Tag: languages

RPG-ology #38: Polyglot

This is RPG-ology #38:  Polyglot, for January 2021.


I was going to call this article I Speak Jive, but it just happens that earlier this week I was chatting with someone about movies and he suggested that a movie could not get away with that joke today.  Given the recent clime (I am writing this the summer before it publishes, because I like to stay ahead of schedule on my deadlines) I decided that maybe I could mention it, but I couldn’t use it for the title.

It is important to mention, though, because it illustrates the problem being addressed here.  How do you communicate in a world in which many languages are spoken?  Last month I wrote about inscriptions, and gave a link to a table of one hundred sixty-nine identifiable recognized languages in original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and I won’t swear I got them all.  At any moment a character’s life might depend on his ability to talk to someone, or something, that doesn’t happen to speak the same language.  What are the options?  Complicating it further, even people who speak the same language can have trouble understanding each other.  There are jokes about Scotsman, Irishmen, and Welshmen speaking English to Englishmen, and when you mix in Yorkshire, Liverpool, and the East End of London, you wind up with the beginnings of a new Tower of Babel.  Indeed, Chinese may be the same written language, but those who speak the various dialects from different parts of the country are incomprehensible to each other.

The “common language” of the Dungeons & Dragons world is not so absurd as we might think.  The Greeks conquered a substantial part of eastern Europe and the Middle East, and when the Romans took over that territory, the Greek language became established as the language of trade throughout what they called the civilized world.  Still, although most even modestly educated people were at least trilingual (their native language, the commercial language Greek, and law language Latin), there were many who spoke only the local tongue, and as with Americans traveling in Europe you might suddenly find yourself faced with someone who doesn’t have a clue how to speak English, and doesn’t understand even when you speak it loudly and slowly.  Not everyone speaks common.

Star Trek resolved the issue by giving everyone “universal translators,” implanted in the ears, which automatically converted anything anyone said to the language of the listener.  Of course, from time to time the travelers encountered people whose language was too alien for the translator to render, and Spock had to do a computer analysis of the new language and reprogram the devices to handle it.  Not everyone speaks a language the device can translate.

Historically the solution has been to find interpreters, persons who speak more than one language and can translate what each party says to the language of the other.  This is tricky.  My high school French teacher commented once that she could get around Paris quite comfortably, but if her car broke down she would be clueless concerning how to talk about the distributor.

There’s a joke about gangsters questioning a foreigner about the location of some loot they had stolen.  They found a translator, who put the question to the prisoner.  “I don’t want to die,” he said.  “It’s not worth it.  The million dollars is in a suitcase behind the basement furnace at 1212 Delancy Street.”  The interpreter turned to the gangsters and said, “He says, you can kill me if you want, I’m never going to tell you what you want to know.”  Interpreters are not always reliable.

My sister speaks three languages—English, French, and Chinese—well enough that she worked as a United Nations translator for a while, but she sometimes gets thrown by words that are apparently not uncommon.  Still, multi-lingual interpreters are the go-to for communication between those who don’t speak a common language.

Even when they do, sometimes an interpreter or two is needed to avoid the kinds of misunderstandings that arise when neither party speaks the shared language well.


Previous article:  It’s Greek to Me.
Next article:  My North Wall.

RPG-ology #37: It’s Greek to Me

This is RPG-ology #37:  It’s Greek to Me, for December 2020.


Decades ago I was running original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons for a burgeoning group that included a number of experienced players.  Experienced players of course bring knowledge from their other games, their other Dungeon Masters.  I have twice had the complication that one of the players at the table was familiar with a module I had decided to run, and multiple times had them recognize a magic item from the books—but that’s a different problem.

Magic items in the game can be rather complicated.  Find one, but you probably don’t know what it does or how to make it do that.  Swords and weapons seem simple, but often have hidden powers that can be activated with the right command word or the right combat situation.  Of course, such objects often have inscriptions or decorations, something that might hint or outright tell the new owner what to do with it.  On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that the old owner didn’t write something misleading.

In any case, my players began asking for just about every object they found, from the leather armor worn by the orc chieftain to the platinum statue of a horse in the dragon’s treasure horde, whether there was something written on it.

