D20 Turn Undead Variant

Appearance of Banquo

Appearance of Banquo (source)

Quick: 1d20 + cleric level + CHR vs. 10 + HD. Succeed by 5 or more banishes or destroys. Nat 20 always succeeds, nat 1 results in a complication.

To turn away unholy creatures, such as demons or the walking dead, present an object of faith. Roll 1d20, add cleric level, and add charisma modifier. If the roll is equal to or greater than 10 + creature HD, the creature shrinks back or flees. If the roll exceeds the target number by 5 or more, the creature is destroyed or banished. Roll no more than once per encounter, and compare this single roll to all potentially affected monsters. Lower HD creatures are affected first. On a natural 1, your faith has failed you (or your god has deserted you), and your hubris only angers the monsters, giving them some form of bonus for the remainder of the encounter (perhaps +1 to everything, or a burning desire to slay and feast on the cleric specifically). Most of the time, you can assume that all undead in the encounter are potentially affected, but if there is a true horde, the max HD of affected creatures could be the modified turning roll (so a 6th level cleric with CHR of +2 that rolls a 10 affects up to 18 HD).

Advantages of this method:

  • Easier to remember than reaction roll ranges or (shudder) the whole turning table.
  • Less certainty makes every attempt interesting.
  • Gives lower level clerics more potential and higher level clerics more risk (relatively).
  • The turning roll always has 4 potential degrees of success.

Potential variations:

  • Require the use of a vial of holy water to add resource management restriction.
  • Allow anyone to turn, but widen the “fumble” zone to 1 + monster HD for non clerics.
  • Games without charisma modifiers would obviously just use + level.
  • Works as influence undead, of course, for necromancers or anti-clerics as well.

Somewhat reminiscent of Delta’s house rules, though his approach is framed as target 20 (and he has done away with clerics). Also similar to the 3E/Pathfinder method, though player-facing rather than referee-facing. In PF, the undead make a will save with DC 10 + half cleric level + cleric CHR. By the book, the PF method probably requires much more dice rolling, as each creature should get its own save, though I suppose you could roll one save per creature type to save time. In general, for PC abilities, I tend to prefer player-facing rolls, as they are more engaging (this is one thing that 4E definitely got right).

15 thoughts on “D20 Turn Undead Variant

  1. Gus L

    How does this work out percentage wise? I figure it means a non Charismatic cleric has a slightly better than even chance of turning skeletons? It seems though that they still have a chance of turning 8HD (freakin vampires) undead though – a 10% chance? Is that not making the already incredibly powerful cleric into an even more powerful beast?

    1. Brendan Post author


      If you are a first level cleric confronting an 8 HD vampire, which is wiser? Spending your turn on a 20% chance of success (+1 trying for 18 to 20 giving success on die rolls of 17+), or running like mad?

      I actually like this change in dynamics, compared to the way the traditional turning tables generate only a narrow band of uncertainty (only a few types of undead require a roll, with all “below” the cleric’s competency being auto-turned or destroyed, and all “above” the cleric’s competency being impossible to affect).

      What I would probably do, not noted in the post (it was getting too long, and I’m trying to train myself to write less comprehensive and more suggestive rules), is increase the turning target number per special ability (or asterisk, as B/X does when calculating XP based on HD). So a vampire (according the the Expert rules) has 7-9** HD, making the turn target range from 19 to 21.

    2. Brendan Post author

      It is possible that high prime requisites might create some power inflation, but that seems to be the case to me in general with the B/X ability mods. A fighter with a +3 strength bonus is the equivalent to a +0 strength bonus fighter of several levels higher. If that causes problems, it might be reasonable to drop the CHR mod here, but most players seem to really like having ability scores matter for abilities like this, and from my point of view the most important thing is salient chance of failure (rather than raw percentages), so I think it’s probably okay. OD&D doesn’t have this concern, of course, due to the lower ability mods. Want to do some testing on the Apollyon for me?

      1. Gus L

        Not concerned about the B/X mods here – because yes they always push things a bit far. Also I do hate the turning matrix as is.

        To my mind though this still make Clerics more powerful which is something I like to avoid.

        I thonk though that it could work well if one had strong rules about number of undead turned and effect of turning. Turning skeletons might go stand in the corner but a turned wraith is going to hide and later track that cletic down for snacking on. In general intelligent undead are going to have ways to circumvent turning.

      2. Brendan Post author


        Perhaps something like number of attempts per day = level would moderate the power? Then the players would need to carefully evaluate when to use the ability.

        Good point about intelligent undead. I kind of like how PF handles this, by giving them a save per round to break the effect.

        Interestingly, I just noticed that the original 3E approach to turning is much different:


        It seems to be considerably more complicated.

