The standard rules for languages may not be enough to suit your world-building taste. Maybe you want a world without a Common language or just want to make an emphasis on characters speaking different languages with different levels of mastery. The following rules can help to give more weight to language learning in your game, and can be used in every combination the Narrator thinks appropriate, but some of them are labeled as “optional” to underline the fact that they add an additional layer of complexity.
Communication without a languageWhen characters try to make themselves understood by people who don’t share a language with themselves, they can try a number of different approaches: gesturing, making sounds, drawing pictures (or sculptures, or even more bizarre art forms!).
When in doubt about whether a certain idea can be conveyed through the proposed medium, the best (and often the funniest) way to check it is just to roleplay it. Some things can be just impossible (try describing a color with gestures without a sample of this color at hand!). Also, remember it is not a game of charades and the other people can’t voice out their guesses or, at least, the character trying to communicate can’t understand them, so it isn’t easy to know how well you are doing or what meaning other people are taking from these gestures.
Once established that an idea can be conveyed through the method at hand, the one trying to pass the message makes a Charisma check unless it is crystal clear that nobody could have mistaken its meaning. The DC is set according to the complexity of the task, but some other factors that can affect the outcome are:
- Trying to communicate through gestures with a creature with which the character doesn’t share a bare minimum of body language (either because they belong to radically different cultures, or even because they have different anatomies!) causes the roll to be made with disadvantage.
- Communicating with a creature which is distracted or especially obtuse can add disadvantage to the roll as well.
- Using an especially explicit medium (like picture —realistic picture, of course) gives advantage to the roll.
- Any item, place, creature or phenomenon which can be exhibited or pointed at co clarify the meaning of the message adds an expertise die to the roll.
- Trying to communicate with an especially intelligent creature also adds an expertise die to the roll.
Language ranksWith the standard rule, characters either read, speak, sign and understand a language perfectly or they don’t do so at all. Language ranks add a few more shades of grey to this scale.
Rank 0When a character has 0 ranks in a language, they don’t know it at all. They may have encountered it, and perhaps even they have learnt a word of two of this language in game.
What characters with rank 0 can do automatically: They can remember individual words they have learnt in game, like the words for “food” or “water” (or, more likely, a few colorful insults). They can use these words when communicating without a language, and they count as items exhibited, thus adding an expertise die. They can also recognize these words when encountered on their own or exhibited clearly enough (just as the word for “tavern” in a sign, if they know it).
What Characters with rank 0 can try with a dice roll: Recognizing these words they know in a more extensive text, or when someone mentions them clearly enough, requires a Perception check.
What Characters with rank 0 can’t even try: Communicate with or understand another creature using this language beyond what’s described above.
Rank 1Characters with 1 rank are familiar with the language, but they can’t use it very well. When roleplaying, they should speak in a very crude, incorrect, broken and imprecise way. For example, when issuing a challenge to a local noble they can say “Tomorrow we attack us with swords” or something like that.
What characters with rank 1 can do automatically: They can recognize this language when they hear it being spoken, watch it being signed, see it written or otherwise encounter it. Given enough time, they can converse with other creatures and make their meaning clear if it is not too nuanced (that is, if they can think of a way in which to express it clearly enough with their broken language and the help of nonverbal communication).
What Characters with rank 1 can try with a dice roll: In order to convey their meaning without the luxury of time (that is, as a free action), these characters need to roll a Charisma check, whereas understanding the language in these same circumstances requires an Intelligence check. The roll is made with disadvantage if the other character speaks with an unfamiliar accent or the character is eavesdropping or listening to someone who isn’t addressing them. The character is never considered proficient for these checks, and the amount of information gained or transmitted might depend on how high the roll was.
What Characters with rank 1 can’t even try: Eavesdropping to someone who also has an unfamiliar enough accent; or communicate clearly, beyond the scope of a broken language.
Rank 2Characters with rank 2 are proficient with the language. They still can’t speak it as easily as their native tongue, but they can use it well enough that, when roleplaying, they can speak normally.
What characters with rank 2 can do automatically: They can communicate normally, unless the Narrator decides that there is a nuance in play that can be a bit confusing. They can eavesdrop to people who are speaking clearly and communicate even with people with unfamiliar accents.
What Characters with rank 2 can try with a dice roll: When they try to eavesdrop to a creature with an unfamiliar accent, they need to roll a Perception check. Also, when the Narrator decides there is a nuance in play, they must check Charisma (to make their meaning clear) or Intelligence (to understand others). They do apply their proficiency bonus to these rolls.
What Characters with rank 2 can’t even try: Posing as native speakers of the language.
Rank 3Characters with 3 ranks in a language have the same mastery in it as if it was their mother tongue, and perhaps it is. They may not speak it perfectly, but if so their mistakes are common even for native speakers.
What characters with rank 3 can do automatically: Every form of communication. Period.
What Characters with rank 3 can try with a dice roll: Pose as a native speaker if they are not (even if they are, they can pretend to come from another region with a different accent). This is done by rolling a Deception check.
Intermediate ranks (Optional)Some languages can be more complex than others. This can be represented by assigning them additional ranks between the ones described above. A character with an intermediate rank has a proficiency die in any roll made when using the language, but otherwise is considered to have the immediately lower rank.
Ways of communicationThere are several ways to communicate apart from speaking, writing and signing. Languages can be coded by numeric or quasi-numeric codes (like morse code) or by whistling (like silbo gomero), just to mention a couple of real-world ways of transcribing languages. In a fantasy world there can also be a myriad other ways of conveying words. Conversely, not every language would have a signed or written form. In fact, some languages might not have a spoken form!
