You’re starting a new campaign. Your players are going over their characters to make sure they’ve forgotten nothing. “Racial attributes? Class abilities? AC? Equipment? Saves? Feats? Skills? Weapon proficiencies?” It all checks out, and your campaign is ready to go - or so it seems.
Six game sessions in, you decide that a little parley with a dark elf NPC is in order. “Does anyone speak Undercommon?” Leafing through their character sheets, players all together realise that they forgot to assign languages at character creation. You let them pick now to get it out of the way, and suddenly all of your players are fluent in Undercommon.
As I talk to more Dungeon Masters, it turns out that their groups suffer from this too! A solution is to make sure you get this out of the way early on. Your first non-combat encounter, therefore, should always be with someone who doesn’t speak a common language.
There are two major benefits to this. One, by putting it in a roleplaying encounter as opposed to an action encounter, the action isn’t stalled by leafing through books trying to decide who wants to speak Sylvan. Two, by having him speak an uncommon language you give players a choice - pick the language that’s immediately useful, or choose something more common that will be useful more often later on.
Another option is just to leave some of these things like languages assignable as the game proceeds. Languages should be a way of creating interest, but they can also bog the game down when it turns out that no one decided to take a starting language that is suddenly necessary. I tend to leave that stuff open. As long as the player can give me a reason that their character would know a language that hasn’t come up in-game yet, it helps move the story along so I’m OK with it.
I tend to agree with Doug, here. Certain aspects of character background can be created as the game goes along. And often this works better than having a 4 page character background fleshed out beforehand.
A full character background can be limiting in that playing a character is usually different to how you imagined it would be. For example, the background might explain why a PC has the feats chosen, but when you play the PC you find that, for example, Cleave isn’t the defining characteristic of the PC combat abilities, and Sense Motive, perhaps due to a series of bad rolls, just isn’t what it the background suggested. If you chose to then go back to the background and try to stick to it you might find yourself with a PC you don’t like because it fails to live up to the hype that you created.
I’ve had this experience, you see…
I always make my characters choose their languages right away. This does two things. 1st it allows me to know what language barriers are going to occur within the group.
Example - In my dragonlance campaign. I made it so that every elven group has it’s own individual language as well. Certain members can speak to each other without having the whole party know what is being said. Well at least in game they don’t know. Yes this causes a little inter-party conflict but I am one for this type of conflict in my games.
2nd thing it does is allows me to determine what languages the party will not understand in the various adventures that they are going to take part in. It allows me to either intentially use languages that I know they have or to intentionally use languages they don’t know.
I don’t like the idea of letting my players pick languages later on because they will simply take the ones they need. Also it makes the game less realistic. Now if they want to spend the time in game to learn a language then that is fine with me.
This is pretty unlikely to happen with my group, since several of us like having characters who know multiple languages (read “spent skill points on them” - none of this silly common+racial+int bonus as some sort of limit), and we tend to like role-playing encounters that involve other languages (e.g. our ‘chatty person’ likes to talk with npcs in their language, and I like to have a character who can listen in on others’ conversations). But I can definitely see why it might be a problem in many groups.
On a related note, the last guy to DM for our group (we rotate) essentially said, ‘okay, what languages do you guys know?….okay, they’re speaking in something else’ ‘okay, what languages do you guys know?….okay, the inscription is in something else’ which really bugged us. (Especially when he didn’t let us at least attempt a neat solution - the inscription was in Terran, so my dwarf character starts stumbling through the words (same alphabet) while the bard casts comprehend languages to try to get something from what I’m saying. This actually can work (we tried replicating it with French and German - a friend who doesn’t know the language starts reading it while another who does tries to translate); it just doesn’t ‘technically’ work with the rules. Hell, he could have given us a false translation! But alas, we got nothing.)
sorry for a triple post, but according to the SRD, comprehend languages would’ve worked just fine. poo.
What I’ve done before, if the text is truly obfuscated, is that Comprehend Languages will tell you what it says, but it turns out to be a particularly complicated piece of writing that requires specialist knowledge to actually understand. Knowing German will let you read a German physics textbook, but if you don’t know physics you still won’t comprehend it.
That said, the DM should decide in advance if something should be possible to the players. If he needs it to remain obscure, it’s a language which nobody can possibly comprehend. If he asks for language, he must be prepared to accept that someone may know it.
I’m wary with languages. Whenever I try to spout something mysterious sounding, it comes out silly sounding and always identical to every other mysterious sounding language. I also don’t like telling them the dwarf is speaking Terran, because if no PC knows Terran, they wouldn’t likely know the dwarf is speaking Terran.
Jonathan - in addition to your German physics example, many languages have odd sentence structures. I once confounded my PCs when they translated an ancient elven tablet into a babble of incoherent letters. In fact, that elvish dialect was written top to bottom instead of left to right!
I do encourage strange language selection, to hell with “Bonus Langueas”. My PCs have also picked up the habit of spending 4 skill points to custom make a unique hand signals language, enanling them to communicate without any enemy knowing what they are up to, and doing so silently.
In lieu of allowing language assignment on the go, I assin skill point assignment. Yes, it has some of the same disadvantages, but its rational: PCs will get good at what they actually do. A normal Barbarian might max out intimate, but if he never actually uses it, but uses Perform (Dance) at every inn, it makes sense he will improve his dancing but now his ugly scowl.
I would only ask a relatively experienced roleplayer to choose his languages. For beginning players, I assume that all wizards know Draconic (something has to take the place of Latin, after all), all Elves know Elven (especially if you have LoTR fans in your group), no PCs know Akkadian (a language consisting entirely of cryptic clues), and everyone else reads, writes, and speaks Common.
If my players are willing to spend the time to actually learn what all of the different languages and alphabets are, then choosing languages becomes really useful for me. The assumption here is that no PC would choose a language that he thought would be totally useless in an adventure. Therefore, a PC who chooses Orcish wants to talk with Orcs. The first adventure could have a roleplaying encounter with a tribe of Orcs. Or perhaps a rare example of Orcish script is found on a magical bracer, telling of its terribly ancient terrible curse. Of course, a DM shouldn’t be totally dictated by the player’s choices, but it sure blows when you create Gorteck, Hammer of the Ogres only to end up fighting kobolds for your first three levels.
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