Can you write a column about language proficiencies as a game mechanic? Are there any games that do it right?

Language proficiencies (esp in DND5e) often feel like they suffer from the problem of being too situational and thus expensive for their cost, and it being DM dependent makes it both meta-gamey as well as potentially worthless. Is there a way to make picking up language proficiencies as a character worthwhile mechanically? Can it also be anything other than binary states of “Yes, I speak Elvish” or “No, I have no idea what anyone is saying.”

Even worse, in the case of DND5e, spells like Comprehend Languages and Tongues essentially throw the entire system out the window.

Thanks for your time.


Hey Van, thanks for writing in!

You’ve hit on a major difficulty with RPG design, and to be honest, I haven’t written an article about languages yet because I have very little idea how to solve it.

There are two main issues with languages in RPGs. First, even in a fantasy setting, taking an extra language is a major shot in the dark. Unless that specific language comes up, you’ve just wasted your points. The only way around that is for the GM to just tell you that Infernal is going to be useful and someone should pick it up, which isn’t great for immersion.

The second issue is that language barriers are only fun for a very limited period of time. In my experience, it’s about one session. After that, players will get frustrated. They just want to talk to the NPCs and get the story moving! Since it’s rarely feasible to learn a language in that time, the GM always needs to create some contrived way for the PCs to speak the local lingo, further reducing the benefits of spending points on extra languages.

As a result, most games make languages extremely cheap, but even then, they feel like a waste of points. In a lot of d20 games, you can learn a language by spending a single skill point, making it super easy to start with a character that speaks upwards of a dozen languages with total fluency.  And yet, even that small investment feels like a waste compared to more universally useful skills, like stealth or lock picking.

Games that try for a more realistic bent are even worse. In Call of Cthulhu, you’re expected to spend 50 skill points to attain fluency in a language. No thanks, I think I’ll invest in Spot Hidden rather than hoping this will be the game where Mandarin is useful.

In most cases, the best solution is just for the GM to house rule languages as flavor. Maybe give each PC a number of bonus languages for free based on their Intelligence score or its equivalent. They won’t be important to the game, but that’s fine, they can be mentioned once in a while. “Oh hey, you speak Goblin, you can understand this scroll, neat!”

To go more in depth than that requires an extremely robust framework with an eye toward simulating which languages are important and the effects of different fluency levels. I’ve yet to see anything like this, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Maybe there’s some designer hard at work right now on Languages: The Speaking.

Hope that helps!

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