As time allows, I like to answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters. Here’s two from this month!
Now that Medusae have begun to leave Cazhaak Draal for various purposes, have eyeblinders become a commonplace part of their culture or are they only used in the east to make the squishier races feel at ease?
“You aren’t in your Five Nations any more,” Sheshka said. She had sheathed her sword, but her voice was deadly. “You have come to my home. Your soldier threatened me with a blindfold. A blindfold, on my soil. Would I come into your castle and strip away your sword, or demand that you wear chains?”
“We can’t kill with a glance,” Beren said.
“And that excuses your threat to pluck out my eyes? Should I cut off your hands so you cannot strangle me?” The medusa’s eyelids fluttered, but remained closed. “Hand, tooth, steel – we are all deadly.”The Queen of Stone
Canonically, while in the cities of the Five Nations a medusa is expected to wear eyeblinders, described as a metal visor that straps around the forehead and chin and takes multiple rounds to remove; in especially high-security situations, the straps can be secured with a lock. Of course, this varies by location; in a small village in Karrnath the sheriff surely doesn’t have a set of eyeblinders lying around, and in Callestan in Sharn, who exactly is going to demand the medusa put on eyeblinders? In such situations, a medusa will often wear a veil or more comfortable blindfold, as Tashka is modeling in the image accompanying this article. Such a blindfold doesn’t offer as much security as a set of eyeblinders, since it could be removed in a single action, but it’s a compromise; you don’t have to worry unless I take it off.
With this in mind, have blindfolds become part of standard medusa fashion? Do medusas wear blindfolds in Graywall or the Great Crag, or even in Cazhaak Draal? Definitely not. Medusas are perfectly capable of controlling their deadly gaze. Let’s start with simple mechanics. Here’s the 5E interpretation of the ability in question.
Petrifying Gaze. When a creature that can see the medusa’s eyes starts its turn within 30 feet of the medusa, the medusa can force it to make a DC 14 Constitution saving throw if the medusa isn’t incapacitated and can see the creature.
I’ve bolded the key word there—they can force someone to make a saving throw, but they don’t have to. While some people may interpret this as meaning that the medusa can choose to look you straight in the eye and not petrify you, how I interpret it in my campaign is that the medusa can never turn off their power, but that they have to look you directly in the eye to make it work and they’re very good at avoiding such accidental eye contact… and if they really want to play it safe, they can just close their eyes. This is something discussed in a canonical Dragonshard article…
The gaze of a medusa can petrify even an ally, and as a result, a medusa does not meet the gaze of a person with whom it is conversing. Where she directs her eyes indicates her esteem for the person. She drops her eyes toward the ground to show respect, or looks up and over the person if she wishes to indicate disdain; when speaking to an equal, she glances to the left or right. If she wishes to show trust, she directs her gaze to the person, but closes her eyes.
While this may seem inconvenient to a human, it has little impact on a medusa. If a medusa concentrates, she can receive limited visual impressions from the serpents that make up her hair; as a result, though she seems to look elsewhere, she’s actually looking through the eyes of her serpents. She can even use her serpents to see when she is blindfolded or has her eyes closed. However, she can still “see” in only one direction in this way; her serpents may look all around her, but she can’t process the information from all of them at once.
While I like the idea of looking up or down to signal respect when dealing with an individual, things get a little trickier on a crowded city street where accidental eye contact could easily happen—but in such a situation, again, all the medusa has to do is to close their eyes. To me, this is the absolute reason a medusa can’t petrify you by accident, and why you only have to make that saving throw if they choose to force you to; if they don’t want to hurt you, they’ll close their eyes.
So, with this in mind, no, medusas don’t wearing eyeblinders when they’re at home. The power of the medusa is a gift of the Shadow and they are proud of this gift; it’s not their job to calm your fears. And as Sheshka points out, everyone is dangerous, especially in Droaam; no one expects gargoyles to file down their claws, or Xorchylic to bind his tentacles. Demanding that a medusa cover their eyes is demeaning and shows a lack of trust. They’ll put up with it when the local laws require it, though even then they may skirt it (as with Tashka wearing a blindfold instead of full eyeblinders). But they certainly aren’t going to wear a blindfold while at home just to make you more comfortable.
