Thursday, May 11, 2017

Monster Archaeology - Cockatrice, Basilisks, Medusae and Gorgons


No 1 - Catoblepas? Gnu?
It's shocking how many monsters in the 1970’s editions of Dungeons and Dragons turn their foes to stone, but maybe it shouldn't be as there's an entire saving throw dedicated to petrification and then the spell stone to flesh.  It does seem odd though, of all the awful things mythical beasts might do to brave adventurers, Gygax and Arneson have fixated on the ability to petrify people as an iconic and very dangerous power.  The authors of the Little Brown Books found ‘stoning’ or petrification such an exciting power that they added it to many mythical creatures which legend ascribes different (though similar powers).  Perhaps this is an artifact of the ‘economy of monster strength’ found in Monsters & Treasure, in the same way that humanoids creep up in HD and danger so that a similar enemy can challenge higher level characters there are increasingly sturdy varieties of strange, mostly beastial enemies that turn their targets to stone.

Now there’s something really interesting about mechanics that directly attack Saving Throws, and while the penalty of instant death for a failed save (or petrification) might seem harsh in a less granular system, combat in early is already quite lethal, and Save or Die Saving Throw attacks while deadly in a special way don’t really make combat much more dangerous, and unlike Ogre or Giants with their ability to lay down incredible damage, petrifying monsters have weakness written into their extraordinary abilities.

As a practical matter while running a game it’s hard to view these creatures as anything other than either a trick of nuisance.  It’s always been a bit confusing to me if mirrors are supposed to be a hard counter against gaze attacks.

No 2 - Catoblepas? Gnu?
COCKATRICE: The Cockatrice is a less powerful but more mobile Basilisk.  It turns opponents to stone by touch. The Cockatrice is able to fly.  They are not intelligent.

That’s not much description for one of the weirder creatures found in medieval bestiaries.  From my memory a cocaktrice occurs when a rooster that new crowns at the sun lays a snake egg that’s possessed by a demon… Ok that was fairly close to folkloric description, though I guess a toad or snake incubates the egg and the thing is basically a two legged chicken headed dragon.  Another interesting aspect of the fables around the Cockatrice are that it may be a confused descriptions of the Nile Crocodile. Also it doesn’t turn people to stone it just kills people by looking at them, touching them or breathing on them.

What I find interesting about the historical Cocktrice is that it implies acopolypse - it’s a creature that causes instant death which appears birthed by strange portents and unnatural acts. This has gaming potential - a sickly green comet burns in the sky and cockatrices start hatching.  If the original implied setting of Dungeons & Dragons is post-apocalyptic (The cultural and religious strictures of the Medieval world are not to be found in any D&D rulebook) the Cockatrice is a monster that should appear often.

Mechanically a Cockatrice is far more dangerous than it perhaps warrants - a five HD monster that has a deadly touch and can fly.  With its hit dice the Cockatrice will hit often, even against well armored characters making it very dangerous. This might be somewhat limited by the Cockatrice’s animal intelligence, and I can see a fun game resulting from a 0-level funnel about a Cockatrice hatching in some poor farmer’s field.

No 3 - Catoblepas? Gnu?

BASILISK: Although this creature cannot fly, it has the power of turning to stone all those whom it touches and who meet its glance, but it in turn can be petrified by the reflections of its own eyes if the light is sufficient, and it looks at a good reflector.  The Basilisk is not intelligent.

A ground dwelling Cockatrice that turns to stone by touch or gaze, with a better AC and more hit dice (6+1 HD meaning a much stronger attack, a 12 or better to hit plate and shield).  A Basilisk is also a classic monster from late antiquity, Pliny the Elder describing it as a small snake that left a trail of venom behind it.  Similar to the Cockatrice, it hatches from a snake’s egg, incubated by a rooster.  Other myths include the Basilisk’s weakness to weasels and the fact that it has a crown (or a cock’s comb), many pairs of legs and blood that transforms copper to gold.  Some of the later accounts of the Basilisk ascribe its deadliness to a lethal miasma surrounding the creature.  All accounts emphasize the Basilisk’s depravity and cruelty, it’s penchant for needless destruction.

