Languages in Shadow World

Polyglot - Department of Modern Languages - Dietrich College of Humanities  and Social Sciences - Carnegie Mellon University

One mechanic that is often brushed aside in RPG’s relates to language barriers. Early D&D provided most players with a number of languages, a common racial tongue and an alignment language. It was not uncommon for PC’s to have access to a dozen or more language channels within the group.

Ostensibly, in the Shadow World setting, there should be much more material addressing languages and communication. SW is a setting that covers 100,000 years and is made up of smaller landmasses divided by mountain barriers and impassable Essaence flows. Even assuming the same root language, locals will differ by dialect and common etymology. Erlin, which is often the default “common language” should still vary by region, continent or culture.

My experience is that players will sink very little, if any, DPs into languages. I suspect they lean on the GM to solve any language barriers to facilitate gameplay. Language is just a hand wave problem! I get it, as a GM, I don’t want to impede the story and needed exposition due to the “realities” of language so I find myself solving that problem for the PC’s rather than creating a roadblock.

So what are some options:

  1. Languages are more easily learned at an early age, so the GM could spread around some useful languages as part of adolescent development. Even a few “root” language can bridge a basic communication gap among a variety of SW cultures.
  2. Account for it when planning a session. If the group is encountering a new culture, travelling in general, or might have a relevant meeting with an NPC or similar info source, come up with a mechanism for communication. Perhaps the NPC has a spells, device or another language that will work.
  3. Spell Law. There are a number of communication spells in Rolemaster. They may not be the most exciting lists or have broad utility (depending on the game style), but information can be a key element of gaming success. The players should know that not everything will be spoon fed to them, and it’s incumbent on players to not only equip themselves with the right gear, and arm themselves with the right weapons, but to have appropriate non-combat related skills and spells.
  4. NPCs. I discussed hirelings in a previous blog. If languages are an important element in our game, than the players should prepare by hiring/using a translator when interacting with others.
  5. Magic Items. This feels a bit of a cheat, but the group could find/buy a magical “translator” (or Althan tech that seems magical).

Anyway, I’m curious how much emphasis GM’s place on language barriers in Shadow World. What are your thoughts?

4 Replies to “Languages in Shadow World”

  1. In the current campaign a Priest of Valris in the party has taken the job to know every language they come across, even the odd Iruaric. To make it more relevant we are not using any spells that allow communication without investing ranks in languages.
    Other interactions are solved by using mind speaking, animal tongues (so the party could communicate once by having their Animist use some local bird as intermediary with a newly found druidic culture), and the signaling skill.

  2. The challenge isn’t limited to Shadow World, really. I give my players adventure options that take them to new cultures and subcultures, and they have to face this. Each time we find a different solution, though it’s usually something along the lines of your #2, #3, or #5. Given the pace at which they move around, investing DP in linguistics would be a waster, but I also don’t want to make it seem like the whole world speaks only one language.
    Most recently they picked up a new PC in a place where they had only been able to communicate using spells. That PC has some magic herbs that allowed her to temporarily speak any language she heard, and after prolonged use she retained it after the herbs wore off. That PC also knew the neighboring languages, so she became the communication conduit. We agreed that while that was the only PC that spoke these languages, the players could interact with NPCs normally as long as they were with her.
    As for the Shadow World side of the issue, it’s interesting that though Terry included the Navigators, facilitating travel anywhere, he didn’t include some similar organization or infrastructure for communication. It would be easy enough to create such a group, institutionalizing your #4 option.

  3. Because I play via Fantasy Grounds I have the ability to chat in different languages and only the players who speak that language can read it, everyone else gets gobbledygook runes. Then they have to share the information among each other in character.

    Some players like reading what I type verbatim, some keeps secrets. Some paraphrase. It’s fun.

  4. Languages can be a tool to give attention to different PCs, if not everyone speaks the same language. In fact I’ve even had a party where there was no single language shared by all the PCs (although they’ve finally gotten past that).

    I also like language because it is a reminder of cultural history. This nation came together from these three pre-existing cultures, and consequently there is one dominant language but two other languages that are regionally common. That affects names, it provides accents, it gives hints about where NPCs are from, it fuels character traits. It’s not required but I find it pretty helpful in that regard.

    My setting is up to 18 languages (ignoring ancient historical tongues), but generally there are a half-dozen that are primarily relevant for a given campaign in a particular region. That’s enough to be interesting but not impossibly many. Also, if you have a lot of ranks in one language, you may be able to operate at a lower level in a related second language, which mitigates the DP costs.

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