D&D General Languages in D&D Are Weird, Let's Get Rid of Them.

Ondath

Hero
This is a thought that occurred to me after reading some of the discussions in the bonus languages for One D&D backgrounds thread here. I think the discussion points to a larger problem in D&D's philosophy, which is this: As a game, D&D doesn't really know what to do with languages.

This isn't a problem unique to One D&D or even D&D in general. I think fantasy as a genre has a very odd relationship with portraying languages in its imaginary universes and conlangs. This is mostly because one of the founding fathers of the genre created his world in order to give his languages a history. And since he did it that way, most creations in the genre feel like they have to use the concept of languages in some way. However, for almost everyone whose name isn't John Rolkien Rolkien Tolkien, I think the way they use language ends up being shallow or pointless in the end.

I think it's fair to say that languages having some mechanical weight in D&D is directly related to Tolkien to a certain extent. And I've yet to see a game where that mechanical weight has actually improved the play experience. From Alignment languages in old school games (which somehow meant that you'd know a secret language just because you liked following the rules) to One D&D's every background making you bilingual by default, the ways in which we try to make language impactful in our games usually feel very awkward.

Of course, it feels like languages have to be in our games in some way. Why wouldn't the Elves speak a different tongue than the Dwarves? And there's a point which @UngainlyTitan made, which I think is quite valid:
The problem is that language in rpg serves to give the Indiana Jones vibe or scholarly types rooting about in ancient ruins not the issues of intercultural communications in the real world. Because the latter would be more work than anyone wants to put in. Unless the players were all linguists and philologists. it is the Same reason that all the aliens in Stargate speak english except the plot demands otherwise.
I'll try and address these separately:

Trying to Portray Languages Realistically
The assumption that each race should obviously have their own language is borne out of a concern for simulationism IMO. Since the races are quite distinct, so should be their languages. This is doubly true for any Gygaxian setting, since the races are assumed to be distant to each other with little to no cross-cultural encounters.

But I think this assumption doesn't really fit modern D&D settings anymore. Most settings offer culturally varied environments where isolationism is not a thing. Communities house different races together (and have done so for a considerable amount of time), so one would expect a créole to form between those two languages (in a settlement where halflings and gnomes live together, for instance, we should get a gnomish-halfling créole forming in a few generations), but that doesn't happen. If any DM wanted to portray the way these racial languages should mix realistically, they'd get very bored players very quickly (trust me, I've tried). The truth is, D&D never portrayed mortal languages (or, if you prefer, "standard languages" in opposition to exotic languages) realistically, and they've always existed in this weird space between having some internal logic to them and just being gamist constructs for when you wanted to have a secret conversation.

Indiana Jones-vibe Languages
That still leaves the cases where languages actually play an important role in the game: When the players uncover a forgotten text in the ruins that needs to be translated, or where the language of Angels (or other outsiders) is needed to prove your holy mission. I think these (and their ilk) are the only scenarios where languages actually matter in D&D. But examining them closely reveals something: If we abandoned all standard languages and kept only the exotic ones, these would still be viable! So sure, let's keep Abyssal and Celestial and Deep Speech (i.e., languages tied to some planar force or non-mortal creatures), but we still don't really need the common ones. Which brings me to my proposal:

Let's Abandon Standard Languages
I say to hell with it. Yes, Elvish and Dwarvish and Halfling can still be distinct languages in your setting if you'd like them to be, but remove any game mechanics associated with them. It doesn't matter and trying to tie mechanics to these traits (which should not be designed on a rules basis but should be decided by the DM when they're creating their world) just creates a headache. Assume that your world runs on pre-Tower of Babel logic: There is a language which every mortal can understand. Either because your campaign world is small and it's your region's lingua franca, or because the Gods gifted all mortals with the same speech, or there's a language called Allspeak that everyone understands in their mother tongue (though you may need to pay Marvel royalties for that).

The only languages that should matter instead should be the exotic ones: Abyssal, Celestial, Deep Speech, Draconic, Giant, Infernal, Primordial, Sylvan, all that. Those, it'd make sense for someone to gain as a proficiency. We can then have our Indiana Jones-vibes and eat it too: Party discovers an Infernal portal that says "Speak friend and enter", and luckily the Warlock knows the right words to activate the door! There is a Draconic treatise which immediately grants the reader a spell if they know how to read it! You can have these pulp-y moments still.