No 4 - Catoblepas? Gnu?
Maybe there’s something of the alchemical about the Basilisk, but largely it’s a synonym for Cockatrice, though Monsters & Treasures distinction between ground dwelling lizard-chickens and flying chicken-lizards is mechanically useful, and moreso if there’s some distinction between  touch and gaze attacks, though none seems noted in the OD&D books - except for the potential weakness of the Basilisk and Medusae to its own reflection.  It’s a bit unclear how even this weakness works, though there’s a sort of ‘hard counter’ element to the equipment list provided in Men & Magic offering the idea that a mirror provides protection from Basilisks and Medusas.  This feels deeply boring to me, too gamified and simplistic, though obviously setting basilisk traps with mirrors and fighting them blindfolded might be interesting.  Given that both Basilisks and Cockatrice are of animal intelligence it seems like hunting them and using traps against the creatures would make for an ideal sort of scenario.

Gaze attacks should be short range to prevent them from being overpowered, and obviously they can be avoided by blindfolding or attacking in darkness (with the popular -4 penalties), otherwise I’d suggest that any PC making a melee attack (including with reach weapons like spears) on a Medusa or Basilisk needs to make a save vs. paralyzation each round or be turned to stone. To reflect the gaze I’d allow a reasonable chance with a mirror (say a successful attack roll from surprise, because the creature won’t look at mirrors in combat, or a ‘pick pockets’ check in any circumstance, under the assumption that pick pockets is a catch all skill for sleight of hand).

MEDUSAE: A human-type monster with the lower body of a snake, a human torso and head, with tresses which are asps.  It is able to turn those who look at its eyes to stone, while the bite of the snakes which cover its head is deadly (poison).  As it is intelligent it will cleverly attempt to beguile victims into looking at it. It also is subject to the effects of its reflected gaze.

Medusae is a legitimate, but seemingly somewhat antiquated, plural of Medusa, which given that the original mythological creature was an individual is largely used to to describe a type of jellyfish. Of course here it’s a version of the mythological creature, seemingly borrowed from the movie “Clash of the Titans” (Medusa is traditionally depicted as simply being a woman with snakes for hair), with a snake tail instead of legs.  Medusas attack in melee with poison which is easier to save against than their gaze attack, and are weaker than Basilisks, with 4HD and a terrible armor class.  They are however intelligent, and presumably know not to look into mirrors, how to catch their enemies by surprise and generally how to take advantage of their special powers and weaknesses.
GORGONS: These bull-like monsters have scales of iron covering their hides and a breath weapon which is capable of turning to stone those who are within its 6' range.

No 5 - Catoblepas? Gnu?
So the Grogon in D&D is not one of Medusa’s sisters, but instead something like a giant metal bull with a breath that turns its enemies to stone.  This description does have its basis in a mythical creature, a pair of them - the Khalkotauroi and the Catoblepas.  The Khalkotauri were a pair of fire breathing bronze bulls that the hero Jason tamed as part of his effort to win the golden fleece, while the Catoblepas was a garbled description of the wildebeest or gnu from ancient Roman travellers - a scale armored bovine thing that hung its head because of the weight of its horns and breathed poison gas as a result of a poisonous diet.

Both of these creatures are pretty evocative, and it’s nice to see them included in Monsters & Treasure, even in a garbled form. Out of that strange synthesis of classical monsters there’s something entirely new in the D&D Gorgon, and I think that the one sentence description in Monsters & Treasure is far more evocative than most descriptions provided therein.  The Gorgon is also the most dangerous of the petrifying monsters, having 8 hit dice and the best armor class available.  It’s petrifying breath is also exceptionally dangerous, making anyone in melee save vs. paralysis each round. Gorgons should be scary.

