The DM and the Medusa

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 02 June 2012

Statue of Perseus, Piazza della Signoria, Florence: From WikipediaStatue of Perseus, Piazza della Signoria, Florence: From WikipediaEarlier this week, much discussion erupted over the D&D Playtest version of the Medusa. Much of it was either two "sides" arguing for or agains the inclusion of what is being called a "save or die" type effect. For some, a D&D game without some such mechanics just isn't D&D to them. For others, the inclusion of such a mechanic, particularly without any advice on how to handle it as a DM reminds them of previous bad experiences, often at the hands of either a "killer" or inexperienced DM. I've wanted to write this post for a few days now but wanted to distance myself from the original discussion a bit in hopes I could do it better justice that way.

So, how does the medusa work in D&D Next? Well, first, a medusa can turn the gaze attack on or off at will. So, unless one has it turned it, it is possible for a character to look at one and not turn to stone. So, one of the most common complaints, that a PC might be wandering around a dungeon, turn a corner, and wham, turn to stone, isn't technically true or at least depends on DM discretion. My reading of the Caves of Chaos adventure included with the play test documents, suggest that the medusa has the gaze attack turned off when the PCs first meet her.

Second, unless surprised, any character who tries to attack a medusa can decide to avert his or her eyes. If the PCs avert their eyes, they do not need to make a saving throw but they gain a disadvantage on their attacks and enemies gain advantage against them. If they decide to not avert, they have to make a saving throw against petrification. A failed saving throw means they become petrified and that character is effectively out of the game until the condition is reversed.

Let's compare that to a 3/3.5 era gaze attack as written here: In this version, PCs have 2 options: avert their gaze and have to make a percentile check (50%) each round to see whether or not they have to make a saving throw against petrification or they can blindfold themselves, granting every creature total concealment and gaining huge penalties to trying to hit. I believe earlier editions had similar mechanics for gaze as well and the medusa had a snake poison attack that was a save versus poison or die.

In 4e, the petrifying gaze of the medusa is handled in two different ways.

Medusa Spirit Charmer, Medusa Venom Arrow

Stony Glare At-Will
Trigger: An enemy ends its turn within 2 squares of the medusa.
Attack (Immediate Reaction): Close burst 2 (the triggering enemy in the blast); +x vs. Fortitude
Hit: The target is petrified (save ends).
Third Failed Saving Throw: The target is petrified until one of the following conditions is satisfied.
: The use of an appropriate power, such as divine cleansing.
: The willing kiss of the medusa that petrified the creature (a medusa might do this to gain information or to luxuriate in the victim’s fear before returning it to stone).
: The medusa responsible for the petrification is killed and its blood is applied to the stony lips of the victim before a full day passes.

Medusa Shroud of Zehir (Female), Medusa Archer (Female)

Petrifying Gaze (standard, at-will) Gaze, Petrification
Close blast 5; blind creatures are immune; +x vs Fortitude; the target is slowed (save ends). First Failed Save: The target is immobilized instead of slowed (save ends). Second Failed Save: The target is petrified (no save).

In Stony Glare, we have a case similar to a save or die mechanic, combined with 4e's death saves idea and ways to reverse the death. In Petrifying Gaze, we increase the time it takes to petrify, allowing multiple save attempts along the way. It also gives the PC the ability to make the tradeoff between being blinded or risking the effects of the hit.

The D&D Next version puts a lot more in the hands of the players and isn't even a true save or die effect. First, petrification isn't death, it can be reversed. Second, as written, the only time the PC definitely faces that situation is when the character decides to attack without averting eyes. That is within the player's control, not the DM's. It's true that the surprise round complicates things, as the DM could decide the medusa has the gaze on, but I know of groups that enjoy that bit of DM discretion, such as Lair Assault or some of the deadly delve challenges I've heard about in the past.

So what do I think the solution is? As always, player and DM education about how to bring about the play experience the table wants. It means communication. Do you want a game that challenges your player knowledge/skill as much as it challenges the characters? How often do you want surprise to come up in game? What should the thresholds be for it?

