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I have a player in my game I'll call "Joe" running a Bard I'll call "Hansel."

Hansel has the Actor feat, and does not speak Orc. Hansel listened to an Orc for 1 minute a few adventures ago, a 2nd PC taught Hansel one short Orc phrase, and I allowed Hansel to repeat the new phrase, in Orc, mimicking the voice of the Orc Hansel had just listened to.

Joe has recently expanded this to insist that if the 2nd character now says several Orc phrases over the course of a minute, Hansel can repeat each phrase at will, mimicking the voice of that Orc. Joe believes that Hansel can also rearrange the words to create new phrases, on the fly in conversation with Orcs - and that this can also fool any Orc into thinking it is an Orc from their own War Band, so long as there is a door there to muffle the sound.

Joe claims that anything short of meeting this demand undermines the entire usefulness of the Actor feat, and therefore robs his character of 4 levels worth of adventuring.

Can the Actor feat allow a character to effectively speak a language they don't know?

I think Hansel could mimic a specific Orc's voice, after 60 sequential seconds of listening to it speak consistently (though not necessarily persistently), but only using languages Hansel already knows.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are there any movies where an actor performs in a language they don't know just by mimicking the sounds convincingly enough? \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Jan 30 at 23:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @jgn: There have been some cases of actors learning their lines phonetically. Sometimes it doesn't work out and they dub their lines, but sometimes it makes it into the movies. A google for actors learned lines phonetically found forum.language-learners.org/viewtopic.php?t=1746 which mentions Bela Lugosi in Dracula as an example. (English is much more widespread in the era of mass media / Internet, and/or casting directors don't go for it as much, so it's rare these days.) But that's only part 1 of Joe's plan: part 2 involves re-arranging sounds without guidance from a translator! \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Jan 31 at 9:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Would it be an option to have the player make a (difficult) intelligence check every time he doesn't exactly repeat the sentence he heard and for every sentence he tries to understand and if he fails the orc will notice that he's not speaking to an orc? This would allow him to try to speak the language to some degree, but he can't actually hold a conversation. Every time he tries to modify what he heard, he takes a risk. \$\endgroup\$ – Morfildur Jan 31 at 14:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Being able to say "Mi aerodeslizador esta lleno de anguilas" and actually knowing what it means are two completely different things. \$\endgroup\$ – Zibbobz Jan 31 at 14:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ The biggest thing I'd say is "Unless you know the language, trying to put together sentences from other sentences is bound to be EXTREMELY jarring for a native speaker". There's just no way this makes sense :/ \$\endgroup\$ – Patrice Jan 31 at 16:45
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No, Of Course Not.

First, this is not what the feat says. It says you can mimic the speech of a person, or the sounds of a creature. It says absolutely nothing about understanding the speech as it is being spoken, much less performing the kind of complex adaptation involved in learning the language whole.

Second, this is just not how languages in the real world work. Real languages aren't just one to one mappings from this vocabulary to that vocabulary-- life and language would be much simpler if they were. Real languages differ by grammar (try learning Latin or Chinese as an English-speaker) and often by phoneme sets, patterns of inflection, idiomatic expressions, local dialects, etc. The most you'll get from a few minutes or even a few hours of exposure is a sort of an embarrassing pastiche of ways to ask where the bathroom is in very broken Orcish in a presumptively Human accent.

Third, this should not be a back door into learning infinite languages, effortlessly. Not only does the text of the feat not support this, but other rules give insight into the appropriate level of effort for learning a language:

The Linguist feat, on page 167 of the PHB, gives an additional three languages. Alternately, spending 250 days of downtime-- at the cost of 1 gp per day-- studying or learning a new language (PHB page 187). These are the levels of effort or investment required to learn a new language in a meaningful sense, and they are both much higher than "Odd side effect of a previously bought fully powered feat.)

In short, the feat (in the first point) says nothing about the ability to improvise speech which has not already been heard. In some cases that will be reasonable and in other cases it will not. The second point argues very strongly that it is reasonable to improvise speech in a known language, but not in an unknown language... and the Actor feat does not grant a new language on one minute exposure.

There are a range of concessions you might make, which are up to you as a game master:

  • You might allow the concession you've already made: Learn one phrase at a time. I'd be a little worried about setting a bad precedent (depending on the player) but I'd probably allow it.

  • You might allow the Actor to come up with a string of sounds that sounds like Orcish to someone who isn't a speaker. I'd probably allow that.

  • You might allow the Actor to deliver a set speech, with sufficient exposure to the speech and some practice; or perhaps a set of stock phrases. I'd probably allow that, too.

  • You might even allow a scene from Cyranorc de Bergero, where someone is whispering the right Orcish phrases into his ear and he says them... but you'd have to wonder why the extravagent ruse. And even there I would start levying heavy penalties to the necessary rolls.

