I've already read this post but just wanted to get clarification;

I am new to D&D and have created a Half-Orc War Cleric who was once a soldier... His back story involves demons and I decided to add Abyssal to his languages, but with disadvantage if needed.

Can I get away with this - without swapping out Keth Grey-Tusk's proficiencies?

I am pretty sure this will be a duplicate, or at the very least, up to my DM. But I wanted to clarify before the start of the campaign.

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    \$\begingroup\$ what do you mean by "with disadvantage"? And double checking: this is not adventurer's league game, right? \$\endgroup\$
    – Vylix
    Jan 16, 2019 at 11:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ I added "with disadvantage" because the character's backstory claims he learnt it whilst fighting demons - so the idea was that it was learnt haphazardly... just in case my DM requires stringent rules. I believe we're playing vanilla D&D 5e. \$\endgroup\$
    – else
    Jan 16, 2019 at 12:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ You don't have advantage or disadvantage on languages; you either know them or you don't. What exactly is the question here? Whether it's allowed to take an exotic language at first level? \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    Jan 16, 2019 at 12:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ yes, Erik. Could I get away with it based on backstory? \$\endgroup\$
    – else
    Jan 16, 2019 at 12:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ By "get away with it", do you mean "Can I choose to learn an exotic language at character creation?" Are you replacing one of your existing known languages with this, or trying to get the language for free? (Since half-orcs don't get a choice of language besides their starting two, and the Soldier background doesn't come with any language proficiencies unless you customize it.) \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Jan 16, 2019 at 13:49

4 Answers 4


Up to your GM

Assuming you have free picks of language left, the Player's Handbook tells you to choose any languages you can pick yourself from the Standard Languages --- Common, Dwarvish, Elvish, Giant, Gnomish, Goblin, Halfling or Orc --- or to pick one that's common in the campaign you're playing. However, it also says the following:

With your DM's permission, you can instead choose a language from the Exotic Languages table or a secret language, such as thieves' cant or the tongue of druids.

Therefore, all you need to do is convince your GM to accept the choice of language. The choice of languages is usually not very important in a game, so typically requests like this are easy to accommodate, but of course your GM's game might play up their importance, in which case they're the best person to determine whether the choice of language is bad for the game or not.

If you have no free picks of language left, prepare to argue harder, as you're essentially asking for a free (if slight) bonus to your character's abilities. It might help to point out that Abyssal is, in practice, of relatively little use as the bulk of its speakers are demons who prefer destruction over discussion.


Languages generally come from your race or background.

Half-orcs do not know Abyssal, so this would essentially be a custom background and, as the link you provided points out, such a background may well provide Abyssal as an option.

So ultimately it would be up to the DM. You may want to look at the existing backgrounds first though. The "Soldier" background may be an obvious choice but Acolyte could also apply and that does provide two languages of your choice. There is no reason why you can't choose a background that fits the mechanical benefits you are after and simply provide a different story to go with it.

NB: As Erik pointed out in the comments to your question, you either know a language or you don't by D&D rules. Again, if you wanted to limit yourself as a purely role-playing choice then you could discuss with your DM how this could play out (e.g. an Intelligence check perhaps to understand the gist of a conversation).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Doesn't the Player's Handbook allow one to customize a background by changing skills and/or exchanging tool proficiencies and languages? \$\endgroup\$
    – Davo
    Jan 16, 2019 at 13:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Davo yes, it does, but usually that is a collaborative effort between DM and Player to make it fit the campaign. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 16, 2019 at 13:43

From the 5E SRD:

Customizing a Background

You might want to tweak some of the features of a background so it better fits your character or the campaign setting. To customize a background, you can replace one feature with any other one, choose any two skills, and choose a total of two tool proficiencies or languages from the sample backgrounds.


It is possible

The Curse of Strahd adventure includes an additional character background option: Haunted One (Appendix A, pg. 209).

Aside from skill proficiencies, starting equipment, background feature, and suggested characteristics, it includes:

Languages: Choose one exotic language (Abyssal, Celestial, Deep Speech, Draconic, Infernal, Primordial, Sylvan, or Undercommon)

This background choice does require collaboration with your DM if used outside that adventure, as it isn't from the WoTC core books.


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