A Ready Wit In Their Every Tongue

“I have entertained in all the courts of Europe and speak a ready wit in their every tongue!” – The Court Jester

Let’s talk about languages in D&D-likes.  Generally speaking, languages receive short shrift in D&D.  The core rules, dating back to the days of White Box D&D, default to assuming that there is a “Common Tongue” spoken by all humans and most demi-humans, and then individual racial tongues like Elven, Dwarven, Dragon, and the like, plus the somewhat controversial “alignment tongues” (which apparently Gary Gygax originally conceived of as being like the way Latin was the language of the church, or the Black Tongue was the language of the creatures of Mordor).  While this is easy enough to revamp into languages specific to your setting, whether that’s Spanish, French, and German or Hyrkanian, Aquilonian or Kushite, the other thing that most D&D-likes share is that languages are extremely hard to know and acquire, in most cases with a hard limit based on your Int.  For instance in AD&D, the number of extra languages you could even know ranged from 0, for Ints 8 and below, capping out at 7 for those with a whopping 18 Int.   Other versions limited it even more severely, for instance in Basic D&D and its descendants such as Dungeon Crawl Classics your number of extra languages is the same as your Int bonus: 1 to 3.

That’s all very well for adventures where talking is limited to the occasional parley with creatures in the dungeon or perhaps trying to eavesdrop on their plans, but it seems to be the product of a view of language acquisition heavily influence by the difficulties of learning through formal classroom instruction where you need to be quite clever and diligent to make any headway at all.  Worse, though, is that it’s not very similar to Appendix N fiction at all, where well-traveled characters can rattle off a list of the tongues they speak, or surprise their captors by knowing full well what they’re saying. Granted, pulp fiction may make language acquisition quite easy, and perhaps there’s something to be said for having a common tongue means that there are more opportunities for roleplaying conversations since you don’t have the language barrier stopping you all the time.

One interesting exception to the above is Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  In keeping with its early-modern era default setting, it makes knowing multiple languages a snap.  Or at least the possibility of knowing more languages. In LotFP, whenever the player needs to know if the character speaks a language for the first time in the game, you roll a d6.  If you roll less than or equal to 1 plus the character’s Int modifier (with some extra mods for distant/exotic languages), the character actually knows the language from having learned it some time before play started.  You only get one shot at knowing the language, though, and if there are rules for learning a language once it’s been established it’s not part of your background I couldn’t find them on a quick scan.  I think that’s pretty darn neat, if you don’t mind the slightly Schrodinger aspect of having the skill be indeterminate until needed.

An aspect that few of the D&D-likes deal with, except the 3e-derived ones with ranks for every kind of skill, is fluency with particular languages.  You’re either fluent or you’re not, with possible modifiers based on your Int as far as whether you’re literate (including in your native tongue).

Naturally, I have a proposed rule to address these shortcomings (to the extent you perceive them as such for your particular setting).


Chance You Already Know the Language.

When you need to determine if you’ve learned a language some time in your past, the base chance is 1 in 6, plus the better of your Int or Cha/Personality modifier (this isn’t book learning so being able to get along with others is a good way to pick up the language from strangers).  Apply the remoteness modifier to the result.

Remoteness Modifier
Local (from the nearby area) 0
Exotic (from a distant land or a non-human race) -2
Dead (few living speakers) -3
Magical (arcane) Can’t already know

If the result is negative, whether because of low Int/Cha or it’s a remote language, for every negative 1 bump up the die-size by one. So a -1 chance on a d6 becomes 1 chance on a d8, a -2 on a d6 becomes a 1 on a d10. This way even the stupid and or shy have some chance of having picked up extra languages in the course of living.

How Well Do You Know the Language?

Language knowledge is rated from 1 to 6 on the following scale:

Level Fluency Learning Period
1 Broken/short phrases Day
2 Halting/sentences Week
3 Fluent (heavily accented)/prose Month
4 Fluent (vaguely foreign)/compose poetry Season
5 Eloquent (native accent)/identify dialects Year
6 Expert/Imitate dialects

Characters always know their native tongue at level 5.  Otherwise roll a d6 when first determining if you already know the language, modified by the better of Int or Cha and modified by remoteness and that’s how well you know the language from prior exposure. Minimum level is 1.

Learning a New Language

When you’re exposed to a language you begin to learn it or improve your understanding. When you’re in a situation where you’re immersed in using the language daily, such as traveling with a caravan, spending time with a foreign city, or adventuring with a native speaker you can see if you improve your skill in that language. I recommend only allowing one roll per calendar period, to avoid bookkeeping hassles1. Roll the same die as when seeing if you already know the language, without any remoteness penalties, once per period: on a 1 you advance to the that level in fluency and the period between rolls changes to the one for the next level you’re trying to learn. We’re not applying remoteness penalties because if you’re currently learning from speakers of the language it doesn’t matter whether it’s really unusual that you’ve met some. For example, if you know nothing about the language you would roll every day you plausibly are practicing until you got a 1 and became able to speak the language, albeit brokenly. To progress to being able to speak haltingly, you would now roll once a week until a 1 came up, then once per month to attempt to become fluent albeit heavily accented, etc. If you have significant down time you can skip steps:  e.g. if the referee says three weeks later, your ship arrives at the port you can make 3 rolls to see if you went from nothing to level 2 at whatever language the sailors are speaking: you don’t have to roll day-by-day to get to level 1 first. If you fail, you get the next level down anyway.  (After a week you’d likely have succeeded in reaching level 1 anyway, even with a penalty, and after three weeks it’s virtually certain.)  Yes, that means with a big chunk of downtime you can get pretty good at one particular language with no risk of failure.  That’s OK, it’s not meant to be a gambling game, just a helpful way of figuring out how long it takes you to learn a language while taking into account some of your attributes, and that doesn’t require that you track anything except whether you’ve made a roll this calendar period.

  1. that is, check each day, and each week, and each calendar month, each time only checking one language that you could plausibly be improving based on your current circumstances, instead of trying to track per language how much time has elapsed since your last check. While  YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT, there is a practical limit.  Looking at a global campaign calendar is way easier than per character per language timesheets. 

2 thoughts on “A Ready Wit In Their Every Tongue

  1. seaofstarsrpg says:

    I have run games with a European level of linguistic confusion, it is difficult, the “Common tongue” is as much to help the GM as the players. That being said, in my current campaign, the further you get from areas that see lots of trade, the less likely you are to find people that speak the “universal” language, as they have no incentive to learn it as well as the native tongue of their area.

  2. Joshua Macy says:

    It’s certainly helpful to the GM to have a lingua franca, particularly when dealing with a scene where there are multiple NPCs speaking different languages all at once. Keeping track of which NPC or PC can understand which part of the conversation can be a chore. Still, there’s room for a language in the campaign like Latin or French that can be used as a common ground for communication without collapsing it quite as far as default D&D.

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