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The Linguist feat gives three extra languages. A feat for 3 languages seems problematic and not balanced with all the other feats available, many of which seem highly desirable and the feat doesn't seemed balanced in desirability with others given the combat nature of most feats.

How can I balance a desire for languages and complexity in culture in D&D against this feat? Is this a mechanics, a setting or a story style solution?

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up vote 19 down vote accepted

As written, the Linguist feat seems to be a poor choice for most players in most campaigns.

If languages are useful in your campaign, then the feat will be desirable. Making languages useful is difficult. If you make language use essential, then you run the risk of frustrating players when they cannot communicate with NPCs. "Hand signal" role-play is only fun the first time.

Don't make languages annoying

You want to emphasis complexity in culture, but you don't want to annoy players.

Hand-wave the common spoken languages. Just let characters talk to each other. Which languages are common depends on your setting. Probably the major races all speak a smattering of each other's languages. Another way to think of this: the old "Common" language is really a mash-up of useful human, elven, and dwarven words and grammar.

A little carrot: Make knowing languages useful

Emphasize the importance of being able to read exotic languages like Draconian and Infernal. Ancient books full of writing in these languages contain long forgotten secrets!

If a character "knows" a language, explain linguistic quirks to the player. For example, don't just tell them that the elf is angry; explain that the idiom the elf is using goes something like "I wouldn't waste a second on you," and because elves live hundreds of years, this is much more meaningful than if a human said it.

To give the Linguist feat a bit more bite, house rule it so that the player also gets a +1 linguist bonus to Diplomacy checks when speaking to a person in their native tongue and a +1 linguist bonus to History checks when recalling information about that culture. The bonuses apply to all languages that the character knows, not just the three new ones.

A little stick: Make not knowing languages inconvenient

Maybe characters know enough language to have a basic conversation, but their lack of true understanding hurts them when nuance of dialect is important. A character who makes a skill check that relies upon verbal communication, but who does not know the language, takes a -5 -5 penalty on those skill checks. Maybe even on checks involving nonverbal communication, since so much depends on culture.

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+1 for the house-rule example. – F. Randall Farmer Oct 28 '10 at 6:06

The feat has great utility... if you are not running 4E in a boardgame mode.

In non-combat encounters, most of the action should be taking place in a single area, and the PC's should speak the primary language. They also should be speak their ethnic tongues.

If you want to make it both more realistic in play and more useful, have most people in towns speaking their ethnic tongues. They speak common to the outsiders... but not to each other.

Likewise, in combat, one can not understand the opponent's chatter and taunts unless you know their language. Many bard powers could be nerfed... and not a few others, as well.

It's an area that can safely be ignored, but opting to not ignore it makes the feat quite useful.

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Upvoted for the insight into bard-and-other-linguistic powers. – gomad Oct 27 '10 at 23:43
This is why, when going up against a certain DM, I make sure we have a party member that speaks Goblin. – Iszi Oct 28 '10 at 17:19

Just wanted to add that for bluff/intimidate/disguise checks, language is incredibly helpful. I had a character (shapeshifter) who didn't have many language skills, so his disguises weren't nearly as effective.

Another character does have a lot of language skills, so everyone goes to her when there are clues in a foreign language.

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