5E Literacy and Languages in your game

JohnLynch

Explorer
I've been working on languages for my game as I am not a fan of how D&D 4th edition and 5th edition handled languages.

Players begin play being able to speak 1 pre-determined language based on race/ethnicity (humans are split into a number of ethnicities) and 1 pre-determined language based on their homeland. If this is the same language than they automatically know how to read the language.

In addition each character gains a number of bonus languages based on their race which typically ranges from 2-4 bonus languages. They can use these bonus languages to learn how to write in a language they already know or they can choose how to speak new languages (or some combination thereof). I then have a list of (at the moment) 29 languages that are spoken in the region the campaign is taking place in. Common is not one of these languages (however the players are told what the most common language is in the region the game takes place).

Those players who don't want to mess around with learning multiple languages or being literate in some but not others can simply choose to be literate in all languages they speak and they've recreated how the character would have been made using the stock standard PHB rules. Others who want that extra flexibility can speak anywhere from 3-6 languages and be literate in 0-1 languages (or more of course by choosing to speak less languages).

This is designed to have a few effects:

If the players metagame and coordinate so they know the widest number of languages possible, that's okay. It means that different characters will be required to take the lead when they interact with different NPCs. If the players decide to just use standard PHB rules (replacing common with the homeland language) then that's fine as well. If they travel abroad or try to speak with someone who doesn't speak the native tongue then they'll need to hire interpreters or use resources to learn how to speak with that character. If they hire an interpreter than that potentially means the wrong thing will be translated or the PCs have invited someone into the party that can sell that information to other interested parties.

Essentially by having numerous regional languages and no common tongue, the players have meaningful choices to make when it comes to languages and those choices will either result in different people getting spotlighted during play and/or it will mean new plotlines or obstacles can be introduced into the adventures.

How do other people handle languages? Do you simply go straight out of the PHB with no regional languages? Or do you introduce regional languages (if so, do you give players more resources in which to learn those languages?). Do you keep a global common tongue?
 

Draegn

Explorer
We have our own list of languages. Each character can speak one language and one regional dialect. A real world example can be German and Bavarian. If a player wants to speak additional languages, read and write, he can pick up those skills with an appropriate "background/life path" or invest skill points.
 

JohnLynch

Explorer
If a player wants to speak additional languages, read and write, he can pick up those skills with an appropriate "background/life path" or invest skill points.
Is this for 5th edition? If so I'd definitely be interested in knowing how you're using life paths/skill points. If not, I'd still be interested in knowing the particulars and/or the game :)
 
S

Sunseeker

Guest
I've never found that this adds enough meat to the game to warrant the additional complexity. Nor have I found that breaking reading/writing/speech down into taking up "language slots" to be very beneficial either. I'm certainly willing to let players know fewer languages than their maximum if they so choose, and they're welcome to choose to be illiterate in a language they speak, or unable to speak a language they can read if they want. That's just role-play fluff to me.
 
I handle languages by removing common from the list, replacing it in each race that gets it "regional language dominant in your homeland, or it's nearest neighbor if your homeland's dominant language is your racial language, plus one standard language of your choice", and then adding a bunch of languages to the list of standard languages (26 total) and exotic languages (also 26 total), plus adding a new language list for the dozen or so languages a character technically could speak but are even more rarely known than the ones on the exotic language list (unless you are actually native to the Hollow World, in which case this category and standard get swapped).

I don't like separating literacy, though, because not being able to read means not being able to function in more than zero scenarios, and I don't find letting players potentially not have a functional character entertaining.
 
I have a whole language module.


