Sunday, July 14, 2013

There Is A Season


Let's talk about turning.  Not the wonky mechanic, but the philosophy behind the whole 'turn undead' shindig.  If we do this right, it'll be essentially edition-agnostic, because we don't care about how turning is done, just where we aim it.

Even without 2nd Edition's specialty priests coming along, the idea of turning something besides undead makes good sense; it's just a question of how to fit it into the game without throwing every other assumption out of whack, or overpowering a cleric, or underpowering a cleric.  It's easy to get behind the idea of the fire-priest turning a water elemental - the question is how to do it without making it, or something else, suck.

Here's the thing we sometimes forget about turn undead: it's not about alignment - not really.  Sure, we associate turning the undead with "good guy priests" and hanging out with (and creating) the undead with "bad guy priests", but that's secondary.  Somewhere in the reams of Forgotten Ravenloft there is a Neutral Good elf-lich whose poise, sheer force of will, and stunning fashion sense allow him to be a "good guy" even though he's undead.  Besides, we're talking primarily about Labyrinth Lord here, so we're looking at turning as super-basic, without all that later kibble.  We'll start simple and go from there.  And by "simple", I mean "D&D cosmology", so if that stuff freaks you out, grab a drink.  A lot of this might elicit a big "duh", but I'm walking through it anyway.

Turning is about opposition.  Life versus death in the classic setup; actually, it's more like Life versus Unlife, really, in the sense that big-D Death is part of the natural cycle, whereas Baron Von Killabride is decidedly out of whack with the way things are Meant To Be.  So when we're talking about opposition, the elements are a natural thing to conjure up (ha!).  Here's a way to do element-turning without too much mechanical weirdness.


An elemental cleric is just like a vanilla cleric, except instead of turning undead (and later infernal stuff in LL), they can turn the opposing element.  Sounds simple, is pretty simple.  Here's a picture!
Forget the Great Wheel; here's the Cosmic Donut.

The classic pic above shows us the classical four elements as well as the para-elements that lurk between them.  If you're not familiar with para-elements, it's pretty self explanatory - magma is earth plus fire, and so on.  But we can arbitrarily make the whole thing more complex, if we like...
click to cast Enlarge.  Dig that Planescape font!
Pretty much the same setup, only they've added the Positive and Negative Energy planes, as well as the quasi-elemental planes (which exist where the Big Four touch either the Positive or Negative).  Let's walk through a hypothetical elemental turning system using this map as a reference.

Suppose you roll up a cleric, decide to name him Pyro and make him a Fire Cleric.  Pyro's deity (or pantheon, or saint, or whatever - it's your campaign) is associated with Fire, so Pyro is as well.  This means he'll probably get along with Fire elemental creatures and might be able to speak to them, but that's not what we don't care about that right now - we care about what Pyro can turn, and that's Water elemental creatures.  Water is the OPPOSING element.  For simplicity's sake, we'll assume Pyro can also turn elemental creatures from areas adjacent to Water (Ice, Ooze, Salt, Steam), but maybe at a minus since those creatures aren't entirely composed of water-energy (or whatever).  Whether that's a minus to his effective turning level or to his die roll is a DM call - I don't want to get into mechanics, just philosophical blahblah.

So at first level Pyro can turn Water element creatures, and by that we mean creatures actually composed of water elemental energy - water elementals, water weirds, that sort of thing.  Not mermaids, not giant crabs - unless they hail from the Plane of Water, in which case maybe he can (and maybe then at a minus if you want).  We're also assuming we're going on a by-Hit-Dice ranking on the turning table at this point, of course.  Pyro's lifelong rival, the Water priest Lord Moist, can turn Fire creatures, probably including efreet, but maybe not salamanders and azer and stuff (unless you want him to, and then at a minus perhaps).  Got it?

There's a problem with this setup.  First, unless you're running a campaign where there are a lot of elementals around, Pyro is a chump for swapping his undead-turning for water-elemental-turning.  You may have to be more liberal with your definitions to make the power feel "right".  Secondly, what about the other elements - in this case Air and Earth?  And the other para-quasi-elements?

