Thursday, June 20, 2013

On OD&D Alignment and Language

This post on RPGnet has had me thinking a bit about original D&D's alignment and the languages associated with them. Alignment languages seem to be a sticking point to many people, which I understand - in AD&D they don't quite make sense since people are so fragmented between the nine alignments. But for OD&D I like it.

First, let's look at the origin of alignment in Chainmail:
It is impossible to draw a distanct line between "good" and "evil" fantastic figures. Three categories are listed below as a general guide for the wargamer designing orders of battle involving fantastic creatures:
This is then followed by lists for "Law", "Neutral" and "Chaos" with some figures appearing in two lists. The description for neutrality makes it clear how the alignment in Chainmail worked:
Underlined Neutral figures have a slight pre-disposition for LAW. Neutral figures can be diced for to determine on which side they will fight, with ties meaning they remain neutral.
The underlined Neutrals, for the curious, are Elves and Rocs. Wizards appear for Law and Chaos, and Giants and Lycanthropes can go under Neutral or Chaos.

The reason I bring it up is that it makes fairly clear what alignment was at the dawn of D&D: it meant there were basically two sides, and there were neutrals who could go either way or stick to themselves, like Switzerland. This idea is simple and makes perfect sense of why alignments exist.

As for Law and Chaos, these are taken from two sources. One is Michael Moorcock's Elric novels, which are better known than the source that they borrowed from. Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions was the first modern fantasy to create an explicit Law vs Chaos conflict. Moorcock expanded this, both in his cosmic scope and the length of the works treating it. In Chainmail, it's actually much closer to Anderson: these are sides in a conflict that is happening here and now.

Dungeons & Dragons makes it a bit deeper. More types can switch between columns - Men can be in any column, and lycanthropes are spread across (mainly because of Werebears, which can be lawful). Very little else is added; there are swords which have alignments, certain effects on clerics based on alignment, some bits given about characters in castles, etc. But the biggest come in the language section.
Law, Chaos and Neutrality also have common languages spoken by each respectively.
This mainly becomes important because of the sentence before it:
All other creatures and monsters which can speak have their own language, although some (20%) also know the common one.
So for 80% of creatures, there are two ways to speak with them: you can know their language, or if they are of a similar alignment, you can speak in alignment tongue to them. It's a bit risky, though, as we see soon after.
One can attempt to communicate through the common tongue, language particular to a creature class, or one of the divisional languages (law, etc.). While not understanding the language, creatures who speak a divisional tongue will recognize a hostile one and attack.
This is why alignment language is a good idea in OD&D. Three pages earlier, we had a list of all kinds of creatures that have various alignments - so for instance a Neutral PC could try and talk with the Minotaur in the Neutral alignment language, even though nobody in the group speaks Minotaur. Of course this could go horribly wrong, since some Minotaurs are Chaotic, and will attack if you speak in Neutral to them! Orcs, Ogres, Dragons, Chimerae, Giants and some Lycanthropes also vary between Neutral and Chaotic. Lawful PCs run the same risk talking to Centaurs, Werebears and Rocs, and - in an interesting twist - Elves.

All this makes OD&D alignment much more interesting than AD&D's alignment. Rather than an all-pervasive cosmic force or a way to categorize the outer planes, it's an immediate question of where you stand among the creatures in the world. A Neutral can get Giants on their side - but only some of them, while it takes a Lawful to converse with a Hippogriff. Chaos is bad news, as all the undead are there along with Evil High Priests and Balrogs - the big threats from OD&:D that really fell by the wayside in later editions.

I'm curious for the comments as to who's done much with alignment tongues in your games.


  1. That's an interesting take on alignment languages and how they can function in game, but it doesn't make them seem any more "realistic" to me: I find it silly that there would be a "language" that all (semi-)intelligent creatures use to discuss the finer points of lawfulness or whatnot. But then I may just have a hard time "unlearning" what I decided 20+ years ago to be silly.

    1. As I've mentioned in the G+ discussion, I think it works perfectly well if these are "battle languages" somewhat like in the Dune novels, a specialized speech or series of hand signals. It could have a limited vocabulary with mostly martial terms, each with a very strictly defined meaning, so a Lawful commander could yell commands and be understood by all and sundry.

      I certainly don't see the languages being used for the "finer points of lawfulness" or anything similar - which is why I emphasized in this post that I see alignment as a side that you're on.

    2. I'm not totally sure, but I think the whole "alignement languages are a philosophical code" is a late developpement of AD&D.
      Actually, as far as realism is concerned, the very notion of a "common tongue" for a whole continent stretches it a little too far, but yet remains a popular topic of fantasy. So a "common tongue" for lawful /chaotic nations doesn' shatter my willing suspension of disbelief.
      Tolkien was the "creator" of the Common tongue, but he also came up with the "Black Speech".

