In this post, I will teach you about how you're already using semiotics in your game, and highlight how you can use it in a couple different ways as a shorthand to give your world more life. To start with, some definitions: Semiotics is a branch of epistemology (a branch of philosophy that is concerned with knowledge) that deals with communication through signs (which is anything that communicates a meaning that is not the sign itself).
The short version of semiotics is that you have three types of signs;
- Icons, which are direct representations of a thing- photographs (or paintings, in DnD's fantasy pastiche)
- Indexes, which have a logical connection with the thing- smoke indexes fire, limps index injuries, and a perfectly cleaned skull in a dungeon indexes something that's very good at picking off all of the meat (and also has the capacity to acquire aforementioned skull…)
- Symbols, which are totally abstracted from the thing that they represent- these must be culturally learned. Examples include the radioactive symbol signifying radioactivity and danger, hearts representing love, and the letters that you are reading right now representing the words that they form- there is no intrinsic property that makes "t" a "t". We just all… agreed that it did.
Importantly, you can chain signs together; a smoke alarm beeping indexes smoke, which indexes fire, which indexes danger. They can also mean multiple things; a single gold coin underneath a dead person's tongue might symbolise a ritual passage to death, but the presence of it also indexes somebody that cared enough to put it there being alive after the death of the person. And, they can mean different things to different people; beggars missing a finger might index (incorrectly) a disproportionately high rate of frostbite to the naïve Dwarven cleric, but the rogue will recognise it symbolising the beggars being thieves, indexing the area as a dangerous place to leave your purse out on display. Later in the campaign, when they discover a cult that marks its members by removing a finger, it may take on a chilling potential third meaning.
How you're already using it
Semiology is, frankly, one of those meta-studies that is inescapable. It is especially prevalent in the trope-filled world of Dungeons and Dragons, no matter your setting; if you look at your campaign notes, I'm confident that you'll discover a litany of examples.
Semiotics can be used as a short hand to convey information to your players that their characters would know. It's especially useful to convey ideas that are culturally learnt.
Icons are pretty straightforward, so I won't bother to talk about them too much. Simply put, they are direct representations. Paintings of kings. Mug o' ale burnt into a sign is probably an indication that the building it's attached to is a pub- one that's not too upmarket, at that. A drawing of a dog on a gate probably indicates that there's a dog past it.
You can use indexes to indirectly refer to things; show evidence of the thing that you are trying to represent, and your players will be able to connect the dots. Examples that you're using might be;
A magically coloured torch fizzling out when the party shifts a similarly coloured stone off a plinth.
Burnt grass indexes something firey, but minor. A whole field that's charred? Dragons.
The sound of moans in the distance foreboding a zombie horde.
A frog growing fatter as the party argues in a fairy circle.
These are where you are probably mining your player character's backstories for added verisimilitude.
The cleric Frostbeard knows that it is considered sinful to show bare lips in Dwarven culture; that is why he has a beard, and insists that his friends wear their helmets when traveling through the mountains.
The sorcerer understands that the sensation of wanting to dance suddenly suggests that Wild Magic has been cast in the area recently.
Semiotics is not confined purely to the physical realm; the rogue knows Thieves' Cant, a special language riddled with metaphor and innuendo; "tell your mam that I asked about Uncle John" might seem innocuous to Frostbeard, but send a chill down the rogue's spine as he parses the tacit threat of being turned into a pin cushion.
How You Can Use It Better
Remember, the players are playing characters, but exist in the real world as humans that have consumed a multitude of popular culture products, with a vast lexicon of innately learnt grammars that you can tap into. These can be played straight, or inverted to put your players on edge.
Naturally, background music of swords clashing represents a battle going on. The sound of slimy slithering can represent something spooky slithering around. If you played that same sound when talking to the king, though, your players will naturally associate him with something slimy, or evil (slimy sounds are icons for something reptilian, eldritch, or otherwise unpleasant, which in turn indexes evil). This is hard to do well, but works if you keep it subtle, as a subliminal.
You can also use heraldry to give off "vibes" before players meet them; the Flayed Man banners in Game of Thrones certainly prime the audience to not view the house favourably, and then fears are confirmed when the Ramsays live up to their name. Remember the Mitchell and Webb skit, "Are we the baddies? We've got skulls on our hats." A heraldry of a falcon tearing off the head of a snake might literally represent that the house uses falcons.
Context matters for signs; they only gain meaning and value when interpreted in relation to each other. A banner of a raven being skewered might indicate that followers of the Raven Queen aren't welcome. Or, it might also mean that they love eating ravens! If the banner was featured in the aforementioned tavern, my money would be on the latter. If it's displayed on the city walls next to the gallows, though? The former.
