Wednesday, April 28, 2010

No Common Language

I'm intrigued by an idea from the World of Alidor blog, which today asks if anyone runs a campaign with no common language. I haven't done that yet, but I might someday, or even soon. The trick to it would be that just because there's no common language in the campaign doesn't mean there doesn't have to be one at the table.

So the DM says, "There's no 'Common' in this game, but you all have to share at least one language so you can communicate with each other. Pick one." In some games, where you automatically start out with some kind of native tongue, and then add languages at-will after that, this would be relatively simple. Everyone just picks a second language to all share. True, this would put limits on certain character concepts; you could only have one "ignorant barbarian who only speaks his native tongue," or at least, only one kind of ignorant barbarian, but in the right kind of game, with flexible characters, that wouldn't be much of a hassle.

For another option, that I think is somewhat more interesting: consider 3e D&D. Each of the races comes with a list of bonus languages; the languages that they're capable of learning, usually for reasons of cultural contact. Certain classes get a few additional bonus languages. Here, finding a common tongue would be a matter of matching the characters' lists against each other in order to find one that everyone shared, and then all taking that language. If there wasn't one that everyone shared, you'd have to find the one that the most characters did, and then negotiate with the DM some kind of background excuse for the remainder to be able to learn that language.

Either way, this system would tell you right at character creation some interesting things about the world and the party. If the language was picked entirely by the players, with no "ignorant barbarian" or "bonus language"-type in-character restrictions, you'd have a very good idea of what they thought was important and who else they wanted to be able to interact with. You've also created a minor reason for the characters to stick together, particularly if they're in hostile territory, or if the language they all speak is unusual for some reason. (This goes double for any group based around all speaking the same language as some barbarian wahoo. Bonus points if the character in question would otherwise be a "lone wolf" type: now you know why Hrathgar the Unruly puts up with this particular bunch of civilized weaklings.)

The "bonus languages" system, on the other hand, tells the players a lot about the world, and how they fit into it. Take a look at the way the 3e languages are set up with the common races. Odds are decent your party is going to end up all speaking Orc, Goblin, or Gnome, which tells you something about how those races fit into the world. A DM could probably get even more mileage out of this if they designed these lists themselves with this purpose in mind. What's a good way to show that a race is everywhere and trades with everyone? Make their language a common bonus language. What's a good way to show that two races don't interact much? Set it up so they don't share a language, and the players have to create some kind of unusual situation to explain why they can talk to each other. Want to make it clear that two races don't trust each other? Write the lists so that they share a language, but it's the language of a mutual enemy. "Of course you can't trust those guys -- the only language they understand is Orc!"

You could even, in a more complex setting, compile lists based on factors beyond race. Because I'm weird, I'm really tempted now to run a game where everyone comes from a different culture but shares a common religious language. Between race, culture, class, and religion, you could end up with a fairly complex set of possible languages. You'd need players who were interested enough in the kinds of things this lets you do to be willing to puzzle out a common language out of all those disparate powers, and willing to tweak their culture or religion in order to get everything to fit together, but I know some players who really enjoy that kind of thing, and others who don't care as long as someone else does the work of figuring it all out.

This doesn't solve the other problem that "common" handles pretty neatly, that of the possibility that one or more party members won't speak the language that most NPCs use. Language confusion can cause a lot of problems at the table, especially if it's a regular thing. But I think that problem is largely resolvable, and I'm going to give some thought over the next day or two to some possible ways to handle it.


  1. I am intrigued by your theory and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

    I'm not certain my gaming group would go for this entirely, but I'd like to see your work-arounds for no Common to see other possibilities.

  2. The system I wrote has no common language. This has a couple additional implications which dovetail nicely with the way I want the world to work:
    -it's not high fantasy
    -languages work like any other skill
    In high fantasy, it's pretty common to have a PC party with no two players the same race. In low fantasy it isn't or shouldn't be. No common tongue encourages players to pick the same race, and anyone who doesn't has to blow almost 20% of his starting skill points just to be able to communicate with the rest of the group. Since it's only in playtesting, I have yet to see how huge this impact is.
    I have eight (or nine, depending on how you count) distinct nations or cultural groups, but only seven languages. The shared languages illustrate a shared history, like Germany and Austria.

  3. My current campaign (AD&D 1st) does not have a common tongue; each kingdom or land generally has its own language, and even the racial languages often have different dialects. (Hill Dwarves vs. Mountain Dwarves, for instance) Some of the languages in my game have some degree of mutual intelligibility, but for the most part, everybody speaks the kingdom (or regional) tongue. This makes bardic extra languages and certain spells like comprehend languages a real boon to the party.

    In many of my previous campaigns, I made Common the language of a massive fallen empire that once ruled most of the known campaign world.

  4. Sounds lame to me.
    Oh, and you missed something about the languages part, AFAIR...
    The bonus language are related to the number of languages starting out related to Int bonus. Every character can learn a given language at start with skill points except secret languages.

    Regarding the topic:
    Having no common language is not that of a great idea because of several reasons...
    It looks like a good idea at first, but:

    - It starts out with ingame "he said, she said" but in the end it leads to OoC talk because this "he said..." thing gets boring real fast.

    - Why does a party have to be "sound" or "justified"? Why has a character background to be "reasonable"? At all?

    - The idea of a "foe" language is at best odd, at worst it's just weird for weird's sake:
    Orc is a foe language, yeah, because it uses dwarven runes for scripture.

    - Your assumptions are somewhat odd to me, because you'd have the players "puzzle out" stuff the characters would know, because it's common knowledge to them already.
    It's like as if i'd have players in my contemporary/modern age supers game figure out that English is a kind of "common language", although their characters already knew that because they live in this world.

