Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dungeons and Dragons: The Problem With Language Part 2- Sunflower Bullets

So. Apparently blogger interprets unordered list bullet points as sunflowers. I'm not sure if I change that through asking the html to display a different type of bullet, or by fiddling with my stylesheet...but now that I've titled this entry as I have, I can never change them without it no longer making sense.

This is part two of my discussion of language in DnD and how I plan to change it; specifically how I plan to change it within the 4e rules. In part one I described my goals for this project...and I say project but I put it together over about an hour, most of which was typing. So perhaps we'll call it "this whim," but then it hardly sounds well-considered. So we'll call it...this ish.

My goals for this ish, nicely bordered by little sunflowers, boil down to making language both sensible and significant in the kind of realized fantasy world that has actual, different cultures who might not see the merit in bowing before the needs of Man and learning common.

Because let's be frank here: Common is basically The Language of Man in most campaigns. Dwarves have dwarven...dwarfish...I say dwarven. Elves have elven. Orcs have orcish...orcen...I say orcish. And so on and so forth. Goblins are typically presented as speaking the same language whether they're goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears, barghests, or what-have-you. Creatures who live in the same geographical area, if it's particularly distinct or isolated, may share a language; it's from this principle we got, in older editions, Undercommon.

(It's at this point that I soared away on a tangent re: Undercommon and languages. I found it entertaining and you, gentle reader, may as well. However, it strays from the point so I'll be posting it later as a supplemental mini-rant.)

Man, having no "racial language," relies on Common to express himself. It seems strange that Man would settle on a single language for all of his nations, especially if he controls sufficient territory for the other races to decide they need to learn his tongue rather than patiently explaining "Look dude, I'm a 200-year-old elf who can sing with the trees. How about you learn my language, since I clearly know what I'm doing and have been an accomplished swordsman and wizard since before your grandfather was a seed?" Except, of course, the elf couldn't explain that to him without using Common.

Still, the core 4e campaign supplies DMs and players with the tale of the human empire of Nerath, which welcomed all races (well, most...not goblins or anything, amirite?) into its benevolent embrace. These races, apparently, all agreed to learn Common, and teach it to their children, and their enemies, and the nymphs who flit in from the Feywild only occasionally, and so forth. And if you're down with that story, or a similar story, then you have no problem!

However, unlike the core DnD 4e setting my game doesn't have a fallen human empire whose former ascendancy might, with some squirming, explain the existence of Common. It has a falling dwarven one, but the dwarven empire was existing concurrently with eladric and draconic cultures for thousands of years. None of them have really held supremacy over the others, especially as each was more or less settled in its own little parcel of land. As a result, the setting easily supports three main languages, and I feel must do so. I listed the three "quasi-commons" in my last post, but for reference they are High-Elven (similar to, but not to be confused with, actual Elven), Dwarven, and Draconic.

These three languages are intended to serve a role very similar to what Common accomplishes in most DnD games, but with that added recognition of an actual geopolitical climate. In their respective civilizations, each language is the go-to; children are raised speaking it, domestic trade is conducted using it, and most literature is recorded by employing it.

However, it's not the only language spoken in the campaign. The Tran Empire contains three major peoples who have their own languages, thank you very much. These languages are a part of their culture, their independent culture. Two of the three peoples I'm describing are unquestionably a part of the Empire, they still represent an unbroken line of living beings with a need for expression and a knowledge of their own past. They have legends and jokes, songs and prayers, which were composed in these tongues...which aren't just racial tongues, but cultural tongues as well. So even though an eladrin character might reasonably expect that any orc she meets will speak Dwarven readily and fluently, that same NPC might then turn to one of his companions and mutter something in Orcish after she asks her question. And then both of the orcs might laugh, smiling their toothy grins. And if the character doesn't speak Orcish, she won't know if they're laughing about a foodstain on her tunic, or laughing about the horrible things they plan to do to her in a moment, or chuckling because the first orc's toddler just did something adorable.

