Welcome to the very first entry in the Libris Monstrum! Here shall be a series of entries going over some of the most commonly included monsters in game manuals. But, no, I am not going to be going over things like dragons or goblins. At least not at first, because those monsters are not just included but staples of games like Dungeons & Dragons. My goal is to talk about the monsters that often get missed and forgotten. To begin I want to talk about one of my favorites from mythology: the naga!
Naga, or nagini as the females are called, are serpent creatures of various Asian mythos. Most notably, nagas are part of the various Indian religions. The spread of religions like Hinduism and Buddhism throughout Asia caused quite a diversification of nagas over time. Nevertheless, nagas are almost always related to the king cobra and thus have similar hoods. Aside from this, there are a few other common physical features. The more frightening, and interesting, are the human faces. How human the faces are can vary. Still, the image of a serpentine creature whose head is very human, but whose eyes and forked tongue are still snake-like, is unnerving. Some even have multiple heads like the hydra of greek mythology. Nagas can also be capable of shapeshifting into human form, disguising themselves among people.
There are mixed stories about the type of beings that naga and nagini are. Generally speaking they are seen as evil creatures, capricious and deceitful. Sometimes though, they can act as a neutral party or may even be willing to be good and helpful. Regardless though, there seems to be a general regard of nagas to be guardians of some kind. Treasure is one such thing, but more often they are natural resources, especially water. Rivers, lakes, and underground springs can be the home of guardian naga. Even those helpful naga must be shown respect and their sacred water source treated well.
Nagas In Dungeons & Dragons
Nagas have been included in D&D for decades, always showing up in the monster manuals as serpentine entities. These come in a couple varieties, each of which tends to focus on a specific aspect of the mythos. Common types include guardian, dark, and water nagas which become associated with sacred places / treasure, evil, and nature protection respectively. This division is also tied to alignment with guardian naga being good and dark naga being evil, for example. This variety is kept throughout the edition, though there are often more added in various books. These days the naga have a very cobra-like appearance and slightly human faces. They are considered immortal monstrosities and all are capable of some form of spell casting.
Nagas In Pathfinder
Pathfinder is one of my favorite games in regard to the treatment of creatures from a variety of mythos and sources. Nagas are no exception. Like D&D, Pathfinder links different types of naga to some aspect of the mythos, as well as alignment. There is a little less emphasis on guardianship, but a strong linking to other specifics. That list of things has been expanded and explored by Paizo and includes interesting naga types like royal, slime, and dream. The nagas in Pathfinder art have much more human faces and their serpent forms divert from the cobra occasionally, providing a nice variety. Like D&D nagas, these ones can cast spells, but they are mortal beings. Instead of one naga lording over a place or people, a lineage of nagas take the name of a predecessor allowing the shorter lived races to assume it is but a single individual.
Nagas At The Table
The obvious use of a naga is to act as a guardian of a certain area or item that the party may be looking for. While interesting and different in the moment, this does not do the naga justice. D&D has emphasized the naga in 5th Edition by discussing their connection to the Yuan-ti, another serpent people. The war between the two go so far back that the yuan-ti even have a horrible ritual which kills a naga and raises it as an undead known as the bone naga. This enmity could be the basis of an entire setting or campaign. Perhaps the PCs must choose sides in a developing war, or maybe they get caught as a third party between the two sides. Another idea I had was to have the two groups working together. What would cause such unprecedented and dangerous agendas?
My favorite use of the naga is completely different, however. There are a multitude of powerful entities or persons that can act has NPCs, but why not naga? Utilize the mythical predilection towards guarding something and helping those who help them, as well as their ability to look human (or some fantasy race). Give them age, knowledge, and power beyond what is the base stat block. Their ability to cast spells naturally make them even more formidable. I would argue that ancient nagas (with levels in some spellcasting class) would be more powerful than many dragons, and they certainly provide a different way of filling a similar role. Hey, you could even give them a treasure hoard like dragons have!