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A Reality Check for Language Rules in Your Fantasy Game (and rationalizing alignment languages)

People enjoy being impressed by multilingualism. “Wow, Mary speaks seven languages!” One hears this kind of thing. It sounds amazing. Speaking a lot of languages seems to mean you are especially intelligent. (As I will explain, this is not really so.)

If you tested Mary and her seven languages, you would find she is not equally capable in all of them. She’ll have one, or maybe two, main languages of daily use with high fluency and a wide range of expressiveness, but varying and limited degrees of proficiency in the others. It’s cool to be able to order food at a restaurant and to ask for and receive directions in Italian, but that doesn’t mean you can have a profound conversation about your feelings or discuss the aesthetics of nineteenth-century paintings or explain physics in Italian. You know enough to get by in those other languages, and that’s all.

It’s also a lot easier to learn to read a language with a dictionary than it is to attain spoken conversational fluency.

People regularly exaggerate their linguistic competence, and they are happy to do it for each other, too.

This has led to strange outcomes for player-character languages in fantasy role-playing games. Fantasy characters speak an incredible number of languages. A typical D&D 5e character speaks three or four languages at the start. Human wizards in the generally excellent ShadowDark game automatically know six languages. Characters in these games know languages without clear reasons. In many fantasy RPGs, characters can even acquire entirely new languages as they level up or advance in a period of months or even less.

Realistic language rules

The baseline of fantasy is our reality. When the rules of our reality don’t apply in an imaginary setting, it becomes fantasy, but unless the magical or fantastic exceptions to the rules of our reality are explicit, we assume that the fantasy world works as ours does. Gravity functions the same. Humans have the same body parts. Speech works the same.

Unless languages themselves are a magical or fantastic feature of your setting, you should want realistic language rules for your table-top role-playing game.

In other words, you should know something about how languages work if you want a baseline of realism. People have all kinds of folk beliefs about physics and biology and medicine. Linguistics is one of those areas where people have strange folk beliefs, but because we all have language, we think we are experts when we are not. Still, you don't have to be trained in linguistics to conduct a reality check on your language rules, with benefits for your game.

Start with how humans actually learn languages.

Humans who need to use a language regularly in childhood learn that language fluently without a foreign accent. Kids can learn more than one language natively this way, but it’s rare for a child to learn more than two languages natively. Only an estimated one in eight children in the world today speak more than two languages fluently, and even then they may not know how to use more than one of them beyond certain spheres of activity. Only three per cent of people in the world today speak four languages or more. Why, then, do all the PCs in your game speak three, four, or more languages?

Humans who learn an additional language as an adult are called non-native speakers of that language. Because they learned the language too late in their biological development, after the onset of adolescence, they will usually have non-native speaker accents, which native speakers recognize as foreign. In an even minimally realistic fantasy game, characters’ accents should reveal their specific country of origin to native speakers who have heard those accents before.

If your character in a game knows how to speak a language fluently, without an accent, your character must have spent a lot of time from childhood interacting with speakers of that language. Maybe one of your character’s parents or teachers spoke that language exclusively.

Depending on your fantasy setting, it may not be possible for humans to learn non-human languages at all. In D&D, normally humans and other PC creature-types can learn all kinds of non-human languages. This would suggest that all non-human languages use the same range sounds and are articulated with the same vocal organs that humans have. Players can speak the language of dragons, suggesting that dragons and humans produce sounds similarly. Hmm.

In any case, if your character knows how to speak a non-human language, it means your character has a history of interaction with that kind of creature, probably from a young age. If you are a human who speaks the language of elves or dwarves, you certainly spent plenty of time with elves or dwarves or you would not have learned that language. If you speak the language of goblins or ogres, there should be a very good story about how that happened.

Because normal language learning requires a long period of social interaction, whether the character learned the languages as a child or as a non-native speaker, every language your character speaks tells a story about your character’s background and acculturation. Take advantage of this to bring your character to life without much planning. (I wrote about this before, in a bit of an enthusiastic rant.)

