Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mr. Tall, Dark, and Gothic

As noted earlier, Tim Brannan has statted up HIS version of the infamous Count Dracula based on the greater vampire monster found in the B/X Companion. Although, his differs slightly (his Drac has the ability to move about in sunlight somewhat, something I consciously left OUT of my greater vamp description), I think it is a totally cool write-up of the classic Dark Lord…one definitely worth crafting a whole high-level adventure around.

Now, let’s see…I’m trying to tread gently on this topic, but I’m not sure where I want to gingerly place my next step…

I think…that is I HYPOTHESIZE…that the undead are an underutilized commodity in high level play. And by “high level” I’m talking greater than Name (9th) level. Oh, sure, wights and wraiths and vamps are plenty scary at low and mid levels with their “un-savable” level drain, but once the party cleric gets that ability to AUTO-TURN (or auto-Destroy!) everything on the chart, the undead starts to lose its luster as a “showcase villain.” Instead it gets relegated to a secondary role, provided as a distraction, an appetizer, or an encounter designed to allow a cleric to “shine” by flexing his (or her) holy muscles, blasting the dead things into oblivion.

Look at the vampiric fiends of the old TSR adventure modules; generally, they’re found only in mid-level adventures: I2:Tomb of the Lizard King, I6:Ravenloft, S4:Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, C1:Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. All of these have a level cap of 7 or so, as that is the magic number after which clerics start getting an automatic “one-up” on the Big Bad Vampire. If higher level clerics are allowed in a module where vampires (or any major undead) play a prominent role, they are generally equipped with some sort of medallion or amulet that prevents their being turned.

Which kind of makes one wonder, what’s the hell's the point?

This is, quite frankly, one of the reasons I simply made “greater undead” that were UN-turnable in my B/X Companion. Why bother extrapolating yet ANOTHER chart for bigger, badder clerics to turn bigger, badder undead when DMs (and dungeon designers) are simply going to A) equip them with “turn proof amulets”, or B) not include them at all because the cleric will just dominate ‘em. I just cut to the chase and made ‘em all greater undead "turn proof"…no fuss, no muss.

OK…so after patting myself on the back for that, let’s go back a bit to those “lesser” undead…those minor vampires and specters and mummies that adventure crafters tend to toss aside once a clerics get to a certain level. Let’s revisit THEM, if you please, 'cause I think there's more to say here.

“Toss aside, JB? Do we really do that?” Yeah, you do. I know I have in the past, too. Oh, sure…there’s the odd over the top undead horde (and here I’m thinking the Desert of Desolation series, not certain other, more recent Old School products). But in general, why would I bother throwing a 5HD mummy into a game with a cleric capable of auto-killing it, when a 5HD owl bear will require the party to actually WORK for their treasure?

Why? Because we’re underestimating the undead and overestimating the power of the cleric’s turning ability, that's why!

I thought I’d already written on this topic but (after some half-assed searching) apparently not, so here goes: anyone ever bother reading the B/X description of the cleric’s turning power? It’s the same as Labyrinth Lord as far as I can tell. How often does a cleric get to use their power?

My read: once per encounter per undead type.

Let me sketch an example: a party of adventurers encounter four mummies. The 10th level cleric says, “No problem folks! Stand aside while I do my thang!” As the party has the initiative, the DM allows the Cleric to use his Turn attempt (in this case “Destroy”) first. The "D" result means the cleric automatically destroys 2D6 hit dice worth of monsters. He rolls an “8.” According to the description of the ability, at least one creature is destroyed. The other three still get to pull his arms off.

And that’s it! The cleric doesn’t get a “turn attempt” every round. Read the example on page B9: the cleric (Father Miles) gets a shot at turning the ghouls, and the party is then forced to slay the remaining ghoul. He then turns the skeletons. Unlike D20, there’s no “maximum number of turn attempts” per day (like some sort of holy six-shooter). The cleric gets his shot, and any monsters un-turned (or un-destroyed) will have to be put down in the “standard” fashion…i.e. just like an owl bear. Except that these creatures cause magical disease. Or drain levels. Without saving throws.

And the 2D6 hit dice limit is the real issue to look at…on average, the cleric will roll a 7, right? That means ONE monster getting turned/destroyed if the undeads’ hit dice is 4 or greater (that's a wraith, mummy, spectre, or vampire in B/X). With vampires (hit dice 7-9), the cleric will never turn/destroy more than ONE. A “mated” pair of standard vampires (or a trio…think the “wives” of Dracula) just became a freaking nightmare for even a 14th level cleric (and even a 20th level cleric if using the B/X Companion rules). Unless they get put down fast, those creatures left are going to hit EVENTUALLY…and when they do, auto-effects like energy drain are going to spell some “oh, crap” moments for the PCs.

So here’s the trick: undead, even “weenie” lesser undead, are most dangerous in PACKS. They don’t even have to be large packs! But a tribe of ghouls, a group of barrow wights, a pair of spectres (or, hell…how about NINE. As per OD&D and Holmes, spectres are the real basis for the Nazgul after all!)…all of these guys get deadlier once you follow the Rules As Written.

Clerics can make a turn attempt. Any un-turned undead must be “vanquished normally.” Period.

What’s the armor class of that 12th level cleric? Minus 3 for plate +2 and a shield +3? Let’s see…a standard vampire (not even Dracula) hits -3 on a 15 or better (30% of the time). So after you D(estroy) one of the four vampiric sisters in front of you, the other three will probably hit you at least once…and not you’re down to level 10. Uh-oh…that sucks, huh?

Good thing your DM isn’t trading in those “amulets of non-turning” for Boots of Speed….
; )


  1. Regardless of what the writings say, I think that's the best way to do it. Restricted uses/time period is pretty preposterous for turn undead, and has no support in literature.

    On the other hand, there is a ton of support for the idea that once any individual undead has seen your holy symbol and judged your resolve lacking, it's going to accomplish nothing to keep shoving it at them. They've seen the colour of your faith, and found you wanting.

  2. It's rougher in the LBBs: no listed restrictions on how often a cleric can use the Turn Undead ability, that I can see. And the ability affects 2d6 by number, not hit dice.

    But on the other hand, the table doesn't go beyond 8th level. If you take that literally, vampires can never be auto-turned. It's easy to decide not to take it literally, though, since it turns out the Turn Undead table is really based on reaction rolls: 2d6 + double (cleric level - undead HD), with footnotes on when the auto results kick in.

    Still, larger numbers of undead of various types can give even 20th level Patriarchs a run for their money. A cleric surrounded by three wights and three wraiths can pick one group to auto-destroy on one round, but the others will then get an attack...

  3. Turn Undead comes from the Hammer Films. The model of the cleric was not some priest, but Peter Cushing's Van Helsing. D&D just gives it more offensive bite.

    But yes, undead should come in packs. Watch any zombie movie, is there ever just one zombie? No there are masses of them.
    Plus a vampire (or a lich) will also have minions.

    I was re-reading my new 4th ed book last night and it is funny how the "Smite Undead" Cleric power is back to being that same old school "Turn Undead"; limited effectiveness, usable only once per encounter.