Tattoos in Tabletop Roleplaying Games
Guest post by Erwan Roudaut
Tattoos are an important part of my life. I am tattooed, I have frequented many tattoo artists, and I worked in this field for two years when I was still doing my studies. I made a documentary on one of the most prominent artists in the history of tattooing in France, and I also hosted a show called Color My Skin on YouTube during those two years.
One of the reasons I spent so much time getting interested in tattooing is because it is an art in its own right, and like any art, it is influenced by history, and has cultural importance. The reason why I am taking the time to introduce this, is because I firmly believe that this cultural approach to tattoos has given me some refined knowledge about it, and that it is an underestimated medium to convey meaning in our favourite hobby: tabletop roleplaying games.
If we go back in time, the oldest tattoo identified was found the body of Ötzy, a hunter taken more than 7000 years ago in the ice of the Alps between Austria and Italy. Until this discovery, it was according to an Egyptian mummy dating back to 2000 BC that the first tattoo was dated.
It is hard to believe that at the time, the purpose of the tattoo was to put the name of your child in the flesh. Most likely its role related to:
- tribal belonging,
- importance in society,
- or a person’s property.
The most famous tribal tattoos are those from Polynesia or New Zealand. For those ethnicities, the tattoo on their faces (the tā moko) is a way to show their courage, their strength, and their belonging (formerly) to the high caste of warriors. It follows a codification, and it has been through Dark Ages because of the colonization, losing all its accumulated knowledge because of the ban on tattoos that was imposed by Christian missionaries.
Today tattoos don’t carry the same kind of meaning as they used to do. We don’t use it to track our ancestors’ lineage, our ranks, or even our achievements in life. Tattoos have become mainstream and with that some part of the meaning has been lost.
If I take myself as a point of reference, tattooing has a purely aesthetic role, and very little significance. I am not part of any group asking for a tattoo as a sign of belonging and I don’t want my tattoos to tell my “criminal career” as it can be the case for mobsters. On the other hand, my aesthetic choices say a lot about who I am, my tastes, my personality, and therefore what drives me. More generally, the fact that I have a lot of tattoos may be enough to put me in a box for some people.
This love for tattooing, as far back as I can remember, I have always more or less demonstrated it during my role-playing sessions. Some people often play the same type of character. Well, almost all of mine are tattooed, and I try to give some meaning to that.
I believe that tattooing is not only an element of character construction. Although it is important to explore the reasons that led one of your characters to be tattooed, it is also interesting to see what you can do with this element in terms of game design. By being an integral part of the character, its role can be decisive and transform into a very powerful narrative tool, or even a rule element that can serve the action.
You will find here ideas for scenario hooks, suggestions of the different ways in which the tattoo can be integrated into your games, or even thoughts about what it could tell about your character or your factions without it being a cliché or a misused trope.
I insist on the fact that a “tattoo” is not supposed to be removable or at least easy to remove; the tattooed person is marked for life. That’s the point of this act.
If there is magic in your universe, then tattoos are magically (or divinely) indelible. If there is technology, then tattoos are more durable, more strongly inked in the body or maybe are they made of nanotechnologies, and removing them is even more difficult, if not impossible.
Tattoos of Belonging
Those are rather straightforward. They are the continuity of the first example I gave above. In most settings, it is possible to see a moment in time when a group of people all accept to mark themselves in order to tell where they are from, or which clan they were raised in. It can also be a case of a group of friends deciding to share a common symbol to tie to each other such as a military corps, or a group of adventurers using their magical tattoo to communicate to each other.
Clans and Tribes
No matter what universe you play in, you can represent clans. A clan – or a tribe, depending on the time and context – can have a rather vague definition. In the idea, it is a group of people who share a common culture, ideas and way of life. It can range from the Viking tribe, to the Hells Angels – an armed motorcycle gang – to the intergalactic armed forces.
Why does tattooing fit well into these social groups? Mainly because where there is a common culture, there are common codes, and most of them are pictorial, visual, and must be able to be understood without saying a word.
Death Eaters from Harry Potter all share the same mark to make it easy to prove their evil allegiance. In their specific case, they prove that they are devoted to the cause by accepting to be marked forever. It’s both an act of faith, and an irrefutable proof of your demise if you get caught.