Magical Sports in Fallen Empire

No 6 - Catoblepas? Gnu?
Catoblepas, Basilisks and Cockatrices are a fairly common danger to travellers and farmers throughout the lands of the former Empire.  Catoblepas haunt the Black Marshes and the Mire Lands to the West and North where the bog tribes hunt them at night with poison spears to make vision drinks from the beast’s poison bile and sell hard wearing green Catoblepas leather to the Resurgent Marcher Lords, crouched in their barrow mound top forts and paying in their ancestor’s tomb god.

Cockatrices are said to be the offspring of a mad fallen god, rotting in the distant jungles of midnight on the Ibian shore, but everything bright and strange is said to come through the distant crumbling hardship post turned city-state of Ib, and anything magical is evidence of a dead god’s meddling to the gullible - Cockatrices are everywhere now, though thankfully rare, and it’s not unheard of for them to hatch from common eggs on farms too close to a magical sink.  That Cockatrice are the result of common magical pollution, rather than the meddling of undead elder gods, is hinted at by the fact that despite a certain similarity in their body form and reptilian/amphibian/avian hybrid nature the specific birds and reptiles or amphibians involved seem to vary by the location of the Cockatrices spawning.  A Cockatrice in the farmland of Greenhive will be a chicken sized, chicken headed thing with the body of a brown mud toad, while those imported through Ib (originally for their magnificent lavender plumage and ability to turn victims into lovely purple crystal) are some of parrot faced, purple feathered winged serpent.

Basilisks are also widely distributed, and their habits suggest they were originally an alchemical creation designed for mining. Basilisks devour rock, and defecate whatever metals they find within - entirely useful if handled properly.  That their gaze turns living flesh to stone, their breath kills plant life and the valuable metals they produce are often tainted with the slow death of magical radiation was likely once a minor inconvenience for the adepts of the old Empire.  Hatchlings could be blinded or entrusted to blind cave thralls, and poisoned metals purified by a quick bath of Alkahest.  Of course now these techniques are lost, and the Basilisk roams free, a feral engine, its magically manipulated genome mutating at an alarming rate. While the common gray basilisk is everywhere, a dumb but terrible, 3’ - 8’ in length and hunted for its jewel dappled hide, there are far more terrible Basilisk forms.  Blind Cave Thralls in the ancient mines still breed them, though now for war and sport rather than purely as mining tools  Other subspecies are loose on the world, huge, terrible, many headed and coiled in caverns filled with their gold, silver and poison spoor.

All these petrifying beasts are hunted, and valuable for their arcane glands, eyes and organs as well as for sturdy aesthetically pleasing and magically absorbent hide or plumage.  This doesn’t make hunting any of them safe, even if Cockatrice and Basilisk vary widely in size.  While it's not uncommon to find a 4’ Basilisk, with a battery of 12 turreted eyes and lines of topaz along its grey flanks sunning itself on the Imperial Highway, most travellers will detour, while the brave will shout and throw stones after blindfolding themselves in hope that the dumb lizard flees on its six to thirty legs.  Only the most daring will dash up largely oblivious and bash or stab the creature through the skull, knowing that if it does gaze at them, the petrifying effect of such a small creature will take hours or days to kill, if it kills at all, rather than leaving a limb or two of dead stone, and that the heart’s blood of a freshly killed basilisk is a cure to its petrification (though this presents a problem if more than one hunter is effected).  This currative effect is limited to the Basilisk, Cockatrices, and Catoblepas simply kill unless powerful sorceries are used to cure the effects of their poisons.

No 7 - Catoblepas? Gnu?
Another notable aspect of the various petrifying beasts of the Fallen Empire (which share almost no habits besides their singular ability to transform the living to the inert - something that wits suggest is also shared by any object heavy enough to bash in a man’s brain) is that the materials that result from transformation by a Basilisk, Cockatrice or Catoblepas vary widely.  While a Basilisk will always transform its prey to stone and this transformation tends to be the same for all individuals of a species (the common grey makes granite statues, while the rare had sized “white death” turns its victims almost instantly to marble) there is no consistency.  Most Cockatrices also turn their prey to stone, but others simply kill or cause more elaborate transmutations - metals, wood, dust, or ash.

