A Brief Guide to Heraldry

Michael O. Varhola

Historically, heraldry was born during the conflicts of the 11th and 12th centuries. Painted shields and devices, and later additions such as embroidered surcoats, crests, and horse trappings, were an important means of identifying fully armored — and therefore anonymous — friends and foes on the battlefield.

There were two additional reasons that heraldry flourished. First, it provided a means of openly displaying status and ownership. Complex arms often displayed the lineage and accomplishments of the bearer and his ancestors. Second, heraldic devices served as a means of personal identification; they may actually have originated from graphic personal seals (e.g., signet rings) that were used in an age of rampant illiteracy. The hereditary nature of heraldry is what distinguishes it from mere uniforms and colored shields. A grant of the right to bear arms was the result of elevation to a higher social status, typically by knighting, and brought with it a grant-of-arms (i.e., a hereditary device). Heraldic devices are not necessarily restricted to the nobility, and wealthy families, guilds, and free cities often establish their own coats of arms. 

Nomenclature and Rules
Every jurisdiction sets its own rules of heraldry. As an additional complication, it is also common for holders of grants-of-arms to arbitrarily change portions of their devices to suit their own tastes. Following is a distillation of many rules; for more specific or historically precise information on this complex, intricate, and somewhat pedantic subject, readers can consult any one of the many tomes that have been written about it.

Traditional heraldry uses five colors and two metals. The colors are sable (black), gules (red), azure (blue), vert (green), and purpure (purple). The metals are silver (white) and gold (yellow). The general rule of thumb is that a color should not be placed on (adjacent to) another color, or a metal adjacent to another metal. Thus, if the background of a shield is white, it could have a black, red, blue, green, or purple sun emblazoned on it, but not a yellow sun. The opposite holds true; if the background is a color, then the foreground should be either white or yellow. More elaborate arms include furs, typically ermine (white with black spots) or vair (white and blue). 



Shields can be partitioned into smaller sections, each of which may hold a separate color and graphic (examples of nine common partitions are shown). The lines of partitioning are referred to as Ordinaries and are typically symbolic (e.g., quarterly partitioning is symbolic of a cross Ordinary). Directions on a shield are relative to the bearer. Thus, the dexter (“right”) portion of the shield is the left half if you were facing it as an attacker, and the sinister (“left”) portion is the right half as you are facing it.

Other additions to the shield device results from adding Charges, Flowers (e.g., roses, fleurs-de-lis), and Leaves (e.g., trefoils) onto the background. Common Charges include lions, griffins, eagles, swans, stags, and dragons. Less common charges might include objects like wheels, gauntlets, ladders, or bridges. Charges are typically steeped in symbolism; a golden spur, for example, might represent the nobility of knighthood. 


Additional grants-of-arms (e.g., elevation from knight to baronet) result in the sequential addition of a helmet over the shield, a mantle (basically a headband for the helmet), a crest on the helm (e.g., horns, plumes), a motto, supporters (typically animals) holding the shield, a crown, and finally a robe of state. Only lords of the realm — barons and higher — may have crowns, and only royalty may have the robe of state.

Sons and daughters of an arms holder can use cadency marks on their father’s device to distinguish birth order. The oldest child uses a label — which looks like a capital E facing down — at the top of the shield, the second uses a crescent, the third uses a star, and so on. 

Dwarven Heraldry
Dwarven heraldry typically uses three colors (black, white, and grey) and six metals (copper, silver, gold, platinum, steel, and mithril, in ascending order of importance). Only Dwarven royalty uses mithril, while steel is typically reserved for the nobility. The metals are almost invariably placed on a background color. Dwarves rarely use creatures as charges, and more often than not the primary device is an object (e.g., an axe, a hammer, a helmet, a goblet). Their coats-of-arms tend to be functional, easy to read, and friendly to the vagaries of black-and-white darkvision. Dwarves place much stock in heraldry as a means of identifying forces on the battlefield. Almost all respectable Dwarven families have a coat-of-arms. 
Elven Heraldry
Elven heraldry typically uses three colors (green, brown, and yellow) and three woods (oak, cherry, and pine). Their shield devices typically involve trees, stars, suns, bows, arrows, and flowers. Elves in general do not place much stock in heraldry and typically only their royalty bothers with it.
Gnomish Heraldry
Gnomish heraldry tends to be a bit garish. Gnomes use a myriad of colors and metals and place them as they please (e.g., an orange-and-purple speckled background with a golden sun outlined in copper fire would be quite acceptable). Gnomish heraldic charges tend to be burrowing or industrious animals, such as moles, badges, weasels, beavers, and the like.
Goblinoid Heraldry
Goblin, Hobgoblin, and Bugbear heraldry typically use the primary colors red, green, and blue as a base, with some sort of tribal device (e.g., a white fist, a bloody eyeball, storm clouds) on top. Goblinoids are extremely tribal; typically all the members of the tribe, including the leaders, use the same device. 
Halfling Heraldry​
Halfling heraldry tends to be like human heraldry; however, their favorite colors are yellow and green, which are often used as backgrounds. Most Halfling clans have a device, although it appears more often as a seal on a business document than on a shield.
Orcish Heraldry​
Orcish heraldry is certainly not bound by any rules. Favored colors are white, black, red, and purple. Devices tend to involve body parts and weapons (e.g., skulls, broken bones, bloody heads, rotting eyes). Orcs typically use the arms of their tribe, although the leaders often use their own coats-of-arms (which were, more often than not, looted from the corpse of a knight).
Other Heraldry
Other humanoid creatures, such as giants and gnolls, or even monsters like dragons, manticores, or infernal beings, might decide to adopt heraldic devices. 

This feature on heraldry in historic and fantasy campaign settings is adapted from Skirmisher Publishing LLC's Warriors, a comprehensive OGL sourcebook for fantasy role-playing games.