Friday, July 18, 2014

Signs and Symbols

Recently I've taken to using the eight-pointed star as an explicit symbol of Chaos in my games. It fits very well with the idea that Chaos is an explicit "side" that you can be explicitly for or against, in a broad cosmic war of which factions in the campaign world are just general reflections. Chaos, as I use it, is a powerful force led by many demonic and strange Chaos lords, who are as often as not at cross purposes with one another, as symbolized by the eight directions of the Chaos arrows. It's good and Moorcockian and flavorful. I've had NPCs use it for decoration, including unholy symbols and tattoos.

This Chaos symbol comes from the influence of Swords & Wizardry, even though ultimately it's Moorcock's. S&W also has a circle for Law, which is different from Moorcock who used a single straight arrow. I like the circle, though, because it's an easy graffito. A Law circle can be drawn around the Chaos arrows, like the three downward-pointing arrows of the Eiserne Front were designed to counter Nazi swastikas.

I don't have a symbol for Neutrality that I like. Two wide horizontal bars might work for people who are "actively neutral" (that is, opposed to both Law and Chaos). The thing is, Neutrality in many ways is sort of a catch-all of unaligned, selfish, people aligned to the Earth, people who want a balance, and animals that don't have the intelligence to have an alignment.

But using the circle and the eight-pointed star has had me thinking about other symbols with clear resonances. The Elder Sign, whether it is the pentagram of Derleth or Lovecraft's "tree branch" that has five tines pointing off of a central line, is a classic symbol to ward off things that are not from this world. The Yellow Sign is a classic sigil that is immediately ominous. And I think players might revolt if they saw the Duvan'ku Dead Sign from Death Frost Doom. Or at least, if they know what it means.

The World of Greyhawk has some good entrance runes, if a bit unique to its setting. But on a similar vein I think it would be really fun to start using the classic hobo signs around a megadungeon or wilderness sandbox type environment; obviously the railroad-related ones are no good but most of them would be an interesting way to make the PCs seem more like they're part of a larger world where they aren't the only adventurers about. Simple trail signs can also serve a similar purpose, though they're more likely in the wilderness.

Signs and symbols are also a great way to introduce a mystery into the campaign. Just throw an unknown sigil at the characters, and they will naturally investigate it – whether through a sage, or asking around, or what have you. These kinds of things are a good way to pique the curiosity of players.

I'd be curious about signs and symbols people have used in their own campaigns, and what the impact has been.


  1. I like the hobo signs, such as good water and bad water. If the party spends a comprehend languages spell, they can learn what the signs mean. These signs could also be used for glyphs of warding.

  2. We must be on similar wavelengths

    I have a good link somewhere for dungeon symbols

  3. Awesome. Give us a Law and a balance too

  4. I use the triquetra as the symbol of Law in my campaign world--I like the suggestion of stricture in the knots, being bound but also being mutually supported. And I use the Yin Yang for Neutrality, but it doesn't come up much.

    And just now I'm thinking hobo sigils should make a comeback in the post-apocalyptic campaign I'm throwing together...

  5. I haven't used a lot of signage along these lines, but it's certainly a good idea - and a great way to add lots of depth to a megadungeon adventure, especially if the players can work out that different groups of NPC adventurers use different sets of signs, or especially if some bad guy works out the code and starts using it to set up traps.

    I am struck, though, by the irony of "chaos" having a unified symbol, at least if any of them use it as opposed to it being assigned to them by neutral/lawful thinkers.

  6. Given your symbols for Law and Chaos, you might consider the quartered circle as a symbol for active Neutrality. It sort of splits the difference, as it were.

    I don't actually know much about the symbols of the Middle Sea world yet. I should probably check in on that.


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