Alternative to Standard languages: Social Affinity
So what should do with all the proficiency slots left open by the standard languages? Well, what if we replaced them with another social trait that wasn't racial languages? What if we'd like to give mechanical weight to the idea that a Noble will socially do better with others in their class, while a working-class person will understand the common person's plights better? Since 5E (and presumably One D&D) rules don't see a difference between tool and language proficiencies, let's create a new category of proficiencies that reflect the social codes you can exhibit in different strata of society (this would serve a similar function as languages in regular games without any headaches of why languages work the way they do). Call it Social Affinity or Social Capital or Code Switching (the name's a WIP): The idea is that if you're in a social encounter with someone covered by your Social Affinity, you're proficient with any roll made towards them. If you've got Social Affinity for Nobility, for instance, you'd be proficient in the Charisma check to convince the local baron to let you in. If you've got Social Affinity for the Bourgeois, you could be proficient in your Wisdom check to see if the Sage in your city is ripping you off. And what if you already had proficiency for a Skill that'd be useful for such an ability check as well? Well, One D&D's rules say that if you've got proficiency in both a skill and a tool that'd apply for a situation, you get advantage. Why don't we do that? In A5E, you could probably get an expertise die instead. If every background also gave you Social Affinity with a class that fits your backstory, that'd be far less awkward than every background automatically giving you a language!

Just to prove that this system is feasible, I'll try to quickly offer a Social Affinity alternative for each Standard Language so that we get 7 proficiency options in total: Nobility, Rurals, Urbans, Clergy, Nomads, Outcasts, Academics. I think this would cover the majority of social classes PCs would interact with, and help different characters shine when dealing with different groups.
 
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aco175

Legend
Injecting translator microbes.
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Took care a lot of the problems with languages and you could still have strange written words.
 

I would rather (and I have) homebrew regional languages instead of useing the D&D ones... but when I don't feel like putting that in it's just as easy to say "elven"

in the game I am playing tonight (and waiting for the DM right now as I type this) he took the names of his empires and said "Oh this land all speaks this" and that land all speak this other... then even made draconic an ancient empires language...
 

Ondath

Hero
I would rather (and I have) homebrew regional languages instead of useing the D&D ones... but when I don't feel like putting that in it's just as easy to say "elven"

in the game I am playing tonight (and waiting for the DM right now as I type this) he took the names of his empires and said "Oh this land all speaks this" and that land all speak this other... then even made draconic an ancient empires language...
I think that's a perfectly valid approach! Even then, I'm not sure if this'd need to be given any mechanical weight or if it'd be better off designed as a non-mechanical part about the characters ("Being from this region, my character knows these languages"). Even things like needing a translator when dealing with inter-cultural communication could be handled without making language a mechanical thing. With that in mind, I'm keen on the idea of dissociating Standard languages from any mechanics.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Trying to Portray Languages Realistically
The assumption that each race should obviously have their own language is borne out of a concern for simulationism IMO.
Not just each species, but each culture within those species unless a species is assumed to be mono-cultural.

Gnomes might have a few distinct languages or dialects; Dwarves a few more; Elves a fair number; and Humans a boatload. And monsters would have their own. Yes this means there might be hundreds of spoken languages with a setting. So what?
Since the races are quite distinct, so should their languages. This is doubly true for any Gygaxian setting, since the races are assumed to be distant to each other with little to no cross-cultural encounters.

But I think this assumption doesn't really fit modern D&D settings anymore. Most settings offer culturally varied environments where isolationism is not a thing. Communities house different races together (and have done so for a considerable amount of time), so one would expect a créole to form between those two languages (in a settlement where halflings and gnomes live together, for instance, we should get a gnomish-halfling créole forming in a few generations), but that doesn't happen.
There's enough real-world examples where one would expect exactly this to happen and it doesn't to tell me the creole idea doesn't hold water. Instead, different neighbourhoods within a city have and retain their own primary language, and one - ususlly the national one - is used as a defult for all often as a second language.
If any DM wanted to portray the way these racial languages should mix realistically, they'd get very bored players very quickly (trust me, I've tried). The truth is, D&D never portrayed mortal languages (or, if you prefer, "standard languages" in opposition to exotic languages) realistically, and they've always existed in this weird space between having some internal logic to them and just being gamist constructs for when you wanted to have a secret conversation.
Or, and more appropriately, as an occasional hindrance to easy communication. I don't mind this.
Let's Abandon Standard Languages
I say to hell with it. Yes, Elvish and Dwarvish and Halfling can still be distinct languages in your setting if you'd like them to be, but remove any game mechanics associated with them. It doesn't matter and trying to tie mechanics to these traits (which should not be designed on a rules basis but should be decided by the DM when they're creating their world) just creates a headache. Assume that your world runs on pre-Tower of Babel logic: There is a language which every mortal can understand. Either because your campaign world is small and it's your region's lingua franca, or because the Gods gifted all mortals with the same speech, or there's a language called Allspeak that everyone understands in their mother tongue (though you may need to pay Marvel royalties for that).
That's exactly what I don't want to see. Sure it's convenient for play, but it's also highly unrealistic and rather boring.

