Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Alignment Languages Part 1: What Came Before

I have literally never used Alignment Languages in D&D. This is one of those concepts that my 1980s gaming compatriots and I simply ignored; I do not even recall ever discussing Alignment Languages as a concept or making conscious note of the fact that we were omitting them. We just completely disregarded the whole idea, and never looked back.

But last session (Session 30), the Arandish Labyrinth Lord campaign's newest member (who joined us two sessions ago) asked about the available languages in Ara and specifically inquired about the role of Alignment Languages in our campaign. My initial answer was that we had been ignoring them. But this led to some very productive discussion amongst the members of the group and got me to thinking about reevaluating my position on this matter.

As I have recently noted, the longer my group plays Labyrinth Lord together, the more we seem to gravitate toward playing it "as writ" -- i.e., our house rules seem to be getting fewer and fewer as we go. This is a good thing for many reasons, not least of which -- as we have poignantly learned, for example, by reverting to once-per-round 1d6 group initiative -- is that the game is actually more fun to play as written, even when some of the rules are abstract in nature and difficult to justify in "real world" terms. Going with once-per-round (rather than once-per-battle) group initiative has livened up combat a great deal since we made that switch a few sessions ago. Could incorporating Alignment Languages have an enlivening and enriching effect on our game as well?

Perhaps so, and I am intrigued to pursue this. But I have two (possibly conflicting) impulses:

1. In order for Alignment Language to work within the context of the Arandish Campaign, I want it to have at least some (however tenuous) connection to the history and culture(s) of the game-world, and yet

2. I do not want to start over-explaining or house-ruling the crap out of the concept before we've even played it. That is, I at least want to try to play Alignment Languages as written.

What has been written about Alignment Languages? Let's see.

+ From Labyrinth Lord Revised (Proctor, 2009) p. 14:

"All alignments have alignment languages. In addition to the common tongue and other languages known, as indicated by class, adherents of a particular alignment share an alignment language that only they understand."

+ From Basic D&D Rulebook (Moldvay, 1981) p. B11:

"Each alignment has a secret language of passwords, hand signals, and other body motions. Player characters and intelligent monsters will always know their alignment languages. They will also recognize when another alignment language is being spoken, but will not understand it. Alignment languages are not written down, nor may they be learned unless a character changes alignment. When this happens, the character forgets the old alignment language and starts using the new one immediately." [emphasis added]

+ From DMG (Gygax, 1979) p. 24:

"Alignment language is a handy game tool which is not unjustifiable in real terms. Thieves did employ a special cant. Secret organizations and societies did and do have certain recognition signs, signals, and recognition phrases- possibly special languages (of limited extent) as well. Consider also the medieval Catholic Church which used Latin as a common recognition and communication base to cut across national boundaries. In AD&D, alignment languages are the special set of signs, signals, gestures, and words which intelligent creatures use to inform other intelligent creatures of the same alignment of their fellowship and common ethos. Alignment languages are NEVER flaunted in public. They are not used as salutations or interrogatives if the speaker is uncertain of the alignment of those addressed. Furthermore, alignment languages are of limited vocabulary and deal with the ethos of the alignment in general, so lengthy discussion of varying subjects cannot be conducted in such tongues.

"Each alignment language is constructed to allow recognition of like-aligned creatures and to discuss the precepts of the alignment in detail. Otherwise, the tongue will permit only the most rudimentary communication with a vocabulary limited to a few score words. The speaker could inquire of the listener's state of health, ask about hunger, thirst, or degree of tiredness. A few other basic conditions and opinions could be expressed, but no more. The specialty tongues of Druidic and the Thieves' Cant are designed to handle conversations pertaining to things druidical on the one hand and thievery, robbery and the disposal of stolen goods on the other. Druids could discuss at length and in detail the state of the crops, weather, animal husbandry and foresting; but warfare, politics, adventuring, and like matter would be impossible to detail with the language.

"Any character foolish enough to announce his or her alignment by publicly crying out in that alignment tongue will incur considerable social sanctions. At best he or she will be thought unmannerly, rude, boorish, and stupid. Those of the same alignment will be inclined to totally ignore the character, not wishing to embarrass themselves by admitting any familiarity with the offender. Those of other alignment will likewise regard the speaker with distaste when overhearing such an outburst. At worst, the character will be marked by those hostile to the alignment in which he or she spoke.

