Rebuking and turning undead that still cling to a semblance of life is pretty much a fantasy RPG staple. It’s been part of Dungeons and Dragons since nearly the beginning – I believe Arneson added it as a foil to “Sir Fang,” and Gygax fiddled with it or dropped it in his games – there’s a nice history here at Hidden in Shadows by DH Boggs.

But this is an article about GURPS, specifically, the Dungeon Fantasy RPG, Powered by GURPS. It assimilates all of that old-school inspiration, plus more from rogue-like games and “stomp the bad guys!” games like Diablo III, and hones GURPS into a fairly high-power dungeon delving game. Characters start pretty optimized, begin at 250 points, and the social and in town aspects of the game are somewhere from “minimized” to “absent.”

It is ridiculous fun, and as I learned at GameHole Con 2018, is digestible by beginners if presented properly.

But about those clerics…

Turning in Dungeon Fantasy RPG

Let’s start off with as factual a description as I can bring to bear. This is important because as it turns out, I completely biffed it when it came time to run it at GameHole.

Even so: this turns it into a matter of degree rather than a binary “I win,” but some of the observations from GameHole still exist.

As a cleric with the Turning power (Adventurers, p. 21), anything “undead” and “truly evil” can be repelled by you if you Concentrate. You must win a Quick Contest of Will between yourself and each foe you might turn. This is impacted by the Rule of 16 (Exploits, p. 8). You add your Power Investiture, plus a bonus for the oomph of your holy symbol if you have one that’s +1 for blessed and +2 for High Holy. Another factor in favor of Clerical Awesomeness is that as written, Sanctity level doesn’t hinder the ability, so in an area of Low Sanctity (which is pertinent to the Hall of Judgment example), your Turning is still at full burn.

On the down side: Rule of 16 means that you’ll never roll vs higher than 16 (unless you’re very good and you foe is also very Willful), and you have to actually buy Turning, which is a 24-point opportunity cost.

It’s a 3d roll, and if your bad guys are anything but a Lich, Spectre, or Vampire (who all have Will 15 to 18, which is to say, “adventurer-class”) you’re looking at Will in the 8-10 range for our bad guys, and the distance they have to keep from Mister Cleric is going to be on the average about 6-8 yards, and that’s enough to keep the entire party more or less safe. On a good roll, say a 5 or 6, you’re looking at keeping the bad guys up to 15 yards away from you.

So What?

Part of the issue here is that Turning is pretty much designed to neutralize the impact of fodder undead, and what I’m complaining about is mostly that it does it too well. There’s also the fact that I made a few errors along the way in running it: in particular I play a lot with GURPS Powers: Divine Favor (still the best Clerical Powers system in existence). There’s a power in there called Protection from Evil which basically grants True Faith (the basis of the Turning Power), and an enhanced version gives a roll vs Will+10. So my cleric was rolling vs Will-24 to turn undead vs foes with Will-8 and Will-10.

In the end, I slapped on a -5 penalty for Low Sanctity (see above for why this is wrong), which for one of the groups made the usual roll vs Will-19; you can see, though, that for the pre-gen in question (Will-14, Power Investiture 5) that it made little net difference. Forgetting the Rule of 16 would have brought the radius in by an average of three yards.

So my errors were in magnitude but not in exists/don’t exist. Even so, I feel that the 24 points of Turning is a bit too much oomph as written.

Options

My goal is not to completely nerf turning so much as to make encounters with moderately-sized hordes of undead at least a little scary. I believe that one of the Dungeons on Automatic crew noted that even without turning, 20 skeletons vs a single Knight was an even-money proposition. So what to do?

Tactics

The first option is simply on me: make my undead either smarter, or using smarter macros. Undead like skeletons are pretty stupid, but they know how to shoot bows and chuck rocks. They need to do this. If they hit the “deflector shield” that is turning, they should start pulling out ranged weapons. Throwing axes and spears, using slings and bows, and yes, throwing rocks. It only takes one hit to the cleric that forces an active defense or does damage (roll for each condition) and suddenly, deflector shields are down. It’s a penalized roll, too: see DF Spells, p. 9.

