Not all of the classic Dungeons & Dragons monsters are strange aberrant creatures, nor are they simply demons, dragons, and the like. Some have stuck around and made a name for themselves after being pulled out of mythology. As with the first entry in the series (the naga), this one features a classic monster that has been in mythologies for centuries but has obtained a unique and constant present within the D&D world. Rakshasas are seen, but I find that they are underutilized. Specifically, there are a few ideas about them that I find missed out on and, while that just be from what I have seen, I still want to go over them. Don’t worry if you think they have been done to death then you’ll have a chance to vote on choices for the next one and can always suggest below!
The rakshasas originated as a class of powerful beings in Hindu mythology and later integrated into Buddhist mythologies. These origins don’t look anything like the ones of Dungeons & Dragons at casual glance, but with a better look the connections are obvious. They are described as ugly, ferocious creatures with large fangs protruding from their mouth. Often individuals are described as cannibalistic or vampiric, a trait that makes them all the fiercer. To me, the rakshasas of Hindu myths are much more demonic than those we see in the game today. What is interesting, though, is that this did not mean that they were necessarily evil. In fact, there were good rakshasas and, as far as I know, they looked just as horrible as their evil counterparts.
So what role did they play in the epics? Rakshasas of both sides were magnificent warriors and powerful magicians. They would fight for their respective sides and even be among the rank and file of powerful warlords. The most fearsome and dangerous were referred to as Maneaters, coming onto the battlefield when things were at their bloody worst. Aside form their skills in war and magic, a rakshasa is capable of shape-changing, flying, and invisibility. All if these factors made them incredible resources for a war.
Tiger With The Backwards Hands
I have always found it incredibly interesting how iconic certain creatures become for the strangest reasons. There are two immediately recognizable features of the rakshasa in D&D. First of all they are humanoid tigers. You may confuse them for exceptionally controlled weretigers, but that just isn’t the case and one look at the individual’s hand will let you know. That’s what the second feature is: backwards hands. It is as if someone took the right and left hands and swapped them, a concerning sight to be sure. That is not the only thing that makes them iconic though. The rakshasa is a powerful fiendish magician, capable of all manner of magic and illusion. Of course, if you kill them, they will reincarnate and likely hunt you down for revenge.
The Dungeons & Dragons rakshasa is an interesting mixture of its Hindu origins and unique features. Illusions and shapeshifting help these monsters to be interesting string-pullers. Nobles, merchants, or other rich and influential people that the PCs might never suspect are hiding dark ulterior motives. Utilizing this as a basis for the type of NPC/villain they are, the D&D stats go heavily towards the magic wielding aspects. They are exceptional casters, but tend not to be the type of creature that will fight fairly or hand-to-hand. Their natural form, a tiger, makes them at once both fearsome and majestic and is the perfect look for the type of niche the creature fills.
Let me preface this section by mentioned that Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t leave out their origins, but Pathfinder takes the rakshasa and turns it into a whole class of outsiders beyond the fiendish tiger illusionists. Mortals obsessed with materialistic pleasures and abundance are often reborn as a rakshasa. These outsiders have a very specific caste system that isn’t just pervasive of their society but of the entire life of the rakshasa. In Pathfinder, the rakshasas hold an utter contempt for divinity and the beings who would call themselves gods or goddesses. Nevertheless, they believe that everyone and everything in the universe has its own role to play. Advancement for the rakshasa, comes in understanding your individual role in the universe and striving to act in that role to the best of your ability. This means submitting to those who are more powerful that you, as well as taking control of lesser creatures. If you succeed in this you will be reborn as a more powerful type of rakshasa. If you do not, if you utterly fail, you could becoming the lowest form of rakshasa, the raktavarna. I like this incarnation of the rakshasa because each type is different in its look, abilities, and attitude (what they specifically desire). They have different methodologies and goals. All in all, though, these rakshasas have a way of life and would easily be found in subservience to one-another. The Pathfinder version of these monsters is easily played up as a long term adversary.
There are a lot of awesome things that 4th Edition did, and I will never stop praising it for them. One of them was creating the deva as a race, rather than a category of celestial being. The odd duck edition also ruled angels out as inherently good too, but that’s for another entry into Libris Monstrum. In the Player’s Handbook 2, devas appear as an angelic race that are equivelent-ish to the previous aasimars. Personally I prefer the mystical race tied to ancestors that once lived among and served the gods directly, but I also love the little tidbits of implication their description had. They are enemies of evil creatures. Among those listed were demons, devils, and (you guessed it!) rakshasa. Now, this wasn’t out when 4th Edition gave us stats for rakshasa in the Monster Manual. So, while they included I wider bredth of types (warriors, archers, nobles), we still don’t really know where they come from. They reincarnate, they are evil, and they like to be secretive. We have pretty much established that through editions. But then, with the PHB2, we find out that if a deva becomes corrupted it risks becoming a rakshasa when it is reborn. The implications for this are incredible. Already 4th Edition gives you more flexibility in rakshasas, but to allow a deva to become corrupted (NPC turned villain anyone)?! It is a fantastic idea. It also gives some interesting background for where these individuals may have come from, some more recently than others.
At The Table
I try to include some suggestions with how to use these creatures at the table beyond their norm. We can start by saying that rakshasas should be reincarnated. They don’t need to be a recurring villain and they certainly want to survive, but the rakshasa would be a great villain to come back after actually fighting to the death. Especially if the players do not know. Of course, that has probably been done to death. As I began eluding to in the Pathfinder section, they could be so much more. A lower level rakshasa could be fought and killed only to be reincarnated as a more powerful individual later in the campiagn. Or, perhaps it could be reincarnated at a lower caste and the PCs find it in someone else’s lair later. I can imagine it failing so utterly it becomes the sword-like being of low standing. Without knowing it the sword could be used by the party and help succeed in defeating a rival rakshasa and then convincing or forcing the party to destroy it. Then it reincarnates at greater power and is back for more! All thanks to the PCs. Of course if you ask me the rakshasas of 4th Edition are fantastic. Maybe they have a grudge against the gods, and maybe for good reason. Perhaps it isn’t just corruption that leads to a deva becoming rakshasa, but the memory of what transpired to lead to devas and rakshasas. My final note on using these creatures, though, is to simply take a note from mythology: make some of them great warriors. Just because they are mostly stated as casters, does not mean you cannot have some terrifying warrior rakshasa come after the party or holding a spy network.