For DMs, I'd suggest minimizing the chances of a surprise gaze attack. Consider how common it really it is for a medusa to be walking down the halls of a dungeon with her gaze on and leaving now signs of her presence. Leave hints in many places that one might exist, everything from weird stone statues where the subjects are all caught in awkward positions and with horrified visages to tavern rumors about a medusa's existence. If you're well versed in Greco-Roman legends, remember that not everyone might be, especially newer players who might not be used to asking lots of questions or who might feel intimidated by the rest of the group. Finally, if you decide to use one and your players just weren't expecting or up to the task of dealing with a medusa, figure a story way out or even talk to your group afterward and chat with them about how they want to handle the situation. Also, anytime you use an effect that might remove a character from the game for a bit, think about options for the player who is now without anything to do. Could he or she control some of the monsters or maybe the hirelings or henchmen?

For players, think about why you play the game. If you are really invested in your character, make sure your DM understands that so he or she can keep that in mind when choosing or designing adventures and picking the monsters. If you are interested in reacting to an ongoing story full of twists and turns, try to let go of control a bit and think of something like petrification as a challenge to create an interesting new story instead of as an end of the current one (or as a personal failure). If you're upset, consider stepping away from the table for a moment.

The issue isn't save or die mechanics or ones that seem like them. It's about communication, understanding what each other is looking for, and setting reasonable and fair boundaries.


The thing is that low level adventurers cannot afford to 'un-stone' someone. THis means that in 3.x or in the current playtest petrification is pretty much death. It may be long term reversible but that character is gone for awhile.

They are also a key component in 'tough' monsters such as the banshee or bodak. While this new version of the medusa may have a way to avert will the banshee death wail or the bodak scream? How about the cokatrace and the touch of one?

The thing about 4E is that you are never a single bad roll away from screwed. The return of save or die means that you are once again at the mercy of the dice.

Some people may like that. I find it serves me better in video games.

Additionally Save-or-Die is a key component of LFQW - once you have a mechanic such as save or die then spells will be written to use the mechanic and we are once again back to combats that boil down to "Who won initiative? Who has the best counters and contingencies if you don't?" where battles are won well before they even occur by selecting the right spells/powers.

The thing is that low level adventurers cannot afford to 'un-stone' someone. THis means that in 3.x or in the current playtest petrification is pretty much death. It may be long term reversible but that character is gone for awhile.

Sure they can. Any DM who adds a medusa could put in a way to reverse it that is available to the current characters unless the players say up front that they want to be challenged in that way. Again, this "concern" has nothing to do with the mechanic and everything to do with being unwilling to communicate what everyone wants from the game.

i'm probably just not seeing it, but where does it say that the medusa can turn her gaze attack on and off?

i also don't think that there is anything in here that says you can reverse the effects of being "instantly and permanently turned to stone"

I didn't read the Petrifying Gaze as an on or off power, it's simply a part if the Medusa's nature.

See how Perseus is STILL averting his gaze even after the thing is beheaded?? This is a nasty creature, no coddling allowed!! :)

For what it's worth, the Medusa in the adventure has 6 doses of Stone-Away™ on her person, suitable for unstoning unlucky adventurers (not guaranteed to help you pass a drug test).

As usual, the problem is the lack of clarity of how D&D is supposed to work. Is it a game of skill, or an interactive story? Save-or-Stone works well in one, but not in the other. If it's somehow both (either alternately or simultaneously) there certainly needs to be instructions on how Save-or-Die fits in that activity.

It's a play test, not the final version. You need to read both the adventure and the bestiary to get the whole version of the medusa. She can turn off the gaze. She doesn't start with it on, she only turns it on if they refuse to help her. If she had it on all the time, we couldn't have the rescue/negotiation scene.

I have to agree that the Gaze is pretty clearly a light-switch feature. From the standpoint of the playtest I like the way the Medusa is handled... And honestly I don't mind save or die, save or suck, or save to stone.

It seems that so many of us, from one extreme to the other, want their personal play. The game is moving towards an as-close-to-approximation of multiple standards, and I don't mind this chimeric monstrosity at all so far.

Awesome articles, Miss Darkmagic; however, when will we be seeing the wonders of the Prismatic Art Project coming online?



I did read the adventure, every word of it. The Medusa is "huddled" against the wall. I interpreted this as her head being bent down and obscured with her hands/arms. If PCs refuse to free her, she simply reveals her face, and the ALWAYS ON petrifying gaze.

However you decide to narrate how she turns it on/off, she still has control over it.

