Turning Undead is Weird

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For a while now I've been thinking that the cleric/paladin ability to turn undead is a weird and erratic game mechanic. This article is an analysis of the mechanic and its effects against Monster Manual undead.

(Mind you, I don't think turning should be removed from the game -- it's a D&D staple -- and I think it is somewhat effective as presented, but I think it could be done in a more efficient way that holds to the d20 rules in a more consistent manner.)

The CR system regarding undead doesn't take into account turning. The CR of an undead is based on how much of a challenge it is if there is no turning available; the effect is that parties without a cleric can handle undead encounters (you don't need a cleric), but if you do have a cleric it makes these encounters a lot easier. In general that's a good idea; it rewards player choices and encourages different strategies (just as using a hydra rewards a group with a character with the Sunder feat but doesn't require one to beat it, or a creature with tough DR rewards groups with magical attacks but doesn't require them to beat it). However, as a holdover from a much more "wild and crazy" freewheeling-rules version of the game, turning is clunky and leads to some weird results.

(I'm going to be using several abbreviations in this explanation; please forgive me for that but it makes the explanation much less wordy.)

    I've created a table of all of the undead monsters in the Monster Manual. For each undead I've listed its CR, its actual HD, and its effective HD (EHD) if it has the turn resistance ability. The CRs are important because the default example for most of this article assumes a CR-appropriate challerge (CRAC), i.e. a group of four characters each of that character level encountering one creature of that type (so four 2nd-level characters fighting a CR 2 monster, four 5th-level characters fighting a CR 5 monster, etc.).
    Next column is EHD - CR. This value parallels the "Most Powerful Undead Affected" column to Table 8-9: Turning Undead in the Player's Handbook. For example, a +3 in this column equates to the "cleric's level +3" line in Table 8-9: Turning Undead. Because of the way the PH table is structured, a cleric has no chance to turn a creature whose EHD is 4 or more higher than his cleric level, so any EHD-CR entry of 4 or more means the creature can't be turned as a CRAC.
    Next is Roll Needed, the actual d20 roll a cleric with Cha 10 needs to successfully turn the undead (higher-Cha clerics will have an easier time, of course, but I'm talking about the minimally-qualifying cleric). % Success is the Roll Needed result converted into a percentile chance of success. Average Turning Damage equals 2d6 + cleric level (= CR) + Cha modifier (+0), or 7 + undead CR. Number Turned is the Average Turning Damage divided by the undead's hit dice to get the number of undead turned for the average roll; since fractions are rounded down (you can't partially turn a creature) anything after the decimal point is wasted.

Here's the table.

EHD - CRRoll Needed% SuccessAverage
ghost (10 HD base creature)121041421625%191.90
lich (11 HD base creature)131141521625%201.82
nightshade, nightcrawler18250257Unturnable0%25--
nightshade, nightwalker16210215Unturnable0%23--
nightshade, nightwing141701731910%211.24
shadow, greater8921131910%151.67
skeleton, Medium (human)1/21010.51055%88.00
skeleton, Medium (wolf)110101055%88.00
skeleton, Large250531910%91.80
vampire (5 HD base creature)754921625%142.80
vampire (10 HD base creature)121041421625%191.90
vampire spawn442621625%112.75
wraith, dread**11160165Unturnable0%18--
zombie, Medium (human)
zombie, Medium (troglodyte)
zombie, Large26064Unturnable

* This is a template; the listed values are adjustments to the base creature's CR, HD, and Turn Resistance
** The dread wraith doesn't have turn resistance even though the normal wraith does. Even without it, it's unturnable.

Let's look at the weakest creatures first: human skeletons and zombies. The staple for your typical undead-filled lair, human skeletons and zombies are CR 1/2 creatures; let's assume an encounter with two skeletons or two zombies (either result is an EL 1 encounter) so our example can use a Clr1, let's call him Jozan1.
    Jozan1 has a 55% chance to turn the skeletons; if he succeeds, with an average roll he turns eight of them, completely eliminating the threat (let's assume that the other party members can destroy any turned undead in the 10 rounds they remain turned). If he fails, he can try again next round, and even the round after that if he fails the second time (Jozan1 has three turn attempts per day). You could put Jozan1 up against 8 skeletons (in theory a EL 4 or 5 encounter) and it's the same result.
    Jozan1 has a 40% chance to turn the human zombies, affecting four on average, but otherwise it's just like the skeleton encounter: almost guaranteed and not much of a threat.
    Either example gets even more ridiculous if you're talking about a Clr3 or higher dealing with human skeletons and zombies; a Clr3 has an 85% chance to turn skeletons (affecting ten on average, which is an EL 5-7 encounter) and a 70% chance to affect zombies (affective five on average, which is an EL 3-4 encounter), keeping well ahead of the CRAC curve.

