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Basilisks, Save or Die and More


Last week, in a rather bizarre twist of fate basilisks featured in both campaigns in which I regularly participate. In my Borderland of Adventure campaign, the PCs met a basilisk in the deepest levels of Xul-Jarak while in Red Hodge’s campaign we encountered a dracolisk.

The encounters got me thinking about save or die effects. While I like the concept of save or die effects – they make the game suitably dangerous – the theory of them does suck a little bit if you lose a beloved character that you’ve played for months to a sucky dice roll.

As you know basilisks have a rather irritating petrification gaze attack that means you can suddenly lose your character with one dice roll. Of course, it doesn’t mean your character is dead but it does mean you are suddenly not playing any more until you are restored to flesh. If this happens early on in the session, this can be jolly boring.

Interestingly enough, the basilisk in Sons of Gruumsh doesn’t have a petrifying gaze anymore. It is described as old and half-blind. Thus, its gaze creates a slow-type effect (of course, the players didn’t know this) and I described the affected characters’ flesh as slowly turning to stone – giving them a real impetus to quickly kill the basilisk before anyone fell victim to a second gaze attack (which I intimidated would finish the job and petrify the unfortunate target).

I didn’t think much more of this until Red Hodges petrified two characters on Monday night. While the battle was exciting in that the survivors had to work very hard to kill the basilisk I felt sorry for the chaps who just sat there and watched – after all in effect with one bad dice roll their participation in the combat – and as it turned out the whole session – ended.

It would be cool to design some kind of system that models the petrifying effect while enabling the affected characters some form of limited action. For example,I can think of two systems off the top of my head:

Slow Petrification

With the first failed save the character is slowed (as the spell). A second failed save (at –2) results in the character being slowed and paralysed and the third failed save (at –4) spells petrifaction.

Dexterity Damage

Treat the basilisk’s gaze as a kind of breath weapon. Everyone seeing it takes a certain amount of Dex damage every round (say 2d6). When your Dexterity reaches 0 you are petrified.

Both systems models the basilisk’s gaze attack, but gives the players more of a chance to dodge the effects. More importantly, they give the other characters time to do something to help. To me, they maintain the suspense and danger inherent in the gaze attack while lessening the immediate effects.

What do you think?

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I like the 4e solution where the PC is immobilized first (on a hit vs Fort, slowed on a miss), then restrained after failing their first saving throw, and petrified after failing a second. This simulates being slowly turned to stone as you mention above.



I like that solution also. The effect is still deadly, but gives more options to the player during the conditions onset.

One of great things about D&D is that you can customise anything and everything. I would have thought that one of the things a DM has to consider when setting out the encounter is the power of that gaze attack, and if the PC's are low level give them some chance to be forewarned for instance of the creature's proximity.

If a party then goes into a lair knowing that there is a basilisk inside without taking the necessary precautions they only have themselves to blame. If a DM doesn't give any warning and just springs it on relatively low level PC's that is a always going to be a hard encounter and a sign of possibly poor encounter design depending on the situation. For higher level groups reducing the gaze attack's effect in the ways suggested would probably make the monster too weak to be a challenge.

If I recall correctly Sons of Gruumsh is designed for quite low level PC's (Level4?) so it doesn't surprise me that the author thought of a way to reduce the power of the Basilisk's gaze.

So in summary I suppose what I am saying is that it is up to the DM to plan in advance how the creature's gaze attack is going to impact on the party and modify the creature as necessary, even making the gaze attack more potent if the situation and party level warrants it.

I think you make a good point regards balancing monsters vs. party power. (And another good point about a party's preperation for their delve.) I'm just wondering whether every encounter is foreseeable. As a GM, I make use of random encounter tables to spice things up a bit. Random encounters are very hard to plan for. Do you have any way of getting around this "problem" when it comes to monsters with save or die-type powers?

I think random encounters are where the DM really has to think on his feet. In save or die encounters as well as level draining monster encounters the DM has to think of a way to give PC's the chance to avoid the ill effects by some means, for instance with a basilisk the first encounter with the creature could actually be an encounter with its petrified prey such as a giant stone wyvern crashed to earth. The next time the basilisk encounter comes up could be where it is chasing down another creature and the party just sees it from a distance. Third time is the real encounter but by then they should be forewarned and at least have had some discussion between them of how they are going to cope with it.

This does require some work as the DM has to have thought through the 'random' encounters in advance but I find this is quite enjoyable and also adds to the flavour of the campaign as some of the encounters can be great opportunities for roleplaying and meeting creatures on the road, the party aren't just presented with a series of random combat situations. Once a bank of interesting random encounters has been built up it isn't too hard to keep it replenished. Some of the creatures met can by woven into the storyline from time to time or a roving druid for example who is encountered from time to time could warn about other predators about, such as basilisks!

Re: Random encounters

I think you are absolutely right. Sadly, these days, random encounters seem to be going a bit out of fashion - sacrficed at the altar of balance. ;-)

I love random encounters, they make things (well) random. more importantly, they keep the PCs on their toes!

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