Sunday, October 18, 2020

Decent Rules to Make Languages Fun

First, here's some supplemental reading you may find insightful. All of it is from other RPG bloggers tackling the same subject as me:

  4. (he covers language as a specific part of the post and I think his take is neat)
The RPG Mausritter, about playing as tiny mice in a fantasy world, has some really cool language rules that I don't think can easily work for most other settings:
As a general rule of thumb, the more closely related two creatures are, the more likely they are able to be able to understand each other. Use the creature’s taxonomy to make a ruling. Magical or highly intelligent creatures may break these rules. • Same species (mouse): Can easily communicate. • Same family (rodent): Can speak and communicate, with some difficulty and difference of custom. • Same class (mammal): Make a WIL save to see if communication is possible. • Otherwise: Can’t directly communicate.
So yeah, all those thoughts are very neat. I'll throw in my two cents.

The Problem With Languages in RPGs

Fictional languages and language barriers are a staple of fantasy fiction and Tabletop RPGs. However, many people point out that we should challenge this. Perhaps the main reasons we bother with language at all is because 1) Tolkien was a linguist and people tend to copy him on everything even if they shouldn't, and 2) it serves the integrity of "the world as a real place" since it would, admittedly, be kinda unrealistic for a fantasy world to not have different languages.

But lots of people think those two reasons are shitty and aren't enough to justify a game mechanic's inclusion. And when it comes to the gameplay function of language, many people point out that it rarely adds anything but frequently takes away. Like, what happens when you find an inscription in a language that nobody in the party can read? Well... you don't get to experience that part of the adventure.

I agree with the general rule of thumb that "knowing stuff is more interesting than not knowing stuff," and that you should try to avoid "hidden knowledge" as an adventuring challenge. It's just too easy to become "either you know it or you don't. Congrats." It can be useful in investigation-style adventures, but only if you've worked to make it interesting and to enable the players to be able to uncover that knowledge through their actions and resources. But needing to speak a language to advance? That usually can't be overcome by a choice or idea you come up with in the course of adventure.

If you write your adventure scenarios specifically for your group of players, you can tailor all the language-related content to the list of languages your players know. But if you create an adventure for publication, you cannot control for what languages will be known to any and all characters who ever play your scenario. So yeah, in general, it would be poor level design to create a puzzle in a dungeon room where the answer is "know how to read Dwarvish."

HOWEVER... I am not just interested with adventure design. While I do write lots of isolated, discrete adventure scenarios that should be strong enough to stand on their own, I also am concerned with sandbox campaign design. Because the campaign is not just episodic dungeon scenarios, all disconnected from one another. The players are occupying a world over time, and this world has lots of moving parts that interact with each other. The "adventures" that players engage in are often just navigating and manipulating this world, which cannot be reduced to instances of level design and plots. On any given session, the players are setting their own pace for what activities they do, including fighting wars, driving back tribes of orcs and re-claiming lost land, researching ancient rituals, seeking out the secrets of an old god's cult, starting up a trade empire and forming alliances, sailing across the ocean to foreign lands, paying off debts, fleeing from bounty hunters, hiring assassins, charting a frontier, and so on.

Game design at this level of play cannot rely on having controlled, purposeful situations placed before the players. Instead, you need to present a living world with lots of stuff they can interact with. And I would definitely argue that having language barriers can add to this level of gameplay in profound ways. Choosing which languages and literacies your character has will shape how they interact with the campaign, creating opportunities in some places and obstacles in others. It'll affect how the world responds to them. And sometimes, players need to invest in "unlocking" languages so they can pursue their ambitions, meaning that they'll have to take the steps of learning a language first, meaning they gotta hunker down and make some connections. They have to involve themselves. Or they can shell out the coin for a translator, which I also consider to be valid gameplay and an interesting tradeoff to be made in overcoming challenges. Either way, they have to make their own decisions about what they want, how badly they want it, and what the best way to achieve it is.

One of the problems, however, is that most RPGs will just have a master list of campaign languages and you get a handful at character creation and that's it. They don't offer much mechanical depth and they have a fuckload of languages. In D&D, every single sapient humanoid race, including monsters, have their own unique languages. While that's probably realistic, the gameplay function of languages would benefit from some streamlining.

My Rules

Here is the text as presented in my current draft of Brave:

Knaves begin fluent in one native language and any languages they may derive from their background (e.g. Latin for the clergy, a foreign tongue for mercenaries and smugglers, etc.), and could even be literate if their background supports it. They gain bonus language fluencies/literacies = to half their Intelligence (rounded up). Points are spent to either gain verbal fluency or to gain literacy, one at a time.

Characters who can speak related languages can communicate but have a -2 on disposition and cannot be affected by verbal Charisma checks. Reading a related text will leave gaps or multiple interpretations. The referee should make a list of languages used in their setting and their relations.

It could probably be cleaned up but I needed to squeeze it into the page. Keep in mind that a starting character's Intelligence can be up to 6, but will likely be 1 or 2. As they level up, they can eventually get it as high as 10. That means that there's a language-learning mechanic already built into the leveling system, which is nice. But I also think I'd let a player learn more languages as a downtime activity if they requested it, since I want to reward that.

The main thing I want to explain is the idea of "related" languages. This pays lip service to some degree of realism in linguistics that most RPGs neglect, but the real reason I chose it is because I think it can add that extra layer of mechanical depth we need. It opens up the language barrier a little bit by allowing players to still have access to speech/text that they don't properly know. So having someone in the party who knows Italian means you can still interact with the Spanish merchants and the Romanian nomads you meet, even if it's a bit tenuous. Is this a stretch? Yes. But I like it.

