Dungeons and Dragons has generally always been in a medieval European setting (there are execeptions like Darksun and Ebberon) but one with magic, gods, monsters etc. In actual medieval Europe though, literacy was extremely low according to this article. However, I've never had the impression that NPCs in game are unable to read or write. The monster manual states this about creatures and languages:

The languages that a monster can speak are listed in alphabetical order.

That only covers being able to speak languages though. I don't see it stated specifically that any given creature can read and write in any languages they might know.

So should I assume that an NPC can read and write in any language they know?

  • 10
    \$\begingroup\$ Are you asking as a player or as the DM? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 1, 2021 at 7:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @CardboardKnight Please do not answer in comments \$\endgroup\$ Jun 1, 2021 at 13:15
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ what setting are you running the game in. Is it a published setting or your own? Answers will vary by setting. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 1, 2021 at 15:40
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ also for forgotten realms there is this question: What is the general education level of people in the Forgotten Realms? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 1, 2021 at 15:45
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Interesting detail, the claim that most medieval people were illiterate was based off the fact that they couldn't read/write latin specifically, as that was the "formal" language. There are plenty of written records and letters that were written by peasants that have survived to this day. \$\endgroup\$
    – MegaCrow
    Jun 2, 2021 at 21:26

7 Answers 7


Do what works for your world

As far as I can find, the rules don't say much (if anything) about the prevalence of the ability to either read or write in the world. You should instead do whatever makes sense for your world and keep this in mind when designing it.

I was able to find various quotes from the DMG, PHB, and MM that are about languages, but none of these feel especially important or insightful to me for the question you've posed:

By virtue of your race, your character can speak, read, and write certain languages.

  • PHB page 17

When fleshing out your world, you can create new languages and dialects to reflect its unique geography and history. You can replace the default languages presented in the Player's Handbook with new ones, or split languages up into several different dialects.

In some worlds, regional differences might be much more important than racial ones. Perhaps all the dwarves, elves, and humans who live in one kingdom speak a common language, which is completely different from that spoken in the neighboring kingdom. This might make communication (and diplomacy) between two kingdoms significantly more difficult.

Widely used languages might have ancient versions, or there might be completely different ancient tongues that adventurers find written in tombs and ruins. Such languages can add an element of mystery to inscriptions and tomes that characters encounter.

You might invent additional secret languages, besides Druidic and thieves' cant, that allow members of certain organizations or political affiliations to communicate. You could even decide that each alignment has its own language, which might be more of an argot used primarily to discuss philosophical concepts.

In a region where one race has subjugated another, the language of the conquerors can become a mark of social status. Similarly, reading and writing might be restricted by law to the upper classes of a society.

  • DMG page 20

Whether a monster can speak a language has no bearing on its challenge rating.

A monster can master as many spoken languages as you want, although few monsters know more than one or two, and many monsters (beasts in particular) have no spoken language whatsoever. A monster that lacks the ability to speak might still understand a language.

DMG page 279

The languages that a monster can speak are listed in alphabetical order. Sometimes a monster can understand a language but can't speak it, and this is noted in its entry. A "—" indicates that a creature neither speaks nor understands any language.

  • MM page 9

For me, the quote that best exemplifies the ability to make the world your own is this:

Similarly, reading and writing might be restricted by law to the upper classes of a society.

Who is taught how to read and write, and how prevalent such a skill is, is up to the world of the GM. This is similar to how the GM can design how fantastical, how magical, how gritty, and so on, their world is. Similarly, you can design how literate your world is. When designing worlds, you should consider things like spell scrolls and wizard's spellbooks and other similar complications that might come up when having these skills be scarce.

Personally, I have found assuming everybody to be literate to be easiest on myself. I don't have a fantastic understanding of the real-life experience of medieval times, I instead have a fantastic understanding of the real-life experience of modern, 1st-world times. I know a lot more about how interactions and correspondences work in a literate world than in a predominantly illiterate one and can use what I do know in designing my world. The alternatives, for me, would either be outright guessing, or extreme amounts of research, and (usually) neither appeals to me and so my worlds have high levels of literacy.

  • \$\begingroup\$ OP has not stated if they are DM or player, and it isn't clearly implied either way in the question. If OP is a player, this answer is likely of little benefit to them. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 2, 2021 at 19:14
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ While that is technically true, the only answer that can be given to a player is, "ask the GM", and I think that can be inferred from this answer. The question is not about whether a player's character should incorrectly assume that other characters are literate. That would be a valid, very strange, and quite clearly different question. \$\endgroup\$
    – Corrodias
    Jun 2, 2021 at 19:24

D&D focuses more on fantasy than medieval

In earlier editions of Dungeons and Dragons, it wasn't assumed that player characters could read. A priest or a wizard would need to spend two proficiency slots to read and write. They were more based on medieval society, where illiteracy was the norm.

Modern D&D, 5.0 included, tends to emphasize medieval society less, and more recent editions have included the ability for PCs to read. From personal experience with societies that can't read, it makes sessions much slower and more annoying if you have to spend ages to find people who can read, and there are a lack of signs to guide people. It slows down the fantasy element a lot as you handle the mundane medieval aspect.

In addition, language is weird. In a lot of settings, everyone speaks common, a universal tongue. Having a universal tongue implies a lot of effort to hammer out shared languages that wasn't true in medieval times.