Or, you can always say, "No, languages in my world are much simpler, so this all works." But you are not obligated to, and the player simply isn't empowered to. And if that is literally the only use he has for the Actor feat, I think this failure of imagination is on him.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd argue that Actor can let a character repeat phrases without an accent if taught by a native speaker, but I agree that improvising speech definitely isn't part of the feat, as it requires knowledge of grammar. \$\endgroup\$ – Pahlavan Jan 31 at 6:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for Cyranorc de Bergero ! :-D \$\endgroup\$ – breversa Jan 31 at 9:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @breversa Honestly, that justified typing in the whole answer, for me. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Jan 31 at 9:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ Being able to imitate speech without actually speaking the language reminds me of a scene in Family Guy where Peter Griffin thinks that he can speak Italian because he has a mustache. So he goes up to an Italian butcher and starts saying, in his best Italian accent, "Babada bupi? Ba, bada, bada ba dupi!" This is roughly what I imagine will happen here. At best, you might fool someone who doesn't speak the language into thinking that you do, and that's only if you're good enough. \$\endgroup\$ – probably_someone Jan 31 at 17:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ For the record, I like all 4 answers, but this is the one I will quote for him. Probably allow the 1st 3 options, the 4th will require adding Keen Mind (Thanks Smart_TJ). Will never allow reformatting. "Donde esta el baño" for "Where is the bathroom", and "Yo quiero cerveza" for "I want beer" cannot be jumbled into "Where is the beer" without risking "I want a bathroom" or "Bathroom in my beer." \$\endgroup\$ – Gramor Fale Jan 31 at 17:44
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No, the character with the actor feat cannot converse in a language they don't know.

Faithfully mimicking the sounds of an orc is definitely fair game. Conversing even in a rudimentary way in a language they don't know is essentially getting all languages for free, and is not included with the feat.

The player has misinterpreted "speech"

The actor feat states:

You can mimic the speech of another person or the sounds made by other creatures.

In the above statement, the meaning of speech is in the sense of an individual manner or style of speaking. Inflection, accent, and cadence of someone's speech is what would be imitated.

Wasted feat

Joe claims that anything short of meeting this demand undermines the entire usefulness of the Actor feat, and therefore robs his character of 4 levels worth of adventuring.

Four levels with just a single feat to show for it? That really is a sad tale.

Create situations where the feat is useful

Seems like the player is really interesting in using this feat, and that it would be fun for them to do so. Consider including situations where mimicking one speaker or creature's noises could be useful, such as:

  • Orders are being shouted back and forth.
  • Witnessing the hunting cry of a krayt dragon such that sand people might be scared off in a subsequent encounter.
  • Overhearing a pass phrase to gain access to a secret establishment.
  • Shibboleths are difficult for anyone else to imitate, and the actor feat would defeat these handily.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Joe's desire to make a feat do what he wants and not what it says is Joe's problem, not the DM's. Otherwise the Actor feat would say that you could speak any language you have heard for a minute. \$\endgroup\$ – Tiger Guy Jan 31 at 5:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ScottDunnington It's likely an indication of what Joe thinks is fun and wants to play with, so it's a useful clue to the DM about what is fun for the players at their table. The fun of the players at the table is very much the concern of a good DM. \$\endgroup\$ – GcL Jan 31 at 13:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for shibboleths-- the idiomatic's idiom! \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Jan 31 at 18:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's up to the player to find situations where their PCs' abilities are useful. If they fail and choose to whine about how useless their traits are, they just have some life lessons to learn. Having the GM "Create situations where the feat is useful" should only be done to a natural degree, or else it'll be perpetuating their perverse view that the universe should hand them circumstances on a platter. I mean, unless that's actually part of the game's contract that the GM has embraced and not through emotional blackmail. \$\endgroup\$ – Dronz Jan 31 at 18:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Dronz as the DM has the greatest control over the narrative, it's incumbent on them to direct the story to things that are fun for everyone at the table. Given some information that the players like it when their abilities are useful, providing them opportunities for that is squarely on the shoulders of the DM. Capitalizing on those situations is up the players. \$\endgroup\$ – GcL Feb 1 at 1:48
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Anyone can repeat phrases

if the 2nd character now says several Orc phrases over the course of a minute, Hansel can repeat each phrase at will, mimicking the voice of that Orc.

If I explain to you that "buenos días" means "good morning", "gracias" means "thanks", and "¿cómo estás?" means "how are you?" then I'm sure you can repeat them back to me.

If you have ever been to a foreign country or even interacted with someone who speaks a different language then I'm sure you have had the experience of asking or being asked "how do I say X". This is something that anyone can do.

Actor lets you imitate voices

If you are good at imitating voices then I'm sure you can try copy my exact voice. Give it a try, go to google translate and type something in then try to copy the voice. Even though it's another language I'm sure you can get pretty close to realize that someone skilled could do it. That's the extent of what the Actor feat can do.

Creating new phrases requires knowledge of individual words, if not grammar

Joe believes that Hansel can also rearrange the words to create new phrases, on the fly in conversation with Orcs

This is where the plan falls apart. Even if you have memorized how to listen for and respond to 100 phrases, you are going to be out of luck when hear something not on the list.

