Heraldry – History and Hooks
Disclaimer: This post is heavily influenced by me just finishing the book Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. If you haven’t read it, do so immediately, it is one of my all time favorites.
A coat of arms can provide depth to a back story and compelling story hooks, even if your character isn’t a knight in shining armor. In fact, Heraldry has been used to enhance D&D since the early days of Greyhawk.
In Game of Thrones, each of the noble houses has a crest with an animal, colors, and words, which act as a sort of motto for the house. For instance House Stark has a grey dire wolf on a white background. Their words are Winter is Coming. House Baratheon has a black stag on a field of yellow, with the words Ours is the Fury. House Lannister, a golden lion on red, with the words Hear me Roar. All of these are used to great effect on the battlefield as units are easy to recognize by their colors and symbols. Also at court, a knight or sworn sword could be identified by the colors he was wearing, or the crest on his helm or shield. Adding these details to your character can do a lot to breathe life into a collection of stats.
In the Greyhawk Boxed Set, Gary Gygax used coats of arms not only for regions, cities, or noble houses, but also for nomads, bandits, and even some tribes of monsters! When a foe has a symbol, and a little bit of history, a DM can strike fear into his party once they spot a banner or flag of a group of enemies.
In our recently completed dwarven campaign, our clan had a symbol, colors, and some backstory to what the different objects in our crest meant. Our new pirate campaign may require us to create a flag with special meaning to our particular pirate crew, but symbols don’t have to be adopted by the entire party. For instance, a rogue could have a tattoo of the thieves guild he belonged to, or the wizard could have some symbol on his spellbook from a particular school of magic. Clerics usually have holy symbols associated with their faith, but they could have a special symbol for their particular sect. Fighters could have a variety of symbols, even if they aren’t a highborn knight. A barbarian could have a symbol of his tribe, a sellsword could have a symbol of his guild of mercenaries. The possibilities are endless.
Inkwell Ideas hosts a Java program that can help you create your own unique crest. Any particularly awesome stories of how heraldry is used in your games? Let us know in the comments below!