I've created a character for my/our current campaign that is essentially a "foreigner" to the group. He understands and speaks the language, but doesn't always understand the meaning behind choice phrases or slang (much the way a real foreigner might not understand).

The only way I can think of to play that aspect correctly is to roll some sort of "comprehension" or knowledge check to see if he understands the real meaning behind a character's words, and I was curious if there's any sort of table or chart floating around for this sort of thing.

This character is basically for laughs and our DM has already given his blessing, so I was hoping for something along the lines of the critical fumble chart or the Grog of Substantial Whimsy, allowing for hilarious results of this character's misinterpretation of what others are trying to say.


5 Answers 5


You don’t need rules to roleplay your character – this should not be random

Just roleplay. Think about what your character hears and how he might misinterpret. Think about some odd phrasings that he might use, as too-direct translations of his own language, using syntax and idioms that Common doesn’t. And use these. Stay in character, and be honest about when your character will misunderstand.

You don’t need dice, you don’t need skill ranks; this is not something best-handled mechanically. That’s because the rules are far too static to handle every different scenario, every different statement, and how likely you are to misunderstand. You, as a thinking human being, can say “ah, he’s heard this before and had it explained to him; he knows this,” when the dice would just say “aha, a natural-1!” That doesn’t add to the game.

Also, dice cannot decide to react differently, and it is going to be very important that you do. This kind of character requires you to exercise a fair amount of judgment about what does and does not improve the game. Done too much or at particularly bad times, it could seriously detract from others’ fun. As the Giant says in the linked article,

You are not your character, and your character is not a separate entity with reactions that you cannot control. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a player state that their character's actions are not under their control. Every decision your character makes is your decision first. It is possible and even preferable for you to craft a personality that is consistent but also accommodating of the characters the other players wish to play.

Note that I am not giving advice on when or how much, just that you should be in control of those things. It’s going to be very dependent on your group. Some groups will be very annoyed if their carefully laid plans are ruined by this “quirk,” while others will find that the height of hilarity and/or drama, and an awesome story they’ll tell for years. You have to know your group – and you can be very sure that the dice don’t know your group.

So have fun with it, but also be careful with it. Used appropriately, it will be a fun, funny, and memorable character. Used inappropriately, it will be annoying, derail the game, and quite possibly cause out-of-character disagreements when your “fun” misinterpretations prevent other players from getting on with what they want from the game.

  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with this sentiment. As a DM, I hate it whenever people let the dice control their characters instead of doing what actually makes sense. That said, there's no harm in brainstorming some common idioms (and possible misinterpretations) or "odd phrasings that he might use, as too-direct translations of his own language" to keep as a reference so that you don't have to come up with everything on the fly. \$\endgroup\$
    – EFrog
    Jan 10, 2015 at 16:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for linking the article, -1 for opposing roleplaying and rules, so... +0 I guess? For clarity, I consider that an outcome determined by the combination of player decision and e.g. dice rolls to be roleplaying in the strict sense: it neatly captures the twin facts that a) people have agency and b) agency is not enough to be sure of the outcome. \$\endgroup\$
    – user17995
    Jan 10, 2015 at 22:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TuggyNE I would agree.... for a system where this sort of thing is built in. In 3.5, languages and understanding are not a big part of the game, and this is generally below the game’s abstraction threshold. You can certainly change that, but then you’d have to do so for all characters, which doesn’t seem appropriate here. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Jan 10, 2015 at 23:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan 'swhy I love taking ten so much. Set up the rules plausibly (yes, for everyone) and you don't ever actually have to roll or think about them except when things are exceptional. That said, obviously, you would need to put some effort into the homebrew. If I can dig up an existing one I'll post that. \$\endgroup\$
    – user17995
    Jan 10, 2015 at 23:33

I've never dealt with a PC that really struggled to grasp a language, but our DM has on multiple occasions introduced NPCs (usually goblinoids) with a barely passable understanding of Common. He roleplayed these characters by speaking in a Nordic accent (it's important to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes, but we felt safe with Nordic), avoiding complex phrases, and sometimes leaving out basic words. Rather than saying "I didn't see where the guard went" in the DM's normal voice, the kobold prisoner would say "I no see! I no see!" in a thick accent.

In fact, one of our players picked up on this, and while roleplaying his goblin thief, employed a less-extreme strategy that might fit the needs of a PC better. He loved the accent idea (and we loved Vak the Russian goblin), and would occasionally hesitate in speaking, as if trying to articulate his thoughts in a foreign tongue. This was especially helpful for him, since his character had high charisma, and this allowed him to pause and figure out the charismatic thing to say without breaking character.

I'd suggest a combination of these tactics: Employ an accent if you can keep it up (which can also help distinguish between OOC and IC speech), occasionally pause to figure out how to say a complicated phrase in Common, and perhaps even misunderstand the occasional idiom (to hilarious effect). But most importantly, don't confuse language difficulties with low intelligence. Your character's ability to understand what's going on or avoid imprudent actions in combat or diplomacy should be determined by stats, not language barriers.

And all in all, make sure everyone, including you, is having fun. :)


Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 doesn't have something such as that.

I may be mistaken, but I doubt it; not including homebrew. The SRD entry for the Speak Language skill says:

You don’t make Speak Language checks. You either know a language or you don’t.

