Inspired by Ink: Bringing tattoos into your game

I am as addicted to tattoos as I am to tabletop RPGs.  I got my first tattoo almost two years ago, and I’ve gotten inked twice more since then.  And yes, I am planning on getting more.  I’m not the only tattoo enthusiast who loves gaming: Vin Diesel and his tattoo dedicated to Melkor, drow bad-ass, is one who comes to mind.

In any case, the Dragonmarks of Eberron were a real inspiration for me.  Unfortunately, they also come with a lot of baggage: history, information, social implications, etc.  That’s s a lot to bring into the game.  What if you want that tattoo aesthetic, but don’t want to deal with the Draconic prophecy or the political struggle that comes with it?  What if you don’t even want to play in Eberron to begin with?

For me, tattoos are ultimately a form of self-expression, permanent body art that marks the soul and makes it visible.  This is an idea that I would want to bring into my game.

Here are some examples of when I actually used tattoos as a DM, and what they did for the story, and the world, my players were enveloped in.  I’m throwing these out for any DMs out there who’s like to pick what they can from my ideas:

Rubacava is a dead end city in Khorvaire that no one goes to but whose inhabitants spend their whole lives trying to leave lives a notorious dwarven mafia boss, Adrik “Bad Ale” Draconi. His headquarters were at the back room of the Drunken Dragon.  A paranoid Dwarf, Draconi hired the very best to be his personal bodyguard.  Lia, an elf with long green hair that flowed down her back and a green sword tattoo that crosses over her eye delicately, from forehead to chin.  The last thing an ill-tempered thug or an ill-fated assassin would see would be her glinting green eyes and the sword inked across her perfect elven features.

Lia and her sword tattoo are simply pure fluff, something to make this NPC really stand out in my players’ minds.  I think she fired up the imagination of the boys for sure.

Carn begrudgingly did his part during the 100 year war.  When he lived to see the end of it, he knew he couldn’t go back to being a blacksmith.  He made an honest living as an adventurer for hire, keeping his nose clean and his head down.  That all changed when an opera singer he was tasked to protect began to speak of a prophecy, and a strange itching began in his palm.  In mere days, a black mark in the vague form of a Dragon began to grow from his hand to his forearm.  A fortuneteller drew the tarot card of Death and said he was destined to become a God Killer.  In the heat of battle, when things looked most dire, a hulking savage warforged suddenly seemed…vulnerable.  Carn’s vision blurred, and red lines crisscrossed the warforged’s form, and all of them seem to connect to one glowing red dot.  Overcome by bloodlust, the human artificer slammed his palm — where his Dragonmark of Death glowed a bright red — against the shining red dot.  The warforged shattered into a million pieces, raining all around the artificer.  He had defeated his opponent in one swift move.

In this case, Carn’s player wanted to stay away from prophecy and gods and anything of the sort.  That made him stick out like a sore thumb next to his more devout companions. Drawing Carn in to the story was that much more difficult. Fortunately for me, he picked “birth foretold by prophecy” when creating the character.  Best thing I could think of was, he was destined to become a Killer of Gods.

From there, I came across the notorious Dragonmark of Death that had no official house, and had no real history beyond rumor.  That meant the Dragonmarked houses didn’t need to be involved in the storyline at all.  I borrowed the “red lines revealing vulnerability” idea from a mediocre anime I saw years ago.  From there, I would simply describe what the character could see, and leave it to Carn to decide.  “Are you going to touch the red dot?” is all I would ask.

I let my player bask in the joy of defeating the warforged titan in one go.  Later, I would bring up the Dragonmark and its ability repeatedly.  But it was not an ability he could conjure up on his own, and sometimes he would be forced to use the Dragonmark against an ally (which I checked asking him to roll and measuring it up against a DC in my head.  If he succeeded the check he could control the hand enough to put it down.  If not, he would touch his ally and seriously harm him.)

Other times when he could use the Dragonmark to destroy in seconds what would take hours by ritual, he was rolling against a 50/50 chance.  For example: he could attempt to destroy a mark of evil left on an ally, but risk seriously injuring whoever he was trying to help.  In that case, I’d have the player call out odds or evens, and he’d roll a D20.