When language is a barrier, meaning can be occluded or vigorously misinterpreted. That's also part of why I'm re-fluffing the Religion skill to be something more anthropological--The other reasons have to do with the campaign not really having undead, and lacking gods.--I didn't want people to feel screwed if their classes handed them Religion, and I didn't want it to be a skill no one considered taking. So it becomes a skill about understanding other cultures, and figuring out the nuances of individual races within those cultures. Religion/anthropology also becomes more important as the language barrier grows more opaque; if I can't understand what that orc is saying, figuring out if this is a belly laugh or a malicious cackle is going to be very important in helping me determine how to spend the next five seconds.

In addition to the cultural reasons for other languages to exist and be vibrant within the campaign, there are practical and sectarian reasons. Tieflings, for instance, commonly learn Infernal. They need to speak Infernal because they deal with Infernal creatures: Demons, Devils, and particularly nasty Elementals. They could deal with most of these creatures while speaking High-Elven, but the potential for miscommunication increases. When you're bargaining the souls of your unborn descendants, you want to be very precise. Furthermore, the challenges involved in learning the language, which surely took generations of small bargains with lesser fiends and lots of cross-checking, mean the ability to speak and teach Infernal is extremely valuable to the bloodline. They may not speak it casually, but they probably utter curses in it--Infernal profanity is sure to be memorable.

Similarly, characters of every race have reason to learn the Four Elemental Tongues; however, the genasi are the most likely to master a few of these dialects. Despite my lauding 4e for simplifying parts of the language, I actually want to go back to the four elemental languages we had in earlier editions. This is because of the same principles I've outlined above, really; it doesn't seem like a walking forest fire is going to sound like a sentient that hides within a larger body of water. I'm fine with the idea that elementals could communicate with each other--though I'm still coming to terms with the 4e decision to mash all the elements together and abandon the classic oppositional arrangement--but it makes sense that they would have their own languages too. I view these languages as being "Supernal-lite," because they're not universally understood, and there are four. The reason to learn one of the Tongues, though, is that creatures with a particular tie to that element will understand you. The Tongue of Water speaks to something within that whirlpool, or the Spirit of your local babbling brook, or even a Kazrith (the acid-oozing eel demons from the MM2). That same essential communication flows back to you as well, so you can understand the voice of the brook--at least when its spirit is speaking in the Tongue of Water.

The Four Elemental Tongues are thus useful to any character who is likely to interact with Elemental creatures (ie- creatures with one of the four elemental keywords). Genasi learn the tongues for the same reasons tieflings learn Infernal; it's necessary for the rituals they use to awaken someone to their bloodline. But it's also useful for any character who is spending a lot of time communing with natural spirits; especially shamans, druids, and seekers. Elemental creatures and spirits can often communicate with mortals through other means, sure...but they're often going to appreciate the effort of a character interacting with them in their own language, and be impressed that the character is able to do so.

Draconic is actually a Supernal-lite language as well, in that it has an effect on all dragon or reptile keyworded creatures.

I briefly considered creating a language of Arcana based on this principle of professional language, but ultimately I envision arcane magic as being more akin to mathematics than Latin. While you might learn a few words that refer to specific kinds of magical "functions," the incantations themselves, and the mental concepts you grasp when understanding a spell, are more like strings of equations than sentences. Of course, one could argue that strings of equations are language, to which I'd agree, then state that I'd love to discuss such a thing over a frosty gin and tonic.

I do think that I'll examine a language specifically for talking to ghosts and spirits (and perhaps tie it into improving History...).

A third reason to move away from using only single spoken language is that languages change. The High-Elven that serves as the Silken Kingdom's proto-common is an example of this, because it's an evolution of the Elven language still spoken by the Elves who live in the Tran forests. One thing that makes the relationship between the two languages unusual, though, is that I visualize High-Elven as being closer to a Victorian/earlier style of spoken and written English, full of great and often tiresome formality; whereas Elven is closer to modern English, being quicker to reach the point and probably rife with profanity. This makes more sense when one considers that the whole eladric society is intended to evoke a more Japanese/Chinese feel than a European one. If you read The Tale of Genji, you're exposed to a world where everyone is apparently composing poems, off the extremely long brocade cuff, about everything. No one says hello simply; it's an entire affair, with bowing and flattery and possibly a cartload of presents. Yet it's all an affectation, an attempt to emulate Chinese styles and modes that were deemed fashionable; the peasants were pretty much talking like they always had.

