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In Pathfinder, each race starts with some given languages, usually Common and its own racial language. Characters with more Intelligence can have additional starting languages, but only taken from a racial list.

Languages: Dwarves begin play speaking Common and Dwarven. Dwarves with high Intelligence scores can choose from the following: Giant, Gnome, Goblin, Orc, Terran, and Undercommon.

What is the reason for this restriction? What if the rule was just "one additional language, any, per Intelligence bonus point", would that lead to big issues?

My current thinking is that this prevents, by RAW, creating a slightly out of the ordinary character, such as a Dwarf raised in an elven community (who I'd say would start with Common and Elven), as well as characters with varied backgrounds such as dwarven druid having learned Sylvan.

I'd understand "Suggested starting languages" and "Suggested additional languages" as a guide for new players/GMs.

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6 Answers 6

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It’s a historical thing; it works the same way it did in D&D 3.5. I completely agree with you and think it doesn’t really have any place in the racial properties. It’s setting-dependent cultural detail that any given individual may not adhere to. PCs, in particularly, are usually exceptional in many regards; while most dwarves may not be raised by elves, it wouldn’t be out of place to play that one dwarf who was.

And it completely ignores the ability of people to, ya know, learn new languages. “Isn’t that what skill points are for?” No, I’d argue: both the bonus languages due to Intelligence and skill points can represent learning new languages. Notice how certain classes add bonus languages to your race’s list for example: these are languages uncommon for your race, that you can nevertheless get as a bonus language due to your training.

So really, the rule doesn’t make a lot of sense. They may be useful for indicating the languages members of a race usually learn (but that only if your setting matches the default in these regards, which will often not be the case), but as a strict rule it doesn’t make much sense. I say abolish it.

“Secret” languages (e.g., Druidic) should still be restricted.

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I sense a bit of self-contradiction here, though I may be wrong. You say "secret" languages should still be restricted. Why? If the PCs are so exceptional, why couldn't they be raised by druids as well, instead of just elves? And, in turn, why not take the original rule to mean that for practical purposes, Elven is a "secret" language for the dwarves? They may have the brainpower to learn it, but 1. they don't like elves, 2. elves don't like dwarves (let alone raise their younglings), so it's very unlikely for a dwarf to be able start knowing Elvish. Or druidic. Or draconic, etc. –  OpaCitiZen Jul 31 '13 at 13:36
@OpaCitiZen "Secret" language has a specific definition in 3.5: one that cannot be learned via skill points. Druids magically lose all their powers if they teach it to a non-druid. That justifies the language not being one you can learn. If you can learn it with skill points, you should be able to learn it as a bonus language. –  KRyan Jul 31 '13 at 14:28

A possible explanation on the limit

Upon browsing the Core Rulebook, Humans have the ability to learn any language with Intelligence Bonus points (other than "secret" languages). Surprisingly, Half-Elves also have this ability. To my mind, this is the developers trying to make humans more appealing than non-humans.. Maybe it is just the groups I have participated in but the number of humans on one hand... and I have played in D&D groups for almost 20 years. However, that purely-crunch reason breaks immersion, there really should be a reason in the game's fiction/mythology. While I believe there is no canonical explanation on this (why justify the game's reasoning for letting fighters swing swords?) below is my suggestion for an "in-character" reasoning why non-human language choices are dictated/limited until they are in play and need to spend skill-points to learn whatever they want.

Automatic Languages

I see this as the languages a character learns in their household growing up. I am friends with a few families that emigrated "here" from a country that speaks a different language. They consider it to be one of their parental duties to make sure that their kids can speak the native language in addition to the local one. They frequently justify it as "raising a good [ethnicity] kid".

In Riddleport, or any other racially diverse city, your PC is likely to grow up learning Common (the human language? the language of business?), and the racial language... because your character's parents want your character to be a "good" elf/dwarf/whatever. Your PC is also likely to grow up celebrating [race] holidays and doing [race] cultural ritual/ceremonies. Hence the other racial traits that "all" dwarves/elves etc. know.

