[Old-school D&D] Alignment languages

edited February 2010 in Story Games
I'm not an "old-school renaissance" kind of person, but I'm running a D&D game that is supposed to use ONLY the 1981 Moldvay rules - not because I'm a purist, but because that's the oldest version of D&D I have.

I'm really enjoying reading through the rulebook. It's neat how focused and "game-like" the rules are. This happens in a dungeon! Here are the eight possible reasons why the party went in there! And so on.

Here, however, is a particularly crazy rule that I wanted to share:

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 the character changes alignment. When this happens, the character forgets the old alignment language and starts using the new one immediately.

This made perfect sense to me when I was 13.

Comments

  • Yeah that alignment language was really strange. I am not really sure how it was supposed to be used. I also imagined a whole game (or game system) revolving around alignment languages.


    ara
  • I love it, though. The idea that there's a sort of Church Cant, that only people who think like you can understand. And it's mystical, too, so that you lose it if you change your ways. Wonderful.

    Graham
  • I guess that's the sort of thing that really puts its mark on the game as a very non-specific fantasy. If that were setting material in a modern sense nobody would blink an eye, but D&D sure does represent itself in all editions as only distantly rooted in a proto-setting that should by rights be adaptable to whatever you want it to be. That's just the sort of super-specific stuff that makes no sense whatsoever outside the particular campaign world. The newer versions of the game have this sort of specificness, too.

    In comparison, at least the newer editions of Tunnels & Trolls make a bit more effort at separating the setting from the rules. The text is usually pretty clear about how "this is the way things are in Trollworld". Nothing like GURPS or other specifically settingless systems, but at least a nod in that direction.
  • Some interesting readings on alignment languages:

    From HERE
    "In the old days, everyone was assumed to speak Common--whatever that was. Aligned languages came from the tradition of a Thieves Cant, something Gary found intensely interesting. In the old days you did not flaunt your alignment; the guy in the apothecary may be from "the other side" and decide to try to take you out. It was considerd that you might ask a phrase in Good to an innkeeper, like a secret recognition thing like in They Would Be Kings, to check his trustworthiness. This what what we did; other campaigns never went in that direction. A lot of the stuff I published in the magazine was about thinking outside the box and looking for new answers as well as methods. The fanzines flogged languages to death and we chose not to get involved in that chaos; they sort of slipped away as they were never fully developed."

    Also from Robertson Games


    If you search Dragonsfoot and the ODD boards little articles pop up here and there.

    ara
  • Yeah, I like it too. And I like how it's just thrown in there like, hey, here's this completely weird thing, with no real explanation.

    The fact that you instantly forget Lawful and magically, suddenly learn Neutral is the craziest part. It also implies that changing your worldview is a very formal process. ("Now I am Neutral.")
  • My simmy instincts could never get along with this sort of thing in D&D. I couldn't make it work for me.
  • Posted By: BWAThe fact that you instantly forget Lawful and magically, suddenly learn Neutral is the craziest part. It also implies that changing your worldview is a very formal process. ("Now I am Neutral.")
    There was a point at which I stopped speaking punk.
    I can hear punks talking now, and be totally baffled about what they are saying.
    I can start talking to punks, and they know that I'm not tribe any more.

    I used to work at a private school.
    I could speak their lingo at school meetings, talk about IEPs and TTPs and EAPs and TRCs.
    Nowadays, I forget what some of those acronyms even mean.
    If I heard people taking about potential updates to a TTP, it'd sound like rambling.
    It'd sound like hollow, jargon-dense, meaningless rambling.
    If I tried to speak "private school teacher" language, I'd not pass for tribe.

    I can't convincingly speak "football".
    I'm sure that the moment I converted to football, I'd start a rapid learning-curve.
  • That's true, Joe. I used to speak National Health Service.

    Graham
  • It's easier to get your head around it if you decide to just roll with it and make the game fit in a post-modern fantasy genre of some sort instead of following preset literary models. I mean, there are plenty of setting-based explanations available for this sort of thing, it only seems strange because the text doesn't try to justify it or even clearly flag it as a strongly setting-based conceit. If the text said that "in this game world people basically have telepathic concord with people whose souls are of matching type" it'd be much easier to understand what that rule about alignment languages is about. That's not more off-genre for tolkienistic or sword & sorcery fantasy than bulettes or paying 10 000 gold pieces for training, it seems to me.

