D&D 5E How to make Languages fun?

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
So, the problem I see here is a bunch of mechanical bits and bobs being invented to make languages "interesting" while not addressing why languages fail to be so in RPGs. It's not for lack of mechanics density, but because dealing with repeated similar challenges revolving around an inability to communicate is not actually fun for most people. So, no matter how many bells and whistles you add, the underlying problem -- communication in a leisure activity -- is not being addressed.

To fix this, you could possibly look to how languages could be used in a non-exclusionary way -- ie, everyone, for whatever reason, can understand languages, but that some have extra benefits and/or problems associated with using them. Or take a page from many fantasy books where everyone speaks the same language but uses different dialects (@niklinna) to differentiate things. This makes language flavor, and useful for framing fictional situations, without making it exclusionary. Most of these types of settings will have an ancient language and a bad guy language, so that some exclusionary things can happen as needed by the plot, but that, overall, when just trying to converse with newly met people, language isn't a "stop everything and play charades." I don't want to play charades.
 

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BookTenTiger

He / Him
Here's a little sketch of how languages could work in a custom campaign region...

Let's say we have an area with a central mountain range dividing a western dry coast and an eastern forest coast. The main cultures are a dwarven Rome-like empire that has established a number of mining and trading city-states, a western nomadic culture, and an eastern forest / coastal culture. There are also outside cultures to the north and south of the map.

Starting Languages: Your character knows Common and one other starting language, plus a bonus language for each point of Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma bonus.

There would be three main language groups:

Corrian (language of the dwarven empire)
Westongue (language of the western cultures)
Greenspeech (language of the eastern cultures)

Each language group has a few dialects. When a character is first interacting with someone who speaks a different dialect, they may make a DC 15 Wisdom (Insight) check. If they succeed, they may communicate as if speaking Common (see below). If they succeed at a DC 20 Wisdom (Insight) check, they may communicate as if proficient in the same language.

Corrian

Old Corrian

Original language of the dwarven empire, brought to this region.
Language of History: For millennia, the dwarves have used Old Corrian to record their history, and the language has adapted to aid in the memorization of facts. Characters proficient in Old Corrian gain advantage on Intelligence (History) checks about the dwarven empire or cultures connected to it.
Related Dialects: Jadish

Jadish
Centuries ago, the dwarven empire conquered a gnomish region; since then a hybrid of dwarven and gnomish words has spawned its own dialect.
Language of Trade: The Jadish language has been traditionally used for trade between the dwarves and gnomes. A character who is proficient in Jadish, when purchasing goods from a merchant who is also proficient in Jadish, gains advantage on any ability checks made to haggle or negotiate a price.
Related Dialects: Old Corrian

Westongue

Wispryte

A dialect of the nomads of the high steppes.
A Word for Every Animal: The nomads of the high steppes are expert trackers, and have developed a language rich in vocabulary about animal prints and signs. A character proficient in Wispryte gains advantage on Wisdom (Survival) checks when tracking a beast.
Related Dialects: Shuddryn, Quitch

Shuddryn
A dialect spoken in the deep caves beneath the western badlands.
Silent Signs: The shuddryn dialect is composed half of spoken language, and half of hand signs. Two beings proficient in shuddryn may communicate entirely through hand gestures, as long as they are within sight.
Related Dialects: Wispryte, Quitch

Quitch
A dialect of Westongue spoken by the mining villages of the Salt Towers.
Culinary Vocabulary: The Quitch dialect contains many words for cooking techniques unknown in other cultures. Characters proficient in Quitch gain advantage when using Cook's Utensils.
Related Dialects: Wispryte, Shuddryn

Greenspeech

Woodspeech

A dialect spoken in the Verdant Woods of the eastern slopes.
Forest Experts: The people of the Verdant Woods must be able to tell the subtle differences between animals and plants that can be harvested, and those that must be avoided due to poisons or other dangers. Characters proficient in Woodspeech gain advantage on Intelligence (Nature) checks made to identify plants, animals, or natural phenomena throughout the Verdant Woods.
Related Dialects: Tidespeech, Shorespeech

Tidespeech
A dialect spoken by fishing villages on the islands off the eastern coast.
Weather Words: The people of the eastern isles are expert fishers and boatwrights. Their language contains many words to help describe and predict the weather. Characters proficient in Tidespeech gain advantage on Wisdom (Survival) checks made to identify and predict the weather.
Related Dialects: Woodspeech, Shorespeech

Shorespeech
A dialect spoken by villages along the eastern coast.
Language of Cordiality: The coastal villages on the eastern shore have traditionally helped trade between their neighbors in the forested slopes and those who live on the isles. A character who is proficient in Shorespeech may use a Charisma (History) check to gather information in a village, town, or city.
Related Dialects: Woodspeech, Tidespeech

Common

Common

Common is a pidgin language made up of bits of all spoken dialects.
Incomplete Vocabulary: When speaking Common, a character suffers disadvantage on all Charisma checks that require speech.

