity is so awe inspiring that it could “turn” or even destr*y anything. I think your logic is a little flawed and smacks of you desperately wanting to fit a square peg into a round hole. Why would a creature who has no soul care about the soul it lost? By definition you have to have a soul to appreciate the loss! For example if an animal (creature with no soul just animus and body) were somehow shown what it was like to have one would it care? No!

    Why is the soul of an “ensouled” undead not truly their own? From your explanation an undead creature is one who has become suffused with negative energy, not that it doesn’t have/has a crippled, soul. Presumably the way a vampire is created, for example, is the unbalancing of the de*th humor, the creature still has its soul intact?

    An alternative suggestion: why don’t you have it such that the power of the deity can “turn” different beings dependent upon the nature of the deity? For example negative energy deities may be able to “turn” “normal” creatures, it is the effect of looing into what that deity represents that “turns” the creature. For the other four elements the traditional opposing schools would be okay. Nature might overwhelm order etc. etc. Just some food for thought.

  4. Hi Neil!

    Your alternative suggestion is largely the way things work at the moment. Fire clerics can turn water creatures, earth clerics can turn water creatures and the only clerics who can turn undead are those who follow a god that actively oppose the undead. There’s logic in doing it that way. But I would say that as it’s pretty much the way I have been doing it for ten years.

    But, as I said in the post, I think that Turn Undead is bigger than that. I think it’s a significant part of Dungeons and Dragons, and as such it should be given greater prominence in the rules. I want HD&D to be as much like D&D as possible. And to be honest, I don’t think that it’s really *that* much of a stretch.

    Without getting too metaphysical: I don’t think you need to have a soul to appreciate the loss of a soul. The animus contains a creature’s racial or genetic memories. How to walk, how to focus you eyes, how to eat and to breathe and so on. If a creature that has a soul loses that soul, then that loss is remembered by the animus. It is this remembrance that gives undead their Achilles heal. Being exposed to raw divine might (might that is powered entirely by soul-energy) overwhelms them.

    Creatures that never had a soul wouldn’t share this aversion. Of course they wouldn’t. It isn’t simply not having a soul that is the problem, it’s having a soul and then losing it. It’s the loss that is the key thing. And besides, who is to say that rabbits and possums don’t have souls? Crude souls perhaps, not as refined as humans or hobbits, but souls nonetheless.

    The ensouled undead have hung onto their soul for some reason. It may be to do with the curse they are under, it may be through strength of will. However, the soul they have is undeath is not the same as the one they possessed in life. I see the soul is a delicate thing; evil acts and dark magic can scar and irrevocably cripple it.

    The act of dying and then being brought back as an unbalanced abomination has a profound effect. Maybe the soul is half-lost in the process, maybe it is twisted into something that wasn’t there before. A soul in the presence of that much negative (aka necrotic) energy should wither and die. The soul of a vampire does not, but it is not unaffected.

    Deific power still has power over these creatures. They aren’t the creatures they once were. They know what they have lost, and they find divine power intolerable. However, they are harder to turn than those undead who don’t have souls.

    I quite like this explanation. It seems neat and appropriate to me, and not banging a square peg into a round hole. It’s also the way Turn Undead was described in second edition. Which is not to say that your alternative isn’t equally as reasonable, but I feel the need to try something different.

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