From one classic mythological monster to another! Last week we took a look at the banshee, and this week we move on to the basilisk. I think most folks in my generation will be familiar with this creature, due to the popularity of a certain wizard-centric book series; however, the Dungeons & Dragons version of the monster isn’t exactly the same serpent as the one featured in Harry Potter.
Well, okay, mostly it is. But this one has legs! It’s not, you know, super important. It doesn’t affect the stat block in any way. But the picture totally shows it with legs.
There’s not a lot of lore on these guys within the Monster Manual; it mostly focuses on the fact that they turn people into stone. What we do get is some interesting info on their biological processes–apparently they’ve got a chemical in their gullet that turns petrified flesh back into… meat, for lack of a better term. It’s even mentioned that talented alchemists can use this chemical (if properly extracted) to cure petrification.
This is a fantastic set-up for a basilisk encounter. A great low-level quest (basilisks are only CR3) could revolve around hunting down a basilisk for its, um… gullet… sac? I don’t know what that part of the anatomy would be called, but you know what I mean. Some NPC has a friend or lover who has been petrified, and they hire the party to go hunt down a basilisk and bring back the body so that an antidote can be made. This could even be the basis for a whole dungeon, as the players make their way through the basilisk’s deadly lair! You can build anticipation by littering the nest with partially-destroyed statues and the like.
The Monster Manual also notes that basilisks, if raised from birth, can be tamed. These tamed basilisks are trained not to make eye contact with their owners, and are often used as guards for valuable treasures.
Now that is an interesting hook. I’m a big fan of heists, and what better curve-ball to throw your players than a basilisk? Imagine it–they’ve infiltrated the target’s mansion, made their way down to the top-secret vault, broken the enchantments on the door, they step into the treasure room, and bam! There’s a huge lizard and suddenly Jimmy Bigsword, the party’s Fighter, is turned to stone. They’ll never see it coming!
As an added side-effect of being super-effective guards, there’s apparently quite a lucrative trade in basilisk eggs. This is another way to bring them into your campaign, though perhaps not as directly; the party could be hired to transport some valuable cargo that happens to be a basilisk egg. This doesn’t necessarily afford you the opportunity to have your players fight one of these scaly guys, but it definitely puts a neat twist on the “safeguard a treasure” style of mission–with an egg, you don’t just have to worry about it getting stolen, you’ve also got to make sure it doesn’t crack. If you really want to make it tough on your players, add some other conditions, too. Maybe the egg has to be kept at a certain temperature to ensure the creature inside stays healthy, for instance. Plus, think about the kind of person who sells basilisk eggs. Is this dude a basilisk breeder? That could be a fun, quirky NPC!
Of course, if you want to do an egg quest and have a basilisk fight, you could always combine this with the ‘hunt down a basilisk’ idea from earlier–just swap out ‘retrieving the gullet sac (that cannot possibly be the proper terminology but that’s what I’m calling it)’ with ‘retrieve an egg.’ Of course, depending on your players’ morality, they might have an objection to killing a creature and stealing its children, even if that creature is a terrifying lizard that eats people-rocks.
In terms of abilities, the basilisk only really has one trick up its sleeve, and it should be obvious by now what it is: it spits acid!
Nah, but seriously, the petrifying gaze is really the only thing special about this reptilian rascal. Players who are within the beast’s line of sight need to make saving throws to avoid being turned to stone. What makes it particularly dangerous is that, unlike many creatures that force players to make saving throws, succeeding against the petrifying gaze doesn’t make you immune to it; the basilisk can still petrify the target next turn. To alleviate this somewhat, players need to fail two concurrent saves to be fully petrified, and those who are aware of the basilisk’s power can look away from it in time to avoid the saving throw–though they’ll have to look eventually if the want to target the monster with attacks.
Other than that, the basilisk only has a basic bite attack, though this includes a bit of extra poison damage (presumably from the gullet sac).
Oh, and as a quick aside: are you a player, who feels under-served by these WKoMAY articles catering almost exclusively to DMs? Well, here’s a tip for you–try this one trick basilisks hate: make it look at its own reflection, and it will think it’s eyeing a rival basilisk and try to petrify itself.
Traditional basilisks of European legend were considered serpent kings, with enough venom to kill people with a single bite–or even a glance. Pliny the Elder wrote about them, and his description is buck wild; I highly recommend looking it up. He thought they were so incredibly poisonous that they would kill plants and break rocks just by slithering past them. I’m not sure when, exactly, the idea arose that the beast would only petrify you with its gaze rather than killing you outright.
Also: in some versions of the legend, the basilisk is half snake, half rooster. This is the version we would have if 5e’s creators weren’t cowards, but let me remind you that the DM has final say in how their monsters look. If you want a menacing chicken to chomp into petrified adventurers with its horrendous beak, then by God, that is how you should describe them.
In D&D terms, basilisks have been around pretty much since the beginning–they were part of the OD&D White Box set way back in the ’70s.
Yet again, this column has sparked a ton of ideas in me for fun encounters with an underused monster. If nothing else, I’m certainly going to add an eccentric basilisk breeder to my next game, and you should too.