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

Ondath

Hero
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.
 

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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. :)

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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

Hero
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.
 

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).
 

bedir than

Full Moon Storyteller
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

Hero
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.
 

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