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My party has two Forest Gnomes and a Firbolg and they want to use their racial features to secretly communicate.

Forest Gnomes have

Speak with Small Beasts: Through sound and gestures, you may communicate simple ideas with Small or smaller beasts.

Firbolg's have:

Speech of Beast and Leaf: You have the ability to communicate in a limited manner with beasts and plants. They can understand the meaning of your words, though you have no special ability to understand them in return. You have advantage on all Charisma checks made to influence them.

Speak with Animals reads:

You gain the ability to comprehend and verbally communicate with beasts for the duration. The knowledge and awareness of many beasts is limited by their intelligence, but at minimum, beasts can give you information about nearby locations and monsters, including whatever they can perceive or have perceived within the past day. You might be able to persuade a beast to perform a small favor for you, at the GM’s discretion.

  1. Through their shared knowledge of Speak with Small Beasts can Forest Gnomes communicate simple ideas to each other?
  2. Can Forest Gnomes understand a Firbolg speaking to them as it would a small animal even though it could not respond in turn.
  3. Would a Speak With Animals user be able to eavesdrop on either?
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  • \$\begingroup\$ I think you are misunderstanding Thieve's Cant. Cant is speaking in a way that sounds normal but conveys secret meaning hidden within. Anyone who overhears Cant is totally unaware that Cant is being used. Even if you ruled that your party can speak with Speak with Small Beats and Speech of Beast and Leaf it would be obvious to anyone that they were communicating in secret. You will probably find it easier to have your party play this one straight and come up with secret words/signs to convey their meanings. \$\endgroup\$ – jgn Nov 18 at 0:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @jgn The comparison was because the Cant cannot be understood via tongues. I am aware it is not exactly discrete to be making bird calls. But the meaning is secret. \$\endgroup\$ – kent Nov 19 at 3:13
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Only if they have a friendly animal

This works, but only if they include an actual small beast in their conversation. None of the abilities involved indicate a language or other static kind of communication that could be attempted without an actual plant or animal to interact with.

That said, if any small animal is included in the conversation (for example the mouse from the Urchin background, a befriended wild animal, or a 2 cp chicken), it works more or less exactly as you describe. The Firbolg can talk to the chicken, who can tell the gnomes what the firbolg said. The gnomes can talk to the chicken, who can transmit messages between them. Someone affected by speak with animals can understand anything the chicken says to the gnomes.

Ruling that these abilities confer languages is not a bad idea

Animals in 5e don't have languages. In past editions, the ability of gnomes to speak with animals often implied that they did:

3.5: forest gnomes have "a simple language that enables them to communicate on a very basic level with forest animals"

AD&D: surface gnomes speak "the languages of burrowing mammals"

If you want to run a game with previous edition setting material, or if you want your world to have this sort of animal communication, it makes sense to have animals have languages and rule that these abilities work via that mechanism and thus are interintelligible. This is, of course, not part of the RAW but it also isn't contrary to the RAW and consequently you won't have any mechanical problems you didn't already have when ruling this way.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not familiar with previous editions. Were the language you described subject to tongues or speak with animals? \$\endgroup\$ – kent Nov 16 at 18:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Never tongues, but with speak with animals it depends. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Nov 17 at 0:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @kent that's in terms of how I've seen it usually played. In 2E technically tongues is written such that it might work, but I've never seen it ruled that way. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Nov 17 at 2:28
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Rules as written, none of this works. All the abilities you list only allow communications with beasts or plants. Firbolgs and Gnomes are neither beasts nor plants.

That said, there's no reason your party can't create their own secret means of communication through other means, or even for you to allow the abilities to work the way you want.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Thieves Cant can convey meaning in the ways regular language, even private one, can't, so I wouldn't worry too much about it. Of course answer would be improved by analyzing this. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Nov 16 at 15:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Thieves Cant has special, intrinsic abilities that another engineered language may not necessarily have. Theives' Cant can only be understood by someone who knows the cant at the cost of taking 4x as long as communicating. Since the asker is effectively homebrewing their own secret language, they can create unique advantages and drawbacks that differentiate it from the cant. \$\endgroup\$ – JRodge01 Nov 16 at 16:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ As Molot suggested, if you could include some pros/cons and things to watch out for when homebrewing your own language (as well as maybe citing rules on learning new languages), that would be really helpful. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Nov 16 at 16:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately I only have experience using the linguist feat for making ciphers to communicate secretly, which isn't applicable for what the asker wants. Feel free to edit in something if you have useful info, though! \$\endgroup\$ – JRodge01 Nov 16 at 17:08
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Not by raw, but it makes perfect sense

If you say make noises that a squirrel would understand, and someone nearby also speaks squirrel then they would understand too. This is one of those things that 5th edition allows by giving a lot off leeway to a DM and I can't see an argument against it really.

