Thursday, September 22, 2022

RPG Linguistics

In many editions of D&D, everyone learns a handful of languages at character creation, and then either never thinks about them again or never has the one they need. I propose an alternative, with 5e as a base.

Characters learn fewer languages.

Everyone knows common. There are no racial languages. Only learn a second language if your background calls for it.

Each language satisfies a narrative function.

Common—common is great. Everyone knows common unless there's something strange happening. Don't think about it.

Ancient—dead civilizations speak and write this language. You might know it if you're a treasure hunter, a time traveler, or a classics major.

Ceremonial—this language is a secret for religious or magical reasons, like Druidic or Hebrew. From a world-building perspective, I'd limit myself to one of these per setting, even if that requires some contortion.

Underworld—this language is a secret for reasons of discretion, like Polari or rhyming slang. Dialects change, but learning on-the-fly is built-in to its rhythms. Written, this is the ability to read hobo signs, notice graffiti, etc.

Technical—this is how experts in a field talk about stuff. Even if you're a published author on the topic of applied divination, you can still muddle through someone's notes on optimal well-drilling or drop some convincing techno-babble.

Otherworldly—aliens and old Gods speak this. (Angels, devils, and other outsiders speak common: they want you to understand them.)

Foreign—someday you will find yourself somewhere where they only speak French. Until then, it's a social signifier of a misspent education, a party trick or a bit of flavor.

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