Language in DnD: Part 4- Revenant Converse!

And now, at last, we come to the concluding post in the Languages in DnD series. In previous posts I covered: my issues with languages in DnD, particularly common; the cultural considerations driving the Tinderbox campaign, and how these affect the available languages; and the available languages for my campaign, alongside their mechanical benefits.

Well, I covered most of the available languages. I saved one for this post (Which will also have a passing mention of telepathy, though none of the players in either party decided to roll psionic) because its implementation relies on some additional rules I added for the campaign. These rules allow characters to learn more languages as a natural consequence of leveling, albeit at varied strata of proficiency. I feel that it’s a natural and necessary balance to the strict linguistic barriers I erected for the campaign.

I recognize that the first thought to jump into some readers’ heads will be “If you’re compensating for a change you made, why not scrap the change and go with RAW?” My first response to such a question would be that I laid out my reasoning quite thoroughly in earlier articles in this series. However, to that I add that this language change, alongside the “On the Job” skill training that I use in my campaigns, are intended to reflect the holistic growth of characters. I already love how 4e allows higher-level characters to simply be better at most things, from combat to conversation. An increase in a character’s general proficiency only makes sense.

However, I also feel that players should see direct, choice-driven opportunities for growth that aren’t power selection and don’t cost them feats. It’s rather appropriate that I finally get this post up now, given the current discussion about the relevance and onus of feats in recent editions. I recognize that I, as a player, would never take a skill training or language feat; I’ve actually be just about to pull the trigger on submitting a character who had such feats, only to back out at the last minute because I really couldn’t justify that 5% loss from not taking an expertise. Yet I expect that characters themselves would be adaptive to the situations they face; without skimping on their military or magical training. Skipping over an arcane feat that furthers one’s theme for an improvement to one’s Athletics could certainly be considered just that.

Instead of costing feats, then, languages are absorbed gradually over the course of the three tiers. All characters know at least two languages, one of which is generally the protocommon of their appropriate culture (High Elven, Draconic, or Dwarven). For the purposes of Tinderbox ,I strongly encouraged characters not from the Tran to select Dwarven as their second language. Failing to do so would significantly limit their ability to communicate with the factions in the city, and they already possessed at least one other language option. Not every character chose to do so, which is one of the things I’ll discuss in a future post on what’s happened so far in playing Tinderbox.

At 5th, 15th, and 25th level, characters may select an additional language. Social rolls made using this additional language suffer a -4 Fluency penalty when the target of the roll does not share another language with the player. The intent here is to acknowledge that having a common tongue can allow for clarification and correction, even if it’s a case where the character is fluent in Elven and struggles with Orcish, and his interlocutor is the inverse. Keyword-specific language bonuses do not suffer the Fluency penalty. This penalty is reduced–for that language only–each time the player gains another language through this feature.


Mr. Downs is a level 4 Soo dwarf who speaks Dwarven and Goblin fluently. When he reaches level 5, he decides to learn High-Elven, the better to communicate with his good eladrin friend Mr. Byrne. Mr. Byrne is delighted and flattered at Mr. Downs’ effort, though the dwarf’s grammar is atrocious (-4 on social rolls with High-Elven). After many months of merry adventuring, Mr. Downs reaches level 15 and decides to learn Draconic, the better to interact with the scaly fellows who have been hunting Misters Downs and Byrne since an unfortunate misunderstanding involving the death of a young red dragon. Mr. Downs’s command of Draconic is halting (-4 on social rolls with Draconic), but his High-Elven is vastly improved by the effort of studying yet another tongue. The penalty on High-Elven social rolls decreases to -2. At 25th level, Mr. Downs decides that he simply must have the horned individual in the hellish fiery stronghold next door over for tea, so he tries his hand at Infernal. He can’t be blamed for the slip of his tongue that sends his neighbor into a screaming rage, because he’s very new at this (-4 penalty to social rolls with Infernal). However, he has no trouble covertly instructing (Bluff in Draconic, with only a -2 penalty) his Lesser manservant to fetch Mr. Byrne, whom he quickly appraises of the dangerous situation with a few choice bits of Silken Kingdom poetry (Bluff again, this time with High-Elven at no penalty).

