Communication Breakdown: Language in RPGs

The other night I got my hands on a copy of Rogue Trader, one of the Warhammer 40,000 role-playing games released by Fantasy Flight Games. Naturally, the most immediate way to give the system a once-over was to craft a character (a Forge World Explorator, if you must know).

I liked what I saw, and recommend giving the game a glance if you ever have the opportunity. I’m not here to review Rogue Trader, however. Do that in your own time! Rogue Trader does include—like so many other RPGs—an aspect I want to talk about: languages.

Cards on the table here: I speak two languages reasonably well (English and Japanese) and a third passably (German). I’ve dabbled in language construction or “conlanging” as it is sometimes known, know a bit of Esperanto, and have glanced at Klingon, Quenya, and recently Dothraki. I consider myself quite the language buff.

That said, my advice to you is this:

Do not include languages in your role-playing games!

“But Shaun!” I hear you beginning to type in the comments. “Languages are a vital part of my campaign world! Just the other day, my players encountered an ancient tablet they had to decipher in order to gain the password they needed to open the Door to Dreams.”

This is a valid point, but let me ask: how did they decipher it? Did they have to track down a skilled linguistic scholar? Was it presented as some kind of letter-substitution cypher? I’m willing to bet none of the characters could actually read the language on the tablet, but that’s also a possibility.

In all of these cases, the language itself wasn’t important. The scholar? Simple fetch quest. Letter-substitution? An English cryptogram written with funny letters. The character knew the language? Dumb luck or planned revelation.

None of these methods are bad, per se. After all, most quests and events in an RPG can be boiled down to a few simple frameworks. It is the embellishment that brings them to life. However, most of these story details are left to the realm of the imagination and the game’s narrative. Yet RPGs have an obsession with languages—and RULES for languages—bordering on the terminal.

There are lists of them in some games: Common, Dwarven, Elven, Orc, Gnoll, Ponycorn, High Frogcroak, Middle Frogcroak, Low Frogcroak, Thieves’ Cant, Thieves’ Can-and-often-do, Devandran, Ancient Devandran, Post-modern Devandran, West Baalish, North Baalish, Aft Baalish, Starboard Baalish… it goes on and on!

Yet the terrible truth, my friends, is this:

There are only two languages in an RPG: the one the party speaks, and the one it doesn’t.

Pre-constructed scenarios aside, when the GM is faced with a linguistic situation, he or she makes one of two decisions: 1) I want the players to know what is going on, or 2) I want the players to make some effort to figure this out.

If the GM goes with #1, then the characters will encounter the language they know. If the GM picks #2, it will be the language the characters don’t know. I’ve seen this taken to some ridiculous extremes. Hell, I’ve done it myself. I recall something along the following lines occurring in a game I ran years ago, when I was younger and less wise:

Me (as GM): There is writing carved into the stone here, and though it is clear the work is by a dwarven hand, you can see the language is not Dwarven.

Player: What language is it, then?

Me: You don’t know.

Player: I know six languages!

Me: Yeah, but I doubt you know Ancient Giantish.

Player: Actually I do! Remember, I said my character’s grandfather was a scholar who served in the military during the Krados War, when my people fought the Frost Giants of Gorm? He studied their language and passed it down to my character!

Me (grasping): Ah, well… you recognize that… although it IS written in Ancient Giantish, the patterns of the sentences and the words don’t make much sense. It’s like a dialect you aren’t familiar with, or perhaps a code…

Player: Oh.

Now, some among you may say I should have just gone ahead and given it to the player. Sitting here, years later, I am inclined to agree with you. Yet the point is I didn’t want them to know what was written on that wall just yet. It was a way of controlling the pacing of the adventure in question, and to introduce them to an NPC down the road who could help them with it. In other words, it was meant to be written in the language the party didn’t know. But, as the poem goes, the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.

The idea that there are languages in the world does provide flavor, but it is the same kind of flavor that comes from saying “my character’s eyes are blue.” Yet no game that I know of has mechanics and rules for deciding your character’s eye color. You don’t need to invest skill points, or take a feat, or do anything other than write “blue” in the eye color section of your character sheet. Languages, I feel, are much the same. But RPGs continue to insist that some kind of game resource needs to be dedicated to linguistics, when they could instead be boosting other, more useful skills for a character.

RPGs are games of communication, and therefore it is difficult to accurately represent a plethora of other languages beyond mentioning them by name and dedicating a few puzzles or fetch quests to their deciphering. If you are a language buff, these experiences cannot deliver on what you expect, and if you aren’t, then chances are you aren’t using the language rules much at all.

So 86 the languages as anything other than window-dressing. Your game system, and your game itself, will be the better for it.