This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Forty Six on 30th August, 2023.
Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.
Rakshasas are often a “pass-over” creature in D&D. They aren’t hidden away in separate resources and they’ve been around for a long time, but they don’t see a lot of use in most D&D resources, and it’s hard at first glance to see what makes them stand out. However, if used properly and the full range of their abilities is taken advantage of, they can be nearly as formidable as dragons.
As far as the Research Beholders have figured out, Rakshasas first showed up in the first edition monster manual. It makes sense because “Rakshasas” are actually evil spirits from Hindu mythology, and as we’ve discussed in another short rest waaay back in episode 82, a lot of D&D monsters got their start in various myths of the real world. They took a lot of creative license with the Rakshasas though.
There are two things everyone latches onto with the Rakshasas; they’re effectively tiger-people, and their hands are on backwards. It can be hard to figure out what that means for some, so here’s a way to figure it out. Hold your arms out in front of you as if you’re about to start typing. See how your palms face the ground? Rakshasas’ palms face up.
Interestingly, the backwards-hand thing didn’t become a feature until 2nd edition. In first edition the description and artwork didn’t make a big deal about the hands, but every edition after that it’s stuck. As we mentioned, Rakshasa are sort of low-key staples of D&D; they’ve been included in the first printing of every monster resource book in every edition of the game and their appearance and abilities haven’t changed very much over that time.
Rakshasa lore is a bit all over the place apart from that, but interestingly enough, that fact has actually been worked into the lore itself in places. We’ll get to that in a bit.
What has remained consistent, apart from the fur and the hands, is their basic nature. Rakshasas are not mortal beings.
Their essence is that of a fiend, and like all fiends if they aren’t killed on their home plane, they return there. Whatever unspecified process allowed the Rakshasas to leave their plane of origin sort of broke that tether a bit. If their body is destroyed, they end up in a random location on the lower planes (that includes the Abyss, the Nine Hells, Pandemonium, Hades, and a bunch of other fun places like that).
If the Rakshasa can make their way back to the material plane, they will reform with their old body. How long that takes depends entirely on what lower plane they ended up in, so they could be gone for a few days, a month, or even several years.
But even getting to the point where they’re dead is not easy. Rakshasa are said to be build like humans, but usually they’re the kind of humans that people want on NFL or Rugby teams. They average between 6-7 feet (or 2 meters) tall, and weigh in between 300 and 400 pounds (140 – 180kg). Articulated thumbs, even if they’re in the wrong place, mean they have no problem using weapons, shields, and armor, and a lot of them train to do just that.
But as hard as it is to come at them physically, their fiendish nature means magically attacking them is a complete nonstarter. They are completely immune to all magic below 6th level. Not “automatically succeeds on saves” or anything like that, just “the magic has no effect”. Unless they want it to, so if you feel like healing them, they will happily take the free health. And then they will set you on fire, because almost all of them can use magic as well.
Simply ignoring them is not a great idea, because when they are on the Material Plane, they are not a force for good. They mostly behave like a cross between a devil and a chromatic dragon. Rakshasas will make an effort to acquire material wealth and power and tend to horde it in mansions, palaces, and fancy lairs if they can manage it. But unlike dragons, they don’t show up and find the biggest thing in the room, make it submit, and then demand tribute.
Instead, Rakshasas will commonly prey on the weakest first, killing or overpowering all of the easy targets and taking all of their wealth and power. Then they move on to the next easiest targets and so on until they end up as the most powerful and well-off being in the immediate area. The treasures that they hold onto tend to be unique and remarkable things like rare magic items, unique pieces of artwork or, unfortunately, particularly beautiful, clever, or noteworthy people whom they keep as slaves. Or food, eventually.
