Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Conceiving the Tianak

Anyone familiar with the various horror stories that are prevalent in Philippine culture would know about the myth of the tianak. Numerous local movies were dedicated to the tianak in the past few decades, after all. And to this day, Filipinos will be reluctant to pick up actual babies that will have been left behind by parents who simply could not afford them.

For the uninitiated, the myth of the tiyanak goes like this. A person lost in the woods hears the crying of an infant in the distance. Likely to have been moved by the apparent helplessness of the child, the person looks for this infant that has been left in the middle of nowhere. After finding the child, the person is compelled to pick it up, only to have the baby revert to its hideous form to attack the kind victim.

After some digging around in local libraries, I found out that the tianak were originally thought of more as a mischievous gnome than as a monster that kills its victims. After biting the victim, it hops away (for one of its legs are stunted) shouting, "Ha! I've tricked you!" At the time, we were still planning on making the Buan Campaign Setting in one big drop, and we were wondering about how to incorporate the halflings (which is somewhat out of place in our setting). This is what we came up with:


Tianaks are souls made flesh; a second chance for those who have died at a very young age.

The sight of a tianak is unsettling; having crawled out of their former graves, they have inherited many traits that could associate them with the undead. They are typically identified by their gaunt form. Wide mouths with sharp teeth further their reputation as undead, what separate them are their large, pitch-black eyes. Unlike the undead that they resemble, those fierce eyes show a resolve that is unmatched by many among those who can say for certain that they are “alive”.

Being very young at the time of their untimely demise, they tend to lose features that identify them with their former race. The earth has nurtured them somewhat; they crawl out of their graves at about the same size of a humanoid child of about eight harvests. After this event, however, their growth ceases. They will stay as tall as children for the rest of their lives.

The tianak is a halfling subrace (see the D&D 4E Player’s Handbook); they are a small people that are favored by chance.

Background and Myth

While the above descriptions are accurate, you will rarely see a tianak in his or her natural form. Misunderstood by the larger folk and lacking a community of their own, they have resorted to trickery and disguise. They will typically wander the barangay disguised as a child, resorting to stealing to keep themselves fed.

Stories hold that the tianak as malicious undead that disguise themselves as infants. They pretend to be lost in the woods and feed on any foolish enough to take pity on them. These legends hold a small shard of truth; some tianaks have been known to engage in cannibalism, as well as disguise themselves to avoid the ire of those who fear their unnatural nature.

However, only the most malicious of tianaks do such things, for the greater majority believes that they are the children of Dian Masalanta. They associate their imperfect state of being to that of the goddess’s shattered soul, and they believe that the earth from which they have sprung is the goddess’s womb.

Thei lifespan of tianaks are as varied as their differing lineage; besides, this is not a concern for them. They have died once, and what matters now is how they live their second life. 

Many among us were happy with this adaptation, which presented them as a subrace of halflings (and thereby sharing their mechanical traits). However, our Lord and Master disagreed, saying that it goes too far from the original visage of the tianak. Also, the official Revenant race was released some time after we conceptualized this, and our vision of the tianak as a playable race became too close to something else for our tastes. So it was back to the drawing board for us.

For a time, we did not know what to do with the tianak. While something that tiny could pose a threat to normal people, we had trouble visualizing how it would trouble a party of seasoned adventurers. Then one day, I came across the Filipino comic book series entitled "Trese," which details the cases tackled by a detective of the supernatural in modern Manila. In one of the issues in particular (Embrace of the Unwanted), Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo offered their take on these little monsters. 

And that's where the idea of making them into a swarm of hungry little asuang came up. Come to think of it, they do fit the asuang MO of shapeshifters that have a taste for the entrails of the living. We're still getting the kinks worked out - a swarm of tianak would look silly if they all shapeshift into babies, for example. But you can expect these nasty little guys to torment your players when Asuang: Shapeshifting Horrors come out. 

Until next time!