Actually there are plenty of other sources that support the idea that the medusa gaze isn't a light switch. In several modules she's represented as wearing a veil to prevent the effect. If it could b turned off this wouldn't be necessary. Of course, the beauty of d&d is that a DM can adjudicate this based on their own sensibilities.

What other modules? There is only one for the D&D Next playtest. In that one, she decides when to use her gaze power against the PCs.

Again, however you decide to narrate it not being "on," she has the ability to have it not affect the other characters.

I think the poster is bringing up the fact that there are other adventure modules from previous editions of D&D that handle the Medusa's gaze in different ways. Which in my opinion is a valid point. I feel that you shouldn't write off previous Medusa lore, whether from real mythology or from previous game editions, simply because this is a new edition.

And if we are to bring up previous editions, we'd have to point out that gaze attacks have been something that can be turned off at will since at least 3.0.

"Unless specified otherwise, a creature with a gaze attack can control its gaze attack and “turn it off ” when so desired. Allies of a creature with a gaze attack might be affected. All the creature’s allies are considered to be averting their eyes from the creature with the gaze attack, and have a 50% chance to not need to make a saving throw against the gaze attack each round."

The existence of a module at some point in D&D history where the medusa didn't turn off her attack (well she did but used a veil) doesn't mean the one in the playtest cannot turn it off. If you want your medusa to not be able to turn off the gaze attack, awesome! But that's still a choice you made.

I appreciate your commentary and trying to look at the issue objectively from a distance. But, your analysis actually convinced me more than ever that moving toward DM fiat and player education is the wrong way to go. In the case of the 4e power, you have a balanced power that can be interpreted the same by anyone. It's objective and fair (and succinct). The save or die version requires more judgement on the part of everyone and will likely result in debate and someone feeling cheated (either the DM or the players).

People feel cheated by the 4e style too. First, unless the DM rules otherwise, the players have no control over whether or not they face petrification. Second, it only supports one style of play.

I mean, SPOILER she even has effing "oil of stone to flesh" or whatever in her pockets!

I like the Save-or-Die mechanics for one reason; it makes the game dangerous. Part of the reason I stopped playing 4e was because no matter what we went up against, it always felt like the odds were on our side. High hit point totals, multiple death checks, the "Wolverine" healing rules, all contributed to the feeling that my PC was indestructible. When nothing is challenging, nothing is meaningful.

Now I'm not saying that your DM should just stick a Medusa around the corner and spring it on your PCs with no warning whatsoever. "Everyone make a Con Saving throw! Hahaha... you're all stone! I win!" That is a pretty lame thing to do. But neither should the Medusa be able to "turn off" her power. Watch the original "Clash of the Titans" (not the horrible remake with Sam 'I am a block of wood' Worthington). The scene where Perseus hunts down the Medusa is tense, specifically because he knows exactly what she's capable of. If he had no idea she could turn people to stone he'd be like "Yeah, whatever." and just walk right into her lair. But no. He's told what she can do. He knows how dangerous she is. He prepares for his encounter with her and is ultimately victorious. But not after a hard fight. It's because of that hard fight that he gets a sense of accomplishment.

Nerfing Save-or-Die effects cheapens the PCs accomplishments and encourages them to do more than just charge headlong into battle. And frankly, I think D&D could do with a bit more emphasis on creative problem solving and less on badass Feats and dice chucking.

I could not agree with you more Hyve-Mynd. Save or Die needs to be in the game to keep PC's from being too overconfident. There needs to be a game measurement besides hit points. If PC's can deicde that they have enough hit points and healing to survive anything then frontal assaults become the norm and the game gets stale qucikly for everyone involved.

Great article, Miss Darkmagic!
I thing you really hit the nail on communication and DM role here.
Even Gygax, when he wrote the module, seemed to know there are alot of playstyles out there, and gave both a roleplaying opportunity to resolve the situation, clues to the creature being a Medusa (stone statues scattered around, IIRC) as a hint for smart players to exploit, and the Elixir of stone to flesh- for players to use if one survives the encounter.
All in all, the mechanics of the Medusa in Next are fairly simple and effective, not too lethal *, based on choices made by the players, and give a good space for personal DMing/ Group styles to kick in. The adding of the Elixir takes the sting out of the encounter, which is nor exclusively a bad thing (I know I wouldn't run the encounter without a reverse item of some sort, but maybe if I put more emphasis on warning the players beforehand, I'd lose the Elixir).
The advantages of the mechanic are greater than it's disadvantages, IMO, and it gives just the right feel to the D&D experience I seek.
I too feel that advice is needed for groups about those issues- Official advice in the Monster Manual, with reference to a more profound advice in the DMG.

