Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Nine Secret Societies

Alignment languages are one of the oddest phenomena in D&D. They clearly imply that alignment is not merely a way in which creatures behave, or a framework for categorising their beliefs, but an actual real, well understood and widely known set of active beliefs - effectively, like a set of 9 religions or secret societies. From 1st edition: 
Alignment language is a handy game tool which is not unjustifiable in game terms. Thieves did employ a special cant. Secret organizations and societies did and do have certain recognition signs, signals and recognition phrases - possibly special languages (of limited extent) as well. Consider also the medieval Catholic Church which used Latin as a common recognition and communication base to cut across national boundaries. In AD&D, alignment languages are the special set of signs, signals, gestures and words which intelligent creatures use to inform other intelligent creatures of the same alignment of their fellowship and common ethos. Alignment languages are NEVER flaunted in public. They are not used as salutations or interrogatives if the speaker is uncertain of the alignment of those addressed. Furthermore, alignment languages are of limited vocabulary and deal with the ethos of the alignment in general, so lengthy discussion of varying subjects cannot be conducted in such tongues. 
Each alignment language is constructed to allow recognition of like-aligned creatures and to discuss the precepts of the alignment in detail. Otherwise, the tongue will permit only the most rudimentary communication with a vocabulary of limited to a few score words. The speaker could inquire of the listener's state of health, ask about hunger, thirst, or degree of tiredness. A few other basic conditions and opinions could be expressed, but no more. The specialty tongues of Druidic and the Thieves' Cant are designed to handle conversations pertaining to things druidical on the one hand and thievery, robbery and the disposal of stolen goods on the other. Druids could discuss at length and in detail the state of the crops, weather, animal husbandry and foresting; but warfare, politics, adventuring, and like matter would be impossible to detail with the language. 
Any character foolish enough to announce his or her alignment by publicly crying out in that alignment tongue will incur considerable social sanctions. At best he or she will be thought unmannerly, rude, boorish, and stupid. Those of the same alignment will be inclined to totally ignore the character, not wishing to embarrass themselves by admitting any familiarity with the offender. Those of other alignment will likewise regard the speaker with distaste when overhearing such an outburst. At worst, the character will marked by those hostile to the alignment in which he or she spoke. 
Alignment language is used to establish credentials only after initial communications have been established by other means. Only in the most desperate of situations would any creature utter something in the alignment tongue otherwise. It must be also noted that alignment does NOT necessarily empower a creature to actually speak or understand the alignment language which is general in the ethos. Thus, blink dogs are intelligent, lawful good creatures who have a language of their own. A lawful good human, dwarf or brownie will be absolutely at a loss to communicate with blink dogs, however, except in the most limited of ways (non-aggression, non-fear, etc.) without knowledge of the creatures language or some magical means. This is because blink dogs do not intellectually embrace the ethos of lawful good but are of that alignment instinctually; therefore, they do not speak the tongue used by lawful good. This is not true of gold dragons, let us say, or red dragons with respect to their alignment, who do speak their respective alignment languages.

This clearly means that people actually have an explicit awareness of what alignment they are - it would not be considered odd (thought it would be a social faux pas, apparently) to utter the words "I am Lawful Good" in RAW AD&D.

I've often thought that it would be interesting to run AD&D in a setting which takes this RAW approach to alignment. In my mind, it would be something almost akin to what the Planescape designers were trying to do with the factions in Sigil, except much further below the surface than that: imagine the potential of a setting in which everybody is a member of one of nine secret societies, and everybody knows everybody else is a member of one of those societies, but they never reveal which society they are a member of unless they can possibly help it.

There is a lot of potential in that idea for interesting fiction more than there is for a game, but I still find it fascinating. It implies a kind of parallel world: everybody goes about their daily life in the regular way, but underneath that they are all pursuing their secret inner lives and the secret agendas they have, dictated by their alignment. 

In a sense, there is something in it of China Mieville's The City and the City: society pretending it is one thing, even though everybody knows that actually it is something else. Just like in The City and the City the inhabitants of one city behave as if the other does not exist, even though they surely know that it does, the people of the D&D world behave as if alignments do not exist, even though they all know that they really do. Everybody must carefully scan each other over whenever they meet: "I bet he's Lawful Evil"; "I hope she's Chaotic Good like me". Probably, an element of courtship is revealing to the other person, after a level of trust has been established, what your alignment is. Maybe marriage across alignment lines is "not done". Maybe it is society's great taboo - which people thrill in breaking.

