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House Rules Evolved: Language and Fluency

While I am waiting for this month’s Mythoard and slacking off on working on my rationalist monster series, I got sidetracked. I have been thinking on a few of my houserules and the way I have been using them at the table. Let me take a whack at fleshing them out, slimming them down, and making them more fun. This post is going to go over my language and fluency hack.

The Original Language and Fluency Houserule

Languages are fluid, living beings that bleed into one another. We can see this everyday all throughout the world, from Portuguese conversing with Spaniards, to Japanese appropriating all manner of words. I wanted to create a system that copies this, to replace the usual system in D&D. D&D has a binary system of know-it-or-you-don’t, check the box, style of fluency. This doesn’t map to the differing levels of proficiency that real world people and presumably their monster counterparts would have.

 Other games I’ve played in have had complex system of skill ranks to mimic levels of fluency in multiple different languages. These had the problem of too much complexity for very little payoff, as the bonuses and penalties were usually purely mechanical or story-related. Unless the system took on a massive overhead, it did little to copy the real world. In the real world, languages aren’t cohesive blocks. Catalan sits right between french and Spanish. Some dialects understand their mother tongue, but can be mutually miscommunication with other dialects.

My solution was to create a simple, four step system. Each language, above, was put into its own family and given connections to other similar languages. These are based on my own interpretations of course. Characters for the most part are either fluent or not fluent in any languages based on the usual language choices at character creation. Based on these fluencies, the character also gets some fluency of related languages. This allows the DM some flexibility as well for specific character backgrounds to get partial fluency or give some in-between stages for characters learning a new language.

  • Fluency means you talk normally in character and NPC’s talk normally to you.
  • A direct connection to a fluent language indicates a basic fluency based on language similarities. No complex sentences and only one verb per sentence.
  • Any language in the same family as a fluent language means the character has passing similarities in some words and sentence structure. No verbs.
  • No fluency whatsoever means that the character can only recognize proper nouns that carry across all languages as well as gestures. Only proper nouns and gestures allowed.

The Problems:

While players would be initially interested, actual use of this houserule would fall off rather quickly. It would always start with forgetting to limit myself to the rule and then having to revise my statements. Doing this enough times would start to burn me out, as I would have to essentially translate my NPC’s on the fly.

I was never consistent enough with this to feel okay with pressuring the players when they messed up. This became a very vicious cycle that saw us not using languages.

It was nice for the players to be able to ‘game’ the language system to spread out their fluency. They could strategically pick languages for family and related bonuses, which was nice. I did enjoy rewarding these choices where normally unusual languages would have gone unpicked and been totally foreign.

The changes:

Both the players and I enjoyed the creation system. Keeping in line with normal fluency made picking languages easier. The family and related bonuses were icing on the cake for the players without making them mechanically more powerful. Therefore, I will keep this system, but I would like to add more language choices to make choice more meaningful.

The main problem was the way the speech mechanics worked in game, so I want to smooth those out. I do not want to be translating anything mid-sentence, so the complex sentences stuff is out. A word limit is pretty easy to do. NPC’s just get cut-off unless they are purposefully trying to ‘translate’. Players get to try and be creative, sometimes with unintended consequences. This all happens without having to ‘translate’ things into simple sentences with only one word. I think this is different but maybe it actually isn’t? Time (and possibly your comments) will tell. I like the rule of proper nouns and gestures only, so that stays.

  • Fluency stays the same: both sides talk normal.
  • Semi-fluent from a direct connection to a fluent language. Ten words or so each ’round’ of speaking, not including proper nouns.
  • Barely-fluent from a fluent language in the same family. Three words each ’round’ of speaking, not including proper nouns.
  • No fluency. Only proper nouns and gestures allowed.

 With the goal of allowing for more languages, I’d like to add a way for scholarly characters to better invest in languages as well. This system should also accommodate dialects distinct enough from their mother tongue.

  • Dialects and sub languages are considered a direct connection to their mother language and sit in the same family.
  • Greater fluency is for scholars, diplomats, and other language-skilled individuals. This would come from specific training, class abilities, or specialized character backgrounds. The player is considered fluent in all connected languages to their greater fluent language.
Now that I think about it, I want to make the non-fluent option even sillier to encourage the language system sticking around.
  • Non-fluency can also be aided by the player or NPC saying their language name with whatever inflection and body language they want. Ex: “Goblin goblin GOBLIN GOBLIN GOBLIN FREDRICK GOBLIN*!!!”
With my newfound GIMP skills, I was toying with drawing up a fancier looking language map.
  • Throw me some languages you would like to see in the next version.
  • What dialects do you use in your games?
  • Send me your favorite info-graphics and graphs, just because.
  • Maybe a cool tree graphic…

*Fredrick Goblin is her shaman given name. This makes it unfortunately hard for non-native goblin speakers to understand when she is being talked about. Misunderstandings like this elevated her to a minor footnote in history texts when she inadvertently negotiated a surrender from an army on the verge of eradicating all goblins. Another misunderstanding about her name got her captured and killed in a case of mistaken identity not three weeks later.

3 thoughts on “House Rules Evolved: Language and Fluency

  1. Wikiwalk this: It should give you all kinds of ideas and methods for playing around with languages.


  2. I'll have to check the language tropes out when I get back from a week long work orientation. Any chance you'll start your monster series back up?


  3. I hope to get back to Mutant Monday in the next month or so. I've been unable to resist making minor tweaks to a couple of other projects that I'm trying to finish up first.


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