      3. Gus L

        I’m thinking more use D20 system, but remember a) turning is not targetable at specific undead – the weak are turned first. b) number of undead turned is equal to how many point you beat the roll by. c) undead may be compelled not to approach or touch the cleric, bit eve. semi-intelligent ones (like ghouls) can act – say throw stones. d) attacking indead gives them a save from turning. e) undead under the control of others can be forced to attack by thier masters with a counter turn check.

      4. Brendan Post author


        All those suggestions seem pretty reasonable. I particularly like the counter-turn option for undead under the control of some powerful entity such as a lich, necromancer, or zombie lord.

        The only one I’m not sure about is the number turned = degree of success, as that seems like it would be hard to ever turn more than a handful of undead, even with a spectacular roll. Given that turning is more or less an “encounter power,” I do think it should have the possibility of being more effective than most other actions, though many implementations probably push that a bit too far (especially when you get to the auto-destroy results).

        I think I prefer to measure the effect by HD, as that naturally creates more effect against undead like skeletons, zombies, and ghouls (though it does require slightly more math). I still like the HD affected = modified roll result as proposed above, as that incorporates the cleric level naturally.

  2. Aaron

    I’d switch to HD*2 at least. As written a first level cleric can vape a 6th level monster and turn an 11 HD one. For no additional risk.

    I’ve also been thinking that skeletons and zombies (and other mindless undead) shouldn’t be turnable. They aren’t much of a threat as it is.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Well, there is additional risk: spending a turn on an action not likely to have any effect. This wastes offensive potential and exposes you to retaliation.

      If I was going to adjust the chances of success, I would probably do it at the roll (add half level rather than full level) rather than at the difficulty. This should probably be based on the assumed level range of the game in question. A game expected to not go higher than 10 to 14 (Expert levels, basically) would work well with the numbers as stated in the post, but LL or AD&D ranges (up to level 20) would probably work better with half level (or a cap of +10).

      Mindless undead being unturnable is an interesting idea. I tend to add extra properties and abilities to skeletons and zombies though, so I guess I don’t really use them much as written in the classic rules.

    2. Brendan Post author

      Thinking about it more, 10 + HD*2 would work fine too, for undead that are more resistant. I guess the question should be framed as: should wights be target number 13 or 16?

      Here’s a variation: during the day and above ground, the target number is 10 + HD, whereas during the night or in the underworld, the target number is 10 + (HD*2).

  3. Eric

    I’m intrigued. I like the idea of uncertainty over a broader band of the undead spectrum, of a simple formula rather than a table, and of Charisma having an impact. I might want something a bit less swingy, though. Maybe I’ll examine the probabilities using a 2d10 roll instead of 1d20 and see how that affects the odds.

    1. Brendan Post author

      My intuition says that 2d10 should work nicely (I may try that myself). You just need to figure out how to replicate the chances of natural 1 for auto-failures, assuming you like that. I would suggest, maybe, doubles of 5 or less (1-1, 2-2, 3-3, 4-4, 5-5), as that is easy to remember and maintains the 5% chance.

      1. Eric

        I ran the numbers for 1d20 and 2d10, with targets of 10+HD and 10+HDx2, for 1st, 3rd, and 5th level clerics. 10+HD is roughly equivalent to the turning tables for 1 HD creatures, but becomes progressively easier than the tables at higher HD. 10+HDx2 seems to keep things broadly in line with the tables even at higher HD, while still allowing for success with tougher monsters and failure with weaker ones.

        2d10 bends the odds slightly in the cleric’s favor against creatures with fewer HD than his level, and slightly in the creature’s favor when its HD are greater than his level, compared to the odds with a 1d20 roll. Also, destroying a creature is significantly more difficult.

  4. RedHobbit

    I’m always in favor of simple formula instead of table-hunting. That said I think I’ll agree with 10+ 2*HD until I’ve seen it in play long enough. Better to take the conservative call and strengthen it later in my experience.

  5. Brendan Post author

    Perhaps I’m coming from too much of an OD&D perspective here, but I have to say that I’m skeptical that any d20 target number above 20 is not indicative of numerical inflation. Remember that in OD&D, even a dragon only has an AC of 2 (ascending AC of 17). Using a turn target number of 10 + HD*2 would result in the following numbers:

    Skeleton (1/2 HD): 11
    Zombie (1 HD): 12
    Ghoul (2 HD): 14
    Wight (3 HD): 16
    Wraith (4 HD): 18
    Mummy (5+1 HD): 20 to 22 (depending on how the +2 is interpreted)
    Spectre (6 HD): 22
    Vampire (7 to 9 HD): 24 to 28

    Should wight “turn AC” really be equivalent to plate armor?


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