Sunday, March 13, 2011

Alignment Languages Part 2: What To Do Next

Before digging into this, I recommend that you take a look at my previous post about why I am adding alignment languages to my group's Labyrinth Lord game, paying particular attention to the Moldvay and Gygax quotes about how alignment languages were intended to be used in B/X and AD&D.

Both the DMG and Moldvay passages imply that alignment languages are a kind of verbal and/or gestural shorthand, not really full-blown languages like racial tongues or common. I like that idea. In fact, I hereby posit that alignment languages are the fragmentary remnants of either (a) older, now-mostly-dead languages from ancient Arandish times (for Lawful and Neutral) or (b) tongues used on other planes of existence (Chaotic).

Before delineating my tentative plan for how this will work in the Lands of Ara, I first want to acknowledge (and quote from) some online resources that helped me hone my thinking on this subject.

First would be this concise but crucial post by Stuart Marshall over on the Robertson Games website, which puts forth the following rich proposition:
What I settled on was a language that was generally associated with each of the 3 alignments, but that could be learned by other characters if they so desired. However, starting characters were limited to learning the “alignment language” corresponding to their own alignment at the beginning of the game – unless their class provided them additional language options. . .

Lawful characters may choose to learn Ancient as a bonus language (if they have one available). Much like Latin, this is a dead language that is primarily found in ancient texts and used by clerics. 
Thieves Cant 
Neutral characters are more likely to associate with outlaws, thieves and criminals. They may choose to learn Thieves Cant as a bonus language. While not used in regular day-to-day life for honest citizens, it can be heard in back alleys and seedier taverns. 
Black Tongue 
A vile, guttural language that most people would not dare to speak. It is said that merely saying a few words in this dark language attracts the attention of demonic ears. Orcs, cultists, and dark wizards are known to speak this dread language.
Very nice! This solves the problem of tying each alignment language to some game-world organization or group, and bestowing upon alignment languages a sense of history. I also tend to favor Stuart's interpretation that alignment languages should be obtainable by other, differently aligned characters, though maybe it should be difficult to find anyone who would teach a given alignment language to an outsider.

Next are some insightful comments from an interesting post on unaligned characters by The Jovial Priest. Now, much as I admire his concept here, I do not plan on adopting it whole cloth. No, I want to keep to the standard Labyrinth Lord-B/X three-part alignment system, and I think Neutral can more or less stand in for The JP's "Unaligned" category for my purposes. So allow me to quote from that post while substituting my own amendments in brackets:

"Most sentient beings are [Neutral]. That is, they have not committed themselves to the Cosmic Battle between Law and Chaos. They may have an opinion as to which they prefer and even work toward one end, but they haven’t aligned themselves wholeheartedly. [Neutral beings] are like most of us. We do good most of the time, are fairly selfish some of the time and occasionally we do evil. These are choices we make day to day. Were there to be a god of Law or demons of Chaos, most of us would side with Law but would generally prefer not to die for the cause.

"[Lawfully or Chaotically] aligned characters are different. They actively choose to side with Law or Chaos. [. . .] Those [Lawfully or Chaotically] Aligned must actively seek as one of the primary purposes of their life to advance the cause they are aligned to." [emphasis added]

Yes! What this tells me is that the Neutral alignment language should be derived from a group and/or set of historical circumstances that has no direct investment in the ancient struggle between Law and Chaos. Stuart's proposed "Thieves Cant" could fit that bill, though I might want to make that just one possible option amongst a few. If indeed the vast majority of living beings are neutral, does it really make sense that ALL those beings would know Thieves Cant? Shouldn't Thieves Cant be limited to Thieves, Assassins, and their fences, contacts, and clients?

Another useful part of The Jovial Priest's post is the bit about the Know Alignment spell:

"How can Chaos infiltrate civilisation if Know Alignment is so easily cast? I intend to adopt 2nd edition AD&D, which I have never played, reverse version of the spell which allows the caster to hide alignment for 24 hours. I would also make Chaos have many magical items, a small broach or ring perhaps, that have this identical effect."

I like that a lot. It seems to me that the moment one accepts the full implications of alignment languages -- i.e., that there is a very real Cosmic Battle between Law and Chaos raging in the game-world -- then such alignment-cloaking measures indeed become a logical necessity.

So what position will alignment languages occupy in Ara? My initial proposal, to be tested during forthcoming game play, is this:

To Begin With: All three alignment languages are in fact ancient (for Lawful and Neutral) or extraplanar (for Chaotic) languages of which only small fragments remain in circulation.


