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I'm among a group of people which doesn't share the same mother tongue. We are speaking English every day and can communicate very well in daily situations and even in an academic way.

Some of them are interested in trying pen & paper RPGs. I'm very familiar with a German system (The Dark Eye in English) that is set in a medieval world and that - for my understanding - requires a thorough understanding of a language to fill the world with life as well as adequately explain the surroundings.

Now I lack the vocabulary and finesse to fulfill these criteria, especially talking as a GM - but would like to give the group a good first impression on how P&P RPGs work. Do you have some advice of any sort? Is it advisable to prepare a vocabulary list? Maybe other systems, set in a futuristic environment, are more suitable - that would allow the GM and the players to talk like they do in real life.

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6 Answers 6

I think the answer to this question depends on what you mean by "requires a thorough understanding of a language to fill the world with life as well as adequately explain the surroundings". I don't believe a particularly broad or elaborate vocabulary is required to do either, unless there is for some reason a major mechanical difference between, for example, an inglenook and a baldachin. Otherwise, you could just say "a part of the room offset from the rest by drapes and a sunken floor", which doesn't require an advanced vocabulary. Try running the game without worrying about finding exactly the right words. If your players are engaged and interested, then you're doing your job right, regardless of your word choice; if not, then you can talk to them to find out whether it's the language barrier or something else that's causing the issue.

Some of the best fantasy/sci-fi authors that I have read don't use extensive or obscure vocabularies to describe their worlds. "A vast green forest" gives much the same mental image as "a great verdant woodland". A lot of this is a matter of taste, though, and if The Dark Eye has a specific need for particularly flowery or elaborate language, then you might want to consider a different system.

Alternatively, if you think you can overcome the issue with a vocabulary list, then do that - but make it fun. A sheet of words with definitions feels like third grade, which isn't a fun way to dive into P&P games. But a short story, written as an introduction to the setting and which uses all the vocabulary words you're concerned about, is an engaging way to introduce players to new words. It also encourages them to more effectively learn the words, since they would have context for them and may even have to do research on their own to understand the words, which helps with learning retention.

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So, as requested, I'll try to expand the concept, I never tried anything like that though...

The idea came from some situation in films and other media, where the characters are puzzled to discover/deduce riddle in ancient/mythic languages or hieroglyphs. (Say Friend and Enter). They tend to be challenging from the characters in the movies, but 4-5 players that already know it's a puzzle will find out the answer pretty fast. With the lack of fluency, you can create such riddles in one of the languages. I just thought about some piece of text given to the players, where you can research expressions in their languages, and each player gets part of the message...

Some plots line and ideas that come to my mind:

  • The characters can be from far parts of the world, country/region/ethnic group. They may be forced to work together, each one sent from it's country to contribute, or keep an eye on the ongoing mission. The GM could start in it's own language (or a neutral one), and place each adventure in a different country.
  • The characters are from ancient past, thrown in a future. They do not fully conprehend the language, but are not aware of the current culture and costumes.
  • The character are a in a unknown land, like humans in a dwarven/elven city, or a mythical one like Atlantis

A think the point here, is not only plan the place of the settings, but always some misunderstanding occur due to lack of fluency, let it affect the in game as well. Besides the puzzles, the natural misunderstanding can be fun, like merchants who do not fully understand selling wrong items.

To take maximum fun from it, I think, you as a GM may have to study a dip in the players languages, try to find expressions and phrase structures from they languages.

PS: I'm not a native speaker and would find it amusing.

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The stackexchange sites in the culture topic contains lot of resources, and dedicated sites to several laguanges as well. stackexchange.com/sites#culture –  RMalke Mar 8 '13 at 12:09

No. 1 - Relax

I think the first thing to say is.....breathe, don't panic, relax. The more natural you can be, the better the session is likely to run. If you get stressed and worried about this, it is very likely to impact on the quality of the game, no matter what it is. From what you describe, everyone you are going to be playing with is in the same situation, including you, so they will understand.

No. 2 - Talk to them

Have you talked to them about your concerns? If they are the ones that are going to be struggling with their language, they may well be the best people to come up with strategies to help them.

No. 3 - Choose a setting that everyone is familiar with

I would go with a setting that everyone is familiar with. This means they are more likely to be comfortable with it in their own language, which to be honest is the first thing to worry about. If you introduce a new setting that they aren't familiar with, it is only going to create another obstacle for you and them. It sounds like a futuristic/sci-fi type setting would be good if this is the kind of thing everyone is used to talking about.

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The GM's lack of vocabulary is a problem, but the players' is worse. You could prepare your vocabulary in advance, but that won't work if your players don't understand you.

It is not only the vocabulary that is important, but the fluency with which you and your players can describe things and having dialogs. So try to keep things simple.

I think the best option would be to pick a modern RPG game; World of Darkness, Cthulhu, Kult, or something similar. The bad side is that I have the impression that you want a more classic RPG experience, but give it a thought.

I'd also recommend using visual aids. If you use miniatures (or tokens), you'll spend less time trying to explain where everyone is. You can also use pictures if you can make/find them, that could give them an idea without having to remember some words (fang, scale, fetter, shruberry,...). that sometimes just don't come to your mind.

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I don't believe vocabulary problems would make a game impossible. However, it would require some adaption--anything that seems like something other than the logical course of action deserves some extra discussion to be sure both sides understand the situation and what's being done.

This doesn't have to mean you have to give them a do-over of actual mistakes, though. Even with miniatures I've seen plenty of misunderstandings of position and I'm quite willing to redo such matters when it becomes apparent that the player didn't realize a geometry issue the character would have.

On the other had there's the day a wizard took a reckless snapshot at an enemy that had been sniping at them. This was in the 1E era with space-filling fireballs and they were in a bunch of small dungeon passages. Everyone else screamed NO! but there was nothing his character would have known that the player didn't. He just blind-fired it down the bearing of the arrow without regard for what was going to happen. (It ended up burning out 5' from the first characters in the party. That was one VERY tense time while I counted off squares on the map and described the flame front advancing towards them.)

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As I understand, your main concern is for the narration of the backgrounds and scenery, and not with ordinary character talk and action declaration.

My approach would be to build a common reference base within the group. You all probably have movie, reading and/or video game experiences in common. So why not refer to these when you describe scenes? E.g. "The army stands silently on the side of the forest clearing when the messenger arrives ... as before the opening battle of Gladiator." or "Your perception keeps snapping back and forth between reality and enchantment, as Danny Kaye's did in the fencing scene in The Court Jester." If you do this, there sure will be players who know the scene you are talking about, and will be able to reflect to it, to add details and to relate it to the others who may not know it. You can suggest each other stuff to watch and read for the next session. Also, visual information is much easier to grasp and remember than words, so referring to movie scenes will also have the beneficial side effect of conjuring up much more vivid images than words and descriptions, and so the party will have a better time of getting the gist of how things really look like. The players can also do this to describe their actions ("I'm scaling the wall like Errol Flynn."). In our gaming group, we do this for great effect, though we all speak our native Hungarian so language is not a barrier (e.g. for a 7th Sea Montaigne court scene, we had the storyteller watch the movie Vatel, and it added much to the story).

Speaking of visual info, you may also bring pictures and props to your game to show the players (or music and sound effects). This will not only help with the understanding, it will make the gaming experience much more profound.

Writing a vocabulary is a good thing as long as it is not a list and is easy to consult. Write the vocabulary on where it belongs: scenery adjectives on the specific locations on your map, character adjectives on the respective NPC sheets, etc. This way, whenever you are introducing something, the words will be there at your fingertips.

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