Languages in RPG Settings

Just an aside, and entirely unrelated to the rest of this post, but yesterday was my 100th post to this blog.  Not really meaningful or important, but I think it’s a little bit cool. — kjd

Sometimes we overcomplicate things in the design of role-playing games in an effort to be realistic. One place I’ve really noticed this is in language rules. I have seen a great deal of effort put into managing language, and I think it’s probably not at all needed.

In the real world there are a huge number of spoken languages in use. In the medieval period there were fewer people but it could be said there were functionally more languages and dialects in use than there are today because of the homogenization of language over time. For instance, if I remember correctly from when I studied German in university, in Germany today the ‘standard language’ is Hoch Deutsch (‘High German’). The regional dialects are still present but not as prevalent as they were centuries ago, when people from north and south Germany could find each other’s speech almost incomprehensible.

Assuming fantasy settings can be modeled after medieval Europe, this suggests that there should be literally scores, if not hundreds, of languages in an entire game world the size of Earth. I think trying to model this accurately in a fantasy role-playing game would be difficult at best and probably a waste of time and effort.

Language Rules in a Few Games

This is not an area I’ve put a lot of research into, so I’ll just list a few approaches I’ve seen in different games (a couple editions of D&D and HERO System).

Dungeons and Dragons

D&D has a fundamental weirdness, I think, in assuming that each race has its own language, rather than splitting languages on regional or geographical basis. It makes it easier to explain in the rules, but it still seems weird to me.


If I remember correctly, in BECMI D&D PCs started knowing Common, an alignment language, and perhaps a racial language if they were not human. A high Intelligence score let you know one additional language per point of Intelligence bonus.

AD&D 1e

In AD&D 1e PCs typically knew Common, an alignment language, and a racial language if not human. Additional languages could be learned based on the character’s race and Intelligence score. As I recall the number of additional languages was not directly related to any bonus score calculation, instead being looked up on the Intelligence table.

AD&D 2e

In AD&D 2e PCs typically knew Common, an alignment language, and a racial language if not human. Additional languages could be learned based on the character’s Intelligence score (I don’t remember if race really came into it). I don’t remember if the number of additional languages was based on the Intelligence bonus or looked up in the Intelligence table. You could also spend a rather precious nonweapon proficiency slot (if playing with that optional rule) to learn another language.

D&D 3e

In D&D 3e PCs typically know Common and a racial language if not human, plus a number of additional languages equal to their Intelligence bonus. They can also learn additional languages by ‘buying ranks’ in the Speak Language skill (one language per rank, paying class or cross-class costs as appropriate). They also simplified the language structure somewhat – giants of all kinds speak Giant, the goblinoid races speak Goblin, and so on.

D&D 4e

I lack specific knowledge here so will not comment.

HERO System

HERO System invested a fair bit of effort into devising a system that tries to be fairly realistic. The rules try to handle not only a large number of languages but language families and degree of similarity between languages. The diagram presented for real-world languages is… not easily redraw from memory.

Required Languages

For what it’s worth, I have found language rules in role-playing games mostly irrelevant. Except in a few cases (mostly modern-day mystery or spy games) where language can often be a plot element, either everyone speaks a common language or there are powers to make the fact that they speak different languages meaningless.

The choice of additional languages is often meaningless as well. Either you chose the right languages in the party so you can communicate with the creatures you run into, or you didn’t. I remember coordinating with the other players to try to ensure we covered the widest range of languages possible just in case.

Realistic rules are overkill for a game, but ignoring the issue entirely doesn’t set well with me. I think there’s a reasonable middle ground, though.

