D&D 5E How to make Languages fun?


shrug It's the TV vs. Movie dilemma. Does you table just want to get on with the story (TV) and not worry about a bunch of different languages? Or is being true to a variety of languages and the barriers it create important to the story and feeling of things being "real" (Movie)?

Recently, I've yanked Common out of my homebrew, and set up a few "mother" languages with varieties of derivative languages. I've also removed reading and writing from about 80% of the world's population. Finding written records - especially written accounts of the past - is really difficult, and the skill to read a spellbook or scroll is actually fairly rare.

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Would be inclined to link the number of languages know to the background option picked. If it is a background that would have been exposed to other languages (travel, trade, at court etc) then more chance of knowing other languages than a person who's not had such exposure.

I think languages can also add flavor to a game; a laugh here, a misunderstanding there, a wth everywhere. For example, here is my write up for the halfling's language use in my world:

"All halflings speak common. But, throughout the years, they have developed their own dialect. This language focuses on accentuating the emotion of a sentence. It houses sounds such as whistles and hums to promote punctuation. It is inlaid with onomatopoeias that capture verbs and demonstrate their feeling. And the dialect also uses hand and body movements to boldly pronounce the changed meaning of a word."

So in an adventure that might have the group go through a town, I might write out several short passages or even a short story the group overhears, a la video game style. These added play accessories greatly help dress up the setting in my opinion.
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I always like the idea of different languages in D&D, but I find they actually come up very rarely. Usually everyone just speaks Common and they get on with the day.


Anyways, those are just some ideas. What are some more ways to make Language more fun in D&D?
In the 5e homebrew I ran last year on Fantasy Grounds, languages played a significant factor because one of the PCs (Gensai Warlock) took Eyes of the Rune Keeper. Here's what I did:
  • In FG, you can send messages in a specific language and it automatically translated it to those who understood it. The other players would just see gobblygook.
  • Eyes of the Rune Keeper (as you may know) allows you to read any written text. I made a custom language (IIRC two "Ancient Languages") so only the Warlock could read it. The player LOVED it! I also used "old" versions of more commonly known languages like dwarven or elvish so more players would be able to read it.
  • I wrote passwords for wards or magically locked portals, clues for what's coming up in the adventure and in one instance, a puzzle that the player read but shared with the team to decipher. There was so much interest, the PCs wanted to explore the Feywild based on stories the Warlock had read (unfortunately, we didn't have time to explore that in depth).
  • However, I only used these languages in moderation or dropped ancient text for flavor (but of little consequence in the scheme of things). More than that would probably have spoiled the sense of wonder and exploration they engendered.


For some time now, I've changed Language prof for Culture prof.

When you are proficient in a Culture, you not only know the language of said culture, but also the general history, etiquette and tradition.

The History skill represent more common history.
I like this. I had stolen the Tradition Skill form Middle earth d20 back before covid forced us online...this might be a way to bring it back.


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As a couple of folks have mentioned, we should not confuse "fun" with "mechanically more relevant". Eliminating common, for example, makes communication more of a pain in the neck, but I doubt many will call it "more fun".

One of the issues at hand is that a lot of game fun comes from tactical situations (not necessarily combat - I mean short term situations where moment by moment decisions matter to outcomes), but language and language choice is strategic - longer term, and largely serves to gate which tactical situations you can engage in.


Here's a suggestion: create "language mishap" and "unintended meaning" tables, ie outputs to the system that are more interesting than just two parties being unable to understand each other.

Perhaps you just proposed to the orc tribe leader instead of intimidating them? Maybe you successfully negotiated with the merchants guild by unmistakably implying you're members of a notorious local thieves guild without knowing it. Maybe you attempted to speak Elven and accidentally summoned a mischievous woodland sprite (who demands payment or 'entertainment').

Keep the language skills system simple. But make the possible results... fun. For certain definitions of.


Taking common out of the listing for a bunch of monsters gives a different flavor as they are intelligent and can talk, just not directly to people in the party most likely. Using translator NPCs can be a way of navigating this and still have communications

I've used language as a cultural signifier a couple of times, such as an ancient kingdom being dragon run so their records are in draconic, another being aasimar ruled with their records in celestial, and the ancient fantasy Egyptians being elves so hieroglyphics are elvish, all in specific dialects so noticeably a bit different from modern versions.

You can do a bunch with 10 or so existing D&D common languages.

Watch out for how much mechanics resources the PCs need to allocate to things though, 5e has very little options for knowing and learning languages, while 3e has tons with the option for a language a level through skill points. Also keep in mind how much you want to actually deal with people not understanding languages of those they are dealing with.

Think about the skill versus magic split too, a couple D&D spells allow universal translation, while skills/proficiency/languages known allow only specific ones.

I really like the idea of dialects as an identification factor. I can see a bunch of uses for that.


shrug It's the TV vs. Movie dilemma. Does you table just want to get on with the story (TV) and not worry about a bunch of different languages? Or is being true to a variety of languages and the barriers it create important to the story and feeling of things being "real" (Movie)?
Movies make the characters confused and frustrated with the communication problems, not the moviegoer. That's the problem with putting more emphasis on language by making it harder.

It's like DMs who require players to recite an actual incantation to cast somatic spells. It looks fun from the outside, but not the necessarily from the inside.

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