In the RPG section I posted three articles about representing languages in tabletop role-playing games:
- rules for language groups to make related languages cheaper and easier to acquire.
- rules for an “Understand Languages” test.
- related rules for written languages.
These were based on notes for a few campaigns that never really got off the ground.
Having rewritten and re-examined these notes, I now ask myself … why bother with languages at all?
Reasons Not To Bother About Languages
Around the table, we all speak the same language. Communication is the essence of tabletop role-playing games. Should the rules prevent players from talking to an NPC because the PCs don’t speak Gubbish and the NPC only speaks Gubbish?
Many games don’t bother. Free League’s Vaesen, as I mentioned elsewhere, had no rules for foreign languages; their Coriolis mentions languages briefly in a sidebar but provides devices called Language Units to translate automatically. D&D gets by with “Common” and a bunch of race, class, and alignment languages so characters can talk behind each others’ backs but only if they want to.
Players shouldn’t have to roll dice before they talk to NPCs. One of the GUMSHOE system’s philosophical underpinnings is that players shouldn’t roll dice to find clues. Yet that’s what some language systems seem to demand. Whether it’s Call of Cthulhu’s Language Skills or the Language Test mechanic I adapted, finding out useful information depends on a die roll.
Reasons To Bother With Languages
Languages are part of culture. Some of us, at least, think of tabletop RPGs as storytelling with dice. To create cultures and worlds that feel real, we like to include elements essential to historical and modern life, including multiple languages and inevitable problems with understanding them. Tolkien, one of the giants of literary fantasy, built his work in part around languages he created. While I’m not arguing that one needs to create an entire language just to delve in a dungeon, the experience of discovering strange new cultures could start by finding an NPC who doesn’t speak the Common Tongue.
Languages can create drama … and comedy. An entire subplot can revolve around finding the sage who can translate the mysterious inscription on a magic sword. Situations like the translator who doesn’t translate so well or the expression that doesn’t mean what players think it means (“It’s a cookbook!”) can generate light comedy, grim irony, and anything in between.
Languages are part of investigative games. How many Cthulhu games revolve around reading a tome of eldritch lore written in a foreign language? How many detectives find a clue because they speak Latin when the police or their witnesses do not? If finding clues didn’t involve some research and legwork – or special knowledge the player characters had – mystery scenarios would not be as exciting.
Honestly, I’m stll of two minds.
If these rules improve somebody’s game, that’s great. If someone reads them and decides they’re too complicated or just not interesting, that’s fine. I’m just offering them as ideas for GMs and players who find the phenomenon of languages interesting and want to add them to their games.