Demons and Engines

Gorgons and Medusa are unknown to the Fallen Empire, but horrors called from outside the terrestrial universe or the deadly assassination automata/thralls of the Imperial Grey Cells sometimes have the power to turn those they see or touch into inanimate material.  Iron scaled demon beasts rampaging across the burning provinces or plotting hidden in the cellars and underways of the Capital are not unheard of, but they are always unique creatures, just as those few altered thrall assassins that remain to the service of the Imperial See must still exist based on the rare elaborate murder by transformation into pillars of salt, feces or gold ore that bedevil the God Emperor’s most exuberant and overreaching foes.

Mechanically all of the petrifying monsters are varied - the animal one come in a range of sizes and toughness, and weaker ones allow multiple saves vs. stoning.  These nuisances are common enough, and while dangerous, they are simply animals, rarely aggressive and easily tricked.  I have no issue with placing a 3-5 HD Basilisk on a random encounter table for level 1 PCs, given that it’s just a dangerous lizard, distracted by food, scared by noise and unlikely to attack a group if left alone.  Medusa and Gorgons though are different - intelligent and very rare - deadly arch-fiends.


  1. Other than Medusa (and her gorgon sisters) I've never read anything in folklore (or pre-D&D fantasy) to suggest petrifaction as an ability of these mythic creatures. I've always assumed that someone wanted to add Medusa to the game, then decided to deal with her power using a dedicated save, then adapted other monsters to fill out the save niche.

    Which is weird because it's one of the more vicious attacks in the game: DEATH can be cured by a 7th level cleric, but STONING requires a 12th level wizard with the right spell (in OD&D anyway).

    Interesting that the mythic gorgons were winged and immune to mortal weapons. If they had not been confined to an island (presumably based on their limited flying range) they could have easily devastated huge swaths of territory.

    1. Mmm...that should say "by ANY 7th level cleric."

    2. Yeah Basilisks, Cockatrices, Catoblepas,and later 'Gorgons' all simply kill with stink breath of their touch. It's totally clear that there was this cool mechanic (stoning) and Gygax wanted to use it more. Still I don't mind - I think an implied world with all sorts of creature (and mostly it's dumb beasts) wandering about turning people to stone feels about right.

      As to the origin - there's always this Pokemon like taxonomical impulse in "Monsters & Treasure" where monsters come in broad classes (humanoids being the most obvious) with increasing badassitude but the same basic abilities. It feels a bit like one of those old JRPG games (though I think D&D bestiary if the ancestor here) where the sprite gets a recolor and the monsters you fought in the first level are back in the 5th with 'dire' in front of the name.

    3. Yeah, the JRPG is taken almost whole cloth from D&D (Final Fantasy was supposed to be the company's last game before going under so they did not care about copyright very much).

      I like the use of petrifaction since it also adds a life-cycle to adventures. You turn to stone in the dungeon, and over time "decompose" into the piles of treasure other adventures find later.

  2. Monsters & Treasure 1974
    Clash of the Titans 1981

    1. Absolutely true - I have no idea where Gygax got snake bodied Medusa then - is it something that he invented entirely on his own, because a quick search at least turns up no earlier references.

    2. "Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" (1958) had a Snake Woman

  3. Gygax strikes me as a Harryhausen fan. ;)

    Medusae rediscovered their legs in time for Monster Manual (1977).

    1. That's sort of why I was shocked to find the snake bodied Medusa in Monsters & Treasure - the Wiki page of Medusa cites Clash of the Titans as the origin of the snake body Medusa idea, so it's quite fun to see the possibility that this is/was a D&Dism leeching into popular consciousness by the early 80's.

  4. Wasn't Clash of the Titans also Haaryhausen?

    /runs to Wiki