Bonus Languages

When you pick your bonus languages, it is something that your character learns when they are getting trained to do their class (whether through formal means or in the school of hard knocks). An archaeologist is much more likely to stumble across/need to know how to read/write Cunieform than a computer programmer is. An Elf Wizard is much more likely to stumble across Draconic than an Elf Fighter. Sure, as a computer programmer I can on a whim decide I want to learn to read/write Cunieform, but I would need to spend "skill points" on it instead of increasing my "skill points" in programming/debugging/database administration/etc.

Know when to break the rules

But like other answers have suggested, Marquee NPCs, PCs, and other edge cases exist. Maybe in a racially-integrated city, a Dwarven Wizard trainee can only find an Elvish Wizard willing to take him on as an Apprentice. Maybe that Elf Wizard swears at the dwarf in Elvish when the dwarf messes up. I would rule that the dwarf could learn elvish as an "additional" language.

I would also require a good backstory to explain any deviation from the "normal" languages/abilities.

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There is absolutely no basis for your claim that Bonus Languages come from your class. They can but that is not all they can be. For the matter, Automatic Languages need not have been those spoken at home growing up, either. –  KRyan Jul 31 '13 at 19:13

As you say, this prevents the creation of unordinary characters by default, and works to maintain world coherence which is essential for maintaining and strengthening suspension of disbelief. It is a game design decision.

Sure, it's just a guideline, as are all the rules... for the DM, mainly, as players can ignore it only with the DM's approval (or at the DM's specific request / recommendation.) In your average, standard "DnD" world, dwarves very rarely get raised by elves and rarely become druids.

Were it put the way you propose, "one additional language, any, per Intelligence bonus point", the world would likely be a more chaotic place, as this rule would imply and encourage a greater possible mingling of the races. If that's what you have in mind, and you are willing to take that into serious consideration when developing your world, it probably won't lead to big issues -- because you'd have already prevented them during preparation.

Remember, certain encounters / scenes / conflicts can easily allow and have non-combat resolution -- if language is not a barrier. Your elves find their way easier in the forest because they speak its language. Your dwarves feel alienated, out of place in the woodlands. This is reflected in the allowed languages. If you take the limits away, it means your elves lose their edge in the forest... and that there are probably "forest dwarves" out there somewhere. It's not a bad thing necessarily. Also, it's not the rules that prevent your dwarves from living in the forest. It's the nature of your dwarves that sets the rule. Change their nature, and you can ease or completely lift the rule.

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Good point! I'd like to add that some D&D settings used to tell the dwarven player that is raised by elves to use the elves regional list (including feats, languages and starting equipment). I think that's applicable to PF as well. –  Zachiel Jul 31 '13 at 8:43
As a GM, I would definitely stick to these restrictions for 99% of the setting population, but heroes (and villains and the rare quirky NPC) are unique beings with uniquely interesting paths that make them stand out from "regular beings". Thus I wouldn't enforce such limitations on them. But I would require a backstory that justifies it. –  leokhorn Jul 31 '13 at 9:13

inherited this from . I found no explanation from the authors why a limited list exists, so the answer given here is only a speculation.

A limited list of bonus languages helps defining the race's place in the world. E.g.: in most settings, gnomes have typical friends (elves, feys, dwarves) and foes (giants, orcs, kobolds, and goblinoids) they live by. That's why, for them, is more usual to know the corresponding languages.

Versatile races (humans and half-elves) have no limitation on the bonus languages they can choose from (with the exception of secret languages such as Druidic).

Also, a limited list automatically gives some languages a more obscure appeal. The fact that no core race (except the versatile ones) has Infernal, Undercommon or Celestial in their bonus languages list speaks of how few civilized people speak these tongues.

Remember also that the class choice may expand the racial list: Clerics add Infernal, Abyssal and Celestial; Wizards add Draconic; while Druids add Sylvan to their choice (and also get Druidic for free). Trivially, because bonus languages are chosen at 1st level, you don't get these additional choices when you first multiclass in one of this three classes.

