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"Do you speak Common?" "Of course I do! Everyone speaks Common..."

My group is starting a somewhat experimental campaign. We're using a setting that is neither canon (e.g. described in a book) nor entirely homebrewed: it's "what we could remember from the book that we read once" plus the world map from the book, marked up some added locations and country borders, and a short political history we developed.

My problem is that according to the book (Endival) every race speaks their own language and Common. In my opinion this has two downsides. First, it does not feel right that just anyone can communicate with people from the other side of the world. Second, this strongly diminishes the value of learning another language. It means you can go from one side of the world to the other and still fluently speak the local language (i.e., Common). Also, all humans speak Human, all dwarves speak Dwarven… but there are several warring human kingdoms and yet they all share a common language?!

I would like to make the world resemble our own history a bit more. My concerns are:

  • You and I speak "Common" – it's called English. But this is the result of the recent globalization made possible with the advent of the Internet. Even though the setting I am talking about is more sophisticated than the historical middle ages (due to widespread powerful magic), they are far from anything equivalent to microprocessors, space exploration, freight in the millions of tons and so on. There should not be a Common language.

  • On the other hand, suppose we decide that there is no Common language. Then we run into problems during character creation: A very basic and classic player freedom is to choose their character's race. Now we have a colorful group in which no one can speak with the others (why waste a skill to learn a language, when your squishy starting-level character could learn to swing an axe or cast spells better). Even if they agree to all invest skills in a shared language, once they begin travelling (i.e., adventuring) they quickly run into people with no shared language.

What are some ways to handle this? How can we have a realistic set of languages without making adventuring prohibitively difficult?

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10 Answers 10

up vote 23 down vote accepted

Latin (and to some extent Greek) used to be the lingua franca during the middle ages. Later on, French became the language of diplomacy and nobility. Everyone that mattered [1] speaks a local variation of said language which should still be understandable by another speaker. For example, Quebecois and French or American and English.

So, you could have such a language that all the PCs speak. They should be able to interact with everyone else. Now, make sure that each PC speaks the language from where they will go adventuring. If not, they will have to find a teacher and learn the language. This does not take that much time. You can learn everyday grammar and vocabulary in about three to six months of (hard) study. This is what I do for all my games.

Well, almost all my games. If the game is set in a bounded location, then only those languages that are around said location will be relevant. If I set a game in 14th century Venice, I do not need to worry about the PCs speaking Japanese. If I set a game in the Crusades, you better believe that everyone will learn Latin, French, and Arabic pretty damned quickly if they want to get anything done.

If you have boogly powers (aka magic or psyonics or whatever), then learning languages could be done via it.

As a side note, Middle Earth started as a setting to play with the evolution of different languages yet most characters manage to communicate quiet well -- and were delayed at the gates of Moria because of a translation error!

Philology is just cool. And just because it is hard to implement in game setting should not be a barrier to trying it out provided that it enhances the enjoyment of the game.

[1] Why, yes sire, I do have blue blood... What about Peasants? They don't need to speak to outsiders, they need to work harder and pay taxes.

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The thing that always fascinates me about the Romance languages is the transition from "Everyone that mattered speaks a local variation of said language which should still be understandable by another speaker" to those local variations becoming mutually unintelligible (French, Spanish). – Bobson Dec 4 '15 at 19:08
"Latin (and to some extent Greek) used to be the lingua franca during the middle ages" -- among priests and academics. Real people used other things, and where I worry about it at all I think that Common should be more like this: – Steve Jessop May 25 at 15:01

There's two ways that I can think of.

If you want a really simple solution? Declare that "Common" is a common second language. It's by no means universal - and as you move further away from major borders and trade routes it can completely disappear - but it's common enough that almost anyone could know it without straining plausibility. In mechanical terms, this means that PCs get the language for free, but that NPCs will only know it at the GM's discretion - and even then, they might not be very good at it outside the few phrases they commonly use.

The second option is to make 'common' a simplified trade tongue cobbled together from other languages with only enough detail to negotiate deals, but not enough to express complex abstract concepts. Personally, I don't like this one, since most real-world trade languages tend to freely borrow loan-words from their parent languages and so can express complex concepts just fine, but some people like it.

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Some background: languages are shared only as far and wide as they can be communicated. Any farther than that, and variations start. Soon you have comprehensible dialects, then incomprehensible dialects and other languages. As you say, technology is what made entire countries speak the same language. Example: BSL is the British Sign Language. There's one formal lexicon and grammar, but because BSL can't be written (English is written instead), it's fiercely localised. Deaf people who learned in different schools may have different slang. Even basic signs, e.g. those for colours or numbers can differ between cities. And this is just one sign language. There are dozens out there, with nearly nil cross-intelligibility.

So, if you have easy, cheap dissemination of language to everyone (and everyone can read, if this is in writing), then Common would be largely the same, with variations depending on individual skills.

