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I am currently involved in a game of Fate Accelerated, and one of our goals is learning the system and experimenting with it. In this game, two characters may have a language barrier to overcome. One is a regular girl; the other only has scattered memories of as-yet-undefined content and time periods. Crucially, these memories might not provide a language in common with the girl.

I'm considering how to make a language barrier between these two characters that is fun and interesting to overcome as the focus of the scene. Since in Fate, narrative and mechanics are often the same thing (and my group got together to experiment with the system), how do I use Fate mechanics to create tension and make scenes dealing with this problem compelling without cheapening or changing the fundamental problem? Making a foreign language suddenly understandable isn’t an interesting challenge, and neither is having someone restate it.

The fate fractal ("Bronze Rule," Core270) suggests that we could model it like On Fire: a "character" representing a burning floor with stress track, aspects, and stunts. How much like a character would this Language Barrier (possibly with aspects like Lack of Comprehension or A Thousand Possible Languages...) be? Would it attack/create advantage against the PCs? Could we attack/overcome its aspects? In either case, how?

We want to have a scene play out, at an interesting time scale, exploring these two characters breaking down this language barrier. How can we make this a fun and narratively interesting scene? What would be a few appropriate long term and interesting complications of failure or consequences?

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Not enough for an answer, but why not handle this narratively instead of mechanically? The group can quickly work up a small, but useful vocabulary. Sure you may learn a few words of her language and she will learn a few of the rest of the groups. Practice like this could also TEACH her the language the rest of the group speaks. –  Pulsehead Jun 4 '13 at 13:04
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@Pulsehead Because we (I'm part of the group too) want to explore the potential of the fate fractal (bronze rule, Core270) and see what can be done to make this interesting and fun mechanically with that tool. –  BESW Jun 4 '13 at 13:17
    
Quick question- what do you mean by "Interesting timescale"? Fully understanding a truly foreign language takes years. I assume this is too long. I think I have an answer, but would like to fine tune it a bit. –  IgneusJotunn Jun 4 '13 at 13:40
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"Leeloo Dallas mul-ti-pass." This sounds like it could be lots of fun! –  SevenSidedDie Jun 4 '13 at 16:30
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en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Darmok_(episode) very good storywise source for language/culture barrier. It is from Star Trek universe where universal translator exists, so it is kinda interesting. –  aardvark Jun 5 '13 at 9:37
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5 Answers 5

Fractal is the way to go here. Try this on for size, some trimming may be needed for it to fit perfectly. I'm going to be assuming she speaks Latin fluently, and the rest of the party speaks modern English where assumptions need to be made.

High Concept: Language Barrier

Aspects: Romance Language Family, Ancient Tongue, Seeming Similarity

Approaches: Complex +1, Local +2, Idioms +2

Stress: 000

Consequences

Mild:
Moderate:
Severe:

Behavior- Every time an attempt is made to communicate, the GM may have Language Barrier start a conflict. The PC is attempting to force a concession from it, treating it as a normal obstacle. Language Barrier tends to maneuver, attempting to place aspects representing miscommunications on those trying to communicate. ("No thank you, I eat bees" "Help! I hate you!") It will either use those aspects to invoke for effect (namely, an ill advised action) or use them to attack the PCs stress track, trying to get consequences related to the language barrier. ("Aqua means Fire" "She gratiasing hates me.")

Important note- Assuming the PC has previously caused a consequence on Language Barrier, they can (and probably should) invoke that consequence to communicate unimpeded- as long as it's worth the FATE points, and the consequence is still around. (Language barrier heals consequences as normal.) Another important note- Language Barrier should be an aspect of the inhibited character, allowing for compels to create automatic failures where GM feels appropriate. GM may always not have Language Barrier attack, should they decide.

Why not use a consequence or an aspect?

(IHMO applies to everything following this. These are both possible ways to do it, but I think a fractal (though possibly not this particular fractal) is the best solution.)

