Heraldry has always been an intriguing part of fantasy-game worlds. Who hasn’t created a long-lasting knight or established a kingdom without eventually sketching out a few coats of arms? Some players use heraldry simply to add color to a campaign; others go to great lengths to learn about the rules and styles of medieval coats of arms. Heraldry is flexible enough to be incorporated into fantasy gaming, but in general, its primary purpose in gaming remains simply to produce colorful shields. Heraldry is too dynamic to limit it to that! We’ve created dragon-slaying knights, legendary wizards, and mighty rulers. Why not expand heraldry to better reflect the fantasy aspect of our game? This article is not about the rules and styles of heraldry. With a bit of research in your favorite library, you should find ample resource material. Instead, this article provides some ideas on how to tie aspects of heraldry into the game.
Colors & alignments
The original purpose of coats of arms was to enable everyone on a battlefield to identify each other easily. Warriors galloping on their war horses wore armor and helms, and thus were hard to recognize.
Their shields became the ideal area to display family colors. The designs started out as very simple patterns, using one or two colors or a symbol. In the game, we could push the logic as far as linking the alignments of the original coat-of-arms’ owners to the colors on their coats of arms. The original bearers might have wanted to display the ethos of their clan, tribe, family, etc. In European history, of course, it wasn’t acceptable to behave openly in an evil or chaotic fashion. Thus, the colors themselves had no link with anyone’s philosophy. This needn’t be true in fantasy gaming. Naturally, player characters aren’t encouraged to behave negatively; it is their job to defeat evil. However, NPCs may want to clearly show their way of thinking. For example, in a campaign featuring numerous evil monarchs and monstrous warlords, these bad guys, would have no problem flying banners with appropriately evil-looking symbols! This approach is a natural one for chaotic worlds where many different people (or creatures) with different attitudes and beliefs have established defendable power bases. DMs give their villains bad attitudes, so why not give them appropriate coats of arms? (I’m the King of the Skull-Crusher goblins! So, I’ve got a crushed skull on my black banner! Care to discuss it, human?). Creating coats of arms for major foes sets the tone of an encounter or of a whole campaign. Likewise, the good guys might also want to make a statement of their own and proudly raise their banners of justice and goodness!
There are three sorts of tinctures: metals, colors, and furs. Metals include gold, (often replaced with yellow) and silver (often replaced with white). Colors include black, blue, purple, red, green, and orange (or brown). Furs will be discussed later. One rule of heraldry forbids the use of two colors or two metals next to each other. A color should be used to separate two metals, or vice- versa. For example, a coat of arms should not be blue and red only. It would need gold or silver to separate the two colors. This rule came into being because adjacent colors or metals are difficult to differentiate in the midst of battle. Keep this in mind if you decide to follow this rule. This isn’t history, it’s a game, and each DM should decide for himself. Colors can indicate alignment tendencies (good, evil, law, chaos, neutrality). Metals could serve as a way of measuring the intensity of these tendencies, as follows.
As shown in the Color-alignment chart, coats of arms in the D&D game have a choice of two colors to represent each alignment. For example, a red-and-black coat of arms would belong to a chaotic owner. If silver separated the two colors, that would mean a moderate tendency toward chaos. If it were separated with gold, that would refer to a strongly chaotic owner.
