Turn Undead – are we getting it wrong?

Author: DHBoggs /

The adventurers round a corner and see 3 ghouls feeding on a fresh kill.  Cleric Cleo steps forward holding high the symbol of her faith and the stricken ghouls cower and run from her presence…

That’s the sort of scenario I’ve always played when a cleric rolled a successful Turn Undead.  But, perusing the topic on the web, it becoms immediately obvious that a lot of gentle folk have expressed dissatisfaction with the Turn Undead mechanic, including, apparently Gary Gygax.

The feeling seems to be that undead fleeing in terror or simply falling to pieces before a Cleric makes the encounter just too easy and overpowers the Cleric.  All sorts of houserules have been proposed.  Even Gygax crafted turning resistance amulets or banned the power of turning altogether from his Dangerous Journeys game.

It’s all very curious.  The general belief is that the Turn Undead ability arose in the Blackmoor campaign, where we known the cleric was created, so priests could function as vampire hunters.

If it is true the turn undead ability was a Twin Cities thing, it would explain why the normally verbose Mr. Gygax said virtually nothing about turn undead in the 3lbb’s.  In fact, and very curiously, no mention of the power is made in the clerics’ description at all in either the print version or the 1973 Dalluhn/BtPbD draft.  There are separate prices for silver or wooden crosses, which might mean something as might a possible reference in the vampire entry where “…the smell of garlic, the face of a mirror, or the sight of a cross.  They will fall back from these if strongly presented.”   It is very unclear if this is a separate thing altogether from Turning, or what.  

What we do get in Men and Magic is a little 2d6 table, of exactly the sort one might expect from Arneson, along with some brief notes explaining T=turned and D=destroyed, from 2-12 in number.  It is easy to imagine some version of this little table or perhaps a simple note along the same lines scribbled or typed on a piece of paper among the various pages of material sent to Gary by Dave; material that Gary complained was often vague.

I don’t know if that’s truly the case, but since there seemed to be confusion and disillusion amoung gamers about it,  I thought I’d see if there was anything different to be found in the Twin Cities side of things, under the ASSUMPTION that the turn undead table was indeed Dave’s and some of those guys knew how it was intended to work.  In particular, I wondered how often the power could be used; how long it lasted; and what exactly happened.

Dave Arneson doesn’t seem to have addressed the topic much himself, but there’s a couple clues.  On the ODD74 message boards Arneson was asked about classes in early Blackmoor.  In one of his responses, Dave seemed to confirm the origin of at least the idea of Turning Undead when he wrote “…clerics were added to heal up players more quickly. The plague of undead, like sir Fang, gave clerics additional powers to help eliminate that threat.” (Was Arneson's Blackmoor Classless?, Jun 10, 2008) 

In the FFC (77:43) Arneson describes the uber Vampire Sir Fang – who may have been the whole reason for the turn undead ability to begin with.  Sir Fang is special, of course, and said to be “x5 in value”, but he also “can use a saving throw versus Crosses (as against a Spell of Magic)”.

Hmmm.  A powerful undead is given a saving throw against “crosses”.

 Chronologically next, the main rulebook of Arneson & Sniders’ Adventures in Fantasy says nothing about turning undead and there is no cleric class at all.  However, the Vampire entry has this: “Silver. Garlic, and Crucifixes may be used to some effect against the Vampire.  When the use is attempted, the Vampire is allowed a saving throw versus 1 point magic (for silver and garlic) or 3 point magic for the crucifix.  If the throw is failed, the Vampire is turned away from the person who used it, i.e. he may not attack that person on that turn.  In any encounter where the Vampire fails THREE saving throws he will attempt to flee unless the encounter takes place within 50 feet of his grave.” (AiF, Book of Creatures and Treasure, p24)

 Bingo.  Being turned in Twin Cities lingo means “turned away from the symbol “ not “turn and run”.  It means only that “he may not attack that person”.. “who used (the crucifix etc.)”   Only when the vampire is “turned” three rounds/turns in a row will it attempt to flee.

For fun, I followed Richard Snider to his next work, Powers & Perils.  Snider was of course one of the original Blackmoor players and worked closely with Arneson on AiF and other projects.  Again there is no “turn Undead per se., but in his book of Chaos creatures he writes “Vampires and Lamia can be repelled by the stench of garlic or religious symbols. Unless the item used is specially enhanced or magic this is not automatic. Roll BL2 on the Magic Table. Success repels.” (p3&4)
The term repel is used a couple more times in the paragraph but not defined.  My trusty Funk & Wagnels dictionalry has “Repel: 1. to force or drive back, repulse…. 5. To push or keep away, esp. with invisible force.” 

So Snider has a roll, which, if successful will keep away the vampire from the person with the religious symbol or garlic, much the same as the turning effect in AiF.       

