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

Ondath

Adventurer
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.
That's a very fair point! I was slightly tongue-in-cheek when I talked about alignment languages of course, but it's true that having a secret planning language is fairly important for the game's wargaming roots.

On a completely unrelated note, I HAVE JUST REALISED SOMETHING. There was a comment made by @delericho that got me really excited way back in early May. He had said:
I'm inclined to advocate therefore that instead of social skills, characters should be proficient in interacting with various groups - so the Fighter might be proficient with soldiers, the Paladin with nobles, and so on. The effect of that is that the social interactions are likely to be spread out a bit, as the best person for the job isn't always the designated Face.
And I had replied:
Oh you just wrinkled my brain! I think the closest thing I've seen to this is some variant Cortex Prime rules where the size of the die you add to the pool changes depending on who your character is dealing with/their social context (in the Cortex-based Marvel Heroic RPG for instance, loner supers like Wolverine get a bigger die when working alone while team leaders like Cyclops get a bigger die when they're in 3+ squads), and this might be a very refreshing way of overhauling social interactions in games like D&D without referring to different rhetorical techniques (which is what the current system is based on)!

Excuse me while I homebrew some stuff...
I think the idea for Social Affinites was simmering in my brain for the last four months... In the end, Social Affinities don't really replace rhetorical techniques, but I think that's okay.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Well in 5E it lasts an hour with no concentration needed as a 3rd-level spell. This means from Tier 2 onwards languages become trivial for adventuring parties as long as they have someone with Tongues prepared.
Depends how many 3rd-level spells the caster can cast in a day, I suppose, given that the typical waking day is 14-16 hours long plus watchkeeping.

Were it me I'd knock that duration down to maybe ten minutes - long enough for a reasonable discussion or to-the-point negotiation but not so long as to be potentially always-on. Either that or I'd limit its casting frequency - once per day per caster, maybe.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
Yep - sounds like ENWorld. :)
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,
That's just it - the way I see it, most species either live in or were raised in regions pretty much dominated by their own kind. I've always had Elves and Dwarves be rather isolationist, and Hobbits also tend to live among their own kind. My Gnomes are an interesting variant, though: they lost their homeland a long time ago on which they renamed their species to match their language - Snooka. Since then, even though widely scattered and somewhat nomadic, they maintain that language as a point of sheer stubborn pride.

So, even if a Dwarf lives in a mixed-species city now, odds are high she was raised among Dwarves in a Dwarven land somewhere. And even if not, odds are even higher - or much higher - that the Dwarf was raised by Dwarves who almost certainly will have taught her Dwarvish as her mother tongue.

Same thing in the real world, and we see it all the time: someone from one culture (let's say French) whose family lives in a different one (let's say the UK) grows up using their own culture's language with family at home and the regional language elsewhere; so in this case speaks French at home and English when out and about.
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.
So here those Elves would learn Elvish from their parents/family as their mother tongue and would learn whatever the regional language is either from school or through constant exposure.

I'm not disagreeing there's a very good argument that says there should be more than one Elvish language, just like there's more than one Human. I have four - five if you count Drow -, one for each sub-species of Elf in my setting; but I could just as easily make them regional (and one is already both: Arctic Elves only live in the very far north*, and have their own distinct language). Keeping it by sub-species is just easier on the bookkeeping.

* - and very far south, but as nobody's ever really gone more than a few miles south of the equator I probably don't need to worry about this for a while yet. :)

===================

Tangential questions: do (the general) you assume all PCs are literate and-or that literacy is widespread in your setting, or do you have literacy uncommon to rare other than among the nobility and learned types e.g. mages and sages? And in either case, do you have them literate in all their languages or just some; also do you assume every language even has a written form?
 