Suggestion: as GMJoe said, make Common a second language. Treat it like a pidgin language: not everyone speaks it (mostly just people who travel), and not everyone speaks it well. The grammar varies depending on the local language (because pidgin tends to be a bastardisation of two or more languages), and the lexicon includes lots of local words. The farther the player is from their particular homeland, the weirder this becomes for them. Game potential: this is perfect material for adventuring! One word might mean one thing where you're from, and another elsewhere. Some words may be inoffensive in your homeland, and mortal insults far to the South. You can use this to your advantage. Even worse, depending on the NPCs ability to understand (or the PCs' ability to learn the differences), they may just be unable to get some nuances across. Pidgin languages develop for practical reasons (usually trade).

Suggestion 2: in the times of the crusades, some crusading knights had basic phrasebooks so they could communicate in the local languages of the lands they crossed. Perhaps you can give your PCs something like that. It can be pitifully inaccurate in some cases, and/or only include such marvels as ‘me want go inn/brothel/temple’. It can miss out on some local dialects, and leave plenty of space for humorous/adventuring misunderstandings.

Remember that a complete language barrier dehumanises (in the general sense) the NPC, while anything in common (even attempts to learn some of each other's language) are tools to bring PCs and NPCs closer together.

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Other people have already discussed keeping Common around as a 2nd language, so I'll describe another approach.

Consider modern Europe: The average person speaks their native language fluently, and anywhere from 1-3 more languages with anywhere from crude skill to fluency depending on how often they use it. The more tightly-packed the language regions are, the more languages everyone will speak, simply so they can interact with their neighbors.

If a nation A is at peace with neighbor B, then people in A will speak B's language so they can trade with B. If there is war, or the threat of it, between A & B, then A's government will want people to learn B's language so they can interrogate POWs, translate intercepted messages, tell conquered peasants to shut up & get back to work, and so on.

This doesn't mean that everyone will speak multiple languages: people from the center of a nation/language-region who don't have much contact with foreigners won't have any reason to learn foreign languages. But everyone else will probably pick up at least a smattering of a 2nd language, especially if they travel a lot (adventurers, for example).

If your system allows varying levels of skill in a language (say, basic/intermediate/advanced/fluent/native), I would give every player native-level in one language and 2-5 ranks divided however they please among other languages, so they might be a native speaker of Elven & Sylvan, for example, or a native speaker of Elven, an intermediate speaker of Sylvan & Human, and a basic speaker of Dwarven.

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It's a world with powerful magic at play. Common might exist because of that. For example, it could be the gift of some appropriate god, like a trade god or a god that's all about peace and unity. Or I suppose a god all about conquest and ruling conquered territory.

If so, it can work however you want it to work, including being more limited than a real language. Maybe everyone just knows the language like they know how to walk but the vocabulary can never change - so things that are newer than when the language was given to people all have local variations and aren't really part of common. Or the common part of the language, the part people just know, is focused on that god's concerns and if you want to talk about anything else you have to express it using just those available words.

That being said, I've played in a campaign where not every character had a language in common. Usually somebody could translate, but in combat or tricky diplomatic situations it was a factor. One character was from far away and communicated through pantomime, or on rare occasion repeated a word he had heard. In my case everyone really liked how the language issue worked out, but it would depend on the group of players.

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Hmm, your first paragraph sounds like the Tower of Babel in reverse. Which would be awesome. +1 for the creative setting solution. – GMJoe Aug 2 '12 at 5:35
@GMJoe - Actually, the Tower of Babel thing is interesting. Maybe the default state of the universe is that everyone speaks the same language, and the reason they don't anymore is that most of the original language was destroyed by some great event. – psr Aug 2 '12 at 17:30

There are only 3 situations where I think language ought to matter in a game:

  • You can't communicate at all.
  • You can communicate, but there's a single word or phrase you don't recognize.
  • You can communicate without any difficulty.

Here's what we've used in our campaign. (And it's worked quite well for us.) Language names are changed, of course.

All the adventurers are from the same cultural area. They all speak English to each other and to others from their area. When they're in their home area, there are no communication problems.

In court settings and other high-culture places, French is often used. Most of the adventurers are commoners, so they only know a smattering of French, so the noblewoman in the group takes the lead when trying to make a good impression at court, since she's the only one fluent in French.

Old manuscripts and monuments are written in various ancient languages: Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and Pictish. One of the party members can read Anglo-Saxon, so those are no trouble. The priests in the region generally can read Latin, so they can help with those. The party still hasn't found anyone who can read Pictish, so those stones are still a mystery to them.

In one of the neighboring kingdoms, they speak Scots, which is close to English. Most of the time I let the party interact with people without any trouble, but every now and then I throw in someone describing something they don't understand.

There are a few settlements of horse riders in the area. These people speak Kazakh amongst themselves, which the party doesn't understand, but many of the men speak English just fine. These men act as spokesmen for the group when dealing with the party.

Occasionally they run across forest people deep in the woods. These people speak only Cree, which none of the adventurers speak. Communication is only possible with gestures, noises, and a lot of guessing.

Personally, I enjoy making up languages to fill the game world, but this is not significant in the actual roleplaying. None of the players in our group want to actually learn a new language.

In practice, the players end up recognizing which cultures different names belong to, and they learn a few words here and there, but that's it.

