Variant rule for handling languages

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Fixxxer's picture
Variant rule for handling languages

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.

Edited by: Fixxxer on 09/26/2019 - 05:17
Aladdar's picture

Are we assuming that every language uses a different alphabet? As it stands, if I can speak a language that uses the standard Latin alphabet, I should be able to read it, although I may have to struggle a bit since it's not my native tongue. So if I can speak Spanish I should be able to read it, assuming I can read any language in that alphabet.

However just because I know how to speak Russian or Chinese or Arabic, for example, doesn't mean I have any ability to read that language since they use such different characters.

It would take a lot more work, and require supplemental information that isn't in the core books, to assign an alphabet to each language; but it might make sense to allow you to be able to pick up a skill to read a specific alphabet and then you can automatically read any language that uses that alphabet, assuming you can speak it. This would create a tendency for certain languages that are related to be more common within worlds and other languages to be far more rare such as Celestial or some obscure tribal language.

Fixxxer's picture

I'm trying to keep the variant somewhat simple so it can be used by anybody who wants to do only a little amount of work. That said, I designed this with Eckor in mind. If you look at the material on The Archive for my setting, the individual languages have minor snippets attached to them that are meant to deal with exactly what you describe. For example, anyone who has a rank in either High Draconic or Low Draconic may operate as though he has half a rank in the other. Or in some of the various sign languages, less ranks are required for mastery because there's no written or verbal component to learn. The idea is to present a simple base variant and allow the world creator to fine tune things on a case by case basis for the individual languages of his world.

If someone wants things as simple as possible, they can use the system as presented int he core rules. If they want simplicity with the added complication of illiteracy, they can use this variant exactly as presented. If they want to add complexity of language to their world, they can use this system with relative ease simply by assigning modifiers to the languages individually. Using real world examples, a DM could say that if you already have 2 ranks in Speak Language (English), then you could treat Speak Language (German) as a class skill. Or that Speak Language (Farsi) requires 5 ranks for mastery instead of 4 due to its complexity. Or that anyone with 3 ranks in Speak Language (Latin) can read (but not speak) Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian as though they had 2 ranks in the associated Speak Language skill. There's lots of options.

In your world, is the Elvish language rarely heard outside of their closed national borders? Make it harder to learn than other languages. Do demons run amok while angels are never seen or heard from? Infernal is easier to learn, while Celestial is harder. Is there a Common language shared across the world? Everyone gets a free rank in that Speak Language skill. There's a lot of ways a DM could tailor the individual languages to achieve the kind of effect on his world that he's looking for.

deadDMwalking's picture

There are now a lot of variants on 3.x, especially as it relates to skills. For simplicity I would recommend that all players get a number of additional bonus skill points equal to their Intelligence modifier at 1st level; they may spend them on any skill and treat it as a class skill (starting only).

Thus, a character could buy languages for a single skill point at character creation (even if it is not normally a class skill) or instead opt to put them into a more traditional skill (like Disable Device). Since they won't get these additional bonus skills at higher levels, there's an incentive to use them for things like language(s).

You might call it Background Skills.

Variant - Background Skills
Instead of known languages, characters get a number of skill points equal to 2+Intelligence Modifier at character creation. These can be used to purchase any skill as a class skill including Speak Language. A character can spend one skill point to be literate in any language they speak.

Talanall's picture

It's really hard to model languages and literacy in the d20 system. If you go with the Core Rules, then 1 rank/2 ranks per language (depending whether Speak Language is a class skill for you) is pretty much the limit, and the only time literacy is even a question is when you're a single-classed barbarian. There isn't necessarily even anything wrong with that approach, especially when we're talking about the D&D/Pathfinder systems, orientated as they are toward "generic fantasy" settings.

That's kind of a personally painful admission for me to make, because in Real Life I can speak and/or read Old English, Middle English, Modern English (because it's my native tongue), Latin, Italian, and French with varying degrees of facility. Significantly, OE, ME, and Latin are basically dead languages, so although I can pronounce them, in actual practice it'd be fair to say that I never actually speak them because there's nobody to speak with.