If I'm playing a faux-Norse PC it just doesn't make sense that I can go to faux-Rome for the first time and immediately be able to converse with everyone there.
The only languages that should matter instead should be the exotic ones: Abyssal, Celestial, Deep Speech, Draconic, Giant, Infernal, Primordial, Sylvan, all that. Those, it'd make sense for someone to gain as a proficiency. We can then have our Indiana Jones-vibes and eat it too: Party discovers an Infernal portal that says "Speak friend and enter", and luckily the Warlock knows the right words to activate the door! There is a Draconic treatise which immediately grants the reader a spell if they know how to read it! You can have these pulp-y moments still.
Sure, keep these languages - and the other few hundred as well!

The only languages I've never used are alignment tongues. I did have Thieves' cant in my games for ages but nobody ever used it, so out it went.

Your social-affinity idea might be on to something, but as an add-on rather than a replacement.
 

Ondath

Hero
Not just each species, but each culture within those species unless a species is assumed to be mono-cultural.

Gnomes might have a few distinct languages or dialects; Dwarves a few more; Elves a fair number; and Humans a boatload. And monsters would have their own. Yes this means there might be hundreds of spoken languages with a setting. So what?

There's enough real-world examples where one would expect exactly this to happen and it doesn't to tell me the creole idea doesn't hold water. Instead, different neighbourhoods within a city have and retain their own primary language, and one - ususlly the national one - is used as a defult for all often as a second language.

Or, and more appropriately, as an occasional hindrance to easy communication. I don't mind this.

That's exactly what I don't want to see. Sure it's convenient for play, but it's also highly unrealistic and rather boring.

If I'm playing a faux-Norse PC it just doesn't make sense that I can go to faux-Rome for the first time and immediately be able to converse with everyone there.

Sure, keep these languages - and the other few hundred as well!

The only languages I've never used are alignment tongues. I did have Thieves' cant in my games for ages but nobody ever used it, so out it went.

Your social-affinity idea might be on to something, but as an add-on rather than a replacement.
I mean, I think a setting with hundreds of languages would be very interesting - but I sincerely doubt the average D&D player would ever show enough interest to warrant this much worldbuilding. I tried having five different koiné-tongues with 5-6 languages under them each for my homebrew world, but it was just a hindrance for my players - not only that, but it was a hindrance that immediately lost all meaning when one of them learnt Tongues. So I think mechanically at least D&D's focus on languages is unjustified. It could exist as a worldbuilding detail that doesn't have any mechanical weight, just as we don't have any mechanics for cooking food.
 

edosan

Adventurer
Honestly, I’d be fine with abstracting language away for the most part. The few times knowledge of a different language is required could be abstracted to a skill check based depending on your background and lineage:

  • “Can I read the ancient Draconic runes?” “Well, you’re proficient in Arcana so make a roll.”
  • “What does the Drow’s note say?“ “You’re an elf so Drow is an offshoot of your native language so make an Int roll”
  • “Can I try to parley with the goblins?” “Well, you say in your background you were a soldier so you’ve probably fought some before, so make an Int roll.”

IME most times a different language comes up one of two things happen: someone has that language on the list and it’s barely a narrative speed bump or no one knows it and that’s the end of it. Either way it feels like it’s rarely worth wasting the space on the character sheet.

(This first playtest packet has taught me a lot about how I’d much rather abstract a lot of decisions based on roleplaying that a need to have everything codified.)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I mean, I think a setting with hundreds of languages would be very interesting - but I sincerely doubt the average D&D player would ever show enough interest to warrant this much worldbuilding. I tried having five different koiné-tongues with 5-6 languages under them each for my homebrew world, but it was just a hindrance for my players - not only that, but it was a hindrance that immediately lost all meaning when one of them learnt Tongues.
How long does Tongues last in your system? If it's just a few minutes it's not something that can be maintained all day (and if it's concentration, that's broken, and does completely obviate the whole idea of language as a barrier).
 

Ondath

Hero

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