Commonly-Required Languages

I read some time ago a suggestion that there are only a handful of languages needed in a typical fantasy role-playing game. The list read something like:

  • Here and Now – the locally-common language
  • Long Ago – often used in old manuscripts and academic settings
  • Far Away – a recognizably foreign language used by exotic visitors (often neutral or friendly)
  • Green Meanies – used by the local threats (could be Orcish in some settings, could be French in a medieval English setting)
  • Magic – language spoken by arcanists and other magic-using characters (could be draconic, Elder Tongue, whatever)

While not particular realistic or detailed, each language can have a distinct purpose and use in a story. In a more complex story (that is, more complex plot than my players typically look for in an adventure) you might have two local threats that are probably not friendly toward each other.

The above list makes selecting languages spoken by characters pretty straightforward. Everyone speaks ‘Here and Now’ (Common, in D&D), academics and those interested in the before times might speak ‘Long Ago’, travelers or the like might speak ‘Far Away’, and those who regularly deal with the local threats probably speak that language (though my son did ask “why do they need a language, if you’re just going to stab them in the face and take their stuff?”… and I can’t say he doesn’t have a point). I honestly don’t have a real use for ‘Magic’, but I suppose it might be used for recording spells and the like, and in spell casting. It sounds cool, but it seems to me that it would be a dangerous language to hold a conversation in.

Closing Thoughts

I understand the desire to have many languages in a setting. In a simulationist sense this makes sense because it conforms to our own world. I’d be inclined to change the language divisions to be regional rather than racial, but that’s a minor issue (and not even relevant if the races control different regions anyway).

From a narrative perspective, though, within a single story I find it fairly uncommon that you need more than the languages identified above. The specific definitions of the languages can change from story to story (different Green Meanies, probably), but unless the story focuses on language you probably don’t need too many languages overall. The gamist perspective probably often finds more than the above to be entirely overkill.

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  1. Rick Pikul

    A couple of things:

    The complex language relationship thing from Hero was an optional thing intended for the kind of games where it would matter. The default was a simple system where you picked languages a la carte.

    For the generic language system, ‘Magic’ would likely not just be for recording spells but also the one that has all of the terms needed for discussing magic. But it is true that it would tend to be a language more written than spoken, (its use in speech would likely be more in the form of specialized terms sprinkled in a ‘Here and Now’ conversation). Perhaps it might work to consider it a pseudo-language, similar to learning what someone means when they say “I’m going to pipette 100 ml of 2-methyl-1,3,5-trinitrobenzene into the Erlenmeyer.”

    It’s also quite possible that ‘Magic’ is going to be a very close relative of ‘Long Ago’, using an RL analog ‘Magic’ might be a jargon heavy version of Latin.

  2. It sounds like you’re describing ‘Magic’ much as a jargon, which suggests it may only be meaningful to those who actually study magic. I wasn’t sure if it should be included at all, given that context.

    I believe you’re right about HERO’s complex language rules being optional, but given the presentation that’s what I remembered about them.

  3. hadsil

    I have found that a DM sometimes uses language as a Nyah-Nyah thing. When the party hears the bad guys talking, how “convenient” it’s in a language no one understands and the DM can smugly say “You don’t know.”

    Real Jerk players do this too. They love to be the only one who can understand a particular language so they can Know Something no one else does and feel more superior than they already do. The only time they do not mind another player knowing a language they do is if the other players is also a Real Jerk because Real Jerks always team up. This allows them to have a private conversation among themselves about anything, usually to their advantage and everyone else’s disadvantage and laud it over the other players “You Don’t Know” what they’re saying and can’t act upon it.

    This isn’t an inherent problem of having many languages, just on how it can abused.

  4. That’s always a possibility when there are multiple languages, yes. I think the five presented above (which are probably functionally four in most cases — ‘Magic’ is unlikely to come up that often) cover the ‘language roles’ typically ‘needed’. The definitions change, but having a quite small set like this may well be sufficient.

  5. GreyKnight

    If we skip the “Magic” one as a special case, the other three languages diverge from “Common” along three axes: Time (Long Ago), Place (Far Away), Species/Kind (Green Meanies). If there’s only one other time/one other country/one other species involved, as is mostly the case (as you argue above), then you only need one language offset along each axis. In the standard 3.5 language set, they have put several languages offset along the Species axis, plus some extraplanar languages offset along Place.