Can you explain the demographics of Darguun? According to the ECS, only 6% of the population is human. How did it go from being a human-dominant nation to just 6%?
First of all, we need to address the tribex in the room, and that is that population numbers in Eberron have never been realistic. In part this is because we’ve never entirely agreed on the scale of the map; there’s also the broader question of whether population numbers should reflect medieval traditions (as was typical for D&D at the time the ECS was released) or if, given that society’s advances are more like late 19th century Earth, the population should reflect that as well. Consider that in 1900, London was home to five million people… while in the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting, Breland only has a total population of 3.7 million.
For this reason, the 3.5 ECS is the only book that actually gives population numbers for the nations; neither the 4E ECG or 5E’s Rising From The Last War do. Because at the end of the day, the exact number usually isn’t important. What matters is that we know that Aundair has the lowest population of the Five Nations and that Breland has the highest. It’s good to know that Sharn is the largest city in the Five Nations, even if I’d personally magnify its listed population by a factor of five or more. So I DO use the numbers given in the Eberron Campaign Setting, but what I use are the demographics break-downs—for example, the idea that dwarves make up a significant portion of the population of Breland, but are relatively rare in Aundair—while I use the population numbers just as a way of comparing one nation to another, so I know the population of Breland is almost twice that of Aundair.
So: I use the stats of the ECS, but I use them for purposes of comparing one nation to another, not for purposes of setting an absolute number. With that in mind, let’s look back to the original question: Is it strange that humans only make up 6% of the population of Darguun? In my opinion, not at all. The key is to understand the difference between the Darguun uprising and the Last War as a whole. During the Last War, the Five Nations were fighting over who was the rightful heir to the throne of Galifar. As discussed in this article, the goal—at least at the start—was reunification, and the question was who would be in charge. It was never a total war; the Five Nations agreed on the rules of war and whenever possible, avoided targeting civilian populations or critical civic infrastructure.
None of this applied to the Darguun uprising. The ECS observes that “Over the course of the Last War, most of the towns, temples, and fortresses in the region were razed and abandoned.” Not conquered and occupied: razed and abandoned. The Darguuls didn’t have the numbers to rule as occupiers, so they DESTROYED what they couldn’t control, driving the people away or killing them. It was an intensely brutal, ugly conflict, driven both by history—in the eyes of the Darguuls, the people of Cyre were the chaat’oor who had stolen the land and brutalized their ancestors—and by the fact that it needed to be swift and brutal, to maximize the impact before the Cyrans could regroup. By the time central Cyre was truly aware of the situation in southern Cyre, there was nothing left to save.
So I think the the demographic percentages are reasonable; I think most of that human 6% have actually come to Darguun after the war to do business or as expatriates of other nations. This ties to the point that Darguun is a nation of ruins—again, as the ECS says, “most of the towns, temples, and fortresses were razed and abandoned.” In my Eberron, the population of Darguun is far lower today than it was before the uprising; again, part of the reason for the brutality was because they didn’t have the numbers to rule through occupation. Darguuls are slowly reclaiming ruined towns and cities, building their own towns on the foundations just as humanity built many of its greatest cities on Dhakaani foundations—but overall, much of Darguun is filled with abandoned ruins that have yet to be reclaimed.
This brings up another important point. I agree with the demographic percentages of the ECS, but I think the listed population of Darguun is too high. Darguun is listed as having a population of 800,000. Again, I’m not concerned with that actual number—I’m concerned with how it compares to other nations. At 800,000, Darguun is the size of the Lhazaar Principalities, Zilargo, and Valenar combined. The whole idea of Darguun is that a relatively small force laid waste to the region because they lacked the numbers to conquer it. Now, in my Eberron the goblin population has swelled since the uprising. Haruuc’s people—the Ghaal’dar—were based in the Seawall Mountains and the lands around it. The dar were scattered and living in caverns, peaks, deep woods. As word spread of a goblin nation, tribes and clans came to Darguun from elsewhere in Khorvaire—from deeper in Zilargo, from Valenar, from central Cyre. This ties to the reasons Haruuc often has difficulty exercising control. The Ghaal’dar support him and they are the largest single block; but there are many subcultures that have their own traditions and aspirations. The Marguul are one example that’s been called out in canon, but there’s many more like this—dar immigrants who have come to the region with their own traditions. Notably, in Kanon I have a goblin culture from deep in the Khraal rain forest that is quite different from the Ghaal’dar, who came from the mountains and caverns. Nonetheless, this shouldn’t result in a nation with the highest population of any nation outside of the main five. By the standards of the ECS—so again, ONLY FOR THE PURPOSE OF COMPARING IT TO OTHER NATIONS—I’d set the population of Darguun at around 230,000. That’s significantly higher than Valenar and on par with Q’barra or Zilargo, but less than a tenth of one of the Five Nations, and low enough to reflect the idea that most of the cities in the region are still unclaimed ruins.