The other thing to do is to have your fodder undead be a threat to somewhere else. If my skeletons are a threat to the party, and . . . well, who cares? They wander the woods at night. That’s a “just let ’em wash around you” kind of motivation. But if they get past you and butcher a village as a result, well . . . that’s perhaps more problematic.

The other thing is to not (as I did) have the undead pressing up against the barrier like a mime imitating a glass wall. Are they turned? Great. They fade back and wait to strike. They keep you awake at night, draining fatigue.

Also: allow an IQ roll to have the monsters attack the not-the-Knight members of the party if they get the chance. Why run into a Cuisinart if you don’t have to?

Range and Power

What if instead of the margin of victory giving a “you can’t come within this bubble,” it instead weakened the foes. A lot. Caused a skill penalty for actions taken based on margin of victory? Maybe even just “all actions by undead suffer a penalty equal to margin of victory, and they will not attack the cleric if he wins!”

So the cleric is immune to melee attack if he wins the contest, and all other actions suffer penalties equal to margin of victory. That will be at minimum a “you can’t touch me” result, and with rule of 16 and Will-8 as the foe, you’re looking, with a roll of 3 (not a critical success because crits don’t exist on Contests) an upper limit of -15 to everything you do . . . which pretty much says “run away.” Even if you allow All-Out (Determined) and Telegraphic in your Dungeon Fantasy RPG game, you’re still facing -7 to skill (and AoA means no defenses).

But for moderate victory conditions, the monsters can still harry the cleric’s friends, which is satisfying to the friends.

Another way to go there would be to make it so that the closer the undead get to the cleric, the worse it is. Each step within the range of the “bubble” might give -1 to all actions. So they have an incentive to back off, but it’s not a binary “repelled/fine” thing. Can also invoke the Size and Speed/Range Table here, but -1 per hex is simple. It also prevents having to think about penalties out to 100 yards or more, since “I won by 10” might reach out that far. Could also look up margin on the Linear Measurement table, and add the speed/range penalty to the cleric’s Power Investiture.

In any case, you’d like margin of victory to matter, and since PI adds to skill, one doesn’t want to double-dip. Taking margin as a penalty is quick, easy to calculate, and already exists in the form of abilities like Feint.

Hordes

Another house-rule type of possibility is to give a penalty for number of creatures affected. Keeping your divine pressure on one pesky draugr is probably fine. Keeping up the faith against ten enters “Remember the Cardinal Rule, Buffy: one vampire is far easier to kill then ten!” territory.

Options would include things like “-1 per enemy,” which makes even a dozen critters an issue, or my perennial favorate, “use the Size and Speed/Range Table,” which would put a dozen skeletons in the -5 territory, but 100 skeletons at “only” -10. For only one foe, it might even be a bonus of +2.

Test Your Faith

What I wound up doing at the Con was to ask the player of the Cleric to roll his concentration every turn. This effectively turned the Turning roll into an attack, and the player in question loved it. The law of averages meant that he was usually making his roll by 9 or so, but as the other characters spread out to get shots in on the undead, eventually he failed a roll (or made it by a small amount), and then the ghouls rushed in to strike.

This worked very well in play. The player (new to GURPS) loved the uncertainty; his friends had to stay on guard. The cleric had to roll dice every turn, and players like rolling dice rather than using fixed-effect or fixed-certainty powers in the main (even a spell with a saving throw in D&D is uncertain, it’s just the player doesn’t roll the dice).

Edit: I’m told this is probably Reduced Duration, 1/60 (-35%) to True Faith, which basically makes this a 16-point version of a 24-point power.

Shoving Undead Around/Attack!

One final possibility is to treat the Turning power as an attack of one type or another.

