Monday, November 16, 2020

Why don't I do this more often? Multiple languages, one race

In my non-dungeon-bashing, non-DF GURPS fantasy games, I tend to make languages more of a campaign issue. In DF Felltower, quite the opposite. But in general?

Regional languages? Check.

Foreign visitors with odd languages? Check.

Languages changing over time? Check.

High and vulgate versions of some languages? Check.

One thing I don't do enough of, though, is different languages for other races. If you speak Elvish, that covers the elves in the bounded sandbox of my campaign area. I don't put in multiple languages for non-human races, most of the time.

Re-reading Traveller Alien Module 3: Vargr has made that omission clear.

"There are hundreds of Vargr languages [. . .] The most commonly encountered language in the Spinward Marches and adjacent regions is Gvegh. Counting the related languages Gvegh-Aek, Kithnour, Uedhu, and Taeksu, the Gvegh language family is spoke by about 60% of the Vargr encountered in the Marches and neighboring Gvurrdon sector."

The Vargr make the Aslan, with their singular language and culture, seem just a little more alien from them.*

This is a reminder for me for next time - add some variations.

Immortal (or nearly so) Elves could have a unified language of great complexity and historical weight. It could be mastered over centuries of study and use, and while non-elves learn just the vulgate form, the elves learn the full version and are able to convey cultural meanings that others don't live long enough to master. Or they may speak many, many different elven languages, each as complex and nuanced as the next - perhaps by family group, or political or cultural group, or by hobby and interest. They have the time to learn them, so why not? Both fit.

Orcs don't have time to be unifying all of their lanuages - if they're short-lived like I often make them. They're likely to have tribal languages with a lot of overlap in the middle, especially if you use an AD&D-like approach of mutually hostile orc tribes.

Dwarves might have clan tongues, or be that race that has One Correct Way of doing things. Depends on your take - are they insular and family oriented, or feel themselves one very tight, unified culture?

And yeah, to my players, maybe you speak Manticorian, but do you speak Manticorese, it's closely-related but not identical language? Heh.

Something I'll have to make more use of, if/when I run another fantasy game. Or, given the reminder from the Traveller book, a sci-fi game.**

This does get pricey with GURPS 4th edition's language pricing, but that can be addressed with a simple switch - make all languages both written and spoken for the same price, so they're 1/2/3=3 not 1-3/1-3=6 total points to master. Learning a few 2-point languages isn't a big thing, and having enough to get by in emergencies in a lot of languages is pretty cheap. Illiteracy is simply a quirk-level disadvantage for a language, and "broken" assumes illiteracy.

* As an aside, I'm pleased that I still have my copy of Traveller Alien Module 1: Aslan. I knew I'd purchased it, and read it, but I hadn't laid eyes on it in years. I was relieved when I was able to just pull it out of the Traveller pile.
I'm only sorry I don't have all of the Alien Modules.

** I've done it before, but I'm more "hard space opera" and a lot less "fantasy with blasters," and I want vac suits and engines that need overhauls and maybe some weird psi-like powers of limited effect, and generally my players want to run Jedi. It's not a good mix.


  1. You want to make your languages more complicated? Take a look at the Indian subcontinent. Unifying languages (from dominant religion and conquerors), more than a dozen state languages, and hundreds of isolated languages (some spoken only in one valley or town). And many of them are not closely related like European languages where if you know one Latin-based language you can pick out a good amount of words in several others, or the same for Germanic-based languages.

    [As an aside watching a Swedish show with subtitles woke me up that without looking at the subtitles half the words they used sounded like English to me while the other half sounded like gibberish. I couldn't tell meaning but I could tell when they were talking about specific objects as many nouns were pronounced very closely to the English...though when spelled look a little odd. Switching subtitle languages can be educational, too. We live in an amazing time to see these linguistic similarities thanks to some technologies that are being taken for granted as just something to make your entertainment easier to enjoy.]

    1. The whole region of the Indian subcontinent and the immediate surroundings is a good example. Sub-Saharan Africa is a good example, too.

      That's interesting with Swedish. That's a lot like how I feel when I hear people speaking Korean - it sounds to my ears like Japanese, only Japanese where I don't understand any of the words.

  2. Languages don't work very well in games. Players can only have so many languages and hiring translators or pantomiming a conversation just suck the fun out of a game.

    I believe that's why Gygax & Co created common. Humans and Elves and Dwarves and Orcs and everyone probably have hundreds of languages each, but the universal trade tongue, the Swahili of the game area is Common and if characters learn that they can communicate well enough with anyone (aka role play) and get on with the adventure.

    1. See, I disagree. I think they can work very well. You just have to handle them in a game-friendly way, and have players who take communication issues as part of the game. "Get on with the adventure" is reasoning you can use to simplify down anything - fatigue, wounds, combat, skills, aging, reaction rolls, social status, economics, exploration, etc. etc. It's what you define as "adventure" and "getting on with it" that determine what needs to be dialed down because it's not aiding the game you enjoy and what needs to be dialed up because it is the game you enjoy.

    2. Sometimes language barriers are fun. I'm playing Traveller and we recently had two language barriers (the original game doesn't have any talk of languages so naturally we started with knowledge of languages of places in our backstories and nothing else).

      One whole adventure was answering a distress call only to find out the aliens are SO ALIEN we share few concepts and had to communicate through drawn cartoons to explain the damage to the ship and our plan to repair it, then where to go and how we would help them refuel so they could leave system after losing lots of fuel to a ruptured fuel line.

      The second event we were kidnapped and used as slave laborers on an unknown world. There are other sentients in the field that do not seem to understand us and have not used any spoken language. The closest we came to communicating was showing off our tattoos to each other. We think they are the natives of this world so may have more interactions later after we get away from the slavers.

      It is too much for a frequent thing, but language is a valuable source of roleplay.

  3. It pricey but you want want to watch out for Digest Group Publication Vilani and Vargr - The Coreward Races. It is out of print but well worth getting.

  4. "One thing I don't do enough of, though, is different languages for other races. If you speak Elvish, that covers the elves in the bounded sandbox of my campaign area. I don't put in multiple languages for non-human races, most of the time."

    Agreed. While I have somewhere around 20+ different languages* for my bounded sandbox, the PCs only //need// one - Trade. They tend to want 2-3, Trade plus the major language used by natives and/or upper class of the most prominent nearby cities. So it keeps the "price" of languages down for them. Occasionally someone goes buck wild and I need to break out the OmniLingual Talent...

    "This does get pricey with GURPS 4th edition's language pricing, but that can be addressed with a simple switch - make all languages both written and spoken for the same price, so they're 1/2/3=3 not 1-3/1-3=6 total points to master."

    I've done this and gone one step further:

    Omnilingual lvls 1-3 [10 per level] (my version)

    At level 1 you can reasonably communicate at Broken in almost any language you encounter in the game. At level 2 you communicate at Accented. At level 3 at Native. There maybe be very rare languages that still require separate purchase.

    You designate this as Spoken or Literacy for half-price.

    Language Talent applies normally... so while no one has ever purchased Omnilingual above lvl 1, I have seen Omnilingual and Language Talent on a sheet, and Wizards frequently have 1 lvl of Omnilingual (Literacy), and then another handful of points for Broken Literacy in the rare or arcane languages.

    I treat codified cyphers as either needing to learn Cryptography and make rolls, or a Perk like "Galcondain Thieves Cant" or "Imperial Sages Guild Shorthand" and then they don't need Cryptography.

    1. I think that's a good approach, too, especially with using a perk.


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