Watch Your Language
What does the Draconic language sound like? In my mind it is an elegant romantic-esque language which is always intimidating, even when spoken softly. What is it in your mind? What about Elven? Dwarven? Halfling? Undercommon? Heck, even Common?
Language has been on my mind quite a bit lately. You see, I realize I’ve given myself a bit of a problem in Exploration Age…
Tower of Babble
As many of you know, Exploration Age is divided into several continents. Glacius and the Poles are barely inhabited, but Parian, Findalay, and Verda are teeming with civilized races who call Canus home. So far, so good. There’s just one language problem for the world of Exploration Age. While Parians and Findalayans have been aware of each other for years, these peoples only recently learned about the Verdans and their continent only a decade ago and vice versa. There’s no way they would share a common language like… well, Common. Or how might orcs speak Orc in Verda and in Findalay and Parian? Oof. It might be fun to have a language barrier in some games, but this would be a little out of hand. Two different types of Orc, Common, Goblin, Giant, Druidic, and more creates more than a few problems.
Exploration Age is all about covering ground and discovering new places. This could very well slow the process of adventuring to a halt. Every social encounter would become a tedious interaction of adventurers trying to exchange words in various languages with NPCs until someone hits on something that works for one PC and one NPC who then hold the conversation themselves or translate for their respective groups. Either that or be ready to cast comprehend languages constantly. This sort of encounter is fun once in a while, but not every time the party tries to have a conversation with a NPC.
I know. You’re saying, “But, James, that’s how it is in the real world and that’s how it was in the past.” I say to you, sir or madam, that I don’t play a game with wizards and a Tarrasque to relive the past. I play it to escape the real world, tell a story with friends, shoot some fireballs, and kick Tarrasque butt.
I digress. How could I justify in the story the existence of all these languages without my game turning into the Tower of Babble? There had to be another way. Perhaps I could have Common, simply be Common, but how would I do that…?
The Answer is Dragons
Dragons! If you’ve been following this blog for some time you know that chromatic dragons live in Parian and Findalay while metallic dragons make their home on Verda. The discovery of other continents and peoples existing on Canus was a shock to the humanoids of the world, but the dragons were unsurprised. The few humanoids lucky enough to have contact with one of these beasts at the time the news was spreading all have the same story – all dragons knew about the other lands, peoples, and the fact that there were both metallic and chromatic living dragons living in the world.
Now back to my original question. I have no idea what Draconic sounds like or even Common for that matter. I’m sure someone, somewhere is an authority on Dungeons and Dragons languages and how they might differ from Tolkien and other fantasy worlds, but in Exploration Age things are different. (What’s the point in being a power mad worldbuilding DM if you can’t make a sweeping declaration once in a while?) Also, while dragons might make the most sense, remember Exploration Age is all about mysteries and shades of gray, so I had to throw a few other rumors in there! Take a look at this excerpt from the Exploration Age Campaign Guide.
Explorers from Findalay and Parian were shocked to discover Verdans speaking the same Common tongue as themselves, albeit with slightly different dialects and accents. After some brave scholars managed to speak and survive a few moments with dragons, who claim to have always known about the existence of all land masses and other dragons in Canus, the answer became clear. It was long theorized that the Common language, from which many other languages are derived, is itself derived from Draconic. Since dragons walked Canus and conquered the aberrants on all continents, they must have created a simplified form of their language for others to speak. From this Common tongue some races then created their own languages. That, at least, is the most popular theory.
Others believe that the ability of humanoids from across the globe to understand each other without ever having met before is actually the work of some chaotic demon prince or mischievous archfey. When the time is right, this being will cut off the magic that makes Verdans, Parians, and Findalayans understand one another and throw the world into a babbling chaos.
Other believe it is a sign of their gods’ power that all civilized humanoids can understand one another, while a smaller few whisper all in Verda have been infected by mystauk and so their enhanced intellect allows them to understand any language.
