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Many games have their secret languages, usually used by having players use phrases like "I say in <fantasy language>: ". For text on handouts, I have often seen GMs tack the note "In <language>:" to the start of a passage, possibly using a separate style from the actual text. Secret means not the common language that everybody speaks. This could be Spanish or Elven or a made-up combination of sounds.

However, I really like to use fonts or handwriting that make the text more relatable in how it is written. The text of a diary by a proper lady might be in Question of Science while the scientist that is about to lose his grip on reality is written in Fearsome... But then there are texts simply written in a glyph system that isn't a Latin-letters (or derivate) handwriting. For example, the players might encounter Ancient Greek, Futhark Runes, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Tolkin Dwarf Script, or or or...

For this, let's look at The Dark Eye. That system has about 12 different scripts for which there are not only character lookup tables in the gamebooks but also official grammar stubs and word lists in existence. Add to that some slight variants of the scripts and special ideograms for alchemy and gods and demons... One example package would be this font pack of 7 different scripts and glyphs.

I find that handing people handouts in those scripts often does disrupt the game flow if the players that actually have fluency in said language on their sheets need to use a lookup table and grammar text to actually read it, even if it is quite nice to mae the experience more imersive when player characters only have low fluency in the script and language1.

However, I have also encountered that handing out a plaintext translation to those that should be able to read it the text at times ends up with players handing that handout around without even roleplaying the act of informing the others of what they read there, which decidedly wasn't the idea. The idea of the handouts is to deepen immersion, and giving the players that do have spent on a language a chance for the spotlight in acting out translating the text.

How to best use non-latin fonts (with or without a cleartext translation), possibly in fantasy languages2, without disrupting the game flow and heighten immersion? Please back up your answers with how it worked at your table.


  1. The Dark Eye 4/4.1 do track languages as a skill and assign a complexity to each script & language. How good you are in a language/script is determined by the relation of the skill rank to the complexity. A single point means "I know this is X", 2 are basic concepts ("I hunger"). A skill of a third of the complexity is somewhat fluent with accent, half the complexity is fluent. A skill of the full or higher complexity means, you know super rare words like nudiustertian for "The day before yesterday". For example with scripts, someone with less than a third of the complexity of it is unaware that Rogolan has vovls at all. The most complex scripts use basically hyroglyphs or are iconographic.
  2. For the purpose of the question an example, using the word player to include the GM:
    I know no player that speaks fluent dwarvish but some words are common and I have pretty sure never encountered a player that could fluently read or write the Dwarven runes provided by the game. Yet two characters had fluency in the Dwarven language of Rogolan on the degree of a native speaker and second-language respectively.
    Of the players around one particular table one was fluent in reading/pronouncing Futhark and had studied Old Norse language, two were at least familiar with Futhark and could transliterate such texts with some ease. Other than that we had 3 Graecums and Hebraeicums, and 6 Latinums (proficiency degrees) at the game table as the group consisted of 3 students of theology, 2 of history, and 1 of archaeology - yes, at that point everybody at the table could, on a player level, translate Latin with a varying degree of need for a dictionary. But on a Character level, only 2 of the characters had the fantasy-stand-in for Latin (Bosparano) on their sheets.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you restricting answers to usage of fonts? There might be other ways to solve the underlying problem (highlighting language proficiency with IRL techniques). \$\endgroup\$
    – Szega
    Jun 20 '21 at 9:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ The problem is stemming from non-latin fonts mostly - even if just using a replacement alphabet this comes up, it is heightened by using a different language than a language the players are fluent in. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jun 20 '21 at 9:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you interested in solutions that would help any player read the non-Latin text? I have a potential answer along those lines, but since you mention "players handing [the translation] around" instead of roleplaying the translation as a problem and italicize "secret" at the beginning of the question, I am not sure whether it would give away too much to the other players to address your situation. \$\endgroup\$
    – Edward
    Jun 20 '21 at 17:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Edward I want to foster Roleplay with the handouts. Secret wasn't meant as "you can't share it" but as in "Not every character can read this" \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jun 20 '21 at 17:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, sorry if I am not understanding, but are you saying that it is or is not okay if players may be able to read the handout even when their characters cannot? \$\endgroup\$
    – Edward
    Jun 20 '21 at 17:20
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I have used two different approaches in Pathfinder/D&D. They are both the same core idea, but implemented differently.

Physical Options

If I'm using physical props, I would prepare 2-3 different versions:

  1. The text in the unknown script.
  2. The text transliterated into the Latin script, but otherwise unintelligible.
  3. The text translated into the game's common language.

When players first encounter the document I give them example #1. If the character can read the unknown language, I give them #3. I like to use consistent fonts for each language, so players become familiar. The Dwarf might come to recognize the font I use to represent Dwarven, and can point out that they know that font.

Sometimes players may be able to recognize a script, but not read the language. For example, in D&D 5e both Dwarven and Giant use the same script. A Dwarf (who doesn't understand Giant) may recognize the script, but still be unable to read the language. That's where text #2 comes in. I don't always prepare a transliterated version because it's extra work, but it can add some flavor and interest to the table. Typically I would use Google translate and use a language no one at my table understands.

Digital Options

I often use digital campaign platforms which include wikis. In this case, I would just write a section using the appropriate script. A single wiki page could have sections in different languages, if appropriate. Most platforms have a way to conceal sections from different players, so it's easy enough to say "the Dwarf gets to read the translation of the Dwarven sections".

