Perhaps fittingly, trying to establish the true nature of a Kitsune is chasing after an elusive illusion.
When you come right down to it, Kitsune are creatures of folklore and fairy tales drawn primarily from China, India, Japan, and Korea – often admixed with counterparts from cultures still further afield. Foxes are widely distributed, and people do tend to see them as quick, tricky, cunning, and – rather often – as being capable of shapeshifting or illusion magic – although that says more about people than it does about foxes.
As might be expected from multicultural folklore, the details beyond that are wildly inconsistent.
In some tales Kitsune are basically clever beasts, who have gone beyond their natural role to speak and practice small illusions – such as appearing human when they need to communicate. Here you find tales of tribes and families of Kitsune infesting abandoned palaces and either helping out or making minor trouble. In most cases, only a few of the eldest Kitsune in the group possess magic or can communicate.
In other tales they are minor magicians and clever shapeshifters, who often try to become accepted members of the human race – commonly by having children with one or more of them – and by imitating the local culture. That’s sensible of them. After all, the normally-sapient races dominate the world, usually eat a lot more reliably than normal predators, and have a lot more comforts than you can find in a hole in the ground. Besides… if you’re a sapient magical animal too rare to have it’s own culture, who else are you going to look to for an example of how sapient creatures behave? Chipmunks?
There’s usually a price for violating the natural order this way – explaining why it isn’t common – but everything has it’s price.
In either of these cases, the Kitsune usually serves as the Trickster, much like Spider in some African tales, or Coyote in Amerindian ones. The “lessons” such tales provide to the listener are usually fairly simple, straightforward, and practical. “Don’t trust strangers the way you do people you know”, “if you’re happy with your wife, don’t worry about her relatives”, and “consider your bargains carefully before agreeing to them” are important lessons for youngsters from relatively small, closed, social groups who will soon be venturing out into the world.
City kids tend to learn lessons like that early on, and so tend to regard such tales as quaint, and cute, and as things to be collected into books – but in their proper setting they serve a purpose.
In other tales Kitsune are (possibly elemental) spirits, who need a source of power to manifest themselves (and often drain the strength of the land or of people to do so) or whom possess others. After all, it’s pretty obvious that spirits have a hard time manifesting in the physical world; otherwise they’d be all over the place. Their behavior usually reflects the culture of the tale-teller; every teller of tales sees their culture as the natural one – and presumes that many of it’s details will be reflected in the spirit world. This type of Kitsune is usually the villain of a tale. After all, it’s violating the natural order, draining strength (in some form) from the mortal world, and making trouble merely by showing up.
In other tales they are spirit-messengers of gods. Again they usually follow the tenets of the local culture – and carry whatever mysterious messages and powers the gods wish to give them. Of course, mythic gods tend to set up quests and complications rather than solving peoples problems for them. That’s because tales which end in “and then a god intervened and fixed it” are just as unsatisfying as “it was all a dream!”. They draw the same sort of scorn, no one asks to hear them again, and they drop out of circulation – and out of the mythology. Thus, in these tales, the role of a Kitsune is to offer some wise advice and occasionally a bit of help – but to leave most of the action up to the mortals. Their actual powers rarely matter very much.
In still other tales they ARE gods, being capable of transforming themselves into pretty much anything at all – including things like stars. While this sort of stunt is usually reserved for very old and powerful kitsune, such creatures tend to be unique, named, individuals – much like the Amerindian Coyote. There’s not much point in trying to determine exact powers for such beings; they’re always “whatever fits the story or the lesson it carries”.
Some features – and limitations – are pretty common though;
A basic “Kitsune” is simply… a normal fox. In the eastern tradition, a fox that survives to extreme old age will (like any other animal that does so) start to develop greater intelligence and supernatural powers – the very first, presumably, being slower aging.
Predictably – and reasonably enough in terms of magic – those powers normally start with the ability to generate minor illusions and speaking with minor illusions (pretty much the basic starting point for any magician, since tricks of illusion are generally considered to be among the weaker genuine magics). Kitsune then proceed rapidly* (and understandably) into shapeshifting – starting with renewed youth and personal health and then learning to take human form – and then move on to basic tricks with flame (the most facile of the elements – and one closely related to illusion).
*Sometimes as early as age fifty. Of course, classical tellers of tales rarely had any clear idea of just how long a fox actually lived.
Kitsune gain more tails as the gain age and power. By the time a fox has mastered those basic magics and gains a second tail, he or she will have survived at least a hundred years – and, like any other mage, will find that mastering the basics opens an immense variety of other paths. Some transcend their physical bodies to become true spirits, while others remain mortal, and able to participate fully in the physical world.
Regardless of the choice they make, a kitsune never escapes the fact that – far all it’s age and power – it’s still a fox. Decades spent as a normal animal leave an indelible legacy to go with a kitsune’s powerful instincts.
- They show an irrational fear of dogs and hunters.
- They tend to lose control of their magic if injured or frightened (such as by dogs).
- They are short-sighted and easily distracted.
- They are often extremely possessive.
- They engage in repetitive behaviors, even when it’s unwise.
- They are far too interested in sex and games for their own good.
- They overestimate their own cleverness and engage in foolish tricks that bring them nothing and can easily get them killed.
Even shapeshifting does not surpass this limitation; they may look like a mighty monster – but their social status, strength, toughness, and attacks remain those of a fox. Foxes that get into physical confrontations with humans do not win. They may look like a mighty dragon, with scales of adamant and eyes of flame – but a single arrow may well prove as fatal as it would for an ordinary fox. When they are hurt, or tormented, or even raped, they are simply… foxes. They may escape, but if they are killed, they often simply wind up in the soup or as fur trim on a robe, or as a pair of warm gloves.
In an ongoing species tragedy, this also means that – when two Kitsune have pups – the offspring are normal foxes, the vast majority of which will live, breed, and die, long LONG before developing their intellects – or the magic that would make them near-immortal. Having children with a human won’t result in Kitsune, but the offspring will develop some powers, may someday opt to undertake a true transformation – and are likely to live long enough for their nigh-immortal kitsune parent to at least get to know them.
For this alone, Kitsune generally agree… It is better to be human – or, in fantasy worlds, a member of ANY race that starts off with hands, and a culture, and a decent level of intelligence.
Next up, a set of racial templates for d20 Kitsune.