Extendable Rules for Turning Undead

October 2006

This article was written in December 2005, formalizing ideas I had used many moons ago. Originally published in Footprints, published by Dragonsfoot, I’m republishing it here in HTML format.

Copyright 1990, 2005-2006, 2011-2014 by Bryan Fazekas, all rights reserved. This document may not be published or reproduced in any fashion except with explicit permission of the author.

March 2011

Due to a question in the Yahoo Group FirstEditonDND I added Table U5 Part III to cover clerics up to level 30.

Note: For ease of use, I created a summarized version of this rule.

Back in the day …

The cleric table for turning undead, Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) page 75, was originally written when AD&D was newly published, and the Monster Manual (MM) was THE source for all monsters. That table listed 12 undead plus the “Special” entry, which covered evil creatures of the lower planes with suggestions for which lower plane monsters were exempt from turning. At that time it covered all the known undead creatures and it functioned well.

Things were great, right? Yes they were! Unfortunately, they didn’t stay that way for long …

Rather quickly problems reared their ugly heads! For instance, how does the DM handle the situation if a more powerful skeleton is created? Say an NPC animates a hill giant skeleton as a 6 hit die monster. Does a cleric turn it as the 1 HD skeleton, or turn it as a mummy, which is 6+3 HD? Then comes the Fiend Folio (FF) and the Monster Manual II (MMII) with more undead creatures. And what about the banshee (groaning spirit) in the MM that wasn’t included in the list of undead? Many DMs, including myself, adapted by using an undead monster that had the same hit dice as the new undead monster.

This worked but didn’t exactly feel right. Using the above example, although I treated a 6 HD skeleton as a mummy for turning, it didn’t really fit because a mummy is a FAR more dangerous foe.

A closer examination of the MM undead list shows other discrepancies. Table U1 lists the MM undead in the order presented in the turning table along with their hit dice. Zombies and ghouls have the same hit dice but have different turning values. The ghast has less hit dice than the wight but has a higher turning value.

Table U1 — Undead Monsters and Hit Dice

Undead Type Hit Dice
Skeleton 1
Zombie 2
Ghoul 2
Shadow 3+3
Wight 4+3
Ghast 4
Wraith 5+3
Mummy 6+3
Spectre 7+3
Vampire 8+3
Ghost 10
Lich 11+


So, a new ranking system for turning undead is needed, one that fairly ranks the existing undead monster AND helps the DM handle non-standard ones. The obvious conclusion is that hit dice alone is not a sufficient criterion for ranking undead for the purpose of turning by a cleric. So what is the criteria?

Ranking the Undead

I continued my examination by listing the special defenses and attacks of each undead, as that seemed to be a good place to start. Table U2 lists the undead from the MM, including the banshee but excluding Special (which can’t really be classified), and adds the undead from the MMII and the FF. Note: The demilich, haunt, phantom, and revenant are not included as they cannot be turned.

The list shows a lot of commonality, things like requiring silver/magic weapons to hit and special attacks such as draining (strength, levels, etc.). Also, a few undead monsters have low armor class and/or magic resistance.

Table U2 — Undead Special Abilities

Base HD Undead Creature Special Attacks Special Defenses
1/2 Poltergeist silver or magic to hit
1 Skeleton
1-1 Skeleton, Animal
2 Coffer Corpse magic to hit
2 Ghoul paralyzation
2 Huecuva disease silver or magic to hit
2 Zombie
3 Sheet Phantom
3+12 Zombie, Juju magic to hit
3+3 Shadow drain strength magic to hit
4 Ghast paralyzation
4 Penanggalan
4 Son of Kyuss disease regeneration
4+2 Sheet Ghoul
4+3 Wight energy drain (1) silver or magic to hit
5+3 Wraith energy drain (1) silver or magic to hit
6 Crypt Thing magic to hit
6 Zombie, Monster
6+3 Mummy disease magic to hit
7 Groaning Spirit death wail AC0, 50% magic resistance, magic to hit
7+3 Spectre energy drain (2) magic to hit
8 Appirition silver or magic to hit, AC0
8+3 Vampire energy drain (2) magic to hit, regenerate
9 Death Knight 75% magic resistance, AC0
9+ Skeleton Warrior magic to hit, 90% magic resistance
10 Ghost age victim AC0, silver or magic to hit
11+ Lich magic to hit, AC0
12 Eye of Fear & Flame


Most of the special abilities have to do with the connection to the Negative Plane. Skeletons taking half damage from edged weapons and the ghasts’ stench are significant exceptions, which I later decided to exclude as they result from the physical properties of the respective monsters rather than an “undead ability” like the other special abilities. [Personally, a ghast’s stench attack is more a matter of poor personal hygiene …]

This provided a basis for creating a metric which determines the relative strength of each undead. I used hit dice as a basis for comparison, as it is the standard indicator of monster strength. Then I added hit dice modifiers based upon special abilities. See Table U3 for the list of hit dice modifiers used.

