Using symbolism in D&D campaign design, Part I


The symbolism of numbers is the first type of symbol to be explored in this series.


Of late, this writer has been reading T.A. Kenner’s Symbols and Their Hidden Meanings. The book explores the idea of symbolism constituting a sort of subliminal language that we use to inform each other about the world around us. According to Kenner, this language can provide very focused meaning to very narrow audiences (such as the significance of the number 42 to Douglas Adams fans) to almost universal meaning (like the color yellow – the most visible to the human eye – being used for situations or objects that require attention, such as signage, traffic signals, and American taxi cabs and school buses).

For dungeon masters (DMs), Kenner’s arguments give rise to two applications for fantasy world-building: (1) including symbolism that players, as humans, may instinctively respond to emotionally, even if they don’t consciously recognize the symbols, and (2) extrapolating from real-world symbolism to create believable symbols for fantasy cultures, especially non-human ones.

This series of three posts (which will be interrupted by tomorrow’s Crime Scene Sunday, but will be otherwise published in sequence) will apply Kenner’s observations about numbers, art and architecture, and power and identity to D&D setting design.

Today’s post discusses the symbolism of numbers and environment.


Kenner makes interesting observations about our association with numbers, some of which date to human prehistory. For example, we  instinctively consider numbers ending with the numerals 5 or 10 to be “round” numbers, possibly because we have five digits on each of our hands and feet. We consider numbers that are easily divided between two people to be “even,” while those that can’t are considered “odd.” Our mathematical system operates on a base of 10, a number which can be reached by counting our fingers. 

To extrapolate this association between digits and perception of quantity, consider that the  fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide describes the dragonborn race as having three talon-like fingers and a thumb on each hand. In theory, the fact that dragonborn have only four digits on each hand would lead to four and eight being considered “round” numbers; numbers not easily divisible by four may even be viewed as unlucky or evil. Dragonborn mathematics and currency may even operate on a base of eight.

Some of the broad-based, cross-cultural symbolic meanings Kenner identifies with common numerals include:

One. Divinity, unity, isolation and the male principle (phallus).

Two. Duality, opposition, sexuality, balance and the female principle (as in the state of pregnancy)

Three. Completion of cycles (such as beginning, middle and end; past, present and future; and fertile sexual union), a meaning which appears in religious connotations (like Greek mythology’s Maiden, Mother and Crone, the three Norns of Norse myth, or Christianity’s Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

Four. This numeral represents stability, as seen in the tetrahedron (pyramid with triangular base) with four vertices being the first three-dimensional shape, the four elements of air, earth, fire and water, four seasons of the year, four cardinal directions and four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Interestingly, in Oriental cultures the word for four sounds like the word for death, and it is common for multi-story buildings to skip the number four when the stories are numbered. This perception is so pervasive that it even affects product labeling; trying to purchase a 4000-series Nokia phone provides an illustrative example.

Five. As mentioned in the earlier discussion about the connection between our five digits and mathematics, five is a visceral number for humans. Not surprisingly, then, the number five appears in global religious imagery, such as the Five Wounds of Christ, the Five Pillars of Islam, or the Five faces of Shiva in Hinduism.

Twelve. Although the number 10 has grown in popularity as a universal basis for measurement, the number 12 historically held that role, presumably because it is easy to divide into halves, thirds and quarters; that divisibility made it easier for uneducated folk to comprehend the passage of time (as seconds, minutes and hours are multiples of 12, and there are 12 months in a year), measurement (such as 12 inches making up a foot in U.S. measurement) and currency (like the English shilling, which was composed of 12 pennies; lesser denominations of currency were even divisions of 12, while greater denominations were multiples of the 12-penny shilling). The symbolic significance of 12 – representing completion of a cycle, in addition to measurement – can be seen in there being 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Tribes of Israel, 12 Apostles attending Jesus Christ and 12 Peers of Charlemagne.

Just as these numbers have relevance to us as people, so may they have relevance to D&D characters (absent modern religious symbols, which probably won’t exist in a  D&D campaign setting). Druidic orders, for example, may have pairs of objects positioned in balance as recurring artistic themes; statues of a fertility goddess may rest upon triangular bases; or an order of paladins may have four levels in its hierarchy, one for each direction of the compass they will travel to fight evil.

After tomorrow’s edition of Crime Scene Sunday, this series will resume with discussion on symbolism in art and architecture, a discussion that can be viewed by clicking here. The third installment, describing the symbolism of power and identity, can be viewed by clicking here.


8 comments on “Using symbolism in D&D campaign design, Part I

  1. satyre says:

    Now that’s useful stuff – I can easily imagine dragonborn in Aztec-style ziggurats with dragons circling overhead…

  2. Alric says:

    Aztec dragonborn – now *that* is cool. Especially if they adopt the old Aztec practice of human sacrifice…

  3. max.elliott says:

    I ran a cthulu-punk game which centered around a series of murders disguised as accidents. To give the characters a hook, the numbers of the victims progressed 1,3,5,7 and the accidents occurred in a monthly cycle, each quarter moon. The officials were convinced of the accidents accidental nature. In the final ceremony, 9 people were sacrificed and the gate to a nether-realm to allow something evil thru.

  4. vbwyrde says:

    I like the direction this is heading. Tis helpful indeed to have a system of symbolic references, if for no other reason than to make the backstory of the world more consistant, and hopefully coherent.

  5. […] The first post in the series introduced the topic and discussed the symbolic meanings of numbers. The second post dealt with symbolism in art and architecture, and this final post will discuss the use of symbolism to convey connotations of power and identity. […]

  6. […] The first post in the series introduced the topic and described common symbolic meanings for numbers. This installment will discuss symbolism in art and architecture, first as it appeared in our human history and then as it may appear in a D&D setting. […]

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