i really WANT to look at the medusa

The medusa is the figurehead monster for the Good Ship Argument About Save-or-Die Effects. Some people don’t want their character killed by a single failed saving throw, and others argue that if a medusa doesn’t turn onlookers into stone, it’s not a medusa.

The 5e playtest includes a medusa in its bestiary. In this version, gazing upon a medusa is a save-or-die effect, but an optional one; you can always choose to avert your eyes as you fight.

I found this quote in Greg Keyes’ The Charnel Prince: it’s about the gaze of another monster, a basilisk, but it’s worded in such a way that it’s practically game rules.

“They have two blind men with them,” he said. “They serve as its handlers. The rest walk behind. The cage is like an aenan lamp, closed on all sides but one. It makes a light, this thing, and once you have seen it, you can resist only through the greatest contest of will.”

A contest of will? Like a will save? That’s actually a kind of unique mechanic for a turn-you-to-stone monster, which usually attacks fortitude. Say on, Dungeon Master Greg Keyes: how does a basilisk’s gaze force a Will save?

And he saw a light suffusing the landing. It was beautiful, golden, the most perfect light he had ever seen. A promise of absolute peace filled him, and he knew that he could not live without seeing the source of that light.

This is a fun variation on the basilisk/medusa: you see something out of the corner of your eye that’s you know you shouldn’t look at, but you want to. It’s a good excuse to give people two saving throws: a will(/wisdom) save to let them tear away their gaze, followed by a fortitude(/petrification/constitution) save to resist petrification. Personally, I don’t like save-or-die effects, but I don’t actually mind save-or-save-or-die effects.

This effect not only makes the old-school save-or-die medusa less deadly, it could be used to make the 5e medusa more deadly. While you’re fighting that medusa with your eyes averted, you can’t help seeing little glimpses of something – a beautiful light, perhaps, or an angelic face. For some characters, maybe medusa cleavage is all it takes. Every round that you fight with your eyes averted, you need to make an easy will/wisdom save. If you fail, you gaze upon the medusa.

Greg Keyes’ quote also contains another cool idea: an army of blind men who carry a basilisk’s eye (or medusa’s head, or ark of the covenant) before them as a totem. A mercenary company of blind warriors with such a weapon would be quite powerful, although they wouldn’t work very well with allied troops.

Have I seen this idea somewhere else – maybe an Elric book or something? No matter, it’s worth stealing anyway.


14 Responses to “i really WANT to look at the medusa”

  1. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    All that happens is the Medusa says “Hey, I’m TOTALLY naked” and most gamers look.

  2. Is the rest of the book worth reading? Because this is the coolest explanation of petrification I have ever seen. Also, an army of blind zaotoichi style warriors with trained packs of hunting basilisks is a scenario that needs to be run immediately!

  3. paul says:

    Book 1 of the series, The Briar King, is 100% worth reading. Book 2, The Charnel Prince, suffers from a little of the diminishing returns that are common to second books of fantasy series, but still has a lot of cool ideas in it.

  4. -C says:

    I don’t think there is, or ever was a problem with save or die – I’ve written about it a bit.


  5. paul paul says:

    I agree that, in most cases, save or die is something you have to deal with only if you have made a bad decision (like looking at the medusa). It’s totally fine in this case.

    Unfortunately, there are some monsters in 1e designed by people who don’t understand the mechanic as well as you or I.

    Grabbing the Fiend Folio off the shelf, I find the dragonfish, a 2 HD monster (something potentially faced when the PCs’ saving throws are still quite bad). They are “difficult to spot (15% chance even if the searchers know what they are seeking)”, and, if you step on one, even if you’re wearing leather boots, it automatically hits and you make a poison save, at -1, or die.