In our world today, people often learn non-native languages in state-organized schools in which attendance is mandatory. Nevertheless, school-based language-learning outcomes tend to be poor unless instruction in a foreign language begins at a young age and is reinforced with use of the language outside the classroom. Even then, without strong incentives to learn the language, the mandatory instruction will not be effective. Unless all kids go to organized schools in your fantasy games, the only way fantasy characters will know a language is through long-term exposure in social life.

There is no correlation between “intelligence” and language acquisition, unless the Intelligence score at low levels represents a learning impediment. (That’s up to you and your game.) But having a high intelligence score cannot teach you to speak languages. Learning a language fluently only comes with use of the language, preferably from a young age.

RULE SUGGESTIONS: Your RPG language rules should not tie characters’ spoken languages to their INT or similar scores, but to backgrounds (however generated). Either your character’s background should bestow language abilities automatically, or the languages determined for your character should illuminate the character’s background. Take your pick.

Characters who speak one language only are probably from culturally isolated regions or they are native speakers of the most widespread current language in their region who had no occasion or reason to learn the language of any foreigners or other creatures.

Perhaps some FANTASY CREATURES, like dwarves and elves, will break these human rules in your setting. Long-lived nonhumans who socialize with different kinds of humans over a period of decades may speak several distinct human languages, but each one should represent many years spent with speakers of those languages. Unless fantasy creatures in your world, like dwarves, are just better at learning languages than humans, they’ll have foreign accents.

If playing long-lived fantasy creatures in your game is a normal rule, then such characters may speak a lot of languages if they have lived among different groups for extended periods of their long lives. But the elf who has spent her two-hundred-year life so far in the peaceful seclusion of the Green Forest will not speak any language well except her native Elvish. Maybe Elves have a hard time learning new languages at such an age. It’s up to you. And that Elvish accent should mean something to humans: maybe it’s obnoxious or cute or eerie or alluring, but why should an elf’s accent be neutral?

Another consideration is forgetting languages. Humans forget languages through disuse. They get rusty. They lose their fluency. Maybe the two-hundred-year-old elf used to speak some languages but has forgotten them almost entirely after seventy years of disuse. Again, it’s up to you. With fantasy creatures, anything goes. Maybe the ordinary human ability to learn languages over childhood years is exceptional for fantasy creatures like Elves and Dwarves in your setting. Or maybe elves and dwarves are simply bad at learning foreign languages, and that’s why they keep to themselves. Again, it’s your fantasy.

Reading and writing

It is not a given that you can read and write even your native language. In the preindustrial historical settings emulated by the fantasy genre, most people were not literate, or they were literate at a minimal level, enough to read signs and scrawl their names. Typically, one acquires advanced literacy beginning at a young age through formal instruction. That education is not available to most people. Acquiring literacy as an adult can be a special challenge.

Learning to read and write a language usually comes after learning to speak it, but if your character is learning a classical language or a dead language in a game, “the Ancient Tongue,” there must be a specific canon of texts that your character is studying, the “classics” of that language. You probably need a live instructor as well as books for grammatical instruction. There should be a lexicon (dictionary) in that language unless you learned the corpus of texts by memorization. Before the printing press, people copied dictionaries by hand. Dictionaries were often not organized alphabetically, but by other principles such as topic or by other features of the writing system. Making your own copy of a dictionary was a great way to learn a classical language. Usually, though, young students would memorize a substantial quantity of standard classical texts and receive oral instruction in the meaning.

RULE SUGGESTIONS: If your character has an ability score that suggests education, such as INT or maybe WIS or an “Educated” trait or background, or just a backstory or a character class implying education, it is safe to assume that your character can read and write more fluently than those who lack such high scores or traits.

If there is an ancient tongue in your game setting, let characters with an education read the main classical or ancient language of their region. Those who have no education of this kind cannot read ancient texts.

Unless your character has truly mastered the classical language with extensive reading, your character needs a dictionary in the game. Carry it with you and take time out for reading and translating complex ancient texts. It’s more mundane than a Read Languages scroll but it’s realistic. If you use item-slot encumbrance, it counts as an item.

FANTASY CREATURES who live long enough may have spoken fluency in a classical language of humans. The humans’ language has gone extinct or been transformed into one or more daughter dialects, but the ancient fantasy creature may remember speaking the classical language with native speakers centuries ago.