Heraldic furs are stylized patterns derived from the coats of animals, not the actual pelts themselves. Furs are used in heraldry with, or instead of, colors or metals. These are patterns ermine (depicting black ermine tails fastened to white fur), ermines (white on black), erminois (black on yellow), pean (yellow on black), and vair (blue bells on a white background representing gray squirrel fur). The rule that color should not be placed on color nor metal on metal does not apply to furs. You could have a coat of arms with natural fur and a stripe of ermine, for example. The use of furs in gaming heraldry is optional. Furs do not refer to alignments like colors and metals. Instead, you can link them to the status of the owner of the coat of arms. See the Heraldic-fur chart for details. As the chart shows, the fur used on a character’s coat of arms can change over time. Here are two examples on how to use furs through the life of a character. Mara starts as a 1st-level fighter who gains her coat of arms as the result of an act of bravery during a battle. She’s allowed the use of natural fur. At 6th level, the king permits her to change from natural fur to vair. At 9th level, the king makes her a knight and grants her a domain, permitting her to change from vair to pean (or else adding an element of pean on her present coat of arms to show Mara’s common heritage). Stonefist, a 5th-level fighter, inherits the estate of his father, a marquis. He’d have to bear pean. At 6th level, he might he permitted by the king to bear erminois, due to his level (i.e., his heroic deeds). The example given earlier of a coat of arms with natural fur to which was added a stripe of ermine might belong to someone who started out as a barbarian and then became a king or an emperor (such as Thincol of Thyatis).
A coat of arms can be split many ways to bear different color combinations representing clans, tribes, families, orders, guilds, towns, dominions, and kingdoms. It can happen that coats of arms represent several different items with apparently incompatible color combinations. In this case, each partition should be considered separately. For example, consider the case of a town that become the protectorate of a powerful order of knights. Its coat of arms would bear the town’s original arms and those of the order. The town might bear colors of moderate neutrality while the order of knights would display colors of strong lawfulness.
Bear in mind how far back a particular coat of arms goes. If it was recently created, then the colors on the coat of arms might be true to its present owner’s alignment. If this is the coat of arms of a very old family, uncertainties can crop up about the present owner, who could be of a radically different alignment than the coat of arms indicates. DMs can use this to preserve an element of confusion in a campaign. This is particularly useful in the case of the felonious noble who’s conspiring to usurp the royal throne. His great-great-great-grandfather might have been a heroic paladin-type, but the current bearer of the coat of arms might be a dark, treacherous man, a pawn of Entropy playing the role of a righteous knight only to fool his prey! You might allow a system within your campaign by which owners could modify their coats of arms. Formal guilds of heralds accredited by the monarchs could be established in each kingdom. This would make sense in areas where law is a dominant factor, or in civilized lands where the use of coats of arms needs to be controlled (settings inspired by medieval Europe). The right to bear or modify a coat of arms could be granted by the ruler only, following general rules enforced by the local guild of heralds. Modifying one’s coat of arms could be a totally trivial issue elsewhere, a right freely granted to all who possess a coat of arms (This is probably so for humanoids and other lawless powers, for example).
When a coat of arms is created, think about the background of its original owner. The coat of arms is likely to give a clue about the original owner’s life or the circumstances that led to the granting of the ar. For example,if a warrior defeated a dragon and was rewarded with a family coat of arms, the coat of arms would be likely to show a dragon or at have a clue referring to that epic battle. This is where symbols come into. Symbols can be linked to some historical event. They could also be part of a riddle pun-a knight by the name of Drachen (dragon rock) would probably want to have a dragon atop a rock; Stonefist could a gray, stony fist. Symbols can refer to something important about the owner of coat of arms. For example, the coat of arms of a free city might bear an open city gate, signifying a neutral, open city. Some symbols could be limited to certain character classes. For example, a sword would be found only the coat of arms of a fighter (if the original owner of the coat of arms was a fighter); a dagger or a lockpick would indicate a thief; a holy symbol would belong to a cleric; and a wand or staff would signify a wizard. Symbols used in this way may not necessarily be linked with the owner’s alignment. Showing a black dragon on a coat of arms could refer either to the owner’s evil disposition or to the fact that the original owner gained his coat of arms by defeating a black dragon. Professional guilds of heralds become useful at this point in keeping track of the original meanings of coats of arms. Heraldry could then become a nonweapon proficiency required to interpret an unusual or foreign coat of arms.
