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.

Shaun Welch has been playing RPGs for two decades. He listens to a disproportionately large amount of music from Iceland, and currently lives in Maryland, where he works as a professional unicorn wrangler.

15 thoughts on “Communication Breakdown: Language in RPGs”

  1. This is an approach I generally agree with. Most systems use languages as skilldumps and some windowdressing. I do feel though that languages should remain as flavor. Preferrably a system should assume a character knows languages fitting to his background. I like the Savage Worlds common knowledge mechanic for that. Languages should not be normal skills on the same level as shooting or wizardry.

  2. Excellent points. I’m in total agreement.

    One question. How do you stand on written languages? Whilst I would never require nor enjoy a straight translation exercise between English and Runic, I appreciate the visual reference provided by, say Warhammer Fantasy RPG.

    1. Oh I love written languages, even when they are just a simple letter-for-letter substitution. In the D&D game I currently play in I tend to jot a lot of things down in the Elven script (since I'm playing an elf, naturally).

      However, if I'm DMing I would always provide a standard English translation for anything the players either understand or would uncover. Visual aids are cool, but should be that: aids.

  3. This analysis is incomplete. There is at least a third use of language in an RPG.

    The language that the party speaks that the NPCs do not.

    I had a party that regularly used hand cant to have secret conversations simultaneous with an actual conversation with NPCs. This is pretty important for subterfuge. Sure, you can get around this in a lot of RPGs with a form of mental or psionic link. But if you do not have that, language is a valuable substitute.

    It is because of a major omission like this that I question the validity of this whole argument. There is a whole formal theory of the use of hidden information in game design. Language is particularly valuable in an RPG when you want some way of conveying partially (but not totally) hidden information.

    1. I had considered including that particular use of language as well, and I should have for completeness, but I still stand by what I said.

      In my experience, when a group of people who are on friendly terms are all speaking with one another, and some portion of those people begin conversing to each other in a different language or making gestures, those who aren't included begin to feel uncomfortable, perhaps even suspicious. If those people AREN'T on friendly terms, things escalate. The idea that a party could commit any form of truly meaningful subterfuge in this manner without, say, being attacked or watched extremely closely is questionable.

      That aside, while there is a whole field of thought regarding hidden information in game design, role-playing games are typically not as competitive as games such as poker, Magic, or even Ticket to Ride, where such hidden information allows you to make legitimate bluffs. Language in an RPG only produces hidden information (in theory) between CHARACTERS, not players. The players are still saying whatever it is they're saying, and even if everyone can keep it separate for that session, details can blur down the road as to who said what and who knows what.

      Even most well-designed RPGs are pretty poorly designed games when compared with competitive games. The cooperative or semi-cooperative nature of the game destroys most of the point of hidden information. I find more and more than most RPGs I like these days tend to move toward more shared information between GMs and players.

      That said, I still don't mind languages in RPGs, per se. But as ChaoticGM says above, they should stay as flavor. If characters in the party speak some of the same languages, that's fine. I don't feel the game system should waste skill points, feats, or whatever other rules-based currency the game uses on them.

  4. As a follow-up to my last comment….

    The issue is whether you are looking at this from a language lens or a game design lens. Most players metagame to some (and often a large) extent, and therefore ignore their communication channels. However, information flow is critical in any game in which subterfuge and communication are an integral part (say, court intrigue). In that case, what is said, and what is not said is very important. That is when you have to make the rule "if it is said at the gaming table, it is said in front of the NPC". Which makes party coordination very difficult.

    That is why you can get a lot of interesting gameplay by having multiple languages in a conversation. There is the information you want public, and the information you want to hide. Except that, unless you are using psionic links, that second conversation is not truly hidden. Even a hand cant might be noticed by an aware NPC. So you want game mechanics to handle that. And to allow party members to try and cover it up with bluffing.

    I have both game mastered and played NPC conversations that were as complex and tactical as any RPG combat.

  5. I am actually making use of language in my sandbox/hexcrawl. The characters are exploring a new continent and I decided early on that Common is a different language and the language of the former rulers of the land was also unknown. I did this to highlight the fact the characters are in an alien environment despite it being on the same world. Since its a sandbox at no point are the characters required to know the language to proceed and have adventures. When the characters finally met the natives the lack of language was a definite detriment. Since then the characters have looked for ways to learn the native language and one of them is expending a Feat this level up to learn it. Of course, after this, languages will be a non-issue.

  6. I'm a big fan of the kind of exploration game as you'd find in, say, Spirit of the Century. Here is a game with an entire track for a worldly-wise linguist. I don't see this as any less valid as the brutish pugilist or the effeminate but connected socialite. I'm telling the GM that I want to encounter ancient civilizations or be kidnapped to translate a ransom note for the Princess of Mars. How good I would be at these things would affect the game, and I would feel cheated if I simply could write down, "Proficient Languages: All."

  7. I neither feel that they should be jettisoned, nor that they should be held on the same level as other skills. I'm a big fan of games that abstract it down to "You have a number of languages equal to your rank in languages" or even "A number of languages equal to your rank in Intelligence/Smarts/Etc"…which is how I always run things, regardless of what the Rules As Written say for a different game.
    My recent post Tommys Take on The Path of Kane

    1. This is a more reasonable take on assigning languages if everyone feels they must be included. It is somewhat tied into a character's intelligence, but not intertwined with the game's character currency (skills, feats, talents, whatever).

      These days I wouldn't even mind just saying: "You know whatever languages you want." Generally I tend to trust those I play with to make reasonable choices.

  8. I am guilty of this; I have extensive lists of languages in my campaign, how the languages are related, the different scripts. However in previous campaigns languages have been glossed over. However the current campaign is a swashbuckling campaign where many cultures come together and the fact that not everyone understands one another is part of the flavor. In fact one of the characters is defined by his ability at languages. I agree with your advice in most situations, thanks for that excellent post. You made me think of language from the other side of the screen, and I’ll try to turn that into a post.

    1. I know the feeling. I had thirty-something languages in a campaign setting I ran, once. Like I said, I'm a language buff so I've spent plenty of time detailing them in worlds I create, or making characters who are language-savvy. My favorite articles in Dragon were the racial lexicons they'd occasionally publish.

      In Races of the Dragon, a 3.5 splat book, there was even a prestige class called the dracolexi, which was essentially a kobold linguist. I thought it was the greatest thing ever.

      Alas, it is because of all these things I have come to the conclusion that languages don't really work. Not well, anyway, and not in a way that is easily fixed. Like I said in the article, RPGs are a game of communication, and attempting to obscure that communication just falls apart at the player level.

  9. It's quite showing that most games/settings have some kind of "common language" or a technology/magic that overcomes language barriers. I fully agree that RPGs are games of communication and when a player character can't communicate with some NPCs or even with his mates, something goes terribly wrong.

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