Hands down, the rakshasa had the coolest illustration in the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual; I can’t help but think that the current illustration is in part a tribute to that original David A. Trampier drawing. Rakshasas were rarely encountered, but when they were, you knew the encounter would be memorable, because it had to live up to that illustration.
The fifth-edition rakshasa is likely to be another rarity, because its challenge rating is a high 13—too difficult a boss for low- or mid-level player characters. Rakshasas aren’t on the level of fully grown dragons, but they’re as tough as a beholder or master vampire, and tougher than genies, which should give you a sense of the kind of status they should have in a campaign.
The rakshasa’s highest physical ability scores are Dexterity and Constitution, but these are exceeded by its Charisma. What we have here is a creature that, while built to survive a battle of attrition, would rather fight using magic than using its claws. But that doesn’t mean it gets its way.
Before delving into its spell list, let’s go over its other features. The rakshasa is expert in Deception and Insight—a born con artist. With its Limited Magic Immunity, it can nope out of spells cast against it unless those spells are 7th-, 8th- or 9th-level. And it has very powerful Innate Spellcasting, specializing in illusion and enchantment—although, as we’ll see, its spell repertoire is optimized for social interaction, not combat.
The rakshasa is immune to physical damage from nonmagical weapons, but it’s vulnerable to piercing from magic weapons “wielded by good creatures.” This is an oddity for 5E, which shuns the assumption of former editions that certain creatures are inherently good or evil. Instead, it offers us spells like protection from evil and good, which defends against celestials and fey as well as fiends and undead—not to mention elementals and aberrations, which have always stood outside the No. 1 cosmic feud as neutrals and an opportunistic third faction, respectively. So a celestial with a spear can do double damage to a rakshasa, but an aberration or fiend with a spear can’t? What about a good PC? What about a nominally good PC whose player plays his or her alignment poorly? Or a nominally neutral PC whose actions are consistently good, even if his or her motivations aren’t? What about a high-concept chaotic good tiefling or lawful evil aasimar PC?
Welcome to Judgment Call City. I see no clear path forward on this issue, but my own call would be to use alignment as written for monsters and non-player characters, and alignment as acted (not necessarily as declared) for PCs. A character’s sudden discovery that he or she unexpectedly does double damage—or unexpectedly doesn’t—may make for an interesting character development inflection point.
(Tangentially, this is one of the bare handful of instances I’m aware of in D&D 5E in which it matters what type of physical damage a weapon does. Magical spears, bows and arrows, daggers, short swords and rapiers are going to seize a rakshasa’s attention in a way that other weapons don’t, even if they’re also magical.)
The four spells that the rakshasa can cast at will (detect thoughts, disguise self, mage hand, minor illusion) have no direct combat application, although disguise self is useful in the circumstance of an urban chase, since a rakshasa can use it to vanish in a crowd.
Of the spells it can cast three times per day, detect magic has no combat application, charm person has the salient disadvantage of working poorly against combat opponents, and suggestion may get opponents to abandon a fight but isn’t likely to win it. Major image may serve as a distraction, fooling opponents into thinking the rakshasa has conjured some other creature to fight alongside it, but as soon as they “land a hit” and discover nothing there, the illusion is dispelled. Invisibility, however, has obvious tactical benefit—especially since the rakshasa’s Limited Magic Immunity means see invisibility and even true seeing won’t work on it.
As for the spells it can cast once per day, dominate person has the same drawback as charm person (though it’s a lot more useful and effective than charm person if the rakshasa can cast it on someone before combat begins, and it’s also good for casting on innocent bystanders), true seeing is primarily defensive, and fly has a nasty drawback that I’ll look at in a second. But plane shift is always useful as an escape hatch, which a rakshasa, having Wisdom 16, will unhesitatingly use as soon as it’s moderately wounded (reduced to 77 hp or fewer). Anyone who can do 33 points of damage to a rakshasa is not to be tangled with.