Note that characters who gain additional languages through racial features or as the result of feats/class features do not suffer any penalties on rolls for speaking those languages. Taking the Linguist feat gives you full fluency in multiple languages right now, which is hopefully more worthwhile in a world where languages actually matter.

The partis in Tinderbox began at lvl 4, so no one has had the chance to dip into language training yet. I’m interested in seeing what they select when the opportunity presents itself, and have tried to ensure that they’ve already run into scenarios where having an extra tongue would be very useful.

With the language rules in mind, I present the final two languages in Tinderbox.

  • Telepathy
    Telepathy is not a language option per se (that’s me using Latin with my -4 Fluency penalty), but is a class or racial feature some characters may have. A character with telepathy is capable of making itself understood to any creature with a language; this includes making a Bluff, Diplomacy, or Intimidate roll as part of the mental communication. However, a character capable of receiving thoughts from another creature, as with the Send Thoughts power, may only comprehend them if they share a language.

    Also, a character communicating with another through telepathy may gain any appropriate linguistic bonuses if they specifically communicate in an appropriate language which the target speaks.

  • Beast Tongue
    The Beast Tongue is, much as the name indicates, nearly indistinguishable from the growls, barks, and calls of various animals. It is, however, the language of the beastmen. Few have the opportunity to study this language, as most beastmen are ceaselessly hostile. Some, however, have managed to trade with tribes of pre-change or unchanged beastmen, or keep a prisoner alive long enough during interrogation to master some phrases. Elves, Xiechu dwarves, and orcs are the most likely races to have accomplished these feats.

    Characters who select the Beast Tongue as a language option through a feat or racial/class feature are not considered fluent. They take a -4 penalty on all social rolls with a creature who only understands Beast Tongue. However, beastmen are rarely, if ever, known to speak any other language. Thus having some grasp of Beast Tongue is the only possible way to communicate with them, short of telepathy.

    A character may select Beast Tongue when they gain a free language at level 5, 15, or 25. However, the -4 penalty for Beast Tongue stacks with the -4 Fluency penalty. Thus a character who selected Beast Tongue at level 5 would still have a -4 penalty at level 25, whereas one who selected the language at level 25 would have a -8 penalty for the rest of her career.

    A character who already speaks Beast Tongue through a feat or race/class feature may choose to forgo their free language at level 5, 15, or 25 in order to completely remove the Beast Tongue penalty. Similarly, a character who selects Beast Tongue as their language at level 5, 15, or 25 may select it again at one of the other tiers in order to remove the -4 penalty associated with the language. However, such a character still suffers any appropriate Fluency penalties, which are removed through level progression as normal.

  • The intent with Beast Tongue is to make it an extremely difficult language to learn, let alone master, since the race that uses it maintains no cordial relations with any other race or culture. However, therein lies the language’s appeal: it’s just about the only way to have a shot at nonviolent conflict resolution with beastmen. It remains to be seen if any characters decide to pursue the language once they hit level five.

    A final thought on this system of gaining additional languages: I would tend to give players the entire level (5, 15, or 25) to select their language, since it could very well require some in-character action to begin the path of learning it. That’s obviously the case with Beast Tongue…a character would need to have prolonged, non-murderous access to beastmen to gain it. If a party has spent the last several sessions traveling with elves, I could see it being logical for a player who dings five to immediately make with the halting, awkward elven.

    If anyone decides to implement this system in their own games, I’d certainly be interested in hearing how it works. I recognize, though, that the appeal and necessity of these rules largely depends on adopting the entire overhaul of language I’ve presented, thus giving players a reason to fill in one more box on their sheets. For me, the extra overhead is absolutely worthwhile, because I already feel my NPCs have more vivid identities for their ability to converse entirely in private tongues; and I feel as well that the conflicts are heightened by the occasional impossibility of the party having a conversational exchange with them.

    One thought on “Language in DnD: Part 4- Revenant Converse!

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