Cleric Feature: Channel Divinity: 2nd level

As an action, you present your holy symbol and speak a prayer censuring the undead. Each undead that can see or hear you within 30 feet of you must make a Wisdom saving throw. If the creature fails its saving throw, it is turned for 1 minute or until it takes any damage.

A turned creature must spend its turns trying to move as far away from you as it can, and it can’t willingly move to a space within 30 feet of you. It also can’t take reactions. For its action, it can use only the Dash action or try to escape from an effect that prevents it from moving. If there’s nowhere to move, the creature can use the Dodge action.

The DC equals your Cleric spell save DC.

Beginning at 6th level, you can use your Channel Divinity twice between rests, and beginning at 18th level, you can use it three times between rests. When you finish a short or long rest, you regain your expended uses.

Cleric Feature: Destroy Undead: 5th level

Starting at 5th level, when an undead fails its saving throw against your Turn Undead feature, the creature is instantly destroyed if its challenge rating is at or below a certain threshold, as shown in the Destroy Undead table.

Level Undead CR
5th 1/2 or lower
8th 1 or lower
11th 2 or lower
14th 3 or lower
17th 4 or lower

Player’s Handbook, pg. 59

Turn Undead 5e

Turn Undead is the quintessential Cleric ability that allows these divine spellcasters to send undead baddies scurrying away. Or, at higher levels, to destroy lowly undead creatures outright.

This guide will cover how the feature works, its rules, and whether or not Turn Undead is overpowered (spoiler: it’s not).

How Does Turn Undead Work in 5e?

Turn Undead is the basic Channel Divinity ability that all Clerics gain access to at 2nd level. While each Cleric subclass gets a unique Channel Divinity ability on top of Turn Undead, it remains a powerful option in situations where you find yourself battling against necromancers and/or hordes of zombies, ghouls, ghasts, and the like.

Turn Undead takes an action to use (not cast — it’s not a spell), and forces all undead creatures within 30 feet of the Cleric to make a Wisdom saving throw — if they fail, they are forced to move as far away from the Cleric as possible. Turned undead creatures can only use the Dash action to try to escape, and can’t take reactions.

If an undead creature can’t move any farther from the Cleric (e.g., a wall blocks its way, or possibly dangerous terrain (more on that later in the rules section)), it can take the Dodge action instead.

This lasts for 1 minute or until the undead creature takes damage. Note taht this only affects undead that can see OR hear the Cleric.

Turn Undead can be used 1 time per rest (short or long) up until 5th-level, 2 times per rest from 6th- to 17th-level, and 3 times per rest from 18th-level onwards.

turn undead d&d 5e

What Are the Rules for Turn Undead in 5e?

The rules for Turn Undead in DnD 5e are as follows:

  • Turn Undead does not break concentration. The only things that break concentration are 1) being incapacitated, 2) casting another concentration spell, and 3) failing a concentration check (Constitution saving throw) upon taking damage (PHB 203). Turn Undead is none of these three things, so it does not break concentration.

  • Turn Undead does not prevent bonus actions. According to the Player’s Handbook, “anything that deprives you of your ability to take actions also prevents you from taking a bonus action” (PHB 189). Since Turn Undead does not prevent you from taking actions (undead creatures explicitly can take actions, namely Dash and Dodge), Turn Undead does not prevent bonus actions.

    Being forced to use your action on certain actions is not the same as being deprived of your action. However, a turned creature also “must spend its turn trying to move as far away” from the Cleric as possible, so those bonus actions can only be used for escape (e.g., teleport spells like Misty Step); bonus actions cannot be used offensively or otherwise.

  • Turn Undead does not end if the Cleric falls unconscious or dies. Since it’s not directly in the feature’s text, that’s not how it works, according to 5e’s lead rules designer, Jeremy Crawford.

  • Turned creatures cannot attack anyone. Again, they must use their action only to 1) flee or 2) dodge. No offensive abilities are allowed, against the Cleric, their allies, or anyone else.

