Dungeons & Dragons has a terrific variety of creatures for players to use when creating their next great adventurer. Even classic fantasy beings like humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings can be tweaked with variant options or distinctive subclasses, and there are plenty of oddball options for players too! Cat-people, magic robots, centaurs, fairies, shapeshifters, bird-people, devil-people–there’s something for just about everybody, and it’s a list that keeps expanding! (I’m super psyched for the Owlin coming up in Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos). But there’s one roly-poly folklore trickster spirit that I think would make a terrific player character: TANUKI!
Yeah, my obsession with Japanese monsters absolutely does not end with the gigantic radioactive kind! Tanuki are yokai, and yokai are a “class of supernatural entities and spirits in Japanese folklore.” Yokai include a vast array of ghosts, monsters, demons, spirits, goblins, demoted gods, and people, animals and even inanimate objects transformed by magic, long life or other strange, unknowable forces. There are HUNDREDS of different Yokai, and they range from terrifying, paranormal killing machines to harmless goofball pranksters. Yokai don’t fit neatly into a single category of ghoul or ghost, but I think it’d be pretty fitting to think of them as equivalent to The Fey. The Fey which includes nice-guy Disney fairies like Tinkerbell… but also includes baby-stealing gremlins, undead curse-mongers, tricksters that spoil milk while you sleep, and all kinds of unknowable freakazoids. Tanuki tend to land on the “oafish jokester” end of the yokai spectrum… but if you push these jolly goofers too far they’ll retaliate spectacularly! Sounds like a kick-ass Bard to me! Keep reading to see how I’d use D&D’s existing rules to “homebrew” a playable Tanuki, complete with a Level 1 character sheet!
Right out the gate, I want to make it clear that I’m not including the Stretch Armstrong super-ballsack that Tanuki are (in)famous for. No seriously, part of the long-running folklore tradition of Tanuki is that they have gigantic, shapeshifting scrotes that are… kind of their signature feature?
Or maybe just one of their signature features? I didn’t build this character to specifically remove the super-sacks, but I also didn’t include anything that screams “this is a super nards ability and cannot be interpreted any other way!” You know your table better than I do, so include or ignore the magic nuts at your discretion. Notably, the charming anime film Pom Poko includes the super-sacks and some of their buckwild powers, but doesn’t laser focus the story on them. The Tanuki characters that star in the Animal Crossing games make no reference to them at all, visual or otherwise. Whether they’re real ballsy or SFW, Tanuki are always jolly partiers, junk food connoisseurs, sake chuggers, and prankish shapeshifters.
And since we’re going nard-agnostic, this means the microbuild I’m going to share could be applied to other famous shapeshifting animal Yokai like Kitsune (fox) and Bakeneko (changed cat)…. in fact, I’ll probably revisit this idea with higher-level builds for all three.
Okay fuck it, these guys are too cool and interesting to stay as sidebars, I’ll whip up quickie builds for them too! First up is our Tanuki, Tanuki Joe!
So if you looked at the Character Sheet, you’ll notice in the slot for “Race” I’ve got “Tanuki (Custom Lineage).” Custom Lineage is a character creation option from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything and it totally, absolutely beats ass, especially for making up oddball characters like these. It’s quick, easy to use, and will be pretty familiar to anyone who’s built a Human character using the objectively superior Human (Variant) option:
- Creature type. You are a humanoid. You determine your appearance and whether you resemble any of your kin.
- Size. You are Small or Medium (your choice).
- Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 feet.
- Ability Score Increase. One ability score of your choice increases by 2.
- Feat. You gain one feat of your choice for which you qualify.
- Variable Trait. . You gain one of the following options of your choice:
- Darkvision with a range of 60 feet.
- Proficiency in one skill of your choice.
- Languages. You can speak, read, and write Common and one other language that you and your DM agree is appropriate for your character.
Tanuki Joe is Small–after all, Tanuki ARE real-life animals (also referred to as “racoon-dogs”) and are only about 1.5 to 2.5 feet long! Tanuki also take the +2 to Charisma, the Shadow-Touched Feat, Darkvision, and can speak Common and Sylvan. Shadow-Touched is really what makes our Tanuki a Tanuki (and similarly captures the Kitsune and Bakeneko’s bad-ass, ghostly, shapeshifting flair):
- Increase your Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma score by 1, to a maximum of 20. [all 3 of our Yokai will put that bonus to Charisma, since it will power their magic and they’re all big-time charmers.]
- You learn the invisibility spell and one 1st-level spell of your choice. The 1st-level spell must be from the illusion or necromancy school of magic. You can cast each of these spells without expending a spell slot. Once you cast either of these spells in this way, you can’t cast that spell in this way again until you finish a long rest. You can also cast these spells using spell slots you have of the appropriate level. The spells’ spellcasting ability is the ability increased by this feat.