All of these helped me make sense of the next bit, which, took me several readings to grok.  It comes from the short section on turning undead in a handbook Fred Funk (the original Blackmoor player famed for construction of the Orcian Way in Blackmoor dungeon) prepared for Cleric players in his long running Fred’s World campaign, sometime during the 2e era.  “Additionally, beginning at 7th level, the creatures that are affected, either by a successful roll, or natural talent, give ground at the rate of 5 ft./level of cleric, a radius on the cleric.  As an example, when Macduff reaches 7th level, the Skeletons and Zombies that he turns will stay at least 35 ft away from him at all times, and so would a Specter, on a roll of 16 or better.  This enables him to extend protection to members of his party.”

Okay, note that last bit about extending protection to his party.   That means, that not only do turned undead not run away, they can potentially reach and attack any member of the party other than the cleric, until the cleric reaches 7th level and is able to keep them at a safe distance more than 30’ away.

That distance is significant.  Thirty feet is the range in which a figure can close in for combat in CHAINMAIL™.

So here we have similar rules from Blackmoor players, separated by time and distance, yet with the same basic understanding of “turning”, i.e. turned undead are held away from the person turning them whom they may not attack, but are free to move about and attack anyone else they can get to.  Obviously Turn Undead is not like a Morale check as it often come to be seen.  The undead have not failed Morale.

Since being within 1” (10 feet) is considered to be in combat, turned undead must remain at least 10’ away from the person turning them, but that could well mean much of the party remains vulnerable.  

Lets see if we can summarize a minimal twin cities approach:
·         The player may use a cross to attempt to turn  or repel a vampire
·        If a die roll indicates success, the vampire is turned away from any attempt to attack the character, being held back from them beyond striking distance, i.e 10 feet. 
·        The vampire can attack anybody else.
·        A high level vampire may get a saving throw against a successful turning roll.

 I wrote vampire because that’s the only creature mentioned by Arneson & Snider, but presumably turning is turning, so while only vampires can be affected by garlic, mirrors and crosses held by any character the above would apply to all undead in D&D when turned by clerics.

Now, if we wanted to roll all the above together and expand on the Freds World rule, Turn undead could be explained as follows:

In any given round of combat, a Cleric may attempt to use a religious symbol to turn away an attack from up to 12 undead creatures (2d6).  Certain bane objects specific to the undead creature (such as garlic to vampires) may also be used.

The Cleric must present the object or holy symbol firmly and the creatures must be able to see the Cleric.  A roll will then be made on the Turn Undead table and if success is indicated and more than 2 undead are present, 2d6 will be rolled, to determine the number of undead repelled from the Cleric.  Those so affected must remain beyond striking distance (10”) and may in no way attack the Cleric that round.  The undead may still move or attack other characters, however, as normal.

Additionally, beginning at 7th level, Clerics are able to extend protection to others.  Creatures that are affected, either by a successful roll on the Turn Undead table, or natural talent, give ground at the rate of 5 ft./level of cleric, in a radius centered on the cleric.  As an example, when Macduff reaches 7th level, the Wraiths and Mummies that he turns will stay at least 35 ft away from him that round, and so would a Specter, on a roll of 7 or better. 

Undead creatures which have been repelled three rounds in a row will attempt to flee from the area as fast as they can.  Those unable to flee will be dissolved or dispelled as if a result of D on the Turn Undead table had been obtained.

For undead of stronger than usual level, or use of non-silver holy symbols, or for any result of D on the table, referees may allow the undead a Saving Throw vs Spells.

Note: vampires are a special case in that any character may attempt to turn them from an attack with a mirror, a cross, or garlic.  The attempt succeeds only if the vampire fails a Saving Throw vs Spells.  The vampire will fall back, out of striking distance (10”) from the character wielding the offending object, but may otherwise move or attack other characters as normal.  Clerics of 6th level and greater turn vampires using the table.


DHBoggs said...

Hi SR, Thanks for all the info. Very interesting. Yeah, the Hammer films were a big influence on Vampires in Blackmoor. As for the turn and run idea, that's what I'm saying is exactly not what is happening in the three games cited above. It may be most apparent in the Fred's world quote, but what those rules are envisioning is a kind of circle of protection surrounding the person holding the cross, preventing them from being attacked. The turn and run version was pretty well established in the broader D&D world by 1979, so I'm not surprised its how your DM's handled it. Pretty much everybody did and does it that way. By then AD&D was out, Dragon mag had been around for a few years and D&D was becoming a national phenomenon.

DHBoggs said...

Very cool. Yeah that does sound like pretty much exactly the same thing. In fact, I'd wondered about whether a cleric was considered safe from behind, so it's very interesting to hear you say they weren't in the games you remember.

Delta said...

Now that is a great article! Especially to those of us who don't have access to those early Arneson/Snider works. You've got me totally convinced that is a much more coherent ruling (temporarily warding the undead from attacking the bearer round-by-round), it's more in line with the movie mythology, it's better game balanced, and it explains why there's a gap in that rule in D&D's LBBs (and thereafter). Great explanation for that.

Nicolas Dessaux said...

One more great discover for rpg archeology!

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