Libris Monstrum #24: Oni
Good evening everyone! Tonight we have another Twitter-voted creature to add to the Libris Monstrum! This time you asked for the oni and I am rather glad, because these beings have a diverse history at the table. My first interaction with them stems from the original 3rd Edition Monster Manual and moves forward from there. Here I will reveal some of their mythological roots, as well as some of the ways they have evolved in our RPGs since I saw my first entry for them.
The Oni Of Old
I seriously debated on where to begin this entry. With the myth? With the game stats? Finally, I settled on the myth because I want to give a sold grounding on oni. The best way to do that is to provide you with what they are mythologically. Where do the entries in various monster manuals come from? In the real world oni are a part of Japanese folklore and myth. They are one of many types of supernatural creatures classified as yokai. Yokai are spirits or demons. Or something else depending on what we are looking at. Like many mythological beings, yokai are the types of things that in some aspects seem very categorical and obvious, while being completely vague and hand-wavey in others. I think fey of European mythology are of a similar broad stroke when it comes to myth. Like many creatures oni were originally very mysterious and often invisible.
That being said oni are known to be particularly demonic and ogre-like, once anthropomorphizing takes place and physical form is attributed to them. These are gigantic creatures that generally look human aside from a few key points. First, their skin is commonly red or blue. Their long hair may or may not be hiding horns, which almost all oni seem to have. Despite sporting vicious claws, these demons often carry a huge club known as a tetsubo (though the weapon goes by a few names). Finally, there are a few other ways to distinguish an oni. Like the hags of European stories, oni are particularly hideous, probably more so. Many sport odd or freakish features including extra, missing, or disfigured parts. Many of the physical features are thought to stem with the mixing of other traditions and might be pulled from the rakshasa, gaki, and other mythological beings of Asian cultures.
There is also a connection to Chinese culture that comes from the Chinese zodiac. The north direction was once known as the demon gate, which was the direction by which evil spirits were said to travel and, along with them, bad luck. By applying the zodiac signs to the compass, one finds that northward is the direction pointing between ox and tiger. The horns, fangs, claws, and even tiger loincloth are thought to, perhaps, owe their originations from there. In more modern times the oni has been toned down a bit in many ways, something I always find interesting. They seem to be used as protector spirits, often used as imagery to drive away evil spirits or bad luck. This is particularly similar to gargoyles, though (for some reason) those are almost always evil at the table….
The Ogre Mage
My first experience with the oni was as a nickname for the creature that once was called the ogre mage. A particularly smart, devilish ogre capable of wielding magic and sporting blue skin, these beings were a scary variety of ogre. In the 3rd edition, they could prove quite an interesting twist to an adventure sporting ogres and other evil races. That was something I always liked. What if it wasn’t giants controlling the hobgoblins and ogres, but a smart ogre with perhaps a little more knowhow and natural ability? And all with the ambition to utilize it. Perfect! The ogre mage from those days shows some obvious similarities with oni of myth. In fact, it is almost a distilled version of the clichés that come along with the oni. These monsters are blue-skinned with horns and deep black eyes. They are even described as demonic looking. Aside from that they have the abilities to be invisible, fly, and charm others. Oddly enough, looking at the entry, the word oni does not appear and they have a troll-like regeneration.
Perhaps my memory betrays me, but at least future editions reveal the connection more directly. In 4th Edition the oni get their own entry (coincidentally coming right after ogre) and there are even two versions. Finally a basic Monster Manual has oni as a unique creature with multiple versions. Each of them represent different aspects of oni. One is a controller with the ability to deal psychic damage to sleeping enemies while healing itself. The other is a mage and linked to the aforementioned ogre mage, described as a misnomer. The two creatures have horns, sharp teeth, and horrifying visages that would strike fear into many adventurers. Now that we are in 5th Edition we see the oni maintained as a unique creature. They are blue and follow the magical stereotype. These ones are also linked to ogres, once again, but described as very distant cousins this time. It seems that 5th Edition takes a middle ground between the previous two editions. While the Monster Manual only includes the one, perhaps we might see more versions in future releases.
Right off the bat there are two things I want to say about this guide book from 3rd Edition. First, can we please get a book sourced from non-Eurocentric mythos like this again? A few of them perhaps?? Second is very simply: call it something else. Please. I get the title but in 2018 I expect us to be able to call it something else and reveal what is in it just as well. Also, we can appropriately include a larger variety of Asian cultures within the guide. I want oni, naga, rakshasa, yokai, and more. Anyways, let’s talk about the 3rd Edition book because it has a lot for oni. I must say that I am beginning to thing my belief that oni as ogre mage did NOT begin in 3rd Edition. Even within this book I see know connection or mention leaping out at me. Beyond that we have plenty of oni to work with.
The first are normal oni which are (as many others over editions) giants. These ones, however, have a special sub-type unique to this book: spirit. This works quite well with the mythological source of oni. The common oni are much like those I described at the start of this entry. Long hair, claws, horns, and strange features that vary from individual to individual. There are also two others that look like giant horse-folk and bison-folk. These are more powerful versions of oni, but still your….um…everyday oni. Where it really gets fun is when you dive into the Rokugan Shadowlands. Here there are many dark and evil creatures, including a number of demonic oni. While all oni are evil, these are all chaotic as well, wrecking havoc when they escape the Shadowlands. From grub bodied women with tentacle hair to lanky giants with many fire-wreathed tongues, these creatures are grotesque and fearsome. Just like oni are supposed to be. For a good place to start in developing oni as a full class of fiends (or spiritual creature neither fiend nor celestial), this is one of the best places to start.
Next time I want to explore some other sources of oni and what they are like. Most specifically, I will be looking at Pathfinder. They have developed the oni as a extraplanar group and their interpretations are pretty fantastic. We will go into them in a little more detail than the Shadowlands oni because they are more unique, less oni-demon hybrids. If you have something related to oni that I should look at, or a favorite example, let me know in the comments below!