Invisibility at Level 1 whips ass for anybody, but fits well with Tanuki’s illusion magics and trickery. Even better, we’ll use this feat to also give Tanuki Joe the most Tanuki-est spell possible: Disguise Self! Cast it without using a spell slot, turn into an unassuming-looking humanoid, and go PARTY in town!
Before I landed on the Shadow-Touched Feat, I was STRONGLY considering the Fey-Touched Feat. Lore-wise it’s closer to Yokai’s whole deal (what with them baaaasically being Fey creatures), but it gives you access to different spell lists–spell lists that don’t include Disguise Self, which for my money is absolutely vital to the Tanuki build. That said, Fey-Touched does offer some pretty cool options that play nice with other Yokai builds.. more on that later.
Of course of course of course Tanukis are natural Bards. These lil stinkers are fun-loving party animals with a knack for song and dance, especially drumming on their big round bellies or bigger, rounder balls. For instrument proficiencies I gave Tanuki Joe Drum, Guitar, and Harmonica. I think that last one is homebrew but it just fits the vibe so well. The Drum HAS to be the Bardic Focus, being the most iconic musical instrument associated with the lil goobers. At level one TJ has the following spells–not always the most functional, but always the most fun-ctional, and as Tanuki-ish as possible!
- Prestidigitation. A perfect utility spell for being a fun and flashy magical show-off, messing with dweebs, and it even has some practical uses! What Tanuki could resist the urge to reflavor boring trail rations into tasting like Cool Ranch Doritos???
- Vicious Mockery. An iconic Bard spell and a perfect fit for Tanuki–making fun of someone so hard that it hurts them and makes them fuck up their next attack!
Level One Spells
- Disguise Self. Granted to us via the Shadow-Touched feat, TJ can use it once per long rest without consuming a spell slot. Plus it’s just in his spell list now, so he can also cast it additional times with available spell slots if need be. Whether you’re passing for humanoid in town or scaring the shit out of badguys, you’ll want a quick change or two or three!
- Dissonant Whispers. Like Vicious Mockery, Dissonant Whispers is both an iconic Bard spell AND narratively it lines up ideally with Tanuki’s’ role as mischievous spooksters.
- Distort Value. In folklore (and Animal Crossing!), Tanuki are known to use leaves to help with their shapeshifting, often by wearing one on their heads, adorably. But one of Tanuki’s sketchiest and most iconic tricks is to make leaves look like currency and “buy” their way around town! Distort value isn’t quite THAT powerful, but it’s a similar-enough ability that honors Tanuki folklore, especially their status as quasi-patron saints of prosperity and good fortune.
- Healing Word. Leave it to a Tanuki to literally bring you back to life with a rousing speech or the promise of fabulous treasure!
- Silent Image. Conjure up (moving images of) all manner of terrifying ghouls and ghosts… or appear to have a fistful of gold and gems to trade… or create an illusory walkway over a pit for your enemies to fall through… Like Prestidigitation, the only real limit here is how creative and mischievously Tanuki-like you can be!
Level Two Spell
- Invisibility. Also granted with the Shadow-Touched feat. Having a second-level spell, and one as insanely useful as Invisibility is a major part of why I’m so psyched to try this build sometime.
I gave TJ the Urchin background. I strongly considered Outlander since Tanuki are rare, magical lil nature weirdos, but Urchin gives them a wonderful “trash panda” flavor that is even more fitting. Outlander is a great fit if your Tanuki character is new to city life (and delicious city garbage!), and the same goes for Kitsune and Bakeneko. Charlatan, Gambler, Criminal/Spy, Far Traveler, Feylost, and Hermit would all be solid choices for a Yokai character too (especially our three iconic animal tricksters!). Between the Urchin background and the Skill Proficiencies available with Bard, Tanuki Joe has Proficiency in Acrobatics, Deception, Performance, Sleight of Hand and Stealth. TJ’s a smooth little shit!
For Ability Scores I made sure to make Charisma the highest, then Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Strength, and Wisdom. Charisma first because Tanuki are charming magical tricksters, Dexterity because they’re sneaky, thieving lil shits, Constitution third because they’re hearty but not like superhuman. One the low side Intelligence is a minor positive: Tanuki will be in touch with local history and knowledgeable of songs and games and culture, but not exceptionally so. Strength’s a goose egg, they’re barely bigger than house cats so they’re not huge, beefy bad-asses. Wisdom is the dump stat because Tanuki are jolly tricksters… but they’re also kind of dingalings that can ALSO be tricked. They just have too much fun to notice or even care when shit breaks bad.
