R’s for Rakshasa, a Foe and a Friend

Is this really the first monster with the accent on the second syllable? Cripes.

Every once in a while I like going back through books of monsters and wondering why I’ve never used certain creatures. Often the answer is something obvious, but every once in a while I stumble upon a gem for which I just hadn’t found the right setting. Today’s creature was in the first Monster Manual I ever picked up, and I rejected them because I thought they were weird and poorly-designed. I still think that. But the Pathfinder version fixed some of its problems, and I found it just in time to use it.

Rakshasas in D&D are inspired by, but seem to have nothing to do with, the creatures from Hindu mythology. In D&D they are tiger-headed humanoids with backward-facing hands and magical powers. They are evil, and you are now fully caught up on the culture and backstory of rakshasas as a race according to the 3E Monster Manual. 4E added that they can have other feline heads and they like nobility and finery, Pathfinder let them have any animal head and made them anti-religious, and the Bestiary 3 finally gave them an inkling of background by making the original rakshasas just one of a race called “rakshasas” for maximum confusion.

I want to come back to the 3E rakshasa to give you an idea of just how terrible a creature this was. When I said their culture was sparse, I wasn’t kidding. Here is the full text of the rakshasa’s entry after taking out their height, weight, language, and the description of their hands:

Some say rakshasas are the very embodiment of evil. Few beings are more malevolent.

I would say this is the worst sort of Saturday morning cartoon villainy, but even Skeletor had a backstory. Rakshasas are as boring as monsters come, and they’re no better in combat. Their physical ability scores are terrible, and their attack, damage, AC, and hit points are nowhere near what their CR warrants. All they have going for them offensively is the casting power of a 7th-level sorcerer, somewhat underwhelming to the 10th-level players who usually fight them. But it’s their defenses that make them shine like a ball of polished mud. They have ludicrously high damage reduction that can only be bypassed by a weapon both good and piercing, and their spell resistance lets them ignore some eighty percent of the spells cast at them. Fighting them is a slog without value, where either you have the perfect solution that can end them in one or two rounds (a holy pick or a spell that ignores SR) or you beat your head against them for a while as under-leveled magic plinks off you. It’s just bad.

I completely ignored the rakshasa for ten years, because that’s what it deserved. The Pathfinder version fixes a lot of these problems, mostly because Pathfinder was designed with some concept of appropriate statistics by CR. But also because they finally defined what rakshasas want to do in the world: corrupt society from within. I ran across them when I was building The Eight Arms and the Empire of Sin, where one of the major themes was “at what point does a society’s evil condemn it?”* And rakshasas have always had the ability to disguise themselves as a PC race to walk among them and act without hassle, so I had everything I needed.

In true rakshasa fashion, the players didn’t know they were dealing with one until the end of the campaign. He had set the wheels of the campaign in motion, convincing up a specific king to overextend himself and waiting for somebody to have a problem with it so he could set himself up as a leader once the king fell. He helped the party throughout the campaign, giving them information and connections when they needed them, and in the end he picked up the pieces. I did specifically want to avoid the “you have served me well, now you must die!” trope that always seems to knock villains off their pedestal, and once the rakshasa had power he gave the party and their guild cushy positions in his new order. I was mentally prepared for them to fight him anyway, but they shrugged and figured he was fine as long as he wasn’t actively hurting anybody (except for the paladin, who stormed off).

This is how a rakshasa should be used, not as a creature to actually fight but as a manipulator in the background. They’re not built for anything but surviving to fight another day, and that’s how their defenses and spells should be used, as escape mechanisms. There’s no fighting a rakshasa, only backing it into the corner like a feral cat.

Oh, feral cat, feline heads, I just got it.

* — This theme may be news to my players. But consider that the first act was about fighting the qlippoth, who wanted to fight the campaign villain’s evil acts but mind-controlled everybody to do it. The second act was about defending a sinful society, but by destroying the manifestations of that sin come to exact punishment. The third was about overthrowing a formerly-immoral kingdom that found religion and wanted to forcefully spread the word of good, but did it by killing anybody who opposed them. And the story ended with a rakshasa in charge of that kingdom intending to turn it into an even more debauched civilization than before, but in a benign way that caused no direct harm to its neighbors, and the party accepted it. I figured if my players want to kill angels, I might as well give the angels a reason to throw the first punch.

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