Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Now you too can use Alignment Languages

Back in the day, when I thought alignments were stupid and confining to character development and lawful/chaotic made the least sense of all, nothing was more contrived than alignment languages. From the Rules Cyclopedia:

Each alignment has a secret language of pass- words, hand signals, and other body motions. Player characters and intelligent monsters always know their alignment languages. They will also recognize when another alignment language is being spoken, but will not understand it. Alignment languages have no written form. A character may not learn a different alignment language unless he changes alignments. In such a case, the character forgets the old alignment language and starts using the new one immediately.

So because of your philosophical convictions, you learn how to speak a new language. Right, way to go putting everything in black and white. I wondered if anyone ever actually used this bizarre device at the table.

Of course, since then I've done a U-turn on a lot of this. I've embraced alignments as a great tool for world building, once it is understood as 'picking sides' in a struggle between metaphysical factions rather than personal conviction. I've landed on Law & Chaos as represented on basic D&D being more suitable for D&D-style gaming than good vs evil (though I include that as well). And looked at using Clerics as mystical champions of alignments more so than gods as a way showing how alignments are less philosophy and far more cosmic forces that can not be ignored in a setting. And, like the world of the Keep on the Borderlands, Erce Dominions of Law are "narrow and constricted. Always the forces of Chaos press upon its borders, seeking to enslave its populace, rape its riches, and steal its treasures."

So I figured - Why not take an extra look at alignment language as well and see how it works? At first, I was still struggling somewhat with it, until I realised there were literary precedents for it. Most notably - Tolkien. 

Middle Earth is a world where words have power (an assumption D&D shares) and certain languages are more magical than others, notably elven and the black speech. 

Replacing these with Lawful and Chaotic and suddenly  alignment languages make a lot more sense:


  • When Gandalf recites the inscription on the One Ring in black speech Chaotic at the Council of Elrond, the darkening effect is tangible. 
  • The password to open the gates of Moria is the Elven Lawful word for 'friend'. 
  • And notably a variety of spells - Elrond's raising the water against the Ringwraiths and healing Frodo, Glorfindel Speaking with Animals (Frodo's horse), Frodo invoking 'Hail EƤrendil brightest of the Stars!' to activate Galadriel's phial in Shelob's Lair - All of are incanted in sindarin the Lawful tongue
  • It is not a stretch to assume that the bird who speaks to Bard of Smaug's weakness, or giant eagles, are speaking Lawful when communicating with humans either. 
  • Galadriel says that her arts are somehow not the same as Sauron's, even though mortals call them both magic.  Obviously, because one invokes Lawful spells and the other Chaos magic.


Alignment Language in Erce

Alignment Languages in Erce is much like described above. They are archetypical and antecedent languages of metaphysical power - It is something discovered innately, as if remembered, and sometimes uttered spontaneously (the way Matrim Cauthon in Wheel of Time would utter curses and battle cries in the Old Tongue without even realising it is an example of how people tap into Alignment language, as is the ancient belief of poetic inspiration being sent by the gods, as if sourcing it from some ancestral memory).
All divine spells are incanted in alignment language. The runes carved all across communities within the Dominions of Law are carved in the Lawful language. 
Alignment language is also used for mundane basic purposes such as identification (calling out Lawbearers on the road, ), prayers ("godspeed"), customs (sacred hospitality of the host), rituals (marriage) and proverbs. This is because even such  'normal' invocations do have some power and are, effectively, very mild spells/prayers that anyone can cast. 
Fluency in alignment language is a matter of metaphysical commitment. Two clerics would be able to hold conversations in Lawful (though mostly on themes relevant to Law), whilst a casually Lawful peasant would only know common phrases such as alluded to above. Angels only ever speak Lawful. Lawful people who don't speak much Lawful generally understand what is being said, even if they can't articulate themselves well in Lawful themselves. 
Technically, there is nothing stopping a Chaotic person from learning some Lawful and identifying himself with a Lawful greeting. But words have power. Lawful sounds to a Chaotic as vile as Gandalf's black speech recitation did to the elves who covered their ears. And vice versa. It is defiling oneself to a certain extent to do so (imagine Gollum having to speak Elven). And the world itself will respond to such blasphemies in one form or another. The clouds do not grow dark when orcs chant "one ring to rule them all" in black speech. But when Gandalf blasphemes all Rivendell with it, it has a different impact. There are magic items that allow the wearer to circumvent such things of course
This also tells you why OD&D writes  "While not understanding the language, creatures who speak a divisional tongue will recognize a hostile one and attack."
The common tongue of mankind is originally a derivative of the Lawful tongue. This is also part of the reason that Common has avoided the balkanization that Latin did for example. Its origin gives it an inherently orderly and stable character. The other reason is that the gods of law have a vested interest in there being a common tongue and have prevented it from fragmenting. 

In the end, I have flip-flopped from alignment languages being one of D&D's worst contrivances, to it being an element that does a great job of demonstrating the value of My 3rd Maxim ("As made above, so seen below") in action - It takes a high level concept, alignment as a metaphysical force, and shows how this has consequences on a mundane level of the world. Something that really makes the conceits of the setting come alive. Alignment isn't just something used to order the layout of the outer planes. It is something with everyday impact for everyone.

The consequences may seem significant. Yes, you can use this to identify lawful vs chaotic people. But this is generally not a problem in a world like Erce, nor the world of the Keep on the Borderlands where the lines of alignment are sharply drawn.

Imagine A Song of Ice and Fire having alignment languages. The impact would be negligible. Those who are not Lawful (wildlings, children of the forest, other things Beyond the Wall) are readily identifiable as Chaotic without much need for language checking. Whilst the people of Westeros may be lying, cheating, murderous asshats, they are at least lawful and on the same side against whatever is beyond the Wall. That someone would foreswear Law altogether, such as Mance Rayder who abandoned his vows, would be something extremely rare.

I don't believe this works on the level AD&D took it to (nine alignments = nine languages). And certainly not for 2nd+ edition alignments where alignments are used as personality traits to be roleplayed moreso than allegiances to be honored. 

Though Erce has some room for good and evil, it is dispensible and it plays up the Law/Chaos angle far more. Hell, I even ditched Neutrality since, in my view (sorry, Moorcock), it is not a faction. There are some who may relate to the opposition more (the Lawful(N) barbarian followers of the old gods who live close to the wilderness perceive Chaos very differently than the strictly Lawful advocates of the Hearthstone Church and the White Goddess. Likewise, elves C(N) may be creatures of Chaos, but they have civilising elements to them that means they can be found in the world of men on rare occasions. But people with a heart full of neutrality? No. In the heat of WWII, no one entered the war fighting to maintain status quo.