Well, I’m the sort of Dungeon Master who thinks that for something to be fair it should be consistent, and therefore there should be a rule.  I figured a roll of the dice could determine whether there were any markings on the object, and if so what if any significance they had.  You’ll find that table here  You’ll also find a second table.  Call me lazy, but when I roll up magic devices in random treasure hoards I don’t usually take the time to figure out the command words—for one thing, the characters might never find the thing, or might not recognize its significance.  So maybe my system is a bit complicated, but I identified different kinds of words that might be used by a wizard making such a device, divided them into categories player characters might guess, and gave a probability of success guessing the right word if they’re in the right category.  That seemed to me a lot simpler than having the players trying to guess a randomly chosen word out of the dictionary.  Pick a category, a type of word, and we’ll assume you ran a hundred or so words like that, and roll the dice to see whether you got the right one.

O.K., that’s pretty rough; maybe you don’t want to be so hard on your players.  But I did something else, too.  Sometimes my chart said there was something written on the object—but when did you ever hear of a magic item with an inscription in the common tongue?  Well, it does happen, I suppose, but I figured it wouldn’t be that often, so I combed through the books and found every language that was listed as something spoken by any creature.  After all, if I were a chaotic magician trying to create a device that I didn’t want my enemies to use, wouldn’t Slaad be an excellent choice for the language required to activate it?  But since I wasn’t writing backstories for these gadgets, I again created a table, weighted to favor more common languages.

I don’t expect many of you will find these tables all that useful—it’s the ideas behind them that I think matter.  Your magic items can have decorations and inscriptions that mean something, or that mean nothing, or that will mean everything if only the characters can figure out what language that is, or that will send them down the rabbit hole looking for an answer that isn’t there.

And of course, remember that just as an object that’s magical doesn’t necessarily have to have a decoration or inscription, so too an object with an inscription or decoration doesn’t have to be magical.

Merry Christmas, or whatever gift-giving holiday you’re celebrating this time of year.


Previous article:  Phionics.
Next article:  Polyglot.

Tales of a D&Degenerate: Volume 2

Volume 2: I Can’t Do Accents.

For our second session, two new members joined our party. One permanent addition, and the other dropped in for the evening. The temporary character, my brother, was given the role of guard and a pre-made character sheet. My brother is fairly inept with D&D, not unlike myself, so there was a mite of comfort having him along for the ride. We had snacks on the table, introduced the new players, and we were quickly on our way to continue the campaign.

Having met with the leader of the town, we were tasked with liberating a group of people from a religious building that was occupied by some kobolds and cultists. D&D has a funny way about creature traits. A cultist is essentially a crazed follower. At least, that is what we have gleaned from our encounters and from the info the DM passed on to us. It has been mentioned that this is the common understanding in the D&D world. Also; kobolds are nitwits. Either way, cultists will invariably go out of their way to harm someone, even if it means their own imminent demise, and likewise kobolds rush in fairly foolishly to fights they obviously have no stake in. I guess this has to do with some sort of devotion they claim, but I will have to take the DM’s word on it.

In the cloak of night, we came upon the religious building of worship that was surrounded by a patrolling group of kobolds making rounds every 30 or so minutes, a large party of a mix of cultists and kobolds in the front of the building, and finally a few cultists guarding the rear entryway. All of this while fire was being set to the building, and townspeople were trapped within. We took our time, covertly sending in a messenger, who craftily made their way up to the roof and inside to let the people know we were coming. We also devised a plan to wipe out the back door guards as quickly as possible by throwing open the doors, surprising them, and pummeling them from both sides, all while being cognizant of the patrolling kobolds. Being successful in that task, we pressed on. Later that evening, we found ourselves at a mill with several cultists who would drop down from high above to attack us, hurting themselves in the process, which I was not expecting. Unarmed cultists were trying to harm armored party members, essentially the D&D version of tapping on someone’s right shoulder from behind, only to lean left and wait for them to look right to strike. To put it politely, it was ineffective.