  • Common is a trade and Adventuerer language. It's an ugly shorthand like text speech or leetspeak. You can't use it for anything except trade and talking to adventurers (or those in the adventurer economy: innkeepers, bartenders, harlots, smiths, tailors, etc).
  • Uncommon is the same as Common but for the Under races.
  • Nobles never speak in Common or Undercommon unless they are former adventures. They speak High Speech or Dark Speech.
  • Speaking to a noble or royal (one who fancies themselves as one) in Common or Undercommon is a done at disadvantage to Charisma checks.
  • Humans speak Human. It uses the Common script.
  • Creatures that normally speak only Common speak instead speak the closest geographical or historical language.
  • You can speak in a language you are illiterate in at a basic level if you know another language that shares that language's script with a successful DC 15 Intelligence check (example: If you know Dwarven but not Goblin, you guess the Goblin word for "kill" and "man" by rolling a 20 on an Int check to recognize the words)
  • Theives Cant and Druidic are learnable provided you find a willing tutor.
  • When learning a langauge that has a dialect, you must learn it as a dialect unless you pay double.
  • You sound robotic when speaking a language you don't know while under the tongues spell. You have disadvantage on Charisma checks when doing so.

Basically, a bunch of rules to encourage translators and letting the half orc who speaks Abyssal the lead.
 

Imaculata

Adventurer
I've kept it pretty simple in my pirate campaign. These are the languages that my players encounter most in my campaign:

Common - Is the local language in the Emerald Coast, and around St Valenz, and is obviously not called that by the locals. The common language is Valensian, which most people in the region understand. If the players wish to talk to nobles, they can do so, but must make a diplomacy check while doing it. I assume that even those who speak the common tongue can at least make a decent effort to speak 'proper'.

Nimaehan - Common language of a distant continent, but not so common in the region in which my adventure takes place.

Cyrian - An eastern language, like Chinese.

Kooghan - A sort of African language that all of the Kooghan pirates in my campaign speak.

Kturgian - A sort of Turkish, spoken by the pirates of a country called Kturgia, that is at war with St Valenz.

Barulean - The old language spoken by the Oarsmen, a group of dwarven pirates.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
In my world there's lots of languages. Hundreds. Maybe a thousand. Just about anything intelligent enough to speak has a language, with some species (most notably Humans) having many.

Needless to say, some are encountered more often than others.

Your Intelligence, race, and a die roll determines how many languages you know. You always start with whatever language is native to your race e.g all Elves speak Elvish. Common is native to no race at all. For each of the rest of your languages-known you can either roll on a large randomized table (if you want a chance at weird stuff) or choose from some basic ones such as Common, Dwarvish, Orcish, etc. Most players (but not all) tend to give their characters Common if they can; but characters of very limited Intelligence might only know their native tongue.

Your class and Intelligence then determine your chance of being literate in each language that you know that has a written form (many do not). Arcane casters have to be literate in their native language; some past professions or secondary skills give auto-literacy (e.g. if you roll "scribe" as your past profession it becomes immediately obvious that you are literate), and nobody else is guaranteed literacy at all.

EDIT: look here http://www.friendsofgravity.com/gam.../decast-blue-book-in-html/4-13_languages.html for details on how we do this.

Lan-"and you can always learn one more language later if you're willing to spend the time"-efan
 
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I've gone in the other direction - unless I have a very good reason otherwise, everyone and everything speaks Common. I've found very few situations that are improved by the PCs not being able to talk to creatures they encounter.

Which isn't remotely realistic, of course, but then neither is D&D's binary choice between knowing or not knowing a language. :)
 

dracomilan

Visitor
I started with a really complex language tree back in the AD&D days, but now I streamline it a bit: there is no Common, there are three regional languages and some "secret/racial" languages. Reading/Writing takes the place of a language slot (Nobles get it for free).
 
How do other people handle languages? Do you simply go straight out of the PHB with no regional languages? Or do you introduce regional languages (if so, do you give players more resources in which to learn those languages?). Do you keep a global common tongue?
It obviously depends on the campaign setting...

In the past in our collaborative semi-homebrew fantasy setting we used a fairly simple (but still more complex than the standard rules) system for language proficiencies.