The elven sorceress, kalashtar artificer, and warforged warden had successfully defeated the cambions and tieflings and their leader, a succubus, that had attempted to sabotage the cargo ship bringing relief goods to Sharn.  They stood on the deck of the sky ship, recovering from the fight and gratefully enjoying the victory.  Strangely enough, all of their opponents had a strange tattoo of a stylized closed eye on their chests.  Suddenly, the succubus’ body stood straight up, as did all her fallen allies.  The tattooed eyes writhed, and suddenly opened, revealing an eye that was staring balefully at the party.

“We can seeeeeeee yooooooou!” a foul voice whispered menancingly, eyes rolling in their infernal sockets before locking on to each one of the party members.

With that, the bodies turned into dust.

This particular session was a prequel to That Eberron game.  It didn’t directly interact with the campaign’s main story, but wasn’t entirely removed from it either. I solved this by having the saboteurs work for the same big bad villain.  I merely had to “mark” them as followers of Sul Khatesh, giving them an eye tattooed somewhere on their body.

Having the tattoo, move, open, and speak in a menacing voice was something that came naturally from the story all impromptu like.  It successfully creeped out my players, and I would use it again in later games.  This meant that every victory was bittersweet, as the players knew that somehow, they were being watched by a malevolent force that they did not fully know.

Here’s one last possible way of incorporating tattoos in your game.  I haven’t tried this one out myself yet, as I only came up with it yesterday.  It seems like the start of an adventure, or even an entire campaign.

Those who are in the know simply call him “the tattoo artist”.  But those who are in the know are few and far between, and what mostly reaches the surface are vague rumors.  But in the underground community comprised of a new and daring generation of wizards, Vaen is a young and talented magic user who is the force behind a new wave of wizardry.  Instead of spell books, Vaen uses magical implements to tattoo spells into the very skin of his customers.

While a wizard will still need time to meditate and prepare his spells everyday, his spell book is now an organic part of the body, something that can never be taken away, and serves as a visual feast of the abilities of the wizard.  Magic users now use these tattoos not only to augment their powers, but as status symbols to show how powerful they are.

Unfortunately, there are two sides to every coin.  Deeper in the underground still are the body thieves, demons disguised as men who hunt down these tattooed wizards and take their spell-designed flesh: skins they wear for their own.  Who will stop them?  Or is it too late?  Is it simply punishment for these wizards who overstep their bounds and spit on tradition?

They say monsters are coming, vile things whose flesh are not their own, and made of a morbid patchwork of skin that once belonged to others…

The spell tattoos could easily be pure fluff: they are not more or less powerful than normal spells.  However, to balance  the fact that the character no longer had to purchase a spell book to contain these spells, I would say that every spell tattooed on their skin would come with a price.  Perhaps higher level spells would call for more intricate tattoos, making them more expensive.  This is where I’d start to balance between pure fluff and actual game mechanics.

When it comes to game mechanics though, Matthew is far better at it than I am.  We’ve been talking about tattoos in a game, and he’s coming up with a short but great introduction on how to have tattoos be more than fluff in your D&D 4E sessions.  Watch out for the post, it’ll be coming soon!

If you decided to use any of these ideas in your campaign, let us know how it helped your game!  Leave a comment here on this post, or you can tell us about it on our facebook group page.

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Art featured in this post are by deviant artists Katanaz and Rosalind Harrison.

If you enjoyed reading about dragonmarks and tattoos in role-playing games, you might consider learning more about dragonmarks in the 4th Edition Eberron Player’s Guide or discover the nature of the Magic of Eberron. You can also support us further by purchasing other Dungeons & Dragons related products.

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Comments
4 Responses to “Inspired by Ink: Bringing tattoos into your game”
  1. callin says:

    In our current Gamma World campaign, early in our careers we discovered a working ancient medical complex. Instead of going ooh and ahh over all the wild tech at our disposal, we used it to get tattoos. We took some time out of the game and went online looking for an appropriate tattoo. Finding one we then told the GM we were all getting the tattoo.
    It became our symbol and sign. You could tell you were part of our adventuring party by the tattoo. At one point we found ourselves fighting a military AI within its base. We converted some of the droids to our side and the GM had the droids paint our tattoo onto the droids on our side of the robot civil war. It was awesome.

    • Jammi the Dungeon Mistress says:

      That’s really awesome! I like how the tattoos really worked to bring the party together. Droids with painted tattoos are just as cool.

  2. I have always been a big fan of magical tattoos. Thank you for the good inspiration and discussion of uses of them in a magical world.

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