Acquiring a coat of arms
In a fantasy game, anyone could acquire a coat of arms. In a chaotic or primitive environment, each individual picks whatever strike her fancy, as long as she doesn’t offend someone bigger and nastier. In a more lawful setting, however, some remarkable achievement would be needed for the granting of a coat of arms, regardless of character’s class, gender, or race. A warrior could defeat a monster, a wizard could provide an unusual enchantment to help the community, a cleric could retrieve some stolen artifact, a thief could unveil some treacherous plan by a rival of the king, etc. The militia of a city could unexpectedly intervene in a battle and save the day - whatever is enough to deserve a reward from a king. This doesn’t imply the beneficiary is ennobled, but simply that recipient has been rewarded. At this point, coats of arms become a status symbol in addition to providing a form of identity on a battlefield. The right chaotic overlords to bear coats of arms the legitimacy of their heraldic elements will seem highly questionable in a lawful area. Likewise, the refusal of a monarch to allow a vassal to update a coat arms will be seen as an offense and could spark a long-lasting feud. This might happen when a monarch dislikes a vassal. Coats of arms can appear on many different items. Warriors and clerics may be allowed to bear theirs on shields, tabards, or banners. Wizards or thieves may prefer less conspicuous items, such as rings or medallions.
The next step in gaming heraldry is to add magical properties to coats of arms. There are two reasons for this. The first is to provide a way to ensure a coat of arms is legitimate and is borne by its rightful owners. The second reason is to give an actual game value to heraldry, bestowing it with some magical powers. The latter also brings heraldry closer to our fantasy settings. Should you allow coats of arms to become magical, then guilds of heralds become crucial. These heralds are specialists who, for a fee and a legitimate edict from a king, create a magical coat of arms. These heralds also have the ability to tell whether a particular item bearing a coat of arms is magical or not. The initial role of the herald is to design the coat of arms. The owner can then have its design reproduced on whatever is desirable. For a fee, the coat of arms can be made magical. If so, all items bearing the coat of arms gain the potential of producing some magical effect, with the following conditions:
1. The magical effect can be called upon only by the owner or rightful heir of the coat of arms (other relatives and usurpers cannot make use of the effect). For a town, the rightful user would be the mayor; for a military order, the Grand Master; for a guild, the Guild Master; for a kingdom, the ruling monarch.
2. The effect can happen only under a very specific set of conditions linked to the history of the item and its owner. For example, a knight who gained his coat of arms by slaying a huge red dragon would
be able to call upon the coat of arms’ magical effects only in a similar situation.
3. The magical power has to be relevant to the situation. In the example above, the knight might have a +1 to attack rolls vs. red dragons, or fire resistance (as the ring), etc. The DM should determine the nature of the effect and its potency.
4. The effect should be triggered only when the owner utters his legitimate cri-de-guerre (a war cry or a motto). It can be whispered for wizards or thieves. It must be shouted for combat-oriented characters and clerics. The owner must touch or hit the item to activate it.
5. Finally, the effect may increase or decrease in strength the noble rank of the owner. A warrior who inherits a coat of arms from a relative might not trigger as spectacular a magical effect as a king!
As a guideline for magical pluses, see the Magical-effects chart. (Using this chart, an untitled D&D fighter who reached 26th level would receive the same bonuses as a monarch. of any character level):
There is also the case of partitioned shields with multiple coats of arms. It is conceivable that a truly powerful dignitary might have access to several magical effects. Consider the example of a king with a shield bearing his family arms (if he is the present head of the family), the kingdom’s arms (since he’s the king), the arms of a military order (if he is their Grand Master), and finally the arms of the temple (if he’s the high priest). This would be one mighty shield indeed!