"Alignment language is used to establish credentials only after initial communications have been established by other means. Only in the most desperate of situations would any creature utter something in the alignment tongue otherwise. It must also be noted that alignment does NOT necessarily empower a creature to actually speak or understand the alignment language which is general in the ethos. Thus, blink dogs are intelligent, lawful good creatures who have a language of their own. A lawful good human, dwarf, or brownie will be absolutely at a loss to communicate with blink dogs, however, except in the most limited of ways (non-aggression, non-fear, etc.) without knowledge of the creatures' language or some magical means. This is because blink dogs do not intellectually embrace the ethos of lawful good but are of that alignment instinctually; therefore, they do not speak the tongue used by lawful good. This is not true of gold dragons, let us say, or red dragons with respect to their alignment, who do speak their respective alignment languages."

+ From this post by James Smith:

"[Alignment] languages are limited in scope, mainly dealing with matters directly related to the ethos they serve. Seen in this light and in a culture so heavily influenced by the gods, Alignment Languages don't seem so ridiculous, at all. If you're still not on board, imagine two Religious Fundamentalists having an in-depth theological discussion. Or, better yet, two Hermetic Qabalists. Even better, two Physicists. If you're not into the same thing, you might understand some of it and may be able to identify their 'alignment,' but a lot of the terminology and meaning would go right over your head."

My thoughts at this point
In terms of grounding these concepts in a specific game-world setting like the Lands of Ara, the best analogy I can come up with is drawn from Tolkien, wherein the Lawful alignment language would loosely correlate with the elven tongue (i.e., the language of the most learned "good guys" or forces of civilization) and Chaotic with the language of Mordor. I will be looking to make a similar connection with Ara, i.e., to place the alignment languages in the context of key races / groups who already live there, while bearing in mind that these are limited languages: a "special set of signs, signals, gestures, and words" according to Gygax. More on this in the next post.


  1. An excellent topic. One I still struggle however to understand why anyone ever thought alignment languages was a good game mechanic.

    My trouble with alignment language and the spell Know Alignment is how can anyone ever infiltrate a Chaotic or Lawful establishment eg a chaotic sacrifice or a hidden chaotic in a lawful monastery.

    I read somewhere, can’t remember where, that the Lawful alignment language could be considered akin to Latin and the Chaotic version Latin in reverse. I like this idea. The concept you can just talk to a Lawful Priest in Lawful and if he doesn't understand you show him up for the imposter he is, just doesn't ring true. He can speak ‘Latin’ easy enough. It’s the Lawful infiltrator to a chaotic gathering who better practice his backward alignment tongue.

    My thoughts are more extensively described HERE

    Great summary Carter and looking forward to Part 2

  2. Really interesting stuff, and it goes a long way to making this oft-maligned subject seem like a meaningful addition to the game.

    What immediately jumped to my mind was the way certain Republican politicians in the last decade will pepper their speeches with "code words", that is, particular turns or phrase or specific words that seem only slightly stilted when heard by the uninitiated but which have special meaning to certain groups. The classic example is to use words and phrases lifted from the Bible or from evangelical literature, which fellow religionists will hear and thereby immediately recognize the politician as one of their own. Meanwhile outsiders--unbelievers, or those unversed in the religious texts--hear only normal speech.

    The one issue I have still is that somehow after an alignment change the character/NPC loses all knowledge of the previous alignment language. This makes no sense to me at all. The historical record is full of apostates who continued to use shibboleths to their advantage. Imagine a lapsed Catholic priest (or even say one who has converted to some grievous heresy) forgetting all knowledge of Latin! The Devil himself, we are told, can quote scripture when it suits his purpose, and I imagine that this would be a devastating advantage held by someone attempting to infiltrate or subvert an organization of their former alignment.

  3. @Jovial: Thanks for the thoughts and the links, I will check out the latter forthwith!

    @David: Your political speech analogy is spot-on, THANKS. And yes, the "instant switch" from one alignment language to another is the screwiest part of this system as written. (Crap, do I sense a house rule coming on???)