A million years ago when The Archive was first created, I wrote an article offering a variant method of handling languages. There were two reasons for this. The first was that as I was just learning how to read stat blocks, I found myself constantly confused at skill totals I was coming up with for NPCs, owning to bonus languages granted at character creation. The second was that it irked me and really stuck in my craw that everybody in the world except single-class barbarians is able to read any language they can speak. We've had to migrate The Archive a few times now and while that article is still around, it has to be searched for very specifically to be found. I've been milling it over for some time now and I've finally gotten around to updating it a little to make it a bit easier to understand. Please tell me what you think.
Language is an important feature of the Dungeons and Dragons game. When assaulting an ogre stronghold, it certainly pays to know how to speak the language of the giants. When standing before an elven king, it may impress him mightily if you converse in his own native tongue. When making a deal with a devil, knowing how to read the Infernal language may just save your soul from eternal damnation.
But how many languages should one person reasonably be expected to know? It has always bothered me how easy it is for the average player character to know more languages than he has fingers to count them on. Think about it. How many times have you seen a player go down the list and pick languages randomly because his starting Intelligence suggests that he should know a specific number? How many times have you seen a language that should probably be obscure, such as Celestial or Infernal, get taken as a bonus language with no effort to justify how the character came to know such a rare dialect? Why is it that the barbarian cannot read while a common, uneducated laborer in a feudal society can? It is my hope to offset these issues by offering an alternative way to deal with languages in the game.
As the core rules are written, any language a player character can speak, he can also read and write, except for barbarians who must pay a skill point cost for their literacy. In order to promote an equal starting point, everyone begins without literacy and must pay a skill point cost to learn to read and write a language. Except for the rare case of dead languages, most languages are taught verbally before one learns to read and write them, and in a world lacking government-funded public education, there should be many examples of under-educated people who never learn to read a language they can speak. Additionally, the core rules setup grants a player character a number of bonus languages equal to his Intelligence modifier during character creation. Instead of this, the new variant system treats each language as a separate example of Speak Language skill, much the same as Craft, Knowledge and Profession have various sub-skills. During character creation, the player character is granted a number of bonus skill points equal to 1 + Int modifier. If racial languages are being used, then this total should instead be 2 + Int modifier, to account for the player character's bi-racial upbringing. These skill points can only be used to increase the player character’s Speak Language skills, treating them as class or cross-class skills, as appropriate. Note that a negative Intelligence modifier does not remove existing skill points from this total. For all intents and purposes, a negative Intelligence modifier counts as a score of zero. Skill points granted by the player character's classes can be spent to increase Speak Language skills in the usual way as class or cross-class skills.
If a player character has half a rank in a Speak Language skill, he can understand enough of what he hears to get by in a basic way. He can’t hold a decent conversation in this language, and he only understands bits and pieces of what is said, perhaps only three or four words from an entire conversation. The player character can generally make it known what he wants, but his speech will be broken and very basic, and he completely lacks literacy.
Example: When asking which way to the nearest temple, someone might end up saying “Me worship... direction please?”
If a player character has a full rank in a Speak Language skill, he can speak that language in a conversational manner. He may still have a bit of an accent, but he knows the proper words and how to string them together into a cohesive sentence. Generally, he’ll speak the language as well as the next guy. He cannot read or write the language.
Example: When asking which way to the nearest temple, someone might end up saying “Which way is the nearest temple?”
A player character with a further rank (two ranks total) in a Speak Language skill can recognize literature written in that language and can read a little bit here and there. His reading and writing skills are very limited, being perhaps on par with a second grade reading level, but given enough time, he can probably make out what the text says by sounding the letters out.
Example: When reading a sign giving directions to the nearest temple, someone might end up saying: “Tuh. Tuh-ake. Take! Take tttthe llleeaf lleeaft lee..leaft! Take the left rrrruu ruuude. Take the left rude? Rude r-ude road! Take the left road!”
With yet another rank in a Speak Language skill (which brings us up to three full ranks), the player character is able to easily read text written in the language. His comprehension of the written language is at an adult level. Example: When reading a sign giving directions to the nearest temple, someone might end up saying: “It says to take the left road half a mile into the town of Kel and go to the center of town.”
Lastly, a player character can gain one more full rank in a Speak Language skill. With four ranks in a Speak Language skill, a player character is a master of that language. He can easily and quickly read the most difficult of literature written in that lnaguage. Additionally, he can not only speak the language with no noticeable accent, but he knows enough about the language to use large, impressive words when he feels like it (note that this does not make the player character more “silver-tongued,” but the dungeon master may wish to reward a player character who has invested this many skill points by granting him the occasional synergy bonus to skills like Diplomacy, Intimidate and Bluff). Most people don’t ever achieve this level of mastery over a language, but it’s a must for spies, diplomats and certain scholars.
Example: When asking which way to the nearest temple, someone might end up saying “Excuse me, kind Samaritan. I would certainly be in your debt if you were to point me in the direction of the nearest house of holy worship.”
It is worth mentioning, as well, that using this variant rule may shift the balance of leadership in some adventuring parties. In the stereotypical party, the paladin takes on the role of party front-man, using his high Charisma and Diplomacy skill to best interact with others in the name of the entire party. However, since Speak Language is a cross-class skill for all classes except the Bard, Aristocrat and possibly the Expert, it seems most likely that the party bard will have the best chance of being the party front-man in areas where the common language is not widely used.
It's also worth mentioning that Dungeon Masters might or might not add specific Speak Language skills to the class lists of certain classes. For example, Draconic is used as the default written language of arcane magic, so a Dungeon Master in his own game might consider adding Speak Language (Draconic) to the class skill list of the wizard. Or perhaps Speak Language (thieves cant) might be added to the class skill list of the rogue.