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Realism in language diversity can become a major impediment and shift the focus from the characters & plot to the intricacies of the setting. Keep a Common language in the game to facilitate play (and fun). As noted here, it need not be fully known or ubiquitous.

As a suggested mechanic: If you're interested in linguistics and the players aren't very, just add a comprehension/communications skill roll to dialogues where misunderstandings could occur. While simple and basic concepts would be assumed, this mechanic would indicate the level of nuance conveyed. With some skill on the GM's part, failed nuances can pyramid into misconceptions, many humorous but some few being crucial to the party's progress. (And keep a sharp ear for slang and colloquial expressions used by players, presenting a rich vein for your NPCs to misinterpret.)

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I've always viewed 'Common' as the 'Human language of the area'. So not 'common' in the sense that its specifically a 'shared' language that is common among races, but 'common' in the sense that its the everyday, 'most common' language of humans in the area. (assuming a human-centric world)

So with that, the Common in one area is different from the Common in another. Common in England would be English. Common in Germany would be German. ie, basically the way the world is.

Given the typical speed of travel, that never really posed much of a problem in my campaigns. I always assumed the characters could pick up enough of the local lingo by being immersed in it as they traveled. Unless they are traveling by ship somewhere, or are entering poetry contests, they generally woudnt travel faster than they could learn the local dialect. If that happens, they can hire translators (which itself could lead to interesting plot hooks)

As for characters that dont speak 'Common', consider that after six weeks adventuring with a party that primarily speaks it, they would be able to start communicating enough for basic conversation due to immersion. So after a level or two, they'd speak Common reasonably well, just perhaps with a cool accent.

In game terms, I would take language out of the skill system (ie, no cost if they pick it up via travel), unless a character was specifically studying a language from someplace they never had been. Another possibility may be to give bards special benefits when the enter a new land, perhaps halving the time it takes for them to pick up the local dialect. That'd give a nice boost in purpose and scope to the class.

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The simplest way to handle it is to consider that yes, all the kingdoms have learned a common tongue as a trade language. This makes sense, especially in a world of magic. It does not, however, make learning the primary languages of each nation unimportant. Think of the modern world: in any given country, you will almost certainly be able to find people with whom you can converse in English. However, inhabitants of a country respond better when an outsider bothers to engage in their native tongue. It is more comfortable and it shows respect for their culture.

Additionally, just because there are citizens who speak the common tongue, that does not mean everyone does. Canada has English and French-Canadian as it's national languages, but not every Canadian necessarily knows French, and that is considered a primary language. For a country where the common tongue is secondary, only 1 in 5 citizens might be fluent and another 1 in 5 probably can't understand any of it.

Finally, deceit and intrigue tie into a setting like that very well. A party that does not bother to learn other languages find that enemies can communicate entire battle plans right over their heads and the PCs are none the wiser. However, a party member who knows that language might be able to listen in, and learn about the ambush waiting for the party.

In summary, while a common language might seem to simplify the setting, it does not obviate the need to know the various languages of the world. Knowing the language of a native might give bonuses to social rolls, it prevents a party from being stuck on the wrong side of the carriage tracks without any way to communicate, and it ensures that enemies are unable to plot your downfall right beneath your noses.

As a side note, similar restrictions can be used with local dialects in different human nations. Think about World War II if all sides were just speaking English, but still had the various accents. A German diplomat might find himself being distrusted while traveling in France due to his accent, and a similar fate could befall a party.

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I think this is a very classic example of "Realism vs. Gameplay". Improve one of them and the other will suffer.

But here's an idea: take a look at Earth and model your setting after it, but drop the fact that everybody speaks English. Namely, there is huge regions where people speak the same language (English in North America, Spanish in South America, even German in Central Europe). Have your party agree on a language they share and focus your adventure mostly in that region. This will have some interesting effects. For example, a PC can be a foreigner and speak with an accent or grossly misunderstand the culture. Traveling to an off-language region will be exotic and fun - the PC's will need to find a translator or will be able to communicate with a small subset of the people. There will be large parts of the world that are less accessible language-wise and that's realistic even today.

However I hate how that affects the gameplay. You say that diminishes the value of learning a language. While true, I say that there is no nice mechanic for learning a language I'm familiar with. Unlike investing in your combat skills, a language ability is in the mercy of the Game Master - if I learn Dwarven and we don't go where they actually speak it, it's a wasted ability. Worse, if we go there and I'm the only one speaking it, now the other players are having a bad time. And finally, if two of us learn it, it's less valuable for each of us. Even if you have them travel to a region where they don't speak the language and have them stay there for a longer while, it would still be bad gameplay - the players won't feel that they have an advantage of learning it, they will feel forced to learn it in order to enjoy the game. And it will become wasted XP when they move away.

In "Realism vs. Gameplay", I strongly prefer gameplay. That's why I try to avoid the language issue entirely when I do my own setting. I'll have dialects and variations to be able to make (N)PCs sound foreign and exotic, I'll have foreign/ancient languages in order to have things appear "alien", but I'll go a long way not to penalize the players for not investing in a skill they cannot see clear return in.

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