Speak Language

Speak Language

Kirchner, Zwei Damen im CafeParlez-vous français?
Oui, mais très peu.

Feats are abilities characters either have or don’t have. By contrast, skills are abilities characters build up over time, slowly adding points to improve their expertise. At least, that’s how it works for all the skills except Speak Language (or Linguistics). This particular skill has rules more like a feat.

Having characters just “switch on” with a new language by spending a single rank simply doesn’t feel right. To begin with, learning a new language is at least as challenging as learning to ride a horse, yet the Ride skill must be built up slowly, using many skill points over many levels.

By letting characters jump straight from “not a clue” to “eloquent fluency,” you lose a multitude of roleplaying opportunities! To salvage those lost opportunities (and assuage the lingering hurt felt by those of those of us who struggled through 2 years of high-school French class), the Speak Language skill is hereby revised to work like all the other skills…

Speak Language (Int; Trained Only)

At 1st level, you know one or two languages (based on race). These are your native languages. No skill checks are ever needed to speak your native tongue.

You also know one additional starting language for each point of starting Intelligence bonus. You begin with 0 ranks in these additional starting languages (you can immediately begin spending skill points to improve these languages without bumping up against the “maximum skill points per level” cap). However, since you are already quite well trained in these particular languages, you also receive a +10 bonus on skill checks for each of these additional starting languages.

You must separately track the points you have devoted to each foreign language you know.

Task (DC)

Basic question-and-answer communication only: “Where is the outhouse?” “Did a man run past here?” “I have no gold.” (10)

Light conversation, often rather halting, about simple, common topics only: talk about the weather, discuss the merits of the local tavern, or ask if any villagers have been ritually murdered lately. (15)

Discuss complex subjects, but with frequent interruptions to ask about the meaning of a word or phrase. Also, you notice if the person you are speaking with has an accent. (20)

Fluent conversation, rarely (if ever) wondering about the meaning of a word or phrase. (25)

Fluent conversation without an accent (useful if you are trying to pass yourself off as a local). Also, you can recognize and identify regional dialects. (30)

Fluent conversation without an accent. Also, you are able to imitate regional dialects. (35)

Check: Whenever you need to communicate using any language other than your native tongue(s).

Action: For correspondence, one check should be made per page being written or read. For spoken conversation, one check should be made about once every minute, or whenever the topic changes.

Try Again: Depends on what you are trying to accomplish. If you are simply trying to communicate, then re-tries are allowed until the person you’re talking with runs out of patience and gives up on the conversation. In this situation, skills like Diplomacy and Intimidation may prove useful for increasing the number of re-tries.

However, if you are trying to do something like pass yourself off as a native speaker of the language, re-tries are usually not possible: the first time you slip and let your accent show, the jig is up! (Very rarely, at the GM’s discretion, a really great Bluff check may still save the situation.)

Special: It is common to “take 10” on skill checks for spoken conversation whenever you are in a relaxed and friendly environment. Only if you are in a hurry or under duress (in the middle of combat or trying to pass yourself off as a native speaker) must you roll a skill check.

However, no matter how relaxed and friendly the environment is, it is never possible to “take 20” for spoken conversation. Taking 20 is reserved exclusively for written correspondence! Taking 20 for language skills normally involves long interruptions to consult reference materials.

Beginner’s Mistakes (Optional Rule): Whenever you fail a skill check by exactly 1 point and the fully adjusted roll was below 20, you have made a serious linguistic error. Usually this takes the form of misusing a word or phrase in a way that completely changes the meaning—with immediate consequences. For example, “I admire your necklace” might become “I lust for your gold.”

(Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Compatible)

15 thoughts on “Speak Language”

  1. This is a great idea, and one I’ve tried to implement in the past. But my players felt it slowed things down too much so we eventually abandoned the idea. Pity.

  2. An interesting take, and a nice stab at the “problem” of how language skills work (or don’t).

    I think there’s one thing missing from the article, though: A discussion of the place of language in a fantasy world. I think one of the reasons the skill gets short shrift in the RAW is that the game doesn’t know what role languages play. It seems to be the expectation that everyone can communicate flawlessly–unless they can’t. And as DMCal points out, nuance tends to slow things down.