Compare a warrior’s +1 to attack rolls to the magical effect gained by a wizard from his coat of arms. The entire magical effect from a wizard’s coat of arms might lie in something as innocuous as a spectral candle that lights in the dark. The same effect, after the mage attains the rank of king, might grow to become a single fireball. Again, these powers should be designed in accordance with what the PC accomplished to obtain the coat of arms. Perhaps a greater achievement demands a greater magical effect. The magical effect does not have to be related to combat or to a specific type of weapon. Instead, it could relate to the coat of arms in a manner unrelated to combat. Refer to the game’s spell or magical-items lists for inspiration. In this case, the effect has to be carefully designed to remain balanced with the combat bonuses suggested above. This combat bonus does count as a magical weapon when fighting monsters immune to ordinary weapons. If protection is more appropriate than a combat bonus, use these pluses as AC bonuses instead. Sample symbols. This section provides suggestions for symbols, their interpretations, and magical powers they might provide. Again, use this as a guide or a source of ideas. If a symbol is needed for reasons other than those listed below, feel free to change or adapt the list below. At the very least, these effects should be minor special effects that influence and enhance the role-playing of PCs and NPCs. These magical quirks also form another level of detail that sets apart a handful of characters with the same character classes and backgrounds. Heroes and villains might want to emulate their ancestors’ illustrious achievements, thus actively seeking out the same odd or dangerous situations in which these deeds originally took place. If so, this could be an opportunity for heroes to modify or increase the magical effects of their coats of arms.
Players might pay a bit more attention to the backgrounds of their characters and develop them more than usual. In general, give a character the combat- related effect for the appropriate type of creature defeated to gain their coat of arms. If the coat of arms was gained by other , the effects listed bmay be more appropriate. Spell-like effects are cast at 15th level of experience. Unless the effects are permanent (such as regaining hit points via healing), effects last only for the duration of the encounter in which the effect was triggered. For effects with a numerical range (+1 to +5, for example), the progression is identical to that on the Magical-effects chart.
Lion: The lion is a symbol of authority. It often is used by royal families and is perceived as a rival of the eagle. The presence of this magical symbol causes a -1 to -5 penalty on Morale Checks for all foes within a 60’ radius. A monarch’s cri-de-guerre causes foes within the same radius to make a saving throw vs. dragon breath or flee for one turn.
Eagle: This symbol is often attributed to families connected with an emperor, and is considered to be the rival of the lion. The eagle represents courage. Make the owner’s Morale Checks and those of her followers and companions within a 60’ radius at +1 to +5. A monarch is also immune to fear.
Basilisk: This creature is the symbol of a mysterious character or monster. Opponents make their initiative rolls with a –1 to -5 penalty within a 60’ radius. A monarch gains the basilisk’s petrifying gaze for one round.
Bear: This is the sign of a rugged being. The bearer makes Constitution checks at +1 to +5. A monarch is also immune to natural and magical cold.
Beholder: Also known as the evil watcher, this is the sign of one who observes or who tricks others. The bearer saves vs. spells at +1 to +5. A monarch’s eyes project a 60’ anti-magic ray for one round.
Boar: One who is stubborn may end up with the boar as a symbol. The owner saves against charm spell effects at +1 to +5. A monarch is immune to all mind-controlling magical effects (charm, sleep, hold, etc.)
Bow or arrows: Often attributed to elves, hunters, or those who are skillful in archery, this magical symbol confers a +1 to +5 bonus on attack rolls with one type of bow. A monarch gains the power of slaying (as the sword) a specific creature type on a natural attack roll of 20.
Centaur: These are hardy and tenacious creatures, and are often the symbol of woodland beings, foresters, and hunters. The bearer can run for 1-5 turns without fatigue. A monarch gains 10 temporary hit points in addition to the character’s normal total. These hit points are the first lost when suffering damage.
Clover: This is the lucky charm. The clover confers a +1 to +5 bonus to dice rolls related to gambling. A monarch can make an ability check appropriate to the situation to avoid an attack or escape an event that would otherwise prove fatal.
Displacer beast: This is the sign of a trickster or a master of illusion. The bearer gains a +1 to +5 AC bonus against missile attacks. A monarch gains one mirror image, as the spell of the same name.
