Thursday, February 28, 2013

Clerics: Turning Undead

I don’t remember how old I was when I was first exposed to Dracula and/or vampires. I’m sure that the two were synonymous in my mind for a good long time in my youth, but I don’t remember when I got the concept. Certainly by age 5-6 I had a good knowledge of the monster, because by kindergarten my knowledge of Halloween was pretty solid, and I’m almost positive that my initial knowledge of the undead came in the form of a Halloween costume.

In fact, now that I consider it, I know my mother made “vampire capes” for my brother and I pretty early on (a semi-triangle of black cloth with a purplish, satiny lining sewed in. I believe my brother’s was the same but with pink lining instead of purple). And I know we had those fake plastic fangs that you wore over your own teeth and that didn’t allow you to talk right…and that my hair back then would just not do the Bella Lugosi “widow’s peak” no matter how hard I tried (always ended up being a blonde, bowl cut-looking vampire).

But those capes might have been a little older…like 1st grade (age 6-7). Certainly there were a couple years in there where my little brother and I liked to dress up in the Halloween costumes on days other than Halloween and play pretend.

[*sigh* Good times. Need to work on getting Diego a little brother one of these days]

So, anyway, my vampire “lore” certainly wasn’t very refined back then. In fact, I’d says it was pretty much limited to three things:

Vampires turned into bats. They sucked your blood. And they were held at bay by crosses.

I’m not even sure I knew about them being killed by stakes and sunlight or needing to sleep in coffins. Television shows like The Munsters, Scooby-Doo, and The Drak Pack were probably as much responsible for my knowledge as anything else…and vampires in kids’ television tend to go a little light on the darker aspects of the undead (for example, they usually aren’t getting killed).

So the idea that a cleric with a holy symbol can “turn undead” was never a very foreign concept to me…though I honestly don’t remember my 8-year old brain’s recollection of what I thought about turning skeletons and zombies and wights as outlined in the Basic set. Probably not much judging by the fact no one ever played a cleric until we picked up the Expert set, when we only had the “B” in B/X, players were either fighters or thieves or elves or halflings. There may have been a dwarf, too, but I really don’t remember ANY magic-users or clerics.

And why would there be? A 1st level cleric in B/X (because we were playing B/X when we first started and all new characters were dutifully created at 1st level) has very little to recommend it. Fighters have more hit points and do more damage. Elves and magic-users at least get some sort of spell power. The only thing a 1st level cleric has over other classes is it’s ability to “turn” undead…and then, only skeletons, zombies, and ghouls.

And any DM throwing zombies and ghouls against 1st level characters is engaging in genocide and mass TPKs.

All of these undead were actually pretty foreign to my brain. I’d seen a couple of Harryhausen’s Sindbad films and Clash of the Titans, but not Jason and the Argonauts, so I didn’t really have an idea what a fight with animated skeletons was all about. B2: The Keep on the Borderlands (included with the Basic box set) has one cave complex filled with undead (mostly skeletons and zombies) but it is the highest, most difficult set of caverns to reach, and a killer for most 1st level parties that even bother to try (as undead don’t negotiates and never break morale there’s no way to deal with the scores of monsters except by combat…an extremely risky proposition for those first couple levels of experience). I can’t remember anyone trying back in my “B-Only” days.

Likewise, even when I moved into “X” (and it was shortly thereafter that I received my first Monster Manual, too) I wasn’t including wights and wraiths and mummies. For a young child (and I was under the age of 10, which I consider to be young)…your eye is drawn first and foremost to monsters that are illustrated (which begin percolating ideas), and afterward to monsters that you are intimately familiar with…like the Cyclops and Minotaur and Vampire. As I didn’t read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings till high school, might only exposure to a wraith was in the animated Return of the King film (which I first viewed circa age 11 or 12)…and I really had no idea what I was watching. I even created a “unique” monster based on the Lich-King seen in the film for use in an adventure…but only because I didn’t understand the creature was already present in the books.

But as I said, even without any real fantasy literature under my belt, I still knew what a vampire was, and I knew that they were driven back by crosses. I’d imagine that it was sometime AFTER I received my Expert set (with clerical turnings that included Vampires and Mummies) that the whole “cleric turning” thing started gelling in my mind. Cleric presents cross (“holy symbol”) and vampire recoils…if the cleric’s faith is strong enough…makes perfect (movie) sense. But why did it only work for clerics?

Originally, it worked for everyone.