I also tried to think about how, mechanically, you can represent the idea of "knowing" a language in such a peripheral way. Well, when it comes to verbal speech, I realized that I already have two layers of mechanics that splits the difference between player-skill and character-skill philosophies: I make my players actually talk and explain what they say, but I also let them make a CHA check in certain conditions.

Social gameplay in D&D is weird, you know? A lot of people just simplify it to real-life talking and have nothing more. Other people totally abstract it into gameplay mechanics and systemize the conversation into a minigame. I traffic in the middle, which some people find bizarre or impossible. When do you shift from natural talking to making a Charisma check? Usually it's when you've gotten past the introductions, then the superficialities and formalities, then the questions and clarifications to get on the same page of understanding, and you finally reach a tipping point where one party 1) defines a concrete stance, and 2) throws the ball in the other party's court. That is to say, Charisma checks are used when the social interaction reaches an "exchange" or a "confrontation." I never use them for regular stuff like buying items, asking for directions, shooting the shit, or whatever. It's there to resolve a disconnect between people of opposing positions.

That doesn't just mean persuasion and debate. It can be haggling or pleading. It can be flirting (often a cat-and-mouse game of convincing and counter-convincing), entertaining, intimidating, strategizing, and so on. Once a conversation turns towards one of those, eventually someone is going to propose a claim, offer, rationale, or incentive that the other person then responds to. It's kind of a weird, mechanical way of viewing human interaction, but it's a very real thing. In fact, learning to start reading social interactions with this lens is the key to social engineering, a skill that's very relevant to the adventuring lifestyle. One of the best selling books of all time is How to Make Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, which covers this topic as well.

So my language rules focus on that exact tipping point. Know the language fluently? You can do any level of speech activity. Only know a related language? Well, you can still exchange information, but you cannot use the language well enough to ever make someone budge on something that they have a firm stance on. Their first impression of you will likely remain their only impression of you. If you wanted to, you could also apply the related penalties on someone who is learning a language but isn't yet fully fluent, to show that they're going through the transitionary stage.

Oh, and disposition gets thrown in here too because Reaction Rolls are a convenient mechanic to manipulate. In a perfect world, speaking a different language shouldn't affect this, because we should all be open-minded and helpful towards our fellow human. But Medieval societies were generally xenophobic, and that's built into the fabric of the world even in mechanical terms. Keep in mind that having no common languages reduces disposition by 4, so a -2 is actually an improvement.

When it comes to written text, this one is a bit more fiddly. I worry that, because I didn't give a precise mechanic, that makes it harder to use. It trusts that the referee will look at the text in its own context and be able to make a ruling on how the player could get "multiple interpretations" or have "gaps" in the meaning. Hopefully, it's not only a reasonable ruling to expect of the referee, but maybe even a fun one for them to make on the spot.

So How Do You Make a List of Languages?

Well, while I want the referee to have the freedom of designing the list themselves, I have some pointers on what makes a good list. For one thing, this system forces you to start designing your list with built-in connections between related languages. That's really cool and players like it.

But I also try not to just have languages defined by cultures/species. Obviously, humans and elves and dwarves all need their own languages. But all that really changes is "which towns can the party go to?" I think that having languages defined by social role is also interesting. So while all listed languages are "vernacular/vulgar" by default, most of them will have an upper-class "High" variant (e.g. High Valyrian or the Queen's English or Modern Standard Arabic) often used for scholarly texts and talking to nobility, and most will have an antiquated "Old" variant (e.g. Old Entish or Old English or Classical Arabic) often used for reading ancient texts. Or, in my world, talking to really old undead. Alignment languages are another possibility that's really contentious but I kinda like the idea. At the very least, I love the idea of liturgical languages like Church Latin or cursed languages like the Black Speech of Mordor. Common languages, trade languages, non-verbal languages, secret/disguised languages, and so on are all cool variants that can be included to serve a different function rather than merely being attached to a race.

Here is the list of languages I made for my sample Brave setting that I've used in playtesting. It's inspired by the Medieval Angevin Empire, mostly in Aquitaine.

"Campaign languages. If they share a bolded letter next to them, then they’re related:

  1. Gartonic (French)
  2. Andolian (English)
  3. Barbaq (Arabic) A
  4. Chthonic (Underworld common tongue) B F
  5. Celestial (known to Lawful creatures blessed by the powers of Heaven) A
  6. Abyssal (known to Chaotic creatures connected with the powers of Hell) B
  7. Druidic (known to Neutral creatures spiritually attuned to the world) C
  8. Thieves’ Cant (a related version of Gartonic, Andolian, or Barbaq)
  9. Sylvan (the language of wild animals like woodland critters) C D
  10. Domesticated Sylvan (the language of pets and farm animals. Always whispered) D
  11. Sign Language (very rare and has no relations, but is universal)
  12. Deep Speech? Maybe. (known to aberrations)
  13. “Old” or “High” (antiquated or fancy version of another language, treat as related to vernacular version)
  14. Jotunn (known to Giants) E
  15. Draconic E
  16. Gobble (known to goblinoids, never written down in its vernacular form) F
Or, put another way, it could be illustrated like this:

I might take another pass at this to 1) make it prettier, and 2) tighten up some connections. For example, I'm now thinking that Celestial should be related to Classical Barbaq rather than vernacular Barbaq.

I also have a modified list of backgrounds and what starting languages/literacies would be granted by each one. This is another responsibility I place in the referee's hands as a part of their worldbuilding rather than prescribing a master version. I'm inclined to force all spellbooks to have a specific language, thus encouraging ambitious spellcasters to also study more and more tongues. But then again, I want my players to be excited by finding spellbooks and immediately put them to use. More and more gameplay decisions to think about, all of them revolving around a diversity of languages.


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