Friday, 16 July 2021

The Bug Under Your Tongue

A brief idea about language in RPGs and how it does or doesn't work differently compared to IRL assumptions.

So we've all had the idea that a game world should, like the real world, contain many languages.

This is difficult to make work neatly in D&D. There are workarounds and an intelligent DM with smart, committed players can accomplish nearly anything, but in general it’s hard to maintain table discipline when one or more PCs don't understand a language being spoke while others do, and while the players and DM understand much more.

Add to that the sheer number of languages in anything like an "accurate" game world. You enter one mountain kingdom or micro-culture and then have an adventure, learn a bit, then enter another, and so on and so on. So the partly ends up depending on magic, hiring translators, using trade languages which are usually only known by narrow classes in those cultures etc etc.

Interesting and fun if you are into that stuff, frustrating and irritating if you are not.

Other ideas are based more around the way a game actually plays and then doing the old RPG trick of taking a game artefact and reading it back into the diegesis of the imagined world 

Idea One - Animal, Ancient, Monster & Magical languages

I don't think I am the first person to come up with this but;

Most of the "normal" people you speak to have the "common tongue", but there are other languages, these either belong to people "far away" (i.e. you need to level up a lot to get there and once you do you are essentially embedded in another culture, OR they belong to animals, monsters and magical stuff.

Idea being that its a lot less essential to be able to speak the languages of these things, i.e. it won't necessarily logjam the game if no-one in the party can do it, but it’s a nice, situationally-useful benefit that a character can have.

Monster Languages may be just like normal tongues - knowing one is like learning French. Depending on the tonality of game you want, speaking to animals, can be a magical or pseudo-magical skill. If you want to expand that to being able to talk to rocks or rivers or whatever, with a Le Guin-style idea that in this world everything has a language of some kind and if you meditate long enough or experience the right things, you can learn it.

The utility of this is easily controlled by having animals and rivers and rocks simply act like those things and continue with their own behaviours and values.

Magical Languages and ancient languages have already been covered well in D&D by many people.

Idea Two - The PCs as Natural Translators

If it’s hard to run a game where people in the world understand each other but the PCs generally don't, perhaps it would be easier to play one where the PCs and the Players, understand everything (or nearly everything) while people in the world do not.

If there were some diegetic in-game reason that the Player Characters could understand the languages of the people around them, even though those populations might not be able to understand each other - how would that play and what kind of game would it create.


The first two kinds of game that sprang to mind were firstly, that the Players would naturally take on a kind of peacemaker/diplomat/travelling problem solver role. Since they understood everyone and understood their problems and how they relate, they would do some JRPG shit and go around fixing problems and settling disputes.

Then I thought that I was being soft-headed and that the PCs would instead use this power over others to become even more effective murder-hoboes. The language thing gives them what any manipulative scumbag desires, the ability to easily leave a social matrix once they have completely fucked it up and to move onto somewhere new, with no way for their old doings to follow them.

Or they could use this power to extract resources from a variety of communities and build some kind of palace-fort at the point where territories intersect.

Well who knows, maybe that was the experiment the Mind-Flayers were running when they gave the PCs language powers.


Reasons the PCs Can Speak Many Tongues

1. The classic RPG opener; you woke up in a laboratory, have no idea who you are or how you got there. The place is wrecked and you escape. No-other subjects got out. (Until much later when you find the super evil/super good prime version of you which did).

2. Got infected by a magic bug which now writhes under your tongues. Bug may have a long-term plan but who knows.

3. Raised by creepy experimenters who did the whole "raise a baby in darkness/a grey void" thing t see if there was a "natural language". Good(?) news! There is and you speak it. Alternative version is a bunch of magicians adopted a range of children and raised them only speaking in the Enochian language or the weird glyph language to see if something useful would happen.

4. Demon did it! As  group you exchanged your memories for language facilities. The Demon decided to have some fun during the summoning and 90% of the people there died. Left a bit of a mess. None of you are quite certain if you are one of the summoners or one of the intended sacrifices who escaped.

5. Magic.. I don't know.. Bird? Wait! You are all actually mynah birds, parrots and corvids polymorphed by either a Wizard or pre-existing spell/curse/prophecy situation you all blundered into. Never human so nothing that took language from them doesn't affect you, plus natural language skills now you are human. Char-Gen is based on bird species.

6. You have a Universal Translator. Maybe it’s a semi sci-fi orb that goes about your heads like a psionic stone, or an actual box you got from the bodies of a Star Trek escape team or an ethereal guardian angel you got after accessing a hidden crypt.