All members of the Lord of the Rings cast got the same matching tattoo. There is no particular role to it, except to mark a shared memory and milestone in their life. Somehow, the meaning is very strong too, because even if they are public figures, they have this personal reminder of their own history.
You can imagine a setting where a group of younglings have to go through a rite of passage to become full members of a barbaric tribe. Maybe their tradition is that when they reach adulthood, their hands are covered with special symbols, to mark their role, name or lineage. At some point in the story, the clan is being exterminated, except for a few individuals separated by their oppressors.
Decades later, they meet and recognize each other through these hand tattoos that are unique to their culture. Tattoo is then used as a narrative element. It is the shattered glass that ties everybody together when all the pieces are collected. This can lead to a quest to find the rest of the survivors, or a vengeful campaign against those who murdered their tribe.
The interest of an indelible clan marking is to ensure the loyalty of the member as it becomes impossible to deny his membership to a network. A sense of pride can also be taken out of that experience. Getting tattooed is a powerful act, it shows how far you are willing to go to prove your worth to the cause. The tattoo is thus a claim of belonging. It is not uncommon to see activists getting tattoos of their movement’s acronym or logo.
How many times in the movies have you seen villains identified because they all had the same tattoo identifiable by the heroes? I mentioned the Death Eaters above, but you can find that trope in several creations and most of the time it’s going to be located on the forearm. However, be careful not to overuse this technique, and not to only apply it to your bad guys.
Clanic tattoos communicate information other than just belonging: Russian criminals and Yakuza tattoo (known as the Irezumi) themselves according to an extremely precise codification, telling their deeds: this or that crime, going to prison, etc. Take as an example David Cronenberg’s film Eastern Promises, in which Viggo Mortensen plays a Russian mafia henchman. For the Russians mafia, tattoos carry a meaning depending on the symbols and positions. The Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia lists a lot of them and is a great source of inspiration when it comes to understanding the variations of messages one could want to spread on his body.
It is possible that the PC may join a group where moving up the ladder requires an indelible trace. Make it clear to your PCs that integration into certain guilds, sects, organizations can leave irreversible marks, and that these could be harmful to them if they were to consider leaving this “tribe”. In a similar fashion, it is impossible to deny their belonging to an organization if they have it tattooed on their body.
In the French role-playing game One Percent, the tattoo has a role both in the character’s story, but also in game with specific rules. In this game, Tattoo Cards are used to reduce the die roll and make actions successful. These cards represent the tattoos worn by the character, each of which is a testimony to the character’s life. The first tattoos are defined when the character is created, and as the game progresses, the tattoos will represent the character’s experience. The maximum being a total of 22 “ink dots” (seven at startup) on the character.
In the German RPG Degenesis several religions integrate tattooing into the foundations of their dogma. The Anabaptists, a kind of 26th century Neognostic organisation, wear three symbols on their foreheads to indicate the group from which they come, and therefore the people to whom their allegiance is directed.
The antithesis of these Anabaptists is the Jehammedans, warrior shepherds whose history is told in the form of patterns on the skin. These reasons are chosen each year by the elders of the tribe, who decide on the remarkable facts attributed to one of their own. Obviously, the more a Jehammedan is tattooed, the more prestigious and worthy his life has been.
Religions are not the only ones doing it. Tattoos are also part of the code of one of the ruling organizations in the universe: the Chroniclers. To be a part of their network of tech-rulers, one has to have their forehead tattooed with a barcode which is then assigned to them for life. When the barcode is scanned, it gives access to all their actions, all their information, and their accreditation for the rest of their life. A Chronicler without a barcode can’t access their technology and can’t access their headquarters, the Cluster.
Those are there ways to incorporate tattoos in the background and ongoing story of your characters. But Degenesis also has a character with gameplay mechanics linked to its tattoos. Without revealing too much about it, the character has a maze tattooed on his body, and the way it is done, combined to his behaviour, leads to an intimidation and destabilization of those watching it. It is both hypnotizing and frightening for the victim.