Common tongues

Since the advent of D&D, gamers have avoided fussing about languages in a fantasy world by positing a “common tongue,” meaning that there is a language that everybody knows by default so that the game can carry on. To me, this is a missed opportunity, like the use of generic gold coins instead of setting-specific coins.

A common tongue is a language. It has native speakers and nonnative speakers. Give it a name. Give it a character. Even Tolkien, the source of the idea here of a Common Tongue, did that.

RULE SUGGESTION: Name your common tongue something other than “Common” to give it flavor in your setting. It can be the language of the region in the setting that player characters come from by default. If a character comes from any country where another language is spoken, let them speak the “common tongue” with an accent (which they don’t have to act out, but NPCs may notice), and let them speak their home language fluently.

Trade tongues as the common tongue

Real-world “common tongues” are often pidgin languages that humans learn as adults, not children, in situations where they must deal with foreigners who do not speak any language in common. These languages tend to do without complex inflections. They are easier to learn and are nobody’s native languages.

When children speak pidgin languages from childhood, we call them creole languages. Kids who grow up in colonial situations or in sites of trade may well speak such a language natively.

Contrary to popular belief, pidgins and creoles can be used to express complex concepts.

Common tongues in fantasy games probably were creoles in the past. Let them be easier for characters to learn.

MY HOUSE RULE FOR THE TRADE TONGUE: In my fantasy setting, there is a Trade Tongue of this kind. I made special role-playing rules for it. For characters who know and want to speak the Trade Tongue (determined by their background), I tell the players to explain, in English, what they are trying to say, but I tell them they can’t use any English word with more than one syllable, they can’t use plural forms, and they can’t use the possessive -s. If they break these rules, their Trade Tongue interlocutor will interrupt them, “What? You say what?” or words to that effect, indicating that the sentence was misunderstood. My players have found this fun and frustrating at the same time, and it’s a reminder that the trade tongue is nobody’s native tongue, except for the kids who grow up in trade emporia and port cities. The best effect of this rule in the game, though, is that players much prefer to talk to NPCs who share the national and ethnic languages that they speak. I like the flavor of that effect. They have to change the way they talk to interact with foreigners in common terms. There is a hint of relief when they meet NPCs from their home country.

For example, the players enter a tavern in a strange port where people are speaking an unknown language. They call out in their home language: “Doesn’t anybody here speak Borrunese?” The tavern is silent. An older man shakes his head, understanding just enough to give a negative response.

Trying again in Trade Tongue: “No man here speak my tongue?” “No sir, we no speak you tongue. Use trade talk!”

The other people in the tavern start talking about them in their own languages, scrutinizing them more closely. Suddenly the players feel more acutely that they are in a foreign place. They have to rely on people who speak the Trade Tongue to achieve their local goals. When they meet a fellow speaker of Borrunese, there is a sense of relief, because they can all talk with somebody normally again. That Borrunese NPC is very glad to meet them, too, ready to help his compatriots visiting him in this foreign land.

The Trade Tongue is not equivalent to the “common tongue” in my setting. It’s something that travelers, sailors, and merchants will know, but I allow players characters to pick it up in months in the setting if they are exposed to it regularly during downtime.

Quantum Languages

Here’s a common situation. A new player doesn’t know the setting and we are about to play, but it was established in character creation (which is very fast in my home rules) that her character is from a foreign country, somewhere not in the default region of the game action. I don’t want to take time to get into details and setting lore. I don’t want to pause for everybody else to show a world map and to go into the history and geography of the fantasy. We just need to get started.

We agree to allow a quantum language: The player can just decide which foreign language her character speaks whenever they meet foreigners in the game and she wants to speak that language. Say they run into some nomads, and she decides to fill the gap in her character’s background by declaring that her character was from a related clan of nomads. In that moment, her character plays a pivotal role in parleying, gaining information, and winning a favor. The PC’s in-game foreignness takes on new meaning in the game and becomes something real and interesting to the other players. It isn’t just lore in the background but plays a role in the action, one that may have bigger consequences in future sessions.