Reasons No-One Else Can (much)

1. Literal Tower-of-Babel incident. All the local towns and forts are built of its stones. Even a major range of hills is made of the wreckage.

2. Magical Disease/Curse. The Plague of Unknowing. It passed a generation ago but those who survived and gained resistance had to develop languages using new pathways in their minds, and all of these are different, so they can't be learnt as conceptually-similar structures like before. People have "tongues" or ways of speaking but no "languages" exist any more.

3. Ethnoterror leading to Orwellian annihilation of shared history leading to crazed enclaves who just don't like "them whatever they are's!" but don't really know why.

4. Ah Ha, it’s the (increasingly complex) DAWN OF MAN, everyone is various different descent lines and you are just the first group to have worked out even the concept of a shared language.

5. Dang old Ballardian dream-apocalypse lead to complete ontological breakdown, everyone going strange and Stanley coming home from tesco "looking awful queer". Reality has since healed and is now stable enough that leaving the house is not like taking ketamine.

6. It’s a Carcosa, or a Tekumel. All these "people" are either the residuum of old lab experiments, created specifically so they can't understand each other, or are aliens from different dimensions or something, so their brains are literally totally screwy compared to one another. But none of them really remember this exactly.


  1. Love all these ideas. I've been thinking about language a lot re: the Invisible Sun setting (nine Suns named by color, each is supposed to have a language), and I think what I'm going to do for that is have the languages be differentiated by overt magical properties so players can remember them better. It's an overtly magical setting so I'm hoping this fits. For example:

    Indigo is the Sun of Truth. If you speak Indigo, everyone can understand you. They may not understand every nuance, but intelligent beings will at worst understand the general intent.
    [Indigo is the assumed home of the PCs, so this half-solves the language barrier problem.]

    Pale is the Sun of Death. When you die you slowly forget whatever languages you knew before and begin to speak only Pale. Knowing Pale lets you understand the ghosts and the dead.

    Green is the Sun of Life (and specifically verdancy/growing things). Knowing green lets you speak with most flora and fauna, given that they have anything to say.

    Red is the Sun of Violence and Destruction. Curses or insults spoken in Red carry more weight and can hurt the feelings of even quite jaded individuals.

    ...and so on.

    1. Perhaps Red also lets you speak to weapons and storms...

    2. Thats a pretty cool concept.

    3. Very cool. I love this concept.

    4. Ooh, just had thought, this could work well for a Carcosa game. All the different colour people speak a different tongue, and indigo (or whatever colour) could be the go between.

      I have a place in my own setting called the Prismatic Sea, it's peopled by folk who have been turned to crystalline organic glass. So still alive, requiring food and such, but with a different physiology. Their structures trap different wavelengths of light, and so they appear to glow different colours. Having language based on the light they harbor never occurred to me. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Personal preference for language in games is to have less understand/don't understand binary and more problems of fluency/cultural (mis)understanding. Like goblins in Keep on the Borderlands saying "glumpglump" or whatever and people think it's to surrender but in fact it's to call reinforcements and you only learn the truth through experience with the goblins, except extended to all communication with an outside group.

    For examples:
    -Goblin Punch orcs, kindness and intimacy are private, brutality is public
    -Non-verbal group (umber hulks, etc.) or group with verbal communications outside your ability to hear or comprehend (ultra-sonic micro-whales, apes), have to communicate with gestures and other implicative actions
    -Monster that always says the opposite of what it means, or always lies, or must tell the truth but can lie by omission and couches true things in misleading ways
    -Groups that talk like the languages in Tlon Uqbar, only use verbs/adverbs or whatever.
    -Group with extreme internal hierarchy (maybe they all wear colour-coded masks or something), outsiders are supposed to only talk with the bottom-rung but decisions are made by the top dog, interactions take on (possibly malicious/self-serving) broken telephone feel. Disruptive info-arbitrage potential for individuals within if you disregard the hierarchy.

  3. I would look into linguistic pragmatics if youre aiming to have differing languages without the need to come up with actual new langugages or have PCs deal with translation.

    Take the phrase 'he killed it', that could mean a number of things based on context and intonation. if we take that as a gameable element, make everyone speak Common but make all cultures differently idiomatic; if you want you can combine a color of language system like the one above with a table for Very Good/Good/Slightly Good/(Neutral)/Slightly Bad/Bad/Very Bad connotation system and then hook those together with any bog-standard (hey!) idioms that you and your group are familiar with. In english, losing ones mind is mildly negative to greatly negative depending on how literal you are meaning, tho to a goblin whose to know if those are good things, or neutral, or idiomatically mean something else entirely.

  4. Interesting concepts. I really like the way LotFP handles language. It's unique and it works well in games IMO.