There are no formal rules on literacy

The demographics of worlds aren't described. As DM, you can certainly make people illiterate. Just be forewarned that this tends to make games slower and less fantastical.
Illiteracy tends to work better as a flaw in fantasy games than as a common thing. Of course, if you want to focus more on medieval communication issues rather than dungeons and dragons, you can make people illiterate.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Even earlier editions didn't even have proficiency slots. It was assumed (to streamline game play) that PCs could read, rather than being something codified in the mechanics, but you could just as easily decide to play an illiterate character if you liked, and the DM could go with that. \$\endgroup\$
    – chepner
    Jun 1, 2021 at 12:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ I haven't played in 25+ years, but I get the impression that D&D went through a "simulation" phase where every little thing had a rule governing it, which recent editions are rolling back. The original DM guide presented itself as just that: a guide containing advice on how to handle various situations in games, rather than a definitive rule book that had to be followed. \$\endgroup\$
    – chepner
    Jun 1, 2021 at 12:44
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I would say it's all down to the GM and the Players getting into an illiterate world frame of mind on how "annoying" it is. Finding someone who can read shouldn't be any more of a slogging nuisance than finding any professional-specialist. In an illiteracy majority society, who would even look for a street sign?? Unless it was a special plot point, strangers to town asking for directions should be just accepted background (like us looking at street signs and a map) without any significant RP. \$\endgroup\$
    – Blaze
    Jun 1, 2021 at 12:47
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Fun fact: in mediaeval England, shop signs used to be pictures or objects since most of their customers couldn't read. A few of these survive today, for instance the three brass balls for pawnbrokers' shops, the giant flask of coloured water outside some pharmacies, barbers' poles, and pictorial pub signs. \$\endgroup\$
    – A. B.
    Jun 1, 2021 at 13:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ From the original edition: Intelligence will also affect referees' decisions as to whether or not certain action would be taken, and it allows additional languages to be spoken and LANGUAGES: The "common tongue" spoken throughout the "continent" is known by most humans. All other creatures and monsters which can speak have their own language, although some (20%) also know the common one // Characters with an Intelligence above 10 may learn additional languages, one language for every point above 10 intelligence factors. Thus, a man with an intelligence level of 15 could speak 7 languages \$\endgroup\$ Jun 1, 2021 at 13:56


There is no rule in 5e which says any NPC can read. There is also no rule saying all NPCs are illiterate. NPCs differ. As always, go with what's best for your story.

Reading and writing skills are described in the PHB, in the "Chapter 2: Races":

Languages. By virtue of your race, your character can speak, read, and write certain languages.

But the chapter itself is from the "Part 1. Creating a character" which assumes creating a player character, not an NPC. If a DM creates an NPC using these rules, we can assume this NPC can read and write all their race-specific languages. However, it seems odd to me that any goblin, ghoul, or bandit can read and write just because it lists "Common" in its stat block. If it is OK to you — go with it, languages don't change CR so presumably they do not affect the game balance in terms of combat.


As far as players are concerned, they are assumed to be literate in all languages they speak, and learning a new language includes literacy.

Because of this, it isn't a stretch to extend this to NPCs, considering that players and npcs play by the exact same rules.

That said, a DM is free to decide either way they want, they can even make players learn to write a language separately from speaking it, if they so choose


There is no rule one way or another. I have always figured that most anyone who isn't a commoner is literate if the have an 8 or better int. I can't remember ever having a situation arise where it mattered, though.


I think it would depend on what rules you specifically want to have as the dungeon master. I tend to let my npcs at least be able to read and write one language regardless, and maybe others, depending on their profession. For example, a globe trotting trader would probably be proficient in more languages than a simple farmer who lived in the same place his whole life. As always, do what is best for your campaign.

The way it works at my table is that even the lowest class would do some level of trading, so they have a basic grasp on the written portion of the language, but it's not as extensive as, say, a bard from the upper class. This would also make sense with pcs being able to read and write all languages from their race.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Why do you decide to do that and how does that work out at your table? Generally we would like to understand why someone makes a ruling and how it works out at their table - whether backed up by experience or the rules :) \$\endgroup\$ Oct 7, 2021 at 15:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ The way it works at my table is that even the lowest class would do some level of trading, so they have a basic grasp on the written portion of the language, but it's not as extensive as, say, a bard from the upper class. This would also make sense with pcs being able to read and write all languages from their race. This is just the way I run as a dungeon master, though :) @Akixkisu \$\endgroup\$ Oct 7, 2021 at 15:12

dnd is not a setting it is a system. And even in first party dnd settings it depends on the specific setting. The Mystarian country of Ierendi it is explicitly noted that most commoners have gone to school and can read and write, I doubt that in the entire world of Grayhawk there is anywhere with that literacy rate.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ DND comes with standard settings. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jun 2, 2021 at 20:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ But none of those first party standard settings were tagged in the question. \$\endgroup\$
    – Anonymous
    Jun 2, 2021 at 21:32
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The rules around literacy and language are mechanical, not tied to any specific setting. Based on the wording here, it appears that you are the same person who left this comment on a question I asked the other day, in which I had specified the precise setting I was using and that I was open to answers from any setting. Please take a look around the site and read questions fully before offering advice, to make sure that you understand what is being asked. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cooper
    Jun 2, 2021 at 22:19

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .