Say What? – Languages in D&D

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on September 23, 2011

What languages does your character know? How about the other PCs in your party, any idea what languages they know? More importantly do you even care? During character creation everyone always pays close attention to class, race, ability scores, feats and powers. Little thought is usually put into choosing languages. By dismissing language as an insignificant part of the character creation process you may be overlooking a little detail that could provide you and the party with advantages you hadn’t considered.

In order to make things simple it’s assumed that all PCs are fluent in Common (the human language). Other non-human races are usually fluent in the language associated with their exotic heritage. Depending on the race, class and background you choose for your PC you might even be trained in a few additional languages right from level 1. However, few players that I’ve gamed with give much thought to this important choice.

So what should you consider when choosing your PC’s languages? I know from my own experience I usually select the language spoken by the monsters I suspect we’ll encounter or I take the language associated with the races that make up the rest of the party. This way relies more on mechanics and less on character development. For that angle I suppose you should carefully consider the languages that make the most sense with the character’s back story. Regardless of how you make your decision once you’ve selected your PC’s languages it’s time to look at how to put that knowledge to its best use during the game.

Knowing is half the battle

A party that all shares a common language (other than Common) has an easy way to communicate secretly as long as others within earshot don’t also know the language. The easiest way to ensure that all the PCs know the same language from the outset is to make an adventuring party where everyone’s the same race. However, that’s not something that happens without planning and forethought during character creation so this is pretty unlikely. The other way is just to have everyone select a common language, assuming that the PCs all get to choose an additional language.

If everyone does share a common language (other than Common) it can prove helpful in combat situations where the party is trying to come up with tactics in the heat of battle. If a party member spots an invisible or hidden monster he can shout out explicit details including where the monster is hiding and who he’s aiming for. If the monster doesn’t understand the utterance then they may not realize that the intended victim is ready for the attack. Knowing a language that your opponents don’t also lets you vocalize commands or plans of action during battle without fear of the enemy understanding. Sometimes you need to remind the party to stay information until the Rogue secretly sneaks up the back stairs and ambushes the archers.

The common other language trick can also work in social scenarios. As a PC haggles over the price of goods, another PC can offer assistance in another language giving the PC help without the merchant catching on to what’s being said. Just remember that you have no idea what languages others speak so any attempt at subterfuge could be thwarted when the merchant replies in that same language.

Although there are certainly up sides if everyone in the party knows the same languages there is just as much of an up side to ensuring that between the members of the party they know the 10 traditional 4e D&D languages listed in the PHB. By covering off each one you ensure that monsters or villainous NPCs can’t pull the exact tricks on your heroes that are described above.

Enhance role-playing

The way language work in D&D is intentionally simple. There is only one Elven dialect, one Dwarven dialect and only one Human (Common) dialect. Depending on your campaign setting you may decide that different regions or countries use different languages, regardless of the dominant race. Personally I see this as a lot of unnecessary grief to add to a game, but there is a tremendous opportunity for fantastic role-playing when some or all of the PCs don’t know the local language.

In the article Only One Race in Fantasy RPGs we talk about the unfortunate tendency to play every character, regardless of race, in exactly the same way. In real life people from different countries and of different cultural backgrounds all act and behave differently than one another – likewise when it comes to language. Just because a Dragonborn PC has travelled to the country of Humans and learned Common doesn’t mean he’d give up speaking Draconic, especially when encountering other Dragonborn PCs and NPCs.

Being able to slip in and out of different languages can present fantastic role-playing opportunities. Maybe your character isn’t as fluent as the rest of the party and is constantly slipping back into his native language. Perhaps he gets words mixed up or uses terms incorrectly. This can be played for laughs or can be a source of embarrassment for an otherwise proud and noble character. Just imagine a Dragonborn Paladin trying to address the Eladrin king in Elvin and flubbing the Diplomacy check because he used the wrong words.