I wouldn't make it a language as such, that just seems to be an unnecessary layer of complexity.

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Those traits are not useful for secret communication.

Firbolgs and forest gnomes are not beasts nor plants so Speak with Small Beasts and Speech of Beast and Leaf doesn't work to communicate between them. Even if you ignore that, neither trait allows for secret communication.

Speak with Small Beasts:

Through sound and gestures, you may communicate simple ideas with Small or smaller beasts.

If someone repeatedly gestures in a certain direction, I will eventually understand I need to go in that direction, but a rat never will (unless it is a trained rat). Whereas if a forest gnome does the same, even a rat can understand.

Speak with Small Beast doesn't need to work on other people, because people are already capable of communicating simple ideas with each other through sounds and gestures. Anyone person who notices sounds and gestures could understand because they are not codewords and secret signs.

Speech of Beast and Leaf:

You have the ability to communicate in a limited manner with beasts and plants. They can understand the meaning of your words, though you have no special ability to understand them in return.

If someone says "Go over there", I can understand what they are saying if I understand the language, but a dog or cactus will never understand (unless it is a trained dog). Whereas if a firbolg says the same, even a cactus can somehow understand.

If Speech of Beast and Leaf worked on creatures other than beasts and plants, then the firbolg would be capable of one-way communication with anyone through meaningful words, but this trait doesn't let the firbolg choose individual targets, so anyone who overhears those words would also understand.

Allow your players to communicate secretly anyway

The idea that a party of firbolgs and forest gnomes can communicate secretly with each other is fun and thematic. A couple days of prep-work to come up with some code words and unique gestures is all that is necessary to communicate some simple concepts. Other people would generally be capable of noticing this communication, but the meaning would be obscure.

Dismissing this prep-work as a basic understanding between nature-minded races is entirely within the purview of the DM.

Also note that this is different from Thieve's Cant, which allows people to pass hidden messages through seemingly normal conversations and hidden signs.

During your rogue training you learned thieves' cant, a secret mix of dialect, jargon, and code that allows you to hide messages in seemingly normal conversation. Only another creature that knows thieves' cant understands such messages. It takes four times longer to convey such a message than it does to speak the same idea plainly.

In addition, you understand a set of secret signs and symbols used to convey short, simple messages, such as whether an area is dangerous or the territory of a thieves' guild, whether loot is nearby, or whether the people in an area are easy marks or will provide a safe house for thieves on the run.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That the sound and gestures of a forest gnome to communicate with animals are intelligible to non-animals is beyond the RAW. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Nov 17 at 16:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you saying Firbolgs have an always-on magical translation of anything they say? And not that they know how to communicate in a way separate from language? \$\endgroup\$ – kent Nov 17 at 19:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @kent I'm not saying it is an always-on effect. But it is like a magical translation directed towards beasts and plants. "They can understand the meaning of your words" implies that the firbolg communicates with language. The firbolg needs to speak words that have meaning to be understood by beasts and plants and, other than some really fringe scenariors, that means the firbolg needs to speak in a language. \$\endgroup\$ – Ruse Nov 18 at 0:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @kent although in many other ways Speech of Beast and Plant is not like a translation. For example a translation needs both sides to underatand at least one language, which is not the case with Speech of Beast and Plant. Eitherway I have clarified my answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Ruse Nov 18 at 0:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Pleasestopbeingevil it is sounds and gestures, not codewords and secret signs. \$\endgroup\$ – Ruse Nov 18 at 0:53
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They seem logically incompatible

The Gnome can't understand what the Firbolg is saying, since a Gnome is neither a beast nor a plant. So Speech of Beast and Leaf can't be used in this way.

The Gnome can make "sounds and gestures" that would be understandable to a small beast (when conveying simple ideas). The Firbolg could probably understand them, unfortunately any other sentient creature probably can too. Not ideal for secret communication.

So what options do they have? Well, normal secret communication.

  • Use hand signals: "if I scratch my ear it means the noble is lying"
  • Use coded phrases: "'the goblin has fled the burrow' means 'the guards have left their post'"
  • Use a code: "my code name is bugbear and yours is gelatinous cube"
  • Use regional slang and shared knowledge: "Ey cuz got a durry?"
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