Table U3 — Adjusted Hit Dice Modifiers

Special Ability


age victim 1 point for aging the victim
armor class 1 point for every 2 points of AC below 2, e.g., AC0 is 1 point, AC-2 is 2 points, etc.
death wail 1 point
inflict disease 1 point
drain energy level 1 point
drain attribute 1 point for each attribute drained, e.g., if a monster drains strength AND constitution that counts as 2 points.
magic resistance 1 point for every 25% of magic resistance, e.g., 1% to 25% is 1 point, 26% to 50% is 2 points, etc.
paralyzation 1 point
regeneration 1 point
silver or magic weapon to hit 1 point per plus required to hit, so silver or +1 weapon is 1 point, +2 weapon to hit is 2 points, etc.


To generate the “base” HD, I dropped any pluses just to simplify things. Next, I added 1 point for each special ability as this reflects additional power. This results in an undead monster’s Adjusted Hit Die (AHD) score. Table U4 lists the results for each undead, sorted by the AHD.

Table U4 — Undead Adjusted Hit Dice

Undead Creature Base HD # Special Abilities Adjusted HD
Poltergeist 1/2 1 1
Skeleton 1 0 1
Skeleton, Animal 1-1 0 1
Zombie 2 0 2
Coffer Corpse 2 1 3
Ghoul 2 1 3
Sheet Phantom 3 0 3
Huecuva 3 1 4
Penanggalan 4 0 4
Sheet Ghoul 4+2 0 4
Zombie, Juju 3+12 1 4
Ghast 4 1 5
Shadow 3+3 2 5
Son of Kyuss 4 2 6
Wight 4+3 2 6
Zombie, Monster 6 0 6
Crypt Thing 6 1 7
Wraith 5+3 2 7
Mummy 6+3 2 8
Spectre 7+3 2 9
Apparition 8 2 10
Vampire 8+3 3 11
Eye of Fear & Flame 12 0 12
Groaning Spirit 7 5 12
Death Knight 9 4 13
Ghost 10 3 13
Lich 11+ 2 13+
Skeleton Warrior 9+ 5 14+


A quick review of Table U4 shows that it appears to make sense. The undead monsters from the MM are mostly in their original order, although the shadow and ghast now have the same turning value while the wight is now harder to turn than the ghast. But “sanity check” of the special abilities listed in Table U2, the AHD does make sense in defining the strength of undead monsters in deciding which is more difficult for a cleric to turn.

Let’s check to see if this system is balanced, whether it ranks new monsters in terms of relative strength. So we create a 5+5 HD zombie that drains strength on each hit and is immune to non-magical weapons. It’s base HD is 5 which gets adjusted upward to 7 for two special abilities. The wraith has an AHD of 7 — is this monster equivalent to a wraith? A brief comparison of difficulty to fight indicates that they are fairly equivalent.

Just as importantly, this also handles the need that originally pushed me to experiment — it is extensible. I can create ANY undead with any hit dice and any special abilities, and easily figure out what value a cleric of any level needs to roll to turn it.

More rules could be added to try to rank the undead even more “fairly”, but more rules complicate things quickly. I did some experimentation with other factors but quickly realized I was going to have to invent a percentile system to handle the rolling, which I felt was too complicated.

New Turning Table

Now that the undead monsters are ranked, both those that we know about and those that haven’t been invented yet, it’s time to determine what the turning table looks like.

I started with the original Turning Table from the DMG. It made a lot of sense, but I felt that some of the progression values were a bit skewed. So I modified the progression slightly, starting with 20 and working backwards in increments of 3. Keeping the ability to turn a skeleton at 1st level about the same (my table requires an 11 while the original requires a 10), I worked from there, giving the cleric the ability to turn an additional AHD of undead for each additional level of experience.

This gives a cleric a 50% chance of turning an undead whose AHD is the same as the cleric’s level, and the cleric still has a chance to turn an undead up to 3 AHD higher than his current level.

Table U5 shows the new Matrix for Clerics Affecting Undead. The first column shows the AHD, which along with cleric level of experience is the real driver for the table. The second column lists the known undead to simplify use. As other undead are added to a campaign the Undead Type column can be penciled in.