Eventually, remember that each rank acquired in the Linguistic skill provides you an additional language chosen without limitations (with the exception of secret languages such as Druidic).

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It's strange because on one hand I can understand and even appreciate getting bonus language choices based on racial and "professional" (class) backgrounds... but at the same time it seems unfair that one would have to pay for access to others if they're not using all the standard ones. See rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/27584/… for when I think restrictions should be lifted. –  leokhorn Jul 31 '13 at 9:17

Some languages are more common than others. Given that everyone knows common for free, languages that are shared are less valuable. Some races DO possess the ability to learn any language with their bonus languages, or even get more languages for free per point of linguistics. Languages that are extremely rare but not secret (e.g. Otyugh scent, Mi-Go, Sahuagin) can be extremely useful in finding diplomatic solutions, or even just performing reconnaissance, in very limited situations. As a result, the languages a race or class has access to via INT points (usually the primary way of gaining languages) contribute to the power of that race/class. More powerful races, then, tend to have less language options (except that, in pathfinder, humans and half-elves are the most powerful races, so this is mostly a holdover from 3.5), while weak but common races have a great deal.

This is sort of an outgrowth of the direct correlation of rarity to usefulness found in most RPGs.

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My group went with realistic rules about languages. First, there really isn't a 'common' language; humans have many languages, dialects, idioms, slang, and accents. English is a human language; so is Russian. Chances that a common English-speaking person would know more than say... 10 words in Russian? .01%?

We went with an expanded language list.

Some cities and areas are diverse. If your character is a rogue, and especially a smooth-talker, then s/he living in a port city with many different races would have a chance to know multiple words in multiple languages, and maybe even somewhat fluent in a few. So we went with percentages; 100% native in a language of choice (and maybe not race for orphans and displaced), and then 25% proficiency for common dialects in area of birth (because those dwarven merchants are copper-pinchers). If you visit a different country, chances are you/they will sound funny. Some words may not sound right (listening to the word 'aluminium' from an Englishman and an American will give you a hint, and the difference between a Ground Floor and a First Floor) and other words make no sense (I still haven't figured out what a 'lorrie' is, but I think it's a hill). for similar languages, we went 80% for off-country dialects and accents, unless the language was totally different (like English/Russian/Mandarin/Arabic where the alphabets have no commonality whatsoever), then it was 1% (because chances are, we know a word or two, like A-Kuta Matata, Swahili for 'No Worries' thanks Disney!).

To learn a language?

To anyone who has read a 'travelers translator' and then actually had to listen to someone talk in their native language knows what a pain that is. For someone who willingly learned another language later in life (like for myself, Kurdish Arabic and Pashto), translating is a real pain. You are not going to 'automatically' know another language. Anyone whose had to learn it not from childhood will still ask what some word means. For learned languages, we instilled a 25% proficiency rating. This made for interesting gameplay as our DM would hand us a letter that looked like an Ad Lib game (actually, he used those a few times) and we had to 'guess' what a letter meant ourselves (because our DM was evil like that).

Admittedly, never been much of a rule-follower, but if you feel that the rules don't cover what you want, there's nothing saying you can't instill a 'learning program' for your character to learn a language. If they're traveling with a dwarf, chances are your character might swear in dwarven, or know how to read the word 'ale' and such. The longer they're together, the more proficient s/he'll become. I doubt you'll be reciting Elvish Shakespere, but you might be able to tell an Elf that you'll kill him if you don't get your money right now!

For the sakes of Intelligence, we went with the score as a baseline of proficency, based upon the modifier. Percentage based upon the language + modifier = chance of translation. Time spent studying increased a players' starting percentage. Just because you have an 8 as an intelligence doesn't mean you can't know multiple languages; a person born in a multi-lingual area (like India) will inherantly know multiple languages despite their intelligence.

Food for thought.

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