    That'd be one pretty cool basic explanation for the phenomenon, actually: all people have a soul whose type is determined by their Alignment, Glorantha-style. Similar souls simply understand each other instinctually, with little but a meaningful glance and some universal gesturing. This seems incomprehensible to other souls because of the lacking metaphysical element, and in fact many people think that those of opposite Alignment do not even have souls. Very hippy.

    The other explanation is that there really are a couple or three world-wide secret societies with secret languages in the world, languages consisting of passwords and other signals. A very D&D-like frivolous explanation for the automatically appearing and disappearing language facility could be that a "wizard did it" - each secret society uses some magic ("Mordenkainen's Universal Grammar" or something) to automatically record the correct language in your head. The spell has a limitation of only one magically learned language at a time, so the new language overwrites the old one.

    Does Neutral have its own language, and if so, in which edition? I seem to remember that it did in some edition but not in some other one. Not having a neutral language would definitely make more sense for the secret society interpretation: people would be born Neutral, but most everybody would be inducted into the Lawful society from a young age (babtism, say). Chaotic evilsters of course would run around undoing this the best they could, and perhaps there'd even be some Chaotic societies where everybody is Chaotic instead of Lawful. Maybe just druids and such would belong in the small "True Neutral" secret society.

    To make this weird setting complete I wouldn't of course forget racial languages, which I'm sure would cut through the Alignment language issue in some obverse manner. And then there is Common, which makes all of the above completely irrelevant in a very funny way. I have to say that getting rid of Common seems like almost the only reasonable way of getting anything out of this language issue - who needs Common if your society is ostensibly Lawful, and therefore everybody needs to know Lawful to get by? But then, if everybody automatically knows Common, it's not a choice between that and Lawful - Common is just what you use when talking with the Chaotics before you kill them.

    I guess that even Common makes sense if you do indeed interpret those "languages" as simple codes or cants, instead. Like, "Lawful" is just Common, except you scratch the fish on the sand while innocuously chatting about weather. That still brings up the secret society angle, except now we could assume that most everybody is actually neutral and outside these societies. If we assume that only committed clergy and mighty heroes belong in the Lawful secret society, then it all starts seeming more sensible - it's essentially like fantasy freemasons, and the game's rules-premise just becomes "player characters belong in the fantasy-freemasons". This does nothing to explain why you forget the cant magically when you get out of the society, but I think I could work around that in a serious game: you've probably learned it all in dangerous induction rites anyway, rites that laid all sorts of psychic blocks and curses in you. So leaving the Lawful society, aside from making your dick go limp, would likely make you forget all of their secrets, too.

    I guess that the "secret societies with secret cants" angle, although really far-fetched as setting-neutral rules, is probably the most immediately interesting approach gaming-wise. That gives you plenty of hooks, anyway: when player characters go meet the King, they can flash the Sign to the royal guard, which immediately marks them as members of freemason elite and conveniently explains to us in the audience why the King decides to trust them with the fate of his kingdom. The same works the other way around, too: the player characters, as members of an elite secret order, may expect that a temple with a Lawful leader will surely aid them in any manner possible in their work for a more Lawful world.

    Yes, that seems entirely feasible. As an added bonus, consider how this also retroactively explains level titles: they seem pretty foolish as some general in-setting naming conventions, but if they're actually ranks in the fantasy-freemasons, they're not out of place at all. My character being "Grand Magister" or "Superhero" or whatever would be pretty understandable if that referred to his position in the secret society. Name level is when you get to start your own lodge.
  • edited February 2010
    Yes BUT: if a person doesn't use an acquired language, certainly they may forget parts of what they've learned. But in no case does language instantly switch on and off. It's a gradual process both ways.

    Sorry, language geekery here. I blame Tolkien.

    [Also, in response to joe and Graham.]
  • edited February 2010
    See, Jeff, that's the thing I like: it's mystical. Once you stop being good, you can't speak as a good person any more. It's like other people can see into your soul. Sure, you can do the moves and know the words, but it doesn't sound right coming from you. They know what you are.

