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I was considering using a Medusa in my home game against a group of 4th-level characters. With a CR of 6, a Medusa is well within the proper XP range for such a group. However, I'm nervous about using one, because it looks to me like my party is one bad roll (or two moderately bad rolls) away from functional character death. The greater restoration required to cure petrification is way above their level, so if somebody gets stoned, they're basically out of the game unless I give them access to much more powerful healing magic.

Have I missed something that makes the Medusa somehow not extremely risky for a group of adventurers below level 9?

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This pit-fall of Challenge Rating is anticipated in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

The DMG gives some guidance for designing encounters, and there is a sidebar on p. 82 that mentions exactly the problem you are describing:

In addition, some monsters have features that might be difficult or impossible for lower-level characters to overcome. For example, a rakshasa has a challenge rating of 13 and is immune to spells of 6th level and lower. Spellcasters of 12th level or lower have no spells higher than 6th level, meaning that they won’t be able to affect the rakshasa with their magic, putting the adventurers at a serious disadvantage. Such an encounter would be significantly tougher for the party than the monster’s challenge rating might suggest.

Essentially, this is just a known shortcoming of the Challenge Rating system. Challenge Rating is a pseudo-objective system explained in the DMG’s guidance on designing monsters. It is based solely off of the numbers in the monster’s stat block, and simply does not account for issues like the one you describe, which is why the DMG guidance cited above mentions it. This is just something you have to be aware of in encounter design.

The canonical solution here is to hire a priest.

The Player’s Handbook (p. 159) gives some guidance here, and suggests spellcasting services as a solution to a lower-level party being unable to overcome an obstacle like petrification:

People who are able to cast spells don't fall into the category of ordinary hirelings. It might be possible to find someone willing to cast a spell in exchange for coin or favors, but it is rarely easy and no established pay rates exist. As a rule, the higher the level of the desired spell, the harder it is to find someone who can cast it and the more it costs.

Hiring someone to cast a relatively common spell of 1st or 2nd level, such as cure wounds or identify, is easy enough in a city or town, and might cost 10 to 50 gold pieces (plus the cost of any expensive material components). Finding someone able and willing to cast a higher-level spell might involve traveling to a large city, perhaps one with a university or prominent temple. Once found, the spellcaster might ask for a service instead of payment — the kind of service that only adventurers can provide, such as retrieving a rare item from a dangerous locale or traversing a monster-infested wilderness to deliver something important to a distant settlement.

In one of the games I ran, one of the members of the 5th level party was petrified by a basilisk. At the end of that session, I had a conversation with the table about what they wanted to do about it:

Thomas: Okay guys, Chris’s character is petrified, which for the moment, is basically death. Now, Tessa’s character (the cleric) would know that the temple in the capital provides the kind of care that can reverse petrification, but they usually require some work to be done. So your options here are: Chris, you can just roll a new character, or, if the rest of you want to, you can pursue getting Chris unpetrified.

The party decided to try to get Chris cured. Upon arriving at the temple and talking with the chief priest, they were tasked with accompanying one of the temple’s paladins to consecrate a wilderness temple that had been desecrated and had a necromancer squatting in it. I used this paladin as Chris’s temporary character, and upon returning from the quest, Chris’s character had been cured of petrification.

So basically, no, you’re not missing anything. Some monsters present dangers that are not accounted for by Challenge Rating, but the guidance given in the DMG and PHB account for this so that you can design your adventures around such high stakes encounters.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I love this. As much as petrification may seem like death, its not, and there are so many ways to fix it. Hire someone to cast restoration, get a magic item that casts it, go on a quest to get a magic item to end the petrification, etc. I particularly like the idea of having a temporary character to play while yours is petrified. Others here mention the possibility of a TPK, but I think that's very low against a single medussa. Most parties will see one of their friends turn to stone and when you ask "will you look away" they are going to say yes \$\endgroup\$ Oct 18 at 12:52
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They could potentially buy a magic item to cure the petrification.

A Spell Scroll of Greater Restoration is a Rare magic item. According to the optional rules for Buying A Magic Item in Xanathar's Guide to Everything, buying a Rare magic item would take a week of downtime, 100 gp, and a DC 20 Charisma (Persuasion) check to make it available, with a +1 bonus on that check for every additional 100gp spent; it would then have a selling price of 2d10 x 500 gp, as a Rare, consumable item.

Acquiring and using such an item may well be within the abilities of Tier 2 characters that are not yet capable of casting the greater restoration spell themselves yet. Unfortunately, it does not appear that greater restoration is officially available in potion or wand form yet, and the Staff of Healing is only capable of casting lesser restoration, so your party would be stuck with spell scrolls if NPCs capable of casting the spell are not available.

It doesn't appear that any items like the Oil of Stone to Flesh which existed in previous editions have been officially converted to 5e yet, but it would be a reasonable house rule to home-brew a conversion of them; you'd just need to pick a Rarity for them, really (probably either Rare or Uncommon).

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I had the thing you describe happen in a campaign I am GMing

Players (cleric, homebrew artificer, druid, sorcerer, all level 8) were sent on a mission to a stone garden that they didn't know was actually Medusa's lair.