There is a d20 solution (If I remember correctly)

Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death utilizes languages much differently. Each language, is indeed, a different Knowledge skill. Whenever you are speaking a language not your own, you roll a skill check. It is up to the DM to determine how well you speak your non-native language. Your skill check determines your grammar, articulation, and even accent.

Houserule Solutions

Houserule solutions could indeed include an Intelligence/Wisdom check to either know what word is being said, or what the intent of the word could be. Similarly, Sense Motive could also be used to determine the real meaning; as sense motive is also used to determine falsehood, innuendo, body language, etc.


Have fun with it! Just have it as a matter of roleplaying. You can roll your own "Intelligence" check to see if you really understand or not. You could also bluff your way through every conversation by pretending to not understand - which (from personal experience) many foreigners know EXACTLY what you are saying and pretend not to.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Images should not be used to display text (it makes it unreadable by computers, making it impossible to search for and inaccessible to the blind). On top of that, you don't actually use the SRD material in your answer except "read this", which can be done just fine with a link. I've replaced the images with text or just removed them. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 10, 2015 at 17:34

Because your DM has blessed this character concept, I'm not going to tell you not to do it, and I'll assume you're all adults (or close enough) who know what they're doing.

D&D 3.5e doesn't have native rules for this level of language detail. Modelling degrees of language (in)comprehension is actually quite common in other RPGs with more developed skill subsystems, so it's doable. Enough of these other RPGs are contemporaries of D&D 3.5e that it's not necessarily archaic or "but we know better than to do that now."

For D&D 3.5e though, it's necessarily going to be a house rule. Fortunately, it's an easy mechanic to add and there's no need to be concerned about you being out of control of when it happens.

House ruling it from successful models

Taking other RPGs' well-established and -tested language skill rules as a model:

  1. Ask your DM to set a DC for the phrase, slang, or idiom.
  2. Roll your relevant language skill against the DC.
  3. If you fail, your degree of misunderstanding is proportional to the margin of failure—that is, how much you missed the DC by.

Then you roleplay the misunderstanding, and hilarity ensues (hopefully).

But randomness!

Any concerns about this wackiness being out of control because "there are dice involved!" is unwarranted: at four different points, involving two different people, there are opportunities to just not do it, or do it differently:

  1. You are in control of when you bring this to your DM's attention and ask for a DC.
  2. Your DM is in control of whether that's a good idea right now, and of the DC they set.
  3. You (and maybe your DM too) are in control of what you interpret the margin of failure to mean.
  4. You are in control of how you roleplay the misunderstanding.

The most important thing is that you take these opportunities to exercise your judgement, and never just do it because you can. In all comedy, timing is everything, even when (especially when!) you're leaning on randomness for part of the comedic effect. You can't just surrender to the dice and hope for fun to happen magically. Choose your misunderstandings wisely and you'll get your hilarity; choose them unwisely and either the character or the campaign will have to end sooner rather than later. You're in control.

Unless you're playing with sentient mind-controlling dice, of course. Then the dice really do control you, and all this is probably a bad idea.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't doubt what you say about other systems, or the ability to control it despite dice, but then why even bother having a system if you're going to ignore its outcome? Also, are you advocating that everyone must invest in these skills, to make it a global houserule rather than just something for this character? If not, how do you model this character's investment, when the existing skill and language systems give other characters full comprehension basically free? \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Jan 10, 2015 at 20:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan In reverse order: Because it's already a joke character blessed by the DM, it's safe to take it as read that it won't have far-reaching implications for fundamental systems the other characters use. As to why have a system if it will just be ignored: because that's a false dilemma. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 11, 2015 at 0:13

My rule for foreign languages is simple. For each level of language the player has, they can say and understand words of equal syllables. That is, if they have a level one, they can only use and understand one syllable words. Level two...two syllable words, etc. (Just a word of note, it is said that President Andrew Jackson only spoke one and two-syllable words. It was attributed to his lack of culture and lack of intelligence. (BTW, he is often considered the nation's most corrupt and least trustworthy president in history.))

Now, if the NPC uses a word that has more syllables than the player can understand, I just substitute a nonsense word for the multi-syllabic word.

For example, if the player has a level one in a language, and the NPC was to say, "Go over to the tavern and order a drink from Bob." I would say, "GO jibba TO THE jabba AMD jobba DRINK FROM BOB." (CAPS signifying the words the player understands.)

The player could then stop to get clarification on misunderstood words. First, roll a D20 under or equal to Charisma to determine if the speaker has the patience to explain the word. Then the player must roll a D20 vs Intelligence for each syllable to comprehend the word.

For each successful word comprehended, the tolerance of the speaker towards the player improves. For each failure, the reverse, until the NPC ignores them or drives them off or leaves, depending on the NPC assessment of the player and his group.

Each multi-syllabic word comprehended, the player's percentage of understanding the next level improves by 1. In effect, once a player learns 100 words of a syllable level, they get that level of language comprehension. You could go one step higher and make it so writing, hearing and saying are separate skills, but that is a lot of record keeping without enough payoff.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you add an explanation of how well this has worked for your group? \$\endgroup\$
    – user17995
    Jul 14, 2016 at 18:35

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