On Languages

Introduction

Languages are handled simply — simplistically, in my opinion — in D&D, using the Speak Language ‘skill’. There are several things I don’t care for with this model.

  • A single rank in Speak Language provides full fluency with a language; you either speak a language fluently or not at all. This does not match my experience with language.
  • Literacy is binary as well; if you can read and write any language, you can read any language you speak (assuming it has a written form). This seems overly simplistic to me, given the setting.
  • For that matter, literacy is rampant; among PCs, only barbarians start off illiterate, and can easily correct this by dipping into any other (PC) class. Granted, adventuring classes make up only a small part of the population, but it still doesn’t seem right.
  • Speak Language is not really a skill; ranks in Speak Language are not constrained as other skills, you can buy as many ranks in this ‘skill’ as you wish, regardless of level.

In this article I describe how I would change the language model so it better suits my understanding of linguistics and how I wish to treat languages in my campaign.

Language Skills

I replace the current model with two (meta-)skills. Speak Language provides fluency in speaking (and listening to, of course) languages. It behaves much like Craft, in that each language is its own skill. Read Language provides literate fluency with languages, the ability to read and write. Like Speak Language, each language has its own skill.

A character’s native language is always considered a class skill, and a character starts with four ranks in his native language. Speak Language may otherwise be considered a class skill of bards (and made a class skill by the Travel domain), Read Language a class skill of wizards (and made a class skill by the Knowledge domain).

These skills share a lot of synergy. A character who has at least five ranks in Speak Language for a language can apply a +2 synergy bonus when making Speak Language checks for related languages and Read Languages checks for this language.

Consider a campaign area with the following history:

  • Elves settled in the southern forest.
  • Dwarves settle in the mountains to the north.
  • Two groups of humans move in between the two, one to the northeast and the other to the southwest.
  • Orcs (a twisted parody of the dwarves) followed the dwarves from the northwest (the orcs, dwarves, and northeastern humans live in a triangle).
  • Goblins (bastard cousins of the orcs) live nearby as well.

The following relationships might exist between the languages, as a result of their proximity:

  • Elvish-Southwestern Human
  • Southwestern Human-Northeastern Human
  • Northeastern Human-Orcish
  • Northeastern Human-Dwarvish
  • Dwarvish-Orcish
  • Orcish-Goblin

A Dwarvish character would likely start off exposed to the Dwarvish, Orcish, and Northeastern Human languages (Dwarvish would be his native language, obviously). If he learns to speak and read Dwarvish, Orcish, and Northeastern Human (five ranks each), he would get a +4 synergy bonus when speaking or reading or writing any of these languages. If he picks up a smattering (one rank) of goblin he would get a +2 synergy bonus — he speaks goblin poorly, with a heavy orcish accent (whatever *that* means).

A Southwestern Human, on the other hand, might speak and read his native language fluently (five ranks each), deal with his Northeastern cousins (Speak five ranks, Read 1 rank), and study Elvish writing (Read five ranks, Speak one rank). He has the following checks:

  • Speak Southwestern Human: +7
  • Read Southwestern Human: +7
  • Speak Northeastern Human: +7
  • Read Northeastern Human: +3
  • Speak Elvish: +3
  • Read Elvish: +7

(all ignoring Intelligence bonuses, of course). He can speak and read his native language quite well, speak Northeastern Human and read Elvish as well, but reads Northeastern Human writing and speaks Elvish relatively poorly. Assuming Intelligence 14, he can understand (or convey) moderately complex ideas in any of the three languages, whether written or spoken. Very complex ideas may take a while to explain or understand, however, depending how they are conveyed.

Skills

Read Language

Check

You can try to read or write a single language. Like Craft, this is a meta-skill, representing several skills that all behave in a similar fashion. Each language is its own skill (Read Language (Elvish) and Read Language (Dwarvish) are two different skills).

Simple concepts may be conveyed (or understood) with a DC 10 check. Moderately complex ideas require a DC 15 check, while more complex ideas may require DC 20 or higher checks. Generally, most people will be able to Take 10 for their normal uses of language (normal conversation needs only DC 10, while those who regularly have to make DC 20 checks will be intelligent, literate, and/or trained in a number of related languages).

Synergy

If you have 5 or more ranks in Read Language for a language, you get a +2 bonus on checks involving documents (mostly Forgery, Profession (scribe), perhaps Diplomacy). You also get a +2 bonus to Speaking Language checks involving this language, and a +2 bonus to all Read Language involving related languages).

The table of related languages varies by campaign and is not included here.

Speak Language

Check

You can try to speak or understand a single language. Like Craft, this is a meta-skill, representing several skills that all behave in a similar fashion. Each language is its own skill (Speak Language (Elvish) and Speak Language (Dwarvish) are two different skills).

Simple concepts may be conveyed (or understood) with a DC 10 check. Moderately complex ideas require a DC 15 check, while more complex ideas may require DC 20 or higher checks. Generally, most people will be able to Take 10 for their normal uses of language (normal conversation needs only DC 10, while those who regularly have to make DC 20 checks will be intelligent, literate, and/or trained in a number of related languages).

Synergy

If you have 5 or more ranks in Speak Language for a language, you get a +2 bonus on Bluff and Diplomacy checks made when using the language. Also, if you have 5 or more ranks in Speak Language you get a +2 bonus to all checks made to try to read the language, and a +2 bonus to all Speak Language checks with related languages.

The table of related languages varies by campaign and is not included here.

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