Another factor associated with the Elven/High-Elven split is the gith. The gith (and deva) are given the option/encouraged to select Elven over High-Elven, even though they're contemporary members of Silken Kingdom society. This is because the gith spent a very long time separated from that society; a separation that began around the same time the elves were leaving for the Tran. In fact, it was things like the proto-gith dropping their entire city through a rift in the earth that convinced the elves they needed to leave. So while the gith have returned to the surface, they still remember their past. Generations lived in complete isolation, surrounded by sanity-threatening whispers and immersed in ceaseless combat. The culture they brought with them was the only thing they had, and they developed a fierce pride that did not fade when faced with the life of relative luxury their cousins had been enjoying.

Luckily, High-Elven and Elven transfer meaning pretty well. Some words sound different, or don't mean the same thing. Neologisms exist in High-Elven that an elf would be unfamiliar with, and elves and gith still employ archaic phrases that the other eladric bloodlines are won't recognize.

Based on these arguments, the secondary languages for Tinderbox include:

Racial Languages

  • Goblin Spoken by goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears. Often learned by dwarves who deal with the goblins, especially military dwarves who command them. Now that the dwarves are gone, this language is going to be spoken even more often, and possibly enforced by some Despots.
  • Orcish Spoken by orcs, taught to half-orcs, learned by Xiechu and Choeh dwarves, some elves. This is where you start to see the other reason a focus on language can enrich the gaming experience; most goblins won't learn Orcish because they feel it demeans the speaker.
  • Elven Spoken by elves, some gith. High intelligiblity for speakers of High-Elven and vice-versa. Learned by Xiechu dwarves and orcs for the same reason any soldier learns the language of his foe.

Professional Languages

  • Infernal Spoken by tieflings, some genasi. Occasionally learned by others if they want to summon infernal creatures or otherwise dabble in that power (ie- Warlock Pacts).
  • The Four Elemental Tongues (Four separate languages: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water) Spoken by genasi, as well as other characters who have reason to commune with elemental spirits.
  • Spirit Tongue A work in progress, Spirit Tongue probably needs a better name in order to separate it from the Elemental Tongues. Spirit Tongue is for characters who commune with the ancestral spirits of their and other races. This isn't quite Speak With Dead, though, since undead not a major part of this game world. This ability is more likely to see use seeking guidance from the spirits who already have an interest in the character, or seeking out a powerful spirit known to care about a location or individual.


  1. Ambitious promises! Grandiose plans! Thinking that is outside of a box! You're the Peter Molyneux of D&D!

    This all sounds like a great idea, up until the point that it really pisses off the players (or you) by making simple scenarios take FOREVER. I don't think that's a reason not to implement it the way you're talking about per se, but I think it is a reason to think carefully about what your expectations are going to be about how productive player posts are. When the squirrel chief chitters at the party in terran, and the genasi who only speaks terran and high-elven tries to translate, relayed by the elf who speaks elven and dwarven, to the goblin and brass dragon who luckily each speak dwarven as well.... That might come off cute, or it might get a little grating, as players are forced to choose between dropping their character out of a leadership role or beating a dead horse with their language needs.

    The hypothetical is a bit of a ridiculous situation, as I doubt that the eventual party will be THAT diverse (will it?!)... but it does start to raise the concern that too many languages create the situation where important party communications have to either be repeated 4 times on 4 different poster's schedules, or players have control over their characters' communications taken out of their hands whenever the DM feels the itch to speed things along.

    I love the idea. I love the idea of cultural realism. Not only does this system reflect cultural distinctions between the races, but it actually may LEAD to the players acting in culturally distinct ways... But this also just happens to be a treacherous bog that can quickly mire a game (ESPECIALLY a play by post game), which likely is the reason we HAVE a preference for Common written into the rules.

  2. Hey games are always released with all my promised functionality. Disturbingly though, our hair looks almost exactly alike right now.