So what do you think? Is this believable and interesting to you? For my money it injects and interesting story which allows for less tedium and more intrigue and mystery in the game, but maybe you think I’m wrong. Tell me! I’m not perfect. Maybe language differences and translation are one the factors that make a game centered around exploration fun. Let me know what you think, please! Sound off in the comments!
It’s been a while since I posted this survey and World Builder Blog has garnered a lot more readers in the past few months. I’m thinking about publishing this setting once Wizards of the Coast releases an OGL. What do you think?
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September 9, 2014 @ 9:27 am
Language is always fascinating and troubling in RPGs & Fantasy. I’ve heard that Tolkien, who was a linguist, came up with the full forms of his racial languages before even writing the books.
In a D&D world, it can be troubling enough when your giant villain wants to monologue but none of your PCs speak Giant. Adding in several Common, Elvish, Dwarven, etc languages would just be a nightmare.
I think dragons are a great fix. Maybe there’s an academic sect of metallics who feel it is their “good deed of the century” to polymorph into humanoid forms to be great teachers, educating folks on language, religion, mathematics, farming, etc. So that every race’s legend of a great prophet or sage was actually, unbeknownst to them, a dragon. Maybe this is even a secret that isn’t supposed to get out. What would happen in our world if it was learned that every great prophet in our history was actually a member of the same super-powerful alien group. It’d be MADNESS!
That may also be why other rumors persist… some present-day scholars may choose to believe those out of denial. Perhaps that’s even where the first legends of the god(dess) of Civilization came from… a need to explain to the masses how different peoples could have gotten similar teachings & languages from great sages in their pasts. “Oh, they were all just angels of our great Civilization God, Sid Meier.”
From a quantum field theory, there’s also that 100th Monkey theory on our world, which states (loosely) that if you teach 99 monkeys on different islands how to use a tool, the collective knowledge will spread to a hundredth monkey on a different island, and he’ll figure out how to use the tool without ever being taught (there was some study done at some point). I’ve actually heard people apply this to (of all things) hula hooping. 10 years ago, the hooping fad had faded into obscurity, and very few people knew how to do many tricks. Then a hooping fitness craze began, and while it took years of practicing, folks got steadily better at it. Nowadays, hoops are the go-to tool for a great many party-goers, and if you troll the hooping groups on Facebook, you’ll see kids learning in 1 month tricks that used to take the rest of us years to get down. Many attribute that to an increase in the overall collective knowledge of how to do this thing. And yes, many hoopers are hippies who believe in stuff like quantum fields, but still, the evidence remains.
I think you could also go with the idea of lost tribes. Is there a place on your world with wild teleportation magic (or an event in the past when such magic might have been unleashed)? Maybe there was a big battle between several armies of mixed races thousands of years ago, and they all found themselves teleported to Varda when wild mages tried to cast a big spell to banish the other armies. Slowly these soldiers intermingled with the natives, and that’s why there are clear connections in the languages, but also distinct differences.
September 9, 2014 @ 3:27 pm
These are all awesome ideas. I am happy to integrate them and get a-stealin’! Thanks, Joe!
September 9, 2014 @ 4:56 pm
You make some interesting points, Mr. Velociraptor. When James was talking about the dragons being the reason for a universal “Common” I wasn’t thinking about it from a “taught all the people” perspective. I was thinking more that the dragons influenced the development of all the various races of the world to give them the same roots of language to ensure that all of their eventual allies against the aberrant threat would one day be able to communicate. If they can create the tiefling, dragonborn, and shardmind races it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for them to magically affect the linguistic development of the lesser creatures of Canus.
Love the 100th monkey thing, didn’t know they had a name for that. #TIL
September 9, 2014 @ 4:58 pm
That was my thought as well, but I think both work.