    Graham
  • I don't know if it's mystical, what I want to know is... it's useful? Why? What this thing add to the game? What were they thinking?

    I played a lot of AD&D (that retained the alignment languages) at the time. Nobody I ever played with had ever used that rule...
  • Posted By: Eero TuovinenI mean, there are plenty of setting-based explanations available for this sort of thing, it only seems strange because the text doesn't try to justify it or even clearly flag it as a strongly setting-based conceit.
    That's the kind of awesome, crazy "old D&D" bit that I like. It's not presented as an artifact of "setting" at all. It's just thrown in the rules with no explanation.

    Like, axes do 1d6 damage, dwarves can detect sloping passages, and all Lawful people can speak to each other in a special code involving "passwords, hand signals, and other body motions".

    That's just how it is.
  • It is a sort of shame that the early texts do not pay attention to the fiction, though, isn't it? I mean, I've always gotten the impression from between the lines that early pre-80s rpg play did actually feature pretty much as elaborate, consistent and literary fiction as I do in my own games (this, we have to remember, comes from a guy who is only as consistent as a given game's purpose requires), but that's certainly not what you get from the game texts. Reading the Monster Manual (which itself is a very anti-consistent idea, when you stop to think about it) gives you an impression of complete arbitrariness, which is not aided by the numerous "funhouse" dungeons and arbitrary rules like this Alignment language thing. In many ways I'd be more interested in the fiction that was created in tandem with these game texts but left out of them.

    It is true that you can get a really trippy game out of old D&D texts if you read all the weird things in them as literal setting advice in the spirit of "that's just how things are", but it seems to me that what most people rather do with these texts is to ignore the weird bits. The trippy thing, even - I'm pretty sure that it wasn't the intent of all this textual material to paint the image of an absurd world where only elves can find secret doors (better have an elf at hand if you want to find one you built yourself, apparently) and languages are learned and forgotten overnight. It all probably made perfect sense in the campaigns from which these rules are culled, but for some reason these designers seem to have been working with a sort of shovel-like writing philosophy: if it's a rule and we've used it, we'll put it in the book, no matter of consistency or explaining what any of it means.

    It's not quite an early text by most measure, but in many ways I find that the Mentzer series of D&D books encapsulates and enshrines this whatever-it-is that I'm trying to capture here - for some reason the whole rules-set, written at a time when eminently consistent dramatism was already becoming the default mode of rpg writing outside D&D, is full of absolutely zany stuff that doesn't make a whit of sense outside of a specific campaign. I mean, check out this bit from the Mentzer Companion rules set:

    A Crucible of Blackflame is a four-sided pyramid (as a four-sided die) made of rare wood, with a solid base, a triangular hole in each side, and a very odd fire inside - the Blackflame. This is exactly the reverse of a normal flame, black in color and emanating darkness and coolness, with flickering reverse “shadows” of light. The flame will burn anything normally not burnable, and will not harm combustible items (hence used to light a torch without burning it, and
    inflicts cold damage in the same manner as a normal fire (but reversed). Blackflame will also restore ashes to their original form, but does not return an incinerated victim to life.


    That just seems like a moderately wacky magic item if you don't know that it's actually some sort of holy capstone item for halfling clans. It's like a signature magic for them, apparently each clan creates one of these things if they possibly can. (Dwarves and elves have similar things, but they're much less unexpected - a magic tree for elves, a magical forge for dwarves.) I have no idea what sort of metaphysic is going on in the game world to make halflings and Blackflame go together like hand and glove. The weirdness continues in how this holy magic item is then used in constructing a further magic item of amazing power:

    Using the Crucible and the Blackflame, the halfling Keeper of the Flame, Clanmaster, and several halfling sheriffs can work together to construct a web of shadows. Occasionally but very rarely, the odd shadows cast by a Blackflame have material existence for a short time; if caught and immediately placed in the Crucible, these wisps of material can be stored. When enough shadows have been caught (a procedure that takes over 200 years), the Keeper can draw power from the Crucible itself (using the ancient secrets) and weave the web of shadows, a 10‘ square net of gossamer strands. It cannot be seen by any means (even magical) except in shadows or moonlight, and is carefully kept and stored by the Keeper.