Small lesson here: cultists are dumb. Don’t join a cult, especially a D&D cult. Perhaps this is a well known facet of D&D, but let’s just remind ourselves of the fact that this was my second foray into D&D, and I felt a little bit like I was swimming for a lot of the time. I was acquaintances with the DM, but we didn’t know each other well, and I never considered how getting used to his style and flavor would inhibit my ability to simply immerse myself in the fantasy role. Additionally, there was the fact that I had barely nicked the surface of what D&D could be, so I was overwhelmed by the amount of lore I didn’t bring to the table. I felt more as though I was thrust into the realm than grew up in it, and my game play proved it.

Even Mario is embarrassed by my accent.

Amidst hours of play, the DM abruptly derailed what was happening to ask me who was speaking, and I was caught in the brights. To bring you up to speed, my friend plays a bard. He is also Deaf and uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate. I am his interpreter in game, which has made for some interesting interactions (one involving a dragon) and some early on confusion, as I used my normal speaking voice for both characters. So, when the DM inquired as to who was speaking, I knew right away that I had erred. The mantle of creating a voice for the bard was set squarely upon me. The bard’s last name is Tempesté so I thought an Italian American “accent” would be suitable. To be transparent, my Italian American accent may or may not have strong semblances to Mario and Luigi from the Mario Bros games. I have learned that I am not good at the aforementioned accent (or probably any accent, for that matter), and to top it off, a few times it seems to slip into an obnoxiously stereotypical French accent a la Monty Python and the Holy Grail. So, with that in mind, “I faht en your general direction. Now go a-way, or I shall taunt you a second time-eh.”

See you all-eh en Tales of a D&Degenerate-uh, Volume-eh uh-three-uh!

Languages of Northumbria

CGG member Mike Garcia offers some of his copious campaign world documents for the continent of Northumbria.


ALCHEMISTS’ TONGUE, THE

This was the language created by alchemists in the ancient Aquilonian Empire, over a dozen centuries ago. The alchemical concepts are far older, dating back many millennia, but Aquilonian alchemists codified a set of unique and mystical runes to allow them to record and share their knowledge in some secrecy. No alchemist will teach the concepts or the runes to a non-alchemist.

AQUILONIAN

This was the common language of the ancient Aquilonian Empire, once located across the sea, but now in ruins. The Aquilonians used a sound-based system of letters, and this alphabet is now used for writing both Frangian and Zeelander.

FRANGIAN

This is the common language of the Kingdom of Frangia and its colonies. Derived from Old Frangian, Frangian is a sister language to Zeelander. Those that can understand Zeelander have a 20% chance to understand Frangian and vice versa. Frangians use the Aquilonian alphabet.

HIGH TONGUE, THE

This is the language of the Frangian nobility, derived from the peculiar dialect of one of the Frangian ruling tribes from centuries ago. Those that understand Frangian have a 10% chance of understanding the High Tongue and vice versa. The High Tongue uses the Aquilonian alphabet.
Though the High Tongue is widely available in books and thus familiar to many scholars, few understand how to speak it fluently. Frangian nobles have carefully guarded the precise verbal nuances of their language—a practice that allows them to recognize one another and to distinguish their own from imposters.

KENIENKA

This is the language of the Kenianka, one of the main native human populations of eastern Northumbria. They call it the ‘Flint Tongue’, as the Kenienka call themselves the ‘Flint People’ or the ‘People of the Flint Place’.

NORSK

This is the common language of the Varangians, who once ruled the mighty Northern Realm in Northumbria. Though that kingdom is now in ruins, the Varangian people spread throughout Northumbria, keeping alive their native tongue. Norsk and Old Frangian both come from an ancient northern language, now forgotten. Those that can understand Frangian or Zeelander have a 05% chance to understand Norsk and vice versa. Varangians use a sound-based system of runes, derived from those of the dwarves and elves.

PICTISH

This is the common language of the Picts in Northumbria. It is entirely different from all other known languages in the region. Picts use a sound-based system of runes, possibly derived from those of the Varangians, but many scholars argue that any similarities are coincidence.

WENDAT

This is the language of the Wendat, one of the main native human populations of eastern Northumbria. Its origins are unknown.

ZEELANDER

This is the common language of the Kingdom of Zeeland and its colonies. Derived from Old Frangian, Zeelander is a sister language to Frangian. Those that can understand Zeelander have a 20% chance to understand Frangian and vice versa. Zeelanders use the Aquilonian alphabet.

