Bukana Illustrated: Spirit Masks

This is the first part of a series within a series. We’re going to look at how we adapted somewhat obscure creatures from Philippine myth into a player bloodline (‘subrace’). Very briefly, we need to discuss the devastating impact that the Spanish had on the indigenous beliefs when they claimed the islands for themselves. While the variety of myths and creatures is what appeals to us about the region, the Spanish found it confusing and unacceptable. Therefore, they bent a lot of the local creatures toward their European sensibilities. Therefore, so many mysterious spirits became variations of elves, dwarves, and faeries. The damage was so thorough in some cases that the native words for some spirits have been lost and Filipino identify these entities as the elves and dwarves that the Spaniards designated them as. Therefore, in order to make ancestries and bloodlines for Bukana, we were able to keep some of the existing options from the 5e game. Of course, we aim to make the new bloodlines much less European and as unique and magical as the myths from which they are inspired.

Our research led us to look at elven people of the Philippines. I found two accounts rather interesting: the Tamahaling and the Mahomanay. They are mentioned together in the literature and they offer very little information for us to work with. The Tamahaling are red-skinned guardians of wild animals and they are all women. The Mahomanay are pale-skinned protectors of the land who are all men. You find a fair amount of this in the mythology, the idea that a spirit/creature is only one gender. Of course, the sources don’t distinguish between sex and gender at all, so I knew that we had some room to interpret. We decided early on that we would be giving a lot of space for folks to explore sex, gender, love, and sexuality and we wanted to create opportunities in our setting for that exploration. So it was that we thought it would be interesting to illustrate how outside preconceptions regarding someone’s gender do not dictate their own identity. Enter the Spirit Elves (Tamahaling/Mahomanay). These people are the children of twin nature deities. Each is a tribe that venerates one of the twins who act to guide their offspring and bestow their gifts upon them. When a spirit elf from either tribe reaches adulthood, that elf undertakes a spirit walk where their minds enter the Ethereal Plane. There, they are met by their patron who assumes a visage distinct for each individual. Each of these is generally grouped into aspects of each god. For instance, the Nurturer, the Venger, and the Hunter are all aspects known to the Tamahaling. Once the young elf returns from their journey, they fashion a mask for themselves depicting their guiding aspect. That mask is then imbued with divine energy and bound to the elf. These are “Spirit Masks” and each holds power when worn by its owner. It is one of the benefits of the Spirit Elf bloodline. The Tamahaling and Mahomanay are generally reclusive folk, and these masks are not understood by outsiders. This has led to many superstitions and misunderstandings that claim that what they see as the “masculine” masks of the Mahomanay indicates that they are all men and that the “feminine” look of the Tamahaling masks shows them to be women. The reality is, that like many elven cultures of Bukana, the Spirit Elves are largely gender-fluid and pansexual, but even that is far from universal and individuals have the freedom to find their own truth.

We took again to Artstation (I swear that they’re not paying me) to find a Filipino artist with the right style to show these folks to the world. For a magical race of mask-wearing elves, I though that a juxtaposition of pretty and creepy was the target vibe. I found Daphne Gragera, whose work was just the thing.

We decided that she would develop the Spirit Elves from start to finish. This began with a double spread of spirit masks that would likely appear in the equipment section. It doesn’t appear that there is a strong tradition of masks in the Philippines, so we searched Indonesia and other Autronesian cultures for carved masks. After sending her some examples, she sent back an impressive number of sketches from which to choose.

We picked two that we wanted to reserve for the next stage of development and three for each of the Tamahaling and Mahomanay. I included the idea of adding feathers to the keepers of the animals and leaves to the wardens of the land. Daphne sent us these fantastic sketches:

Oh yeah, that’s what we were looking for. These were only supposed to lightly colored sketches, but Daphne went above and beyond with coloring them.

Damn. Yup, she was the right person for the job.

We’ll look at path we took to full body images when we revisit the Spirit Elves. In the meantime, check out Daphne’s impressive work at Artstation.

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