Anthropomorphic raccoon dogs, tanukis are pretty much destined to be comic relief. I mean, this is a creature whose powers come from getting drunk. (Yes, seriously.) But comic relief doesn’t have to mean frivolous or unimportant—just look at any Terry Pratchett novel, or the kender in Dragonlance, whose great joy also allowed the reader to access sadness and loss. So the jolly tanukis can still feature in adventures with big stakes, especially regarding the environment. And as creatures that frequent the liminal borders of civilization, tanukis can be a great way to introduce PCs to adventures among the fey, kami, psychopomps, and other shapeshifters as well.
PS: I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t point you to the rich folklore about tanukis. It’s not a world I know enough to speak much about, but from the little I have gleaned (thanks mostly to Pom Poko) it’s definitely worth checking out.
A kitsune enchantress (see the Dragon Empires Gazetteer or the Advanced Race Guide) has started building a “kingdom” of forestfolk—enlisting mainly other kitsune, brownies, centaurs, and disaffected half-elves. Her court includes Uncle Pasha, an elder tanuki who spends his time getting roaring drunk and generally offending other courtiers. Those who would cross the budding queen should beware, though: Uncle Pasha is actually a drunken master (see the Advanced Player’s Guide) of considerable skill who is deeply loyal to the fox-woman.
Few things are as abominable as an evil prankster. Joshinji Banditheart is a tanuki gravedigger who visits grieving families in the guise (via veil) of their recently buried loved ones, then murders them partway through the joyous reunion. He has recently become friendly with a redcap, and the pair are thinking of branching out into making leather goods from corpse skins.
Perhaps the spirit of a good tool can recognize the spirit of an evil weapon? For when a gathering of tanukis attacks an adventuring party, it is not out of malice, but rather to rid them of the raktavarna the party members did not realize they were carrying.
—Pathfinder Bestiary 3 259
I admit it—my first exposure to tanukis was the tanuki suit in Super Mario Bros. 3. But in terms of their personality, the Studio Ghibli film I mentioned earlier, Pom Poko, is my guide. I highly recommend it.
Also, any Welcome to Night Vale fans out there? Check out artisticlicensetokill’s university-themed homage Welcome to Maryland.