September 9, 2014 @ 11:49 am
I’m personally ambivalent about this solution. On the one hand, you are addressing a very real problem in the world you’ve built. On the other hand, you’ve titled your campaign setting “Exploration Age.” Explorers see and hear things that no one else (or at least no one else from the explorer’s culture) has ever seen before and come back to tell their tale and spread their new found knowledge. They give humanity to that which is alien. That’s part of why exploration became romanticized by Western culture in the first place (along with the promise of wealth, obviously, but I doubt modern culture values the wealth as much as the knowledge). And being forced to interact with people for whom communication was not trivial is part of what made explorers themselves “great.” People who choose to buy and play this setting will be doing it because it is different from existing settings with different challenges, and the solution you’ve presented hand waves away a very unique challenge for players that separates Exploration Age from everything else. There are actual rules in the PHB for communicating with beings that your character can’t understand verbally and no setting that I’m aware of would ever make use of those rules because almost everything speaks common and every party has a mage that can cast comprehend languages.
On the other other hand, there’s also the very real concern that you want EA to appeal to as many players (consumers) as possible and a large portion of people might not want to deal with the language problem at all. As a creator, the fact that you have to weigh the value of attracted a market niche vs. perhaps a random percentage of the broader population isn’t lost on me.
That said, if I were a DM (…I am not) the language rule you’ve created would probably be the first thing I house ruled away. The second house rule would be that comprehend languages is a 5th level spell in my Exploration Age campaign. I can definitely see that turning some players off, but then maybe they’d prefer to play generic setting 68A5T7 instead (or any of the other cool, original settings that Exploration Age is [is going to be] competing with).
You’ve already clearly shown why this issue is important to your world/product, so please don’t think that I am focusing on the other side of the coin because I don’t appreciate the side you’ve presented as well. I just don’t have anything else to add to what you’ve already said.
September 9, 2014 @ 3:34 pm
Well since 5e is all about modules, perhaps a rules module is in order!
September 9, 2014 @ 9:31 pm
I think you got me here, John, although I’m not sure about the whole 5th level spell bit. Then again I’m a whore for languages.
September 9, 2014 @ 12:18 pm
1. It seems like a perfectly reasonable explanation for a shared language to me.
2. $7 wasn’t an option in the vote thingy, but I’d sooner pay that than $5. For me, $7 hits the magical sweet spot between “This is too cheap, it must be poor quality” and “This is too expensive, I’ll live without it.” The same can be said of $3, albeit on a different scale.
September 9, 2014 @ 3:37 pm
Thank you for the feedback! $7 is your sweet spot, eh? I’ve yet to here that from anyone else, but most votes are for either $5 or $10, so I wonder if that’s true for a lot of others.
September 9, 2014 @ 4:58 pm
I think that makes a lot of sense. $10 seems like it’s too much for an unproven author, but $5 does seem a little low. I’d pay $10 out the gate but I know how amazing you are.
September 9, 2014 @ 4:59 pm
Hahahahha! Thanks, sir! You are too kind.
September 9, 2014 @ 1:24 pm
Let me qualify the following by saying that I know nothing about EA. I think John Fizheir’s point about the role of explorers, and the dangers of hand-waving their challenges in this manner, is a good one. What if this common tongue of draconic origin isn’t so much a language as it is an experiential cipher, allowing adventurers of certain bloodline or ability to naturally adapt over time to new languages? You could probably incorporate classic dungeon-crawling niche protection into such a solution as well: the thief can get thiefy stuff done in any language, because the codes and words for thievy things are embedded into his ancient thief family’s dynastic code. Draconic common is like our marrow: we’re rarely conscious of it, but it supports and informs our doings on a visceral level. Then you could have the all-round jacks that actually study the language, and can translate and scribe stuff for higher, academic purposes. This got rambly, I dunno.
September 9, 2014 @ 3:36 pm
Rambly is a god thing! I like a lot of these ideas, like using Draconic as a cipher. Again, maybe there’s some rules modules I could create here…
September 16, 2014 @ 9:01 am
And here’s the promised module – wp.me/p4dhff-f9
September 10, 2014 @ 4:42 am
Personally, for me, language adds its own interesting Challenges. RPG challenges should be about more than “kill X and take its stuff”. In my world there are a variety of languages and No official “common” tongue. Instead there are similar languages such as variations on Clannish based on what part of the world you’re in (think differences in Gaelic or Spanish). While they are still technically the same root languages, Welsh Gaelic and a Scottish Gaelic are not the same nor are say Castilian Spanish versus say Peruvian Spanish. Basic concepts can be communicated but finer aspects of vocabulary and grammar will hamper communications. Personally I find this type of challenge both interesting and immersive.