The write-up for the vampire monster in OD&D (Book 2) is the most extensive of any monster presented. Towards the end of the passage, it states the following:
Vampires cannot abide the smell of garlic, the face of a mirror, or the sight of a cross. They will fall back from these if strongly presented.
Note this is not related to turning…the other undead (all turnable in OD&D) make no such mention. Now, in typical clear-as-mud OD&D fashion, there’s no system given for how to judge whether or not the item is “strongly” presented, but at least it’s there: a cross will keep a vampire at bay.

Which leads me to infer that the turning effect is very different in OD&D compared to the fashion in which it’s presented in later editions. And what do ya’ know? It is. There is only a “cleric versus undead monsters” table (located beneath the cleric spells table), not a “turning table.” Here’s the ONLY text regarding the table:
Also, note the Cleric versus Undead Monsters table, indicating the strong effect of the various clerical levels upon the undead; however, evil clerics do not have this effect, the entire effect being lost.
[note again the problematic issue of “evil” in the text when there is no “evil” alignment in OD&D, only “Law” and “Chaos.” It seems apparent that this is with regard to Chaotic “anti-clerics” mentioned in the text (seeing as how most of them have the term “Evil” added to their title (with the notable exception of the “shaman”)]

There are a couple really important pieces to this. One is that the table represents an “effect” that the cleric has on undead monsters. This is not an action that is taken by the cleric…no holy symbol is being presented, for example. This is just the effect the (good) cleric’s (holy) presence has on the undead.

Presumably, anyone can present a cross against a vampire (there are two available for purchase in the equipment list: a wood one for 2gp, and a silver one for 25gp). “Strongly presented” might mean the character can take no other action (no attacks or spell-casting for example) instead focusing on the “presentation” while chanting The Lord’s Prayer or some Latin benediction.

But the cleric just “shows up” and there’s a chance the undead run away…it’s the character’s very presence that sets ‘em running (or dissolves/destroys them). It’s like a Papal aura (in the sense of “the Pope” – can you believe the current one is resigning by the way? In the middle of Lent! Watched his helicopter leaving the Vatican this morning)…a holy “something-somethin” that just causes the abominations to head for the hills. Presumably, it doesn’t do anything to prevent the cleric making normal attacks or casting spells. Heck, the priest wading into battle, mace in hand may be even more frightening…though I really like the image of the aged vicar that hobbles into the room, leaning on his cane, and watches passively as undead monsters explode around him.

That’s a pretty cool effect.

It also gets rid of all that later complicated discussion about how many times it can be used, or “turning attempts,” or what order of the round it takes place in, or how many times can it be attempted against the same monster, or whatever. The DM simply checks to see if this particular monster is affected by this particular cleric when encountered. No extra effort needs to be taken by the cleric…the “effect” is always “on.”

SO, in regard to our original topic of conversation, this turning as originally presented is a neat class effect…call it the effect of any “saintly type.” If you want a classification of adventurer called “holy person” or “saint,” this is a happy little effect. Of course, it’s also alignment-specific…that’s the second piece of the effect’s description that is important. It is only an effect of non-evil clerics (which, again, we can infer means non-anti-clerics, i.e. non-Chaotic clerics). There is no opposite effect for anti-clerics; no worship or control of undead that automatically occurs when the anti-cleric shows up. Instead, the trade-off appears to be anti-clerics’ use of reverse spells (like finger of death).

Which, interestingly enough, is pretty much exactly how I was running clerics in 5AK, with the added restriction that only monotheists (of Lawful or Neutral alignment) could engage in turning, and polytheistic clerics (even those of non-Chaotic alignment) could use reverse spells at will.

But I’m not talking about spells yet.

While it’s a “neat effect,” what exactly is the impact of the cleric’s turning “aura?” What does it give the adventurers? Is it necessary/appropriate to include a “saintly” class of character that has this impact on undead?

The undead subject to the clerical turning effect include the following: skeletons, zombies, ghouls, wights, wraiths, mummies, specters, and vampires. The “greater” undead require silver or magic weapons to hit them, but these shouldn’t be too hard for the average PC party to come by after a couple-three levels, so all of the monsters are “killable” without a cleric.

What the undead do have that appears to make the saintly cleric necessary is a number of special powers for which there is no saving throw. Ghouls paralyze party members “as per wights in Chainmail” (this means party members are paralyzed for ONE TURN…either 10 minutes or 1 day depending on the scale of “turn” being used). Unlike later editions, there is no save for this effect in OD&D. A mummy inflicts disease on characters (no save) that can only be mitigated by a cleric’s cure disease spell, not cured. Wights, wraiths, specters, and vampires all do level drain (no save) of either 1 or 2 levels.