    The web is used for only one thing- collecting moonlight. When the Keeper and Clanmaster hold the web for an entire night under the light of a full moon, chanting the ancient phrases known only to themselves, the moonlight is caught and distilled, forming a single drop of silvery liquid. This oil of moonlight is collected and stored in shadow, avoiding the light of day. A full ounce is required for any effect (gathered over 7-10 years), and may then be rubbed into a fabric
    (often to make a sail or kite). Any object thus treated gains the ability to fly at 360‘ per turn when in moonlight which propels it.


    I find that description hilarious: the most amazing halfling magic involves an artifact that reverses entropy. Its singular most important use is in making another artifact in a very arduous process that takes 200 years. This second artifact is only used in one thing, which is the making of a third, presumably even more powerful artifact. Quite epic, except for the part where the amazing power of this final artifact, constructed through ten years of tenuous, monotonous work, is to bestow flight, something available as a mid-level wizard spell. I'm sure that there must be a fascinating halfling mythology out there somewhere that justifies this one.

    The Mentzer edition is probably the best version of the game if you like the sort of trippy shit the Alignment languages represent. At first I read through this stuff in disbelief (in 2008, I think), but then I concluded that this Frank Menzer guy must have simply liked the zany underground aspect of D&D even in the relatively late mid-80s - no boring Conan pastiche for him, his version of the game would gather all the weirdest bits of older D&D texts, add a dash of new weirdness and make it all into a coherent whole that has more in common with underground fantasy than the established literary fantasy genres of the time. The game series even ends in a properly new age manner in that Immortals box, in which the player characters transcend the mortal plane altogether (to join the Beatles on the Yellow Submarine, I presume).

    To get this train of thought back to my point, I suppose that at some point the crazy specificity of the rules with no effort at providing a setting necessarily turns into a sort of setting definition, just one that doesn't have any geography, history or other bits traditionally associated with world building. Like this Mentzer D&D, for instance; it has pretty elaborate rules for what and how demihumans are and live, as well as similar explanations of what different character classes do at different levels. Those careful explanations of how wizards build their towers and how demihumans gather in the wild places of the world, living in clans of limited size, it all ultimately defines a very specific setting. You can't use the Mentzer ruleset for playing in any setting except the "D&D world", unless you want to specifically redesign the character classes and races and much else in the game's rules. It's not generic in the least unless you practice consistently selective reading.

    I've yet to read any of the Mentzer era D&D adventure or setting materials, actually. I probably should, just to find out if those actually pay respect to the zany dwarven land-submarines, questing immortal-elects and other weirdness from these rulebooks. My limited D&D literacy has given me the sense that concurrent AD&D material is very much more consistent than this stuff (Dragonlance, say - a perfectly reasonable campaign setting by today's standards), so it'll be interesting to find out how the spirit of the rules books has carried to other D&D products, or if they are more like AD&D lite.
  • Posted By: GrahamSee, Jeff, that's the thing I like: it's mystical. Once you stop being good, you can't speak as a good person any more. It's like other people can see into your soul. Sure, you can do the moves and know the words, but it doesn't sound right coming from you. They know what you are.
    "The good man, out of the good treasure of his heart, brings forth good things, and the evil man, out of evil, brings forth evil things. For his mouth speaks from the abundance of his heart." Luke, 6:45.

    See, I know which wizard did it!
  • Posted By: Johnstone"The good man, out of the good treasure of his heart, brings forth good things, and the evil man, out of evil, brings forth evil things. For his mouth speaks from the abundance of his heart." Luke, 6:45.

    See, I know which wizard did it!
    Ye shall know them by their fruits. -Matt 7:16

    Ha!

