Flesh Out Your Setting With 2-Step Ritual Markings

I was skimming Dragon #340 and tucked in the back is an article about ritual markings.

Instead of being ornamental decoration, scars and other marking types had several uses in communication and status in Earth’s history. If you have a copy of Dragon #340, check out pages 92-93.

Today, I’m going to curate the article into a two-step recipe so we have a simple way of adding ritual markings to our setting’s cultures, to use as clues, and to foster roleplaying.

The Recipe

The first step we take is to decide what kind of effect the ritual markings have in your campaign.

For example, amongst the halflings in the permanent camp outside town, scars atop big hairy feet convey rank and status. They denote who is important and who is not within the camp’s culture. High status means surviving many ambushes on townsfolk and accumulating a certain amount of wealth from such banditry.

In the second step, we decide what the symbol or ritual marking looks like. We’re kind of creating a simple language here, in effect. Code.

For example, the first time a halfling youth returns from a banditry mission and acquits themselves well, they get a single long line scar on their right stomper. Future missions each earn them short cross-marks. Meet a halfling with a long scar on each foot, and lots of cross-scars, and they are a powerful and dangerous NPC you might want to be careful around.

Choosing what the markings look like and how they impact your campaign and setting will quickly give you excellent details to roleplay with, embed into encounters, and build plots around.

Step 1. Determine Effect

Ensure scars impact gameplay by giving them either mechanical effects or setting effects.

For example, perhaps one tribe of goblins tattoos their faces for every goblin slave they take from other tribes. And when members of those other tribes see the warriors with numerous tattoos, they’ll auto-fail their morale checks unless there are unusual circumstances.

The PCs could leverage this information based on their Mission or need. For example, perhaps they are tasked with recruiting goblins to battle the campaign villain — the enemy of my enemy and all that. Well, a smart player might recruit the victim tribes with promises to deal with the slavers.

Alternatively, maybe the characters find a good use to disguise themselves or use illusions to mimic the slaver goblins, such as to intimidate lesser tribes when encountered.

d12 Example Ritual Marking Effects

Here are some effect ideas to choose or roll:

  1. Enhance Abilities. Ages ago I read a great book that I can’t remember the name of where people in the land acquired rune tattoos. These granted temporary feats of strength and other ability enhancements.
  2. Status. Ala military rankings, each scar represents a rank or qualification.
  3. Allegiance. Faction membership has its benefits. For example, summoning aid, special laws (or lack thereof), and access to special meetings and places.
  4. Animal Bonding. Enhances communication, taming, training, and bonding with animals.
  5. Spiritual Guidance. The scar might not have come from mortal sources. And the culture regards such manifestations as a form of divine communication.
  6. Protection Ward. The scars shield against malevolent spirits, certain curses, being fed after midnight, and other afflictions.
  7. Resource Compass. The scar itches or gets hot when near a certain material, energy type, magic school, metal, or other resource.
  8. Alliances. Bloodlines that can be traced back for centuries mark their eternal allegiances.
  9. Knowledge. Scars and tattoos that can be copied from one individual to the next are excellent ways to remember lore, spells, prophecies, or even mundane information like poisonous flora and fauna.
  10. Navigation. Maps also make excellent game effects. And keys in wayfinding and navigation across seas and landscapes would be worth preserving.
  11. Authority. We already talked about rank. But we can also dial in on specific agency an individual might have. For example, diplomatic immunity, master crafter, criminal or heretic status, hero status, royal guard status, doctor, spellcaster.
  12. Dreams. The markings allow lucid dreaming, communication via dreams to others with the same markings, to receive messages from beings in other dimensions.

Step 2. Symbol

While the game effect is enough to start running a ritual marking system, we can add flavor by describing what the ritual marking looks like.

The Dragon article had a bullet list, which I’ll paraphrase, update with a few of my own ideas, and add some examples:

  1. Arrow. A jagged arrow carved into the chest indicates a vow to seek revenge.
  2. Checkered Pattern. A checkered band around the wrist denotes allegiance to House Bonnestel, each square representing an award for a great deed performed.
  3. Circle. A circle around an eye marks the seers of the Salt Islands, believed to glimpse the future through the eyes of a drowned god.
  4. Horizontal Lines. Three horizontal lines across the throat indicate a master hunter who should be feared and obeyed.
  5. Lightning Bolt. A lightning bolt across the cheek is the mark of a Stormlands warrior, blessed by the god of storms to strike swiftly and fiercely.
  6. Rectangle. A solid rectangle on the chest indicates a master builder from the Spire, symbolizing their expertise in building, fortifying, and repairing castles and keeps.
  7. Star. Cultists of the night sky paint stars on their foreheads before every hunt, each star a prayer for guidance from the glittering gods of the grand tapestry above.
  8. Line. A single vertical line down the spine is the mark of a Faceless Man from Suntarr, representing the severing of their past identity.
  9. Triangle. Triangle on shield marks an elite soldier of Kush, each point symbolizing their duties to the Pharaoh, the Land, and the People.
  10. X. The Rangers of the North wear a bejeweled X pin on their cloaks, an homage to their heritage and the ancient kings of Firnock.
  11. Crosshairs. Crosshair tattoos on eyelids mark a criminal, exile, and enemy of the state. No one may give aid to such a person else suffer the crosshairs themselves.
  12. Wavy Lines. Shoulders for infantry, chests for cavalry, forearms for navy, and cheeks for officers. Each line represents a military rank. Stars added are marks of honor for deeds of valor, bravery, and heroism.
Graphic of section divider

We can use ritual markings to signal many things in our worlds. Turn these into puzzles, clues, and roleplay moments.

For example, it’s tricky coming up with new ways to signal encounter difficulty level. We can use ritual markings as a new type of clue in this regard. An encountered goblin patrol might have many members with numerous wavy lines and stars on their arms. The wizard PC makes a knowledge check and declares this is a veteran group with strong warriors and maybe should be parleyed with instead of attacked.

Use the two-step approach to note what the markings signify and their shape so you can describe them. Add ritual markings to your nations, cultures, factions, monsters, and histories.

Have more fun at every game!

P.S. When you are ready, here are +4 vorpal ways I can help you with your campaign:

+1 Use Campaign Logger to Make Prep & GMing Easier
For GMs of any system looking to run deep, detailed, and immersive games, Campaign Logger lets you take session notes at the speed of thought in your unique GMing style while improving your preparation experience so you can focus on the parts of the game you enjoy the most.
Get your free Campaign Logger account here.

+2 Take the Free GM Organization Challenge
Stop the confusion and frustration of not having what you need to prep and run games at your finger tips. Become an organized GM in just one week:
Enroll at no charge here and start getting organized.

+3 Get the Demonplague (with 62 5-Star Ratings so far)
A complete level 1-20 campaign D&D 5E adventure path that offers intense roleplay, sandbox and hexcrawl play, cunning combats, and fiendish monsters.
Click here to see more details and to order.

+4 Get More GM Loot
Visit the Roleplaying Tips DriveThruRPG store, or browse books and courses to level up your GMing at the RoleplayingTips.com store.

Join a private community with Johnn