Tanuki Joe at Higher Levels
So that’s my level one build for a classically-styled Tanuki character! Right from level one, Tanuki Joe isn’t just a Bard with a weird twist or two, he’s a pesky little nature spirit! TJ is the type of lovable scamp that’s just as likely to get hammered at the nearest tavern as he is to scare the shit out of some uptight nobles with illusions of bloodthirsty demons. But what if this magical little shit survives beyond Level One? I’ve got some ideas!
At some point down the road I wouldn’t blame a player for taking a dip for a level or two into Warlock or Sorcerer. The Wild Magic Sorcerer in particular keeps the chaos and mayhem high, which Tanuki are very into since they’re basically Cheshire Cats. That said I would stick with Bard at least up through level three, opting into the College of Lore subclass. Lore isn’t the sexiest or most complex Bard College, but it’s classically Bard-y, which is a good fit for Tanuki. Cutting Words is an iconic ability (shit talk your opponents into failure!), and Proficiency in three more skills is handy as hell, if not flashy. It feels especially good to pick up Charisma Skill Proficiencies that we missed initially like Intimidation and Persuasion.
If the College of Lore is too basic for your tastes, the College of Creation is perfect for Bugs Bunny/The Mask type prop-comedy/magical fuckery. The College of Eloquence is perfect for an especially smooth Tanuki, and even better for a naturally-slick Kitsune. The College of Spirits is great for any of our three Yokai, but especially Tanuki and Holy Kitsune–they innately have deep connections to the Spirit World.
By level three TJ will have picked up 2 more spells, including the ability to use second level spell slots. Scanning through the Bard spell list, the following strike me as winners. Again, these aren’t always the most mechanically-sound options, but the ones that best capture the Tanuki spirit of magical trickery, scary illusions, and of course, moderate-to-severe dirtbaggery.
Level One Spells to Consider
- Charm Person
- Faerie Fire
- Tasha’s Hideous Laughter
Level Two Spells to Consider
- Crown of Madness
- Gift of Gab
- Nathair’s Mischief
- Phantasmal Force
These are all great options, but for my money Charm Person, Knock and Phantasmal Force hit the perfect balance of “actually useful in-game” AND “very, very Tanuki-ish.”
Feats are one of my favorite features of D&D 5e, so you better believe I have some in mind for our rotund raccoon-like rascal!
Feats to Consider
- Actor. +1 to Charisma alone makes this a major contender, but it also grants Advantage on Deception and/or Performance Checks to pass yourself off as someone else and makes you a master of mimicry.
- Chef. Tanuki are die-hard lovers of food, and this grants some cool healing bonuses that play nice with the Song of Rest feature Bards get at level two.
- Fey-Touched. We didn’t take this at level one, but it wouldn’t hurt later on! +1 to Charisma (or Wisdom or Intelligence, if you’re wanting to beef those up for some reason), plus you learn Misty Step and a level one spell of your choice from the Schools of Divination or Enchantment. More on this feat later.
- Lucky. It’s a feat that’s great on literally any build, but Tanuki are supernaturally good at getting away with shit they shouldn’t.
That’s all I have for Tanuki Joe at the moment! I’ll run through some alternate options too, starting with a Kitsune and Bakeneko build!
Love that rich, earthy Yokai flavor, but don’t want to play a lovable oaf? Looking for somebody a lot slicker and a little eerier? You’re looking for a Kitsune then, friendo! To REALLY differentiate, we’ll make a Holy Kitsune instead of a Wild one. Of our three Yokai, Holy Kitsune have the strongest connection to the Spirit World and are the least prankish and mischievous. Kind of a spooky goody-goody!
Kitsune Kumori starts off exactly like Tanuki Joe: Custom Lineage, Small size, +2 to Charisma, take the Shadow-Touched Feat (+1 to Charisma, take Disguise Self), Darkvision, and can speak Common and Sylvan.
I had initially considered Paladin for Holy Kitsune (and that might still be a good Dexterity-based build!) but I liked the pure spellcaster-ness of going Sorcerer. Going with the Divine Soul origin felt like a great way to underline Kitsune Kumori’s connection to the Spirit World, even mechanically. Sorcerers are so INSANELY squishy that they make me nervous, hence why Kumori has Shield AND Mage Armor. If you’re braver than me, maybe swap either Shield or Mage Armor (ya GOTTA hang on to one, you lunatic!) with Magic Missile? Bolts of pure light guided with divine wisdom is on-brand for a Holy Kitsune!
