Turning and Churning
This week Mike’s talking about something that Adam and I recently talked over quite a bit for Dungeon World, the Cleric’s Turn Undead ability, so bear with me if I use more examples than usual from my own design. That’s partially because, with the exception of games that actively emulate D&D, I can’t think of many that have something like Turn Undead.
Part of that is down to the fundamental issue of giving classes core abilities that make them more powerful against one type of creature. The incidence rate of that type of creature then becomes a game design issue in the hands of the designer or the DM since using it too often makes that class the only class worth playing, and using it rarely means the player never gets to use a core part of their class.
Of course you can work around that: the game can clearly describe what monsters to use and when, so that the GM doesn’t have to worry about constantly keeping the right number of turnable (or favored enemy) monsters coming. A skilled GM can probably handle that too, but it’s one more thing they have to take into account when making adventures. Either way, completely manageable, but one more thing that has to be managed.
One way around this, besides Mike’s ideas (we’ll get to those in a minute), comes from a game I’ve been playing a lot of recently: Mass Effect 3. Sure it’s not a tabletop RPG but there’s still a huge amount to learn there. Mass Effect gives you a number of abilities that are best against certain types of enemies: Overload takes down shields quickly, Sabotage lets you take control of enemy machines, etc. The great design here is that all of these abilities are also effective against other enemies, but in a different (maybe less powerful) way. Sabotage can jam guns, for example. Not quite as useful as turning an enemy into a temporary ally, but nothing to scoff at either.
Turn Undead could work like this. Drop all the special rules around undead and instead call it just Turn. The glory of your deity shines forth and gives your enemies pause. Undead are particularly susceptible, maybe because their relevant save is low or maybe because Turn specifically says you get +X against undead.
That’s one solution, to make Turn Undead an ability that’s always useful and less of a special case. Mike’s suggestion is a good one too, though a bit complex for my tastes. It makes it very simple to the players but very complex to the GM who has to manage all the different DCs and all the different effects those difference DCs lead to.
I think the weak point in the design is that it doesn’t give the player much of an idea what they’re doing. How is the ability presented to the player? “When you Turn Undead based on your roll and the type of undead being turned bad things may happen to them?” I as a player have no idea what my character is really doing when these rules happen and I can’t plan for the outcomes. It ends up meeting Mike’s criteria that “When undead show up, the cleric’s first impulse should be to at least consider turning them” in a really odd way. Of course I’m going to try turning them, but not because I really want to, more because the rules just kind of make it apparent that my job as a Cleric is to always turn undead. I’m not choosing to turn undead because it’s the right tactic or it makes sense, I’m choosing to do it because the outcome sounds generally bad for the undead, probably.
Take turning a ghost for example, with Mike’s sample ghost reaction. Maybe I want to turn a ghost to drive it back towards the enchanted jug that will hold it, if I can get it close enough. Since I have no idea what turning does to a ghost I decide to try it, get a good roll, and the ghost just fades out of existence for a bit. Making the ghost disappear is a great tool, but in this situation it just made me less effective instead of more.
Just for comparison, I’m going to quote the latest Dungeon World Turn Undead rules (this is the current working version, not what was in Dungeon World Basic):
The key difference that I see here is that the entirety of the Dungeon World Turn Undead rules fit in less space than the preview of the possible Turn Undead rules in D&D Next. It also gives the Cleric a clear idea of what factors in to their turning and what the effects will be so that they can use it effectively instead of blindly.
All of those differences come from one root: Mike’s design came from a set of functional criteria of what a Cleric needed to be able to do mechanically, our design came from a long discussion about what the Cleric is actually doing and what that means (and how to mechanize it).
When we took a hard look at what turning should do Adam and I started talking about what the Cleric does to turn, why they turn, how the undead react. We had some similar goals to Mike, but we phrased them in terms of what the Cleric does, not what the player needs to be able to do. The insight that shaped the move, courtesy of Adam, was that turn undead could work like a torch keeping the grue at bay: the cleric can keep the undead at bay for a moment to regroup, maybe even heal, because their deity protects them from undeath (or gives them domain over it).
Both of these designs are completely functional for different types of games. Mike’s is an excellent deep complex system that would fit well into a tactical combat (so long as the players have a way of discovering what turning will do to various undead). Ours is simple and mostly phrased in terms of what happens in the world, a good fit for our fiction-first approach.
In the vacuum of a single post Mike’s design is fine. But how does it fit into D&D Next as a whole?