Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Language in DnD: Part 3- Headless Turtle

(My turtle is sleeping on a pair of my pajama pants right now, but with her head tucked into her shell.)

Now, the mechanical benefits section could be taken as odd or unnecessary, especially if I've already convinced you of the need for language revolution with all of my appeals to setting richness and roleplaying.

However, many of the benefits are simply psychological; someone likes to be addressed in their own language. DMs can certainly apply circumstance bonuses to reflect this, and I'd encourage it; but in the case of goblins, for instance, the effect is even more considerable. Even if I were awarding a player a +2 bonus on a Diplomacy roll for an impassioned plea for mercy from a Despot Goblin holding a spear to his throat, I'd still also give them the bonus for speaking Goblin to a goblin. The Despot is moved by the eloquence of his captive, but further moved that his captive is managing to be eloquent in Goblin. I'd apply both bonuses even if the character was also a goblin, since in that case there's the added empathy of staring into a like face.

The Draconic and Elemental Tongue bonuses (and possibly the Spirit tongue, which I'm mulling over as I type this sentence) have a bit of that extra mystical flare to them. They aren't just psychologically appealing, they're essentially appealing, in that they speak to something at the core of the audience member. The effects will presumably come into play less often in the Tinderbox campaign than the benefit of knowing Goblin. What makes them powerful, though, is their capacity for use in situations where the audience can't talk. The krask are a good borderline example, as krask are fairly unintelligent and almost never know any language other than Draconic. A player has no hope of convincing a krask to halt its charge if he calls out in Dwarven, for example; but the same command delivered in Draconic gets a boost. Players, even non-rangers, could use similar tactics when beset by guard drakes, which are a fairly common creature in the Tran Empire.

Riffing on Spirit Tongue, I'd probably add a bit of complexity to its benefit and make it a light version of Speak with Spirits or Memory of a Thousand Lifetimes. As a minor action encounter power, a player could make a Diplomacy, Bluff, or Intimidate check to whisper (in Spirit Tongue) a request. If it's successful, some ancestral spirit whispers a response...and the player gains a +2 on her next knowledge, perception, or social roll. The dual riders--the limitations on where the bonus goes and the small size of the bonus--hopefully offset players getting this for "free." I also left the ability as a minor action to widen the gap between it and Speak with Spirits, as I had originally considered using it as a free action. As with the other languages, the hidden cost with Spirit Tongue is that the mechanical benefit offsets the relative rarity with which a player's ability to talk to spirits will directly affect conversations with actual NPCs. I might want to tweak the balance a bit in general, but for the kinds of players I take in my games, I think abuse is unlikely. One additional tweak would be to have the check always be against a Moderate or High DC for the character's level, with the reasoning that as the character grows more powerful, the spirits expect them to solve crises on their own. It's an interesting idea that bears more examination, but for now, on to the other benefits!

Some of the benefits are knowledge-based. The Dwarven benefit exists because people in the world know that there are different clans of dwarves, that the clans tend to behave differently, and that a given clan is likely to respond positively to a different approach. Again, players can figure these things out on their own, and should be encouraged to. Each clan has general physical identifiers, and I've even differentiated between their equipment. Players who pay attention will be able to use all of that to suss out whether a particular dwarf should be threatened, bluffed, or pleaded with.

But if I'm sitting at a bar and a positively Amazonian beauty happens to drop that Minnesotan O while ordering a drink, and I know a little something about Minnesota, I might be able to parlay that into a conversation (Hi honey!). And where the Dwarven benefit is particularly useful is in interacting with non-dwarves who happen to speak Dwarven. It's a gamble to invoke some tidbit of cultural information associated with the clan whose accent this orc's speech carries-- what if he hated his language tutor? --but the hope is he'll be more amenable to a strange goblin speaking to him of personal glory if he was mentored by Choeh dwarves.

The Infernal benefit is knowledge-based in a different way, and primarily of use when dealing with demons, devils, some elementals, tieflings, and some genasi. Instead of helping the player appeal to something in his audience, Infernal helps the player anticipate and guard against slippery language in his own speech as well as his interlocutor's. Although the math works out the same whether it's a bonus or a DC reduction, the concept here is that the character has an easier time with navigating the conversation. I could see a skill challenge that plays out like a combat, with characters making opposed bluff rolls to see if one can slip a lie under the other's radar. I could also see considering Insight a social skill (is it widely considered social?) for the benefit of this language.

