Thursday, March 15, 2012

Fixing an artificial problem

Thanks to Tenkar of Tenkar's Tavern for this well thought out reply to Mike Mearls' latest ruminations on Clerics and Turn Undead.

Anyone else remember back in the days of 3E when there was talk all the time of CoDzilla?  For those who wisely avoided d20 forums back in the 'oughts', the term stands for "Cleric or Druid-zilla" meaning that those two classes were supposedly superior to all the others.

Jozan Cleric, Superstar
I'm not gonna hash out the old arguments for/against CoDzilla.*

However, there's this idea that the Cleric is too powerful.  It comes from the fact that when 3E was being designed, there was this conventional wisdom that "no one wants to play the Cleric."  So they made the Cleric a much more attractive option.  Domain spells and powers, full spells from level 0 to 9 (instead of 1 to 5 or 1 to 7 as in old school games), and a spell list that was just as offensive as the Wizard if you wanted, plus spontaneous healing so you could actually load up on those attack/buff/utility spells and still heal when you needed to.  But it was pretty much the buff spells that sealed the CoDzilla deal.  With all that, some people might have even forgotten that Clerics could Turn undead!

So d20 made the Cleric too powerful.  Now, it looks like Mearls is forgetting that in old school D&D, the Cleric was NOT the powerhouse class.  Sure, they're nice.  But even the most powerful version of the class, in AD&D, pales in comparison to the d20 version.  So instead of just rolling back the clock on the Cleric a bit, Mearls seems to be hoping to develop some even more convoluted scheme to try to de-power the class.

Old school Turn Undead works well.  In Classic D&D, you roll 2d6 and have to beat a target number (7, 9, or 11).  On a 2d6 roll, you're more than 50% likely to roll that 7 or higher.  But you've got reduced odds to roll that 9, and that 11 or better is pretty rare.  Even with the 7, there's a good chance you'll fail.  The apparent problem comes from when the Cleric gains a level.  Suddenly, they've got an auto success against Skeletons.  By 5th level, they can automatically turn Wights.  But when a Cleric succeeds on their Turn roll, they roll 2d6 again to see how many HIT DICE run away.**  Roll that statistically most likely 7 on the number turned roll, and only 3 Wights are fleeing, meaning any encounter with more will leave at least one to possibly score that energy drain attack before the Cleric retries the next round.  Eventually, the Cleric can not only automatically succeed, but actually destroy the lesser undead.  You still roll that 2d6 to see how many hit dice are affected, though (very high level Clerics get to roll 3d6 HD worth destroyed).  But as Tenkar rightly points out, it's against low level undead that likely aren't much of a challenge anymore anyway.
Aleena couldn't even cast spells at Level 1.  Let her Turn some undead before Bargle kills her, OK?

The Cleric high enough to destroy a Spectre or Vampire (and in BECMI they get that up there in the Companion or Master levels) has enough spells that they will likely have a Protection from Evil spell anyway, preventing the undead from harming them.  Maybe even Pro. Evil 10' Radius, protecting the whole party.  And again, even if the Cleric destroys automatically, for those powerful undead it's likely not going to be more than one per round. 

The idea that a Cleric equals an automatic victory in any undead encounter is false, as is the idea that old school Turn Undead was overpowered.  It was a necessary power, and let me tell you, when PCs encounter level draining undead, if the Cleric has to roll to Turn, there's suspense in that roll.  Even with auto success/destruction, there's a lot riding on the number of HD turned.  Rolls like that add to the game experience.  I don't think many old school Fighters, Thieves and Magic-Users complained that they didn't get a chance to go toe-to-misty bottom with the Wraiths.  They were hoping that the Cleric would Turn them so that they wouldn't risk losing a level.

*for those who care, I found that most arguments tended to be that in an arena fight, where a Cleric/Druid had cast all of their buff spells on themselves, they could outfight a Fighter (plus Druids get animal companions).  Of course, if that Cleric or Druid blew all their spells on one combat, Fighter number 2 is going to whup up on them badly.  But it's all smoke and mirrors, because Clerics and Fighters weren't designed as classes to battle each other, they were designed to fight together against the monsters.

**In Holmes D&D, though, I think it is number of undead, rather than HD as in BX/BECMI.


  1. too many of mearls's speculative rules, e.g. his turn undead and save vs. die articles, seem to want to reserve powerful effects for only when you've got nearly a fait accompli situation. that doesn't seem to add much to the game to me.

  2. at least mearls is staying away from the "marketing speak" that monte was fond of ;)

    between this and his desire to redesign Save or Die to make it less lethal, there won't be much Old School left for them to use in 5e...

    1. And yet, at least he wants to add it back in at all. If you look at the newest edition, Save or Die effects are nowhere to be found whatsoever.

      Anything's a step up from that.

  3. While I'm glad Mearls avoids the marketing speak too, and I do think he's a smart guy with a lot of good intentions for the game, he definitely seems to be seeking change (and added complexity) for the sake of change (and added complexity). Not necessarily good things.

    I'm less and less intrigued by what 5E may become the more I read about it.

  4. In Castles & Crusades on a successful turn roll, a cleric player rolls to see how many individual undead are turned, not HD. In our games it seemed a bit overpowered for that fact, as our cleric, even at low levels, seemed to turn entire groups of undead (we're talking 6 or 7 at a time in some instances). It made for dramatic scenes, but the undead threat was lessened a bit. Well, there was still tension for the initial turning roll, but with that successful there was less tension for that "number turned" roll. Also, in C&C, once you've made that successful turn roll, the dice you roll for number turned is different for types of undead. So for more common undead you roll a larger die (d10 I think). I forget the exact criteria for the undead and the die you roll, at this moment. But I think for unique undead you can only turn one or two.