That’s all for now! Because this is an IFAQ, I will not be answering further questions on these topics, but feel free to discuss your thoughts and ideas in the comments. And if you want support the site and pose questions that might be answered in future articles, join my Patreon!
The race of medusas was born in Khyber, but two hundred twenty years ago a clan emerged from the darkness and laid claim to the city of Cazhaak Draal in Droaam. The medusas have played an important role in Droaam’s rise as a nation. They are skilled stonemasons and architects, and their deadly gaze attack makes them dangerous warriors and valuable bodyguards.
This is what the original Eberron Campaign Setting had to say about medusas. It followed our general approach of questioning and considering previous assumptions. Traditionally, medusas were monsters, expected to hang around in statue-filled caves waiting for adventurers. But third edition didn’t present them as being created by a curse or otherwise existing in isolation—and further, the mental ability scores of the typical medusa were superior of those to the typical human. So why would these intelligent, powerful creatures hang around dank dungeons waiting to fight adventurers? Why wouldn’t they have a civilization of their own? Beyond this, it was easy to see how medusas could play an important role in Droaam. They’re smarter than humans, let alone ogres—and they have a power that even a gargoyle or minotaur has to respect. Breland might not think much of a city of ogres, but a city of medusas is a force anyone has to take seriously.
I expanded on the medusas of Eberron in this Dragonshard article, which added a few additional twists. The medusas of Cazhaak Draal use their serpent manes as secondary eyes, allowing them to see while their primary eyes are closed or covered. They’ve developed a language called Serpentine, which uses the hisses and motions of their serpents. Medusas can petrify other medusas (something that has varied by edition) though they’ve developed a ritual to negate the effects of their gaze. Within their own culture they use petrification as a tool, preserving elders or mortally wounded medusas. However, this article leaves many questions unanswered… a situation further complicated by the constantly shifting lore about medusas. Sharn: City of Towers has male medusas with the same capabilities (serpents, petrification) as females, while non-Eberron lore in some editions presents male medusas as a divergent species with entirely different abilities. Fifth edition presents medusas as isolated individuals rather than a distinct species; in 5E, medusas (male or female) are created as the result of a curse and they have no culture.
Eberron has always diverged from default lore; just look at gnolls, drow, and mind flayers. The fact that the default lore of medusas has changed in fifth edition doesn’t make any difference, because Eberron wasn’t using the lore of previous editions either; again, in S:CoT we have the male medusa Harash, who’s notably not a maedar. The medusas of Eberron are the medusas of Eberron: a unique species who emerged from Khyber to found a city-state on the surface, and who possess a distinct culture and language. In Eberron, vanity alone can’t make you a medusa. Which is fine, but it leaves many questions unanswered. Keep in mind that—like all of these articles—all of what I’m about to say is what I do in my Eberron campaign. Nothing here is canon, and it’s entirely possible I will contradict canon sources. This is how I use medusas; it’s a suggestion, not a fact.
What’s so interesting about medusas?
There’s many things I like about medusas.
- They’re traditionally encountered as lone monsters, and I love turning that around and exploring the idea of medusas as a civilized people. Along with the Venomous Demesne, they have a sophisticated culture that predates Droaam, and they’re a power bloc the Daughters want to keep as allies.
- Many of the creatures of Droaam—ogres, trolls—are creatures that rely on brute force. Medusas are more intelligent than humans. They’re an excellent tool for getting across the point that these things humans consider to be monsters may be alien, but that doesn’t make them subhuman.
- At the same time, medusas ARE very alien, and I like exploring that. I like digging deeper into the serpent mane, and in playing up ways that human assumptions about them can be very off-base.
