The Use of Language In RPG Scenarios

 Posted by on June 12, 2017  Filed as: Better Gameplay?  Add comments  Topic(s):
Jun 122017

Your party enters a tavern in the distant land they have spent weeks travelling to. The human fighter walks up to the innkeeper and asks about rooms. The innkeeper responds, but in a different language. The wizard steps forward and addresses the innkeeper in a number of different languages he has learned from traveling to other kingdoms. They find a common language, but because of the dialectic differences it is still hard for the two men to converse. Then the exasperated elf looks around. Off to the side is another elf that he goes and talks to. The two elves then approach the bar and by using elvish they are able to translate the needs of the party to the innkeeper.

This has become a common scenario path for many fantasy settings. Humans speak many different languages across the world, yet the nonhuman races speak a common racial language. This is considered acceptable because of how we see ourselves in the real world. I know science fiction and fantasy settings are meant to be magical and other-worldly, but in creating a solid story-line to build from you need the seeds of reality to create from.

Multiple languages and dialects would fit, and are justified.

Communication is a complication that has to be dealt with in movies, books, and gaming. This has always raised a question with me as to why other races are able to advance and maintain a single language when they cover the same areas, or even when one group becomes isolated from the main population when humans are unable to accomplish such a feat.

One argument I heard was because humans are more territorial and like to build their own network of strength, therefore creating their own language to describe their particular environment and situation. I can’t agree. Every time there is an evil race of intelligent, or semi-intelligent monsters (like orcs) who have their individual tribes warring against each other, they still have a common language. If it was a territorial, or power base for language than there would be just as many, or more, languages for each of the different monstrous races.

Another argument is that that human language morphs due to group isolation. Basically, when one population is isolated from other groups the language mutates just like genetics, creating an evolution of the language. Again, I can’t accept this as the reason. Every race of creatures in science-fiction/fantasy settings probably has a level of isolation. You have elves living in different forests, dwarves in different mines, and minotaurs in separate labyrinths.

The main reason there is not consideration to the dialectic differences of other races is because we only know one race, humans, and give them a unique human trait. It is easier to portray all the other races with broad strokes. This is an easy resolution to a complex problem. We do it for convenience.

Some RPGs, etc., use some variants, like how drow elves speak their own language while all of the surface elves, which in some settings can be another half-dozen elf races, speak the same tongue. Agreed the drow were said to be isolated, focusing on their own power struggles, so it is fitting their language became unique. But, I still believe the use of languages in non-human races is limited, at best.

There are some examples we can draw upon for RPGs.

Historically we can see another limitation that language represents. The length of our communications has limited the size of a kingdom that could be built. As transportation improved, allowing faster communication from a capital to its outer reaches kingdoms grew. Then communication grew in speed. Napoleon had signal towers across his empire that allowed communication faster than a horse. Again, this allowed him to expand his claimed territory. Communication also relied on being able to talk with the people.

Conquering countries have always worked at using one side or the other of a singular strategy: incorporate the conquered people into the new dominate culture (including language) or to force the conquered culture into submission. Yes, I know I am putting this in simplistic terms. So, think about how these aspects would influence your game.

The implications of language can be used for wonderful storytelling and strategic devices in role-playing games (RPGs).

The crew of your ship has an alien pilot and at the spaceport he sees another of his race and he wants to negotiate for information. He starts talking to him and all goes well and they strike a deal. When these types of scenes are played out with a character that is human, the first thing that usually happens is determining if the pilot would be able to communicate with the other person. I recently saw a movie recently where the two characters were asking each other which languages they spoke so they can talk. Why not do this to the other races populating your game?

The dwarf enters into the tavern and sees a table full of other dwarfs. He boldly steps forward and greets the other dwarfs in his racial tongue and inquires about the mountains in the area. The party sitting at the table look at him as he dialogues and then at each other. One turns to the standing dwarf and speaks. The two sides stare at each other waiting until someone says something the other side understands.

The party enters the pub and orders when suddenly a group from a back table quickly moves and stands ready to defend or attack. Everyone is sitting there wondering what happened. A quick negotiation is made to diffuse the situation. After a while it is understood that the dialect used immediately showed that the person who ordered the food was from another part of the city and used a term that a rival gang uses.

Languages are a complex part of our human cultures. Why shouldn’t they be for the other races we game with?


Daniel Yocom

Daniel Yocom writes Guild Master Gaming, started in February 2012. He draws on his experiences for tabletop and role-playing games, and has been playing tabletop games for almost fifty years and RPGs for almost forty. He also seeks out new experiences in gaming and areas associated in what he considers geek writing. Along with gaming writing, he has other writing in publications and several projects in the works.

  2 Responses to “The Use of Language In RPG Scenarios”

  1. While, yes, it adds a level of verisimilitude to use a wide variety of languages and dialects in a campaign, it can also be a considerable hassle for both the players and GM. If every social scene becomes a hunt for the one common language between the characters and NPCs, it imposes a huge burden on the pacing of the game. I know, I set a game in a variant Renaissance Europe with all the linguistic variety of Europe and the language issue was a constant problem.

    While occasionally, it is fun to play with the rich depth of languages, it quickly becomes a drag if every interaction becomes a hunt for the only two characters that can speak to each other.

    • Sean,

      I’m glad to hear how you have used language in some of your RPGs. When I originally discussed this with a group of GMs, for almost all of them it was not something they had considered.

      You’re right about how language can cause a game to drag when it becomes a continuous focus. But when applied judiciously, it can add an unexpected element to an encounter. Sometimes even making the communication barrier the encounter. I play in a campaign of elves and the GM has used it a couple of times is all, but when it has been used it made for a nice twist to break people out of the norm they were used to.

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