Tanuki Joe’s Level One and Level Two Spells to consider apply here as well, but so do a few more! For a Holy Kitsune, False Life and Feather Fall make perfect sense for additional Level One spells. At Level Two, Blur, Mind Spike and Tasha’s Mind Whip all fit for Holy or Wild Kitsune. To be REAL Kitsune-ish, opt for spells like Suggestion that let you hotwire other characters’ brains and bods. With all three of these trickster animals, anything that charms people, makes them hallucinate, or otherwise fucks with their brain is peak Yokai-osity.
For a Wild Kitsune build, I’d go Bard, then at level three take either the College of Spirits or the College of Glamour. Wild Kitsune, generally speaking, are closer to Tanuki in their goals, methods and motives, but are much slicker and less bumbling. They even have a bit of a sinister bent, relatively speaking.
Bakeneko, our spicy lil kitty-cats! Of our three Yokai critters, Bakeneko are the most likely to swing a little more evil, even outpacing Wild Kitsune. Plus they’re associated with fire (both natural and otherworldly, ghostly flame) and thought to cause freak house-fires, so Warlock felt like the only appropriate route for our edgy little stinkers.
Nyan goes MOSTLY like Tanuki Joe and Kitsune Kumori: the +2 to Charisma, the Shadow-Touched Feat, Darkvision, and can speak Common and Sylvan. The only difference this time, and this is just for fun and variety, is that Nyan will be MEDIUM. Bakeneko are like dragons, as they age, they get smarter, more powerful and even physically larger, up to the size of an adult human. It’s very common for a Bakeneko to get large enough and powerful enough to eat their human master, and then take their master’s place, appearance, relationships and all. Like a fuzzy, adorable Talented Mr. Ripley. The Charlatan background is perfect here–opt for the Identity Thief-ish options to really play into the “I pose as my master whom I FUCKING ATE.”
I had a lot of trouble settling on a Warlock patron for Nyan. The Archfey and Fiend are both options I’d recommend! Archfey fits with Bakenko’s lore nicely and Fey Presence is a cool as shit ability… but this is our big fiery blasty cat! How can we NOT go Fiend?!? Whether you go Archfey or Fiend, you could flavor your Patron as a NEKOMATA. Nekomata is an even bigger, badder type of magic trickster cat from Japanese folklore.
Nekomata has TWO tails, they’re on fire, and these fuckers get so big and powerful they eventually go live in the mountains–kaiju-sized tigers and lions with powerful fire magic and a straight-up hatred of humanity. Archfey is a better fit thematically, but that sounds pretty Fiend-ish to me too! You don’t HAVE to go this route of course–Bakeneko would gladly broker deals for power from other patrons. Archfey, Fiends, Genies and Undead would all desire having a Bakeneko owe them a favor or nine.
For a less explosive, more manipulative Bakeneko, choose the Bard class, then at Level Three take either the College of Spirits or College of Glamour, similar to the Wild Kitsune.
Other Options and Conclusion
Browsing around 5e for in-game, non-homebrew ways to build Yokai characters was a ton of fun. Japanese mythology is a deep, fascinating well of folklore to pull from. I’m not even remotely an expert, but www.yokai.com has been a wonderful resource, and I’m slowly picking my way through The Book of Yokai by Michael Dylan Foster, which is also fantastic. Who knows, maybe I’ll have more Yokai D&D ideas to share as I get to know these delightful little monsters better!
If you’re looking to play a ghostly supernatural weirdo who doesn’t need Disguise Self to help pass for humanoid, Cause Fear would be a bad-ass alternative! Or you could swap the Shadow-Touched feat for the Fey-Touched feat, and then choose from Bless, Charm Person, Command, Dissonant Whispers, Sleep, or Tasha’s Hideous Laughter as your free Level One spell. Any of those deliver the “otherworldly trickster spirit” energy that is so vital to Yokai.
The Changeling race option introduced in Eberron: The Last War comes with the Shapechanger feature, so naturally I had to give it a close look. In a lot of ways Shapechanger is more powerful than Disguise Self, but it also has limitations that make it feel different from Yokai’s illusory shape-fuckery. Specifically, Shapechanger affects just the character’s physical body–not their clothing or equipment. Changeling is a terrific option for an uncanny person-of-a-million faces, but that’s a bit too narrow of a focus for our magical trickster spirits! Invisibility or Misty Step seal the deal–Changelings are corporeal, living things, Yokai are something much stranger and more inherently magical.
I’m definitely not done playing around with Yokai in D&D! These classic creatures and their legends make for instant eerie adventures and magical, mysterious plothooks. The Sidekick character type in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything seems like an ideal way to add a wacky little nature spirit or two to any adventuring party–I’m probably going to experiment with that eventually!
Have you run or played in a game with Yokai characters, stories or NPCs? How did your table handle it? I’d love to hear about your experiences and ideas!