Dolphin: This is a symbol for the adventurous, especially those connected to the sea. A dolphin confers a +1 to +5 bonus to dice rolls related to navigation. A monarch can predict weather as the spell of the same name.
Dragon: This is the sign of magical power. Nonspell-casting bearers gain a +1 to +5 to their saving throws vs. spells; spell- casting owners cause a -1 to –5 penalty to their victims’ saving throws vs. spells. A monarch gains immunity to the breath weapon of the dragon type shown in the coat of arms.
Fish: This is the sign of peace. It confers a +1 to +5 bonus to dice rolls related to persuasion or negotiation. A monarch gets a sanctuary effect, as the spell of the same name, with a -5 penalty to opponents’ saving throws.
Fleur de lis: This is an ancient symbol of royalty, equal to the lion in status. It is also associated with purity. This confers on a good-aligned owner a +1 to +5 AC bonus against one type of evil foe. A monarch gains a protection from evil 10’ radius effect, as the spell of the same name, with a -5 penalty to saving throws against this effect. There are no gains for neutral or evil owners.
Fox: This is a symbol for a cunning, quick-witted person. This symbol allows to bearer to make Intelligence checks with a +1 to +5 bonus during life-threatening situations. A monarch can detect evil, as the spell of the same name.
Goat or ram: Characters with an impulsive, unpredictable attitude could be associated with the ram. Opponents suffer a -1 to -5 penalty on surprise rolls. A monarch inflicts maximum damage with her first attack that hits.
Griffon: This is a sign of strength (and an odd mixture of the eagle and lion symbols, perhaps a rebel). This magical symbol confers a +1 to +5 bonus to Strength checks. A monarch can fly, as the spell.
Hammer: This is a symbol often associated with dwarves and craftsmen. It confers a +1 to +5 AC bonus vs. melee weapons. A monarch can call lightning, as the spell.
Harpy: This symbol allows its bearer the ability to cause a -1 to -5 AC penalty to foes within a 60’ radius when the bearer is singing. A monarch gains a charm monster effect, as the spell, when he sings.
Heart: This denotes someone with a long-lasting quest or someone who is true and just. It confers a +1 to +5 bonus on attack rolls in combat specifically related to the bearer’s quest. A monarch gains a find the path effect, as the spell.
Hell hound: This is the symbol of those who have seen death and returned. The hell hound is a guardian of the dead. This symbol allows a saving throw vs. death magic with a +1 to +5 bonus when the beneficiary’s hit points drop below 1. If successful, the symbol’s bearer awakens 1-4 hours later with 1 hp, provided the body has not been destroyed. A monarch can speak with the dead, as the spell.
Horse: This is the symbol of freedom and pride. The horse symbol confers a +1 to +5 AC bonus when fighting on horseback. A monarch gains a +3 bonus to attack and damage when charging on horseback.
Hydra: This signifies someone with multiple identities, purposes, or lives. It heals 1d4 to 5d4 hit points if the beneficiary is reduced to fewer than 1 hp. A monarch gains the ability of merging, as the magical potion of the same name.
Manscorpion: This is a sign of alertness and treachery. It confers a +1 to +5 bonus to initiative rolls. A monarch inflicts maximum damage on successful attacks from behind a foe.
Manticore: This creature refers to secrecy, mysteries, and mysticism. The symbol confers a +1 to +5 bonus on attack rolls with crossbows. A monarch gains a dreamspeech effect, as the magical potion of the same name.
Panther: The heraldic panther, a mythical, fire-breathing creature, looks like a wingless griffon with a dragon head. This symbol confers the ability to cause +1 to +5 bonus points of damage with fire-based attacks (oil, breath-weapon, spell, etc.). A monarch can summon from the coat of arms a 30-hp amber golem in the shape of the heraldic panther (See Rules Cyclopedia, page 180, for information on amber golems). The golem appears within 1d4 rounds. If not destroyed, the panther fades away at the end of the encounter.
