Friday, 2 January 2015

A powerful tool in storytelling

There is a tool available to you as a Game Master that you almost never use. This tool can be used to control the game flow, game speed, and where is the adventure heading without it feeling unnatural. This tool is in all of your games, and it is part of your worlds. It is right in front of you. This tool is language...

Languages are one of the most powerful plot controlling devices in the story teller's hand, and they are extremely unappreciated as such. The potential of using languages in your games is enormous, granted, most systems and gamestyles need a bit of tweaking beforhand, but first, let's look at what ways are languages done in games.

- The first option, is the most simple, bit unrealistic, but very easy and very common way to handle languages. In this option the different races in the world speak one, unified tounge, like elvish, dwarven, gnomish, draconic etc. There is most likely a language for trading, usually called common, which everyone speaks.
A variaton of this, is when some, more sophisticated races have several languages, like elves having multiple languages to represent different ancestry or social standing. Some elves for example would know a different, more elegant elvish tounge, which they would speak to keep privacy from outsiders. 

- The second choice would be cultural, or national languages (depending on the advancement of your world). In this version, the races don't share a common tounge, but rather groups of people sharing cultural, historical and geographical bonds would speak the same language. This version is more realistic of course, but it also means you would need many more languages in your game. With this option there are probably more trading languages in use, and each has a limited range on the map.

It doesn't matter which option you use, you can apply the following tricks to your game, and control your players in an organic way.

- Limit the common language(s) as much as you can!
First, make sure that if you are using racial languages that each race has a mother tounge other than common. Doesn't have to be complicated, halflings speak halfling, humans speak human etc. Remove "Common" or "trade tounge" from the free languages, and warn your players about it. Everyone can still learn it, but instead of getting it for free, people have to invest in it.
Make common incredibly simple and crude. Poetry and epics are never written in common, or trade tounges, and for a reason. The language is probably a mashup from all other/neighbouring tounges, and its primary focus to make everyday trading easy. Metaphores, poetic images are usually not possible with such simplicity. If your games have magic, and magic requires verbal components, you can also make it impossible to cast magic using common, and make it require ancient languages (see below). Make people use common out of neccesity and never for normal communication. If you are a really evil GM you can also make random rolls to see if NPC-s don't get the correct meaning when the PC-s talk about something more elaborate than how much arrows they buy.

- Limit the number of languages people speak, and introduce interpreters in your games!
Just as in real life most people usually don't speak more than two languages, they shouldn't speak more in your games either. Most simple villagers would only speak their own tounge, possibly the service providers (smith, tavern keeper) some more. If the village is near a trade route or a border, they are likely to speak common, or the language of the neighbouring kingdom. In larger cities and towns the average folk is likely to speak common, and more educated characters some more, but speaking more than 3 or 4 without specializing in something related to languages should be really rare. A wizard or priest might speak 4, a well travelled trader too, but more than that might be too much. And even if they know these tounges, they are likely won't be bothered by a group of adventurers in need of translation. There are other people for that
Specialized interpreters might know 2 language apart from their own at expert levels, but some general interpreters might speak as much as 5-6. Thes individuals however, should be rare and their services expensive.
Some races/cultures are very xenophobic and even if they could, they won't learn other languages. In such societies the adventurers are expected to speak the language of the country at least perfectly, but maybe more. 
As an option, you can also limit the number of the languages available to your PC-s during playing. In some games, characters with high intelligence can speak a ridiculous amount of languages, which may cause problems in your games.  
Also as an option, you could remove or limit spells that make players speak or understand other languages.

- Make each language unique!
If you are good at speaking gibberish, or some languages your players don't know, make it sure to have each fantastical tounge unique and sufficiently different. If you can't speak in a made up language without repeating the same word 3 times in a sentence ( like me) you can get away with describing how the speech sounds. You can write down some words on cards or on a paper to remember how to "speak" them, it helps a lot.
You can also give small, mechanical bonuses (or penalties) to certain actions if the characters use the proper (or improper) language. Maybe elvish is the "language of love" granting a +1 bonus on seducing non native speakers, and orcish sounds really intimidating, giving the bonus to intimidation, but using orcish to seduce might result in some nasty penalty. This way your players will remember each language their characters speak, and they will use them often. Suddenly, speaking languages isn't just a stat on the paper, it adds to the character.

- Ancient languages!
Ancient languages are awesome so... don't overuse them. Make them feel special when PC-s encounter them, and also limit their availability. Unless they have a good reason, you shouldn't allow PC-s to speak ancient tounges at the beginning. Make them work for it, but make it a worthy prize. If you use the mechanical advantages detailed above, you can make ancient tounges a bit more powerful if used correctly.
Ancient language should be most useful when delving into forgotten tombs, so when making an adventure hide clues or treasure that is only availble when they speak the necessary tounge.
Special languages like Primordial, or Celestial should also be in this category.

- Not speaking my language? How rude!
You can make the life of your players even more difficult by having your NPC-s react unfriendly, or at least less friendly when they are spoken to in a different language. The tavern keeper will charge more for the bed, the smith will give worse quality tools and weapons. With this you will give your social interactions a new edge. The players may find out that some characters are way more friendly when their own language is spoken to them.

If you use some, or all of these tricks, you will be able to control your players much more, and you can expect some pretty good roleplaying within the group of characters as well. Learning each others' language could be the first step of forming a great bond for later adventuring.
You will find that by placing some emphasis on language, your players will more likely stick to one country or area, keeping your game in check. If you want a crucial plot secret only to be found out later, but your players managed to get their hands on a letter explaining everything two sessions early? Have it in a language they don't speak. You can see that the options are pretty much endless for plothooks, twists and obstacles you can introduce by using languages.

You can expect better roleplay scenarios and more attention from your players if you do the above mentioned steps. 

So these were my ideas for using language in your game to make it better. Thanks for reading and happy gaming for all


  1. How do you account for "Comprehend Languages"?

  2. Well, you can just take it out, or have it consume a material component, or something like that. I personally don't allow comprehend languages in most games, and in games I do, I have it consume an expensive something, like a book.