If I were to use the rules for Shoving People Around from Martial Arts, a victory in the Quick Contest would force each undead to take one step directly away from the cleric, right then, driven away by Divine Power. That would make pushing undead away a gradual thing. What prevents the undead from running right back into action? Probably a fright check sort of mechanic, or if the cleric’s margin of victory is 5+, they must maintain distance or increase it (that gives about a 50% chance to drive ’em back and freeze ’em in place for Will-14, Power Investiture 1 vs Will-10). This would couple well with range-based effects, as you’d have the Cleric doing step and Rebuke “attacks” each turn, driving foes away from his power. This would be of somewhat questionable utility in a flat featureless plane because the undead could circle. But that’s one of the things I want.

Another possibility here would be to have the cleric make an opposed roll and pre-declare the result, more like a Deceptive Attack. Pre-load the penalty and then roll. But Turning isn’t an attack, so you’d need to (ahem) turn it into one. Based on Will+Power Investiture, and with the foe making a Will-based “Parry” would be interesting but involve math at the table. The “penalized in all actions by margin” discussed above is better for this.

Buff the Monsters

Don’t forget the advice on p. 40 of the Monsters book. Resistance to Good and Protection from Good are your friends. Well, a GM’s friends.

Costs Fatigue

Another way to go to prevent unlimited “switch it on/switch it off” use of Turning would be to add Costs Fatigue to it. That means a 5% point reduction (to 23 points), in exchange for costing 1 FP and having it last for one minute. That’s effectively forever in combat time, and you can leave it up, but not indefinitely (no walking through the wilderness True Faithing every step of the way). Turning it on and off like a switch will also be tiring, but in most cases, it’ll go on, stay on, and the battle will be long done by the time it goes off. Ten minutes later, you’re fine.

Point Cost Adjustment

I don’t like “I win” buttons, and even with me running it wrong, and making adjustments for that, it still seems a bit close to me. Thus the thoughts above.

Even so, some of the changes above might make the power worth substantially less than the 24 points invested in it. Note that this is also a fairly world-specific issue in my case: there are a lot of undead in Hall of Judgment, and Nordlond in general, being Viking-based, has a lot of undead in it. Taking Turning in Etera/Torengar/Nordlond is going to be flat-out worth it.

So if any/all of the abilities above are to be utilized, it’s likely that the price of the ability should be adjusted. As it was pointed out to me, though, Turning as-is eats up something close to 50% of discretionary points, so it’s a major life choice to get it rather than something else (and note that the sample Cleric in adventurers does not have Turning, though the sample Cleric from HoJ very much does).

Parting Shot

Much of what happened to me at GameHole was baked in almost before I started play. There was a cleric with Turning on the board; the adventure advice I gave said “you’ll want a Cleric or Holy Warrior or both,” which is a true statement for HoJ. Having the provided cleric (and who has time to make a GURPSy character at a convention?) be a turning machine meant that my “hey, undead!” encounters are pretty weak sauce, and this is even more so when a single knight, alone, with the DR they frequently have, might be a match for a dozen or more low-power undead fodder.

So: combined arms for the win. Mix mundane and undead foes to ensure that the cleric is kept busy or distracted. Arrows, stones, thrown axes for the same purpose, from a distance. Perhaps the undead will try and dogpile the faithful as a binary choice (“I only have two modes: bite, and avoid.” -Angel) and so if the cleric ever does suffer distraction, they get attacked a lot.

I still like the idea of having the Turning power be something that requires active participation (frequent use of skill rolls, much like swinging a sword) from the player, and also doesn’t provide a shield that the other characters can simply count on. “Roll every turn” did that well enough, but some of the other method discussed above have a lot of appeal to me, singly or in combination.

Ultimately, though, ghouls and skeletons might not be up to the challenge of posing a challenge in the numbers I was using. I had groups of roughly 6-8 skeletons and a dozen ghouls. Might need to increase that by 2-3x before it gets scary!

I will note that part of the issue I was facing was that of my 12 players over two days, only three had recent GURPS experience; they were newcomers to the system. I figured a bit of leeway in number of foes would allow them to learn the system in a more gradual way. But “all the foes run away” doesn’t teach anything to anyone but the cleric. That was definitely my fault, but the on/off nature of Turning on low-power undead means they’re not that scary; the fact that they’re low-power means that even without Turning, they can be fairly easily dealt with.