I do believe that this is a clever use of what a tattoo can do, without any kind of magical aspect linked to it, just the mere idea of a person covered in ink. Imagine what it would have been like to talk with Zombie Boy, and try not to be mesmerized or embarrassed by his look.
The unit to which we belong is another kind of tribe. The more prestigious the unit is, the more it represents the elite, the more the warrior or soldier will want to expose that they were part of it. So in an army without a uniform, rank and unit membership are written on the body. Thus, if the ID tags are lost, bodies can still be identified as coming from a particular unit.
The FBI has finally acquired an AI that analyzes data (big data mining) on forensic reports from across the United States. It reports a statistically unusual prevalence of Semper Fi tattoos on victims of murders, suicide or bizarre “accidents” over the past 6 years. Who wants to discreetly remove the veterans of a certain company of Marines parachuted into Iraq? Perhaps a military supplier whose depleted uranium ammunition causes cancer?
Military tattoos also make it possible to boast of one’s victories, and to impress enemies and allies.
Example: In Star Wars, I had a pilot from the New Republic, a very reckless X-Wing freak nicknamed Wildy. Since she had started flying, Wildy had a new circle tattooed around her arm for each imperial pilot shot down. As the adventures progressed, a large part of her arm was covered with these kinds of bracelets, and all the other characters respected her pilot abilities.
In itself, nothing forced the character to mark each victory in this way, yet this choice gave this pilot the appearance of a true leader capable of doing her job and surviving it (and provided bonuses for charisma rolls for leading her group).
A consequence of tattooing as an indelible mark of belonging to a group is that it can be unwanted, and imposed/applied by the “group owner”. The marking is then an indicator of inferiority or infamy.
Think of slaves, prostitutes, horses and convicts marked with an iron; deportees with their numbers tattooed on their arms; and other ostracism marked on a visible place (e. g. on their forehead). For example, after liberation from Nazi occupation, in some areas French citizens branded Nazi collaborators with swastikas so they could not escape their prior acts.
In future dystopias, convicts – or even citizens – will have a barcode tattooed on their forehead or neck to serve as identification and thus monitoring of their actions. This page references several films, including Aliens, Fortress, 12 Monkeys and Hitman.
One of the characters is tattooed against their will. The important thing is to see the consequences that this identification will have on them, on their interactions, and on what they will want to do to get rid of them.
Going back to Degenesis, part of the sanctions applied by the Judges in the city of Justitian is to tattoo a guilty person who has been caught red-handed. As a consequence of this, employers, sellers and merchants always ask to see the face and hands of their interlocutor before doing a deal or giving a job. The idea there is to say that if tattoo reveals illegality, there can be ways of building a facet of your culture around it.
If you expect your youth leaders to do something important (e.g., liberate a planet), inflict unwanted tattoos on them that will reveal a brand they can later boast about. For example, the imprisoned PCs are sent to the mines of Kessel. They lead the revolt and after the victory of their camps, can wear their tattoos as decorations: “I was there! And I survived!”
In our time, tattooing is at the crossroads between an aesthetic fashion and a way to mark one‘s belonging to a movement or subculture. Go to a concert or metal festival, and you will notice that many of the spectators are tattooed, and for them nothing is more normal.
The tattoo can therefore be very individualized, having meaning only for its wearer. Whether it is a body covered with traditional Japanese tattoos, a stained-glass body-suit or an electro-anarchic variant that only exists in the shallows of Coruscant, anything is possible. The important thing is to justify the importance of this tattoo for the character.
Why does a character cover himself with geek references? Is it because he’s been a fan since childhood and he buys all the collectors editions of his favorite universes? If a father gets his child’s name tattooed, it may be because the child is dead, or on the contrary is it because he has just been born and the father wants to mark this event for life?
On the other hand, aesthetic tattooing can have negative consequences. It is easier to be identified if you have something to to be blamed for, because these particular signs are inventoried in files. And the more a culture progresses in technology, the larger the files are, the better they are kept, accessible from everywhere. Above all, the alteration of the body is not seen positively by everyone.
According to societies, groups, and individuals, the point of view on tattooing and what it can imply varies: refusal of access to a private club, body too impure to access a sacred place, or medical tests to pass to verify that no disease was transmitted during the tattooing (which is what doctors do during a blood donation in France).