    Unless, of course, the differences in language and communication are actually meaningful in the game. Then it might matter who can speak what language and how well. To make rules like this work, I think a GM needs some advice on how or why language can be important, and how to make it meaningful–and not just a fun sink–in the game.

  3. A really interesting idea, especially if players are into it, but I feel compelled to point out that learning a language isn’t that difficult. Especially considering that most characters in D&D are at least bilingual.
    As well, they’re likely within an environment of full immersion if the characters are visiting a foreign land, and they have a greater stake in learning the native tongue than any of us probably did in high school French.

    I’ve always presented the switch from no knowledge to mastery as an abstraction of that moment in the learning process where it “clicks” rather than adding additional rules. Also, it seems like PCs might be encumbered by having to spend a lot of skill points on a number of different languages. Being the party face requires a much more significant investment, which seems like something to take into consideration.

    I agree with Charles though, it would be interesting to discuss the role of language and how it can be used to create roleplaying opportunities. An example might be a culture which expresses a great deal of subtleties or codes of practice in their language. Understanding the language, even being fluent it, doesn’t tell you what title to use for someone, how to address their status, and provides an opportunity for the GM to invent interesting idioms.

  4. Interesting!

    I’ve often thought about designing something like this but never was able to carve out the time to actually sit down and DO it!

    This is a pretty nice attempt at making languages a bit more realistic. I just might have to steal this!! :)

  5. I like these rules, and I think I might add them to my personal campaign. The only thing I’m not sure about is where literacy comes into play. Would the rules for reading and writing follow the Linguistics rules or these ones?

  6. Gerald, I think that houseruling that if you have 5 or more ranks in a language that would qualify for both speaking and reading/writing, just to simplify things.

  7. This certainly makes dealing with languages more realistic. I have always felt that ignoring language in intercultural contact made for a hole in the story fabric – like in Star Trek. Universal translator? Pheh!

  8. As a Reading and English teacher, I love this idea!

    Something else to consider: Can casting Comprehend Languages and related spells add some bonus to the learning process? Does a PC retain any knowledge from the casting of such spells?

  9. I kind of like the idea.
    The way we do it though is thinking of the world as a melange of languages and in most places you can hear many of the prevalent languages. So most of the PCs will have heard a mixture of many languages.

    therefore they can use their linguistic skill freely to try to understand what is being said and also to imitate dialects and such.

    Without restricting spells the skill almost becomes mute in a matter of levels.
    Most of my PCs like to be educated and most have quite a few points invested in linguistics :)

    But this article comes up woth a fun way of doing it.

  10. This is really interesting, I’ll have to propose it to my PCs.

    I think some tweaking MIGHT be needed. Like questioning the amount / value of languages in a campaign. The kind of campaign, whether it is more political or social.

    Also, I think this would work well if there aren’t too many languages or dialects. A few major languages used for trade, diplomacy, etc.

    With a language glut, this might not work so well, considering not all classes have a lot of skill points, etc.

    But I will look into this!


  11. You also might think about revising what you’ve wrote to include being understood. In that vein here’s two rough ideas for traits, both might be Social, Racial, and/or Regional:

    Obscure Dialect
    You have a very thick accent or use a lot of regional slang. Choose a language that you know, you may increase the DC to understand what you say by one step, even for native speakers of this language. This does not apply to others who also have this trait focused on the same language as you.

    Fully Immersed
    You have been exposed to full breadth of dialects from around the world and have seen where and how languages mix and merge. You gain a +1 trait bonus to each individual language that you know when attempting to use Speak Language (Linguistics), and it is always a class skill for you.

  12. Open Game Content? :D Maybe yes…? OGL listing? Perhaps…….? Great take on the skill – I am also of the opinion that Linguistics got jipped.

    Best wishes,

  13. I agree that language can add a fun layer/flavor to a game if done correctly. I once had a player that wanted to play a Grugach (Wild/Feral Elf). I decreed by Evil DM Fiat that his dialect of Elven was so obscure that the other PCs would have trouble understanding him. The player spoke in mostly unintelligible gibberish (our local Jim Carrey), and occassionally rolls were made in critical (combat) situations. As they learned each other’s dialects, the player eased off on the gibberish. Much hilarity ensued in the meanwhile….!

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