Language Barrier - Handle it!


Hi everyone,
so I recently picked up second edition and rolled a face/utility bard for our three man game (1 DM / 2 Players). I opted for a background as an emissary to grab as many starting languages as possible to be able to actually communicate with NPCs rather than having to fight myself through each and every encounter. Given that we are only two players, combat is a far more dangerous endeavor than in your average band of 4 person murder-hobo gang.

This got me thinking about how to most effectively approach the issue of language barrier. Is it really worth it to invest limited resources in learning languages in second edition?
How many languages are enough to cover your need for conversation. There are a lot of creatures, that may speak a language, but never will sit down and have a tea, opting to try and eat your face instead. And those that will talk to you most likely can speak "Common".

As of writing this post, there a a grand total of 49 published languages (1 secret, 15 common, 33 uncommon).

So, what can you do? There are a few ways to gain additional languages. Magic (and magic items) and feats (ancestry, heritage and skill) and a high intelligence modifier.

Comprehend Language (2nd Level), Telepathy (4th Level) and Tongues (5th Level) and all items, that all items that give you that spell.

All these let you speak any number of languages for up to one hour per cast (10 minutes for telepathy). Only comprehend languages (heightened to 3rd) will let you read as well.

Available to all casters except those using the Primal tradition. Versatile as long as the spell is active. Not so much, when you need to be able to converse / read / study over a longer period of time.

With a theoretical endless supply of gold, this becomes a non-issue, but not every character has an endless supply of gold.

Ancestry / Class / Feats:
When not relying on magic to do translations for you, you need to actually learn a language. How do we do that? Feats. Lots and lots of feats.

Ancestry plays a big role in the number of languages you can obtain in total throughout your characters life. All ancestries (except Gnomes, who get one more) start out with two languages learned. With a positive intelligence modifier up to 6 (at max level) more may be learned (poor lizard folk).

However only Halflings and Gnomes (and those adopted by Gnomes) can get more. Using either the "Nomadic Halfling" or the "Gnome Polyglot" feat you can gain 2/3 additional languages plus you improve the "Multilingual" feat

You can then take the "Multilingual" feat ad nauseam to learn as many languages as possible. For this Rogues are best suited, as they get twice as many skill feats than everybody else.

You can obtain an additional two languages by raising "Society" to legendary.

You can also opt to simply take the "Legendary Linguist" feat and speak a pig-din of all languages and communicate with anybody. Downside here is, same as with most spells, that you can only speak, but cannot read anything, which can sometimes help you.

Factoring all that in, I could create a character that can speak and read up to 92 languages at max level (Gnome Rogue, Polyglot, Max Int, Using only Multilingual in all Skill and General Feats, Legendary in Society).

I may have missed a few options in the book, but it's a start. Now I am not quite satisfied with any of the options available at this time. New rule books may give more efficient options, but these are the ones we have.

Now, after this long intro, my actual question. How much of your resources do you invest into learning languages for your character. Is it even necessary? Can spells sufficiently cover it. Should you focus on building up a translation bot. Should you use resources in your group to get everybody to learn a few languages, so as a whole you cover most? Or do you stick with a basic language and murder loot your way to victory aka diplomacy is for chumps. Interested to hear (read) your thoughts.

I thought I just read a thread here that talked about this a bit.

Basically the point (IIRC) was that either one or more people in the party start learning languages or no one does.

If no one does, then having languages used that no one knows just adds more of a chore for the GM and likely the players.

If only one person does, or if everyone learns different languages, the GM has to parcel information out to specific group members *OR* just go ahead and blurt everything else under the assumption that trained listeners would translate.

For my part... I have historically leaned toward more simulationism and so generally like to respect languages known; that said, I'm now starting to lean more toward a relaxing of some of that and more toward a more narrative style of play. So my personal taste is to mostly ignore languages except in story useful situations. That said, one of my players just *really* likes to be a polyglot (you should meet!), and I find myself in that second scenario, wanting to make my player happy and also not invalidate their choice for my own sake.

Very much depends on the campaign, GM, and other players. In a pure dungeon crawl murder hobo campaign a translator bot is probably near useless, maybe occasionally there's some Abyssal writing around an altar you can read or something. In a campaign like Kingmaker, where the players are expected to make nice with other peoples nearby it could be very valuable.

Overall I would say don't spend so many resources on languages your combat ability falls off or you become a one-trick pony, but languages appropriate to the campaign are usually rewarded.

Language is very campaign-dependent. Ask the GM.

Thing is, at low levels usually there will be one reasonably common language in the vicinity; if there are lots of languages flying around (e.g., in a major port city) then a translator is likely easy to find. At higher levels it becomes a non-issue as long as someone can cast tongues.

Or summon a creature with telepathy to serve as a universal translator.

Generally, as a GM unless I want to make a big point of translation difficulties and overcoming them, I just assume everyone important speaks Common, or maybe has a translator available. I might (rarely) put in language elements in an adventure -- e.g., a sign in Dwarven in a mine once run by Dwarves. If I were running a campaign where an invader from a far-distant land was coming (e.g., Mongols vs. vast distances, Spanish vs. Aztecs, interplanar gate, interplanetary romance) it might be appropriate to make it an issue.