If you know what each word means then you may be able to swap "I like cats" for "I like dogs" easily. But there could be all kinds of unknown grammar rules that you have no idea about:

Tanner Swett said:

In Polish, "This cheese is good" is Ten ser jest dobry, "I like this cheese" is Lubię ten ser, and "This dog is good" is Ten pies jest dobry.

So how do you say "I like this dog"? It's Lubię ten pies, right? No, it's actually Lubię tego psa.

Now I'll give you another sentence. "I don't like this dog" is Nie lubię tego psa. What is "I don't like this cheese"? It's Nie lubię ten ser, right? No, it's actually Nie lubię tego sera.

You may be able to decompose something you heard and try to guess the meaning, you may be able to swap out a few words to slightly change sentences, but if there is more than a minor difference, then you will need to know about the grammar structure of the language, and that isn't an easy thing to know.

Speaking slowly with broken language and a soundboard isn't convincing

  • and that this can also fool any Orc into thinking it is an Orc from their own War Band, so long as there is a door there to muffle the sound.

Imagine you are the Orc, hanging out at your War Band's hideout. You knock on a door and you hear a voice that sounds Orcish (though not a voice you recognize) repeating back phrases like a sound board: "Hello. I am your friend Grog. I am a fellow Orc from your War Band. I enjoy cheese".

If you ask a complex question they pause for a while then reply in broken English: "What kinds of cheese do you like?" "... Yes. Yes I cheese. Enjoy much for cheese the. Cheddar."

So, are you convinced? Must be Grog, maybe he ate some bad cheese that's why he sounds funny?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Like to upvote post! Post high quality. Plus one post action like I! \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Jan 31 at 15:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ 'If you know what each word means then you can swap "I like cats" for "I like dogs" easily.' – You might not even be so lucky. :D In Polish, "This cheese is good" is Ten ser jest dobry, "I like this cheese" is Lubię ten ser, and "This dog is good" is Ten pies jest dobry. So how do you say "I like this dog"? It's Lubię ten pies, right? No, it's actually Lubię tego psa. Now I'll give you another sentence. "I don't like this dog" is Nie lubię tego psa. What is "I don't like this cheese"? It's Nie lubię ten ser, right? No, it's actually Nie lubię tego sera. See my point? :D \$\endgroup\$ – Tanner Swett Jan 31 at 19:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TannerSwett @_@;;;;;;; I added your examples to the post, thanks for the write up! \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Feb 1 at 2:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Languages with a lot of infections and cases are generally sound broken if you go the way of swapping words in sentences. Imagine embarassment of saying word for "not" in first person singular instead of second person plural. Forgetting to swap vowel in case suffix because you are attaching it to a different word. Using adjective which is only used with animate nouns to describe an object. Adding informal form of the verb to otherwise formal speech... \$\endgroup\$ – Revolver_Ocelot Feb 1 at 8:02
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Some of this can be done, but not really the way you are thinking it can. Lets look at what actor says:

You can mimic the speech of another person or the sounds made by other creatures. You must have heard the person speaking, or heard the creature make the sound, for at least 1 minute. A successful Wisdom (Insight) check contested by your Charisma (Deception) check allows a listener to determine that the effect is faked.

So here's the thing about it. Sure they can learn to mimic more phrases with this, but the ability doesn't let them associate definitions with these phrases. As such, even if they can pretend to speak the language, to anyone trying to understand what they are saying it would not make sense because the speaker can't know what they are speaking just from this ability. But there are ways around it if they can still mimic individual phrases.

Option 1: The person teaching them orcish can communicate with them telepathically. The perfect way to do this would be with the UA Telepathic feat. By communicating telepathically, the orcish speaker could guide the actor through what to say, which he'd then be able to mimic.

Option 2: If the actor took the Keen Mind feat, they gain the ability to

... accurately recall anything [they] have seen or heard within the past month.

You could rule that after some preparation to recall and prepare some lines, that they could mimic the speech that way. This could be as far ranging or as limited as you want to allow, as they do still have to recall individual words and phrases

Or, if you don't want to allow this behavior, just go with what I started with. Since they can't understand what they are mimicking, then no, they can't do it that way. Simple as that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For clarity, I don't think the OP thinks that their player's argument is reasonable. \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Jan 30 at 22:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ Added a bit at the end \$\endgroup\$ – Smart_TJ Jan 30 at 22:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think telepathy would be enough to mimic. And you need to hear the sound, not have it projected into your head. Telepathy tends to not even require a common language, so it works on some language-less communication method. \$\endgroup\$ – Tiger Guy Jan 31 at 5:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ I love these creative ideas. I think some applications might work for espionage. What about combining this feat with a low-level spell like Comprehend Languages? Then you could at least understand the other speaker perfectly and maybe get away with enough short "soundboard" responses to pass for a goon. Might be good enough for simple languages or if you could get them to buy you had some sort of cognitive issues. Also for the "use a native speaker as backup" ploy, the message cantrip could be an easily accessible build option. \$\endgroup\$ – Eliot Feb 21 at 5:48

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