While I understand the Expedience of a “universal” language, it breaks the immersion for me. Additionally, it removes a chance for challenge resolution. Language barriers are what make spells like Comprehend Languages and Tongues worth having and in a game that actually uses language challenge, makes these spells a key focal point to have access to and worthwhile to focus adventuring upon attaining them.
So you basically need to decide what You want for challenges in your world. If as you say, you are just all about killing the Tarasque and taking it’s stuff, then hand-wave language. However, just know that for many players, language as challenge is still an interesting aspect of the Exploration side of the RPG.
September 10, 2014 @ 11:13 am
Well, it does seem like I need to dive in an do a little more work to provide some options then.
In defense of Exploration Age, there’s a lot more going on that just killing the Tarrasque and taking its stuff (though if that’s what you want to do, that’s cool).
September 16, 2014 @ 8:59 am
And here’s the promised module – wp.me/p4dhff-f9
September 10, 2014 @ 11:41 am
James, let’s jump in the way back machine and talk to the Magistra about this problem. I’m thinking you can find some middle ground here between the everyone knows and nobody knows. Just look at medieval Europe, replace Latin with Draconic, and Germanic with Aberrant. You have could have two language trees that diverge and intersect. So the common of Parian and the common of Verda, might look like Romanian and Portuguese. And the guy who speaks orc on Findalay or Glacius would be akin to Saxon and Prussian respectively. So yes they are different and pose challenges, ( I’m feeling a complex intelligence check chart) but probably share anywhere from 30% to 70% in common of they are in the same tree. I know this isn’t like a Dutchman learning Cherokee and maybe you throw some of that in the deeper parts of the undiscovered or wild areas, but I think it’s a good compromise with actual sociological basis.
September 10, 2014 @ 9:20 pm
Well damn. That is an awesome idea. To the modules!
September 12, 2014 @ 7:43 am
Having traveled OS for 10 years to research Europe & Medieval Travelling (I’m Australian so its a bit of a stretch to try things from here), I found that countries next door to each other had similar languages, enough so that you could learn one, and still have a feel for the next, So Lumberjacks Comments ring very true for me.
Its hard for native English speakers to think like this, as there is no “mostly English” language to compare.. but we have accents.
I’ve stood in a room and had a Scotsman and American argue with each other, I could understand them both, and they couldn’t get 20% of each other (I got told off for translating between them, but they kept looking at me)
Roleplaying a group that is travelling in a new region is very interesting, I’d suggest your locals speak 50% English and throw in a few words from time to time from a handbook of your own. Do you Ken? Break the sentence with random jibberish, until someone takes a ‘point’ in the language (its surprising how easy I picked up German & French while there) then drop the gibberish and only swap out complex words.
I’ve got to go home to grab my brogiur and take it to the Bingerman, I’ll be back for late Zupner.
As for world design.. sorry, but i’m in the Tolkien end of the spectrum. I’ve invented several languages based on temperature, mouth structure, likelyhood of travel(intermix of words & concepts) and tongue based abilities (how can an orc speak with teeth thrust through their lips, a dragon, with a raspy firebreathing thorins thimble in the back of the throat, dwarves with low oxygen tunnels & beards, elves with their unsmiling faces (smiles => wrinkles => age).
I hated travelling in places so westernised, McDonalds and CocaCola, I didn’t feel like I was anywhere new, hearing people around me speaking English all the time, I could have been at home.. So I need to feel the difference to appreciate the idea that I’m not “at home”
When my players, visiting a city through a portal, got frustrated for the 4th roleplay session and began to scream at people to get understood.. then this prompted a merchant who knew Common, to come and speak with them, they were so grateful to him, it became a moment, they guys still talk about.
September 12, 2014 @ 2:13 pm
I like your method Bannister, and I give you a ton of credit for doing it that way. That sounds like a lot of work on me as a DM and I’ve got plenty to do already!