Because I have Latin, French, and Italian, it happens that I usually can puzzle through simple Spanish (I can read most things in a Spanish newspaper, for example). And this also applies to various dialects of Occitan—I can't speak it or understand it when spoken to me, but if you leave me alone with something written in an Occitan dialect, I usually can get the gist of it. Same for stuff in Romanian (assuming it's written in Latin characters and not in Cyrillics). It's much easier when I know the pronunciation rules, so Romanian is harder for me than Occitan, and that's harder for me than Spanish.

This doesn't work as well for me in Germanic/Norse languages, because there's a lot more differentiation between the branches of that family in terms of phonology and orthography, and there are more branches. I do best with Icelandic, because the spoken form of the language has changed but the written form is practically a fossil of Old Icelandic, which is close enough to Old English for it to help me. Most of the other Germanic languages have evolved quite a lot since the 800s and 1000s.

But suffice it to say that modern German is a very different beast from Old English, and modern Norwegian is wildly different from both.

None of this stuff maps very well onto the skill system that prevails in the D20 systems. As I said before, that's really okay. The conceit in D&D is that there is a language called Common, and that basically everybody speaks Common in addition to some other language, which usually is racial—dwarves speak Dwarven, elves speak Elven, and so on. This is basically a contrivance that attempts to dispense with languages altogether, except on such occasions as the DM wants to make it hard to talk to someone or something.

I don't like it, but that's because I have ideological issues with the proposition:

race ↔ language

Which overwhelmingly prevails in D&D. It's not really emblematic of how the fantasy genre as a whole approaches the issue (authors usually at least make a nod to the idea that there are many languages, and then find a way to deal with it narratively that may or may not involve communication problems).

D&D's approach is sort-of-kind-of a holdover from Tolkien, in the sense that if you just read The Lord of the Rings, there is a "common tongue" spoken by men and hobbits, a Dwarven language that is spoken by dwarves, and an Elven language that is spoken by elves. It's evident from The Silmarillion and other posthumous works that Tolkien really constructed about three different "Elven" languages that were spoken by different ethnicities, as well as a similarly diverse group of human languages, a dwarven language, and several others that we know to exist within his fictive universe even if we don't know anything else about them. For example, we know that the hobbits of the Shire speak a language that is extremely similar to Rohirric, the language of the Rohirrim. And Rohirric is pretty much an ersatz Old English, because Tolkien was a professor of philology whose work had primarily to do with that language. So even in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, this topic is more complicated than it seems to be in the derivative works represented by most Dungeons and Dragons settings.

Anyway, it becomes more of a problem the farther you wander away from D&D as a gaming engine that deals with breaking into people's houses, killing them, and taking their stuff. I find it noisome that human beings in the Aureshan Empire, the Mereflow Valley, and the Kingdom of Enteria speak the same language (they all speak Common), and that every dwarf in the Tolrea setting speaks a mutually-intelligible language that we call Dwarven, even in populations that have lived without contact for thousands of years.

I put up with it because I don't really want to make the setting incompatible with a section of the Core Rules. But it definitely bothers me. For similar reasons, I'm not a fan of (but dislike) the blanket assumption of literacy for everyone who isn't a single-classed barbarian.

It also is unquestionably true that this becomes a much bigger deal if you're playing something like D20 Modern. If you tried to write an accurate stat block for me, it would be extremely difficult because I speak/write five languages at varying degrees of fluency, and I can understand the general sense of several more as a synergistic effect of being a polyglot.

That's a problem because although I am somewhat unusual (especially for an American) for being capable in so many languages, I'm by no means rare. There are pressing reasons why so many people learn to speak several different interrelated languages—in the real world, (or in reasonably verisimilitudinous replicas of it, which is where most D20 Modern campaigns take place) it's not generally acceptable to shoot first and ask questions later, and you need to be understood to ask questions. It's very hard to make a D20 Modern game work within the same behavioral assumptions as a D&D game because of this.

I eventually came up with an alternative system that I will (someday, if I get off my ass and finish the SRD for it) incorporate into a D20 Steam rule set. See here:

I think the linked system is responsive to many of the same concerns that motivated you. It includes a feat that allows the rules to address the usefulness of knowing multiple interrelated languages. The linked system also differs from yours because it addresses linguistic proficiency in a fashion that reflects not only the number of ranks invested in a language, but also the native intelligence of the person speaking it. Along the same lines, it explicitly offers a method for handling (mis)communication in high-stress situations.

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