Let’s talk about languages in RPGs. It’s one mechanic that comes up time and time again in games I play or run, but sometimes it’s one that doesn’t come up at all. I guess the real debate I want to bring in is whether they are important and if it’s worth creating a mechanism to deal with them at all. To me, I believe the key thing is what kind of a game do you want to run. If you want realism and some kind of simulation, then languages will need to be addressed, but if you’re looking to craft a fun story and don’t want to be bogged down in the details then can we just throw them out altogether. Let’s see.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into a GNS debate reminiscent of The Forge (though I can if you ever want to), but I feel the need to flag how I see the requirement for languages changing based on how we play.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a student of AD&D through to Pathfinder and 5E, so when I often read a rulebook I’m expecting to see something on languages. How many you know, can you read and write them etc. This is very much intended to create a sense of realism at best, or perhaps to reward people for picking a high intelligence at its most gamist level (sorry again). It certainly makes working out if you can understand people easier. Just cross reference who speaks what and hey presto, we have a chat, or we resort to charade based diplomacy.
The main con I find with this is the reluctance of players to then roleplay the language difficulty and instead wait for the opportunity to cast “comprehend languages” or a similar work around. This often leads to languages being more of a temporary rules set back, rather than a roleplay opportunity. To be fair, this could have more to do with the types of players who prefer D&D type games to other styles.
To look at it from a story or narrative based approach, these systems too can have ways of managing languages but the way they do it tends to be more flexible. Whether it be a character descriptor/background that you use to justify why you would know the language, or a more generalised skill/ability that you can roll or invoke to gain knowledge, it lends itself to allowing more wriggle room.
As a GM this can be useful for moving past a language barrier, or at least justifying a partial understanding that can be used to move the game on, or lead to comedic results, depending on how you want the story to unfold.
The cons here are around that interpretation factor. If there aren’t black and white rules, do you end up in an argument with players as to what they do/do not know. Making the ruling can be harder and you have to try and make it feel consistent within the game.
I’m currently running a Fate game in a 1870’s pulp fiction setting, and one thing my players asked for was a rigid language system using something akin to the stress track, but allowing for number of languages. This isn’t something I’d used before in Fate, as I’d always managed languages through aspects with occasional Lore rolls. It’s worth noting that the players in this game are almost pure D&D players (whereas I have more varied experience), and it feels like an attempt by them to get to more familiar footing.
Languages in Fiction
As a slight side note, I feel it worth considering the use of languages in Sci-Fi and fantasy settings. While they crop up in almost all of them, they almost never get in the way of the main story. Whether it be LotR with Tolkien’s extensive study of language, or the many alien languages in Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who or Babylon 5, the other characters haver a way of either understanding or speaking each other’s language. This to me goes back to story focus.
Think about it if every time the crew of the Enterprise met a new species they had to spend months, if not years just learning the language. I’d perhaps be more realistic, but it wouldn’t make for such a good story. They’d have to either never have in depth conversations with a new species, or first contact with the species would have to have been established long ago.
Not great when it comes to opening up your writing potential. And so we have the universal translator. This is a nice work around to technobabble our way around it, and we can still bring in the alien languages such as Klingon when we want it for flavour (though I have never worked out how the UT knows to switch itself off at the right moment to allow these words to come out…).
From the fantasy setting we almost always have a language that has been invented for trade etc. that allows us all to speak ‘common’ or the equivalent. Always nice, but not massively realistic I suspect you might agree (we all know how well Esperanto worked right?).
Anyway, my point here is that in the above instances the story is more important than linguistics, and as a GM or game designer it’s worth asking what you and your players would want from this in their system. More in depth and black and white for a realistic setting, or perhaps more flexible or even unnecessary for a more story driven setting.
Languages in my game
In Heroes of Vale I want to make my alien species as alien as possible, and so that presents me with a conundrum. I’d like to keep language mechanics simple, but I want it to be hard, if not impossible to communicate between such diverse species. To this end I’m tempted to invoke what I call the Chewbacca principle.
What I mean by that is simple really. However I mechanically allow characters to know languages, I would prefer to make it that they can hear and understand other races, but not necessarily speak the language. Han and Chewie spoke their own languages, but the other one understood what was being said.
Open Legend doesn’t currently have a language system that I can see, so I will need to put some thought into that and perhaps discuss it with the designer. Whatever comes from it, this is not then end of the debate. So watch this space.