Friday, March 14, 2014

Tell Me More of Your Little Game, oh Runner of Kickstarters... or "To the Undead, Turn, Turn, Turn"

Want to know more about the Saga of the Splintered Realm Kickstarter, and my vision for the game? Oh. Well, maybe you'll read this anyway...

I don’t like turning undead. I don’t like the mechanism for it, the way it’s implemented, or the impact it has in the game. It has historical/mythological/fiction backing as a great way to make the cleric get his groove on, but in terms of the game itself - well, it just doesn’t really seem to do what it sets out to do.

Gary Gygax tended to agree. He allowed undead (at least in B2) to wear amulets that protected them from turning. Turn is to low level undead what sleep is to low level humanoids: one action to defeat them all. Even if you only get half xp, that’s half xp you get for rolling one die. Unlike sleep (which can only be learned so many times per day), a cleric can keep turning all night long (I assume that he can take the days off when fighting undead) without running out of ‘juice’.

Even worse, it goes against the basic concept of the class. As a cleric, you have been created, in large part, to get rid of the abomination of undead in the world, and the best way your god gives you to do this – is to make them run away to go bother other people and continue to be a plague on the land. It doesn’t make much sense.

I’ve been toying with a mechanism that turns this into a check, but the math keeps being cumbersome. For example, let’s say you make a check to turn undead (base 10 + or – 3x the difference between your level and the level of undead). As a cleric 5 trying to turn a 3 HD undead, you make a check against a target of 16 (I like your odds); as a cleric 2 trying to turn a 5 HD undead, you make a check against a target of 1 (not bloody likely, my friend). This isn’t terrible (although it is a bit clunky), and is close to what the original game outlines as a general effectiveness of turning.

But I still don’t like it.

The thing is, the game already has a mechanic for something like this: it’s called morale. What you are doing is (in effect) forcing an immediate morale check for your foe. Generally, undead have very high morale, because they don’t tend to give up easily. Skeletons just keep on fighting, regardless of circumstance. They don’t care if they die; they’re already gone! However, the presence of pure holy energy in the hands of a faithful believer makes undead rethink their priorities – at least for the moment. Here’s what I’m play testing right now regarding turning undead (which probably needs a new name – maybe compel undead?):

You force the target to make a morale check. All undead would have two morale ratings: one for regular morale situations and another for turning (listed second, in parenthesis). The cleric forces the undead to take a penalty to its morale check equal to the cleric’s level. For example, a skeleton might have morale 18 (12). If a cleric 3 attempts to turn the undead, the undead creature makes a morale check; a roll of 9 or lower succeeds. Conversely, a 9 HD vampire might have morale of 18 (20). A cleric 3 will only be able to compel that creature if the undead if the vampire rolls a 18 or higher. Otherwise, the vamp is laughing at that puny little symbol in the hands of that puny little cleric…

However, the cleric should have some say in how the turning plays out. His options could include:

- Force the undead to flee. The creature turns and runs; it will not return for 1d6 turns.
- Hold the undead at bay. As long as the cleric concentrates (making him unable to take other actions), the creature remains where it is, recoiling from the sight of the holy symbol. The cleric in this case can slowly drive the undead in a direction (for example, away from a crypt or towards a precipice, at 1/3 of his movement rate). Any action that affects the undead (i.e. an attack from an ally of the cleric) immediately breaks the turn effect. Once broken, this cannot be re-established.

I’m also thinking of formalizing the number of undead. It makes more sense to me that, instead of a random number of undead creatures, you set the total HD related to cleric level. It seems like you could say that a cleric can turn a total HD of undead equal to his level x3. This means that a cleric 4 could turn up to 12 HD of undead:
- Up to 12 skeletons (1 HD)
- Up to 6 zombies or ghouls (2 HD)
- Up to 4 wights (3 HD)
- Up to 3 undead of 4 HD
- Up to 2 undead of 5-6 HD
- One undead of 7-12 HD
- He would be unable to affect undead of better than 13 HD, no matter what.

Destroy should also be an option, but again wouldn’t require a result roll, just the check for the undead. If you say that instead of compelling, the cleric can destroy undead (turning them to dust), he could do this to a number of HD of undead equal to his level, but they had to be half his level or less. Our cleric 4 could destroy up to 4 HD of dead with one compel attempt. He could instantly destroy:
- Up to 4 skeletons
- Up to 2 zombies

 I’d think that the cleric gets to decide which undead are affected. He could (for instance) use his ability to hold a wight at bay while his allies cut through the skeletons that serve it. I want turning undead to be a tactical option for clerics rather than a simple ‘drive away a random number of undead’ like it typically appears.

This means that the ability works more like a charm spell for evil clerics; they get to charm undead and manipulate them, since the ability makes the cleric appear as a powerful entity in the eyes of the undead, or as representing such an entity directly.

Finally, compel undead is an ability that you can use once per turn. I really don’t like the idea of being able to keep turning and turning and turning. A cleric should be a nice complement to have when fighting undead, not an automatic turning machine (which just puts the fight off until later).