Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Say What? Alignment Languages.

I've been thinking about whether or not to use alignment languages in my upcoming B/X mini mega-dungeon campaign. I mean, let's face it, they aren't listed as an optional rule, but they are among the first things dropped or forgotten.

Without doing any actual research, other than reading other blogs, it seems the alignments arise from the assumption that the game world is one that is embroiled in a struggle between the forces of Law and Chaos. All are soldiers in this great war, with the Neutral folks either being wishy-washy, fence sitters or universal harmony types. 

Alignment languages, therefore, allow those on the same side to communicate despite language barriers that arise from differences in geography, species or even plane of existence.

This is rather important when coordinating a war effort on such a grand scale.

If you're playing a fantasy war game with a little bit of role-playing, it's a nice way to justify how you can have a crazy mix of races in a single coordinated army. If you drop the war game aspect, but maintain the existence of this conflict as an important aspect of the world player characters operate in, then it is still important for the same reason.

But what if your focus is the rags-to-riches by-the-blood-on-your-sword story of individuals? There's no universal conflict in which the PCs are actors.  There is no epic struggle of Law vs. Chaos, just survival in the face of an uncaring universe.

This raises the question, why have alignments at all?

Perhaps they are residue of a previous conflict? Or maybe, more likely, as someone somewhere suggested, they are an out-of-game mechanism for a character's in-game conscience (personally, I love that justification of the alignments).

However, I suspect that most GMs don't drop alignments, only the languages.

But, the alignment languages can still be useful for the very same reason they're useful in a grand war of ideology: they remove linguistic barriers. A party of humans with average intelligence scores who know no other additional languages but have a member of each alignment can communicate with just about any intelligent (as defined in a humanocentric way) creature they meet!

Unfortunately, the details of the languages seem absurd. In particular, if you change alignments, you immediately forget the old language and know the new one. The only justification I can come up with for this is a divine intervention of some kind. And that works if your world is a battleground for the forces of Law and Chaos, because the gods probably care one way or another. 

But I'm pretty sure the gods in my game world don't give a rats butt, because the conflict ISN'T a great war, but a personal struggle. They exist, they occasionally reward their followers, but mostly they're concerned with their own goals and interests.

So, i'm torn: 

I can reject the languages wholesale, which I think takes away an opportunity for players (even if it's one they might not miss) or I can try to come up with a better mechanism to handle the effect an alignment change has on the language, because you know if I don't, it'll surely come up.


  1. I've always felt that Alignment Languages were silly and have never used them.

    I do have a (fairly extensive) list of languages in use in my FRP world . . . and at character creation a character gets to learn one language of his/her choice beyond their "milk language" PLUS a bonus number of languages equal to the best "plus" they have amongst INT, WIS and CHA.

    The player gets to choose whatever languages they want (and are directed to figure out how they learned them in their "Backstory") . . . this allows for a good possibility for differing characters having to become "spokesperson" for the party in different non-combat situations . . .

    . . . and if no party member speaks the right lingo, I'll have one of the NPC race or group speak one of the lingos known by one of the party . . . and I'll pick one known by one of the less-forthcoming player characters to help keep everyone involved.

    Hope that this idea helps, John.

    -- Jeff

  2. One of my issues with alignment tongues is it makes it too easy to decipher other's alignment. e.g. "I dunno if we should trust this guy. Lets get the lawful and neutral PCs to ask him a few questions in the alignment tongue. If he can't answer we know he's evil and we can arrest/kill/ignore him".

  3. A good point, Dave. Since I've never used them I had never considered this aspect. A very good point . . . you might want to pay attention to it, John.

    -- Jeff

  4. I've always found them nonsensical. Even worse than the problem of all races except humans having a single language for their species.

    1. Oh like you can tell High Kobold from Low Kobold.

    2. Well, High Kobold is a much more literary language, and retains some of the more archaic features of Ur-Kobold (the dual, the optative mood, a separate locative case, &c.). Low Kobold, by contrast, is nearly indistinguishable from Old High Xvart.

    3. I wish there was a "like" button for these Kobold comments!

  5. I agree with Alea. They are rather silly.

  6. Gygax and Co., particularly Gary, had a thing for secret societies. Before the 1970's, they were everywhere. From Fred Flinstone, to Sheriff Andy Taylor, every one who was any one on TV was a member of one. And, you couldn't read a novel set in London without someone referencing there "club". But, by the time D&D was being made, those type of organazarions were on the decline, or were becoming more public and generic in nature. Shows like "All In The Family" put them in a bad, if not sinister light. They began to have assosiations with cults and crime, with the "Manson Family" topping the headlines.

    The result was, that it seems any language (no pun intended) revering to them seems to have been edited out, or omitted. But, many of the things that went with them remained. Level Titles, for example. It seems silly to most of us, that some fighter would go around referring to themselves as a "Super Hero". But, that was a "Guild Rank Title", rather than a public one, and would never be uttered in front of some one who was an "outsider". But, as guilds did not exist in the rules, how could you explain that in said rules? They didn't.

    Alignment Languages are more of the same. Part of the "Cosmic Battle" concept that is part of the overall alignment philosophy, And, it really wasn't a language, so much as a set of signals one sends to identify ones self as a member of an secret, er.., guild, no, make that alignment.

    If there were a dozen or two to chose from, that would work, maybe. But there aren't. So, yes, I would drop it.

  7. Thanks for the comments everyone!

    You've convinced me to drop them as I always have done. Although I'm also inspired to add secret societies and secret signs for the factions in the dungeon, making them something a PC can learn if they complete the initiation rituals for the faction or torture prisoners, as murder hobos tend to do.