As with a lot of things in AD&D, in one sense it is best just not to think too hard about alignment languages, because it leads you somewhere that just isn't D&D at all. Why bother with dungeons when the cloak and dagger setting implied by alignment languages implies a completely different genre of game?


  1. Think about changing alignment...

    ... and the quote above implies, that you can regocnise wich alignment language is spoken, even if you are of a opposed alignment. That's strange and contradicts the thing about thieves cant, that I always thought to be unregocnizable by not thieves.

    Also, if there is a very basic vocabulary, how basic is it that you can speak in depth about one topic, and nothing about others?

    food for thought...

  2. Thought you might find this interesting. It's from a book by Megan Stack.

    'One day, during a long, bleak desert drive, we pulled up behind a truck crammed with sheep. “Look at all those sheep!” I said.
    Raheem laughed, raised his arm in the air, and wiggled it around, making a scooping motion with a thumb. The skinny shepherd signalled back, scarf flapping wild around his head. “He is going to sell the sheep in Saudi Arabia because the price is better there,” Raheem announced.
    “What? How do you know?”
    “He has just told me.”
    “But how?”
    “You know, we have these signals...” Raheem seemed muddled now, as if I'd asked him to explain something as instinctive as breathing “I said with my hand,'Are you going to take them over there? And 'over there' means Saudi Arabia. He said 'Yes, it's better.' And the means the price.”
    He turned his face back to the desert.'

  3. Alignment language never made a lick of sense and gets dropped right after you decide to drop weapon speed factors.

    Probably the most believable interpretation of alignment language is as a set of mythical/literary references that you can drop in common tongue, to be recognized and communicate simple ideas.

    "Let's go all John Galt on his ass ... if you know what I mean, my fellow Objectivist."

    1. "Alignment language never made a lick of sense and gets dropped right after you decide to drop weapon speed factors."

      I'd keep weapon speed factors before I keep alignment languages - at least the way that Gygax describes them. 'Secret' languages, I'm all for, whether polidori, thieves cant, a dead language like ancient Greek, whatever. But alignment langauges by-the-book seem to rule out such basic things such as 'the evil vizier to the good king'. Sure, you might 'call out' in Lawful Good (or Lawful), but given that the language exists, you will use it.

      Now, in a world of Moorcockian Chaos and Law, I could imagine that some people could speak a higher or secret language called 'Lawful' or 'Chaotic'. But not everyone of that alignment (unless we have it that almost everyone is Neutral, and only the people at the real extremes are Lawful or Chaotic, and that being so extreme brings them into contact with the divine, or whatever).

    2. I think this would work better for most people and players if you assume something like the black speech of Mordor is the language of evil. Changing alignments means defecting to Mordor (I imagine that the evil men in the black ships in The Return of the King might have been taught some degree of black speech).

      Perhaps lawful is spoken by angels and some people who are extra devout can pick up bits of that language by studying holy scriptures (and finding someone else that also understands the language means that they are similarly devout, or perhaps have been actually visited by angels, or perhaps are angels). That is, just root it in the setting and don't try to push the concept too far.

      I like the idea of working secret societies into the mix, though perhaps asserting that everyone must have an affiliation might make things harder to accept.

      In my recent campaign, I accidentally stumbled into alignment languages when I was writing up the setting background for clerics (which turned out to be members of a mystery religion left over from a semi-mythical fallen empire). Part of the process of levelling as a cleric allows you to learn the secret language of law, which is said to drive mundane people mad. This language is also required for the rites and prayers of the clerics. More details here:


  4. I'm using Law and Chaos as real forces with their own languages in my 3-alignment Labyrinth Lord game, this works well. Not sure about 9 alignment languages, though.

  5. I find that a lot of Gary's writing in 1st Ed to be overly complex and cumbersome, but "alignment language," I just thought was plain crazy. Even the Thieves Cant (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thieves%27_cant) was regional, meaning that a thief from the far East probably wouldn't be able to communicate with a thief from the Far West in a common thieves language. The notion is preposterous. I addressed this briefly in my blog (http://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=7133875555906953649#editor/target=post;postID=8476131380591676450)
    I do however, like the idea of secret societies, not necessarily alignment specific, but a simpler good vs. evil type situation.
    I think basically it's good guys vs. bad guys, and all the shades of grey in between. The actual alignment isn't as important as the roleplaying, which will reveal the characters true alignment over time.