Libris Monstrum 34: Oni Revisited
Hello everyone! A while back we delved into the lore behind the oni, a spirtual / demonic group of mythical beings stemming from Asian mythologies. Today we are going to continue that look at oni with some of the more modern fantasy RPG interpretations. At then end we will take a moment to point out some other popular culture oni as well.
In the Pathfinder lore oni are not simple fiends but were once spirits of some kind. Most oni began as a natural, protective spirit like the kami. Where kami cultivate the land, however, oni seek to consume, conquer, and destroy. These spirits have come to believe that the natural world is undeserving of the protection the kami grant and actively work against those them. They are driven by gluttonous, selfish desires and take greatest pleasure from depriving others. Interestingly all oni eventually take on a physical form that can vary widely with many different versions depending on the type of humanoid the spirit takes on.
What I love about the oni in Pathfinder is how true they feel to some of the real world myth while still being something unique and specific within the bounds of the game. These are the opposite of kami but not chaotic beings of mass destruction like demons. Oni consume, work together, and take perverse pleasure in bringing ruin to others. Each oni has different preferences and habits, often associated with the specific form they have taken. Naturally, the oni look like horrific and grotesque humanoids that are usually gigantic in stature. Deformities and abnormalities are the norm for these beings with extra eyes, horns, tusks, strangely colored skin, and more. Even with these, the oni are shapechangers able to make their appearance more appealing to the eyes of others, but this ability has limit. One of the defining features of oni is that their form is associated with a specific humanoid such as a fire giant or troll. Their abilities and habits, in part, stem from that form and with it comes their single option of shapechanging. The oni may look as one of those whom they grotesquely imitate. The way oni are presented in Pathfinder is a wonderful structure that allows GMs to create all kinds of new oni that fit the bill. These are creatures that match the vague generality of mythical oni as well as their common features.
In the 3rd Edition era there was an Oriental Adventures handbook that included many Asian-inspired things for your D&D game. A large part of this book was born out of the Rokugan setting of the Legend of Five Rings games. From this book, though, is a lot of good things to work from for your D&D game including class archetypes, new system of elements, weapons, monsters, and more. Oni sit among these things and I include them here for two reasons. The first is a simple one. This supplement provides a simple and more traditional-feeling group of oni. There are three kinds within this section and each represent common portrayals of the creatures in myth. The first is very reminiscent of Pathfinder with orange skin, tusks, a horn, and three eyes. The other two represent a horse-like giant and a yak-like one. In these rules they are classified as giants with the spirit subtype and are generally less powerful than any of the oni in Pathfinder.
However there is the second reason I come here today: the Shadowlands. Part of the Rokugan setting is a walled-off section of the country known as the Shadowlands which is full of demons and darkness. Here lie whole new oni that take on even more grotesque forms and are much more fiendish than what we have yet looked at. The only shame is how few images there are for them. These fiends have a large number of special abilities, like all fiends, that include damage resistances, telepathy, and shapeshifting. Each different oni type also has special natural features or innate magical abilities, as well. As an example there is the haino no oni that looks like a lumpy, ugly humanoid toad with impossibly long tongues that it uses to drain sleeping victims as it hides itself in cities and towns. Then there is the yattoko no oni which is a sickening combination of praying mantis and venus fly trap that does nothing but capture and devour prey. Essentially, if you want horrific, demonic oni than the 3rd Edition Oriental Adventures is the book for you to begin looking in.
There are a decent amount of oni in popular culture, but many of these occur in one of two places. The first is in anime, manga, and video games that are all teeming with Asian culture and myth. The other location is a sad state of in name only, which kind-of makes something an oni but they aren’t much like oni in general. And the name doesn’t really even mater because its more like calling something an ogre even when their no one. It gets a point across, I suppose. Let’s try to look at some examples that take myth-inspired but fresh takes on oni, though. The first example comes from Jackie Chan Adventures where season 4 includes oni as the antagonists. Except these oni aren’t a whole race but are actually nine specific demon generals. Nevertheless, their varying forms are all ogreish and similar to traditional oni depictions. Another interesting aspect that the show uses is that these ancient beings were imprisoned in masks, a wonderful idea for someone to steal for their campaign! Another example is in the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider where their are (probably) undead warriors that are called oni. These Stormguard are actually just humans that have been morphed a bit by magic. Their leader, however, comes a lot closer to fitting the description of an oni and it could be extrapolated that there is at least the one oni among the Stormguard and that the name kind of became used for them all. That being said, Tomb Raider does a good job of not giving straight answers about what is real, fake, tech, magic, or even alien.
Did I leave any of your favorite oni out? Any other good sources of unique oni inspiration out there? Let me know in the comments below!