Dungeons & Dragons and many other tabletop RPGs seem to have a plentiful supply of undead. Clerics in classic tabletop games get the ability to call upon their deity to affect undead, and it may require more strategy than you think!
“Turning Undead” Is the term used for a religious character to turn away, make indifferent, destroy, or even control undead creatures (list of what qualifies as undead is specified in text)
Let’s take a look at how this ability functions in 1E and OSRIC and understand a little more about it.
For reference, we will be looking at the revised 1979 DMG , 6th printing of 1E PHB (Jeff Easley covers) and the second printing hardback of OSRIC. I use these books simply because they are on my desk and I don’t want to dig through the stack for more.
For both OSRIC and AD&D the cleric, druid, paladin or holy character must be in possession of their holy symbol. The symbol of faith is at the epicenter of what a religious character does, and in turning undead, it is especially true.
For both AD&D and OSRIC more than just reanimated dead things can be turned. Creatures that may be turned, depending on alignment, are demons, devils, godlings and paladins. Although it isn’t mentioned specifically, most game masters assume this list to also include angels and other creatures of direct divinity. Yes Paladins, you too can be turned by that evil priest! Angels may have a get out of jail card by accident in 1E, however repelling them by evil priests does have a ring of common sense to it.
In both systems the cleric’s level affects the results they can expect and the difficulty to turn or control certain opponents. Tables and charts are supplied in the texts to roll on.
The cleric must be able to step before the undead. The cleric must also be able to speak and hold forth the symbol of their faith. No other spell casting, attacks or action can be taken when ‘turning’. (Ref pg 104 PHB)
The wording around this gets a little more confusing in the DMG. (pg 65)
In the DMG it says that “As stated on the CLERICS AFFECTING UNDEAD table, this function may be only attempted once by each cleric”.
This gave me pause, because honestly I thought this was once per combat or so many rounds. Flipping to the cleric affecting undead table of the DMG (pg 75-76) the answer is a little buried. After the table on page 76 it apparently confirms that once a turn has failed on an undead, that’s it. That particular cleric can never turn that undead.
“No further attempt can be made with respect to the particular undead…etc” Game masters and players take note. That means if you try to turn that lich at a lower level and it fails, when you come back 4 levels later… it will certainly fail again, and forever more.
I honestly can’t say why, but our hero Gary Gygax complicates things a bit at the point in the text where there are multiple types of undead in a single group. Personally, I believe this may hearken to some war-gaming rulings and situations. With some stretching of the brain it DOES make sense, but it can cloud the turning rules up a bit.
I will attempt to paraphrase here, so stick with me:
IF there are multiple undead in a group and the cleric’s ‘turn’ is successful against any or all of the types within the group, on the following round they may attempt to turn more or other undead within the group. As long as successful turns are made, the cleric may continue turning each round until there is a failure.
The summary above is clouded by some circumstance and explanation of the turning order. (See page 65 DMG)
Some of this confusing paragraph is set up to describe a situation where a greater undead is controlling others. A roll on the table may not allow for the turning of the powerful undead, but it may have qualified to turn the lesser minions. So it would allow the continued turning or say, skeletons serving a crypt master.
The DMG continues with some interesting reading regarding turning that we often don’t consider in ‘every day gaming’. I will just quickly note them below, but are worth the read, or re-read if you are a weathered GM.
We all love to use them in cults and adventures, but forget about their ‘turning’ ability. Turning a skeleton or zombie is pretty simple on the charts. For evil characters anything below a result of “T” indicates that the undead are compelled to perform some sort of service for 24 hours minus the minimum score required.
A result of “T” that the undead are neutral or serve for 24 hours. A “D” (Normally disintegrate) result means cooperative service as long as the cleric ‘renews’ their control every 6 days. Essentially the conditions are similar to that of a basic charm. This means that any god.. erm.. I mean evil cleric worth their salt, even of modest levels, are quite likely to have at their command some undead.
If the cleric is knocked out cold, all this control stops. However, it is o.k. to sleep and have the undead servants stand guard or follow other commands.
Evil Clerics and good may ‘ping pong’ control of undead, that is until they fail to ‘turn’ the undead. A good cleric may use the table to counter command of an evil cleric’s undead in service. This could keep the afterlife a-buzz but could also make for some interesting roleplay of priests wrestling for control of burial grounds.
The text isn’t clear on whether or not one evil cleric may wrest control of the undead from another.
Another stipulation to affecting creatures comes in the paragraph regarding “Evil areas”. Among the interesting circumstances of evil areas limiting undead control, the text notes that a cleric visiting either a good or evil plane cannot turn a creature that lives there. So a LG cleric could not enter the first plane of hell and start turning all the lesser demons.
Now we look into the OSRIC book to see what, if anything, regarding this piece of the game has changed for OSR folks.
Right off the bat the OSRIC text clarifies that an evil cleric cannot destroy a paladin by turning. I can only assume that discussion was up for debate among 1E players and had to be house ruled.
OSRIC has added the requirement that the turning cleric MUST sheath or drop their weapon to carry out the ‘turning’.
IF the cleric’s weapon is their holy symbol, they may use it to turn without dropping it, but cannot attack in the same round.
Clerics suddenly get much more turning power in OSRIC. The text simplifies the continued turning by saying that a cleric may continue to attempt turning as long as they were successful in their attempt on the previous round. If they fail, no further attempts may be made during the CURRENT ENCOUNTER.
This is a powerful upgrade from the AD&D rules where no further attempts can be made, period!
Evil clerics get throttled back a little in OSRIC. They cannot control more hitdice than their level of experience. So, at level 4, stick to 4 skeletons.
like so many other things, OSRIC trimmed the text and did some heavy editing to simplify the mechanics. My Inner GM finds some of the AD&D concepts a little more inspiring in the end in regards to the evil clerics and jostling control of their undead servants.
The GM in me also appreciates the streamlined OSRIC text that makes turning numerous undead a bit simpler.
Some players forget to look closely at clerical abilities beyond “Cure Light Wounds”. A strategic turning or controlling undead could easily turn the tide of a battle. In AD&D NOT turning a powerful undead that you may see later, at a higher level is a valid tactic.
There are many ways to use a holy character’s relationship with the undead to a party advantage. No one likes the evil cleric, until a cold biting rain comes, and he has 4 skeletons holding a tarp aloft as he travels.
Fail Squad Games
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