*(In most groups, even a surprise encounter and a failed save will only "Stone" one PC, giving a great feel of deadliness without being that deadly overall, especially if the DM lets the PC quest for a spell or whatever to revive the character)

Good Gaming!

I just reread the playtest materials to be confirm, but I can't find anything that would suggest the medusa has a light switch gaze.

The only thing the playtest rules refer to are the players' actions (whether they avert their gaze or not, which isn't an option in a surprise situation). I also think that your dismissal of surprise is a bit casual; I don't think too many people are worried about bumping into a medusa as if she were a random monster. Rather, I think they're referring to the scenario as presented in the playtest adventure itself, which is very much a "gotcha" moment! I don't want to spoil it, but unless the players are quite paranoid (and if they aren't before this encounter, they will be afterward) she should be able to lure them to her without much effort. At that point the save or die kicks in with roughly 50% odds.

I fully admit that I dislike SoD mechanics (and yes, lacking that gimmick of a stone to flesh potion, that's what petrification is). I find them to be anti-climactic (wizard tosses a death spell against the Big Bad in the opening round and what would have been an epic battle becomes a joke because BBEG rolled a 1). Additionally, I find that it creates paranoid players who are reluctant to interact with the world around them because everything really is out to get them. That isn't fun for me (or, IMO, for them).

I don't want monsters that are going to force me to go easy on the players just because I don't feel like slaughtering them that particular night. How does it make sense, that if I want to use an iconic creature that happens to be written up with a death attack, that I also need to include scrolls of resurrection in its trove? I'd much rather the creature be written up so that I can go all out, and leave the survival of the characters in the hands of their players. The only agency the players have against the DDN medusa is to be either lucky (roll well) or psychic (sense the trap and leave her alone). Against the 4e medusa, players can make Heal checks and use powers to give an unlucky petrified character extra rolls before it becomes permanent. At that point, it becomes a decision to be weighed (attack, or try to help Stoney). A choice.

While it's certainly good to communicate and understand your group's preferences, I really don't think this is a communication issue. If a DM has a cool idea for a story involving a medusa but he talks to his players and finds out they hate SoD, where does that leave him?

A better option, IMO, would be to put in a mitigating mechanic such as what 4e has. I'd prefer an hp threshold, myself. Then, in a sidebar;
Hardcore Option: The petrification is permanent if you fail a single saving throw / Ignore the medusa's hp threshold limit.
A little bit of text allows us both to play in the style that we want. Sure, we still need to know our group's preference to use the appropriate medusa, but the rules make it possible.

There's also nothing to say that it's not light switch. Plus, it seems at least implied the PCs are meant to interact with her before they have to make a decision about whether or not to avert their eyes. That means, she has some control over whether or not she uses her power against them.

While I do agree that they are meant to interact with her, I don't believe that implies that she can control her gaze.

In the bestiary, it says that medusas conceal themselves with deep hoods or veils when traveling. As to the medusa in the adventure, the text says that they can make out her form, but no more. In both cases, my reading is that the only control a medusa can exert over her gaze is to avoid being seen (by obscuring her face).

Someone experienced with the original Keep On The Borderlands told me that the way that encounter is meant to be run is to have her pretend to be helpless and lure the characters to her. Then she unleashes her gaze upon them (surprise! - odds are that half the party is suddenly petrified) and, assuming she petrifies someone, tells them she can unstone the PCs' allies if they free her. Of course, if they do as she asks, she turns on them and tries to finish the job.

As a story, it certainly has a certain old-school charm, but it isn't my cup of tea. I like to encourage my players to create well-developed backgrounds, which they're disinclined to do if I'm killing off their characters seemingly at whim.

As a DM, I like more options at my disposal than simply not using those creatures with SoD abilities, leaving the SoD abilities "turned off", or deciding whether a character lives or dies based on a single roll. It's easy to add an option in that ignores bonus saves or immunity thresholds, but less so for adding in extra saves or thresholds.

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