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Language: The Lost

By Andrew “Rannos” Moran

One of the often underused attributes in any RPG is that of language. Most believable worlds are vast and have characteristics similar to our own and when your epic heroes travel further away it makes sense that they encounter people who can’t speak the same language as them, I need only to take a small boat ride to France to encounter a totally different primary language.

On a Meta level it makes sense that you don’t want to spend an hour of every game session having communication difficulties and it makes sense that for the majority of interactions you will stick to a common language,  but it can be used as a great tool by the GM.

Sci-Fi shows do this all the time, but the explanations can become quite ridiculous. (The God’s slaves were taken away in spaceships thousands of years ago, so every world has humans and they all speak English – a language not invented yet). Bonus points if you realised that was Stargate.

In a fantasy setting your basic Elf will know Elven and Common, but the fact that he can speak any language other than Common is often overlooked or forgotten, and GM’s should exploit this; why should an Elven Lord speak to the party to which the Elf belongs in a non-native tongue if  he doesn’t trust them? He can ask as many questions as he wishes of his elf kin without offending his potential guests or taking physical action against the strangers to his city.

This small exchange in a foreign language can emphasise that the PC’s are not in Kansas anymore. They will become conscious that they are foreigners in a place where customs are different. NPC’s will treat them differently due to the way they speak due to natural mistrust. Disaster could occur to the PC’s if they cause a grave social faux pas by refusing to drink a strange gold liquid. Some traditions can be rather bizarre.

In another instance the local farmer you ask for directions on the road isn’t going to have travelled far and a simple “Which way to town?” may be met with shrugs or a face that says, “You what now?” This can be a great roleplaying opportunity for the PC’s to get a simple message across and when most communication breaks down we opt for semantics or visual languages which can provide challenge, frustration or humour; or most likely all three.

In a recent campaign I played we encountered an Alien lifeform with no concept of spoken language. Up to this point all our communication was translated into our native language in real time. (Ah the joys of technology) and the challenge of convincing an alien entity we wanted to help was interesting.

On first glance I thought this would be frustrating and unnecessarily complicated for our characters as we attempted to rescue this poor alien and the rest of its race from impending capture but I was very wrong. The challenge of trying to communicate with the alien being was incredibly interesting.

After killing some enemies of the organisation we worked for, it’s difficult to say “Hi, we come in peace, those guys were bad but we’re not, honest!”

How does an alien comprehend human semantics?, If I were to give you the thumbs up, you would know this meant yes or good a global concept amongst civilisation [Except where it doesn't - in some "civilised" countries it's a grave insult! http://www.slate.com/id/2080812/ - Ed.], but these difficulties lead to great opportunities for roleplaying,and to utilize our characters’ non-combative skills. The situation escalated with a Party member’s DNA being rewritten to become more alien-like, which led to us having limited if humorous communication with the alien, such as “Your alien sensory input detects an odd chemical pheromone, with a slight smell of yoghurty burnt nutmeg.”

Stories can revolve around language and can be fascinating. Common or English maybe a catch all language in the setting but I think an occasional language barrier can be a good thing in an RPG.


  1. avatar

    Skimble says:

    As you may have noticed I like using language barriers and other social misunderstandings in first contact scenarios. I recently ran an Exalted: The Alchemicals game where there were plenty of strange misunderstandings (initially involving sheep) as the group exited their forgotten world and interacted with an unfamiliar Creation. To exacerbate this and to highlight the lack of a common language, I had all of the NPCs they encountered speak French. =)

  2. avatar

    Ian Warner says:

    I’m yet to write an RPG with a language barrier in the system at all.

    They can be fun though. Especially when your players try the age old British tradition of SPEAKING SLOWLY AND LOUDLY WHILE WAVING THEIR ARMS ABOUT!

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