Sunday, May 9, 2021


I like languages in my D&D games. I get that not everyone does. What I don't like is the system for languages, which has varied from edition to edition.

Welp, a couple nights ago I woke up with pretty much a complete idea formed in my head about how I might manage the issue in my games. I'm pretty excited by it. But before I share, please allow me to first write a bit about the whys and wherefores of languages in Dungeons & Dragons; I'll be quick, I promise!

Communication and interaction with non-player characters is one of the more important aspects of D&D; it is one of the elements of play that elevate the game, making it more than a complex way of counting points. It's the reason the game absolutely requires a Dungeon Master. Plenty of mechanics have been introduced over the years to do random adventure creation, and players can as easily do record keeping and chart/table tracking as a designated "referee." But NPC interaction? You generally want a neutral 3rd party to handle that part of D&D, so that players can stay firmly in the minds of their own characters, viscerally experiencing the game.

And from the beginning, the game's authors have had rules for a multiplicity of languages in the fantasy world. To me, this makes good design sense from both a "play" and "world building" perspective:
  • With regard to play, the ability to speak another language (or lack of ability) adds both challenges and options to game play. The inability to communicate can lead to hostilities and resource draining problems where no such issue need to exist; conversely, the ability to communicate can open up opportunities to skirt danger and hostilities, develop allies, and engage in both tactical and strategic "faction play." And the finite number of languages spoken by PCs (and the plethora of sentient creatures in the fantasy world) means players have yet another way to contribute to a well as another reason to rely on fellow party members...bringing the group closer together. 
  • With regard to world building we are well familiar with the burdens and challenges of a multi-language world: we live in one! Cultural differences are tied deeply to language differences, and while the diversity of our human species makes for a far more interesting place, it also creates a multitude of issues and challenges (yes, that's a gross simplification) that have been documented throughout history. We can draw on this in our world building to make a richer game for exploration!
So, then...the problems with the rules as written with regard to language:
  • Languages spoken being tied to intelligence offers different numbers known depending on edition: up to 10 (14 for elves and dwarves) in OD&D, up to 5 (9 for elves and dwarves) in B/X, and up to 9 (regardless of species) in AD&D. AD&D also adds some "class" languages (druid, thief, and illusionist writing) as well as classes that can learn additional languages (assassin, bard).
  • "Common" tongue spoken "continent-wide."
  • "Alignment language."
  • Lack of mechanics regarding level of fluency.
  • No mechanic provided with regard to learning language (or losing fluency through lack of practice).
  • No mention (outside of B/X) with regard to literacy. B/X places literacy rate at 95% (and character with an intelligence above 5) compared to the real world average of 86%. And that's the present day; Europe circa 1500 was somewhere around 11% (somewhere in the 14-15+ range of intelligence). And this doesn't take into account class/profession-based training (most literate folks were clergy members, for example).
  • Issues of language/writing with regard to magic spells, spell scrolls, spell books, magic-users vs. illusionists vs. clerics, and a thief's ability to read languages and magic.
That's a lot of issues to work through, and I could probably write two or three separate posts on the subjects. In fact, maybe I should...just to break up the giant "wall of text" that I was planning to smack my readers' eyes with!

Because the thing is: I've gotten a lot of mileage out of the language rules over the years, both as a DM and as a player. When you're dealing with sentient monsters that speak their own languages, suddenly that 1st level magic-user with the high INT score isn't quite so useless after expending her one spell. Hiring translators becomes a useful thing (and a nice little treasure sink). Challenges can be navigated in a different way than force of arms with communication. For the editions of D&D I play....where death comes easy through violent confrontation...talking is often a good thing

And language is important to me personally: my life has been filled with language-based challenges. Having in-laws that don't speak English (they're coming to visit in June). Living in a foreign country for years. Raising my children to be bilingual. Translating complex issues for non-English speaking clients and coworkers (back in my former occupation). Traveling in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. All as a dude who's spent the bulk of his life learning and perfecting just a single form of communication (English)...and I've still got miles to go on that (the journey from brain to words is often a stumbling-bumbling one for yours truly...especially regarding my "feelings"). 

Language is amazing...and frustrating. And I want to include that amazement AND frustration in my D&D game. Just not with the rules as currently written.

All right, I am going to break this one up. Expect a couple more posts on the subject.


  1. These are all things that I've also taken issue with over the years, but never come up with a satisfying way to fix. Looking forward the rest of the posts!

  2. When I need it I usually port over a Linguistics skill from something like Unisystem or GURPS handle the details. Usually the only time it comes up when I need a character who can speak in the "High Court Language" of a given kingdom (Glantri is the worst for this) and the characters don't speak that.

  3. Sorry, bit late here, and you've touched on this in the Literacy post, but in a lot of our games that would have got in the way of exposition and executing non-violent plans. It's a pity; it feels like it should add depth, but like NPCs lying, it could just add friction. Maybe it is a way if marking that the characters aren't 'in Kansas any more'.