Languages in the Sea of Stars and RPGs

30 April, 2010

Languages in RPGs seem to be much discussed right now, starting with World of Alidor asking if people had tried games with No Common LanguageOddessy carried on with that theme, discussing ideas about how a campaign with no common language might work.

Now, I have run campaign with fragmented languages and no official language of the ‘common tongue’ (a classic D&Dism, thanks Gary).  While sometimes the language issues can be fun as you work out who can talk to who and how the party will communicate with the person they just met . . . it can quickly become tiresome and can cause problems both in character and in game (“Oh, I could not have told Jackele that, we don’t share a language.”).  These problem can be overcome and some groups might relish the challenge of surmounting linguistic difficulties.

One option would be to impose an inability to communicate on a group at first, especially if they have been thrown together as prisoners or such.  Together over the first few sessions they learn or work out a lingua franca (or have one imposed on them if they are prisoners) with the occasional humorous misunderstanding along the way.

For my current campaign, the Sea of Stars, there is a lingua franca, in the form of the Imperial Tongue which is a simplified version of Low Draconic (in turn a simplified version of High Draconic which can only be properly spoken and performed by true dragons) and used for all Imperial Laws and proclamations.  So, for those who deal with the Imperial government on any level, knowledge of the Imperial Tongue is a necessity which cause it to be used by government officials, merchants and all those who travel.  But it is not always widespread outside those groups, so if you wanted to run an adventure in the high mountains of Ulm’ta far away from the major trade routes, the characters could easily find themselves in a situation where no one could understand them.

Beyond the ability to communicate in unusual circumstance, another reason to learn languages beyond just the Imperial Tongue is that it may not be the best to discuss certain subjects, it turns out the more widely spread a language is, the simpler it tends to become (as least according “The Story of Human Language” as listened to by Xiphias).  So, if you wish to really discuss metallurgy or gem-cutting, learn dwarvish, while draconic and the dead Runic language raises the understanding of magic and so on.  As to what mechanical this should have in game, I am not precisely sure, but there will certainly be some sort of reward for characters that pursue their passions through language as well.

How do you use languages in your campaign?  Is one ‘common tongue’ good enough or should languages proliferate?


  1. Good points. This issue is made worse in D&D, as it does not make languages much of a focus.

    I think your idea of a language for particular skills is a good one. I would take it to the next level and give players a language automatically based on their skills and abilities. You know Runic well, because your a high level mage. That sort of thing.

    In Free Spacer, I have a skill that allows players to perform all language and art tasks; it also gives them a particular number of languages. I also give all the players at least one language in common.

    • Great idea, I will have to figure some way to incorporate that into my campaign.

  2. I allow characters that share a profession, hobby or religion to speak with one another in jargon; members of the same craft-guild can replace words with technical terms, clerics of the same religious order can refer to certain passages, and so on. If the player(s) can actually come up with a witty turn of phrase (“as St Conrad said to the Thespites”, “when the cog catches on the lint”, “he’s a real sparrowhawk”), I’ll rule the message was completely unintelligible to any laymen present, otherwise, there’s a chance a perceptive outsider can pick up on the hidden meaning.

    • Great idea. I will definitely incorporate that in some fashion.

      Jargon is such a useful tool to conceal and confuse.

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