I myself have waxed poetic about the subject many, many times.
The thing that interested me about JB’s post has almost nothing to do with JB’s near abandonment of the system. D&D has several mechanics that depend upon Alignment and therefore one must deal with those mechanics on some level if any major changes are to be made with Alignment (like getting rid of it entirely). One such mechanic in AD&D is the much maligned Alignment Languages.
Back when I got into blogging, one of the bigger blogs was James Maliszewski’s Grognardia. At the time he was trying to wrestle with OD&D as written using the axiom that the rules were always right and therefore he needed to find a way to make them work. The results were often surprising and fun. It is a principle that I enjoy applying to various editions of the game for that very reason — I often come up with ideas that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
With that in mind, here is what Gygax has to say about Alignment Languages on pg. 24 of the DMG:
Alignment language is a handy game tool which is not unjustifiable in real 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.
This largely harkens back to the 0e version of Alignment, where it was about which side of the larger conflict are you willing to fight with rather than a code of behavior. It also introduces the idea of secret(ive) societies that use various means of communication that those outside their clique cannot understand.
Which brings me to my favorite love/hate political entity within the Greyhawk campaign world. I love the idea of a bunch of racist monks working in secret to further their political agenda, but I hated the idea of there being a country on the map called The Scarlet Brotherhood. I always wished that they were a secretive society that were the real power behind several different throwns and were always looking out for a way to whisper sweet nothings into the ears of the rich and powerful.
Here is an organization that would definitely have something akin to an Alignment Language as Gygax describes. There is even an historical template on which to build this vision of both the Scarlet Brotherhood and Alignment Languages: the Fuke monks.
As I noted in my last post, many Shoguns took advantage of the Fuke monk’s anonymity and mobility to create spy networks. One simple way to identify oneself, in an Alignment Language kinda way, would be the music a monk would play on their flute.
This also suggests why characters lose the use of an Alignment Language once their alignment changes. Secret symbols and signs are in constant flux in order to keep them secret. Think about pitching symbols in baseball or sideline play signals in football. The form is almost always the same, but their meaning is in constant flux because other teams are constantly trying to steal signals. Once a character leaves and organization, they lose the ability to update the current meaning of the signals being given or to recognize if a signal is being given at all.
The exciting thing about the idea of Alignment Languages is the world-building implications: secret societies abound in a political climate that is cutthroat and in constant flux. That sounds like a really fun atmosphere to throw a bunch of Player Characters at.