You’ve been sent on a task. The kobold army is sent to attack a small farm house. A single mother lives there with her three children. It would be hard to take them on your own, but if you could find out their plans you could set up traps and perhaps ambush them! Sneaking up close to the camp you hear voices chattering. They sound gruff and small with strange growls and barks. They are obviously speaking of a secret plan…
Do you speak the right language to understand? If only you had taken the time to learn the language you’d be able to wreck their plans without putting yourself in peril!
A demon approached you within a dream, a fog seems to whisk about you as you groggily try to sit up. You’re so exhausted you forget to move. Fear is a foreign emotion as the towering beast comes closer and speaks to you. “Sesthrik Nuthral? Dethira’k Mvres John hasterik.” John? Your name. It’s speaking to you..but before you can respond you awaken with a jolt. A stone lays on your bed engraved with foreign symbols.
Can you read the stone? It’s in Draconic and the demon spoke in infernal. He obviously wants you to do something, but what? The problem is, if you don’t find a way to translate it there could be consequences. What if he comes back? Either you speak the language or you must find a translation. Let’s hope you remembered everything in the dream!
Languages can be a dynamic after-taste to an amazing campaign or they can be the dead center of it. Languages can be adventure hooks and can lead into many opportunities and advantages. Do you speak Dwarven? That would be useful when you enter the Dwarven mines and read the words “Caution” “Warning” and “Danger”.
However, languages aren’t always easy to integrate. This is especially true if the DM or players argue about language decisions. Often times the DM makes the mistake of saying “You don’t understand the language” or not predetermining the languages creatures speak.
A “Common” Mistake
Have you noticed there are two Commons? “Undercommon” and “Common”. The common language for under the surface world is different than that above. Races don’t automatically integrate. I find that Common is an extreme roleplay advantage.
Even if Common is a language almost everyone speaks, consider when players speak to others of their race. It is uncommon for them to speak Common. A modern example is a Japanese person and an American person meeting. Each of them might try to speak the other’s language or the language common to the region they are in. However, if a Japanese man walks up to a Japanese store, it’s not likely he will try and speak English in order to be understood. Some DM’s decide Common is a very sparse language used for the most basics of understanding.
Language Ideas for DM’s During Gameplay
Creativity really is key when it comes to languages. For example, I have one character from the Wilds and she was released into the world. Her entire life was spent speaking Elven and Common was a secondary language. When she speaks, it’s very choppy and can be hard to understand. She also doesn’t understand things like humans having short ears because he’s a child. The idea of rogues and thieves is uncommon to her since she was in a tight knit tribe.
When introducing a new language to the game, try having the language assist the player in spell casting. For instance, add a plus one to the DC of all spells uttered in this language. When first introducing a creature that speaks a different language, try actually speaking it. In one game I played, the DM created a Drow Variant and a Thieves Cant variant. In the game there is Thieves Cant and Hand Cant which are both spoken by rogues, but one is verbal and the other silent. If you have to make the language up on the spot that’s okay too. When you do, your players will turn their character sheets over and say “What language is that?”
If you are speaking a specific language ask your players to list off which languages they speak. If one of the players speak it, let the player know. You can then “Translate”. By translating, simply speak it normally and assume the character tells everyone. Repeating everything would be a bit annoying. You may also want to give your players the option to not translate and not share what was said. They could also choose to translate in their own way. A good example might be an NPC telling the party they must go north to retrieve something even though the actual translation had more specifics (i.e. to retrieve an artifact). He simply says “We are to go North.”
Making up your own language can be fun too, but is time consuming. I often incorporate “Common” as a regional thing. For instance, “Common: Eastern”. When you go into the western part of the world the Common is different.
I give my players the chance to learn different languages in game with other players (e.g. A player says “I spend an hour teaching Joe Schmoe Dwarven.”) and then I respond with two methods. One, you can roll a die to see how well you get it and add notches accordingly. Two, you have to get the DC (e.g. 16 to be able to understand the lesson). You can put a notch in your notes that the player is learning and when you reach a certain amount of notches, they learn the language. You can also get a book that teaches the language and do something similar.
I give my players the ability to learn almost anything they choose. For example, you’ll not find a book on “Thieves cant” in the local library, if ever. I always give my players a fighting chance to grow their character the way they want, and I throw them challenges according to what they’ve learned or what they choose to walk into.
Languages can be in labyrinths, riddles, quests, maps, magical items, instructions for something, or even certain animals are trained in different languages. Players, choose your skill set wisely. DM’s stretch your player’s skills to the brink. Throw languages around in your game and see what happens. It leads to frustration, the feeling of accomplishment, and it can allow for some interesting opportunities.
So once again, Happy Gaming everyone! Also, remember if you have any questions, comments, or you want us to address a certain issue let us know. :)
This post was provided by Dungeonmastering.com expert Krystal. Dungeons and Dragons has always been a passion of hers. She got her start in her wee little years by crawling on the table eating miniatures and dice. She’s been a menace to DnD games around the world ever since!