Something has bothered me for a while. Most Dungeons and Dragons games are filled with a team of adventuring polyglots who can simply pick up a variety of languages. While this can be a beneficial simplification for ease-of-play, this isn’t how it is in the world. Communication is difficult and so is learning a language. Most who learn a language, even their native language, do not learn it fully; so I’ve been developing a system which expresses this in D&D.
More often than not, this creates situations where it makes it actually helpful for spells like Tongues. Usually, it gives opportunities for humor. (Such as when my player characters entered into a dwarven library… without the ability to speak or write in Dwarvish. In situations like this, it’s a good idea to have easy answers around the problem: a translator or interpreter. My non-Dwarvish speaking PCs purchased a spy glass which turned the language written on the page into a language of their choice based on a selected rune for 1gp each.)
The Language Point System
When creating a character, create a small table in the languages section which encompasses speaking/listening, reading/writing, and academic. When you acquire language points, you spend them to ensure you’re able to communicate as your character.
Figuring Initial Points
Take your Wisdom and Intelligence modifiers and add two to find the number of language points your character can spend. (Wis mod + Int mod +2). No creature can have less than 1.
A character should have at least one point in their primary language’s speaking and listening. Most commoners, for example, can only speak and listen in Common.
While it is not necessarily set, speaking and listening is more associated with wisdom and reading and writing is more associated with intelligence.
Similar to training in other skills, a character can gain points by studying a language for 10 weeks minus their intelligence or wisdom modifier during downtime. Studying under a teacher is required to earn a language point in speaking and listening or an academic point, but access to a book or several can give the ability to study on-the-go for adventurers who want to learn to read and write a language.
Additionally, whenever a character’s modifier to their wisdom or intelligence changes, their language points change accordingly. Lowering a character’s modifier in intelligence or wisdom means they lose that many language points; raising their modifier means they gain that many language points.
0 Points in a Language
All languages your character knows as part of their race, background, or class may be written down on your sheet on the left of the language table. This means that your character has a minimal, survival level of these languages and will struggle with any comprehension. DC 15 for understanding; DC 20 for reading spell scrolls.
Common phrases your character might know:
- Hello, my name is…
- What is your name?
- I want a drink.
- Where is the library?
- Thank you.
1 Point in a Language
When spending one point in a language, fill in the square for either “speaking/listening” or “reading/writing.” Your character now is able to work with a lopsided use of the language. A character will typically choose to speak and listen in their primary language if they only have one point. DC 13 for understanding the opposite skill; DC 17 for reading spell scrolls (even with reading).
2 Points in a Language
When spending a second point in a language, fill in the remaining square out of “speaking/listening” or “reading/writing.” This means your character has a normal understanding of this language; your character ought to have this in the common language of their culture. Most characters have this with at least one language. DC 15 to read spell scrolls.
3 Points in a Language: Academic
Placing a third language point in a language allows you to fill in the third box for “academic” understanding of the language. Your character should be able to speak well and easily with nobles as well as easily read even the strangest dialects of a language– especially important when it comes to scrolls!
Thank you for reading this post. While this is intended to be used, I want to reiterate that the goal is to still be mostly a tool for roleplay and, if it presents a barrier, there is an answer you have created: like a language translation eyeglass. If you would like to pick up the supplement I wrote for the Dungeon Masters’ Guild for free, complete with helpful tables, or even support me as a DM, click here.