Ondath

Adventurer
Tangential questions: do (the general) you assume all PCs are literate and-or that literacy is widespread in your setting, or do you have literacy uncommon to rare other than among the nobility and learned types e.g. mages and sages? And in either case, do you have them literate in all their languages or just some; also do you assume every language even has a written form?
I think the assumption since post-3.5 is that everyone is literate. In 3.5, Barbarians being illiterate was a big thing (which made it clear that every other class else knew how to read and write), and since then the only time I've seen an illiterate character has been Campaign 1 of Critical Role where the Goliath Barbarian was illiterate - and even there the cast's home game was in PF 1e so I assume it was the 3.5 rule at play again.

Of course, PCs being literate and literacy being widespread in the game world are two different things - the PCs are supposed to be exceptional after all. Even then, I assume every NPC is literate unless the story would dictate otherwise mostly for convenience's sake.
 

Cruentus

Adventurer
In my games, I assume that players are literate in their own language, whatever cultural language that might be. But that's it. If you "know" 4 languages, you can read and write your own, but the other three you can speak and generally understand. You'd have to spend downtime/resources/skills on literacy in those languages.

I agree above about some of the worldbuilding. I'm using Greyhawk, which naturally has lots and lots of regional languages that the players can speak. What I did was center one of my campaigns in the Fuyryondy region, then looked at what languages were spoken, picked one (Velondi), and that became the "regional language" for Furyondy, then Veluna to the west (Velondi and Oeridian), the Uleks (Keolandish), and the Bandit Kingdoms and Urnst (Oeridian), etc. I created a chart of allowed languages, and what languages were spoken in what nearby kingdoms/regions. PC's were then able to select languages based on where they started as well as where they might either intend to go, or where they travelled. There are other languages further away, but the characters don't know them and/or might never encounter them.

I did away with "Common" as it was just a "let's agree to ignore languages all together" kind of thing where language doesn't matter, until it does (usually in the PC's favor). If you're visiting a neighboring kingdom/region, and speak Velondi, its fairly likely that someone speaking Oeridian might be able to get the gist, and vice versa (likely be an Int check to see how well its understood). This makes hiring NPC guides, hirelings, etc. more important in my games, and makes people from a different culture (such as it might be) different in dress, mannerism, and speech.

If a caster wanted to use Tongues as a third level slot for speaking to someone, more power to them. That's one less fireball. I also tend, though, to severely limit or remove spells and things that skip entire elements of interacting with the world - read thoughts, zone of truth, ESP, etc. Some of those might be rarely found in tomes, and not something someone would be showing off with. I also run in Old School Essentials, so everything is a resource anyway since there are no cantrips. That light spell is a leveled spell.

But, YMMV, and different tables want or don't want different levels of engagement in their worlds, or to bother with languages or not. But when someone actually knows a relevant/adjacent language that helps out in-game, that's a huge deal in the party, and its an element of the game that the whole party is involved in (i.e. they all know languages, or at least one).
 

Tangential questions: do (the general) you assume all PCs are literate and-or that literacy is widespread in your setting, or do you have literacy uncommon to rare other than among the nobility and learned types e.g. mages and sages? And in either case, do you have them literate in all their languages or just some; also do you assume every language even has a written form?
In my world most are literate, with one god's followers often becoming wandering teachers.
 

The issue of language as it relates to larger issues of cultural sensitivity surrounding the hobby is a thorny one to say the least. A simulationist model is fraught in it's own ways both in terms of game complexity and usefulness. What do you want languages to accomplish? From a narrative standpoint, language is an obstacle. Not knowing a language could mean a PC can't communicate with an NPC they encounter, or can't decipher a book they find, as examples. In the reverse, sharing a language not known to listeners allows PCs to communicate discreetly.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
From a narrative standpoint, language is an obstacle. Not knowing a language could mean a PC can't communicate with an NPC they encounter, or can't decipher a book they find, as examples.
Obstacles are the root of adventure, though. In another thread, I made a point about how not being able to understand someone/something can be what sends the PCs off on a quest to find someone who can translate/interpret for them, possibly while dealing with antagonists who don't want them to discover whatever they're trying to learn.
 

Obstacles are the root of adventure, though. In another thread, I made a point about how not being able to understand someone/something can be what sends the PCs off on a quest to find someone who can translate/interpret for them, possibly while dealing with antagonists who don't want them to discover whatever they're trying to learn.
Agreed. One of the basic building blocks for creating conflict is placing barriers in front of the PCs that they seek to overcome.
 