Empty rooms index some sort of trap- "It's quiet… too quiet." Players index random dice rolls with danger. Players assign meaning to smiles and note-taking. Rather than just playing boss music during an empty room, though, I would suggest taking things a step further, and toy with the danger that is being indexed.
Stone statues holding lamps with faces contorted in surprise and fear index basilisks or medusae. Except for when they index Stoneskin, an infectious disease that is transmitted and activated when the fungus particles in the air are heated.
Different colours of light usually index a puzzle of sorts, where your player characters must manipulate the light. Except for when the light is keeping a mechanical monstrosity in the "off" position, who is then subsequently freed when the party mess with it.
Best way to represent an invisible creature being nearby? Dogs barking. The important thing to remember here is that it must have a logical connection; if you can't figure it out from first principles, it's a symbol.
Because symbols are culturally learned, you have a limited number of options for using them in new ways- you can either give your players a new culture to play with either in-game or out, developing the "culture" (i.e. taking a long swig of water precipitating a boss fight, "judging from the last three we've encountered, it looks like the guys that are missing an ear are usually actually pretty friendly"), or by messing with the culture that they already know. This is where I can only suggest taking a (careful) exploration into TVTropes, which has fantastic articles on ways that tropes can be inverted- tropes are, by definition, cultural.
Personally, I would think about how I could weave cultural meanings into other signs, that are already pulling weight as indexes or icons- that heraldry of the falcon, tearing the head off a snake? It might literally represent that, yes, but it might also give a clue to what they do to those that betray them (if we're going with traditional values of snake = deceit). That light puzzle might also explain why the ancient race that built the mechanoids have big, but portable lamps everywhere.
Putting It Together
An island-bound race of dirty and unwashed people that live exclusively in caves might teach their children to not go into the water. Their heraldry is of a man, set on fire, smiling. The party might incorrectly index the lack of any fishing vessels despite their other technological advancements as there being some monster in the seas nearby. They might interpret the heraldry as a threat of conflagration to enemies, or think that the folk have some demonic connection. When they see the yearly ritual where a villager is washed by others using long poles to stay far away, with weapons at the ready the entire time, this indexes a danger related to the water coming into contact with them. With this new information, their uncleanliness, cave-dwelling, and lack of interest in fishing become symbols, showing the lengths to which they will go to avoid coming in contact with water. Thus, the villager's deep suspicions of the clean Cleric yet love of the dirty, flea-ridden Druid might be explained. Their heraldry now contextualises the fire as being the opposite of water, and the person smiling as being happy, not something creepy- it's not a threat, it's a set of instructions.
You can use this system of contextualising ideas via proxy to create what feels like a very deep and interesting world. Mixing and matching chains of signs can help say a lot with a little ("Was that glitter in her hair? Oh, gods, the Fae got to her. She'll have told them everything!"), playing with expectations can liven up a tired formula ("I thought it was just a regular old puzzle, not another bloody combat encounter! That last fight was really unexpected."), contextualising signs can make your players feel like detectives ("I thought it was weird that there were so many missing fingers, I knew OHS in the town wasn't that bad!"), and compounding multiple meanings onto a single entity can make your world feel more real (Ask yourself "Okay, so why is the tavern called 'The Hunting Spirit'?"). Remember that sometimes the blue curtains are just blue curtains, though, and it can be frustrating for players if you let them follow a false lead.
Bits and Bobs That Might Be Signs
Here's a grab-bag of different things that may or may not have more meanings, depending on your world.
Jewellery and gems
Methods of building construction
Goods for sale
In the magical world of Dungeons and Dragons, you could even play around with the physics of things- perhaps True Names are so powerful because the creature is an icon of the True Name (contrasted with most names, which are symbols of creatures, because they're culturally learned), so that just adding a suffix meaning "dead" could literally reform the creature to align with the sign that the creature represents.
As soon as you know what signs are, you'll see them everywhere, not just literature. They're in music (brass fanfares signify royalty, snare drums signify military, etc.), fashion (clothes do maketh the man, after all- wearing jeans with ripped holes means a totally different thing depending on the context of a wedding, beach, office, or just at the coffee shop), advertising (rose = femininity, Icewind Tornado = Macho Man Scent), and much human-oriented design (the save icon, anybody?). I hope that this has helped you think of some ways to give more breadcrumbs (which is a symbol!) to your players.
Signing off, /u/rcgy
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More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "Semiotics: How You’re Already Using It, And How You Can Use It Even More" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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