RULE SUGGESTION: You can leave some foreign languages unspecified on the character sheets and let players declare they know them in the game when they come up. Deny the request if they already met speakers of a language and the player declined to take this language as a part of her background.

Making sense of alignment languages

The original D&D books of 1974 have special rules on languages, indicating that communication between sides was a concern in the exploration-and-war game. It says (Book 1, page 12),

The “common tongue” spoken throughout the “continent” is known by most humans. All other creatures and monsters which can speak have their own language, although some (20%) also know the common one. Law, Chaos, and Neutrality also have common languages spoken by each respectively. One can attempt to communicate through the common tongue, language particular to a creature class, or one of the divisional languages (law, etc.). While not understanding the language, creatures who speak a divisional tongue will recognize a hostile one and attack.

The idea of the “common tongue” comes straight from Tolkien’s Common Speech. It’s a convenience that removes the need to be concerned with what PCs speak with each other and with most people, and some creatures, that they meet.

There is also a rule whereby a character with high intelligence can learn additional languages. As discussed above, this is basically unrealistic and fantastic, unless INT conveys previous education and all those languages are fixed at the start as the product of education, indicating more literacy than spoken fluency.

The part about alignment languages, however, has been a source of commentary and derision since they came into play. Many players of D&D have rightly found the idea of “alignment languages” to be strange or even nonsensical. You speak “Law”? What would that even  mean? The idea of alignment languages oddly suggests that characters would speak a language based on the moral choices that they make or their philosophical outlook on life. That’s what makes alignment languages a bizarre concept to most players.

There are different ways to address the problem.

One answer calls into question the word language in the expression “alignment language.” In this solution, the alignment languages are not real, complete, natural languages, but something like a system of codes or signs that signal one’s alignment orientation, perhaps like gang signs or the jargon of a profession.

This is the approach in Moldvay’s Basic Dungeons & Dragons rules of 1981, faithfully replicated by Old School Essentials (2019). Here, alignment languages are “a secret language of passwords, hand signals, and other body motions.” They are unwritten. What is extremely strange is that a character who changes alignment “forgets the old alignment language and starts using the new one immediately.” Yes, that’s what Moldvay wrote: you forget a system of passwords and signs if you change alignment. Bizarre.

Okay, but what if we want these to be real languages instead of gang signs automatically recognized by the opposing side? There are other solutions that don’t take away the “language” part of alignment language, as Moldvay did. Instead, we can keep the real language and reconsider what “alignment” is. Characters can have alignment languages, as complete natural languages, if alignment is not a free and changeable moral choice, but rather a matter of prior long-term socialization including language learning.

Some background on the origin of alignment (which I wrote about in detail here) will help to explain.

In the wargame Chainmail (1971) and Original D&D (1974), alignment indicated which side a military force was on in a wargame. In the Chainmail rules that were antecedent to D&D, alignment was called “line-up,” meaning literally which side of a battlefield a fighting unit or skirmisher was on. Line-up was renamed “alignment” in OD&D, but the list of fantasy forces, arranged in columns by alignment, is just an expanded version of the list in Chainmail. That is, there is a war implicitly going on in this wargame called Dungeons & Dragons, and there are two main sides mirrored on the battlefield. Because these games were initially intended to imitate fantasy wars like those described in Tolkien’s works, the two sides were morally good and bad, respectively. They were the forces of Good and the forces of Evil, or Law and Chaos in keeping with fantasy fiction popular in the early 1970s. Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign had “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys,” the original alignment, based on the Chainmail rules of Gygax and Perrin, which borrowed liberally from a ruleset for Tolkien battle simulation.

If we think of alignment in these terms, alignment languages are just the two languages used generally by two sides in a war. Seeing alignment languages this way broadens the possibilities greatly.