(1) Lawful is derived from Old Noffellian, the ancient language of the first Arandish humans. (This is pretty much a rip-off of Stuart's "Ancient" concept.)

(2) Neutral is derived from Old Mizarian, the ancient language of the southeastern (Mizarian) strain of humanity.* Present-day Mizarian is one derivative of Old Mizarian, as is the Neutral alignment language.

The Aldorians (elves) also developed their own Neutral language, Aldorian (or Fey), in the ancient days -- the key difference being that Aldorian Neutral is actually a living language because the Aldorian Fey still speak it. Virtually no one except the Aldorians themselves would have access to this language, so when any other Arandish racial type speaks Neutral, they are speaking the Old Mizarian version.

(3) Chaotic is a simplified version of Demonic, i.e., the language spoken by Demons from the Plane of Chaos. Most likely this alignment tongue reached Ara via the activities of the early Summoners, who brought the first Demons into contact with the Arandish dimension.

Sorting out my thoughts on this issue has inspired even more ideas about how Arandish racial and magical languages might relate to each other, but I think I've said enough for now. I need to let this Alignment Language system get some road-testing in play before I start creating elaborate Arandish Language trees and the like.

Okay, okay, I can't resist giving out one last tidbit before I lay this subject (temporarily) to rest: on Ara, the oldest extant language, the one that predates ALL of the aforementioned ancient sources for the three major alignment languages, is the language of Dragons.

*Thanks to Carl for giving me this idea.


  1. I'm glad my alignment post proved of use Carter. The key issues I wished to consider with alignment were:
    1. A law / chaos war that dominates the religious and cultural campaign world
    2. I was intrigued by the B/X cleric not getting spells until 2nd level - I wanted to create the feeling that this was a momentous event in the clerics life.
    3. I wanted alignment to be an active choice, so other characters can choose an alignment only at 3rd level, and gain an advantage.
    4. I didn't want alignment languages or the spell Know Alignment to prevent infiltration, betrayal and murder!

    I think what you have created for Ara is very cool and workable. Stuart's idea that one can learn another's alignment language fits with number 4 point, perfectly.

    Great stuff. Please let us know how the players take to it.

  2. As an added point when you say, "What this tells me is that the Neutral alignment language should be derived from a group and/or set of historical circumstances that has no direct investment in the ancient struggle between Law and Chaos" and then you go on and explain how the richness of the Lands of Ara campaign world allows you to do just that - I just wish I was playing with you guys/gals.

    And dragon languages are always cool!

  3. Good, I am glad you ran with this. It looks like that is pretty much what we had hashed out at the table, and it looks like both an easily usable and explainable framework and a cool way to introduce story fragments from long ago.

    When I asked you if you had thought about the language trees of Ara, and proposed that the ancient language of the first organized government of the region would likely be the antecedent of the languages spoken by lawful civilizations in the present time and proposed Mizarian roots for neutral, I was drawing heavily on my 4e game.

    I have more or less ditched the standard D&D languages and came up with three language trees and assigned all the languages the PCs would encounter to different positions on those trees. This has made it very easy to give a real sense of history, as the PCs uncover pottery shards with a very early form of a language they have already been encountering, for instance.

    Fun stuff, and often ignored in RPGs - "common language" as a device is actually a pet peeve of mine. Trade lingoes and common jargons(famously Chinook wawa in our neck of the woods) did exist, but they were of specific and limited utility. They were not true languages.

    But modern day speakers of a romance language have a real chance of decoding meaning from other romance languages, because of the common heritage; the working model for alignment languages that I proposed at last session.

  4. @Jovial: Thank YOU for all the great work you did on alignment -- it was incredibly helpful. And while my group is pretty full right now, if you are not averse to Skype gaming, maybe we could find ourselves gaming and adventuring together one day. . . something to keep in mind.

    @Carl: Yes, your suggestions that evening were most helpful, as you can tell. Thanks! Along this line, I'd love to get a gander at your 4e campaign's language trees sometime, if they are written out somewhere.

  5. This looks a promising direction to go with, and I think you're right to try to play-test it a bit before tinkering to much more with it.

    @Carl: I tend to think about common as a lingua franca like Creole, which is commonly held in the Caribbean (though there are French, British and other forms of Creole there) but are "real" languages with consistent grammar rules and are generative.