    I have considered the concerns you raise, and also agree that avoiding them is probably why we have Common; just like avoiding diseases and unwanted babies are reasons we have Condoms. But I think that with the right partner (or in this case, five to six partners) and the right amounts of maturity, mutual consideration, and's going to prove far, far more satisfying then if I decided to just go the "safe" route.

    Partially, this is because of the added utility of the Religion/Anthropology skill; it evokes the image of how different groups tend to meet and interact in films, books, and presumably real life. If no one in the party has any Elven, and they meet some sort of Deva holy-man who never learned Dwarven, communicating with him will prove difficult. But struggling to find that common ground becomes a skill challenge, which bears exp, which accurately models how difficult it was. I'm also calling to mind the image of the Silent Trade, which has worked for more than a few cultures. There's also pantomime, pictionary, and so forth; these things might sound ridiculous viewed in the abstract, but if players need to figure out which whether the slime and offal-choked sewage tunnel flows back to their safehouse or directly underneath a nest of Savage Goblins, they'll be very motivated to work something out with the beggar who only speaks Orcish.

    It's also worth noting that the languages I've selected for the campaign weren't created in a vacuum or without consideration (well, except for the Spirit Tongue, which I realized filled a gap as I was posting about the other languages). It will be incredibly rare for players to run into a group who shares none of their languages. The most likely culprits for something like that would be things like rampaging elementals, or beastmen.

    Which, if you think about it, is absolutely no different from how most DnD games play out. How often does the party stop to ask if the Earth Elemental would like to chat before they bash its brains in? How often do they pause in the middle of combat to offer the orcs a chance to surrender? Your mileage may vary, but I'm confident in asserting that in the vast majority of cases, players swing until those hps get to 0. Hell, the whole Delve system, and for the most part LFR, are designed explicitly and unapologetically with this approach in mind.

  3. As well, and I think I stress this more in the post I haven't posted yet, the emphasis with many languages is on subtle benefits they provide when spoken. If you want your character to be able to function comfortably in the Tran Empire, and you're making a character from the Ruby Caliphate, you should obviously select Dwarven as your second language; a dude who's fluent in French and decides to move to Mexico is probably going to bone up on his Spanish for a similar reason. But if, say, you were a German moving to Winnipeg but planning to spend a few weeks a year in Quebec, you might supplement your English by also learning some French; the proud race of the Quebecois are likely to appreciate it when you ask them for directions, even if your accent is atrocious and your grammar sucks. You could probably get by with just English, but you'll have a better experience (and fewer exasperated looks) if you make the attempt to meet the culture halfway.

    Beastmen are a special case, and I cover them in more detail in the next post as well. Beastmen have their own language, and despite their Primordial associations they aren't keyworded elementally. I treat Primordials as more of a flipside to the "benevolent" Primal spirits characters have access to, so while you might worship a Primordial Fire Turtle (I saw a picture of that on today and it blew my mind), you could just as easily worship one who relishes in bringing down weak game. Much like the orc I've used as an example a few times, the question with beastmen is: how the hell would anyone else learn that language? I'm not making it impossible, but the language presents greater challenges even to characters who can ostensibly speak it. The advantage to putting in the time is, of course, the possibility of resolving an encounter with squirrelmen in a fashion other than "They filled us full of tiny, reeking poisoned arrows. We killed them. We have fewer healing surges now."

  4. The way I handle language issues in my campaign is partially through the bbcode of the M-W site: I have one PC who specializes in languages, and some diversity of language in the character party. There are times when my NPCs speak using the [lang] tags, keeping it mysterious for those who don't know the language... typically, this is also an opportunity for the PCs who know the language to make determinations about how much they translate, and to what degree.

    Much of the time, however, I use either a color or [OOC] tags to allow the entire player base to read conversation in languages their characters do not know. This is when a particularly dramatic bit is playing out, or something that another PC would clearly translate in essential fullness, or the dialogue is so long that it would be tedious to do the translation bit described in Sam's comment above.

    The trick is knowing when to [lang] and when not to. I'm still working that bit out. I unfortunately buried some excellent drama in [lang] tags, though it made for interesting scenes where the party tried to deduce what was happening through body language. I'm starting to get the hang of it, though.

    I wholly applaud the use of language that matters, though. It makes for a much more vibrant gameworld and game.