Table U5 — Matrix for Clerics Affecting Undead (Revised), Part I

Cleric Level †
AHD Undead Type 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1 Poltergeist, Skeleton, Animal Skeleton 11 8 5 2 T T T D D D
2 Zombie 14 11 8 5 2 T T T D D
3 Coffer Corpse, Ghoul, Sheet Phantom 17 14 11 8 5 2 T T T D
4 Huecuva, Penanggalan, Sheet Ghoul, Juju Zombie 20 17 14 11 8 5 2 T T T
5 Ghast, Shadow 20 17 14 11 8 5 2 T T
6 Son of Kyuss, Wight, Monster Zombie 20 17 14 11 8 5 2 T
7 Crypt Thing, Wraith 20 17 14 11 8 5 2
8 Mummy 20 17 14 11 8 5
9 Spectre 20 17 14 11 8
10 Apparition 20 17 14 11
11 Vampire 20 17 14
12 Eye Of Fear & Flame, Groaning Spirit 20 17
13 Death Knight, Ghost, Lich 20
14 Skeleton Warrior
15 ??
16 ??
17 ??
18 ??
19 ??
20 ??
21 ??
22 ??
23+ ??

Table U5 — Matrix for Clerics Affecting Undead (Revised), Part II

Cleric Level †
AHD Undead Type 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
1 Poltergeist, Skeleton, Animal Skeleton D1 D1 D1 D2 D2 D2 D3 D3 D3 D3
2 Zombie D D1 D1 D1 D2 D2 D2 D3 D3 D3
3 Coffer Corpse, Ghoul, Sheet Phantom D D D1 D1 D1 D2 D2 D2 D3 D3
4 Huecuva, Penanggalan, Sheet Ghoul, Juju Zombie D D D D1 D1 D1 D2 D2 D2 D3
5 Ghast, Shadow T D D D D1 D1 D1 D2 D2 D2
6 Son of Kyuss, Wight, Monster Zombie T T D D D D1 D1 D1 D2 D2
7 Crypt Thing, Wraith T T T D D D D1 D1 D1 D2
8 Mummy 2 T- T T D D D D1 D1 D1
9 Spectre 5 2 T T T D D D D1 D1
10 Apparition 8 5 2 T T T D D D D1
11 Vampire 11 8 5 2 T T T D D D
12 Eye Of Fear & Flame, Groaning Spirit 14 11 8 5 2 T T T D D
13 Death Knight, Ghost, Lich 17 14 11 8 5 2 T T T D
14 Skeleton Warrior 20 17 14 11 8 5 2 T T T
15 ?? 20 17 14 11 8 5 2 T T
16 ?? 20 17 14 11 8 5 2 T
17 ?? 20 17 14 11 8 5 2
18 ?? 20 17 14 11 8 5
19 ?? 20 17 14 11 8
20 ?? 20 17 14 11
21 ?? 20 17 14
22 ?? 20 17
23+ ?? 20

Table U5 — Matrix for Clerics Affecting Undead (Revised), Part III

Cleric Level †
AHD Undead Type 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30
1 Poltergeist, Skeleton, Animal Skeleton D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3
2 Zombie D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3
3 Coffer Corpse, Ghoul, Sheet Phantom D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3
4 Huecuva, Penanggalan, Sheet Ghoul, Juju Zombie D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3
5 Ghast, Shadow D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3
6 Son of Kyuss, Wight, Monster Zombie D2 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3
7 Crypt Thing, Wraith D2 D2 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3
8 Mummy D2 D2 D2 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3
9 Spectre D1 D2 D2 D2 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3
10 Apparition D1 D1 D2 D2 D2 D3 D3 D3 D3 D3
11 Vampire D1 D1 D1 D2 D2 D2 D3 D3 D3 D3
12 Eye Of Fear & Flame, Groaning Spirit D D1 D1 D1 D2 D2 D2 D3 D3 D3
13 Death Knight, Ghost, Lich D D D1 D1 D1 D2 D2 D2 D3 D3
14 Skeleton Warrior D D D D1 D1 D1 D2 D2 D2 D3
15 ?? T D D D D11 D1 D1 D2 D2 D2
16 ?? T T D D D D1 D1 D1 D2 D2
17 ?? T T T D D D D1 D1 D1 D2
18 ?? 2 T T T D D D D1 D1 D1
19 ?? 5 S T T T D D D D1 D1
20 ?? 8 5 2 T T T D D D D1
21 ?? 11 8 5 2 T T T D D D
22 ?? 14 11 8 5 2 T T T D D
23+ ?? 17 14 11 8 5 2 T T T D

Author’s Note: Readers will note that when I added Table U5 Part III the monster level (AHD) wasn’t increased. At this time I don’t see a need, but if there’s a call to do so I’ll add more rows to the table.


Paladins turn undead as a cleric two levels below their own.
?? No undead creature with an AHD of this value existed at the time this article was written.

