Languages in Dungeons & Dragons can be a bit of a crapshoot. Characters usually know at least one language that never gets used during the campaign. The languages they choose are either too narrow, meaning they’re never spoken by the species they encounter, or they’re redundant, meaning anyone they encounter that does speak it also knows another more common tongue that they’ll use instead.

As a player, it becomes easy to ignore (or forget) what languages your character knows. If it’s never relevant, why would you keep track of it? What’s more, there’s rarely any thought give to how your character knows those languages; did they grow up hearing it spoken, or did they go out of their way to learn it? Maybe they picked it up during their travels. People don’t suddenly know French out of nowhere; the same should be true of fantasy languages. Instead, players are instructed to pick two or three languages from a list without any rhyme or reason.

For the dungeon master, if they’re actually paying attention to what languages the player characters know, it can be tough to decide whether they understand an NPC or not. If the NPC is speaking a language none of the PCs know, the DM is immediately cutting off opportunities to roleplay. By using a language only a handful of the characters understand, the DM is excluding some players from participating in the scene. There are ways to take advantage of this (by letting the player who rarely gets to do social encounters take center stage, for instance), but more often than not it will result in several players checking out, or reacting to the scene as if they understood the conversation anyway. It’s often assumed that one character acts as an interpreter, and everyone quickly forgets that they aren’t actually speaking in Common.

One of the problems is that languages in Dungeons & Dragons are boolean: you either know them or you don’t. There are no mechanics for fluency; by the rules, a beginner with a limited vocabulary knows a language just as well as a native speaker. This doesn’t actually need to be quantified with a mechanic, but it’s worth considering just how comfortable your character is with their second (and third, fourth, fifth…) language. Do they speak Orcish with a thick Dwarven accent? Do they understand everything a native Celestial speaker says, but struggle to form their own sentences? Maybe they know just enough draconic to get by, but can’t hold a meaningful conversation beyond the basics. Perhaps they grew up speaking a regional dialect, and their speech is filled with esoteric slang others might not understand. I hear east coast elves can be especially difficult to understand!

It’s also worth considering how all of these languages relate to one another. The Player’s Handbook informs us that many languages use the same alphabet. Using this principle, the DM could decide that in addition to a common script, these languages might share a common root. In this way, a speaker of one language might be able to understand a few snippets of another, like how knowing Spanish can help you to understand a few phrases in Italian. By giving languages a common root, it adds depth to the world’s history. Moreover, it lets players apply their chosen languages more broadly, and gives the dungeon master several opportunities to provide hints without giving everything away.

In the same vein, introducing “sister languages” lets the DM expand the number of tongues in the setting without impacting the flow of the game – which is to say that the amount of information the players receive won’t change. The orcs might speak several different languages in this world, and the cleric only speaks one of them. Even then, there are several regional dialects he’s never heard. Nevertheless, if the different orc languages are derived from a common tongue, the cleric might still be able to make sense of what’s being said, at least in part. They key narrative information can be provided to the players, while also making the world feel larger, more complex and lived in.

With written documents, the players might have to spend their down time trying to decipher it. The DM could feed them bits of information as they translate some parts of it. When half translated, it’s a perfect opportunity for the DM to throw a red herring into the party’s investigation in a delightful moment of irony.

Sentences can be translated in multiple ways, and depending on context, phrases can mean something completely different. Take the classic Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man,” for instance; an alien species arrives on Earth and have a book called “To Serve Man” with them. The powers that be take this to be a great sign of the aliens’ benevolent nature, without having fully translated the text. Without getting into too many details (you really should watch it if you have the chance), let’s just say their interpretation of the title was… inaccurate. If done right, this sort of irony can be a great tool for advancing the plot, and for surprising the players with an unexpected—but foreshadowed—twist.

Of course, this sort of twist can be quickly revealed if the warlock has Eyes of the Rune Keeper or if the wizard knows Comprehend Languages. If that’s the case, the DM may want these key documents written in some sort of code. The characters may be able to read it flawlessly, but that doesn’t mean it needs to make any sense when translated! For instance, this text keeps referencing some mythological figure named Darmok; why is he at Tanagra with Jalad, and what do Temba’s wide arms have anything to do with it? Moreover, what does any of this have to do with the kidnapping of the countess?

Ultimately, when presenting a language none of the characters understand, it’s far more interesting if the players have a way to puzzle it out rather than telling them that they just don’t know anything. Providing some context clues and describing the tone of the speaker go a long way toward this, but if one of the characters knows a sister tongue, why not give them a rough translation, even if it’s just a few words. It means the players have something to go on, and it helps to move the story forward.

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