Saturday, April 9, 2011

H is for Heraldry, NOT History

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

H is for Heraldry…you know: those fancy banners carried by knights, decorating their armor, shields, and pennants.

But first:

A LOT of DMs sit down at a table to dream up a new imaginary campaign setting, and work out a huge chunk of “world history” before the players even show up…hell, right down to gods, religions, and creation myths. I mean they do HISTORY: the true, pure joy of “world creation.”

As if anyone cares!

And here’s the truth of the matter: I don’t even care myself! I mean, even though I’m one of those “sucker DMs” that write-up a whole world and history (see “the Goblin Wars” for an example) I don’t care about anything, really, except the PCs small part in it.

Which is as it should be, in my opinion. HOWEVER, just because no one cares (including us, the “world creators”) doesn’t mean we should stop doing it. It should be given roughly the same attention (or less) than the backstory of a film. It’s enough to know (for example) that Ben and Anakin fought together in the Clone Wars prior to the Dark Times and the Emperor, and that Anakin was struck down (or turned to evil) by Darth who later went on to hunt the remaining Jedi, and now the Galaxy is embroiled in a War between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance.


The abstract backstory doesn’t need to know the specifics (JarJar and QuiGon and Padme and Pod Racing and Dooku, etc.)…and even if one does go back and explore the backstory, it’s quite possible that it will change from its original abstract form (*ahem*)…so no need to make it too specific.

And in RPGs anyway, hardly ever is the “backstory,” the history, full explored by the PCs anyway. For the “at home game” (rather than the “published game setting”) elaborate history writing is NOT necessary…and probably not even appropriate given that the game is supposed to be about the PCs and what they’re doing, not the DM’s favorite pet NPCs.

HERALDRY, on the other hand, isn’t a bad thing to throw into a D&D game at all…in fact it provides a lot of the good parts of history (a sense of place and the movers and shakers) with direct player involvement (oh, boy, I recognize that crest)…and withOUT a lot of narrative being necessary.

As a kid, I was always fascinated with heraldry (though not enough to study more than the very basics), and often drew shields with “coats of arms” on character sheets…even character sheets of characters that couldn’t use shields (monks, wizards, etc.)! That may have had to do more with my frustration at my own “character sketch” ability than anything else…I could do a symbol, but not a portrait, you know?

However, looking back with the wisdom of maturity, I can see that my kid’s mind was actually channeling some true innovation and coolness…after all, not everyone with a family crest is a knight!

Crests and coats of arms are common throughout Europe. Medieval Japan, too, of course…probably any strongly militaristic civilization that spent a lot of time wearing identity obscuring armor needed banners and pennants to tell friend from foe. Over time, these armorial ensigns become the crests and symbols of our families…whether still in the martial business, or a non-martial trade. The point is, a few of these “identifiers” can go a ways towards spicing up your campaign…with very little effort.

How so? Abbreviated history. Forget the black knight for a second…the party is out in the wilderness (or deep in a dungeon) and comes across a bunch of corpses dressed in a certain livery, say, a red lion flanked by two dolphins. The livery can belong to anyone…a local merchant clan, a shipwright guild, a pirate family known for slave trading…and the PCs may or may not recognize it (Intelligence checks? Sure, why not?). Whatever it is can provide the PCs with mysteries (what were the merchant prince’s men doing in the dungeon?), OR adventures (these are guild envoys; they are assigned to guard the Sacred Compass…it must have been stolen!), OR contacts (hmm, if we disguise ourselves in their tunics, we can infiltrate the pirates stronghold as “new recruits”).

But what’s more, it can help lend an air of “reality” and “place” to a campaign setting in a way that a simple DM-written history cannot. In my goblin wars campaign, I found myself getting tired of trying to keep up a running narrative of the “war effort” (and having to explain the background again and again at the start of every session). However, with heraldry, players will come to recognize the symbols over time. “What? THESE guys are wearing the tunic of the ‘golden eye?’ I thought we killed all those jerks two adventures ago.” “Oh, no…the riders are wearing black chainmail with purple and red pennants? Those are those badass mercs of Red Ryan that hand us our asses every time we fight them!”

Heraldry is easy and visual; heck, you can even draw shields and crests (color ‘em if you want) for quick n’ dirty visual aids. In the pseudo-medieval world of D&D (or even a Sci-Fi medieval world…like Barsoom, Gor, or Darkover), heraldry can play an important part of understanding the politics of the land without needing to give your players a "history lesson." “Oh the Green Griffins don’t like the Red Lions? Got it.” Or even “Oh the Green Griffin Barony is allied with the White Eagles? Maybe we need to paint white eagles on our shields if we’re riding through their territory.”

Put a little of this into your game and it won’t be long before players are designing their own family crests and personal symbols…even the ones that don’t carry shields. Which, of course, helps players to engage more fully with their characters and deepens role-playing…and it hardly needs mention that it is far easier to design a personal symbol for one’s character than to fit a character’s family history into the specific imaginary world setting created by the DM. Let ‘em take this road…it will mean so much more once they achieve 9th level and can fly their banner from the highest tower of the baronial castle.

Finally, heraldic lore (specific to your game setting) can be its own little piece of fun trivia over which players have the chance to compete: namely, who can remember the most about heraldic crests and the relationship of one family/group/kingdom to another. Now THERE’s a useful skill!
: )


  1. Build your coat of arms here:
    It is a free online heraldic crest builder!

    Best and thanks for sharing,

  2. Really good points. I spent a bunch of time figuring out heraldry but I don't think it has ever come up in game yet, I should try to make it more of a feature.