I was aware that petrification would be deadly so I tried to hint at what they would be dealing with in the following ways, so that at least players had enough knowledge to be careful:

  1. The garden was filled with eerily human-like statues of people that are as if frozen in expressions of terror.
  2. They saw several snakes that ran away from them.
  3. They heard slithering noises of a "large" snake-like creature.

The players did not pick up on what was going on. When the fight broke out two players immediately ended up restrained and later on in the fight petrified. The other two, fooled by their high CON saves and hubris decided that they are not going to avert their eyes at all during the fight which eventually led to a petrification TPK.

After session evaluation

When discussing the session afterward with my players we came to a few conclusions.

  • They would have appreciated stronger and more explicit hints about the specific dangers of the mission so that they could have prepared better
  • The encounter was fine and balanced and would have likely still ended up with players winning if they decided not to test their luck by looking at the medusa
  • Petrification is super deadly and can take out people for most of the session. They would have appreciated some sort of house-rule that would let people who were petrified still engage in play even if not in combat while petrified. Especially if the party would then have to find a way to un-petrify some of their companions later.

How we resolved things in the game

Since we agreed that we want to continue playing the campaign and the characters and the Artificer conveniently had a high-level paladin NPC boyfriend, we decided that it would make sense that the Paladin would eventually mount a rescue mission.

This effectively meant that the party was found and saved after several months of in-game time, during which they missed a lot of important development on the BBEG's goals which turned out to cause interesting problems going forward.

What I would do differently

Ultimately I think that using a Medusa or a different save-or-die monster is fine and can create really exciting moments at the table but the players should know in advance what they are going to be dealing with.

I would have either let them see the medusa before the actual combat encounter, maybe even let them observe as she petrifies a poor fool or two.

I would also likely make one of her trophies only partially petrified. Maybe one she particularly despises has been petrified completely except for their face, so they can still talk and hear so she can taunt them. This way the party could question one of Medusa's former victims for some information.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "maybe even let them observe as she petrifies a poor fool or two" -- Beware, this can backfire if not done just right. If the PCs see the medusa petrifying a target obviously weaker than they are, they might still conclude, "Oh, well we're tougher than that. We can take her, no problem." The PCs are more likely to take the hint if the target is instead something reasonably tough, e.g., a brown bear with a +3 CON save. (Incidentally, this is why Worf was always getting clobbered in Star Trek TNG -- seeing the tough Klingon go down tells the audience the situation has become extra dangerous.) \$\endgroup\$
    – screamline
    Oct 18 at 11:40
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It depends on circumstances and player knowledge

Part of the medusa stat block states:

Unless surprised, a creature can avert its eyes to avoid the saving throw at the start of its turn. If the creature does so, it can't see the medusa until the start of its next turn, when it can avert its eyes again. If the creature looks at the medusa in the meantime, it must immediately make the save.

That alone can save the PCs from being petrified, unless they are surprised. They will have disadvantage on their melee attacks but that can be offset via various means such as the bless spell. Of course, some of them might just look at the medusa anyway not realising the danger they are putting themselves in, or preferring to take the risk rather than having disadvantage on their attacks.

Additionally, the petrification gaze only has a range of 30 feet. Any player that hangs back to attack from range won't be in danger of becoming petrified.

So it could be a potentially deadly encounter or not depending on what tactics the players engage in.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "not realizing the danger" is the real key here, I am real uncomfortable with "surprise, you're dead!" \$\endgroup\$ Oct 17 at 22:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DarthPseudonym Well, you are the DM so you get to set things up. For medusas you could have the players see some "statues" of people looking scared or in poses suggesting they are about to run away. That generally tips off the PCs that something with petrification powers is around. Having it suddenly appear in front of them by dropping down a fake wall would be the kind of surprise that could end in a TPK. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 17 at 22:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't mean surprise attack. I'm speaking more in terms of the players being unaware of how dangerous it is to even look at a medusa and going, "Oh, I'll risk it, whatever". I recently had a player meet a Bodak's gaze with exactly that kind of rashness. While they did succeed the save, failure would only mean they take damage or fall to zero hit points -- bad enough but not instantly fatal the way a bad save vs. Medusa is. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 17 at 22:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DarthPseudonym That's a hard thing to evaluate. Medusa's are a pretty well known monster so the players should have some idea that what they are facing could be really bad. If they make some kind of knowledge check they could be made aware exactly how bad an idea it would be to meet the gaze of one. It really depends on what kind of players they are. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 18 at 0:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Personal anecdote - I came across a Medusa as a Lvl.3 in my first ever DnD campaign and as an inexperienced player nearly had a TPK. As a player I knew what a Medusa was, but not how serious Petrification would be in DnD; as a character I dived in to protect another PC and was knocked out the campaign until the DM handwaved me back in. It made for a couple of really un-fun sessions for 2 of us and I'm still not a fan of how status effects work in DnD for that reason. \$\endgroup\$
    – David258
    Oct 18 at 15:18

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