Monday, September 23, 2019

Alignment Languages, the Scarlet Brotherhood, and Flutes

JB of B/X Blackrazor has been meditating how to go “Advanced” from his usual B/X D&Ding. As seems always necessary in such endeavors is the long, hard struggle with Alignment.

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.


Fuzzy Skinner said...

For some reason, the fact of changing codes and signs with time never occurred to me, but it makes a lot of sense.

JB said...

Personally, I see no reason not to simply create a class-based language for every class you'd like. There's no "intelligence requirement" in AD&D for thieves nor druids, yet both receive a bonus (class-based) language, regardless of their ability to learn additional tongues. Why not allow a monastic order to have their own secret set of symbols and gestures? Why not allow clerics to speak Latin or Hebrew or whatever is the language of their Mass/service?

I fully encourage and embrace such an idea...much more so than "alignment language." However would some subterranean creature be able to communicate with my chaotic character? Where would such a language have been learned? From one's parents? Are characters required to continue the same alignment as their ancestors?

It's just such a problematic concept.

FrDave said...

Problematic, no doubt. That is what attracts me to it. Whereas you love the "problem" of writing an adventure to an expected XP value, I love world-building to explain oddities in rules and wacky results from random tables. That is the part of the job of a DM I love the I see using the concept of an Alignment Language as a challenge rather than as something to throw away just because it is a "problem."

JB said...

: )

A.F.W Junior said...

A game tool. As a tool is with you how to use it. Just because you don't understand the tool or lack imagination on how to use it don't means the tool is no usefulness or broke.
If Gygax had imagined for the people, instead give a tool, they are to praise and not yelling about how this don't make sense.