Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Body Modifications

A Maori Chief

When I was a baby, probably about 8 weeks old, my mom and one of my aunts took me down to one of the joyerias in our neighborhood and got my ears pierced. Supposedly I cried as the first one was done but a bottle of milk was quickly produced and, as I guzzled away, the second piercing was completed. Tiny gold studs now graced my small, brown ears. As I got older I was allowed to wear different earrings, and since my ears were pierced at such a young age, I can go for a long time without wearing them and not worry about the holes closing.

When I graduated from high school (as in, hours after I graduated) I took some of my graduation money and got my lip pierced. A few of my friends watched as the piercer produced a rather large metal needle from sterile packaging and worked it through my skin and muscle to the other side. He let the needle hang out in the newest hole in my body before he removed it and put a round lip in. Later, I replaced it with a barbell. It took a long time to heal and later when I removed it, the hole healed up rather quickly. I still have the scar (no, water does not drip out of it).

In the grand scheme of body modifications, these are both small potatoes.

Body modifications surround us. Piercings, tattoos. Earlobe stretching. Circumcision. Scarification. Breast Implants. Teeth filing. Eyelid augmentation. Footbinding. Botox. A whole bunch more I’m not going to list because it would take up a lot of space but humans have found a lot of ways to change their bodies. Some of the reasons for changing the body are medical, such as a breast reduction to ease back pain or trepanning to relieve pressure on the skull. Some are spiritual, to show belonging to a religious group or the process meant to put one in a certain frame of mind. There are the cosmetic, helping the bearer fit personal or cultural standards of beauty. Certain types of modifications can show that one is part of a people group, cultural, subcultural or even criminal culture. And sometimes body modifications are forced upon people, such as the practice of tattooing or branding of criminals.

In some parts of America, it’s really hard to find someone who doesn’t have a tattoo or piercing. Throughout history, some types of tattoos and modifications were seen as acceptable while others were seen as barbaric, depending on the culture engaging in the modifications and their significance. A coat of arms might have been fine on the chest or arm of an aristocrat but tribal tattoos were seen as primitive, pagan, a source of curiosity and not treated with the respect they deserved. One person’s oddity is another person’s link to their homeland, their role in society, their people, or their deities. Different things are important to different people and they shape our bodies as well as our consciousnesses.

Not all marks are chosen. Branding is a form of punishment carried out by the law and terrible people. Mutilations of various kinds can be inflicted by others to humiliate, torture, and alienate other people, while others are imposed to enforce roles in society. And sometimes cultural pressure can be less than kind to those who consider not participating in certain acceptable types of modifications. Having or not having a certain modification can prevent you from being a good standing member of society, make you unable to secure work, unable to marry, or shunned by anyone you come across in life.

Body modification is common and has been practiced as long as people have been around. Adventurers are born looking one way but through needles, ink, rings, and other materials they can take part in the cultural traditions they are born into.

For GMs

  • What kind of body modifications are common to the various cultural groups of your world?
  • What is the significance of the modifications? Are they ornamental? Religious? Cultural? Is the significance known to people outside the culture? To everyone in the culture? Or only those who have been initiated?
  • When are the modifications done and to whom? Are they done to children? Teenagers/adolescents? Married people? Warriors?
  • Is there a celebration associated with the modification or is it done in private? Is it performed on single individuals or on groups of people at the same time?
  • Who performs the modification? What role do these people have in the culture?
  • What are the consequences of sporting a modification not fitting one’s place in society?
  • How permanent are the modifications? Can they be reversed easily?
  • How are the modifications viewed by other cultures/religions?
  • Are there any consequences for not participating in the traditional modifications? Exclusion from certain ceremonies or activities? Ineligibility for marriage?
  • Are there any special tools or training involved with the modifications for the people taking them on or the people doling them out?
  • Are criminals forced to undergo certain modifications?
  • Are there any groups/religions that forbid marking the body?