Alignment languages can just be two national or ethnic languages spoken by peoples hostile toward each other, in a game where that hostility is central to the PCs' setting. Just as there was a language of Mordor used by forces evil and a language of Elves used by forces of good in Tolkien’s mythos, there can be two political blocs in your fantasy world each with their current languages. Imagine that on one side, there is the Empire of Sarvox, on the other, the Banreic Alliance. The forces on one side speak Sarvoxian and on the other they speak Banrean. The auxiliary forces recruited by each side make do with those two languages, which are now the means of communication within factions. When forces from the different sides hear each other, they can recognize the enemy’s language even if they do not speak it, and they can assume that they are foes. People who get caught up in their war or their conflict have to choose which language to speak. Being Neutral means not belonging to either faction. If you speak some other language, you are clearly not aligned, or, maybe, there is just one other ethnic group, bystanders to the war caught in the midst of it, who remain unaligned: Neutral. The language of the bystanders is distinct. Now we have three languages that align with this situation of conflict, reflecting two ethnic factions and a group of bystanders, perhaps an unaligned ethnic group in whose territory the war is being waged.

You can even make it very simple and keep the D&D terms. There is a Realm of Law in permanent conflict with the Kingdom of Chaos. Good creatures speak the Lawful Language and evil ones speak the Chaotic Speech.

We can push alignment languages a step away from the cosmic and further toward realism. Instead of being just about Law and Chaos, alignment is just about factions. Partisans of the “old-school revival” love their “faction play.” But there can be no faction if the component groups in each faction can’t speak to each other. Therefore, each faction has, in effect, an “alignment language,” the one that they use in common.

Alignment languages would therefore be just regular languages, but they have political connotations, just as in today’s world languages have political connotations. If you speak English or Russian or Urdu or Mandarin, it means something politically and culturally in the real world. The alignment language in your variety of D&D can be just an idea to draw attention to the political meanings of the different languages in a fantasy world. Languages are vehicles of communication. They can be associated with an imperial ruling class or with a specific religion or a specific economic niche such as mountain shepherds. It’s yours to decide, but make it meaningful.

As D&D developed the (somewhat absurd) system of nine alignments of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the system still current in 5e, we got groups like Chaotic Neutral and Lawful Evil. In their place you can just have nine factions, if you want to be faithful to that array of alignments somehow.

You could follow Gary Gygax and make alignment languages represent the cosmic forces that these moral stances suggest, each with its own plane of existence and host of extraplanar entities that serve those causes. You could, however, sketch out nine cultures, each with its own “alignment,” if you really want to save the bizarre D&D combinatory alignment system. I personally don’t like the idea that there some cultures are inherently evil (unless that is what you want to do with, say, Orcs), but it could be done. You could, alternatively, just throw out the moral connotations and have a world with nine factions, or more, or fewer. Just forget the cosmic alignment part of the idea and turn alignment languages into faction languages.

RULE IDEA: In place of alignment tongues, let characters speak a regular language that is commonly used by the faction or in the country from which they come. Give those languages political meaning, associating them with the agenda of a political power and perhaps their religion. After all, nobody speaks a language that has no social connotations.


You don’t have to deal with any of this! One solution is, just don’t bother with it. Some tabletop role-playing games are not concerned with language rules. Characters in the game can speak to each other and that’s enough. Maybe there are some foreigners, and the GM can make a ruling about which PCs can communicate with them. It’s not realistic, but it’s not a problem, either, because it doesn’t come up in the game as run by the GM.

Another solution is to decide that there is only one language (but don’t think about it). The roleplaying game Everway (1995) by Jonathan Tweet was about mythic fantasy adventures in a multiverse of magical worlds, and in the default setting, there is only one language in existence, used in every single world, in every place. There is the language, but languages don’t exist in Everway. In play, therefore, all proper names are real words in the language that is the medium of the players. When I ran this game, following the rules, all the PCs had names represented by English words like Anvil and Chestnut. Places were called Deep Well and Home Village. This wasn’t meant to be realistic, either. If you think about it much, it falls apart. What about noun compounds? Chestnut and Anvil, like so many English words, are originally compound words, and their meanings derive from their parts. In a setting like this, language itself does not have the real-world properties of human language. In Everway, words should have no etymologies and words cannot change, because no people and no creatures form different dialects. Nobody can create new words. Words must be, in Everway, eternal symbols, an inherent property of existence, and The Language is a zero-sum game. It’s a thought-provoking idea, but it only works in play if you seriously suspend disbelief and allow speech itself to be a part of the fantasy. The GM constantly has to veto names that players invent for their characters when they aren’t transparent, real words. That should include novel compounds like Crimsoncat. It would have to be Crimson Cat, two separate words, because no new words can be created.

