Friday, December 9, 2011

Languages in D&D

I mentioned in my last post that languages in Rogues and Reavers deserve their own write-up. Here it is.

In the standard version of D&D, there are a huge number of languages: Common, Dwarven, Elven, Goblinoid, Giant, etc. Published campaign settings often add even more languages, one for every ethnicity and nation, living or dead. I'm dubious about the value of this linguistic variety. It is certainly realistic, but I don't believe it creates better gameplay.

First, it often prevents negotiation with monsters. If no one in the party speaks Orcish, they can't parley effectively with the baddies. Second, it acts as a blockade for exposition when they're listening in to a conversation or reading a scroll. No one speaks Flumphic? Too bad that you can't hear their diabolical plans.

Yet, there are times that not knowing the language can be an interesting bit of roleplaying. Early in A Princess of Mars, John Carter must communicate with the Tharks through sign language. Discovering the mysterious ruins of an ancient past can lead to speculation about what their strange markings mean, giving the players an excuse to visit the local sage. The classic pulp literary example here would be At the Mountains of Madness. 

Despite the language barrier being an intriguing plot point, both Burroughs and Lovecraft quickly become bored with this obstacle, and their heroes quickly master the foreign tongue. I think this is the right way to go about it - players may not be able to understand the language of strange creatures or cultures intially, but it is a problem they can quickly and easily overcome. That way, you can preserve the mystery of a foreign people while preventing it from becoming a frustrating roadblock for the PCs.

For my game, most creatures and cultures will have adopted some sort of universal "Esperanto", but especially alien beings and truly ancient civilizations may have their own unique languages. In other words, other tongues will only come up when it could prove to be interesting. With that in mind, I'll allow a chance to learn one of these rare foreign tongues in character creation, but it won't be anywhere as necessary as it is in a standard game of D&D.

How does a PC learn a foreign language, then? My first idea was to give players the opportunity to pick up a language when they level, but I can foresee problems with this method. If the players finish a scenario featuring a savage language and then spend resources researching said tongue only to never have the topic revisited again, they're going to feel jipped, and rightfully so. One answer would be "don't introduce a foreign language unless you've going to use it with some frequency", but there is an inelegance to that solution that doesn't please me.

Another way to handle this problem is to give an in-game period of study time necessary to pick up the foreign tongue. There is a distinct advantage to this method, in which the need to understand said language is dictated by how much 'on screen' time that is afforded the people who employ it. So, if the crypt of the ancients is a three-room lair or the degenerate morlocks from out of time only fill a single room in a dungeon complex, and I have no intent to dwell on them again, there is not a large enough 'sample' to decipher the language. What I'm clearly indicating here in doing so is that 'this does not matter, move on.' However, if the degenerates from elder days are being released from their hibernation pods across the continent and working to restore their lost city of 10,000 unspeakable idols, the language is important and the players will be able to learn their sinister dialect.

If we settle on a progressive linguistics that is learned through exposure, a couple question arise. First, how long should it take to learn the language and second, should the PCs have an incomplete understanding that grows with time or should they grasp it at once?

Going back to the literary sources, John Carter masters the martian tongue in a week. Burroughs provides a reason for this: martian telepathy, along with a simple verbal language. William Dyer (in At the Mountains of Madness) begins deciphering the symbols of the Old Ones in a single day, although he notes that much was inferred, but it was deciphered in detail since their return (in which no date is supplied, although the text was written in 1931 and the adventure takes place in 1930, indicating a year passed). Using these as "benchmarks", a week of observation and instruction would teach someone to speak a new language, while a written language will give hints upon initial observation, but will take a year of dedicated study to master, requiring the use of a scribe in the short-term. I suspect that the effect in play will be a reliance on scribes to decipher old texts and an increase in captives taken to learn the spoken tongue of foreign people.

Looking at the excellent Chaosium mega-adventure Beyond the Mountains of Madness, it handles translating the script of the Old Ones with a rather fast-paced skill mechanic. Some clues in the text found are easier to gather than others, and every time a piece of text is decrypted there is a chance for a skill increase. In relatively short order, the players will have a good chance of being able to understand many of the concepts presented to them. This is based on the INT score from Call of Cthulhu, with higher multipliers for easier clues. Mimicking this system, I'm currently thinking of using the following formula:

Base chance to gain a clue from an ancient text or from a conversation: 1 in 1d6

Some concepts are easier to decipher than others, increasing chances to 1-2 in 1d6 or 1-3 in 1d6.

After three clues have been gathered, the chances increase by 1, i.e. 1 in 1d6 becomes 1-2 in 1d6, 1-2 in 1d6 becomes 1-3 in 1d6, etc. This continues until the character has mastery in the skill (1 in 1d6 becomes 1-6 in 1d6).

On the character sheet this would be reflected as Languages: Old Ones +1.

Although a 1 in 6 chance seems fairly low, as every member of the party will be attempting to decipher the script the odds increase fairly quickly. With four players, the probability for success is 52%. Not too shabby, if I say so. With a roll of 1-2 the odds increase to 80%, and with 1-3 we move up to a staggering 93%.

I'm of two minds about this system. Here are the positives and negatives that I can think of:


1. It reflects a growing understanding, with the PCs quickly grasping simple concepts at first, and soon thereafter learning complex and abstract ideas.

2. Likewise, the subsystem builds a mystery element directly into the act of translation, where more information is revealed over time, doling out clues with an ever-greater regularity as their skill increases.


1. Yet another thing to track on the character sheet and another mechanic to memorize. Too much of this stuff bogs down a game.

2. Clues may not be distributed when they are important. Although you can provide multiple opportunities for discovering the same clue, with deciphering the script only being one method,

Another method I stumbled across recently, in the Indiana Jones Judges Survival Book, is intriguing. In that, they suggest a mini-game where players are handed a "key" and a piece of text which they must decipher by hand. I've seen something similar in kids' activity books, and it has a certain charm, but I imagine it would bog down play if employed too often. Perhaps, should the players fail the roll above, they're given a second chance to decipher the script if they do it by hand? That way, if the players enjoy cracking this sort of puzzle, they can choose to do so. If not, they simply move on.

The problem with this system is a question of time. Requiring the DM to write down foreign characters by hand in case they are needed is a lot of extraneous work. There are a couple shortcuts that come to mind:

1. High-Tech: There are a number of "translators" for Mayan, Cuneiform, and the like of varying quality on the internet, as well as fonts that mimic these ancient languages. These require up-front prep on the part of the DM, but once found would require little work, although they could prove to be a drain on the ink cartridge.

2. Low-Tech: Alternatively, one could find a suitable alphabet, cut out individual characters, and laminate them. When a message needs to be translated, the DM could pull out the needed characters and arrange them on the table for the players to puzzle out. This would allow more improv on the DM's part, but it would be a bear to set up and could eat up a lot of table time.

In the end, I'm not sure if translations of this sort would be worth the hassle. I think it's an interesting enough idea to be worth trying, but we'll see if it ends up being cut in the crucible of playtesting.
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