“Common” Uses of Language in Your Gameplay

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"Common" Uses of Language in Gameplay
"Common" Uses of Language in Gameplay

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.

Final Thoughts

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!

12 thoughts on ““Common” Uses of Language in Your Gameplay”

  1. You’ve given me some good suggestions on lang use. One of my players keeps asking me if any of such-and-such messages are in Abyssal (for whatever reason, we have a ranger who chose Abyssal as one of his starting languages). Now I know how I can give him that bill for 3 nights at the inn in Abyssal!

  2. Good pithy blog Krystal! Excellent work. I have been trying to work this in for a PBEM that I am getting ready to run on Pathfinder’s Golarion, since Golarion has common as a trade language, and has regional languages. I played a gamea long time back called HarnMaster that had a different Core Skill Management, but it worked well, getting “ranks” in a language put you into an expertise gradient, from bare minimum understanding to completely fluent/native speaker. It allowed the character to evolve. Related languages were also easier to learn than unrelated languages. I am going to work this in for my PBEM, and will likely use your DC and hash approach. Thanks!

  3. Thanks, Krystal, there’s some really good stuff in here. I like the idea of thoroughly integrating langauges, because language is such a large part of everyday life. In my campaign world, magic power is scarce–but, perhaps if a thoughtful wizard learns the language of the ancients, it might come more easily to him!

  4. Great Blog! I remember being on a cruise ship and listening to two gentlemen who spoke different languages trying to communicate in English with accents so thick I could barely understand them.

    For 4E I could see doing a thing like ICE’s Rolemaster skill level where +5 meant that you could communicate at a common level and + 10 meant that you spoke at a scholarly level. That is for native speakers. For secondary languages I would say that at +5 you could speak the language, but were still readily recognizable as a non-native and at +10 could be said to have true fluency.
    I would also say that you should use this only if you choose to make language a central theme, otherwise just stick to common and throw in a few odd languages for spice.

  5. Instead of trying to convert real world situations, take the fantasy route and it’ll work even on a large world scale. Maybe several millennia ago a council of all the intelligent races got together and decided on a single universal language so people could communicate, and so Common was born. It could be taught to all races as soon as they are old enough to learn. Maybe a tribe here and there doesn’t speak it well, but it’s still taught. Or the other hand, a wise wizard was sick of all the time it took to learn all the languages of the world so he sought a magical solution. He came up with a spell that made the language genetic. This new “common” language will be passed from parent to child so all can communicate on some level. It still takes lessons to read, hence Barbarians, but speaking is as natural as breathing. That could explain why half-orcs could speak it, even if raised by their non-human parents.

  6. I agree with what Brent Rose ses – but in addition to this can i just ask at what stage does having to learn a language to commune with NPC’s, thwart evil foes and figure out riddles detract from fun role-playing and become an infuriating chor?

  7. This article has great content, but it’s so poorly written as to be almost illegible. Some of these sentences aren’t even complete. Does anyone edit these? Krystal’s blogs are usually pretty well done, but this one must have been turned out pretty hastily. Still, the ideas are good.

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