Hi, so recently i played a campaign in which i and my party members were attempting to decipher a journal written in a unknown language. The GM's ruling at the time was we couldn't decipher it with comprehend languages as it was scribbles made up between only two people. I was curious, however, if comprehend languages should theoretically work. The made up language was not in code (like thieve's cant) simply in characters that didn't exist in any other language and comprehend languages says "you understand the literal meaning of words". any ideas?
Comprehend Languages ought to allow you to understand even a language that was known to only one person.
You can understand the spoken words of creatures or read otherwise incomprehensible written messages. The ability to read does not necessarily impart insight into the material, merely its literal meaning. The spell enables you to understand or read an unknown language, not speak or write it.
Written material can be read at the rate of one page (250 words) per minute. Magical writing cannot be read, though the spell reveals that it is magical. This spell can be foiled by certain warding magic (such as the secret page and illusory script spells). It does not decipher codes or reveal messages concealed in otherwise normal text.
As noted by the previous posters, some or much of the meaning of this journal may still elude you, since there may be a code or concealed message.
But I've got to look askance at your DM - why give players a clue (this journal) and then rule that the precise spell that is intended to allow them to *use* the clue doesn't work.
IMHO, the spell should work, and then the DM should set various Linguistics or Spellcraft or an appropriate Knowledge skill checks at an appropriate DC in order to reveal the hidden meaning.
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I think it depends if the written material requires a cipher in order to understand it.
For example. If you found a letter and it consisted of a series of numbers that referenced a book and you "knew" that you had to read the numbers in groups of 3 with them representing page number, row number, word position, then this is a code that requires a cipher and the only thing comprehend languages would do is reveal that it's a page with a bunch of numbers on it (since that is it's literal meaning).
However, if a cipher isn't required because each symbol is just a letter replacement or pictograph then comprehend languages should work since each scribble is directly linked to a concept.
It's entirely possible that the DM is correct that comprehend languages doesn't work. This should be a clue in of its self since it should lead you to look for a cipher or something else that constitutes the rest of the message. Maybe there is a page with a bunch of squares cut out at specific places that takes the "scribbles" and turns it into readable words.
Until you solve it, it's hard to know if comprehend languages should of worked or not.
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Honestly, I'd just leave it up to the GM to decide.
Perhaps they don't understand the finer points of what constitutes language vs code vs cipher (etc). Heck, I'm not sure I understand the finer points.
But as long as the GM allows you to find a way to understand the information, I don't think they need to allow you to use comprehend language to understand it.
It's probably intended to be a "hook".
If the two people simply created new symbols to represent words in a language they already know that is a code. Since the spells specifically states it does not translate codes it will fail.
If the two people created a completely new language with its own syntax and grammar and created new symbols as a written form of the new language the spell would work.
Considering how much time and effort would have had to go into creating a new language I highly doubt that two people actually created a new language. Creating a code of a language on the other hand would not be that hard.
The spell has three buts any of which might apply to this journal:
You can read otherwise incomprehensible written messages.
BUT (1) The ability to read does not necessarily impart insight into the material, merely its literal meaning.
BUT (2) Magical writing cannot be read, though the spell reveals that it is magical.
BUT (3) It does not decipher codes or reveal messages concealed in otherwise normal text.
A language is a form of communication meant to connect and encompass and bring together a group of people, like a nation or community or to more easily convey information with the least amount of obfuscation and misunderstanding.
A code is a form of communication meant to conceal and hide information from people except those that can decode it.
Latin is a language. Pig latin is a code. Even if everyone in the entire world understands or can easy figure out what you're saying if you write something in pig latin, comprehend languages will not help at all. It will decipher words and their meaning based on actual language though. If the written or spoken word is 'fart', for example, if the speaker/writer is using english, you'll understand they are likely referring to a bodily emission. If they are speaking or writing in Swedish, you'll comprehend that they're referring to 'speed' (in all likelihood if Google Translate can be trusted). If the speaker/writer has just decided to use 'fart' as a euphemism/code/slang/mnemonic device/etc. to refer to a geyser or something, then the spell won't convey that knowledge.
It also won't help understand slang or non-literal meanings. If I use the word 'nine' or 'hot', whether I speak them in english, french or elven, you would hear those words, but you wouldn't know if I meant 'gun' or '9mm pistol' and 'stolen' respectively, unless you could decipher the context.
The wording in the journal and its meaning or intent cannot be deciphered by the spell. There are numerous reasons for this, game-wise, without this being a bad or unfair GM. Either the key is meant to be located or actual intuition, cleverness, and interaction (even if it's trial and error) are expected. Even if not, the lack of understanding doesn't mean anything is unfair, goals and objectives are likely still achieveable, they might just be easier or warned of, allowing preparation in advance.
In this you need to decide if what they are writing is jargon, to better and more specifically transmit complex information, or code, trying to obscure the transmission of information. I think with magic, (magic being symbolism and intent) intent has to play a part. Jargon should be translated, but may require a knowledge check to understand the translation.
I ran into this once in a PbP campaign and my GM ruled that I could not use Comprehend Languages to decipher cryptic messages and strange symbols that are designed to be a code of some type. She did let me make Linguistic checks each day to study it and hopefully make sense of it though, and I thought that was pretty fair.