None of these special attacks have any recourse in the game besides “have a better Armor Class.” Even ghoul paralysis has no “cure” in OD&D (later editions state cure light wounds will remove the effect). There is no restoration spell in OD&D to deal with level drain, and as stated a cleric’s cure disease only changes the effect of “mummy rot” from healing taking 10 times as long to healing taking twice as long. As such, the best defense against these creatures is the presence of a high level cleric to turn them away or dissolve/destroy them. Without the cleric’s turning ability, these undead will eventually hit in combat (especially unarmored magic-users) and inflict their ills, all of which are extremely potent. In this regard, the cleric’s “aura of turning” is extremely useful against some of the deadliest monsters in the game.

Now what if the game doesn’t have level drain? What if paralysis carries a saving throw the same as a giant spider’s poison attack?

My game doesn’t have level drain. Not because I have anything against it particularly, but because I can’t really justify the ability. When did a vampire’s touch (in fiction) ever cause someone to forget their past experiences and training? And if I don’t have these kind of “no save” attacks, is it necessary to have a character class that prevents the attacks from happening (via “turning”)?

Knowing the origin of the cleric class, it makes me wonder whether these undead effects came first, or if they were added to give the cleric’s ability more “oomph.” After all, zombies and ghouls and wights and wraiths are all present in Chainmail and none of them have any type of “draining” attacks. Instead, they all simply paralyze an opponent: ghouls and wights for one turn; wraiths (as a Nazgul/specter) until such time as the character is touched by an “elf, wizard, or hero-type.” Also interesting to note that the paralysis doesn’t affect elves, wizards, or hero-types (or any of the creatures listed in the “fantasy supplement” section, including dwarves, etc.)…only “men.” It leads one to believe it’s a kind of “paralysis of fear” effect, that stronger willed types aren’t affected at all against the types of individuals that make up the player characters. A direct translation would be:

-        Paralysis affects only (non-PC) mercenaries and normal humans, AND
-        Fighting-men (fighters) under 4th level (“Hero” status)

[in fact, based on a literal interpretation of the OD&D line “as a wight in Chainmail,” the paralysis of a ghoul might be ineffective against any PC other than fighters of level 1st – 3rd]

If your undead don’t have “no save” attacks, or ones that aren’t this potent, then the addition of a “cleric class” may be rather superfluous. Likewise, axing the cleric and then including such dangerous monsters might make your game overly dangerous/difficult unless such monsters are few and far between.


  1. In the Hammer film "Captain Chronos the Vampire Hunter" the vampires do drain the life-force from its victims. I have read other blogs that suggest this as a basis for the level-drain attack.

  2. In Dave's early Blackmoor game, one of the players became a vampire (by the name of Baron Fang). The other players got sick of him and his undead minions so asked Dave to create the Cleric class (called a Curate back then IIRC) to fight him.

    Also, I'm pretty sure PCs get saves in OD&D versus undead attacks. They just aren't listed in any monster description (or spells for that matter).

  3. @ Hedge:

    There are only five saves in OD&D. They are:
    - Poison and Death Ray
    - Wands
    - Stone [presumably medusas and such]
    - Dragon Breath
    - Staves and Spells [the anti-wizard save!]

    Nothing in the undead monsters description note saves of any kind.

  4. The wand save includes "Polymorph or Paralization". M&M pg 20. None of the monster desciption, undead or otherwise, specify saves.

    1. @ Hedge:

      The save is for:

      "All Wands - Including Polymorph and Paralization" referring to the wands of the same names (page 34 and 35 of Book 2). I presume this is noted because both wands project a spell-like effect (the wand of polymorph explicitly "projects a Polymorph spell") and the author doesn't want any confusion as to which save to use (Wands or Spells). My presumption is that wands are aimed, "ray" type attacks...but since they do not carry an attack roll, a save is provided to see if the target manages to "dodge" the "ray."

      You are incorrect regarding monster saves: monsters that cast spells (like a Nixie) would be treated the same as any other spell; the vampire's charm ability specifically specifies the save is at a -2 penalty. The spores of a yellow mold forces all to "make saving throws as if exposed to poison." Most monsters do not have abilities that allow saving throws; spells, poison, and dragon breath are the only ones that do (and are self-evident by their names matching the saves of the same name). There is no save for the paralysis, energy drain, or disease attacks of the undead.