Taking Inspiration from the Language of Flowers for Your RPG Campaign World
Salutations, nerds! Today I’m writing about flowers in tabletop roleplaying games. Specifically I’m thinking about how back in the Victorian era people were way extra and liked to make codes out of everything. How ladies held their fans was a language in and of itself to the point the hand they carried it in could indicate whether or not they were available for someone else to pursue. In a culture that really didn’t like saying things outright there was a lot of reading between the lines — a lot of implication. Floriography, or the language of flowers, says this poignantly. If you’ve ever wanted to passive aggressively flip someone the bird this was a really excellent way to do so.
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The tiniest of flowers can have the toughest roots
I’ll spare you the deep dive into various flowers and their meanings. Instead I’m going to lean into the prerogative of all Game Masters and make stuff up. Or rather I’m going to write for a little while and hopefully inspire you to make stuff up on your own for your tabletop RPG experiences.
Who uses the flowers?
The first question to answer is who uses this floral code and what purpose it serves within the game world? For instance I have a plot bunny running around my head regarding a secret society that uses the black orchid as their calling card of sorts. Fallout 4 players probably know the signs the Railroad leaves around look like normal graffiti set dressing to most players until they find out what it is and then on every replay they see them everywhere and wonder how they missed these signs in the first place.
This is harder to do in a tabletop RPG but my intent with this is to run an entire campaign in a single city and start setting this plot point up early. Some NPCs will have a black orchid somewhere in their shops or homes. This is the invisible signifier — the thing most people won’t think twice about and allows members of this underground society to subtly identify one another.
It’s a simplistic example but one applicable to a lot of things. Imagine using flowers as a sort of visual thieves’ cant or a way druids can recognize one another. This makes a wonderful way to challenge characters’ Nature skill to identify the plants growing outside this building are not native to the area and it’s too cold for them to grow here!
Think about factions and who has a reason to want this subtle communication with one another.
What is significant about the flowers?
Oleander and sweet pea are both incredibly toxic so those are good flowers to use for a subtle threat. A flower requiring a specific soil and a particular temperature to bloom may be a good sign for a situation being safe.
For my Black Orchid Society I chose this flower because it is both beautiful and striking but also something one can get away with as a decorative item. It’s a rare flower, which means it’s unlikely to be something someone just has lying around for no reason and someone is probably growing them on purpose.
If a flower has medicinal properties this says something about the people using them. Perhaps it isn’t a flower at all but a certain breed of ivy or a kind of vine. For my game worlds I’ve made up a flower called reaperbell typically found growing in cemeteries. There’s an element of magic to it — they grow on graves — and the presence of a dead body causes it to spring up all over the place. While this makes it a little bit less useful for a secret code it’s pretty good about outing where the dead are hidden and makes disposing of a murder victim one shade more difficult.
What do the colors of flowers mean?
Cultural color coding has a lot of variance. In the western world black is the funeral flower and white is for innocence but in the desert white sand is the color nothing can grow in and black is more fertile and is a lively color. In India white is the color of death. Think about the colors in the world and what they suggest to the people looking at them. Those colors might mean something very different in a secret language specifically. Red is a good color for danger but it’s also a good color for passion or it might indicate a certain house’s heraldry.
How are the flowers arranged?
Not a flower but an upside down torch is a metaphor for death, which is why all of the torches in a cemetery are upside down. Fire burns up and a torch held upside down goes out. At least a certain kind of torch does. Doing so with a stick torch probably just results in burned hands
Does putting a flower representing safety next to a length of briar mean all is not what it appears to be? If the flowers are hung upside down does this change the meaning? What if they’re bound together with a length of ribbon as opposed to braiding the stems? It’s important to consider this code’s purpose in the context of the RPG setting and then add the presentation to these considerations.
As a final note it’s not necessary to have all of this figured out to run with the idea. The important thing is keeping it consistent as you go. If the goal is indicating danger to the characters in the RPG but the code of flowers doesn’t have a representation for danger then making it up on the spot might be in order. This way the meanings remain consistent.
Do you have any specifics for your secret methods of communication in your RPG setting? Are there ways for factions to take note of one another but remain unseen by others? Anyone using the actual language of flowers in their court scenes? Please let me know in the comments below and as always, stay nerdy!
*Featured image — Language of Flowers by Alphonse Mucha, Plate 35 from Album de la Décoration, 1900. color lithograph.