Lessons learned on this, for future scenario building . . . but tweaking out Turning is still on my “Hmmm” list, and will be for some time.

12 thoughts on “Turning Undead: “I win!”

  1. For hordes, you might consider the rules in GURPS Zombies for horde intelligence. That gives the horde a bonus on the contest instead of penalizing the cleric.

    1. Horde intelligence is a good place to check, especially if “Horde Willpower” is a thing. I’m less concerned about penalizing the cleric, since my article is more concerned around the general “how much is the contest won/lost by” than “who takes the penalty (to the cleric) or bonus (to the undead). A more careful “when to give bonuses to the undead vs penalties (many of which will invoke Rule of 16 and so not really matter) study would be needed while the balance consideration is addressed.

    1. Thanks! As Peter Dell’Orto notes, some of my ideas aren’t entirely new (though the one Peter uses is very similar to one of the variations I proposed as well – parallel evolution) but I like the idea of making it active, tense, and uncertain. On a point-buy system, one has to value it correctly. In a “here’s the power you get at your next level,” it still has to be appropriately cool, but that’s a matter of where in the progression do you get it.

  2. It’s weird. I was aware of this issue, and I was also designing a dungeon where the first ‘natural’ entry point was undead-specific. I viewed it more as a feature than a bug.

    The undead were much easier to corner and defeat with a Turning Cleric, sure–but they still had to be defeated, which generally required weapons and fire. It was much easier with a Turning Cleric, but healing injury is much easier with a Cleric with healing spells, and opening locks is much easier with a Thief, and killing monsters is much easier with a Knight.

    I just kind of viewed it as a recognition of the niche utility of the Cleric, and the players seemed to as well (“This would have been awful without a Cleric”, etc.). Undead that I wanted to be a specific threat were just written that way (stronger will, missile weapons, free will–so they might just maneuver out of sight of the Cleric and wait him out in the dark).

    I can see the appeal of making it more ‘active’, rather than passive, but I’m not sure I see it as a ‘problem to solve’ any more than ‘These guys with low weapon skill and weak attacks aren’t doing much to the Knight in armor.”

    1. I think yours is an entirely valid point of view. Part of it is that I did want the first half of my adventure to be a tetch more uncertain than it was, and that means that if you want that, you need more and more dangerous undead. Some of the other undead in Hall of Judgment include the Vaettr (Wight), which has Will 14, are intelligent, and have a nasty surprise power. These would have been better as a “primary challenge” in my fallen Temple, rather than ghouls. Or, rather, Vaettr, some of it’s associated zombies (vaettrhrogn), and also ghouls.

      While I didn’t want the “I win!” button, I do like “I’m awesome!” especially when it also empowers the other players’ abilities to be that much more.

      1. I think it might also stem from the fact that a lot of us running DFPRG have also run a lot of other dungeon-crawl games, and, at least to me, DFRPG really differs from them in how much party composition matters.

        Not in success or failure, but in what is challenging, and what is easy, and what you can handle, and what you need to make preparations for with gear, hirelings, etc.

        A LOT of game systems seem to try to structure the game so that, given a group of a particular size and power level, the encounters are going to be pretty consistent in challenge (hence, Challenge Ratings and the like). DFPRG really doesn’t do that, or try to.

        The characters are, by design, really good at their profession, so if their profession applies to the situation, it’s going to make a HUGE difference. And if the most applicable profession isn’t present, the situation is probably going to be a slog (or at least more challenging).

        I think that years of play in other systems can sometimes leave both players and GMs kind of expecting the party-agnostic results from other games.

  3. I am surprised that you didn’t suggest treating turning like “grappling” and give the undead “turning control points.” If an undead’s will is reduced to 0, it is forced to retreat for some amount of time. The TCP could also grant other penalties that could give intelligent undead an incentive to leave even when not forced and give the other party members an advantage.

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