A good thing in this respect is to think about how your world is built, and how tattooing can be perceived in its set of rules, beliefs and dogmas. Maybe tattoos are seen as an offense because they corrupt the body, or maybe are they seen in some cities and cultures of the world as a versatile way to express yourself. It can be a bit of both. Think about cyberpunk for example, where tattoos are both a sign of belonging and extreme personal expression. Or on a larger basis, observe how our world contains both types of tattoos and how they coexist with each other, sometimes on the same individual.
For the tattoo to be in harmony with your universe and to preserve the indelible aspect that is linked to it, it may be important to make it magical. The first example that comes to mind is the Avatar in the anime of the same name. Aang found himself marked by tattoos when he completed his training as an airbender, and these lit up as he mastered the elements.
In Star Wars, one could imagine a form of tattoo marking Jedi teaching. The tattoo could mark the first “communion with the Force”, and other tattoos would mark milestones reached. However, in the Star Wars canon, Jedi knights do not have tattoos; while in Star Wars comics, the Sith – the practitioners of the Dark Side of the Force – are covered in them. So feel free to tattoo your “extraterrestrial force student”.
Another example of what can be done with a tattoo is to make it a way to access magic. In Mage: The Ascension, give one of your characters the tattoo as a focus. It will certainly be limited in place, but its focus will always be on it, and – according to the Magician’s Tradition – tattoos could perfectly fit into the paradigm.
In Runequest/Heroquest the PCs tattoo the magic runes and they touch the tattoo to invoke the corresponding magic. This is kind of like what was done in Peter Brett’s novel The Painted Man. The character is covered with runes that are the only way to defend against demons invading the world. The PCs then become both the weapon and the carrier of the weapon.
Coming from the Players
If a player decides to give tattoos to his character, for example during creation, dig this path with him. Are they clan, aesthetic or magical tattoos? If they are clans, work together on historical and social elements that will justify it.
Coming from the GM
Tattoos in Social Relationships
Intimidation by tattooing is a good example. A completely tattooed character can scare people. If there are few people tattooed in the game world, there may be rejection or sympathy depending on the person seeing another’s tattoo. On the other hand, in a society where everyone is tattooed, a “naked” character will be perceived as a newborn who has not accomplished anything, or who is trying to hide something – an antisocial person who says nothing about himself.
A tattooed man or woman is wanted. The tattoo can be a way to identify him.
Tattooing is a message, or a way to always keep information in coded form with you. For example in the TV series Prison Break a man who wants to free his brother from prison gets locked in the same prison, with the plans to the prison tattooed on his body. In the manga Cobra, a pirate tattooed three pieces of a treasure map on the skin of his three daughters (to their misfortune, when bad guys want to skin them alive).
It is possible to imagine the construction of a character through the tattoos that cover it. See the TV series Blindspot, where the heroine is amnesiac but covered with tattoos that allow her to find information about her past (and prevent future crimes – see the magic tattoo). In a series with realistic inspiration, we hope that the writers have planned a good reason not too “fantastic” to explain how the “tattoo artists” saw the future and how the heroine can change it!
The Tattoo Artist as a Character Class
- Tattoo artists see many individuals passing through and can retrieve a lot of information.
- The “tattoo parlor” is a place of passage and a place full of life and gossip.
- The tribal tattooist is almost a shaman. He is respected and important. These people are very often untouchable within their society.
- In the Mafia a tattoo can give validation and the right to move to the next step in the organization. See Eastern Promises.
The Way Tattooing is Done Says A Lot About A Society
- The old-fashioned way with potentially unclean tools is a bit underground.
- Tattooing as it is done now with a dermograph indicates there’s a tattoo industry with skilled professionals.
- It can be done with a knife or scissors in tribal ceremonies with semi-scarification of the skin. For example the Maori ancestral technique uses bone tips in the same way that the Japanese still prefer tebori. The difference is in the execution, because the bone tip pierces a hole in the skin, and the ink is embedded in it, while the other means are too thin to leave real sequelae.
Thilo Parg, Oetzi the Iceman Tattoo 2, cropped by Erik Schmidt, CC BY-SA 4.0