I don't even remember the details exactly right now, but basically you would spend skill points (3e) in languages, but you had separate proficiency in speaking and in literacy (reading/writing) each language, and IIRC there were two levels of proficiency (something like 'basic' and 'expert'). There were some occasional overlapping in literacy proficiency, whenever two languages used the same ideographic alphabet for instance, so their written forms were identical, while speaking required separate proficiency. Ancient or arcane books and texts in the setting were often written in strange languages, so it made sense to learn only literacy without speaking, but also the opposite for living tongues.

Basic/Expert was very simple: with Basic proficiency you would be fully able to conversate about anything, but with Expert proficiency you would be also able to pass as a native. This was used often by some characters in order to improve their chances as diplomacy/gather information, or the general attitude of the people in a certain region.

I don't remember if we even had 'Common' in that setting... I think we all started playing in a region and 'Common' was essentially the language of that region.

---

Normally however I don't use any rules addition for languages. I just assume every civilized race knows common, but speak their racial language (if any) amongst themselves. So monster languages proficiency is still very useful if you want to eavesdrop or intercept messages, and ancient/otherworldly languages proficiency if you want to understand the occasional inscription, both these typically resulting in story or tactical clues. I rarely forget to award players who pick language proficiencies :)
 

Uchawi

Visitor
I find languages work out the best when the DM has them all mapped out to regions on a map and includes language families. Then the players will have a good feel for what languages may come into play. In addition, the DM will have to decide how many skills they want in the game and languages should be part of that decision. It just depends how much detail you want which increases the chances someone is not going to have the correct skill/language to move the story forward.
 

Waterbizkit

Explorer
Firstly, let me say that a lot of these richer language systems some of you have come up with are pretty cool. I'm always fascinated with these deeper and more fleshed out systems, even if they're not my thing.

For myself, I tend to simply use languages as a barrier when I feel it adds weight and depth to the specific situation. So my players coming across a secluded tribe or perhaps some denizens of the Underdark woukd be a good place to put stress on the players ability to communicate. Basically I try to use it to stress exotic and out of the ordinary situations rather than something they have to think about everywhere they go. I'll also sometime use it as a means to let other players take the lead in social interactions instead of necessarily having the "party face" do all the talking all the time.
 

steeldragons

Steeliest of the dragons
My world has gone through several tides...from "Everyone just speaks Common...Thieves get Cant and Druids get Druidic, races get their racial languages (obviously, and those have changed in number and inclusiveness throughout the years)...but only mages/cloistered priests (PCs) ever learn how to read and write" to "every region and race has a dialect and different dialects can have different accents from region to region and each dragon color speaks its own tongue...and...and..." From "Barbarians can never learn to read" to "everyone just can, and write, cuz: can't be bothered."

In more recent years (decade or so), thankfully, the tide has ebbed back out to what I consider a nice middle ground that still offers the world a good (without being stupifying) granularity and rich believable internal verisimilitude.

So, now, Common makes [most of] the world go 'round. That trade/adventurer/"commoner" kind of speak. Regional/national languages (some with old and current versions). A few specialized courtly languages. Racial languages are mostly contained. Dragons speak Draconic. Done. Giants speak "Gigantic"("Jotun", whatever). Done.

Priests have a language for their magic. Mages have a language for their magic. Druids have a language for their magic. Thieves have regional Cants.

Reading, among adventurers, is universal (unless a player doesn't want to be cuz: reasons). Writing is fairly widespread, as well, though not a given.

Languages, in my games, are based on the PCs race, homeland/region of origin, possibly class, and Int. score. Learning a language that is not your native tongue presumes reading and writing as well (it's just easier). No character can have languages beyond those granted by race, origin, and class in excess of their Int. modifier. So, if you don't get a +1 or better to Intelligence, you get your race, homeland/origin, and class grants you. Thus, it is fairly common that mages, clerics, and elves of any stripe (sometimes a halfling or two) are the ones with advantaged linguistic skill.

