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“What’s My Motivation?” –Heraldry

Written by Darkwarren - Published on June 24, 2012

What’s My Motivation?” is a regular column that uses a variety of methods found in the disciplines of acting, writing, and improvisation to help Dungeon Masters create compelling NPC’s and further flesh out their campaigns.
Last time we looked at how fears or phobias can be used to give characters a challenge and make them more believable. This week’s installment examines how heraldry and coat of arms adds both realism and flavor.

Many fantasy settings draw upon medieval Europe for their inspiration and the “Song of Fire and Ice” series (Game of Thrones to those who just watch HBO) is no different. One of the things that George R. R. Martin does so well is that while including a plethora of characters, many  can be measured up in a few descriptive sentences. But what I find in the book, more so than on TV, is that you might learn about a character’s attitude before he or she is even described because of heraldry.  And the multitude of symbols described by Martin that pertain to the hundreds of noble houses and their men-at-arms can be copied to provide attitude to any character.

Heraldry can serve as a great touchstone for these , especially if they are particularly strange or in the case of a BBEG, gruesome. The most well known banners of the noble houses of Westeros are the ones that are described most often: the gray direwolf of House Stark, the golden lion of House Lannister, the stag of House Baratheon, the golden kraken of House Greyjoy, and the red three-headed dragon of House Targareyen.

But the most peculiar caught my attention first. The flayed man of House Bolton of the Dreadfort . How can he not be a complicated nefarious man when his family’s symbol is a skinned human being? One house is described as having a vulture carrying off a baby. Yikes! I would rather not know the history of that house… or would I? The more unique the design, the more compelling the character ought to be. These devices act as simple ways of conveying the feel or attitude of a particular house. One would not expect anyone who serves under the banner of the flayed man to be merciful. Nor would one expect anyone under the banner of the lion to wish to be perceived as a coward.

Many of these standards have already long been established in Martin’s world. But even more interesting things happen when these banners change. In some instances lordships are offered to particular characters as a reward for particular deeds, honorable or otherwise. These would include the bloody spear or the flaming chain of Ser Bronn of Blackwater. You can use such rewards for equally noteworthy experiences. In our Kingmaker campaign we are currently discussing the symbology for our dwarven characters’ new noble houses or clans. Does one choose one’s heraldry based on a heroic event? Something shameful? A religious or cultural conviction? As dwarves I have tried to incorporate dwarven flavor into the heraldic devices. For example, metals and gem tones dominate the color schemes. My dwarf magus’ banner is a silver winged waraxe on a garnet field. What symbols, styles, and colors make sense for an elf, orc, or any other culture connected to the character?

A party might even have its own device. I find this to be particularly challenging because many egos get involved and everyone at the table wants their character somehow incorporated. This may lead to designs that are way too complicated or busy. One of the attributes I find appealing with Martin’s heraldry is that it remains simple, and this is best.. So for an adventuring party use the first major victory or the first major unifying event or goal as their symbol. For example, a party of freed slaves could use broken manacles or a broken chain, or a group of naval crusaders could have an anchor.

Another interesting event in the books is when heraldry changes. When Stannis Baratheon incorporates the flame of the Lord of Light it causes even some of his own men to pause let alone those he meets on the field of battle. When a houses changes station the heraldry also changes. For example, Robert Baratheon’s stag is crowned after he is named king. Allow for such revisions in your campaign’s heraldry. Have your characters notice such differences to help move the story or let them know that there are events happening outside of their characters’ experience. You may even wish to change their devices as the story progresses.

Use the following charts to come up with quick heraldry:


  1. white
  2. red
  3. orange
  4. yellow
  5. green
  6. blue
  7. indigo
  8. violet
  9. brown
  10. black


  1. bear or fish
  2. sword or shield
  3. axe or hammer
  4. boar or ram
  5. acorn or tree
  6. manticore or unicorn
  7. pyramid or anchor
  8. fire or mug
  9. holy symbol or skull
  10. spiral or straight line

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Written by Darkwarren

Matt W., aka Darkwarren, has been roleplaying ever since his older brother introduced him to the red box set when he was 7 years old. Since then he has game-mastered SSDC’s Battleords of the Twenty-third Century, WEG’s Shadowrun and Star Wars, and of course Dungeons & Dragons in a variety of forms. At thirty-four years old he takes turns on both sides of the screen with the group that he helped found in 2000 when 3.0 hit the stands and has met every week fairly regularly ever since. Currently they have been running a variety of the Paizo Adventure Path scenarios, so that’s his wheelhouse. He was almost famous when two of his adventures were green-lighted for possible publication right before Paizo relinquished the rights to publish Dungeon magazine.

Matt also has years if experience in improvisational comedy, fiction, and non-fiction writing. He is currently working and studying to attain a master’s degree in theology, to enhance his career as a religious studies teacher. Lastly, his greatest passion is his family, especially the three sons and dog that he shares with his wife in upstate New York.

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4 Responses to ““What’s My Motivation?” –Heraldry”
  1. Sean Holland says:

    Inkwell Ideas has an impressive heraldry generator here: http://inkwellideas.com/coat_of_arms/

    That may be of some use. The iconography of heraldry is quite interesting and occasionally runs much deeper than one would expect.

    Samurai used Mons (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mon_%28emblem%29) for similar purposed of identification.

  2. Jake says:

    Perhaps the next step in the use of heraldry in a campaign is how the emblems are used. Displayed as colorful artwork on shields, armored chestplates, and canvases adorning castle walls. Another fun way to have these iconic symbols pervade your story arch is to include branding and tattoos. We’ve all come across characters or created characters with a myriad of unique tattoos adorning their bodies, but perhaps certain spots of the body are considered sacred (back of the neck, inside of the elbow, over the heart, etc.)- a symbol of heraldry here insinuates true devotion. Furthermore, many soldiers may have branding a required part of their duty to the kingdom. In either respect, this also helps keep the symbology simple. It also brings up the fun caveat that if a hearald is to be modified, what about those who have the old designs forged into their skin? Is it a simple addition that can be added? Or are these soldiers/ kinsmen to feel alienated?

  3. Darkwarren says:

    Sean, great addition to our discussion: cultural insignia.

    Other than the mon, I have also used Turkish tamgha as a much more simple symbol for such cultures like the Scythians.

    Other such real-world cultural insignia out there for inspiration?

  4. Darkwarren says:

    Jake, thanks for adding another level to our discussion: placement of heraldry. I like the idea of a tattoo or brand for some cultures. One that eschews armor and shields might use tattoos while a fire cult might make use of the branding technique.

    How about invisible ones via magic? Only certain members can view them under the right circumstances. Or wizards that cast elaborate “heraldic” illusions to announce their presence?

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