- Medusas are POWERFUL and dangerous. The mere threat of their gaze is enough to change the dynamics of a conversation.
- The Cazhaak medusas are a very spiritual people, and are the primary priests of the dominant religion in Droaam—a religion based on deities humanity fears. This is another source of power and potential story hooks, and something that can give a medusa goals that run counter to those of Droaam; Zerasha of Graywall places the her duty to the Shadow above the desires of the Daughters.
All of these things combined can make medusas excellent ambassadors, enigmatic priests, or Daask commanders. They can enforce order among dangerous and diverse minions, but they aren’t inherently bloodthirsty or brutish. They are a truly alien species, and for people who have never actually dealt with them before it’s fun to play with expectations and fears.
Where do the medusas of Eberron come from? Were they created by Orlassk?
The Cazhaak creed asserts that the Sovereigns created and cultivated weak creatures that they could dominate—pathetic, powerless creatures, like humans. It was the Shadow who gave the blessed creatures—those humans call “monsters”—their gifts. The oldest medusa myths maintain that their ancestors were slaves in the depths of Khyber—enslaved by a “stone tyrant,” most likely the daelkyr Orlassk—and that the Shadow gave them their powers and inspired them to break the yoke of their oppression and claim their freedom. Keep in mind that these are myths, passed down through oral tradition for centuries before they were even concretely codified. Gatekeepers and many modern scholars assert that it was most likely Orlaask who actually created the medusas, blending humans (Explorers? Some sort of colony?) with basilisks. But religion is about faith; even if they were presented with absolute concrete proof that Orlaask created the first medusa by merging a human and a basilisk, a medusa would say that Orlaask was simply a pawn guided by the Shadow, and that it was the Shadow who gave their ancestors the strength to rebel against the Stone Tyrant. The Cazhaak medusas know that they are children of the Shadow, and simple facts won’t shake this faith.
Regardless of the truth, the medusas are a relatively young species. In describing Cazhaak Draal, the Eberron Campaign Setting says that Cazhaak Draal “was abandoned after the daelkyr released a horde of basilisks, gorgons, and cockatrices from the depths of Khyber.” Note the lack of medusas in that description. Medusas generally resemble humans more than they do hobgoblins or dwarves (let alone gnolls), and their first historical appearance on the surface world is when they emerge to claim Cazhaak Draal. It seems likely that as a species, medusas are little over a thousand years old. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that there is a second culture of medusas that has yet to be encountered by humans—medusas who remained servants of the Stone Tyrant. So explorers in Khyber could discover a city of medusas still devoted to Orlaask, who know nothing of the Shadow or the Cazhaak creed.
What is the life cycle of medusas in your Eberron?
First of all, in my campaign maedar—the serpentless “male medusas”—are an entirely separate species. Fourth edition presented them as having a “venomous gaze” and I’d be more inclined to use these scaly, venomous humanoids as creations of the overlord Masvirik, the Cold Sun—an overlord noted for reptilian traits and poison. The medusas of Eberron are defined by their serpent mane and their petrifying gaze.
Cazhaak medusas can have a masculine or feminine appearance. Thus we have Queen Sheshka, but also the medusa Harash in Sharn, who is described as male. The majority of medusas—around 80%—have a feminine appearance. However, the fact is that medusa physiology is nothing like that of humanity and that this presumption of gender is misleading. “Female” medusas may have a feminine shape, but they don’t suckle their young and don’t actually have mammary glands. Medusa myths suggest that they were created (whether by Orlaask or the Shadow) from another humanoid species, and most likely their silhouette is an artifact of that forgotten past.
Medusa reproduction is nothing like human reproduction, and any two medusas can reproduce. After a period of foreplay that causes key chemicals to be released, two medusas entwine their serpent manes. They bite one another’s serpents, and those bitten in this way fall off of the head. The entwined, impregnated serpents undergo a metamorphosis, merging together into leathery “eggs,” eventually releasing a young medusa that blends the traits of both parents. A stranger aspect of this lifecycle is that there’s no absolute assurance how long it will take for a medusa’s egg to mature. It takes at least a year, but it’s not uncommon for an egg to take anywhere up to ten years to hatch… and some eggs never produce a child. Many medusas believe that a child has to want to emerge. Eggs are typically buried in warm sand, and it’s not uncommon for one parent to tend to their brood, singing to the eggs each night; it’s this caregiver who the medusas would call the “mother,” even though they don’t carry the children directly. This slow gestation is offset by a long lifespan. Medusas can live between three hundred to four hundred years before falling victim to old age; There are many medusas in Cazhaak Draal who were part of the expedition that originally claimed the city.