Now let's take a step up to the larger skeletons and zombies.
    A Large skeleton is CR 2 with 5 HD; our friend Jozan2 is 3 levels behind the undead's HD and now has only a 10% chance of turning it, and if he does turn it on average he's only going to affect one.
    A Large zombie is CR 2 with 6 HD; Jozan2 has zero chance of turning it at all because there's no way for him to get a 22 on his (unmodified due to his Cha 10) d20 turning check. If he somehow managed to (perhaps with a spell that gave him a +2 to checks) he's still only affect one on average.
    So with a one-size increase in the basic undead, they become almost unturnable.

Ghouls and ghasts?
    Against a CR1 ghoul with HD 2 and +2 turn resistance, Jozan1 has a 10% chance to affect it, but if he succeds he turns four on average.
    Against a CR3 ghast with HD 4 and +2 turn resistance, Jozan3 likewise has a 10% chance to turn it, and turns 2.5 on average.
    Low chance to turn, but if it works it does more than enough turning damage to win the encounter, or even an encounter with two of them (EL +2 relative to just one).

Let's take a look at the level- and ability- drainers, wights, wraiths, and spectres.
    CR 3 shadow, 3 HD and +2 turn resistance ... Jozan3 has a 25% chance to turn and affects 3.3.
    CR 3 wight, 4 HD ... Jozan3 has a 40% chance to turn and affects 2.5.
    CR 5 wraith, 5 HD and +2 turn resistance ... Jozan5 has a 40% chance and affects 2.4.
    CR 7 spectre, 7 HD and +2 turn resistance ... Jozan7 has a 25% chance and affects 2.
    Average-to-low chance to turn, but if it works it does more than enough turning damage to win the encounter, or even an encounter with two of them (EL +2 relative to just one).

What about some of the big guns? Vampires, ghosts, and liches.
    CR 12 vampire, 10 HD and +4 turn resistance ... Jozan12 has a 25% chance to turn and affects 1.9.
    CR 12 ghost, 10 HD and +4 turn resistance ... Jozan has a 25% chance to turn and affects 1.9.
    CR 13 lich, 11 HD and +4 turn resistance ... Jozan13 has a 25% chance to turn and affects 1.8.
    Low chance to turn, but if it works it does more than enough turning damage to win the encounter, or even an encounter with two of them (EL +2 relative to just one).

(You also have the superbig undead like the nightshade and such, but their HD are so much higher than their CR that they're unturnable.)

So what's the overall trend here?
    At the very lowest levels, turning is great because you're only facing skeletons and zombies, they're a pretty easy roll, and you turn a lot of them when you succeed.
    At the low- to mid-levels, turning is average because you have a low chance to succeed but you still turn multiple creatures. Basically it's a big risk with a high payoff ... one that you can do 3 or more times per day.
    At the mid-to-high levels, turning is average for the same reason as the previous range.
    At the high levels, turning is average-to-poor, because while there are some creatures you can risk a turn check on, some of them are just unturnable.
    So it's something that starts out indispensable and goes downhill from there. I realize you can make parallels between turning and 1st-level spells (likewise indispensable and, depending on the spell, becomes much less useful as you gain levels), but remember we're talking about a cleric with no bonuses whatsoever. Once you start adding in bonuses, the numbers change greatly....

    A cleric with Cha 14 increases his turning chance by 10%, his turning damage by +2, and gets two more attempts per day.
    A cleric with Cha 18 increases his turning chance by 20%, his turning damage by +4, and gets four more attempts per day. That means against the vampire, ghost, and lich, the cleric has a 45% chance to suceed (seven attempts per day to turn 1-2 big undead). Any cleric who regularly fights undead should pick up a cloak of charisma as soon as possible.
    The phylactery of undead turning (amulet of undead turning in 3.0) makes turning even easier because it doesn't add to your d20 roll, it increases your effective turning level by +4, which amounts to an effective +12 on your turning check ... suddenly those "unturnable" (for a CRAC) undead are turnable. This item is a no-brainer for clerics fighting undead.

    OK, so turning is a weird mechanic, with erratic results and risky odds. It's a holdover from the older game rules. Why keep it as-is when there are more elegant ways of doing it with the d20 system? With 3.5's adjustment of save-or-die effects, I'm surprised turning remained the same (if you're changing a bunch of stuff that didn't need to be changed, why not change something that could bear some changing?). Why not change it, maybe to something more damage-based? James Heard on my message boards suggested making turning something like sneak attak ... we already have an example of a scaling progression for that in the rogue class, and it shouldn't be too hard to adapt for the purpose of turning undead. The concern would be making it work so the cleric could affect multiple weak creatures or few tough creatures (making it a flat 1d6/2 levels like a sneak attack means that the high-level clerics are able to do serious damage to multiple tough undead, destroying dozens of CR-appropriate vampires with just 3 rounds of turning if they're all in the area). Maybe the cleric can do full damage to one creature in the area or divide the damage in half to affect multiple creatures....