    3. " ...Actually, as far as realism is concerned, the very notion of a "common tongue" for a whole continent stretches it a little too far, ..."

      Not really. Today, the international language of trade seems to be English, especially across North America and Europe. It's not that far fetched to have a common trade language at all.

  2. Even thinking of signs language and very simple communication, it still makes little sense to have two completely diverse creatures of the same alignment communicate effortlessy complex concepts between themselves. The "sign language" theory, which I sorta though of myself in the first place, crumbles to pieces when you try imagining a Beholder and Goblin speaking "chaotic sign language".

    I think I can live with the fact that, after all, some of the rules and ideas in OD&D and later editions were plain and simple bad ideas. :)

  3. I think of alignment languages as political or idealogical sublanguages. I can talk with someone in English and they can understand me, but if I start talking in a mode of speech that references and makes clear my values, I can convey very detailed information in the subtext that would be lost on someone who doesn't also share my values.

    For example, a Christian who is an American Republican politically can say things that have sub-meanings that I will simply not catch. I will, however, catch that the things said seem associated with Christianity or American Republicanism. That is to say, I will not receive the hidden meaning, I will not be able to reply properly to identify myself as a member of his tribe, but I will know his tribe.

    However, people who have contact with that tribe (as most Americans have contact with Christianity and some may have had extensive political discussions - not debates! - with people of wildly different political tribes) may have a chance to understand and a chance to reply properly, thus effectively disguising their tribal allegiance! These people would be cunning linguists and the social D&D character who can learn many languages would be an appropriate user of multiple alignment languages (Bard, Druid, Assassin maybe).

    In this way I view alignment language as the same species as Thieves' Cant - a slang vocabulary. Aristocrats will speak Aristo-Elvish in addition to Elvish, for example. This means to communicate using alignment tongue you still need to share a language, which isn't the same usage as in D&D.

    Other languages like Druidic and Illusionist, and Drow Sign, represent actually separate languages (though possibly artificial) rather than sub-languages. These special artificial languages could have limited vocabularies that prevent the use of sublanguages like Thieves' Cant or Lawful.

    Simply put, I don't see someone speaking only Lawful. What does that even mean? But I can see someone speaking Common Chaotically.

    However, let's say in your campaign these alignment languages are actually lost languages that people used to use but now are known only to some who retain that lost culture or are idealogically akin to it and favor it (or their idealized version of it). Since they're basically just Side A, Side B, and Neutrals, you just need three ancient cultures with two of them destroying each other in conflict and the third declining for some other reason.

  4. Alignment language is one of those things that always made me scratch my head because I don't feel like it is sustainable in a realistic setting. However, that 12-year-old in me who couldn't have cared less about realism or simulationism, who thinks vampire elves are cool and you can walk into a tavern and see Conan, Gandalf, and Elric having a beer together, that kid in me thinks alignment languages are cool.

    Like anything, I've discovered that I have to approach gaming with the strengths of the particular system in mind. So, when I play an OS D&D game, I set myself in the mode of a kid in a big, big anything-goes imagination-land and alignment languages are just fine by me.

    As an aside, Zelazny's AMBER series also had a very prominent law vs chaos element to it. In addition, I feel like White Wolf's EXALTED Fair Folk are a mix of CHANGELING: THE DREAMING and Anderson's THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS' "Pharisees."

  5. There are some forms of communication exclusively for groups or people which were forced and/or chose to segregate. Certain jobs were made taboo like henchmen, wandering dealers or tinkers would use foreign elements in language. Rotwelsch is also an example. I guess by concentrating on these foreign elements others wouldn't understand them. Similar language borders could be used in military language, especially among multi-ethnic mercenaries. Scholars also have their dead languages. While the first ones couldn't be used to discuss abstract topics or would need to establish metaphors for them between two disputing persons, the scholar language could be used for certain defined abstract topics, but perhaps hardly for mundane topics. The first mentioned groups could also use sign languages or secret scripts (without grammatic).

  6. I like alignment tongues in OD&D and dislike them everywhere else. To me, a lot of this stuff seems to come from Poul Anderson's novels. It's also a lot like what we see in Narnia.

    This is another great post. You are the best writer on OD&D topics now.

  7. I like alignment tongues in OD&D and dislike them everywhere else. To me, this whole idea comes from the Poul Anderson novels mentioned in "Appendix N." It's also what we would expect in Narnia. I always thought that the "language" was more used in recognition of objectives and values than in standards communication. No one would use their alignment tongue to say, "Get me a glass of water" in everyday circumstances. But they would use it to test people and motivate them.

    This is another great post. You are the best writer on OD&D topics right now.


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