Everway was designed to have a universal common language, so that the GM and players could travel between worlds and not encounter a new foreign place in every single session. The drawback of these approaches is that PCs can’t experience anything foreign (intentionally so in Everway).

This mirrors the experience of first-language English speakers today, who expect, because of the role of English as an international lingua franca, that somebody will speak English with them wherever they go. But English remains a language of global elites, not of a global majority, and many who speak English do so at a communicative disadvantage, with limited expressive capability. Everybody knows that there are political meanings to English that differ from place to place. Why shouldn’t it be the same for languages in your fantasy world? You don’t need a lot of lore to explain it. I think players are missing out if their characters can’t experience the feeling of being in a foreign social situation, as if they were all Anglophone Americans who assume that somebody will speak their language wherever they go. You would think that the gamers who are fussy about “colonialist” undergirding in D&D would care about this. What could be more “colonialist” than giving the PCs a native language that everybody else is expected to speak? Personally, I think such ruminations, though well-meaning, are ill-informed about historical relations between different ethnic groups and countries, and about the histories of empires, but if we are going to be self-righteous about the ethical risks to one’s personal character or soul seen lurking in our genre-bound shared fantasies, like the moms in the 1980s who said D&D was dangerous, we should at least be consistent.

In the end, the language rules you choose will condition the experience of the fantasy world in a way that affects all participants. Not to think about it is to miss a lot of opportunities to bring your shared fantasy to life.

A final addendum. Your game already has language rules, whether you know it or not. If you make a character who has specified languages, as in any edition of D&D, you deal with strange language rules in character creation every single time. You may create a first-level character who speaks Common and Lawful and Draconic with no idea why or what that means. Having no explicit rules about languages in the game just means that the language rules in your game are whatever the GM is thinking without telling you. While I presented a few house rules for languages, mostly what I offered here was an incentive to pare down your existing language rules explicitly. I also offered some considerations for using the rules that you have effectively. It is not about not adding rules, but rationalizing what you have. And, as I said, you can just avoid thinking about it. Do what works for you, as always.


  1. It’s cool to be able to order food at a restaurant [...] but that doesn’t mean you can have a profound conversation...

    Because of my reading predilections, I usually have the opposite of this problem; I can read and discuss Kant in German, but I can barely tell you what I had for breakfast.

    Tolkien may have been the source of the Common tongue in D&D, but as an Oxford man I assume he consciously borrowed the idea from koinê ("common") Greek.

    1. Hi, AIE! The point you make is a good one. Also for me and my colleagues, there are "academic" and primary-source languages in which we read history, philosophy, etc., but we'd be hard pressed to order the meal we want in the same languages in a live situation. This is part of why "She knows seven languages!" is usually misleading. I had a paragraph on "domains of language use" (the term for this phenomenon, different from "domains of language") but I took it out, along with much else, to keep it focused on what matters to games the most in practical terms. I doubt any gamers want to keep track of the functions for which they can use their fantasy languages: "I can read magical texts in Dwarvish but I can't talk about Dwarf beer." The way I play, that's just too much to think about, but it might make for a funny roleplaying consideration when a player wants to do that.

      I also deleted the part where I went on about koinê Greek. You're right. Tolkien could read "common" Greek and he knew what that was. I find in practice that people who read "common" Greek just mean the New Testament, and koinê is not really that different from Attic. There are koinê expressions that Plato or Demosthenes would not use, but I get the feeling the sense of a pure standard mattered a lot more to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century philologists than to ancient Greek speakers.

    2. I think the main difference between Koinê and Attic is the loss of the optative.

      It's always hard to strike a balance between realistic and playable. I think Dragon Warriors does one of the best jobs with languages, with its Basic, Intermediate, and Fluent levels. Most PCs start off as monolingual, and illiterate. Barbarians have better chances of bilingualism, and unless you're a sorcerer, you won't have more than a 35% chance to be able to read. It's a simple enough structure to not get in the way, but more detail than most games are willing to use.