Aspects are generally something that works both ways. A good aspect helps you as often as it hurts, and if you want this to be a disadvantage, then this works better. That said, an aspect is not a bad fit- certainly there's no problem with having one aspect that's mostly bad, and with creativity this could be used well. I used this longer way because "use an aspect" is a three word answer, and I assumed the OP was aware of that option. Also, there's little a character can mechanically do to combat an aspect. (Other than change it at the next opportunity, and narrativly fight against it.) Consequences on the other hand are uniformly bad. (Not that you can't invoke a consequence, but that having a consequence = bad thing in the mechanics of the game. It's something to avoid whenever you can.) Starting play with a consequence is equivalent to starting most games with a serious hit point loss- possible, and an option if you don't mind a mechanical penalty for coming up with an interesting story. As a GM and as a player, I tend to prefer rewards going to players who come up with cool stories.

The advantage of the fractal is that you can damage it. Over time, you'll inflict consequences on it, which let you bypass it easier, both by invoking it's consequences and by the smaller amount of stress it can take before conceding. These consequences are sections of the language where you figure out how it works. (Say, certain words you know know the meaning of, or parts of the grammatical structure.) Eventually, you'll take it out- not just force a concession, but a complete victory. At that point, you can make it go away for good, just like if you took out a bad guy, you could kill him or otherwise completely remove them from any future encounters.

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How would you recommend reducing the severity of the language barrier over time? What is the advantage of using the bronze rule as opposed to merely making this an aspect or trouble? –  Bradd Szonye Jun 5 '13 at 1:07
    
That's a good enough question that I edited the answer to give my reasons. TL:DR- Aspects change eventually, but there's little in the interim that you can do to force a change. A conflict with an aspect is also known as a compel, and that's probably too short to be interesting for something like this. –  IgneusJotunn Jun 5 '13 at 18:47
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Since you're already calling upon a Fate Core concept to establish this dilemma -- the Fate fractal -- I'm comfortable suggesting that you use another Fate Core system to address it: the more complex rules for consequences, particularly the rules for recovery on FC164. Establish the "inability to communicate" as a Severe Consequence, and then treat efforts to breach the language gap as recovery actions, which both of you can work at. This also allows for the "inability to communicate" to be compelled or invoked by the opposition for as long as it exists, which is a nice source of Fate Points.

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Ooh, interesting. Penalties and resolution mechanics all in one tidy predefined package. –  BESW Jun 4 '13 at 14:43
    
My one issue with that approach is that starting the game with a severe consequence hurts. Your player may be fine with that, but they should be aware they are starting at a disadvantage. –  IgneusJotunn Jun 4 '13 at 14:58
    
@IgneusJotunn It seems like "starting at a disadvantage" is something they want to do. Since they're open to it being resolved in a single session, I could see lowering it to Moderate. But it's mainly going to hurt in situations where the opposition knows they can't communicate effectively and can take advantage of it; it's more about the stress of not being able to be understood. –  Jadasc Jun 4 '13 at 15:03
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Let me rephrase- There are interesting character flaws, and there are sharp and strong mechanical penalties. Since you normally only have one Severe consequence, not being able to take a Severe hit (because it's already taken up with this) means you can be forced to concede much earlier than you otherwise would. If the player is willing, fine- but they should know they're starting with half of their ability to mitigate damage gone. –  IgneusJotunn Jun 4 '13 at 15:08
    
Fair enough. My thinking is that if this narrative element is going to be important enough to develop or adapt a mechanic to handle it, it should have the teeth needed to enforce that importance. This is balanced by the fact that teaching someone to communicate with you is less dangerous to them and to you, generally, than setting a shattered leg or easing someone through trauma. It'll be risky for a while, but the recovery actions will take it to Moderate and then Mild in relatively short order. I think the warning is valid, and the comment helpful. –  Jadasc Jun 4 '13 at 15:14
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Building on Jadasc's answer: For a non-human character like a space alien or a fairy, you can model this with a stunt that modifies the game rules. For example:

Because I am a resilient plant creature, I get an additional mild consequence slot. The slot is initially filled with the consequence “Doesn't speak the local language.” This stunt does not count against refresh until the initial consequence is removed.

