Thursday, 3 November 2016

Making Languages Make Sense

This is not a set of rules I would use in my game, because I love simplicity, but something that has always baffled me is how D&D uses languages as it is so divorced from how languages function. Now, people in most of the medieval milieu that we draw D&D’s inspiration from are broadly mutli-lingual, with a degree of competency necessary for basic bartering or diplomacy, although this varies massively by region (Central Asia has a high degree of linguistic variety, Tang China does not). I’d only use them in a game-world languages are highly relevant and politicised as they are in reality (chiefly, one in which the lingua franca of Common does not exist). I consider myself to ‘speak Spanish’ – what this means if I can broadly (often with major mistakes) get my point across and be understood in most day-to-day situations, and can get by in a conversation. I can’t read Lorca or discuss anything complex or with specialist jargon or speak an obscure dialect.

At a stroke, of a fleet of fancy, my Gnomish Sorcerer knows Elvish. This entitles him to be able to speak to anyone who speaks Elvish in the universe; to understand Elvish texts that are millennia old, to joke in Elvish, to speak Elvish with exactly the same fluency as a native speaker.

In the real world, let’s say my Gnomish Sorcerer learns English. If we used D&D logic, he’d be able to have a conversation about the legality of Brexit without a Parliamentary vote, he’d be able to read Beowulf in the original text, he’d be able to chat up a barmaid or discuss Quantum Physics or order a drink – these are all represented as equal feats of proficiency represented as having ‘English’ on your character sheet. They can speak English to a speaker in Delhi as easily as in Edmonton. They can speak to a swaggering Brummie rude-boy and an Old Etonian without batting an eyelid.

This gets even more bizarre when the language can be Celestial, or Draconic. Who the fuck learns conversational Abyssal? These languages clearly have niche utility beyond the needs of esoteric scholars or cultists or some such. Clearly they needed to be handed differently.

Here’s how I’d fix it.

You have three levels of proficiency in any giving language.

Basic: You can discuss the weather and order a drink or ask for directions in this language. Anything else is beyond you, and Charisma checks are made with disadvantage if using this language. (1 point)
Fluent: You can make alliances, chat someone up and get by in almost all day-to-day situations. (2 points)
Scholarly: You can read ancient, academic or highly specialist texts in this language and understand them. Think reading Foucault in the original French. Only ‘scholarly’ classes (Wizard, Cleric, Warlock, Bard) or those with a relevant background (Scholar, Sage etc) may choose this option. (3 points)

Each class gets a number of points – let’s say ten – modified by double their intelligence modifier.  You’re automatically fluent in your mother-tongue. You can spend them as you wish  - be able to ask for directions in any region or be an expert in Elvish and Dwarven?

To fix the absurdity of street-rats gibbering away in conversational Draconic, exotic languages (Abyssal, Infernal etc) costs double points. 

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