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Monday, August 1, 2016

Exotic Languages

You had no idea when I wrote about broad classification types that I was going to follow up with a post about languages, did you? Well, Nathan Jennings had the right topic, but he was off in one respect: I’m not going to talk about creating a language, but handling fantastic language ability, such as understanding the language of birds. Many GMs would probably shudder at the thought of allowing players to take the language of birds, but it seems appropriate for the kind of world I like to run, especially because I’ve been on a fairy tale kick lately and keep seeing abilities like this in traditional stories.

But naturally, there’s the question of how much a character would be able to understand, as well as how to address the problem of players choosing overly broad languages, like “The Language of All Living Things”, in order to get an undeserved advantage.

First, each animal or plant language must be a specific type, as defined in the previous post. So, you can speak Bird, but not Vertebrate, since that’s too broad a class.

Second, this doesn’t give you the ability to speak to these creatures and be understood, let alone command them to perform services. That would be the class ability of something like a Beast Master or Druid.

Third, the broad language of Birds or Fish doesn’t allow much detail, just basic emotional state right now, with maybe a relevant direction. For example, you would hear the birds say that something big and scary is coming from the north. If you narrow the language down to Tropical Birds or Predatory Fish, you get more details (crude numbers like “one”, “two”, “a few”, “many”, and maybe the broad type of creature.) And if you get even more specific, like “The Language of Desert Birds”, you can get details that go beyond that: what the birds have seen or heard, even if they had no emotional reaction to it or it happened days ago. This will help you locate lost ruins or hear that a band of men on horseback passed through a week ago, and which direction they rode.

Since I like the idea of a semi-animist world, it’s possible to take the languages of stones or clouds as well. However, the degree of understanding is one step worse, compared to animals and plants.

  • Broad types, like Wind, only communicate state (safety, danger)
  • More specific forms, like Clouds, are as understandable as the broadest animal/plant types, like Birds
  • Add an adjective to make the form narrower, to get more specific details, such as whether the Dark Clouds are about to rain or clear up.
  • Add a second adjective or modifying phrase, such as Dark Clouds in the Northern Wastes, to get the most detail.

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  1. I like it. It's definitely something that's missing from a lot of fantasy RPGs, D&D in particular. Yeah, in AD&D (and up) gnomes can speak to small, burrowing animals. But that's about it.

    In myths and fairy tales, the ability to UNDERSTAND the speech of birds or other animals is common. Having a conversation with them is rare.

    Having one-way lines of communication like this allows the players an extra means of gaining valuable information (like Bard the Bowman in the Hobbit learning of Smaug's weak spot) without overpowering the PC.

    Also, it should be noted that if speaking TO animals or whatever is also allowed, standard reactions should be taken into account. Not every bird is going to help you just because you can speak to it, just as not every orc is going to help you just because you can speak to it.

  2. This is great stuff. Very gamable - in the way that forcing players to learn an invented language is not!

  3. "Speak to Stones" is a variant of "Speak to Plants" that I would allow to dwarf clerics.

  4. So would a Cleric with, say, "Bird" be able to Speak to Dead Birds?

    1. Nope, because of the animate/inanimate distinction I mentioned in the previous post. A cleric could chose either the language of living birds or the language of dead birds. The latter would be one step worse than the former on understandable content, exactly as for other inanimate objects.

      And, of course, the cleric wouldn't be able to *speak* to them, unless say this were a Heretic of the Dead Bird God with Speak to (and Command) Dead Birds as a replacement for Turn Undead. But that's true of the cleric able to speak to Live Birds, too.