While the consequence lasts, the player will not be able to communicate clearly, and the group can compel it to produce miscommunication. The language barrier will persist for one full scene after succeeding at a recovery action. That may be sufficient to emulate Hollywood language barriers, especially if you use a montage scene for the recovery action. If you prefer something longer-lasting, start with a moderate or severe consequence in the slot (but have it turn into a mild slot once the barrier is overcome).

You could accomplish something similar by starting out with a “temporary” aspect or trouble and buying it off with the advancement rules. That will give you more control over the progression of the language barrier, whereas a consequence will require certain specific conditions and waiting periods in play.

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If you'd prefer an aspect to a consequence, please see my other answer. –  Bradd Szonye Jun 5 '13 at 3:04
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If you'd like more creative control over the language barrier, you can simply create an aspect to represent it, then refine the aspect over time using the character advancement and change rules (Fate Core p. 256, FAE p. 33).

Example:

Alice plays Yuri, a defector from Eastern Europe. He starts play with “In Soviet Russia, They Don't Speak English.” Alice can invoke this to take advantage of Russian language and culture, or compel it for language barriers and culture clashes.

For the first session, Yuri can manage only the most basic communication. Alice doesn't want to deal with that kind of hindrance for long, so she uses her first minor milestone to rename the aspect to “Russian–English Phrasebook.” That turns out to be pretty fun, so she keeps it for a few sessions. Eventually, Yuri takes night classes, and the aspect changes at the next milestone to “Fluent in Russian (English, Not So Much).” Over time, Alice can keep working on Yuri's language skills at her own pace.

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Separating this idea from my earlier answer at the questioner's request. –  Bradd Szonye Jun 5 '13 at 3:02
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I have a few ideas, but they do not involve FATE mechanics, they are quite system agnostic. On the other hand, they may not fit your setting, game mood or personal preferences, still Im going to give it a shot.

Charades

This may not work very well, it may also work great - did you consider making it a little charades game? Lay out some ground rules, ban some moves, gestures or other ways of communicating. If you have a serious setting and a grim story, this wont work. But if your gaming sessions allow for some fun, this could be quite nice. There are many party games using some form of charades and people have great fun playing them. Let your player make a pantomime saying "If you screw this up, Ill bite you in the ass!". You will also communicate what the NPC has to say in a similar manner. In time, you and the players will probably forge a little meta-language of signs, greately resebling getting familiar with a new language. After some time, youll just start talking normally.

Not in the mood for suggestive dancing and humming?

You could also play it out a bit more seriously. You could let the player and the character communicate via drawings and pictograms (that would actually work quite well in normal life too!). Another idea would be to assemble a list of common words (not many of them) and make the player forge his message out of them. To depict the growing proficeincy of the characters in using the other language, you could add new words every now and then.

This could be made by handing the player pieces of paper with words he can use. See the player haggle or establish a VIP protection agreement using only the words "cash" "food" "booze" "your mother" "cold" "bacon" "you" "me" "pew! pew! pew!" "yes" and "no way!".

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any comments for the -1 are welcome. Without it the -1 isnt actually helpful. While the answer does not use Fate mechanics, as Jonathan suggested, it does tackle the problem of making overcoming language barriers interesting. –  K.L. Jun 4 '13 at 13:36
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Thanks for the entertaining ideas (very Og-like of which I approve), but this is explicitly not what the OP asked for. Easiest way to get a downvote is to start an answer by admitting you're not answering the question. (And so the fact that we're running the game as play-by-chat and can't use them because of that is actually irrelevant.) If you'd like to talk about it more, please enter the chat. –  BESW Jun 4 '13 at 13:37
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I see I misinterpreted the "make scenes dealing with this problem compelling without cheapening or changing the fundamental problem?" and was wrong to ignore the use of FATE mechanics. Still, i think I wont be deleting the answer, as someone might find it helpful and entertaining regardless. And thanks for the Og link, @BESW - it sounds hilarious and I just have to try it! :) –  K.L. Jun 4 '13 at 13:44
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