They’re partly able to pull this off because they have another draconic trick; they can imitate anyone’s appearance they like. Sources vary on whether this is done with magic, like a disguise self spell, or if it’s actual shapeshifting. Either way, nobody ever panics about the tiger people taking over. It’s always the new business that’s unusually aggressive, or the mercenary company that’s a little indiscriminate with killing. And don’t worry if very visible or popular groups of people disappear; more rakshasas will happily come in and replace them so business can continue as usual. Don’t bother looking for the bodies, either, unless you’re looking at a menu. Only the most trusted inner circle ever finds out they’re Rakshasas.
Now we get to the messy parts of Rakshasa lore, and that’s what exactly happens once the Rakshasas settle down and establish themselves. Most sources agree there are levels to Rakshasa society, loosely named after the peerage system of India. Military trained Rakshasa’s are ruhks [rewks], above them are the raja [RAH-jah], and then above them are the maharajas [MAH-ha-rah-jah]. Some sources say each Rakshasa is born into one of these groups and stays at that caste forever (this was the description in 2nd edition). Others claim that there is a meritocracy, and acts of bravery, loyalty, or something like that can raise a Rakshasa’s status.
There are female Rakshasas, called Rakshasi, but all accounts say they are basically treated as servants and breeders. Some reports say that Rakshasa males will find a partner to breed with, others claim the males establish harems.
They do actually breed, adding to the issue of figuring out how that actually works with devils, as if Fierna and Glasya weren’t enough of a puzzle. But Rakshasa born on the material plane still have the benefit of fiendish natures and souls that drop to lower planes rather than die when their body is killed. That’s good, because apparently the Rakshasi mothers are particularly brutal and vicious in child-rearing.
The inconsistencies are explained away by saying different Rakshasas set up different systems if and when they rise to power. Most scholars think the ultimate origin of the Rakshasas were devils of the Nine Hells, and while devils certainly like order and structure, they don’t all do it the same way; the different organizations in each level of the hells is evidence of that if nothing else.
Peer review on the reports is difficult to do. Rakshasas go to great pains to hide their natures, and they are innately paranoid and suspicious of anyone digging into them too closely. The attrition rate of spies sent into Rakshasa territories and organizations is appalling.
Rakshasas are actually pretty easy to slot into a campaign, but they suffer from the problem of other creatures often doing the job better, or at least having more of an impact for storytelling. For example, they make great secretive heads of evil governments or kingdoms, but so does a shapeshifted dragon, or one that’s hiding nearby with a puppet doing most of their bidding.
Their lore suggests they aren’t really into worshipping any particular gods or fiendish figures (who they’re more likely to see as competition), so they don’t fit in well as cultists. If there’s a group of evil magic users not affiliated with a god then the Rakshasa fill that roll very well…but so do the Red Wizards, and they have a bit more pizzazz to them.
They can also figure as the central power and brains behind a powerful criminal organization, but many people think Rakshasas in that scenario are overkill; Rakshasas in 5e are CR 13 creatures (mostly because of the immune to magic thing, and the fact that their basic attacks immediately make it impossible to get any benefit from long rests). By the time characters can take on CR 13 creatures like that, they’re often of the mindset that dealing with criminal syndicates is beneath them; they’re supposed to be fighting corrupt governments and/or slaying evil dragons, which brings us back to point 1.
Of course, for that reason they make a good fake-out if they are included. No one expects the Rakshasas, and you don’t even have to dress them up in red robes. They could spend all their time hunting around in caves for the dragon lair that doesn’t exist (something it would totally be in character for the Rakshasa in charge to encourage, by the way). Then when they finally do find some evidence of evil, the barbarian can rush in with their sword of dragonslaying only to have their throat ripped out by a white tiger face holding two scimitars and laughing at the cleric trying to cast hold person.
That last point is something to remember if you do want to use these creatures, by the way, and possibly another reason they’re so unpopular. Being able to just totally ignore magic under 6th level means spellcasters will be effectively useless during the fight. You’d have to design encounters to give them something else to do apart from throwing rocks at the feral cat. Of course, Rakshasa are humanoids and they don’t have beastly stats, so having bodyguards and such makes sense. Just make sure they aren’t all Rakshasas too, or your spellcasters will not have any fun. You might, but probably not them.