Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Picking Nits From Mike Mearl's Latest Column - Turning & Churning

you can see the original article here

Clerics have been able to turn undead since the earliest days of the game. (which was useful, especially when Clerics couldn't cast spells at 1st level) 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. (That's because undead are some of the easiest miniatures to paint ;) 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. (but this is one area (offensively) where Clerics always had the chance to shine...) Dragons and orcs get to keep their dignity in defeat. Why must my carefully painted undead (see, like I said - easier to pain than the living) 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. (they only get blasted when the cleric is much more powerful than the undead - in which case, they probably weren't much of a threat in the first place)
  • 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. (it's no more a chore than any other type of adventure)
  • The mechanic must be both simple to use and something that makes undead-heavy adventures more interesting with a cleric, rather than simply easier (again, if the cleric and the undead are equal, the cleric will only succeed half the time or so and even then it's just to flee- I don't see the issue here).
  • Turn undead is its own thing. It's not a specific use of a channel energy type ability, which goes away under my rules (that's fine.  all that shit got introduced in 3e and 4e and aint my bag anyway).
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. (the undead get blasted when the result is automatic in 1e, which means the cleric greatly outleveles the undead in question.  where is the problem?) 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 (maybe the fireballing undead issue is a 3e or 4e problem...). 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.  (so, I  guess going back to the old turning charts is outa the question?  sorry, just asking)

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.  (so, level 10 cleric, level 1 skelli - Get running bag o' bones, cause I can't turns you to dust no more!)

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.  (i'm detecting the neutering of the cleric.  damn, I could never get anyone to play a cleric in my AD&D campaigns and I see less of a reason here)

Ghosts: Ghosts phase out of existence for 5 minutes. If they are possessing a creature, that effect ends. (so, turning doesn't do anything more than putting the problem off until later)

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 (excellent idea- make the cleric really useless).
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. (again, by removing one of the few ways a cleric can shine while not playing a healbot role, you are giving less reasons to play a cleric)
  • The cleric player needs to learn only one simple mechanic (are players really so dumb they can't handle a slightly more complicate and fulfilling game 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 (it was only an "i win" button when the clerics greatly out powered the undead in the first place.  mike, how is it that you just don't get that simple fact?)

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 (wait, I thought clerics couldn't "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. (oh lord.  yeah, that certainly simplifies shit.  let's use 2 methods.  let's see:  these skeletons run away - they're "natural undead".  These other skeletons go up in flames - there must be an evil necromancer nearby.  mike, you are over thinking this shit)

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 (sweet, so evil PCs are definitely in the game). 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 (now we are getting into dangerous territory mike.  i thought WotC like keeping things safe in the 4e era). 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 (assuming alignment doesn't have much bearing on the game, sure.  good and neutral PCs binding devils and demons?  Has Carcosa embedded itself in D&D Next?). 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.

Mike is highlighting change for the sake of change, and calls it a simplification which he immediately follows by a huge complicate (2 types of undead - natural and summoned).

Recipe for metagaming and a neutering of clerics.  But that's okay, because Mike is fixing a problem that doesn't really exist in the earlier editions of the game.



  1. I agree. Not a simplification by any means, at least not compared to older editions. Worse yet, too much of it seems to be based on his personal biases. He's trying to write the undead into his adventures as though the adventure was a novel. They're supposed to do something dramatic and "cool" and then the cleric shows up and ruins it for the DM. It seems D&D is becoming little more than fan fiction in the hands of whoever is writing it at the moment.

  2. Man, I hated the "Turn Undead" mechanic in 3E. Mike's idea to use a DC/level bonus roll seems a lot like the 3E version.

    Pathfinder is not as complicated, but by default, all Clerics do is "blast" undead for damage (the fireball effect he mentioned). They need to spend a feat to make them run away, when instead they could be doing xd6 damage to all the undead within 30 feet. I haven't seen a Cleric in PF use the Turn Undead feat yet.

    Not sure how it works in 4E.

    Anyway, Tenkar, you hit all the salient points about old school Turn Undead. It's a gamble for roughly equal level undead whether it works or not. It doesn't affect every undead in the area, only a limited number of hit dice. Weak cannon fodder undead get vaporized by higher level Clerics, but powerful undead are not even at risk of being turned by lower level Clerics. It's a nice simple system, and it works perfectly for what it's intended to do.

    Mike's ideas about binding undead/demons sound interesting, though...

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  4. thanks for the kind words guys, it means a lot.

    mike isn't throwing us marketing speak and "unity in gaming " bullshit, but he's looking to tweak rules for the sake of tweaking. that's annoying in it's own right ;)

  5. I agree that his whole premise is waaaay too complicated. You need more than a page of rules to explain one ability? Fail rule.

    He and a few others have lived under this massive illusion that clerics are way too powerful in early editions of the game. So how come my powergamers never want to play one? All because a spreadsheet somewhere equates healing potential and buff mechanics to damage potential doesn't mean they are the same in practice.

    Heck, I think the illusionist was the most powerful, if played creatively. Good thing they completely eliminated that sort of play in 4e.

  6. Oh dear. That is all kinds of not good as a Turn mechanic. Well, I say mechanic, but all I can really see is some half-thought-out fiddle-faddle that needs severe pruning.

    ("Remember when he {Mike Mearls} fixed Skill Challenges? Sorry, remember the first seven times that he announced that he was fixing skill challenges?"
    -- Frank Trollman)

  7. I commented to a fellow B/Xer on email that Mearls is really in left field on some of these issues.

    The turning mechanic is nice and simple as it is. If the chart is too easy bump it up.

    His solution is to make stat blocks longer and more complicated? And make the gameplay longer and more involved than it needs to be. Lords of Light! Gimme a break.

  8. What exactly is a 'natural' undead? Don't all of them require some sort of evil ritual magic? I didn't realize that there was an 'ecology' of skeletons apart from Evil Necromancers...

  9. according to mike, there's "undead" and there's "summoned undead" - you can poof the summoned undead, but not the more natural type

  10. according to mike, there's "undead" and there's "summoned undead" - you can poof the summoned undead, but not the more natural type


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