Other Languages

Celestial

Spoken by celestial outsiders.
Language of Healing: When a character proficient in Celestial casts a spell that heals hit points, they may add 1 to the total amount of hit points healed.

Fiendish
Spoken by devils and demons.
Language of Lies: A character proficient in Fiendish may use Intelligence instead of Charisma when making a Charisma (Deception) check.

Sylvan
Spoken by the fey.
Language of Magic: A character proficient in Sylvan gains advantage on Intelligence (Arcana) checks made to identify spells.

Dovorian
The dovorian language is spoken by a large empire of orcs to the south of the region.
War Speech: A character speaking Dovorian may make a Charisma (Intimidate) check even against those they do not share a language with.

Kekoko
The kekoko language is spoken by a wide array of lizardfolk, tortles, and other reptillians who live in the vast swamps north of the region.
Like a Drum: The kekoko language contains words that can be spoken incredibly loudly; those proficient in Kekoko may use the language to communicate at double the range spoken words would normally travel.
 

Davies

Legend
Common
Common is a pidgin language made up of bits of all spoken dialects.
Incomplete Vocabulary: When speaking Common, a character suffers disadvantage on all Charisma checks that require speech.
That's a pretty severe disadvantage. For something a bit less punishing, that still makes using a different language advantageous in many situations, this might be better.

Distinctive: When speaking Common, it is extremely difficult to disguise your origins, as your accent and word choice are highly influenced by where you learned it. You have disadvantage on all Deception checks for this purpose.
 

niklinna

učim hrvatski
Starting Languages: Your character knows Common and one other starting language, plus a bonus language for each point of Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma bonus.
Number of languages spoken is much more a matter of experience and (generally childhood) exposure than mental ability. Unfortunately, as I hinted at earlier, D&D just doesn't handle this aspect well, so you might be stuck with it. Maybe you could tie this in to backgrounds or custom culture or something.
There would be three main language groups:

Corrian (language of the dwarven empire)
Westongue (language of the western cultures)
Greenspeech (language of the eastern cultures)
Again the hierarchy is language group (actually family) > language > dialect. You don't have dialects as direct members of a language group. Those three above should be languages, full stop.
Each language group has a few dialects. When a character is first interacting with someone who speaks a different dialect, they may make a DC 15 Wisdom (Insight) check. If they succeed, they may communicate as if speaking Common (see below). If they succeed at a DC 20 Wisdom (Insight) check, they may communicate as if proficient in the same language.
No, no. (Neighboring) dialects are generally mutually intelligible. Also don't make ability checks required for potentially common situations, that's why people generally bin this whole topic and use a common tongue or universal translator in games. At most, people speaking different close dialects should have no trouble communicating information, but they recognize the other's dialect (without a Deception check of course)—which may color NPC attitudes for Persuasion and other such checks.

If you want to get into dialect continuums, you can give a threshold past which dialects in the continuum impose disadvantage on communication of information, and past which dialects are no longer mutually intelligible, with a small (like, -2 tops) penalty to language checks for dialects that are 2–3 steps apart. Again, a distance of 1 should not be a problem. (Defining dialect distances is up to the setting designer!)
Common
Common is a pidgin language made up of bits of all spoken dialects.
Incomplete Vocabulary: When speaking Common, a character suffers disadvantage on all Charisma checks that require speech.
This should probably be topical. Common would be a great language for general commerce, travel, and such, with no penalty. But Common would not be a good language for nuanced diplomatic negotiation (which opens another sub-area of prestige languages and the influence that might have). @Davies made good suggestions.
Other Languages

Celestial

Spoken by celestial outsiders.
Language of Healing: When a character proficient in Celestial casts a spell that heals hit points, they may add 1 to the total amount of hit points healed.
Minor but very colorful. A good combo for language bennies.
Fiendish
Spoken by devils and demons.
Language of Lies: A character proficient in Fiendish may use Intelligence instead of Charisma when making a Charisma (Deception) check.
Slight potential for min-maxy abuse, but also very colorful.
Sylvan
Spoken by the fey.
Language of Magic: A character proficient in Sylvan gains advantage on Intelligence (Arcana) checks made to identify spells.
I thought Draconic was the language of magic? Fey is all about enchantements and illusions.
Dovorian
The dovorian language is spoken by a large empire of orcs to the south of the region.
War Speech: A character speaking Dovorian may make a Charisma (Intimidate) check even against those they do not share a language with.
Very colorful.
Kekoko
The kekoko language is spoken by a wide array of lizardfolk, tortles, and other reptillians who live in the vast swamps north of the region.
Like a Drum: The kekoko language contains words that can be spoken incredibly loudly; those proficient in Kekoko may use the language to communicate at double the range spoken words would normally travel.
Ability to speak loudly—assuming a language falls into the usual parameters of pulmonic production—is more dependent on physiology than the speech sounds of a language. But, have you heard of whistle speech?