The problem with fly, which otherwise is a great spell for getting out of reach of melee opponents, is that ranged weapons tend also to be piercing weapons. If none of the rakshasa’s opponents has a magic ranged weapon, then the rakshasa can use fly to station itself in the air, out of melee reach, swoop down to attack and then fly back up. (With a natural armor class of 16 and immunity to normal weapon damage, it’s not going to worry too much about opportunity attacks.) But if there is an opponent with a magic ranged weapon, then not only does fly offer no protection, it guarantees that the rakshasa’s opponents will rely on that very weapon to bring it down.
Now, while a rakshasa’s spell kit isn’t so useful in combat, it’s superb for allowing a rakshasa to carry out its predatory schemes, and that’s what it will count on: keeping its presence and its nature concealed so that it can hunt and feed without having to fight openly. Just like vampires, rakshasas are predators, and predators don’t attack hard targets—they pursue the young, the old, the weak, the sick, the isolated and the oblivious. Unlike vampires, however, rakshasas are hustlers. If the PCs discover a rakshasa, the first thing it will do is use its wiles to try to make them out to be the villains, so that they’re not just going up against the rakshasa—they’re going up against the entire community. As it does so, though, it will also begin laying the ground for its own escape, in case it becomes necessary. Rakshasas aren’t geniuses, but they’re prudent, and they’ll try to anticipate what their opponents have the power to do to them and preempt these threats before their opponents can carry them out.
If a combat encounter ensues, it’s because all the rakshasa’s other schemes and precautions have failed, and it’s cornered. In this case, the rakshasa can fall back on its dual-claw Multiattack. (The magical curse of the claw takes effect once combat is over; it has no effect during the encounter itself.) With its relatively high AC, quick movement speed and immunity to physical damage from normal weapons, the rakshasa is a natural skirmisher: it will try to keep 35 to 40 feet away from its opponents, wait for one of them to overextend, then rush in and engage him or her in melee. But as soon as one of that opponent’s allies runs up to help, or if that opponent has Extra Attack, it will Disengage (action) and retreat to a safe distance again. If it doesn’t have room to retreat, it will Dodge (action) as long as it’s being engaged in melee by more than one opponent, and use its movement to try to circle around to where it has more room to move. One thing it will also try to do is retreat in a direction that puts it within 35 to 40 feet of a different opponent, especially if the first opponent has Extra Attack. ETA: What am I thinking? When it’s engaged by multiple opponents whom it can’t easily Disengage from, it uses invisibility, of course! Then it repositions itself near a weaker, isolated opponent before attacking again. It can execute this stunt only three times, so it makes the highest and best use of it.
Although the rakshasa is hard to kill, it’s not capable of doing a great deal of damage itself. Even if it lands both claw hits, the most it can do in one Multiattack is 28 points of damage, and around 18 points is more likely. That won’t faze a high-level, front-line attacking PC. Thus, as tough as they are, rakshasas will strongly prefer to surround themselves with allies, either willing or charmed, who can keep their opponents occupied while they do their attack-and-retreat dance. It will also incline them to attack their most prey-like opponents first, if possible (see criteria above).
Rakshasas can’t be permanently killed except in the Nine Hells, but they still intensely dislike being “killed” on the material plane. Being immune to any hurt that an ordinary mortal can dish out, they have the sense to recognize that anyone who can wound them can also kill them. Also, when it comes to the kinds of magical weapons that they’re vulnerable to, they’re straight-up cowards—not necessarily afraid of the opponents wielding the weapons, but very afraid of the weapons themselves. Thus, as I mentioned before, a rakshasa will seek to flee after taking only moderate damage, as well as upon being struck by a weapon that it’s vulnerable to. Depending on the extent to which its duplicity is known, it may simply try to escape on foot: as soon as it gets out of sight, it can use disguise self to mask its identity, which is useful not only in crowds but also in castles, because who’s more inconspicuous than a liveried servant? But if its opponents are too clever to fall for that, it uses plane shift to slip away to another dimension.
Next: Are tarrasques easier to beat than they’re reputed to be?