Finally, I wanted at least one benefit (two now, since when I started writing this post I hadn't fleshed out the Spirit Tongue) that functioned in a noticeably distinct way from the others. Technically the High-Elven/Elven interaction is another, since choosing either language is effectively getting both, and in this campaign that gives players a reasonable chance to communicate with eleven races: Elves, eladrin, half-elves (Silken Kingdom), half-elves (Tran Empire), tieflings, genasi, githzerai, changelings, deva, warforged (Silken Kingdom), and shardminds. But Orcish is different, because Orcish actually rewards the player for speaking it to a listener who doesn't know the language. This fits well with Orcish being a relatively unpopular tongue to master, and I think the benefit also evokes an idea of how the language must sound; guttural and unsettling. It's limited to Intimidate, but I have a tweak to the uses of Intimidate and a general policy of not making it an auto-failure in my skill challenges.

--I think it's very frustrating to have a social skill, for many classes their only list social skill, and then punish players for using it. I think that intimidate is a broad skill that envelops fear, uncertainty, ominous suggestions, and in some cases appealing to the baser instincts of the target. Yelling at everyone with impunity is not how I view the skill, and while I would punish that type of behavior from a player I don't want to pretend that people aren't inclined to back down before an imposing presence.--

There is one last language available to characters, and in true ADnD Bard style I'm saving it for the next post, because it makes use of one more rule I'm adding for languages.

Language Mechanical Benefits

(Note that "C [Name of Civilization]" indicates the language is a protocommon)

Kingdom of Silks

  • High-Elven (C Kingdom of Silks)
    The common tongue within the Kingdom is a derivation of Elven, and a modern speaker can be understood by those fluent in either tongue. All Kingdom citizens learn this language from birth, save gith and deva; either race may substitute Elven for High-Elven at character creation. The gith fell into the earth speaking a language that much more closely resembled Elven, and many refuse to abandon it for what they consider an inelegant substitute. Deva often emerge from their change-pods with entirely new personalities, and in some cases they carry memories of ancient ancestors, those who first developed the devic change process; like the gith, such individuals spoke something much closer to Elven. Soo dwarves often learn High-Elven in order to more easily facilitate trade between nations.

    A character fluent in High-Elven, but not Elven, suffers a -2 penalty on social rolls in a conversation with a character fluent only in Elven.

  • Infernal
    Most tieflings, and some eladrin and genasi, are familiar with the tongue of infernal creatures. It is a necessity for the horned bloodline, as they use it to scribe all of their contracts and otherwise interact with their patrons. Genasi use it for a similar purpose, in the event that their particular family venerates one of the more destructive elemental beings or demons. Others master this tongue if their dealings require extensive interaction with tieflings and genasi, whether that be for trade or in order to hunt rogue members of the bloodlines.

    While most infernal entities speak and understand many or all languages, the advantage to addressing them in infernal is that it is much more difficult to misspeak oneself. Characters engaging in social skill challenges with creatures who understand this language reduce the difficulty of social rolls by 2.

  • The Four Elemental Tongues (Air, Earth, Fire, Water)
    Although Genasi are the primary speakers of the elemental tongues, many primal characters, or wizards who concentrate on summoning magic, learn one or more as well. Elemental creatures, as well as many demons and spirits, recognize and are fluent in the elemental tongues which correspond to their keywords. Each of these languages must be taken separately.

    Entities closely tied to the elements respond to queries and entreaties in these languages more favorably and attentively. When addressing a creature fluent in an elemental tongue and possessing the matching elemental keyword, players gain a +2 bonus to Bluff and Diplomacy rolls. Players who speak two or more elemental tongues also gain a +2 bonus on Insight rolls related to creatures with keywords matching the elemental tongues that they speak.

The Tran Empire

  • Dwarven (C Tran Empire)
    The harsh, sharp syllables of Dwarven are immediately recognizable as symbols of the Tran Empire. All dwarven clans speak the same tongue, albeit with slightly different accents and dialects. Similarly, it is rare for that a goblin within the Empire does not speak fluent dwarven, as failure to do so would make render them unemployable and deeply suspect in the eyes of the clan. Many elves never learn the tongue, however.

