Using symbolism in D&D campaign design, Part II


Propaganda is one historical application of symbolism in art. A glaring example is this 1938 portrait of Adolf Hitler, which depicts one of history's most reviled persons as a literal knight in shining armor.

This post is second in a series on using symbolism to add depth to a Dungeons & Dragons setting, based in part upon Symbols and Their Hidden Meanings by T.A. Kenner. Kenner argues that symbolism is essentially an unspoken language, through which we humans convey information represented by the symbols, sometimes on a level so visceral that we do not consciously know we’ve absorbed their meanings. 

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.


Even when an artist intends to accurately depict some aspect of our world, that art can only represent life, making art a symbolic medium by definition.

Historically, the idea that art should serve as a means of personal expression is a relatively new development. For thousands of years, from paleolithic cave paintings to the Ancient Greeks, art was impersonal in nature, typically depicting religious themes, abstract lessons about history, war or farming, and anonymous scenes from everyday life.

Even as personal and realistic expression became more common, art remained largely a religious endeavor. It wasn’t until the Renaissance, when wealth began to shift from religions and governments to a rising merchant class, that social and financial support for secular art became commonplace. It was at that point in art history that creating visual depth – depiction of three-dimensional spaces on two-dimensional surfaces – became prevalent. This development gave rise to dramatic improvements in the depiction of human form, creating far more expressive illustrations than the expressionless, “wooden” – looking figures appearing in early Medieval art. At the dawn of the Baroque movement in the 17th Century, artists began incorporating the subject’s surroundings into their works, achieving new levels of sophistication and symbolism. Later movements passed the boundaries of realistic depiction, moving deeper into the realm of the totally symbolic.

During all of these periods, artists had a wealth of symbols from which to draw, many of which could have multiple meanings. A lion, for example, often represented courage, rulership or ferocity, but it could also represent Christianity, based on a Medieval belief that lion cubs were stillborn, and only came to life three days after birth when licked by their father. 

Any dictionary of heraldry can provide a dungeon master (DM) with countless symbolic references.

The power of art was of course not lost on secular leaders, who increasingly used it to sway public opinion, especially in areas with low literacy rates. Art thus developed a secondary use as propaganda. From the Middle Ages, portraits of monarchs commonly depicted shafts of heavenly light descending on the rulers they pictured – denoting their divine right to rule – while the monarchs themselves were holding various instruments universally recognized as trappings of power, such as crowns, orbs and sceptres. Propaganda became much more formalized during the 19th and 20th Centuries, used to great effect by many governments and social movements.

To incorporate artistic symbolism in a D&D game, all a DM must do is adapt the way art developed in our real world to a campaign cultures, then extrapolate how in-game art appears from there. Primitive lizardfolk tribes, for example, may be able to manage Hieroglyphics and life scenes, but not three-dimensional depth of field. Heroes exploring a burial mound may encounter Paleolithic-style paintings, while eladrin artists may be capable of breathtaking three-dimensional works, rendered in paints made from ground plants and powdered gemstones. Again, a dictionary of heraldic symbols can provide ample inspiration for concepts artists may want to represent.


Most of the numerical, religious and heraldic symbols discussed thus far can appear in buildings, but Kenner goes a step beyond those in his chapter on architecture.

Kenner begins with starting with the broadest of architectural symbolism – an appearance that conveys a building’s purpose. In most cities, whether real or set in a role-playing game, military installations, houses of worship and government buildings tend to have distinct external appearances that tell passerby what happens inside the structure.

Of course, imposing and/or elaborate personal dwellings didn’t become commonplace until after the rise of the merchant class; before then, buildings large enough to convey strong symbolism were exclusively the purview of churches and governments. Houses of worship, for example, were designed to bring visitors to an understanding of their relationship to God, through the sheer grandeur of Romanesque churches or the dizzying heights of Gothic Cathedrals. Military structures are large, dark and imposing, with uninviting, narrow windows. Many modern government buildings bear architectural details echoing those of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, cultures that spawned many of the foundational ideas for the legal and government systems of western nations.

Another architectural concept  Kenner discusses is the use of space in the layout of buildings, and even of cities. Conspiracy theorists seeking to connect the U.S. Military with Satanism trace the outline of the pagan/Satanic pentagram in and around the Pentagon, the headquarters of the U.S. Armed Forces, some going so far as to suggest that secret, underground tunnels complete the shape which can only be hinted at from an overhead view. Another example appears in the layout of Washington, D.C. where some can find the outline of Freemasonry’s famous square and compass symbol by tracing the streets between the Capitol Building White House, Jefferson Memorial, and the paths of Canal Street and Louisiana Avenue.

One of Kenner’s most interesting observations on this topic is the idea of architectural symbolism without symbols, as embodied in Iran’s  Masjed-e Emam Mosque. Given that Islam doesn’t favor representative images, Mosque architects are unable to use many of the symbolic art forms common to other religions, such as paintings, stained glass representations or statuary, but they still need to create a space that conveys symbolic power. The architects of this particular mosque masterfully inlaid calligraphic designs in gold and blue tiles that are visually striking, yet calming and spiritual, bathed in abundant natural light. The mosque even contains a perfect echo chamber. Thus, the architects were able to create a symbolic place that accomplishes, without symbols, what other religions used traditional, representational symbols to convey.

In D&D games, the DM has the luxury of being able to design the layout of any campaign building or city with a variety of symbols in mind. To carry on an example described in the first post of this series, consider a dragonborn culture, which uses a base 8 mathematical system. The number 8 has an almost mystical quality for this culture, reflected in the octagonal citadel of the dragonborn emperor. The structure features eight towers, one at each vertex of the outer wall, each topped by a tetrahedron-shaped roof. Appearing to levitate in the air above the citadel’s center, level with the tetrahedron spires, is the sky dragon, an anomaly of light and shadow; due to shadows from surrounding mountains and the spires, and mirrors placed on the citadel’s roof, a dragon-shaped shadow appears in the air by day, and a faintly glowing, dragon -shaped aura of moonlight appears there by night, making the citadel a center of both temporal and spiritual power for the dragonborn.

The next and final installment in this series will discuss symbolism as it pertains to power and identity, which can be viewed by clicking here.


4 comments on “Using symbolism in D&D campaign design, Part II

  1. Scott says:

    I’m very excited for the final installment, been keeping up!

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. […] 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 […]

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