ELVEN

Dating back many millennia, this is the common language of the fey folk. They call it the ‘ancient song’, or vanha laulu. It is entirely different from all other non-elven languages.
The elves use a sound-based system of runes, which later became the inspiration for other runic systems, such as that of the dwarves and that of the Varangians. The elves actually use two sets of runes, one for common writing (called sanat, meaning ‘words’) and another (called voimat, meaning ‘powers’) for important concepts like magic and law.  All elves know the former, and all elders know the latter as well.

DWARVEN

Dating back many millennia, this is the common language of the mountain folk. Dwarves refer to their tongue as the ‘song of stone and fire’.
The dwarves use two sound-based systems of runes, both derived from those of the elves. They use the first set of runes, which they simply call ‘carvings’, for common writing. These runes undoubtedly had some influence on development of Varangian runes. The second set of runes, which they call ‘smithing marks’, they use for important concepts like magic and manufacturing secrets.  Most dwarves know the ‘carvings’, but only proven dwarven smiths know the ‘smithing marks’.

GNOMISH

This is the soft language of the reclusive forest-dwelling gnomes. Gnomes do not teach their tongue to non-gnomes so the languages remains a mystery to most.
The gnomes use a sound-based system of runes, possibly influenced by those of the elves, but aso similar in some ways to those used by Picts. Some scholars suggest that the early Picts learned their runes from gnomes.

DM’S NOTE ON NUMBER OF LANGUAGES KNOWN

A PC’s intelligence determines how many languages he or she can learn, but the PC does not begin with his potential fully achieved.

  1. Each PC should start out with a primary human language, plus any suitable racial language.
  2. Frangian nobles raised as such will also know the High Tongue (the family should be wealthy though—DM’s call).
  3. Thieves will also know Thieves’ Cant, which is not really a full language.
  4. Each magic user, illusionist, or cleric may start with one additional language that is open to him or her.
  5. Thereafter, if intelligence allows, each PC may know one additional language that is open to him or her.
  6. A PC must learn anything beyond this starting number of languages during the game, taking active steps to learn from an NPC. It will take time.

For example, a Frangian knight with a 16 intelligence (maximum of 5 additional languages) would know Frangian as his base language, plus the High Tongue. As he could start with one more, he might choose Zeelander. That means that he starts with three languages and can learn three more in the course of play.

Another example: A Zeelander ranger with a 16 intelligence (maximum of five additional languages) would know Zeelander as his base language. His back story explains that he has been on the frontier for many years, so he can chose Kenienka or Wendat or Varangian as a second tongue. he starts with two languages and would be able to learn four more.

Another example: A Frangian cleric from a noble family has a 14 intelligence (four additional languages). He starts with Frangian as his base language, and, having been raised in a noble family, he knows the High Tongue as well. As a cleric, he then chooses Zeelander. Lastly, he selects ancient Aquilonian as his bonus language, having studied it for years before arriving in Northumbria. He therefore starts with four languages and can learn one more during play.

DM’S NOTE ON LANGUAGE RESTRICTIONS

The guiding principle is that a PC’s knowledge of a language must make sense. Languages are not flippantly learned. One must spend a great deal of time and energy both learning and practicing a language.

Some basic rules for a Blackwater Campaign:

  1. No PC, save under very rare circumstances, will know the Alchemist’s Tongue. Only alchemists learn this carefully guarded code.
  2. Only Frangian nobles, raised in such a household, will know the High Tongue.
  3. Anyone wishing to know Kenienka or Wendat must have spent a good deal of time in eastern Northumbria among the native speakers. It cannot be learned through books, and it cannot be learned quickly through casual conversation.
  4. No PC can know Pictish. It is very different, but more importantly, the Picts are utterly hostile to other peoples, and they do not value intellectual pursuits so their literature is almost non-existent.
  5. Save under rare circumstances, no human PC should know the elven tongue as the elves do not readily teach it to others. If a PC knows elven runes, they will always be the ones for common writing (sanat).
  6. Dwarves are less guarded in teaching their language, though any PC that knows dwarves runes will know only the ‘carvings’ for common writing—not the smithing marks.