One thing I generally do during session 0 is let the players know what languages are frequently found in the area where the campaign starts. After that, if nobody takes one of those languages, so be it, but that's not on me as a GM.

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Lost Omens, Rulebook, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber
tonyz wrote:
Language is very campaign-dependent. Ask the GM.

In my recent campaign, a few abstruse languages become very important to access the lore - clues and magical stuff that the players will benefit from in the campaign.

When I seed stuff like this, I try to do it just before PCs go up a level, so that one of the characters can, if he so desires, acquire that language.

Otherwise they have to pay a few silver pieces to NPCs to translate for them, and hope that letting someone else know about this lore won't come back to bite them.

Other campaigns just ignore languages. So it's highly dependent on the DM and the campaign.

Very DM and setting dependent {would be echoing everyone else here}

One other slight factor to consider is how bad a language barrier can be for your character. For a bloodthristy Barbarian, it most likely doesn't matter too much if he can't understand pleas and cries for mercy from the victims of his battleaxe. For a Bard (as you had mentioned} it can be harder to be the 'Party Face' if no one understands what is coming from your face, and if you are depending on certain spells {anything with the Linguistic trait, such as Suggestion} creatures that do not understand you will be outright immune.

While not ideal, there is also the Retraining Rules, so you could change a language that is not being useful anymore into something else {including another language which you may have more immediate need.}.

Also, while we are on the topic of language and use in game, beyond the general 'this important clue is written in Infernal' or 'The crazy Hermit in the forest is the only one whom knows the herb to cure magically festering wounds, but oh no, he only knows how to speak Slyvan' roadblocks, how often do DM's integrate different languages in there campaniles.

For example, most Dwarfs understand common. However when your character enters into a Dwarven city, is the majority of chatter in Dwarven {people on the streets, NPC's talking to other NPCs, ect) Are a majority of there writing in Dwarven? If, say you were trying to 'Make an Impression' with one of the Dwarven blacksmith, do you perhaps get a small bonus to the check if you start speaking in Dwarven?

I have people having "available" languages based on their start, but learning a language is a downtime thing, not a start with thing.

And most NPC races don't speak common, like I am treating draconic as common for reptilian races, so Iruxi, Kobolds, etc, don't speak common.

The only reason why my guys ended up negotiating with the Iruxi was that each side had a druid.

Now that druid knows draconic, and can understand the vileness the kobolds are saying about them when they fight them.

Orcs speak orc, and necksplitter (took the igorot head hunting axe as inspiration for their cultural weapon in my world, basically a D8 pick, I decided against the Fatal being D12, D10 was enough), and a willingness to coup de grace before moving onto the next target.

Sorry, but it really is a case where the players can chicken race the GM.

They can all choose to not learn additional languages, knowing that the GM will never not give them the adventure just because the party can't understand the NPC.

They can simply assume it will be enough for them to work around the issue, maybe through magic, or simply paying a translator.

Sure, you might feel the GM should play hard ball, forcing them to change their character builds. But that's just not gonna happen.

Besides, if the GM does that we have a much larger problem - that indicates an adversarial gm:ing style, and the bigger question then becomes "why not play with a different GM?"

The truth is, detailed rules for languages is just one of those things that should go the way of the dodo. Nobody likes it when the GM is forced to have its NPCs talk only to a single party member. Languages create barriers, and does nothing for party cohesion (except when the party members all share a common language nobody else understands). At best, you can use language to roleplay your character. For instance, Emilia Clarke is great at holding Hitler-style speeches in High Valyrian(?). But that's character background, and not language in the aspect we're talking about. Daenerys knowing this language is nothing more than a character descriptor, like the color of her skin, or her ability scores, or that she's trained in Diplomacy but not Athletics...

In the end analysis, language needs to go.

I think the presence and importance of languages is pretty close to ideal as is.

Having multiple languages adds character to the world. But if the primary language isn't a common one, it detracts more fun than character it adds.

At least in PFS, languages come up in almost every campaign, but in a non-critical way. You can get bonuses for talking to elves in Elvish or avoid a trap by reading Abyssal, but at no point do things grind to a halt because nobody happened to select Sylvan as a language.

In a recurring home game, I would definitely make sure all the PCs coordinated languages with the GM and with each other. It's interesting, if not fun, to have situations where characters use shared languages to their advantage - two PCs speaking in Draconic when they're captured by orcs, or a PC listening in to two NPCs during a negotiation. With great power comes great responsibility, so if two PCs start using language to exclude a third, I would put an end to it immediately (either as a GM or player).

Appreciate the responses. At the end of the day it seems to boil down to DM fiat and I shouldn't overthink the issue. Seems fair. Thanks guys.

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One thing I do when I start a campaign is to allow each player to designate one known language as Plot Convenience at character creation. Then, if any at any time during the campaign it would be convenient for a character to know a particular language (if they meet an important NPC from some exotic location, for instance), they can change the Plot Convenience language to that language, and from then on it acts the same as all other known languages. Not all players take advantage of this, but it does help alleviate issues where the party is unable to communicate with an NPC in an important situation.

I also let players use either their Intelligence modifier or their Charisma modifier to determine bonus languages.

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