When interacting with other humanoids, medusas often adopt the pronouns people typically associate with their appearance; thus, Sheshka is a queen and uses she/her pronouns. However, the Serpentine language doesn’t use gendered terms. In Serpentine, Sheshka is simply leader, not queen.
Where did the medusas live before Cazhaak Draal? Do they live there still?
The medusas have never been a widespread or numerous people. Their myths speak of a long period of nomadic wandering following their escape from the Stone Tyrant, and describe periods of settlement in what seem to be different demiplanes—periods that always end in disaster, with the medusas being forced to move on. This exodus came to an end when they settled in a Dhakaani city deep below the surface, a vault whose keepers were slain long ago. The medusas call this city Niaanu Draal, the Mother City, and it was here that they wrote down their myths and established the traditions they carry on today. They remained in Niaanu Draal for over two centuries, before this, too, ended in tragedy. The forces of a daelkyr drove the medusas from Niaanu Draal. These enemies could not (or would not) follow the medusas to the surface, and so they came to Cazhaak Draal and claimed it as their home.
Which daelkyr did they fight? It’s possible that it was Orlaask, that the minions of the Stone Tyrant sought to reclaim its former subjects. It could be that Belashyrra was offended by these creatures with their deadly gaze, or that the crawling hordes of Valaara overran the Mother City. This battle took place centuries ago, and ultimately it only matters if a DM wants to run a story related to Niaanu Draal; as a DM, if you want to tell that story, it’s up to you to decide which daelkyr best suits the needs of your campaign. Note that this isn’t a mystery to the medusas themselves; there are medusa elders who took part in the battle, along with petrified elders who once lived in Niaanu Draal. It’s simply that there’s no reason for me to lock in a specific daelkyr here, when a different daelkyr might serve your story better. The medusas faced a great enemy they couldn’t defeat, but it has left them alone ever since. Given the enigmatic nature of the daelkyr, it’s entirely possible that this exodus was the daelkyr’s goal all along… that for some reason it wanted the medusas to rise up from Khyber.
Has Sheshka always been the Queen of Cazhaak Draal? If not, how did she gain the title?
It wasn’t Sheshka who led the medusas to Cazhaak Draal. In the novel The Queen of Stone, a warrior who’s been petrified for over a century recognizes Sheshka as “Lady Sheshka” and is surprised to discover that she is now queen. Sheshka inherited her title, but it is about more than just bloodline. Also from The Queen of Stone…
“It’s not as simple as it seems.” Sheshka’s hand brushed against the silver collar that hung around her neck. “I am Sheshka, the Queen of Stone. To you, that may seem an arrogant title, an affectation of a woman who governs a city smaller than your Wroat or Passage. But it is not just a title of nobility: it is a statement of fact. I am the Queen of Stone. I hear the whisper of marble and granite…”
Essentially, Sheshka is the Queen of Stone because she IS the Queen of Stone. In a sense this is similar to the Keeper of the Flame. Medusas have varying degrees of natural affinity for stone. The regalia of the queen—the pendant Sheshka wears—amplifies this gift, but only one with the gift can attune to the collar. If Sheshka were to be killed, the medusas would search among their people for another with this gift—starting with Sheshka’s relatives, but continuing until a suitable medusa is found. So it’s as much a theocracy as it is a monarchy; Sheshka is considered to be blessed by the Shadow.
