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

Hussar

Legend
Yeah, the whole issue with languages is one that runs straight into the wall of "Well, is this fun?"

Now, one area where language does matter is magic - particularly language dependent spells. There are quite a few actually. And it is a good way to limit casters (if you want to) by simply having the baddy not speak your language. Sorry, your "command" spell doesn't work because that critter doesn't speak Common.

Now, adding in Common obviously has nothing to do with simulation and everything to do with making the game simpler and easier to run. Never minding NPC's, how about PC's? Why does your Outlander background character speak the same language as my character? You're from far away and have just arrived in town. You should not be able to speak to anyone.

Miming and whatnot is fun for about ten minutes. After that it's just a PITA, and no one wants to turn every session of D&D into Charades.

But, as far as language being important, well, it's as important as you want to make it. Tongues is great, except you can't read with it. It's actually surprising how difficult things get when you don't have a shared language. In my current Candlekeep game, because of the varying travel and whatnot, language has become a HUGE part of the campaign and the players have spent several downtime periods picking up more and more languages. They are constantly running into stuff that they need to talk to/read and have needed this or that language to do it.

Now, as far as actual language proficiency rules and the like? Well, as a language teacher of many years, I can say that no mechanics that would actually fit acquiring a new language would ever, ever be fun at the table. So, yeah, 10 weeks and some gold? Good enough.
 

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Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
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.)
Turning Languages into Cultural lores is a great idea though, so one could take proficiency in Draconic and thus have a chance to read the script of the ancient Korazarax Empire which was lead by a blue dragon, of course Blue dracons from the northern mountains might speak a different language, but my cultural lore gives me a chance to know that too, the same proficiency would also give a chance to identify dracon mating rituals or even the unusual scale pattern on a purple stripped orange dragon to deduce its likely breath weapon
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I like the idea of "social affinity" as a thing. Not sure how I would implement it. But that sounds like an interesting way to preserve the intended goal of "typical" languages (that they influence who you interact with and how). Keeping the "ancient" or "obscure" languages in for bonus points seems like a neat thing as well.
 



Steampunkette

Rules Tinkerer and Freelance Writer
Supporter
I generally do cultural languages in my settings.

3-5 of them available, only 1-3 of them really 'Useful' in a given adventure/campaign/whatever 'cause you're not gonna wind up traveling to each and every nation in the world. Racial languages go the way of the dodo, and a -handful- of "Ancient Languages" exist. If no one speaks a given language there's almost always NPCs on hand to act as translators unless the party meets someone they're not supposed to be able to talk to during some dungeon quest or whatever.

Occult, Arcane, and Religious texts are all written in one ancient language, Faerie Stuff is all in another language, and then maybe there's another weird catch-all language out there that's not covered.

Oh, sure, Angels and Demons might still have their own language they can speak and write and read... but it's not for Mortals, and so they speak in whatever language you speak in order to communicate with you. True Names of Angels and Demons exist in those languages, and are about the extent of it that mortals can comprehend.

But, really, that's it.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
So, first of all, I want to say that I think your premise is right on the money, and I love this thread. With that out of the way, I want to add that I think there is a tad more nuance to why languages are a thing in D&D and what their utility in gameplay is.

To the first point, yes, we can thank Tolkien for the notion that languages are a thing that should be important in the fantasy genre. But I think when it comes to D&D and its specific expression of fantasy languages, we need to recognize that D&D is fundamentally a game of lists. Lists of races, lists of classes, lists of weapons, lists of monsters, lists of abilities… lists of languages. They’re there to give players another menu of options to choose from, and in so choosing, exclude themselves from whatever else is on the list that they didn’t choose. And this leads us to the utility of languages as a game mechanic.

What is the gameplay utility of languages in D&D? There’s the “Indiana Jones” factor of having to translate some ancient text you find in the dungeon, yes. But it’s also so the monsters can coordinate their tactics without the PCs understanding them. D&D started out as a wargame after all. Alignment languages were a thing not because Gary and Co. were trying to simulate a world where people who followed the rules automatically learned a secret language and people who broke the rules so people who didn’t follow the rules learned a different secret language. They were a thing because Lawful and Chaotic were playable factions, and they wanted it to be possible for the general to shout orders to their units across the battlefield without the other faction being able to understand them. And to this day, that’s the most effective way to use languages in D&D: you make sure everyone in your party has at least one non-Common language in common so you can talk to each other in code.
 

bedir than

Full Moon Storyteller
I generally do cultural languages in my settings.

3-5 of them available, only 1-3 of them really 'Useful' in a given adventure/campaign/whatever 'cause you're not gonna wind up traveling to each and every nation in the world. Racial languages go the way of the dodo, and a -handful- of "Ancient Languages" exist. If no one speaks a given language there's almost always NPCs on hand to act as translators unless the party meets someone they're not supposed to be able to talk to during some dungeon quest or whatever.

Occult, Arcane, and Religious texts are all written in one ancient language, Faerie Stuff is all in another language, and then maybe there's another weird catch-all language out there that's not covered.

Oh, sure, Angels and Demons might still have their own language they can speak and write and read... but it's not for Mortals, and so they speak in whatever language you speak in order to communicate with you. True Names of Angels and Demons exist in those languages, and are about the extent of it that mortals can comprehend.

But, really, that's it.
I too have replaced racial languages with cultural languages, but took it a step further and made languages a Tool.

This gives more value to the skill slot of languages value.

I explain how many my world has in the blog linked here, as well as talking about how to implement in the Realms and Eberron

 

MoonSong

Rules-lawyering drama queen but not a munchkin
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.
One wonderful thing about this place is that we can always find differences and coincidences. Yesterday we aligned pretty well on races. Today I beg to differ on languages. It always bothered me that every character was magically a polyglot for no reason. It always made more sense for me to have languages be geographically based than racially based. Of course, Elves living in their remote hidden cities and Dwarves isolated in their mine cities would have their own languages, but Elves growing in a cosmopolitan city would know at most a couple words if not speaking them in a mangled ill-formed way. Without the benefit of mass media language just irradiates and mutates pretty quickly.
 

If you don't want to do the deep worldbuilding required for languages, maybe it can be simplified. Often, people within a region are generally understandable to each other even if there are multiple languages and dialects. So we can say the PCs can travel around a "kingdom scale" area and basically be able to chat with folks unless they are intentionally using a language that the pcs won't understand. Outside of that, you could have feats that give prof bonus or advantage to deciphering languages in several categories
Living languages: someone who is knowledgable or naturally good at picking up languages in areas outside of their kingdom
Dead languages: a scholar of dead languages
Coded languages: someone who knows or can decipher the local "thieves cant"
 

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