    A character fluent in Dwarven can make an Insight roll upon hearing spoken Dwarven from a dwarf, in order to determine by the accent and dialect of the speaker which clan the dwarf is from. This same check can be attempted, with a -2 penalty, to ascertain similar information about any other race's spoken dwarven. A player who manages to make the knowledge provided by a successful roll application to his next use of a knowledge or social skill gains a +2 bonus on that roll.

    Note: In Tinderbox players can ask the DM, which is me, to make the Insight roll. That way the player will not know if the information she receives about the dialect is true or false. However, that there is not a mechanical penalty for failing the roll itself listed in this benefit.

  • Elven
    The original language of the Silken Kingdoms, Elven is still spoken by the defiant Elves of the Tran Empire. It is extremely similar to High-Elven, to the point that speakers of either language can make themselves understood by the other. Many dwarves consider learning Elven (or High-Elven) to be beneath them; however, hunters of the Xiechu clan, and many orcs, master the language for its utility in reconnaissance and interrogation. Also, as mentioned above, gith and deva may select Elven in lieu of High-Elven.

    A character fluent in Elven, but not High-Elven, suffers a -2 penalty on social rolls in a conversation with a character fluent only in High-Elven.

  • Orcish
    The language of the orcs is spoken primarily in a low register, which means many eladric races struggle with it. Elves, however, strive to master the language for the same reasons orcs master theirs. Most Xiechu dwarves know at least a few orcish words as well. Goblins consider learning orcish shameful, and view speaking it as uncivilized.

    A character fluent in Orcish gains a +1 bonus on their first Intimidate roll in each encounter or skill challenge, except against other Orcs. Against characters not fluent in Orcish, this bonus increases to +2 and characters do not suffer any Fluency penalty associated with the language.

  • Goblin
    The goblin language is actually the most-spoken language in the Tran Empire, given how vastly goblinoids outnumber dwarves. Nonetheless, it is not only not the official language of the Empire, but a language many dwarves never bother to learn. Many goblins only hear their native tongue in private, whether that be at home, at goblin bars, or at night in the guard barracks. Dwarven military commanders, however, may make the effort to master this tongue in order to form stronger relationships with their troops; this is much more common when the dwarf primarily deals with hobgoblins.

    As a result, characters fluent in goblin gain a +2 on Bluff and Diplomacy rolls when addressing a goblin, hobgoblin, or bugbear.

The Ruby Caliphate

  • Draconic (C Ruby Caliphate)
    The Draconic language is surprisingly mellifluous, especially when spoken with a rapid cadence. Jokes about it being all long S sounds are completely unfounded, and guaranteed to enrage Lessers who happen to hear them. Although Lessers and Shirrel share the same language, Lessers favor a slightly more stilted, formal version--somewhat akin to Victorian English versus modern. Krask understand Draconic, but struggle to speak it and favor short, mangled sentences. However, all three races feel a stirring in their hearts at the words, for Draconic is, at its core, an intensely magical and powerful language intrinsically tied to the scaled races.

    A character using Draconic to address any creature with the Reptillian or Dragon subtype gains a +2 bonus on social rolls. It is for this reason that many goblin and dwarven drake-handlers learn the language. Others, like the Soo, master it in order to have easier dealings with citizens of the Caliphate.


  1. Is it weird that the Ruby Caliphate is pretty linguistically homogeneous compared to the other two empires? And that this one language that they all use with each other all day long has hypnotic persuasive powers on all of them?

    In the Tran Empire you have dwarven and orcish and goblin and elven all bouncing around, not to mention probably a bit of infernal for Tran warlocks. In the Kingdom of Silks, you have high elven, regular elven (for the gith), infernal, and various elemental languages. And in the Ruby Caliphate... draconic. Yes, and probably infernal as well, again for warlocks...

    I guess it makes sense that there only be one language since the dragons have created all of the other races in their empire, instead of them being brought together as a union of previously disparate cultures. But it still bums me out, and seems weird since draconic has actual coercive powers on scaled races. It would almost seem that if the power of draconic is known to the Caliphate, it would make sense to have some sort of law against lower races and classes trying to manipulate their superiors with its use, leaving some sort of non-magical "low draconic" or something to be used in common parlance.