How do you see a medusa’s gaze working in general interactions. 5e’s gaze feature indiscriminately tries to petrify any qualifying targets in range…
Not exactly. Let’s look at the text…
When a creature that can see the medusa’s eyes starts its turn within 30 feet of the medusa, the medusa can force it to make a DC 14 Constitution saving throw if the medusa isn’t incapacitated and can see the creature…
There’s nothing indiscriminate about this. The medusa CAN force the creature to make a saving throw as long as the medusa can see the target, but it doesn’t HAVE to. My interpretation of this isn’t that a medusa can somehow make it safe for other creatures to look it in the eye, but rather that it’s a simple enough matter for a medusa to avoid meeting another creature’s gaze, using any of the methods I describe in this article. Notably, I still maintain that a medusa only petrifies with its primary eyes, and it can close them (or wear eyeblinders or a blindfold) and use its serpent mane for vision. In 3.5 I assigned a -2 penalty when a medusa uses its serpents for vision, and that’s an option here (fifth edition rarely does penalties, but disadvantage feels too severe). On the other hand, it’s also reasonable to say that the fifth edition medusa can choose not to petrify creatures, and that it does this by closing its main eyes and using its serpents—and therefore apply no penalty for doing so.
Fifth edition also says…
If the medusa sees itself reflected on a polished surface within 30 feet of it and in an area of bright light, the medusa is, due to its curse, affected by its own gaze.
I’m ambivalent about this. It seems very vague and ill-defined compared to the very specific degree of control the medusa has in dealing with enemies. A medusa can choose not to look at an adventurer (not forcing them to make a saving throw)—if that adventurer is holding a mirror, I’d assume it can avoid looking at that, too? I’m not adverse to the idea that a medusa could be affected by its own gaze—as the article suggests, medusas can petrify other medusas—but I think they’d be VERY used to the risks and good at avoiding them; and they’d be able to avoid the threat completely by closing their main eyes (or blindfold) and seeing through their serpents. I’d also hold closely to that “polished surface” and say that they don’t get petrified by, for example, looking at rhe rippling surface of a glass of water. So I’m fine with saying that if there’s a really well-executed plan it is POSSIBLE to petrify a medusa with their own gaze, but that it’s not something you can do casually by just wearing a mirror around your neck.
Cazhaak Draal is noted as being the spiritual center of Droaam. Do the medusas have an arcane tradition as well, and if so, what is that like?
The Cazhaak medusas have an arcane tradition. They are devoted to the Shadow, and the Shadow is a deity of KNOWLEDGE; according to Cazhaak myths, it was the Shadow who taught Aureon all that he knows. However, the Shadow is also about personal ambition and power, and rather than developing a shared system of arcane science that can support wizards and artificers (as seen in the Venomous Demesne), Cazhaak Draal is more a collection of individuals following their own secret paths to power.
Cazhaak Draal has both magewrights and adepts. Medusas have a natural affinity for stone, and their spellcasters often cast spells (or rituals) related to stone, earth, or poison. Cazhaak Draal thus has a strong corps of magewrights capable of casting mold earth and stone shape; working together and using arcane focuses they can cast move earth. More sophisticated spellcasters generally follow the model of bards (most often Whispers), sorcerers (typically Shadow or Storm), or warlocks (potentially any). In the case of warlocks, most Cazhaak warlocks believe their powers flow from the Shadow; they might have the powers of an Archfey of Great Old One patron, but those are the gifts the Shadow has bestowed upon them. However, medusa warlocks believe that the Shadow’s gift was connecting them TO their patron, and you could find a medusa warlock dealing with an archfey, a dao, or some other patron. The main point is that such spellcasters are remarkable individuals, each blazing their own trail—and thus, Cazhaak Draal overall doesn’t have the arcane infrastructure of the Venomous Demesne.
Does it bother you that mythologically, Medusa was a specific gorgon, while in D&D, medusas are a species and gorgons are an entirely different, unrelated creature?
Not really. D&D is full of such flawed mythological analogues. Greek Mythology is as irrelevant to the medusas of Eberron as the default lore of third or fourth edition. The medusas of Eberron are an alien species that share a name and a few cosmetic traits with medusa and the gorgons of mythology. (As a side note, I’ve always loved the name Euryale—one of Medusa’s sisters.)
In conclusion… What I enjoy about medusas is that they alien and intelligent, that they are spiritual but devoted to a tradition humanity shuns. Cazhaak Draal is a distinct faction within Droaam that has considerable power and influence, and I enjoy exploring its relationship with the Daughters. And I like the dramatic weight that comes with the medusa’s gaze, especially when dealing with a medusa in a non-combat situation.
Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who requested this topic and who are the only reason I can taker the time to write these articles!