Another way to add some role-laying spice to your adventure is for your PC to deny knowing a language that some of the other party members know. For example in my home game my Half-Elven Paladin knows Common, Elven and Dwarven. The Dwarven Fighter in our party has no idea that my PC knows Dwarven. As the Dwarf is the only PC who speaks the language (or at least that’s what everyone believes) we’ve let him act as the face of the party when we’ve interacted with other Dwarves. On more than one occasion he’s intentionally misrepresented facts to his own benefit and material gain during the dialogue because he doesn’t believe we know what’s being said. This had made for a lot of very interesting in game role-playing.

Polyglot

Whether languages are an important part of your campaign or they are just something you want your PC to be interested in learning, remember that it takes time to learn additional languages. Fortunately there are ways to become fluent in other languages right away.

Choosing one of the following feats can provide you with a new language. Some of these feats offer other benefits and some let you learn multiple languages. This is probably the easiest way to become fluent. However, your DM may rule that taking such a feat requires a teacher so keep that in mind.

Feats

Feat Language
Ancient Lore of the Dawn War You gain Supernal as a language.
Becomer You learn one additional language known by the race you chose.
Delthuntle Sailor You gain Primordial as a bonus language.
Earthspur Deepminer You gain Deep Speech as a bonus language.
Linguist Choose three languages. You can now speak, read, and write those languages fluently.
Mark of Scribing [Dragonmark] Choose four languages. You can speak, read, and write those languages fluently.
Ramekho Troubleshooter Choose one language. You can speak, read, and write that language fluently.
Remembered Mother Tongue You can speak, read, and write Supernal.

Magic Items

The other way to learn languages is by acquiring the right magical item or ritual. Here is a list of all the items currently available in the compendium that will allow you to know, speak or understand additional languages.

Item Level Language
Axe of the Dwarvish Lords Epic You can speak and understand the Dwarven language and read the Davek script.
Blue Orb of Dragonkind Epic You can speak and understand the Draconic language and can read the Iokharic script.
False Blood Amulet 7 You are considered to have that creature’s origin and keywords if doing so is beneficial to you. If the creature speaks a language other than Common, you can speak and read that language
Gem of Colloquy 2+ Understand and speak 1 additional language, chosen at the time of the gem’s creation.
Ioun Stone of Perfect Language 22 You can understand any spoken language, and when you speak, all creatures hear your words in their native language.
Ilthuviel’s Blackened Heart Paragon You can speak and understand the Draconic language and can read the Iokharic script.
Lens of Reading 7 Use this power while perusing text written in a language you do not know. For 1 hour, you can read that language as long as you hold the lens of reading.
Manshoon’s Bloodmask Epic You can understand any language, even if you can’t speak it.
Monocle of Comprehension 5 You can use this item as an optional focus for the Comprehend Language ritual. When you do, it splits into up to 8 duplicate monocles for the duration of the ritual. Any creature holding one of the monocles gains the same comprehension granted you by the ritual until it is no longer holding the monocle or the ritual’s duration expires.
Polyglot Gem 6 Each polyglot gem contains the knowledge of one language, chosen when the item is created. As long as you carry the gem on your person, you are able to speak, read, and write that language fluently.
Reading Spectacles 2 You can read any language (the spectacles do not grant the ability to speak or write a language).
Staff of Tongues 2+ You can speak, read, and write Supernal.
Stylus of the Translator 7 Whenever you write with the stylus, your writing is automatically translated into another language. Each stylus can translate into only one language, chosen when the item is created.
Torc of Bin A’kin 23+ You can understand any language, even if you cannot speak it.
Wand of Orcus Epic You can speak and understand the Abyssal language and read the Barazhad script.

Rituals

Ritual Level Description
Comprehend Language 1
  • Using this ritual on a language you have heard allows you to understand it when spoken for the next 24 hours.
  • Using this ritual on a language you have seen as a piece of writing allows you to read the language for the next 24 hours.
  • Using this ritual on a language you have both heard and seen as a piece of writing within the past 24 hours allows you to understand it in both forms for the next 24 hours
Decipher Script 6 You learn the meaning of any written text you study, even if you are not fluent in its language.
Fool’s Speech 6 When you finish performing the ritual, you and up to five allies who heard it can use a secret language to communicate with each other. To other creatures, your speech is incomprehensible, a string of nonsense words. Affected characters can speak in Fool’s Speech or another language at their discretion.

