In November, I read a post on using language in games at This Is My Game. It offered some good ideas on using language in order to enhance the sense of different cultures existing within the game’s world. After reading it, I made a note on my todo list to write a post sharing some ideas for languages in Dungeons & Dragons that I’ve used before, and now I’m finally getting around to that.
D&D has a variety of language related rules, but for the most part those rules seem to be ignored. When a player creates a new character, they pick a few languages that the character knows and add them to the character sheet, but after that everything tends to be in the Common language. Do any characters actually take the Linguist feat and benefit from it? Or, do groups make use of the Comprehend Languages ritual?
First off, making language more important definitely isn’t right for every play style or campaign. I’d use the ideas in this post for campaigns that feature a lot of political intrigue, negotiations, or other non-violent encounters, but I wouldn’t recommend bothering with them for a dungeon delve. The campaign I originally used these ideas in was meant to have an emphasis on visiting strange locales, and making languages more mechanically relevant was meant to help enhance the feeling of new places being exotic.
Remember To Mention Languages
There are plenty of ways that using languages other than Common can add more depth to a campaign without any new mechanics. Just remembering to mention what language NPCs use and what script pieces of writing are in adds depth to a scene. Here are a few ideas to help players appreciate the languages that their characters speak by making a note that a piece of information is in a certain language:
- While negotiating with a merchant in Common, the characters could overhear his assistants talking in Elven about how the people in the last village never suspected how badly the merchant was cheating them.
- The characters receive a letter written in a language only one of them is able to read. This could be enhanced with handout using a fantasy font for a fantasy script, but giving the player whose character reads that language a normal copy.
- While sneaking past a pair of kobold sentries, the Draconic-speaking sorcerer overhears them talking about how their job is pointless since no one will make it past the new pit trap anyways.
- During a fight, the drow coordinate their actions in Deep Speech. Luckily, one of the characters understands and the group can predict what the drow are planning for the next round.
Common: A Limited Language
Having everyone in a world fluently speak a single language is definitely useful for removing language as an obstacle to game play, but it isn’t particularly realistic and makes the ability to speak multiple languages largely irrelevant to the game. I ended up compromising and decided that Common was a minimal trade language that could be used for simple conversations but was a poor choice for more complex ideas. Because of its limitations, using social skills when speaking Common imposed a –2 penalty on all checks. The next time I use these rules, I think I’d be tempted to increase the penalty to a -5 to make it even more important to know additional languages.
The Dungeons & Dragons game assumes that all members of a given race speak the same language. A more realistic approach is to have languages that residents of a given culture or region tend to use. Characters of all races would automatically know how to speak both an appropriate regional language and Common. Mechanically, there isn’t any major change, but a DM needs to put some work into listing out which languages exist within their game world while planning the campaign.
In addition to making Common less useful, I wanted to reward characters for knowing and thinking to use additional languages. In most cases, this meant thinking about the language preferences of NPCs that the characters would be interacting with and then giving bonuses based on those preferences. For example, a wealthy dwarven merchant might speak several languages including Common and a regional human language, but hold people who speak his native dwarven tongue in higher regard. In most cases, using the preferred language would give a +2 bonus to social skill checks.