  6. @GreyKnight: I noticed that myself. You could argue that in Europe ‘Magic’ might fit in any of the three axes (‘Magic’ might equate to Latin (‘long ago’), Japanese kana (if written, ‘far away’), or Draconic (… lacking non-human languages in Europe). On the other hand, you could instead place ‘Magic’ into yet another category/axis, ‘specialized purpose’. As Rick mentioned, ‘Magic’ might be a jargon rather than a distinct language — somewhat similar to Thieves’ Cant or possibly Druidic.

    Note that this is primarily a philosophical document identifying primary roles for languages in RPGs. These are a fairly commonly seen set of language roles, so it can be somewhat expected that each would be populated. You may want more languages in each niche, or to translate along more than once axis at a time (‘long ago far away’ would be pretty obscure, I’d think).

    Hmm, interesting possibility for those who want to apply the above logic in a more complex manner. Assume you have a certain number of ‘language points’. Learning a language costs a number of points equal to the number of steps from the nearest language known.

    English and French might be one point (one step of far away; Japanese might be five), but Medieval French might be three (one step of far away, two of long ago) and Medieval French Alchemy might be four (add a step of jargon/’magic’). Someone who knows Japanese will have an easier time with Chinese (Japanese kana are simplified Chinese symbols, if I recall correctly, and have much the same meaning — perhaps similar to the difference between English and German, with more cognates).

    Or perhaps ignore the number of ‘steps’, and just call it one per axis the languages differ. If you know English, Middle English or German might be one point but ‘Middle German’ (German at the time of Middle English) might be two. Or something.

    There are possibilities here. I’m unlikely to pursue them much in Echelon, but in campaign development I might.

  7. James

    This is a pretty cool analysis.

    The magic language would probably have two vocabularies, one that describes and one that actually does the magic- so as to avoid the obvious problems, it would be like the prohibitions on using a deity’s name casually.

    I always loved the idea of an alignment language, but it’s kind of stupid once one gets into the nine alignment system. (There are Lawful and Chaotic languages. Gang slang being the language of Chaos, for example.) Much more useful is the idea of the “Thieves’ cant”, the language used by thieves. There are definite examples of the usefulness in real life of that language, although it hardly can be defined as a language- more of a language skill.

    Racial languages imply that the individual races interact enough to maintain a separate language. All dwarves are likely to know the regional language if they interact with the locals, but may have a language in common with dwarves from outside the local region.

    Still, verisimilitude be darned, your system sounds like it does well enough for most campaigns I’ve ever been in.

  8. I forgot to mention, congratulations on your 100th post!

    I found an interesting article you might like (linked from my name), if you were planning to make any changes around save-or-die effects. Essentially he proposes that the effect on a failed save can be replaced with ability score damage rather than an either/or situation. For example, paralysing effects might deal Dexterity damage, death effects Constitution damage, and so on. Once you’ve taken enough damage you end up with the same thing (paralysis, death, etc) anyway, but it allows the “ablative damage” principle to remain in play rather than everything hinging on one save roll.

  9. Another interesting article (linked above), originally for GURPS but the basic idea is fairly general. Proposes defining several magical languages, used for different kinds of magic and with different effects. For example: Druidic can only be used to cast nature-type or elemental spells; Imperial Thaumas makes ceremonial magic (joint casting) easy but individual casting is harder; Lingua Maleficium makes evil spells easier to cast, gives a bonus when cast in darkness and a penalty in light, and eats away at your sanity.

    If you like using language-dependent challenges in your games, this would let you combine them with spell challenges (e.g., some higher-level spells might only be found on a scroll written in an ancient, little-known magical tongue). Of course, you might want to alter /read magic/ in a setting using this idea, otherwise such challenges are meaningless.

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