  • Turned creatures may or may not run into hazardous terrain. There’s no ruling on this one, either from the Player’s Handbook or 5e’s rule designers. Many DMs (myself included) play this on a case-by-case basis, usually tied to a creature’s intelligence. A dumb undead, like a zombie, will likely run headfirst into hazardous terrain in their attempt to flee (if it’s the only way to get farther away from the Cleric), while a slightly smarter undead, like a banshee, will likely avoid it.

    However, it is actually to the benefit of the fleeing undead to run into hazardous terrain — after all, if it takes any damage, the effect of Turn Undead ends early. In my view, it’s important that the DM doesn’t metagame around this too much to gain an advantage, but rather plays the creature as it would behave (in whatever opinion they hold; my opinion is no more valid than your DM’s in this case).

    Even for dumb undead creatures, though, I don’t rule that they literally run off a cliff; that’s a base level of sentience that all creatures share.

    As for triggering opportunity attacks, I rule that all undead do move away from the Cleric. It’s not obviously/automatically harmful to do so; the player they’re triggering an opportunity attack has the choice to attack them or let them flee, after all.

  • Turn/Destroy Undead can turn some enemies while destroying others. For example, if a level 5 Cleric uses Turn Undead against a CR 1/4 zombie and a CR 4 banshee, and both creatures fail their saving throw, the zombie is destroyed, while the banshee is turned.

Turn Undead 5e DM Tips

Some DMs find that Turn Undead/Destroy Undead trivializes encounters with undead creatures. In my opinion, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For example, I’m currently playing a Nature Cleric, and I was able to make a fight with a necromancer mini-boss much easier by using Destroy Undead to kill 70%+ of the zombie army she had summoned before the battle.

I felt like a badass, and my DM wasn’t all that upset; the necromancer still had some of her army left and plenty of powerful spells in her arsenal, after all. Not to mention that necromancers/undead baddies aren’t all that common in the campaign he’s running.

But if you’re a DM running an undead-heavy campaign/adventure, you might have a legitimate reason to worry about the spammability of this feature. If that’s you, here are some tips for making challenging fights with undead hordes against a Cleric with Turn/Destroy Undead:

  1. Spread undead creatures around. If undead are spread around in a radius that’s greater than 30 feet around the Cleric, the Cleric won’t be able to affect all of them at once.

  2. Send undead in waves. Similar to the above tip: maybe a necromancer continuously spawns undead each round, making it impossible for the Cleric to turn them all at once.

  3. Include higher-level of undead creatures in the horde. Sure, the Cleric might be able to instantly destroy the zombies. But their ghoul commander? They’ll only be turned, worst-case scenario.

  4. Use ranged undead. Skeleton archers or undead spellcasters don’t need to be within 30 feet of the Cleric, meaning they’ll be safe from Turn Undead.

  5. Overwhelm them with sheer numbers. Turn Undead only works on failed Wisdom saving throw. Granted, most undead have poor Wisdom saves, but if you throw a bunch at the Cleric at once, it’s unlikely they’ll all fail their saving throw.

Overall, Turn Undead isn’t really overpowered, what with spells like Fear (basically the same thing, except more powerful and it works on all creature types) and Hypnotic Pattern (an even better control spell) in the game.

Other than that, there’s the common question of whether turned undead will flee into hazardous terrain and/or trigger opportunity attacks in their fleeing. That’s ultimately up to you as the DM.

My two cents, as I alluded to in the rules section above, is that stupid undead run into hazardous terrain (thus breaking Turn Undead, incidentally), while relatively smart ones (like ghouls, 7 Intelligence, or higher) avoid it.

And for opportunity attacks, I rule that all turned undead don’t consider them; they simply flee, and it’s up to the players whether they attack them (risking an early end to Turn Undead if their attack lands) or allow them to flee.

At the end of the day, it’s up to you to rule on these things, since 1) the rules aren’t explicit here and 2) you’re the DM, and all decisions ultimately fall on you. 🙂

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