From my (exceptionally amateur) understanding of D&D, turn undead basically allows you to turn the undead away by making them run or cower or otherwise lose their morale. Simplified, only good clerics and paladins can accomplish this.

What I don't understand is exactly how this is accomplished. The most concrete explanation I can find is from the D&D wiki, which states:

Good clerics and paladins and some neutral clerics can channel positive energy, which can halt, drive off (rout), or destroy undead.

This is a start, but it feels kind of generic: the cleric basically scares the zombie away by being really really positive.

My question is, is there any explicit explanation what actually goes through the clerics/undead when this exchange occurs, and are there any occurrences in media or text describing the process in detail?

  • 6
    Perhaps Role-playing Games would be a better fit for this question.
    – SQB
    Apr 10, 2016 at 11:22
  • Are you concerned about D&D fiction or just from the source books?
    – AncientSwordRage
    Apr 10, 2016 at 12:07
  • @SQB Why? The question has nothing to do with game mechanics. It's entirely about the fantasy aspect of D&D.
    – Misha R
    Apr 10, 2016 at 15:22
  • 2
    @MishaRosnach It's a question of audience. I'm not saying it's necessarily off topic here, it's just that I think it might get more and maybe better answers there, because I expect a bigger audience familiar with the stories behind D&D. But it's a genuine "perhaps"; not just politeness.
    – SQB
    Apr 10, 2016 at 15:51
  • @SQB Haha, who're you kidding. There are as many D&D fans here as there are there :)
    – Misha R
    Apr 10, 2016 at 15:53

2 Answers 2


Clerics and Paladins have the divine favor of their chosen gods. When rebuking or turning undead it is really the gods working through the clerics. This is why using a holy symbol of the faith is required.

The stronger the cleric (in narrative terms: more experienced and stronger faith; in RP terms: higher level and higher charisma) the more the gods are able to work through the cleric.

Also note that fallen Paladins lose favor of their god and can no longer turn undead until they atone for their disgrace.

  • Interesting... this sounds as complete an answer as I could expect. Although I still wouldn't mind a concrete example in movies or books of such an event occurring. Apr 10, 2016 at 22:25
  • It's pretty much straight from Dracula, I believe, if not earlier. Vampires are repulsed by holy symbols. D&D just extended it to all undead, and tightened up the mechanics. Apr 11, 2016 at 0:05
  • In the editions before third edition D&D, "turn undead" also worked on demons, devils and the like, meaning that you could do the exorcist thing.
    – user867
    Apr 11, 2016 at 4:28

They channel positive energy.

But this is NOT the same as being really positive.

Good clerics and paladins and some neutral clerics can channel positive energy, which can halt, drive off (rout), or destroy undead. Evil clerics and some neutral clerics can channel negative energy, which can halt, awe (rebuke), control (command), or bolster undead. Regardless of the effect, the general term for the activity is “turning.” When attempting to exercise their divine control over these creatures, characters make turning checks.

The positive energy is not, however, simply "good vibrations." It is the energy of living thing things and of creation.

The Positive Energy Plane is best compared to the heart of a star. It is a continual furnace of creation, a domain of brilliance beyond the ability of mortal eyes to comprehend. Its very being wavers and ripples as new matter and energy is born and swells to full power like a bursting fruit. It is a vibrant plane, so alive with itself that travelers themselves are empowered by visiting it.

This power is inimical to undead, who are powered by the energy of destruction (i.e. negative energy).

The Negative Energy Plane is a barren, empty place, a void without end, and a place of empty, endless night. Worse, it is a needy, greedy plane, sucking the life out of anything that is vulnerable. Heat, fire, and life itself are all drawn into the maw of this plane, which always hungers for more.

So undead are vulnerable to positive energy regardless of the source. Clerics simply can channel it in a specific manner.

*Note: This is all based on D&D version 3.5. Other versions have different justifications.

  • Note that while turning undead has been part of D&D since the beginning, the detail that turning undead functioned by means of channelling energy from the positive energy plane originated in the game's third edition. (Incidentally, the positive energy plane also existed in D&D cannon before third edition, but it went through a bunch of different names.)
    – user867
    Apr 11, 2016 at 4:27
  • True. I wasn't sure which version was being discussed. 3.5 seems to be kind of the the "default" for most such discussions that I have seen.
    – Adamant
    Apr 11, 2016 at 4:28
  • @Johnah That's... Kinda true, actually. I think it's because the third and 3.5rd editions were 'the current edition' for so much of the online-forum-argument age. (While official sales figures haven't been made public, there's persuasive evidence that 4th edition was a flop, and 5th edition is still too new to have generated that much online discussion.) Still, third edition didn't come out until 2001, and D&D had already been around for a solid quarter-century at that time. Hmm.
    – user867
    Apr 11, 2016 at 5:41

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