Pegasus: It is often used by those who have traveled far or live in places close to the sky. This symbol grants both a mount and the riding bearer a +1 to +5 AC bonuses when engaged in airborne combat. A monarch gains a fly effect, as the spell.
Phoenix: This is the symbol of magnificence or rebirth. It confers a +1 to +5 saving throw bonus against fire attacks. If killed by a fire-based attack, a monarch will rise from his ashes 2d4 days later, as the raise dead spell (effect is automatic).
Raven: This is the symbol of a messenger with dark tidings or a cursed family. The raven confers on the bearer the ability to warn companions of an impending attack from a specific monster type or foe 1-5 rounds ahead of time. The beneficiary must first utter his motto, when allowed by the situation, from which point the “warning” ability remains in effect for a day or until it is triggered. A monarch gains a clairvoyance effect, as per the spell of the same name.
Salamander, fire: It is a symbol of magical power, and provides the owner a +1 to +5 saving throw bonus against all fire-based atta. A monarch gains immunity to all fire-based attacks.
Ship: This symbol alludes to traor masters of the sea. It confers a +1 to +5 bonus attack rolls when fighting at sea. A monarch gains a control winds effect, as the spell.
Snake: The snake is either the symbol of a healer or of treachery. A snake symbol grants a +1 to +5 saving throw bonus against poison. A monarch gains a cure serious wounds effect, as the spell.
Stag: It is a sign of strength and pride with mystical links with nature, and confers a +1 to +5 AC bonus in a forest. A monarch can summon a 30 hp actaeon within 1d4 rounds when in a forest. If not destroyed, the creature disappears at the end of the encounter.
Star: This is the symbol of dreams and secrets. This symbol confers a +1 to +5 saving throw bonus against all mind-affecting spells (sleep, charm, hold, fear, etc.) A monarch can become ethereal, as per the potion.
Tree: This is a symbol often used by druids, elves, or those connected with woodland beings. Confers the ability to speak with 1-5 creature types native of the forest. A monarch can transport through plants, as the spell.
Troll: This is the symbol of a truly monstrous or evil owner. It confers the ability to reduce nonfire or nonacid damage by -1 to-5 once per round. A monarch can regenerate severed limbs within 1d4 days.
Tyger: The heraldic tyger, a rare, mythical creature, looks like a lion with an eagle head. A tyger symbol confers the ability to take half-damage (rounded up) from 1-5 nonmagical weapon attacks per round. A monarch can be hasted, as the spell.
Unicorn: This symbol alludes to elven ideals, and causes opponents within a 60’ radius of the bearer to suffer a -1 to –5 penalty on attack rolls with missile weapons or on saving throws. A monarch can dimension door, as the spell.
Weapons: These various symbols allude to warriors in general or those with mercenary backgrounds. Any of these magical symbols grants a +1 to +5 bonus on damage rolls with the illustrated weapon.
A monarch gains a wounding effect on the first successful attack, as per the magical weapon.
Wolf: This symbol is often attributed to a brutal, cold- hearted being. This symbol also could refer to lycanthropic history. It confers a sanctuary effect, as the spell, against lycanthropes or against those whose goal is specifically to destroy lycanthropes (as appropriate), with a -1 to –5 saving throw penalty against the sanctuary. A monarch can summon 1d6 normal wolves within 1d4 rounds when in the wilderness. If not destroyed, the wolves disappear at the end of the encounter.
Knight or better
Duke or Archduke
*Vair comes in various patterns (counter-vair, vair-in-pale, vair-en-point, vairy of four tinctures). You could easily rank these in ascending order of levels. Royalty always uses Ermine, regardless level.
+1 bonus to attacks vs. a specific foe
+2 as above
+3 as above
+4 as above
+5 as above
+5 & special power vs. a specific foe
*Note that a duke is generally the vassal of a king, while an archduke is the vassal of an emperor.
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