Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Sexing Up Language

Patrick S, the False Machine, made me think about languages in RPGs. This is one of those areas, I feel (like underwater adventuring and flying combat) which is still crying out for somebody in the OSRchipelago to revolutionise with something really useful, fresh and compelling. I will by no means attempt to do that here. But here are some thoughts about how to make languages interesting and meaningful.

1. Areal Common Tongues

Different jargons and lingua francas function in different parts of the map. So you can speak one sort of 'common' to all the monsters in hexes AA, AB, and AC, but have to use a different kind (or a translator) in hexes BA, BB, and BC. Adds a hurdle to exploration - the good kind of hurdle, which requires more engagement with the game world. 

2. Translators as Resources

Real-life explorers, I once read, often used young girls as translators, because being young and female is generally correlated with excellent language-learning ability. The PCs having to keep safe a frail adolescent on their adventures could add a lot of nuance to proceedings. But equally, you could just say that the common tongue is really difficult and requires so much training (or special equipment like whistles, flutes, drums, and so on) that it requires an expensive specialist. The PCs have to pay money to hire one, and have to stop the otherwise useless NPC from being killed into the bargain. 

3. The Common Tongue is Not Just a 'Tongue'

Maybe the common tongue incorporates pheromones, or the use of coloured paint, or some other expensive or rare chemical (of, if you want to go more exotic and strange, maybe some 'common' phonemes can only be produced by a species of insect or bird that you have to carry around with you and encourage to squeak at certain moments). It's expensive to pay for all this stuff - or it is a rare resource the PCs have to search for, and husband. (Do we really need to parlay with these orcs? No, we can't waste the pheromones!) 

4. The Common Tongue is Dangerous

Speaking common is not to be trifled with, because talking to a dragon, orc, elf, hook horror or whatever is to have one's consciousness moulded, however fleetingly, by alien concepts and thought-patterns that, because one understands the words being used, one is forced to entertain. The effort can result in madness or corruption, and whenever one speaks common there is a small risk of either of those or both occurring.

5. The Common Tongue Has to be Performed

The common tongue is a crude communication tool which you actually have to deploy at the table. Maybe it's an SOS style system of taps and pauses. Maybe it is comprised of words, but there is a strictly limited list of, say, 51 or 101 that you can use. Maybe it is made up of gestures. Much hilarity ensues. 

17 comments:

  1. Great stuff! It actually gave me an idea to make alignment languages more interesting as a sort of common tongue. You can learn an alignment language, but to actually be able to speak it and communicte, you need to act for a while as if you belonged to that alignment, so you are in the right wave-length.

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    1. Alignment languages are on the list with underwater adventures and flying combat of 'things we need to OSRify'.

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  2. I read a great memoir a few years ago (the name escapes me) where (decades ago) the western author describes learning to speak Japanese in a monastery, before going on to work in Japanese business. Apparently, his Japanese stood out because at the time many western men in Japan learned to speak much more colloquial Japanese from *ahem* lady friends. Apparently the Japanese workers found westerners that confidently gave presentations while sounding like prostitutes hilarious. Maybe how and where the PC learned to speak the language could make their life easier/harder depending on the context (perhaps without the PC knowing)?

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    1. I think that would be important. If you are attempting to talk to a king or a baron and you sound like a peasant it could make a big difference. The assistance you get and thus the success of your quest could hinge on who your language tutor was.

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    2. This is a perennial issue. Japanese female and male speech is markedly different, so woe betide any non-Japanese man trying to learn the language from a girlfriend.

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    3. Though if he’s lucky his GF will be able to speak with “ore” or “boku” at least enough to teach him the ropes! ;)

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  3. I've noodled on the language problem for a while.

    What are some purposes for having multiple languages? Well, it makes "sense." There are many languages in the real world.

    In the D&D sense, the "realism" of different languages isn't mirrored. Even in countries where people are regularly bi- or tri-lingual, you don't have the wholesale "Human" versus "Gnoll" monocultures.

    Languages are so campaign dependent. Choosing languages at character creation is not a *meaningful* choice. If you choose "Mermaid," but don't ever see a mermaid in 3 years of playing the game, you wasted a language choice through no fault of your own.

    My solution is to have a small, tight list of very important languages for your setting. Imagine 12th century England, for example. The nobles are speaking French (but not Parisian French, to their chagrin), the commoners are speaking English, the damned Robin the Hood out in the forest is speaking some Saxony gobbledegook, you worship and read in Latin, and if you want to go on the Crusades you better brush up on your Arabic.

    Characters should have some shared language, and maybe one additional language to provide flavor. One language is "reading/church." One is "talk to the poor." One is "talk to the rich." These choices are never wasted - they are always useful.

    Anybody that wants to play as Daniel Jackson from Stargate - the guy who speaks just about everything, can play the translator between you and the tentacle guy, and translate the very ancient runes - should have some character option to do so. Don't track the languages he knows. He just *knows everything.*

    Additional thoughts:
    FWIW, I really like LotFP's approach if the setting has a myriad of languages - it lets people be true polyglots, and feels reminiscent of some of the source material.

    Goodberry Monthly has a great take on the idea that EVERYTHING could speak. I think that's really neat: http://goodberrymonthly.blogspot.com/2021/03/everything-can-listen-but-nothing-wants.html

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    1. Yeah, the LotFP approach is a nice idea although it is slightly fourth-wall shattering. Like schrodinger's language learning.

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  4. Interesting stuff and a great reminder that so much face to face communication is non-verbal. However, I think I would reserve these features of language to ones other than the common tongue. For me the Common tongue should be convenient and easy for humans - it's what the PCs all know and most friendly NPCs will know. For the more exotic, perhaps more monstrous languages these ideas are great. Lizard folk and troglodytes use pheromones, aboleths and mindflayers use a language that warps your mind, sending mammals insane. And if the PCs don't know how to speak draconic, they need to bring along a young female kobold...

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    1. Yes, that's a good wrinkle - needing a different translator for every single language.

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  5. I'm not convinced they preferred "young" and "female" because of their affinity for language learning.

    The corrupting tongue is cool. I can envision a random table for that.

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  6. to speak common, you must speak toki pona

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  7. I wonder if making communication with other creatures more difficult is good idea. If we can't converse, it will be easier to deafult to combat.

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    1. I understand that concern, although I think all things considered defaulting to combat is mostly a matter of DM and player attitude.

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  8. I really wanted to write a reply to this post using Byzantine musical notation :)

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  9. The Lotfp method of frequently including arcane books in different languages seems to be the best way to go about it, schrödinger's linguistics or no, and dividing per area and per race is the quickest way to make it significant. The problem I foresee with many of these other implementations (sans the Translator, which is good) is that they quickly become obtrusive or require core modifications to a game that has proven, more or less, to require litte in that area.

    I propose a different solution if one wishes to have languages be a thing; eliminate the Common Tongue altogether, use only regional dialects, and let the dice fall where they may.

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  10. Some very interesting ideas here. The 4th option reminds me of the CoC
    alien languages, prehuman and mind warping.

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