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  • \$\begingroup\$ note that TDE, the system I tagged, separates knowledge in a script from knowledgei n a language. You could totally read a text but understand nothing. Several languages use the same script also. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jun 20 '21 at 19:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's about what I thought of doing In TDE (The Dark Eye, mentioned in the OP) there are lots of different languages using the same script. My only tweak would be that the handout would always contain the Original Script as well: I would only add more info to them. Ex: #1 - Unknown script, #2 - Unknown script + translitaration, #3 - Unknown script + transliteration + meaning. For sure, if the player says he's translating for everyone before wanting to know the meaning/content, I'd simply say it aloud. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 20 '21 at 21:29
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You might want to consider making a statement as part of your “Session Zero” that you would really appreciate it if players whose characters know the language not hand out translated or glossed texts that they receive from you, but explain or read the text in character, or, if appropriate, indicate that they are preparing a written translation of the document before handing it around. In the latter case, rule on how long it would take, and impose the appropriate time, effort, and activity penalties.

My group is generally more interested in role-playing than in mechanics, and I normally get a good level of coöperation with requests like this, even if I don’t make the request until I’m actually handing out the document. With coöperative players, this should work well; I have never had to resort to any sort of fiat to enforce it, or to penalize the party for violating it.

Another thing I typically do is use character sets for languages that I know none of my players know (eta: or fantasy language fonts that I think look good in context). That, however, only works if the game doesn’t provide the character set, but gives everything in the Latin alphabet and phonetic spelling of the “foreign” language.

My group normally appreciates the extra effort I go to to try to create “immersive” props. Sometimes I get out-of-character comments about “«language/alphabet» is an interesting choice; when we break, do you want to explain why you chose it?”, but they do normally try not to “break the immersion”.

Ultimately, it comes down to “know your players”, and match your style to what works best with them.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I should note that my game of choice is Traveller, which does not address languages in quite the same way as TDE. Nevertheless, I don't see anything from the description of language handling in TDE from the question that would appear to me to invalidate this. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 23 '21 at 11:15
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A disclaimer: My group does not play with props, so I am not able to back this suggestion up with experience at the table. However, this is an approach used widely in real life and that I have experience with outside of tabletop gaming, so perhaps it can qualify for good subjective on those grounds. But I will understand downvotes if the community disagrees.

In several East Asian languages, especially languages that borrow or adapt Chinese characters, this is actually a problem that comes up quite a bit. For example, sometimes text may use characters that parts of the audience may not be familiar with, like when the text is aimed at children, young adults, or other language learners or when the text contains obscure words. Sometimes the text needs to convey not only its characters but also a particular pronunciation of the characters, like in personal names that have multiple possible pronunciations or in quoted dialog spoken in a certain dialect or accent. Including a pronunciation or translation can also be used for literary effect, like when an author wants to convey that the speaker means one thing but says another.

The standard solution in these languages is to gloss the characters with ruby text where the pronunciation or translation is given in a small font above the main characters, the best known example of which is Japanese 振(fu)り(ri)仮(ga)名(na). Because the annotations are on a different baseline, they do not interrupt the flow for readers who already know what the characters say. On the other hand, because they are attached to the text being annotated, a reader who needs the gloss does not have to go hunting for it, say in a footnote or another document that could get separated. Most importantly for this question, since ruby is standardized and used widely, it is already a feature built into all major word processors (like LibreOffice Writer or Microsoft Word) and, for online play, included as a core feature of HTML. (Unfortunately, SE-flavored Markdown does not support Ruby without a site script, so I have to use images here.) And since many East Asian language were historically written vertically, they also work out of the box on text written in columns instead of rows.

So a potential solution is to write your handout in the non-Latin script:

ᛊᛁᚴᚱᛖᛏᚱᚢᚾᛉ

(I hope I got that right) and then use the ruby feature in your editor to gloss the text:

ᛊᛁᚴᚱᛖᛏ(secret)ᚱᚢᚾᛉ(runes)

There are two potential downsides though: some editors make ruby glossing tedious, so you will have to experiment to find a workflow that isn't painful on long runs of text, and glossing the text also means that any player can read the translation, not just players whose characters are literate in the script.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure how this addresses the following problem: "[...] Handing out a plaintext translation [...] at times ends up with players handing that handout around without even roleplaying the act of informing the others of what they read there [...]". It may be good to speak on that in this answer \$\endgroup\$ Jun 20 '21 at 19:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the ruby idea; however, I have found that most of the common document preparation tools (e.g., Word or OpenForks) only enable it for "Asian" text - you can't use e.g., a Tengwar font and then add ruby to it. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 23 '21 at 11:08
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A frame challenge from my experience:

players handing that handout around without even roleplaying the act of informing the others of what they read there

Both this and shrugging a translation of conversation for party members to just "of course I translate" occurs when your party does not like the idea of putting so much emphasis on which character is able to understand what. If there is no PvP involved, there is nothing to gain from withholding parts of the information from the other players. Role-playing repetitive things, role-playing things with literally zero effect on the action, et cetera, gets old and unfun really quickly.

Solution is not in the handouts directly. Solution is to get on the same page with your players. Ask them, not us, why are they skipping role-playing, tell them why you'd rather have them role-play, and figure out compromise, one that might or might not use non-latin handouts.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You miss the point to a good degree because TDE is not like D&D and gives characters more depth by the way characters are made in the 4th edition - the sheet tells what you have learned in your past and has something in the order of 100 skills. Also, you fail to back up your answer by telling how your solution worked. You don't elaborate what your experience is, where it comes from, and that makes the answer unaplicable. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jun 21 '21 at 21:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Please tell us how this worked out at your table according to the back it up stance on the Stack and the Good Subjective, Bad Subjective policy. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jun 23 '21 at 7:35

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