How about at a certain character level - I'd say sixth, you might want it higher - Pyro can start turning Air and Earth creatures just like he does Water dudes, albeit at a lower turning level (say five levels lower?).  Okay, now we're starting to get more use out of this elemental stuff - as Pyro gains levels he's a badass against Water stuff, and has an additional, diminished capability against Air and Earth.  I'm still working on the assumption that anything which is Fire or part-Fire is going to be treated more like a "friendly" much of the time (after all, Vanilla Clerics don't get to Turn the Living) so Pyro can't turn them.  We can call them allied or COMPANION elements or whatever.

Here's the breakout for how I'd try it:

REACTION BONUS and/or SPEECH with HOME element and COMPANION elements.
TURN the OPPOSING element (and its COMPANION elements) as a cleric of your level.
TURN all OTHER elements as a cleric of your level minus five.

Obviously, an elemental cleric would need a tweaked spell selection to support the flavor.

This all seems pretty simple, really.  Now comes the fun part - applying it to other things.

Any time you have four things in opposition across a table like the classical elements, you can do the same thing.  You can do it with Derleth-style Cthulhu stuff.  You could do with with fairy stuff (replace the four elements with Winter (Unseelie), Spring, Summer (Seelie), Autumn and you're good to go.  You could even shift the chart around or change turning effectiveness as an adventure hook ("Haven't you heard?  The oracles at the basilica say that the Archduke of Smoke has betrayed the Firelord and thrown his lot in with the Empress of the Air...").

Only have three major powers in your campaign?  Think of Rock, Paper, Scissors.
Imagine these are the three deities or cosmic forces of your campaign setting.  Each one turns in one direction, and is turned by the force behind them.  In your sword-and-sorcery campaign it might be Grogo the Spider King, Zazzagaz the Ooze Queen, and Pho Sho the Faceless Sky-Hawk.  Spider turns Ooze, Ooze turns Hawk, Hawk turns Spider, and thus is the cosmic balance maintained.  (If you need to print out the Lizard-Spock diagram to run your campaign, you may have gone too far).  It's even easier with just two Powers - Light and Dark, or Rainbows and Shadows, or Ahriman and Ahura-Mazda...

Now, what about campaigns where evil priests can use their 'turn' ability to command the undead?  I see that as a function of alignment, not the life/undeath axis, and we can try applying it the same way to the elemental setup.  In other words, Pyro (the good guy) cannot rebuke/command fire elementals, because he's a good guy and they don't do that.  Lord Moist, however, is Chaotic Evil (that's some nasty water, y'all) and has no problem using the turning table to rebuke/command water elementals.  Evil has no problem pushing people around.  Just use whatever rules you're already using and slide it over to the elements.

If you want to go even more campaign-specific, you can adapt the turning tables to apply to completely different stuff.  In a post-apocalyptic setting, maybe the technopriest can turn androids or something.  For example, in Wampus Country, we have the (Lawful) Church of the White Mouse.  Their god is a mouse, they think of themselves as (metaphorically) mice, etc.  By rights they ought to be turning rats and cats, their in-setting enemies.  So let's do that - at first level a Mouse-priest can turn rats instead of undead; at sixth, they can do cats (at a lower level of effectiveness).  Bizarre, but it should work.  Oh, they'll laugh at him until he turns a room full of were-rats...actually, being able to turn rats and giant rats is pretty badass at low levels.

If this all seems too underpowered, treat it like they do the "favored enemies" in 3rd Edition.  At various levels, let the cleric pick up another creature type they can turn (albeit at reduced power).  Note that this can get really weird.

In a forthcoming post we'll explore using the turning mechanic more broadly still, by moving the focus of the turning action from the cleric to the monster, and a marginally-fiddly try-it-out system for applying turning to devils and demons beyond that "Infernal" line on the chart.

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