Ondath

Adventurer
Obstacles are the root of adventure, though. In another thread, I made a point about how not being able to understand someone/something can be what sends the PCs off on a quest to find someone who can translate/interpret for them, possibly while dealing with antagonists who don't want them to discover whatever they're trying to learn.
While true, I think the genre of the game sets the player expectations for the different kinds of obstacles they'll need to overcome. Most people don't expect to go through an Intercultural Studies problem-solving exercise when they sit down to play imaginary elves.

Personally, I'm a massive language nerd and would love to have intricate challenges that come out of linguistic details (maybe the players are sent on a diplomatic mission to a country where they speak a similar language with lots of false friends, so they'll need to avoid any faux pas that could come out of that!), but I realise that my tastes are outside the scope of the average player.
 

edosan

Explorer
Obstacles are the root of adventure, though. In another thread, I made a point about how not being able to understand someone/something can be what sends the PCs off on a quest to find someone who can translate/interpret for them, possibly while dealing with antagonists who don't want them to discover whatever they're trying to learn.
While this is true, this could also be achieved with a DC 30 History or Arcana check instead of having a completely separate characteristic called “languages.”
 
Last edited:

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
I think you aren't going far enough - you should do what your title says - get rid of languages, ALL OF THEM. PCs don't need language, they don't need to communicate, they have swords.

For those who think that this is too radical, I present: the internet. We should give up language too!
 


Alzrius

The EN World kitten
While true, I think the genre of the game sets the player expectations for the different kinds of obstacles they'll need to overcome. Most people don't expect to go through an Intercultural Studies problem-solving exercise when they sit down to play imaginary elves.
The example I posted, which is basically "go on a dangerous journey to accomplish a task," doesn't really seem like it could rightfully be called an "Intercultural Studies problem-solving exercise." I mean, none of the courses in that field I ever took required guarding someone in a trek across a hostile territory, but maybe my university was lame like that.
While this is true, this could also be achieved with a DC 30 History or Arcana check as well as having a completely separate characteristic called “languages.”
Sure, and it could also be solved with a simple spell like comprehend languages, but if there's some minor mechanic that's invalidating a particular problem that your PCs would otherwise face, maybe this is a good time to offer feedback that said mechanic shouldn't be part of the new edition.
 

I suspect a lot of it winds up depending on the balance of combat versus exploration or social interaction in your game.

If the last two are prominent, having to find someone who speaks the relevant language (or a spell to get around the problem) becomes part of the story and allows for cultural misunderstandings as a plot device if you want to get fancy.

If you're mostly fighting monsters, it's just a pain in the neck.
 

When starting my current campaign I came to similar conclusion. This is how I handled it:

Instead of languages existing as rules elements there is just a 'Linguistics' skill. Then when you go to an unfamiliar area you'll roll it to communicate with the locals. Longer you stay in the area, the easier the DCs get until eventually it can be assumed that you just know the language. If you're trained you might be able to instantly communicate with nearby cultures without a roll. And of course you would use this skill to decipher ancient stone tablets etc. Then realistic linguistic complexity can exist in the lore without being rigidly codified in the rules, and as the language proficiency is no longer a simple binary you can have potentially interesting/amusing miscommunication situations. Also, as literacy is rather rare in this particular setting (stone age/early bronze age) reading is trained only thing.
 

First off, I'll be adding a halfling bard named "Rolkien" into my games at the first opportunity, so thank you for that, @Ondath.

Second, I disagree with your premise, but I have no way of knowing which of us, if either of us, use languages more "typically" in D&D. I will say that while I've used it as a gate to hide a clue behind (overhearing someone on the street, reading hieroglyphics in a tomb), it's also used in my games as a secret communication channel (my gnome illusionist in 3E had a familiar that spoke Gnomish, so she could communicate only with a select group of people, allowing her to pass on secret communications to the PCs all at once with less chance of being overheard by random strangers) and as background color.

