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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.

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