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I have a player who argues that a History check should allow a PC to identify a language.

In the past I ruled it a hard 'no' but always made an exception if a player can somehow justify it; e.g., "I have knowledge of kobold history. I should be able to recognize their written word."

Can a history check actually let someone identify a language? If so or if not, why? Am I unfair for ruling against it? I would say this is an insight roll, at best.

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    \$\begingroup\$ 1st, we need a clear question to provide an answer to. What is your question? And 2nd, we need to know what tabletop game you are asking the question about. 5th Edition D&D? Pathfinder? Something else? \$\endgroup\$
    – Airatome
    Jan 27, 2016 at 5:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, this is no clearer. We can't tell if you were unfair, we weren't there. If you want to know "What mechanic should I use to determine if a character can recognise a language they cannot write/speak?" Then ask that question. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Jan 27, 2016 at 7:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've given the question an edit to ask a slightly different thing that'll still get you what you're after, but is a bit more suitable for how our site works. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27, 2016 at 9:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaleM I'm not looking for you to rule on my game or the situation. I am asking a rule/DM question about mechanics. \$\endgroup\$
    – AlexGorale
    Jan 27, 2016 at 17:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I've removed it again. The [gm-techniques] tag is for asking about GM techniques, not about how rules can/should work, or for merely labelling the question as "about GMing". For context, we had to kill the old [gm] tag because it caused more problems than it solved; we don't want [gm-techniques] to slide into its place and have the same issues and be killed in turn. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27, 2016 at 17:29

2 Answers 2

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First of all, D&D 5 treats language as a binary - you know it with absolute fluency or you don't know it at all. You could stop right there and it would be fair.

If you want to go further and allow someone to recognise a written or spoken language they don't know you need to decide:

  1. The applicable stat - Intelligence is a clear stand out
  2. The applicable proficiency, if any - we'll come back to that
  3. The DC - clearly this should be based on how prevalent the language is in your game world; I'm not giving any advice on that but guidelines are in the book, they go from easy to damn near impossible

Which proficiency is appropriate?

Whatever one the player can make a reasonable case for

Depending on the language, I can see a case for:

  • Arcana
  • History
  • Investigation
  • Religion
  • Nature
  • Insight
  • Perception

However, I'm not the lawyer for the prosecution; it's not up to me to convince you. Let the player state their case: if they convince you it applies, if they don't it doesn't.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer addresses both game details and "how to be a DM" in one concise package. +1. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27, 2016 at 16:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Glad this was put forward. I tried to reveal as little detail about the game as possible and this is very much in-line with my ruling. I leave it up to the player to make their case. If they can't come up with something reasonable I rule against it. \$\endgroup\$
    – AlexGorale
    Jan 27, 2016 at 17:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ It is a good answer. I also subscribe to being able to identify languages you've probably seen before without necessarily being able to read or speak it. Just knowing that something is elvish doesn't tell you what's written, just that it was written by someone who writes elvish and intended to be read by someone who can read elvish. That's info is good but not overpoweringly good. \$\endgroup\$
    – Escoce
    Jan 27, 2016 at 17:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Escoce Maybe this is becoming pedantic but is a better questions "Identifying the alphabet" ? I'm no linguist but if a roll is made with the above interpretation I may be more likely to describe the race that uses it. E.g. "In your experience, script similar to this is found among low-born, cave dwelling bottom feeders." or "The detail and elegance in the symbols could only be appreciated by intelligent, possible extra-planar, creatures" \$\endgroup\$
    – AlexGorale
    Jan 27, 2016 at 20:51
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There is no hard and fast rule that says this should be possible. It's your decision as a DM.

Judging from our world here, recognizing a language (without understanding a word of it) is pretty easy. I can easily recognize every language of each neighboring country as well as Spanish and Italian. I can tell apart Arabian languages, Russian and Chinese only based on the alphabet they use. I can easily recognize Latin and ancient Greek. And I don't think I'm in any way special.

Someone well versed in the history of a people will recognize their writings. It would make a pretty lousy historian otherwise.

However, this being D&D, success might not come automatic and as there is only a general proficiency in history, not "kobold history", maybe you should grant him or her a bonus for having proficiency in history. That's up to you.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I guess I'd happily allow identifying a "language family" (I can look at text and say, with some certainty, that it's written in a Slavic language, but getting to "Polish", "Czech", "Slovak", "Croat", ... is a lot harder). Similarly, I can look at text and say "Estonian or Finnish", but...). \$\endgroup\$
    – Vatine
    Jan 27, 2016 at 11:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ I certainly can't tell Portuguese from Spanish. If "kobold" is recognizable enough is up to you as the DM. \$\endgroup\$
    – nvoigt
    Jan 27, 2016 at 11:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ I can tell Portuguese from Spanish if there's enough of it (and I speak too little Spanish to be of use, and less Portuguese), but there's no way I'd be able to tell, say, Magyar from Czech, even when both are printed in Western European transliteration. Similarly, I doubt I could tell handwritten Greek from Russian, and there's no way I'd call Japanese from Chinese unless there happens to be a spelled-out word in among the ideograms. Bottom line, if you can't (at all) read the letters or symbols used to write a language, you likely won't be sure what language it is. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jan 27, 2016 at 12:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Russian isn't the only language to use the Cyrillic alphabet. You could easily be seeing Turkmen, Kazakh, Kyrgyz or something else. And "Chinese" isn't a language or an alphabet. The arabic script is used for Uyghur, Urdo, Malay, Somali and many others. If anything, this answer supports the inability to identify languages that use different writing systems. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27, 2016 at 17:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Really easy"? You can tell the difference between Eora, Navajho and Swahilli? Perhaps you mean you can recognize languages with which you have some familiarity? \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Jan 28, 2016 at 0:36

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