These feel like typical uses to me, but I also grew up with a dad who worked all over the world and who speaks multiple languages and my wife speaks another language, so all of this stuff is just part of how I view the world.

Instead of dumping languages, I think there might need to be specific discussions in the 2024 DMG that might say "hey, if you don't want to deal with languages in your game, don't. Make your primary area one where 99% of the NPCs all speak the same language and you can bring in others if you think of an interesting use for them." (This also goes against the idea of automatically giving people a free language with their background, so if this worldbuilding advice is used, it should probably also say that a language is worth a tool proficiency and the DM should feel free to give those out instead -- and D&D Beyond should have that as a coded-in choice.)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I think the assumption since post-3.5 is that everyone is literate. In 3.5, Barbarians being illiterate was a big thing (which made it clear that every other class else knew how to read and write), and since then the only time I've seen an illiterate character has been Campaign 1 of Critical Role where the Goliath Barbarian was illiterate - and even there the cast's home game was in PF 1e so I assume it was the 3.5 rule at play again.
This seems to be common now.

I have it that other than mages (who by definition have to be literate as it's kinda hard to read or write spellbooks if you're not) and characters whose randomly-generated past professions imply literacy (e.g. scribe), everyone has to roll for literacy with the odds being affected by both your class and your Int score. If you hit literacy in your mother tongue (the odds are higher for this) you can then roll for each other language* you know.

Literacy can be learned by almost any PC as a downtime activity, but it takes time. And it comes up all the time - characters want to leave notes and messages for each other but have to stop and think whether the recipient is literate; I quite like this.

* - that has a written form; many "monster" languages do not. Unicorns and Pegasi, for example, have their own spoken language but they ain't real good at writing it! :)
Of course, PCs being literate and literacy being widespread in the game world are two different things - the PCs are supposed to be exceptional after all.
This is a conceit I don't buy into quite as much as do some. :) The PCs make themselves exceptional because of what they do as adventurers, not because of who they were before they started adventuring; and things like literacy etc. tend to come from who they were before.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
I haven't read the entire thread, so forgive me if I cover ground already trod . . .

When the heroes struggle to communicate with the other characters they meet, friend, foe, or unknown, it creates tension and story opportunity. When they discover strange writing none of them can read, again, tension and opportunity.

Removing languages from D&D would be a mistake. But the way they are handled currently isn't that great, and I really don't like the way they are handled in the new Character Origins playtest document.

IMO, even in standard PHB D&D, there needs to be more world-building and the use of a "culture" category, which languages would be tied to. You could choose the elf race, then choose the high elf, wood elf, or dark elf culture, each with it's own language. Ideally, I would also try to create some culturally specific backgrounds for each race to hit those classic archetypes . . . but of course, players could customize and mix ancestries (race), cultures, languages, and backgrounds.

No more monolithic racial languages such as "elf". Three major elven cultures are described in the PHB, why shouldn't each have their own cultural traditions and languages? Same with dwarves, orcs, and everybody!

Of course, the problem then shifts to humans. There is no "human" language (unless you count common). And traditionally, humans are described as culturally diverse, but rarely are examples given in the PHB . . . its saved for setting books. I would like to see some human cultures detailed somewhat in the PHB, each with their own language.

Maybe WotC just needs to finally break down and marry the core D&D books with the Forgotten Realms setting, and use the cultural groups of the Realms in the PHB.
 

While I agree that, from a worldbuilding standpoint, racial languages make little sense in the sort of cosmopolitan settings of current published materials, I think it makes sense to play to player assumptions and fantasy tropes on some basic things for the sake of grounding players in the narrative of this game based so heavily on a DM's oral descriptions. I think as is people can guess when they can use languages fine, players are willing to try to use them, and it leads to some good moments (if you make sure every NPC and monster doesn't speak common as stat blocks tend to let them).

My favorite part of having languages in D&D is that it often allows the player character who would not normally be front and center of a social or exploration moment to have some spotlight time in such things because they are the one who, on a whim, took the right language.
 

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top