    I mean, either every single member of the races of the Caliphate is unusually harder to persuade than a similar person from a different empire would be (arbitrarily higher social DCs), or the Ruby Caliphate would long ago have been diplomacized into submission with them being 10% easier to persuade or intimidate just by virtue of speaking their language. Instead, if there were a difference between "high draconic" and "low draconic", and one needed to have learned low before being able to learn high to represent the difficulty mammalian races have in mastering such a powerful and alien language, and the caliphate in general prohibits and heavily punishes instances of teaching the high speech to foreigners or peasents... well all of a sudden it starts to make more sense why the Caliphate aren't a bunch of push overs, and why when you come across someone in Tran or the Kingdom who's mastered the tongue their way with lizards actually seems special and unique. Hell, using it might actually become a bit of an exciting risk, in that it makes you more persuasive to this Lesser thug you're negotiating with now, but also identifies you as someone who has stolen the Caliphates sacred tongue... you might win the encounter, but you've opened the possibility that down the line, Ruby Caliphate assasains may seek you out to silence your blasphemous tongue. Kind of the way that Githyanki hunt down non-gith wielding silver swords in vanilla D&D...

    Right now draconic is a bit of an obvious choice for EVERY character in your setting with a language slot free, since it gives you an edge not just on Caliphate citizens but dumb beasts as well that are commonly in use in Tran. For some reason I just have a hard time accepting that a race of terrible and jealous ancient dragons would allow their treasured cultural parlance to be so easily vulgarized and appropriated by mammalian races... by making it eat up 2 language slots, and present some role playing challenges and risks, I think the language really shines.

  2. In a campaign set in the Caliphate, or one I envisioned prominently featuring reptilian races, I might consider moving in the direction you suggest Sam.

    'owever, I view a few things as mediating your concerns. First, both of the "sentient" Caliphate races are likely to have boosted Charisma, which equates to a higher Will Defense, which effectively counteracts half of the language bonus. The bonus isn't going to render Npcs the party converses with utterly docile unless the DM builds their personalities with docility; and the vast majority of Lessers, especially, have anything but docile personalities. A PC trying to convince a Lesser prison guard to let him walk free, for instance, probably has to appeal to his power and his majesty and so forth...which is what you'd expect a PC with diplomacy to be doing to a Lesser anyway. The bump won't be a gamebreaker. Shirrel are even more likely to have high social skills, and any dialogue with them is probably going to be a skill challenge, or at least opposed rolls, where I'd expect them to put up a fine defense.

    Really, the language is most useful when dealing with the Krask; but it should be useful in that circumstance, since the powers of the language have a lot to do with why that race is being commanded in the first place. The nature of the Caliphate and its engineered races seems to make it a necessity for there to be only a single language...why would they invent a different one when they'd only need it to talk to other races, and in that circumstance they could just learn that protocommon? I could see dragons themselves, as well as Firsts, using a more powerful application of draconic...but such concerns are outside the scope of a 4th level game, and such benefits would likely be secured via a feat or paragon path.

    The second reason I'm less concerned with the power of draconic in Tinderbox flies directly in the face of your proposal that any player with a free slot would take the language. Players who select draconic have the opportunity to quell drakes, assuming they also possess a social skill to use for the process. Players with social skills are increasingly likely to be "face" type characters, in which case their decision to pick up draconic means they probably didn't grab goblin, orcish, or elemental tongues (I'd say "Or Elven or High Elven, but thus far almost every application I've seen for the current game has been from the Silken Kingdom"). That means they're trading bonuses which would occur in logically more numerous situations for those that develop only when addressing something from the Caliphate (a continent the game is not taking place on) or something generally unintelligent (so calming it is going to be most useful after you've either killed its master, or talked them to a standstill...but if you don't do either of those things, the master is probably going to drive the creature to attack you anyway).

    I wanted the draconic bonus to be on the significant side due to its relative rarity of use. As for making draconic a 2 slot language...if it was really as good as you fear, I feel that would just artificially inflate the value of the Caliphate races as player choices (and, for parity, wouldn't I need to penalize them for speaking mammalian tongues?).

    Ultimately, a +2 bonus on these rolls is mostly a codified circumstance bonus. I'm a firm believer in circumstance bonuses, and this helps players who plan ahead reap one in a particular circumstance.

  3. Hmph. I highly anticipate your game will be ALL ABOUT talking to guard drakes! Despot goblins? Squirrel people? Mere pawns in the game. Yooooou'll see...