A Look at Vengeful Yokai in Dungeons and Dragons

Now that I have finished up some small projects, I’ve been getting back to something I started working on last month, but haven’t finished: a new adventure module for DMS Guild. Actually a series of mini modules, 2 hours each. It’s been a while since I made one, and after burning out from working on the last module, I decided to take a break and look at what kinds of interesting monsters (yōkai 妖怪) in Japanese mythology are worthy of a good one-shot adventure.

One of my personal favorite is a monster called the hannya (般若). The name is unusual because it’s also a Japanese-Buddhist term for Sanskrit prajñaparamita (“perfection of wisdom”) such as described in the Heart Sutra. In this case, the monster has no real Buddhist association, so it’s unclear why it shares the name.

Anyhow, hannya most frequently appear in old Japanese plays as vengeful women who were wronged, and return from the afterlife to torment those who wronged them in the form of a bitter, angry demon. In a medieval world, where women had fewer rights and could be tossed out by uncaring husbands, it’s not a stretch to see how some women in real life probably suffered greatly, and after death people might fear their return as a vengeful spirit. You can read more about it here.

Hannya are most often portrayed in Nō using a special mask, also called hannya, that changes its expression depending on the angle: terrifying in one angle, sad and mournful at another angle.

Another, similar yōkai that appears in Japanese mythology is called the ushi no toki mairi ():

Toriyama Sekien (鳥山石燕, Japanese, *1712, †1788), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This name derives from the legend that this vengeful spirit appears during the Hour of the Ox (1am to 3am) and would appear as a women with a crown of candles on her head. She would nail either a straw effigy of the person she would avenge to a tree, or a piece of paper with their name on it. In other cases, she would stalk the night seeking revenge.

The two are often conflated in Japanese folklore as well, as seen in some movies such as the 2001 film Onmyoji (a pretty underrated film). Similarly, for the purposes of Dungeons and Dragons, I decided to conflate the two into a creature similar to a revenant, but to fit Japanese mythology better, I felt that a fiend type, rather than undead, seemed more appropriate. Further, I wanted to lean into the fire theme (e.g. fires of rage), more for flavor. You can stats for a hannya in the Traveler’s Guide to the Hamato Islands among other, upcoming sources.

One lingering issue for me in writing modules based around the hannya and ushi no toki mairi is that it reinforces the old “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” trope, which feels frankly a bit dated to me. It’s a subtle reinforcement of the old trope of women being “more emotional, less rational” than men, which is a load of tripe. But I also believe that it still retains some cultural value given how much women were mistreated and that need for a sense of justice. So, it’s a tricky subject to write an adventure module about, but given its popularity in Japanese theatre and media it’s a helpful window into another culture.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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