NPCs, naturally, speak/read/write whatever I need them to.
 

Saeviomagy

Adventurer
The main problem with all these language changes is that it discourages participating in the social pillar at all. It's like making half the combat challenges into monsters that can only be hurt by one member of the party, or worse by an npc. I get that realism is being served, but do you find it makes the game more fun? Or does everything just dissolve into either watching npcs talk or combat?
 
The main problem with all these language changes is that it discourages participating in the social pillar at all. It's like making half the combat challenges into monsters that can only be hurt by one member of the party, or worse by an npc. I get that realism is being served, but do you find it makes the game more fun? Or does everything just dissolve into either watching npcs talk or combat?
The idea is to get every PC in the social pillar instead of just the party face every time. If everyone has different keys into the social pillar then they can all have a chance to shine.

The issue is that before the bard just bludgeons the pillar so the DM decides to enter the pillar rarely.

A little social pillar, always in Common, and the face does all the rolling.
OR
A lot of social pillar, everchanging the language bias, and the everyone has to roll.
 
The idea is to get every PC in the social pillar instead of just the party face every time. If everyone has different keys into the social pillar then they can all have a chance to shine.
Works in theory. In practices, you tend to get one character who knows lots of languages, and in particular knows all the languages everyone else knows, and so that one PC still does all the talking. With the difference that now some of the other PCs are barred from getting involved, rather than merely being discouraged by their low modifiers.
 
I've never found that this adds enough meat to the game to warrant the additional complexity. Nor have I found that breaking reading/writing/speech down into taking up "language slots" to be very beneficial either. I'm certainly willing to let players know fewer languages than their maximum if they so choose, and they're welcome to choose to be illiterate in a language they speak, or unable to speak a language they can read if they want. That's just role-play fluff to me.
Yeah language in a game is always gonna be goofy and unrealistic unless it's very complex.

And is making it any more complex than it is really worth it?

That said the OPs system looks fine.
 
Works in theory. In practices, you tend to get one character who knows lots of languages, and in particular knows all the languages everyone else knows, and so that one PC still does all the talking. With the difference that now some of the other PCs are barred from getting involved, rather than merely being discouraged by their low modifiers.
Well that is where a skilled DM comes in. Or a DM with lots of experience in the social pillar gaming.

A lot of the faultis on D&D's handsoffish approach on the social pillar. We know every group does it differently but no one is willing to map out guidelines and variants for each approach.

Even if the Bard has a lot of languages, the other PCs might have one or two he doesn't have. Reward that PC who knows Ignan once in a big way. The ranger who knows Orc can overhear battleplans while scouting. The cleric can read the demonic sigils in Abyssal to know which rooms isnt trapped.

Even if the Bard know every langauge the other pcs do, they can still use those languages. Split the party up while in safe conditions and have Elven be important in both negotiation. Use Wisdom or Intelligence as important checks and saves in a discussion so the non-Cha based PCs can help. Use skills the "face" is weak in to bring others in.

And if the group likes a face doing all the talking, do it the old stereotypical way.

My setting is like Westeros meets Shadowrun and Ravnica. I use the social pillar to determine what quests you get, how suicidal they are, and what resources you start with. So its a big deal when in DM because some noble might be sending 5 parties on a quest knowing only one will make it back and PCs have to do a bit of asking around to get intelligence before they accidentally walk into a dragon's lair. As my groups fighter player says "Talk to everyone because any given person is a possible Littlefinger or paid off by one."

The tools are there. But no one explains them nor advises who to use this m.
 
Well that is where a skilled DM comes in. Or a DM with lots of experience in the social pillar gaming.
I don't disagree with this, but...

If you're assuming a skilled (or experienced) DM to fix this issue, what do different languages bring to the table? That same skilled DM will be able to deal with it even if everything speaks Common, while a non-skilled DM is liable to have problems even with a wide range of languages.
 

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