      The biggest reason to give PCs heaps of extra languages is really just utility; it lets them interact with more of the game world without having to resort to constant spell casting or pantomime. It's similar to the prevalence of universal translators in shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who -- you can't tell the same stories without them.

    3. Koinê still has the optative, but it's rarer. It shows up in the NT. On the other hand, my impression is that Koinê has more frequent use of the perfect stem.

      The GURPS language rules resemble what you describe for Dragon Warriors. With a point-buy, you get "Broken," "Accented," or "Native" levels in a language.

      I agree about the utility of having lots of languages. While experiencing the foreign can be fun, it can also be not-fun, if it slows things down. That's why the convention of a common language is so prevalent, and even baked into many game rules and settings. At the core of it, it's not fun to have a party of adventurers who can't speak to each other.

  2. I’m much in favor of the quantum languages approach myself. I have a little rule about it that I posted about a few years back when my blog was an infant

    1. Thanks, W.F.! I follow your blog (and readers here should, too), but I can't recall seeing that article of yours on language. I agree that the best approach may be to ignore language differences, if a group doesn't want to deal with it. I like the idea of rolling to see if you happen to know a language, and your rule makes INT matter more, but I still would rather connect the languages a PC knows to the PC's background than to INT. Now, if INT indicates "life experience" or "worldliness" or something like that, it would make more sense to me. Then I wonder whether there would be a cap on languages known. Can a high-INT PC just happen to know every language encountered? Or do you have a finite number of "quantum languages"? I do also like that the dice outcome can indicate degrees of fluency. I didn't address degrees of fluency in this post, aiming at the basic considerations for "realistic" language rules, but in practice, in play, it may come up narratively in my games.

      About your blog post, you wrote, "I can’t think of a time where knowing or not knowing a language caused something fun or interesting to happen in D&D." I think this kind of stuff comes up in a fun way in every single session I run, but that's probably because I spend a lot of time thinking about these things in my profession and it just permeates my settings. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. As a tip for readers in general, I suggest limiting the number of human languages encountered in the main area of a fantasy setting to just three, with one of those three being the language used most by the adventurers and in their land of origin. There can be any number of other "exotic" foreign languages, but once you get past three, it becomes a lot of lore to track, especially for beginning players. Start with three and let the setting grow with your campaign--just as you don't need a gigantic setting and a thousand detailed hexes or sites to begin.

    In my current fantasy game, there's one common language (with a specific name, not "Common") that's used in the kingdom and by its politically and numerically predominant ethnic group, but there's another language used by hill folk and mountain people, whose ethnic group used to predominate in a previous century, but they've been gradually marginalized. Country and hillfolk who move to towns and cities usually acquire the predominant language, but usually not vice versa. These backgrounds are determined instantly with character background templates. There are also a lot of other languages used by foreigners who may show up, but for such encounters, there's the Trade Tongue that I mentioned in the post, and that allows communication with representatives of most foreigners. There's also one Ancient Tongue that educated people have learned to read. Inscriptions and old scrolls written in the Ancient Tongue are often found in ruins, old castles, temples, and dungeons.

    There are no nonhuman PCs in my game, so nonhuman languages don't come into play much, but it's possible to roll in your character's background that you grew up in contact with some kind of creature group or that you were imprisoned by them for a time, and so your PC gets the exceptional ability of knowing how to understand and speak to a nonhuman species.

    That's how it works in my current game, if anybody is interested. There are, of course, lots of other ways to make this aspect of a setting work.

  4. The D&D treatment of language had long bothered me, so in my last campaign, I had three human languages (Coastal--the trade lingua franca, based on KiSwahili--plus Sunset and Horsemouth--the pastoralists' tongue), and eventually added a fourth. The difference between regional elfin languages was also supposed to be an important clue to a character's origins. The players found communication challenges less entertaining than I did, and my enthusiasm for creating Sunset vocabulary waned after a few months.

    Currently I am defaulting to the quantum format, partly due to an open table and a far less involved setting.


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