    I really like Ara and Eero's explanations above as well as Joe's real-world example of how this works...I guess that was always part of the charm. There was a bunch of stuff that wasn't explained and you were supposed to make your own things out of the bits and pieces.
  • Smart wizards don't use Detect Evil, they cast Identify Fruit!
  • One thing which stopped us using alignment languages was that in AD&D Gary said rude to use them, and people would get very angry if you did. So, except when it was a PC group of entirely of one alignment, no one bothered with them. If someone mentioned it in a session today, I'd be surprised.
  • Back in 3.5 I had the idea of a campaign where every class a 'secret language'. Like, Thieves already had Thieves' Cant, and Druids had Druidic, but giving Clerics appropriate Alignment Languages, Fighters military hand signals or something, and Wizards would go back to being the sole keepers of the secret of literacy.
  • Posted By: droogMy simmy instincts could never get along with this sort of thing in D&D. I couldn't make it work for me.
    This was my reaction, as a kid even. I played D&D from time to time back then (we were more into Star Frontiers and Ghostbusters/Paranoia, though), and alignment languages never came up.

    Though I do agree with Graham and Eero that, coming from it as a creative challenge for an adult, this could be a mysterious, awesome setting component of a mythic fantasy world. It just needs work and thought and hippie craziness.

    -Andy
  • Posted By: GrahamSee, Jeff, that's the thing I like: it's mystical. Once you stop being good, you can't speak as a good person any more. It's like other people can see into your soul. Sure, you can do the moves and know the words, but it doesn't sound right coming from you. They know what you are.
    The interesting thing to me about this idea is that loss of language skill might be the only indication the character actually has that he is no longer good. That is, suppose rather than saying "I am Neutral", the character just does something that causes him to be "kicked out of the Good club". Suddenly, the character knows he fell from grace only because he can no longer understand any of his friends.
  • Ooh, yeah. Or you could be like "Hey, free doughnuts in the conference room!" but say it in "Lawful", and if anyone didn't get up and run to the conference room, you know they're a Bad Person.
  • Imagine the intense identity wars fought between classes/alignments who use identical phrases in mutually exclusive/derogatory ways.

  • The interesting thing to me about this idea is that loss of language skill might be the only indication the character actually has that he is no longer good. That is, suppose rather than saying "I am Neutral", the character just does something that causes him to be "kicked out of the Good club". Suddenly, the character knows he fell from grace only because he can no longer understand any of his friends.

    This is talk about over on Dragonsfoot in the thread that Tim Kask oversees. There is some mention of players writing down an alignment that is false and later reveling their true alignment. The only way to figure out who is one what side would be by their actions and comprehension of the alignment tongue.

    It's not to hard to imagine a situation where all the players have written down false alignments on their sheets.

    Alignment and alignment languages also serve as a guide for what equipment the character can use.

    ara
  • What's a typical sort of equipment that would be tied to Alignment? The only thing I can think of is poison, which is Evil with a capital E in AD&D. I suppose there are magic items, of course.
  • Eero,

    Most magic weapons (and a few items) in the early days were tied to a specific alignment and could (if intelligent) speak the respective alignment languages. Let me hunt around for some examples.

    ara
  • Ah - Volume 2 Monsters and Treasure pg 27-30 is about swords (but easily extrapolated to other weapons) and alignment, pg38-39 on artifacts and alignment

    ara
  • Posted By: joepubI'm sure that the moment I converted to football, I'd start a rapid learning-curve.
    Posted By: GrahamOnce you stop being good, you can't speak as a good person any more. It's like other people can see into your soul. Sure, you can do the moves and know the words, but it doesn't sound right coming from you. They know what you are.
    Posted By: Paul BImagine the intense identity wars fought between classes/alignments who use identical phrases in mutually exclusive/derogatory ways.
    Posted By: AndyParanoia
    So... yeah. I think there's a whole little game in there!
  • As food for thought in the "what equipment do various alignments use?", in D&D 3.5, if you cast "Spiritual Weapon" and worship a general ideology rather than a specific god with a favored weapon, you get:

    Chaos
    Battleaxe

    Evil
    Flail

    Good
    Warhammer

    Law
    Longsword

    Because obviously, the warhammer is a powerful symbol of good! Because I guess it also has productive uses, hammering stuff? And the axe is a tool of the barbarian hordes! And the flail is evil and the sword lawful somehow. I dunno. Hey, it's there for those who want to ponder the implications.
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