Remember that any emphasis on languages should add something to the overall encounter or adventure and not become one more thing to slow the game down. Have fun with it but don’t make it a bigger obstacle than it needs to be.

How important are languages in your campaign? Does the group just assume that everyone can speak the same language regardless of their race and class? How often does your DM throw NPCs at you that don’t speak your language? Have you even had an interesting encounter where knowing or not knowing a language really made a huge difference? If so, please share it with us.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 iserith September 23, 2011 at 12:03 pm

The importance of languages has to be discussed prior to starting the campaign. If a player wants to take a polyglot character or otherwise play up his or her character’s native tongue (or otherwise), it needs to be addressed with the DM. The DM can then include scenes and interactions in every adventure that plays to this. Otherwise, the players just won’t take those feats as they won’t have any use. Same goes for any “flavor” feat – the DM should set up a way the player can use that feat to shine from time to time.

One of my favorite characters of all time was my gnome resourceful warlord/wizard named Bunkin d’Sivis. He spoke 6 or 8 languages, I can’t remember. I modeled him after Marcus Brody from Indiana Jones – a super smart fish out of water. (But who could give enemies a beat down with his cane.) Unfortunately, the DM didn’t include a lot of situations where those languages came into play, so I had to instigate a lot to give them any use.

That’s why it’s important for the DM to ask his or her players if they’ve taken any “flavor” feats so that they can be rewarded for their efforts with on-screen time when those feats will be really useful. I have found this does a lot to make a campaign unique and interesting.

2 Kilsek September 23, 2011 at 12:37 pm

I feature languages’ unique place in the world ocassionally, as it adds to the feel and themes of the world. Not every character understands every monster, especially when orders are given or yelled in pitched combat! As DM, I’ll RP made-up words ocassionally to achieve that fantasy feel and add some flavorful dramatic tension.

Now If a player focuses on languages known, I also make sure to add more of this RP spice to the game. After all, if a PC knows 10 languages (I have a shifter shaman right now in a game who does!), then they’re basically telling you as DM, they enjoy that. So include it somehow!

This brings me to my last concern. As flavorful as communication barriers and multiple languages known can be, especially when moving from place to place and culture to culture, I wish there was officially slightly more mechanical benefits to feats like Linguist and the others. That way players don’t feel punished combat-wise for choosing a heavily RP-oriented feat.

For example, something I do often is allow +2 circumstance bonuses for speaking the same non-Common language during a negotiation or similar RP encounter or check. Not unlike real life, people tend to warm to you a bit better when you speak their language when you’re visiting or passing through. That, and it’s just plain smart and helpful for your own communication’s effectiveness.
Kilsek´s last blog post ..What is D&D? How to Explain D&D to Anybody

3 Kiel Chenier September 23, 2011 at 1:08 pm

I’m about to run a game tomorrow, taking place in a large, metropolitan medieval city. I think I’ll emphasize languages a bit more, since most of the characters aren’t human.

I’ve always wondered this as well with sci-fi settings like Star Trek/Mass Effect.

What happens when the universal translators break down? How screwed would you be?
Kiel Chenier´s last blog post ..D&D Encounters: Neverwinter Episode 3

4 Nathan M September 28, 2011 at 4:22 pm

You forgot the Scholar theme (from Dragon 399)!

Arguably the best way to pick up languages, since you gain a specific language right away (Draconic, Dwarven, or Elven), can pick another of the same three at level 5 (if you already know all three, you can pick something else from the PHB/Rules Compendium), and at level 10 you know ALL the languages listed in both books.

I used this theme when creating a female rogue (she uses rouge, natch) along the same lines of Indiana Jones/Evelyn from the Mummy movie.

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