The Gassy Gnoll: The Role of Language

Today let’s talk about a couple of ways to look at languages in roleplaying games.

First, let’s talk about our characters. Language in gaming sometimes gets a bad reputation. It varies system to system, setting to setting, GM to DM, but there are a few constants. Usually every player character speaks some sort of language, whether it’s Common, Trader Tongue, English, Pidgin, or some form of speech translatable by the Babel Fish stuffed in one ear. But it can be argued by some historians and anthropologists that unless you’re talking about a homogeneous group, they probably don’t all speak the same language. Even across the world today most places have different dialects that could almost be languages of their own. Between terminology, phrases, and accents it’s amazing that any of us can understand each other unless we’ve lived next door all our lives.

In many games, such as D&D, The One Ring, and others, there’s a Common tongue. It makes sense that there would be some kind of a language for travelers and traders to use to communicate about their products, settle deals, and converse about the weather. But that same language probably doesn’t work for all purposes. For instance, you’re probably not going to get into a debate about religious philosophy or the intricacies of blacksmithing without some more specific words and phrases for abstract concepts or jargon. Today someone fluent in the shorthand used in text messages probably would have a tough time clearly conversing with someone who lived through World War II.

So though a “Common” language works somewhat in RPGs, it’s mostly a practical decision on behalf of the game designers, GMs, and players to save themselves having to draw stick figures any time an elf, a dwarf, and a human walk into a bar. And when you start talking about written languages, it gets even more hairy. Think about the proliferation of Latin during the Middle Ages as the language of the learned elite. Your average commoner probably knew a few prayers and hymns for church by rote memorization but most likely couldn’t have read them if they were written down…


Image by Nygård via Flickr

Generally in my own games, I’ve let players choose a language, but suggested that all take whatever is the setting’s “Common Tongue.” If they choose not to take that advice, it can lead to some interesting roleplaying challenges in communication between party members let alone between PCs and the rest of the world. The Common language may be a crutch, but I’d rather focus on more interesting roleplaying challenges than play Pictionary with someone who can’t read basic signs.

Next, let’s talk about language in terms of the games themselves. When you look at your typical tabletop RPG product, it is written in a common language for the market (English, Spanish, German, etc.). But beyond that there’s a fine distinction between the text used to explain system mechanics and the flavor text used to describe something for a character or monster or the background for a setting or adventure.

Let’s talk about “system language” first. When I first got out of college, I was a technical writer for a software company. No, I probably didn’t write documentation for any of the products you used in the mid- to late- 1990s, but I definitely wrote my share of long, boring texts bordering on the clinically insane. That said, I have a ton of respect for writers who take potentially boring topics and make them interesting. Don’t get me wrong – many game writers have the ability to bridge the gap between being entertaining and educational, teaching players and GMs how to use the system to play their games. However, it’s sometimes a struggle to write simple, clear instructions without coming across as a text book. It’s not impossible, just difficult.

Then there’s the “flavor text.” This is the other side
of the fence from the rules, focusing on describing the world in plenty of glorious detail. Often this is the place you’ll find vignettes about characters, short stories concerning major NPCs or events, and even longer fiction featuring important historical context or setup for getting characters started down a path in the setting.

Montage of languages. Prototype header for the...

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Though these are two sides of the same coin, they require very different skill sets. I’m pretty good at writing the boring stuff, but as my experience with the Moebius Adventures Core Rules book I self-published a few years ago showed, I’m not very good at the flavor text. If you’re aspiring to join the ranks of published writers in RPGs, be sure you do justice to both the technical side and the fictional side. Your readers and potential game fans will thank you for it.

Obviously these aren’t the only ways to consider the impact of language on gaming, but I think it’s a good start.

If you have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment below!

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4 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: The Role of Language

  • Sewicked

    As my experience playing Witch Hunter showed, there can be real humor in not having one language common among the Player Characters. The linguist suddenly becomes a valuable player as he/she can talk to anyone. As long as it contributes to the role play, have fun with it.

  • Fitz

    @Sewicked – I totally agree so long as it’s being roleplayed somehow. Having one character as a translator not only can be a boon to the rest of the party, but a bane as well!
    Fitz recently posted…The Gassy Gnoll: The Role of LanguageMy Profile

  • Nice article!
    Gotta say that one of the few things I really like about the Kalamar setting
    (got a good deal on all the books before realising its not really for me) is how it handles common tongue.
    Simply put there isn’t really one out there. There’s Trade tongue, which is spoken throughout the world, but you can’t really express that much in it (there’s no poems written in it for example) and Kalamaran which is spoken over a good percentage of the world, but marks you as an enemy in the places it isn’t.

    Of course in the real world we have a great example of common tongue, with extensive documentation as to how it came about, but I’ve never seen a setting make use of all that data. I’m not speaking about English – I am of course speaking about Arabic!

    • Fitz

      @Dungeons N Dragons – LOL. How could I forget Arabic? It was the language of scholars, scientists, and mathematicians for centuries!

      But I haven’t thought about Kalamar for years – the Trade tongue sounds perfect. Just enough to communicate basic needs. And I hadn’t thought of using language as a badge of dishonor… Great idea!

      Thanks for chiming in!

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