Rules for Turning:

When turning or commanding into service undead creatures locate the entry for the cleric’s level and the adjusted hit dice of the monster. Following are the instructions for each value:

The cleric has no chance of turning or commanding this monster.
<nn> If this number or greater is rolled on a 1d20 the cleric has turned or commanded 1-12 (d12) undead. If turned the affected number will move away from the cleric at maximum speed, or if unable to do so will move as far from the cleric as possible.
T Indicates the cleric automatically turns 1-12 (1d12) undead.
D Instead of turning the undead the cleric destroys 1-12 (1d12) of them.
D1 Same as D, but the number destroyed is 7-12 (1d6+6).
D2 Same as D, but the number destroyed is 8-18 (2d6+6).
D3 Same as D, but the number destroyed is 14-24 (2d6+12).


A comparison of Table U5 with the original Turning table shows that the cleric has somewhat less power to turn or command undead at lower levels. This was not by design, but I’m not displeased with the way it worked out. I’ve always thought that clerics turned undead too easily, requiring the DM to hit a party with undead that were stronger than the party was really capable of handling, just to get around the problem of the cleric turning the undead easily.

The original table clumps cleric levels together starting at 9th, but since the new table is based in part upon AHD, I chose to not group cleric levels. I did choose to make the table run as high as 20th level cleric, which corresponding pushed the AHD to 23. Currently I don’t believe that it is necessary to extend the table past either maximum, but am learned enough to know that setting a hard limit is the best way to get someone to exceed it, so the table can easily be extended to any cleric level or AHD desired.

Part 2 of Table U5 allows for higher level clerics to automatically destroy greater numbers of undead. This balances the slight loss of power in lower level clerics. At lower levels the clerics cannot turn some of the more powerful undead, but at higher levels they can destroy more undead. At the same time it doesn’t unbalance the game — a 20th level cleric can destroy 14-24 skeletons of 1 HD, which is cool. But what DM is going to throw 1 HD skeletons against a cleric that powerful??? [Well, *I* might, but there’d be 200 skeletons in the group, so the automatic destruction of 14-24 wouldn’t have all that much effect!]

Handling Special Creatures

One thing the new table doesn’t address is the handling of the “Special” entry of the original table. There are a couple of ways to handle that. One is to stick with the original rules, which indicate that a creature of the lower planes is immune if it fulfills any of the three following criteria:

AC -5 or better ** OR **
11 or more HD ** OR **
66% or greater magic resistance

But this won’t really work, as there is no longer a “Special” entry in the table. It makes more sense to handle creatures of the lower planes like any undead — use the monster’s hit dice as the basis and adjust that value based upon special abilities. This throws out the hit dice criteria for Special creatures, but it makes the case for considering armor class and magic resistance.

So the creatures of the lower planes should be treated like undead, and since they bring new special abilities to the table, the list of specials abilities to include in figuring the AHD is listed in Table U3.

The above rules make turning lower planar creatures difficult in general, and powerful ones near impossible, and singular creatures such as demon lords virtually impossible even for the highest level clerics. But this is good for game balance.

It has been noted in some articles that if lower planar creatures can be affected by clerics, so can upper planar creatures. So an evil cleric may have a chance to turn a deva, or command into service a devil. And a good cleric may have the chance to command into service any upper planar creature.

It should be noted that commanding any intelligent creature against its will is likely to create resentment, so when the commanding period ends the commanded creature may consider the cleric an enemy.

Situational Modifiers

The above rules may be modified for situation. A cleric in a place of power for his deity or alignment should have additional ability to turn undead. Due to the composition of the table I would not grant a bonus to the roll as is done for combat and saving throws. A 1st level cleric has no chance to turn shadow so adding 2 (or 10) to the roll doesn’t help. Instead grant additional levels of turning ability for the situation.

For instance, our first level cleric is attacked by a shadow in a shrine of a the cleric’s deity. That cleric has no chance to turn the shadow. But since he is defending a shrine to his deity I would grant him an additional number of levels of turning ability. Let’s assume the cleric is a faithful follower of his deity and does everything a proper cleric should — so I grant him 2 additional levels, so he in that specific situation he would be able to turn the shadow as a 3rd level cleric. Instead of having no chance he turns the shadow on 17. Not a great chance of turning, but certainly better than nothing.

If instead of a shrine the location was a major temple, the additional turning ability for a very devout cleric might be increased by 4 levels, depending if the deity is a major god and the importance of the temple to that deity. Or if the cleric was not in the good graces of his deity the granted value might be less, nothing at all, or even a negative.

In the same fashion, if that same cleric was fighting undead in a temple of an opposing deity, his ability to turn undead might be reduced by similar amounts. Or attempting to turn a lich in the lich’s lair may impose a significant penalty.

It’s all up to the DM’s interpretation …

This page last updated: 12 August 2011

Copyright 2007, 2011 Bryan Fazekas

1 Response

  1. January 6, 2022

    […] article Extendable Rules for Turning Undead was originally written in 2005 and updated in 2011. It provides a consistent set of tables for […]

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