    The problem is:
    I see your ideas and assumptions, but let's make an example:

    We have an PC that speaks only a given number of languages, and he ends up in a situation where it depends on language wether he survives or not... and he stumbles upon an NPC that does not speak any(!) language the PC might understand.
    What do you do then? Handwave the situation? Or do you let the character die because you confronted him with a situation he can't solve at all because he can't even communicate?

    You want to complicate things on a basic level just for fun?
    Ok, go ahead and have fun for the first two or three times.
    But i promise you, in the long run it will make your players grow frustrated and resort to permanent "speak language" items or trying to hire an npc bard for each of them as a translator.
    At least that's my experience when i tried this with my players and i've never heard from groups in my vicinity that actually DID resolve the clusterf*** that resulted from "creative common language removal" in their games.
    No matter the game, whenever i tried this idea, it almost instantly derailed or bogged down my games, be it a Shadowrun underworld campaign (involving "the big M", Yakuza and Triads)
    a Forgotten Realms campaign. Did you ever read the list of languages for FR? ^^

    Another example for worst case scenario:
    Party happens to come across a needed clue from an NPC, a clue that no other NPC in the vicinity knows. And then the NPC does not speak any of the party's languages. No wizard or sorcerer or bard in group, but maybe a cleric. They might be able to understand the NPC, but they can't interrogate him.
    (Even if, they'd have to spend costly slots on it.)

    What do you do then?

    p.s.: Don't you mean "Hrothgar"? Who's "Hrathgar"?

  5. PatrickW: Yeah, it's an interesting problem, and a lot of people aren't going to be interesting in, since the benefits are pretty playstyle specific. I'm still puzzling it out, but I can tell you right now, most of what I've come up with has to do with initial campaign design. Not going to be so useful in a game that's already up and running.

    Mark: Ooh, interesting. I hadn't considered that particular aspect, but if you *want* to nudge players towards all playing the same race, this'd be a way to do it.

    Caleb the Heretic: For the most part, the answer to your questions is "because I think it's fun." And not as a DM, by the way. I'm a very weird player.

    As to the rest of them, all I can say is that I wouldn't use this idea unless I could come up with a way to make sure that the kind of translation problems you're describing were, at best, an occasional thing. I'm only saying that there wouldn't be a common language for the setting. There'd almost certainly be a common language, or something close to it, for the campaign. It would just be something the players had picked themselves. ;)

    (And Hrathgar's just this guy, you know?)

  6. Although it's easy, I was never really a big fan of racial languages over regional languages, but historically, people of larger regions would often know at least a bit of a 'common' trade language. An interesting way you could utilise that is to give characters a free regional language and allow untrained 'common' checks that could possibly lead to mistranslations.

    For an added bit of flavour, different races will probably speak a racial dialect of their native regional language for a slight communication challenge.

    Beyond the party talking with monsters and each other, there are a lot of interesting uses for different languages, too. Perhaps the common trade language is only written. A spellbook may use universal magic sigils but notes and essays could be written in an unknown language and make the spells harder to learn. A foreign map might mislabel 'The Pit of Eternal Peril' as 'The Fabulous Treasure Den.' Speaking with the dead in a lost tomb might require the party combine their efforts to piece together an old form of their native tongue. The awkward old-fashioned speech of an NPC could also be a clue to their undead nature.

  7. That's pretty much how we used to play D&D in Mystara, back in the day - Thyatian may be the "common language" in areas ruled by Thyatis, ditto Alphatian/Alphatis, but you're going to want to know Darokinian, Ylari, Ethengarian, etc, if you want to travel outside the empires. I don't have the gazetteers any more, but I think there were specific names for the different demi-human languages.

  8. Well, I have to say I have tried this a number of times as GM-- in D&D, Stormbringer, and RuneQuest, so High Fantasy and Low; languages working as skills, racial languages and regional languages-- and in every case my player groups have hated it. Just hated it. I've had great players in most cases, terrific roleplayers, but usually they just find this particular thing a hang-up and a chore, not fun at all.

    The main problem is that there is always a push for a "Common" language, no matter what you do. There's always an attempt to just find the simplest work-around for the problem. People find language barriers to be, well, *barriers*, not something fun or interesting (in-game). I think this may have something to do with all of my players being Americans. : )

    But whatever the reason, if you suppose there is a common "trade language," then everybody will instantly opt for that and suddenly we are all speaking English again. Having separate languages is fun only for two characters who want to speak together without others understanding them (Pig Latin).

    BTW, the same goes for literacy. People want their characters to be able to read the "Common Tongue" at a basic level with little trouble (unless they're deliberately playing an unlettered barbarian). Default illiteracy has cased me no end of grief.

    (captcha word: Aninglic. the name of the trade language of the Third Terran Empire.)

  9. @Odyssey:
    I see, i see.
    May i link back to your blog, btw?

  10. Back in the day when I was striving for over the top simulationism (with RoleMaster no less) I ran a campaign loosely inspired by England post William the Conqueror. Language was very much a function of social class; only the nobles and their more elite servants knew their language. I think the idea, and others of mine at the time, suffered from a disconnect between DM vision (and capability!) and player expectations. So I can't really give a report on how well it worked out.

    Personally, my ideal campaign would be nearly a thesis in cultural anthropology.

    One of my players in my old 3.x campaign said that I ran a great campaign, but that "you spend too much time worrying about the color of the bricks on the yellow brick road, when we just want to fight the flying monkeys."

    I do think languages can be interesting, such as when one character finds themselves taking on a social role that they normally don't because they're the only one with the requisite language. Other folks may get mischievous and take advantage of their unique ability.

    As far as world building goes, it does seem that certain tongues get accepted as the 'lingua franca' and used for commerce and/or learning. That doesn't mean that the language would be universal.