This post is the third and last of a series on using symbolism to add depth to a Dungeons & Dragons setting. It is based in part upon Symbols and Their Hidden Meanings by T.A. Kenner, who argues that symbolism effectively constitutes an unspoken language that we humans all understand, sometimes on a subconscious level.
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.
Power is a concept that all sentient creatures understand, but the various symbols used to represent power may not be so obvious to uninformed observers. For example, a well-known symbol for the Papacy is a pair of crossed keys, one silver and one gold, bound with a red cord. The keys represent the keys to the kingdom of heaven; the silver key binds and unbinds on earth, while the gold does the same in heaven. The cord represents the connection between the two realms, embodied by the Pope himself.
A more widespread example is the symbolic language of heraldry, through which the aristocracy and nobility of Medieval Europe identified each other. While the heraldric coats of arms representing ruling families or local aristocrats were probably recognizable by nearly everyone, the language of heraldry became so complex that many Medieval lords employed heralds, whose full-time occupation was identifying the blazons of visitors, emissaries and even foes on the battlefield.
Since every family – and even separate members of the same family – would have different coats of arms, symbols used in heraldric blazons were very carefully chosen. The symbols could be traced to an area’s native fauna, local industry or natural features, religion, great deeds performed by an ancestor, or all of these at once.
A listing of common Medieval heraldric symbols and their meanings can be viewed here.
In a D&D game, a dungeon master (DM) could employ virtually any configuration of traditional Medieval heraldric symbols for campaign noble or merchant houses to convey a sense of power, and even convey the type of power wielded, be it temporal, spiritual or, in a fantasy game, magical. In fact, it may be advisable to use mostly traditional symbols, since most players will expect to see these symbols, and it is important for a DM to manage player expectations about what a setting should contain.
Of course, campaign-specific symbols of power can add considerable flavor to a D&D game. Continuing our example of the dragonborn culture (described earlier in this series), the Gentle Reader may remember that the culture is ruled from a great octagonal citadel, over which the “sky dragon” – a dragon-shaped anomaly of light and shadow – eternally hovers. For the dragonborn, this anomaly represents the mystic qualities of their race and their monrach’s divine right to rule, perhaps even a right to rule other races. As a result, dragonborn in the monarch’s service wear livery and bear shields decorated with the device of a dragon, depicted half in white and half in shadow, illustrating any number of elements in balance: the ruler’s benevolence and wrath, the cycle of life from hatchling to great wyrm, the anomaly’s power over day and night, and so forth. Assuming that the dragonborn government is feudal in nature, the monarch’s vassals would incorporate this dragon device into their own battle standards.
Symbolism is perhaps the most effective way to convey group membership, whether those symbols appear in the form of military uniforms, personal tattoos, street gang “colors,” or emblems, or anything between them. Almost anything can serve as a symbolic indicator of identity; Louis XIV of France, for example, decreed that only nobility could wear shoes with high heels colored red. More common symbolic indicators of group identity are clothing and uniforms, tattoos, jewelry, hair style or carried equipment.
Identity symbolism can also be used for more secretive purposes. A well-known historical example dates to the early years of the Christian faith, when practicing that religion was illegal. Since Christian worship had to be conducted in secret, and it couldn’t always be held at the same place twice or at regular times, and believers needed a way to locate worship sites. The cross would be too obvious a symbol to use for this purpose. It is widely believed that the Ichthys, a fish-shaped symbol made from two intersecting arcs, was used to mark routes to secret worship sites, with the fish pointing left or right as the route required. Such a symbol still carried meaning for early Christians as it echoed events from Christ’s life, like the feeding of the five thousand, as well as the Biblical Commission for believers to be “fishers of men.” It could be easily etched into rock or earth, could point in any direction, and most importantly, it wouldn’t lead to immediate discovery and persecution.
One of Kenner’s most intriguing ideas about symbolism and identity involves how group membership can affect an individual’s behavior. Donning a uniform, for example, involves setting aside part of one’s own identity in favor of the uniformed group’s identity. Thus, people may not feel that actions performed in uniform are really their actions, since more than just their personal identities were involved in their deeds. The “I was following orders” defense put forth by some war criminals illustrates this tendency.
In a D&D game, it may be possible for a villain’s elite shock troops to be affected by this type of behavior modification, allowing them to commit acts of extreme violence or cruelty – acts for which they absolve themselves as soon as they doff their helmets.