Plot Hooks

  • Before they can be initiated into their group, the PCs must obtain a certain object/substance/animal needed to perform their ritual body modification. What is the object in question? What exactly are they being initiated into? How long do they have to obtain it? How do they feel about the rite of passage?
  • While travelling through the land, the PCs come across an individual who has serious abrasions on their face and body. When questioned, the individual says they were stripped of their rank and title which merited the forcible removal of their tattoos. Fearing for their own safety they ask to travel with the PCs. Do the PCs decide to take on the stranger? Is the stranger forthcoming with the details of their banishment? What will happen if members of their culture come across them? Is the stranger telling the truth?
  • Unrest within the government has a new faction that is gaining support claim traditional body modifications are barbaric and should be outlawed. Influence from outside cultures supports the idea while the older generation balks. The PCs must work in an environment where having or not having the traditional modifications can help or hinder their progress. Who do the PCs side with? What arguments do both sides make?
  • An individual able to reverse body modifications sets up shop in town, claiming they will make everyone equals when everyone has the same skin. The PCs are sent to investigate. Who are the clients at this shop? How are the modifications reversed? Are they actually permanent? What are the shop owner’s motivations behind the erasures? Who has sent the PCs to investigate and what is their stake in the matter?
  • The PCs are sent to investigate a sect of their religion that performs ritual body modification. The sect lives in a remote location and the body modifications have not been practiced by the main body of the church for many years. What are the reasons the church no longer practices them? Why does the sect continue with them? How does the sect receive the PCs? How are the PCs to record their findings? How do other religions view the process?Body modifications can be as heated or simple as you, the PC or the GM wish to make them.

For PCs

  • Do you have any body modifications? What are they?
  • When did you receive your modifications? Do you still have to care for them or are they healed?
  • Does your modification identify you as belonging to a certain group?
  • Do you like talking about them or are they mundane to you?
  • What would you consider a respectful question about your body modification? What would be a disrespectful question?
  • How would you feel if someone randomly approached you and touched your modification? Unsolicited? If they asked first?
  • How do you feel about your modifications? Proud? Humbled? Do they make you self conscious when you with people not from your culture? Or do you gladly represent your people around others?
  • How do you view the modifications of other cultures? Do the practices of others amaze or disgust you?

Body modifications can be a complicated and intricate procedure taking many days or as simple as getting a baby’s ears pierced. The issues surrounding the changes people make to their bodies can be simple or complicated as well. What say you?

8 thoughts on “Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Body Modifications

Add yours

  1. And even more interesting to PCs… what sort of magic items can you get for your body mods? Magic Belly button rings? Psychically empowered Tattoos? Are you willing to have a foot binding if it means you are immune to fatigue?


  2. I actually have a ton of fun designing tattoos. At least half a dozen of my mates have some of my artwork permanently on their body. During games I tend to do this to, designing for characters than players, but it’s always been great fun, and there can be some killer rewards.

    I spent a year playing a Northlander (huge guy, think Eskimo meets viking and add a foot in height), who had extensive tattooing, including a lot of his face. When he died, it was saving his lover’s life. That character disappeared from the campaign for some time, but when she returned two years later it was with her son – the progeny of my character – and her own facial tattoos very close to what I had designed for myself. This went completely against her own culture, but made perfect sense for the character. i still smile whenever I see her character sketch, as she has taken a lot of effort to recapture my own artwork.


  3. Another good article. While I am far too cowardly to have holes or ink put into my body, it is a way to distinguish characters that I enjoy using. From decorated dwarven troll slayer to a remorseful tattooed samurai duelist, from a street samurai with tribal scars to a pieced wizard, all of this decorations have helped to define the characters and their attitudes toward life.


  4. Body modification is a huge part in the “Walkabout” game that I’m developing. Giving up aspects of your body as an “indelible sacrifice” to the spirits is an important way to gain power within the game and to tell the story of your character.

    So much so, that characters may be marked with body paint or henna (this is written onto the character sheet in pencil so that it may be rubbed off later), or may be permanently marked by tattoos, scarification or piercings (these are written in pen so that they may never be removed from the character sheet).

    The number (and type) of body modifications give an instant indication of the powerful individuals in the setting, and the type of advantages they might be likely to possess (due to the spirits they have dealt with), they also provide an instant reaction among certain communities where specific modifications might be viewed with respect, fear or hatred.

    It’s great to see other people thinking about things like this.


    1. I really dig the idea and the execution for the permanent vs. temporary markings. I love when flavor and crunch work together.

      I’m guessing that various trials the PCs go through can result in new marks. Are the marks prescribed by other mortals or given by the spirits and other people just know? What would be the cause of a new tattoo design being given to someone, something no one has ever encountered before.

      Love that it sets the game up for different social interactions.


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