Also, most reptiles & lizards don't have particularly loud vocalizations. Mammals & avians (especially parrots and the white bellbird), on the other hand....
 
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MatthewJHanson

Registered Ninja
Publisher
I have monsters talk to each other in their native tongue, even if they can speak common. PCs who understand get hints about the enemy tactics.

PCs also frequently find writing in other languages that can give them clues.

On rare occasions I've given PCs advantage/disadvantage for speaking the right/wrong language.
 

Mallus

Legend
It’s kinda hard to make making talking hard fun in a game that’s played through talking. Not impossible, per se, but frequently not worth the trouble. Like playing a mystery game where the clues are really difficult to find.

A few cursory nods to language barriers can be amusing. Maybe a scenario built around a first contact, etc.

edit: however the idea that certain languages are inherently magical and grant minor effects when the speaker is proficient is a great idea.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
Number of languages spoken is much more a matter of experience and (generally childhood) exposure than mental ability. Unfortunately, as I hinted at earlier, D&D just doesn't handle this aspect well, so you might be stuck with it. Maybe you could tie this in to backgrounds or custom culture or something.

Again the hierarchy is language group (actually family) > language > dialect. You don't have dialects as direct members of a language group. Those three above should be languages, full stop.

No, no. (Neighboring) dialects are generally mutually intelligible. Also don't make ability checks required for potentially common situations, that's why people generally bin this whole topic and use a common tongue or universal translator in games. At most, people speaking different close dialects should have no trouble communicating information, but they recognize the other's dialect (without a Deception check of course)—which may color NPC attitudes for Persuasion and other such checks.

If you want to get into dialect continuums, you can give a threshold past which dialects in the continuum impose disadvantage on communication of information, and past which dialects are no longer mutually intelligible, with a small (like, -2 tops) penalty to language checks for dialects that are 2–3 steps apart. Again, a distance of 1 should not be a problem. (Defining dialect distances is up to the setting designer!)
Maybe it would make more sense to do this:

A 1st level character is proficient in Common and one Language. If the Language has Dialects, choose one Dialect to gain proficiency in. Though you can understand, speak, and read each dialect, you only gain the benefits of your proficient dialect.

When you gain more language proficiencies, you may choose a new Language, or a Dialect within a language group you are already proficient in.
Minor but very colorful. A good combo for language bennies.

Slight potential for min-maxy abuse, but also very colorful.

I thought Draconic was the language of magic? Fey is all about enchantements and illusions.

Very colorful.

Ability to speak loudly—assuming a language falls into the usual parameters of pulmonic production—is more dependent on physiology than the speech sounds of a language. But, have you heard of whistle speech?

Also, most reptiles & lizards don't have particularly loud vocalizations. Mammals & avians (especially parrots and the white bellbird), on the other hand....
These are all just random ideas I put about 30 seconds of thought into each. If I were actually doing this for a campaign, I'd revise the ideas a lot more.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Languages is one of those things that seems interesting, but eventually becomes very tired. If there is no reason other than to make communication difficult between groups, its not terribly exciting and eventually becomes exhausting. As a GM, I will on occasion use an old dead language that the players need to decipher to discover secrets of the campaign. Sometimes, I'll toss in a non-common speaking group if it makes sense. Otherwise, lets get back to the adventure if language serves no purpose except to ask for skill checks and magic use.
 

niklinna

učim hrvatski
Maybe it would make more sense to do this:

A 1st level character is proficient in Common and one Language. If the Language has Dialects, choose one Dialect to gain proficiency in. Though you can understand, speak, and read each dialect, you only gain the benefits of your proficient dialect.
What benefits would proficiency in a dialect give you? This seems to be a change from having disadvantage when not using your proficient dialect.
When you gain more language proficiencies, you may choose a new Language, or a Dialect within a language group you are already proficient in.
I'd say you should gain at least two more dialects, if you're going for that angle. (And if using dialect continuums, they should be neighboring any you are already proficient in.)

Have you seen any of those videos of British actors showing off all the dialects & accents they know?
These are all just random ideas I put about 30 seconds of thought into each. If I were actually doing this for a campaign, I'd revise the ideas a lot more.
They're great starts though!
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I think unless the campaign's theme is going to be about major diplomacy or the divine power of the spoken word or spreading literacy to the world or something like that, any house rules around languages are mostly going to be forgotten about during actual play. I wouldn't spend a lot of time on this unless it was going to be a big part of the campaign. It seems like it could be a lot of extra work for no payoff.

What I've found is that if I just make it clear monsters don't speak Common, the players put some more time into planning out their languages. It would otherwise be an afterthought for most players or perhaps they wouldn't even bother filling it out on their sheet. "This monster whispers to his comrades in Undercommon..." "Hey, I speak that - I listen in to see what he's saying!" That's about all we can expect. And I think that's good enough for most campaigns.
 


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