One of the classic powers of clerics in D&D is “turning undead.” You present a holy symbol, the light of your patron deity shines through, and mummies shamble away or zombies are blasted into dust. The root of this, of course, is the classic Christian trope that bad things, and vampires in particular, will be repelled by the sign of the cross. (Which, I imagine, is just one example of humanity’s need to invent bugaboos to embody our fears and then comfort ourselves by inventing rituals and tools that defeat these bugaboos.)
Various systems handle the act in different ways. Older D&D had you roll under a target number based on your level and the hit dice or type of undead, and then roll again to get the number of hit dice affected, as seen here. Higher-level clerics could count on certain types of monsters being automatically driven away or even destroyed.
In 3rd Edition, this was changed to an even more complex system of “channeling energy,” in which a d20 roll gave the “most powerful undead affected” relative to the cleric’s level, followed by a roll for “turning damage” to see how many HD were affected. Automatic destruction happened to any undead less than half of the cleric’s level. Significant changes include Charisma becoming an important factor, the distinction between roll-to-turn and “automatic turning” being removed while automatic destruction became easier, and the shift toward a complex modular system where the energy quanta for “turn attempts per day” could potentially be put to other uses.
Pathfinder, on the other hand, dramatically simplifies this to a 30-foot radius blast that either heals living beings or harms undead, or vice-versa, depending on whether the energy being channeled is “positive” or “negative.” By this point we’ve moved away from the original concept of “turning” entirely in favor of pure damage. I feel that’s a bit of a loss.
I want to swing things in the opposite direction, taking inspiration from the vampire tropes that started the whole business in the first place. But – with more character, if that’s the right term? I interpret “turning” as a personal psychic struggle – the vampire’s hunger and will on one side, the priest’s faith and determination on the other, with some sort of metaphysical dominance at stake.
For this reason I see “turning” as only working against sentient undead. A zombie or animated skeleton is no different from a brick or chair, spiritually speaking; why would the mindless be susceptible to psychic domination? Mere walking corpses will be entirely unaffected. This has the nice side effect of making them a little more horrifying; a party with a cleric no longer has a “win button” against low-level undead, and the GM has more power to set up a Night of the Living Dead survival-horror situation.
Contests of Will
For mechanics, I’m taking inspiration from the Lord of the Rings RPG “contests of will.” That’s a series of contested rolls, with initiative each round determining the aggressor (who uses a “Bearing” trait) and defender (who uses Willpower). Whoever first suffers more degrees of defeat than they have points in Willpower has to “acknowledge defeat in some way” – which sounds wishy-washy, to be honest, and assumes everyone involved is in the mood for some Tolkienian storytelling.
Beyond the scope of “turning,” I see these contests of will as a useful model for any situation where two sides want to stare each other down: due to D&D having no Willpower attribute, locking eye contact with someone will call for a standard opposed roll between Presence (my preferred flavor of “Charisma”) scores. Each round, the contest is re-rolled; each loss results in temporary points of strain. When this overtakes Stability, the contest is lost, and both meters go back to where they were when the contest began. If you want, perhaps a single point of strain could remain with the loser – in real-world terms, due to the impact of losing a stare-off; in game terms, as a penalty to make the contest more meaningful. Using the strain meter means that relatively unstable individuals have a disadvantage in a contest of wills, but that’s hardly a surprise.
Anybody can try to engage anybody else in one of these contests; the only requirement is facing them down or making eye contact. In the case of alpha-wolf social posturing, a loss means nothing more severe than having to back down in some way. And either participant can freely quit at any moment. But I see special rules coming into effect in two situations: priest versus sentient undead, and wizard versus wizard.
In these cases, the stakes are higher. The only way to quit a contest once it has begun is to make a Psychic save; in order to attempt the save one must automatically lose the contest in a given round and take 1d6 strain.
Priest versus sentient undead is our “turning” analogue. An intelligent undead can engage in normal contests of will with the living. If the undead wins, may impose its will in some way: paralyzing them, placing them in thrall for a time, making them fall unconscious. If the mortal wins, they escape this fate, and perhaps become immune to the undead gaze for a time. Priests have the ability to fight back: if they win, they may similarly command the undead. Generally the command is to “leave this place” or the like. In either case, the domination is limited in time and effect; the mind of the loser will always refuse commands to commit self-harm and will be in no condition to comprehend and follow complex instructions or perform delicate intellectual tasks.
Wizards similarly can’t back out of a conflict once it has begun except by a successful Psychic save. And the winner gains even greater power over the loser: the ability to impose on them any one spell effect in the repertoire of either, perhaps with some creative adjustments to fit a given situation. As you might expect, magicians do not enter into this kind of contest lightly.
Which of these witches is whistling the wooze, and which of these witches is not? If only one witch is whistling the wooze, then the other is certainly not. – Sesame Street
What are the effects on play of these changes? First, I like how it adds a mechanic for ordinary people to try to stare each other down. Since the results are so subjective, how much this gets used and how important it is would depend on interpretation and play style for a given group. It’s nice that a relatively simple mechanic can have universal utility, though, and it adds flavor.
Second, it makes undead far more frightening and dangerous. Mindless zombies and skeletons no longer have an obvious “win button” for taking them down, while any given intelligent undead implicitly has the ability to invade the minds of the living and victimize them in various ways. Priests retain the power to fight back and drive them away, but with a risk involved. The system is much less level-dependent than classic turning, too, allowing a strong-minded neophyte to drive away vampires that more spiritually tired elders can’t handle.
Finally, it allows wizards to “battle” in an appropriately arcane way that transcends simply shooting magic at each other, and with a range of possible results from, say, someone’s nose being turned green, through to hideous and inventive death.