When a character learns a language, while we can assume that all its usual forms are included in the learning process, they can also be tracked separately. If so, a character learns one form of the language (usually spoken or written), and can add others by assigning language ranks to them. In most cases, nonverbal forms of language can follow one of these patterns (of course, the Narrator can keep it simple and use only one or two of them, or even fall back to the standard rules and include them in the knowledge of the language):
Phonetic scriptSome languages have an alphabet or a syllabary that represents the sounds made when speaking it, and often these alphabets are shared by several different languages, which adapt them to their different needs. While “alphabet” usually refers to a written language, sign language, or even whistling or other codes can also work as phonetic transcriptions. Learning a new way of communication such as an alphabet on its own costs 1 rank, and correctly applying it to a language costs an additional rank, so learning how to write and read a language which shares an alphabet with a known one only costs 1 rank.
What knowing a way of communication like this without knowing the language implies: If a character only has invested 1 rank in a writing system or other kind of phonetic transcription (or know it because it is used in a different language they know), they can recognize the letters or syllables when encountered. Their pronunciation, however, can be very different from an unknown language if they try to read it aloud, to the point of making it difficult to understand what the message means even for a native speaker of the language. With a Charisma check, characters like this can, at most, communicate as if they had 1 rank in the language of the text they are reading (or the signing they are watching or whatever).
What knowing a way of communication like this knowing the language but not knowing how to read it implies: If the alphabet or syllabary is already known and a character has ranks in a language that uses it but they haven’t invested the rank to learn how to apply the phonetic transcription system to the language, they are prone to commit serious mistakes when reading or writing (or the equivalent for signs, whistles or the like). When using the unmastered way of communication (even if it is the spoken version), they treat their degree of language mastery as if it were 1 rank less.
Ideographic scriptSome written of signed languages do not only represent sounds. Instead, they represent concepts, ideas (like real world Native American sign language). Each character, sign or whatever the system uses is a complete word or perhaps a few joint characters combine their concepts into a word without giving much information about its pronunciation. These systems can be considered separate languages and, indeed, people who speak different languages and share one such system usually understand each other in writing.
The cost to learn such a system is the same as learning a spoken form of a new language, and it works exactly the same way as speaking a language does.
Mixed systemsSome languages mix ideograms with phonetical symbols (like real world Japanese or modern sign languages). While they can work as phonetic scripts, their users also mix ideograms in it. These systems can be used as phonetic script (and so can be learnt as if it was a purely phonetic language) for the purpose of writing, signing or the like. Doing so, however, requires more time and/or writing surface. Reading the language requires mastering the ideographic part at least as well as the writer does (although they can choose to write using more basic symbols or even just phonetic script).
When communicating in this system, the writers (or signers) can choose to use it as an ideographic script, but they can also use a simplified form of the language. Using it at 3 ranks takes the normal amount of time or space, but for every rank less used the space or time used are doubled (to a maximum of eight times more time or space if only phonetic symbols are used).
When receiving information in this system, the reader or watchers need to have the number of ranks used by the communicator in order to understand it correctly. If they don’t, they subtract from their knowledge of the language an amount of ranks equal to the difference.
Example: A native speaker writes a message in a language that mixes ideographic and phonetic script. She wants another character to be able to understand it and she knows that he hasn’t mastered this writing system yet, so she writes a note with simpler symbols. Since she is in a hurry and doesn’t want the text to be very long, she only takes twice as long to write it as if written with 2 ranks. Later, her friend finds the note. He has 2 ranks with this writing system, so he can understand it fairly well. When trying to read texts written by native users with 3 ranks, he has trouble recognizing some symbols and reads it as if he had only 1 rank.
Related languagesSome languages are similar enough that their speakers can more or less understand each other.
When two languages are so related that they can almost be considered regional variants, knowing one allows the speaker to act as if they had a rank less in the other (so, characters who are native speakers of a language can speak and understand a closely related one as if they had 2 ranks in it).
If the languages are clearly similar but not so much as in the previous case, the unlearnt language can be treated as being 2 ranks lower, so characters with 3 ranks in one can be considered to have 1 in the other.
Optional: Note that, being realistic, if these characters wish to learn the related language to a higher degree they still need to spent every rank in it up to the desired level (even those ranks they were considered to know).
Learning language ranksNewly created characters start play with one mother language at 3 ranks (usually in the spoken form at least, but exceptions can be made for characters with a hearing impairment, for example). Other languages specifically stated as being known get 2 ranks. The mother language should be one of the specific languages given by the character’s Culture.
The character gains additional ranks equal to twice the number of other, unspecified, languages known granted by any feature in the standard rules. Then, if separately tracking the different ways of communication, the character gains an additional rank for every 2 languages granted in total in the standard rules, plus the Intelligence modifier.
The standard rules for learning languages in game also change. Instead of learning a language in (12-Intelligence modifier) weeks, the first rank is learnt after only (3-Intelligence modifier, minimum 1) weeks and the second one takes (9-Intelligence modifier) weeks. For the third rank, a character must spend an additional (12-Intelligence modifier) weeks.
Adjustments to language learningThe Narrator can give a different amount of ranks depending of how common it is in the campaign setting for two languages to share a writing or signing system, or to have more or less nonverbal ways of communication, or also if ideographic or mixed scripts are used. Also, the desired emphasis on language learning due to the contents of the campaign may play a role.
Gaining one additional rank for every known language (instead of one for every 2 languages) is a simple way to do it. Also, whenever the characters get a new skill specialty by leveling, they get a new language rank.