    You say that a saving throw is “a roll called for when the player has already made a poor choice that results in certain death.” I agree that that’s how it SHOULD work. In fact, what bad decisions have the PCs made in this case? They might have gone wading in shallow water. They might have said “I search the bottom of the stream for any monsters or traps.” They might even have said, “I specifically search the bottom of the stream for dragonfish, which I read about in the Fiend Folio.” Even in that case, they have an 85% chance of missing the creature. Is fording a shallow stream, with appropriate precautions, a situation where the players have made a poor choice that should result in certain death?

    If there is a problem with Save or Die, it’s with the dragonfish, not the medusa. Badly-designed creatures are badly designed. And every edition of D&D has a few.

  6. paul paul says:

    Oops! I participated in a save-or-die argument! My score just changed on the D&D Purity Test!

  7. Rory Rory says:

    Ha, save-or-save-or-die. I guess that is a little better since it makes your death a little less likely but it still means that in a couple of crappy rolls you could be turned into stone. It is a cool thematic idea though!

    I could also see it working out where if you fail the first roll, you are overcome by a powerful desire to look upon the medusa’s form and you slowly turn your head, perhaps fighting your own desire but ultimately overcome by its spell. So your allies have a round to try to tackle you or slap some sense into you.

    I’m confused as to why looking at a medusa is always a poor decision; in some cases it seems like it wouldn’t be a decision at all! For example, what if I open a door to a dungeon and there is a medusa in the room? I’ve already seen the medusa; it’s too late. I have to make a save or I turn into stone. Or is the assumption that you probably have already heard the medusa is in the dungeon since it is such a powerful monster? Or should all adventures be carefully opening doors a crack and peering through mirrors?

    My typical experience with “save-or-die” effects is when dealing with ghouls (in D&D 3.5 and earlier). They don’t actually kill with their bite, but they quickly knock PCs out of the fight with paralysis. Essentially, they are A LOT harder than their CR tends to indicate and a fight can end pretty early on with a couple of early failed saves. Not my favorite monster to deal with as a player or a DM.

  8. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    As an OD&D ref, I consider “Ghouls to be pretty tough for a 2 HD critter” rather than think about “CR”.

    But that’s just me.

  9. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    “I’m confused as to why looking at a medusa is always a poor decision; in some cases it seems like it wouldn’t be a decision at all! For example, what if I open a door to a dungeon and there is a medusa in the room?”

    Good question. I can only answer it from my perspective, which is the perspective of somebody who was a miniatures wargamer before ever playing D&D.

    Charging a Tiger tank when you’re in a Sherman is a bad idea. Sometimes, however, you come around a bend in the road and a Tiger happens to be a kilometer away waiting for somebody to come down the road, and the Tiger blows you to hell.

    It’s not a bad decision, but sometimes $hit happens and you die.

  10. paul says:

    “Sometimes $hit happens and you die” matches my experience of playing D&D better than “players only die when they’ve made a bad decision”

  11. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Yeah. I guess I would say,

    “Players WILL die when they make a bad decision, plus sometimes $hit happens and you die.”

    In other words, not making a bad decision does not guarantee survival, but making a bad decision guarantees extinction.

  12. Philo Pharynx says:

    I would play the medusa like this – when you fail your will save you look it in the eye. You are immediately fascinated and will be completely petrified x rounds later (no further save). If one of your allies can break your gaze by tackling you, covering your head, etc. Then you will simply take damage depending on how long you stared. Naturally, most ways of blocking the gaze will cause the rescuer to have to risk the gaze as well.

    This ramps up the excitement over normal save-or-die as it draws out the tension over several rounds. You can also pair really difficult saves with longer set times.

    Likewise with the dragonfish, if somebody sucks out the poison quickly you might simply take some damage (hp or stat).

  13. paul paul says:

    I just noticed – this is blog of holding’s 500th post! Took about two and a half years.

  14. David says:

    Congrats on 500!!

    I agree with the idea that save or die should only be used when the PCs have done something stupid, not stepping on a bug they aren’t going to see 85% of the time.

    I do like the idea of a will save for trying to avert your eyes. It works kind of like how I imagine it went on top of the apartment building in ghostbusters when they tried not to think of anything, and Ray “couldn’t help it”

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