And it happened that in a heap they found,
Pierced through with many a grievous, bloody wound,
Two young knights lying together, side by side,
Bearing one crest, wrought richly, of their pride,
And of those two Arcita was the one,
The other knight was known as Palamon.
Not fully quick, nor fully dead they were,
But by their coats of arms and by their gear
The heralds readily could tell, withal,
That they were of the Theban blood royal,
And that they had been of two sisters born.
Out of the heap the spoilers had them torn
And carried gently over to the tent
(from) The Knight's Tale, G.Chaucer (Translation)
A coat of arms is a specific graphic image designed to identify the wearer - the creation, maintenance and identification of coats of arms is known as heraldry, although that term can also be used to describe the arms themselves. The right to bear a coat of arms is traditionally awarded by the monarch as an honour1 and one who has been so honoured is said to be armigerous2. Coats of arms may also be issued to organisations such as guilds and chartered cities.
Historically the coat of arms was an outgrowth of the symbols that fighting men have been painting on their shields since the shield was invented. It is usually found in chivalric societies such as medieval Europe and medieval Japan (where it tends to be called a mon) - societies where there is a noble warrior caste who require to be able to tell one another apart in battle despite wearing full-face helms. A coat of arms may also be simplified to a badge and/or livery to be worn by a nobleman's retainers so that the nobles can tell whose men are whose. The arms will be primarily displayed on the wearer's shield, the surcoat worn over his armour and on his banners - and probably the trapper over his horse's barding as well.
Coats of arms will use a combination of colour and graphics to create a unique image for each wearer - this may be according to a strict set of rules (by the late middle ages most European heraldic codes were insanely complicated) or far more free-form. Often any graphics involved will represent the wearer's name, title or significant achievements (even in the form of a bad pun). A unique image is important3 - making similar coats of arms noticeably different4 was an important part of a herald's duties, especially given that arms were traditionally heritable (going with the surname, lands and title) and so brothers needed to be distinct from one another and sons from their father.
In general coats of arms start off fairly simple with plain, geometric shapes in solid colours but become more and more ornate as the need for distinction increases.
Game and Story Use
- In many settings, anyone who is anyone - including possibly the PCs - will have his or own coat of arms telling others of his status. The elements of the coat of arms might even give insight into a character's personality.
- Consider allowing the PCs to design their own coat of arms - this will enhance role-playing and tie them closer to the setting.
- Use coats of arms and badges extensively - and give the PCs who spend points on the relevant skills some insight into who the wearers are, where they are from and to whom they are related.
- Great for (literal) false flage operations where people rely on them for identification.