Why All Those Languages?

One of the things that puzzled me when I first started playing the game, and which I’ve seen come up from time to time in discussions, is the question of why the rules bother to include player characters speaking a multitude of other languages. Dwarves speak goblin, kobold, and orcish. Elves speak those languages plus hobgoblin and gnoll. Other sorts of demi-humans have their own selection of humanoid tongues that they begin the game speaking, and humans can learn new ones as well. Why?

Too, if you look at a lot of the early dungeon adventures, they all seem to have a lot more detail about the villains than would be needed, if the expectation was that the PCs were just going to mow through them, vorpal swords a-whirling. What use the carefully detailed rivalry between the Eilservs and the Lolth-worshiping drow? Why bother hinting at intrigues-within-intrigues in the Temple of Elemental Evil? If the game is nothing more than a tactical exercise in destroying the monsters, then these sorts of subtleties are at best eye candy for the game master.

I think one of the things that was almost instantly lost when Gygax et al published their game was the notion that not all encounters would automatically end up as battles. In the 1E DMG, the encounter reactions table on p. 63 shows that there is only a 5% chance that an encounter will result in an immediate attack, and only a further 20% chance that it will be hostile. The original rules had a similar section; only on a roll of 2-5 on 2d6 would an intelligent monster be immediately hostile (U&WA, p. 12). That’s why all those languages are there; to allow them to converse rather than always immediately attack.

This is another instance where charisma ceases to be a “dump stat”. If the PCs are in the habit of attempting to engage orcs encountered in a dungeon in conversation, rather than in melee, this does several things for the game.

  1. It allows both the players and game master to indulge in role-playing rather than hack-and-slash dice rolling (which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but does get stale when there’s nothing but in a game).
  2. It allows the game master to feed the players information about the political fracture-lines of the monsters. Do the orcs in the Caverns of Chaos have a loose alliance with the gnolls? Do the hobgoblins have an understanding with the goblins? There’s almost no way for the PCs to know this and take advantage of it unless they are told about it, maybe by the angry kobolds who resent not having any allies of their own…
  3. It allows the inhabitants of the dungeon to possibly become aware of some of the capabilities of the PCs. Perhaps the shrewd hobgoblin medicine man will try to figure out which of them has spell-casting abilities, so the next time they meet, his tribe will know who to attack with arrows first. Perhaps they’re just stalling for time to set up an ambush. Not all information transfer is necessarily in the PCs’ favor.

For some parties, simply reminding them of the “parley” option prior to the start of play should be enough. Perhaps having your own orcs or hobgoblins attempting to parley rather than simply opening fire would be hint enough. In my own game the players often engage the more intelligent monsters in conversation, sometimes even turning would-be enemies into sometimes-allies. Of course, it doesn’t always work, but it does add a lot of role-playing fun to what might otherwise be a grind.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

11 thoughts on “Why All Those Languages?

  1. …Of course, now you're making me think about (and miss) my Mountebank.

    Seriously, if the cad were human rather than Elf, I could see him talking his way into and out of all kinds of alliances, contracts of safe passage and mutual-avoid deals with otherwise mere bags of walking XP.

    More use for those Charisma-heavy non-Paladins! Huzzah!

  2. That's an excellent point, Northy, and indeed it really points up the usefulness of the new ADD classes for this sort of play. Both jesters and mountebanks are quite suited to this sort of thing.

  3. in a campaign long ago (set in the Warhammer world) we were chasing a ratman shaman across some wasteland when we encountered an ogre. I started a conversation with it, ended up making a mutual non-agression pact (I hesitate to call it an alliance, or even friendship, even though he *did* offer to share his lunch — raw arm-of-bodyguard-ratman-traded-for-passage).

    The paladin was all for fighting ("he eats babies!" "look at that arm, babies don't wear chainmail"… I was neutral, ogre is eating one of our enemies? Okay then, a little uncomfortable but ultimately not worth fighting over, to me) but Gorlak followed us for a while, until we ran into a group of orcs.

    "Hey Gorlak, want to have some fun? There's an orc patrol up ahead… my friends wanted to have them all, but I thought it would be nicer to share…."

    The DM expected we'd fight the ogre, but went with it and we had a lot more fun. Fighting immediately is not only dangerous, but potentially wastes a lot of fun. And heavy-hitting resources.

    Mmm… sweet, sweet moral ambiguity.

  4. My theory is that as monsters became more and more sources of XP instead of obstacles to getting treasure, the idea of negotiating with them receded. I've been actively encouraging my GURPS DF players to talk to monsters (not that anyone speaks Orcish or Hobgoblinese) because they aren't bags of XP. Combat is a tool to complete your goal (explore the dungeon, get rich) and not the One True Route to Power.

    I think you can do the same in OD&D or AD&D or whatever D&D, but you need to decouple "killing monsters" and "easiest way to level." As long as that orc is a bit of useful XP, talking to him is so much time wasted.

  5. Peter: I don't think it needs to be decoupled, necessarily. Otherwise the non-treasure-bearing monsters are just threats with no redeeming qualities.

    Rather, the players should be gently guided into the mindset that tricking monsters and stealing their treasure is a *safer* way of getting XP than killing the thing guarding it and taking the treasure, even if the total XP is slightly less. It's a cost-benefit analysis.

  6. I got a fair amount of resistance to 'talk to the monsters' in my last campaign because at least one of the players insisted that if humanoids eat humans, they are evil and to let one live is negligence at best and murder at worst. For the same reason this player pretty much never takes prisoners either, unless they are human or demihuman. 🙁
    So I think some (possibly small) part of the equation is that as the games gets to be more about fighting evil than about looting, the players don't think it is proper for their PCs to talk to the bad guys, especially the cannibals/'enemies of humanity'.

  7. I think it depends on the tone of the campaign, but most fantasy type settings should have players willing to try other options of getting XP. I mean, you get the experience for overcoming the challenge, not just killing it. Of course, that's assuming it doesn't take 4 hours to kill a bear, so your mileage may vary.

  8. Re: languages – my favorite take on this is "LANGUAGES or, Could you repeat that in Auld Wormish?" by Lee Gold, reprinted in the Best Of The Dragon #1. It lists a number of reasons to take languages, from speaking "Mule" to calm your mule in a stressful situation, to taking "Balrog" to swear in, and two PCs taking "Minotaur" to have private conversations in. as no one else in the party spoke it.

    An interesting point is made in suggesting versions of Common for similar monsters, things like "Equine" or "The Great Tongue" for giants or "Auld Wormish" for dragons.

    And the article finishes off with a situation where the party was faced with overwhelming odds but managed just enough fluency to parley with their foes and make a deal.

    (Which makes me think of the conversation about M-U lifespan; maybe coming up with ways of de-nerfing the mage is missing the point – with an 18 INT, the M-U is going to be able to take a handful of languages; let him be the negotiator or translator for the party! And if he has a high CHA – instant "face" character.)

  9. coming up with ways of de-nerfing the mage is missing the point

    Right on! Any mage worth their salt should be smart enough to stay out of standup fights until they can blow stuff up with style. Additional languages sure do help at staying away from the pointy end of the blade.

  10. I have personally always preferred encounters and characters that didn't rely on combat. However in my experience with other players extra languages turns out to be more a tool for in-group communication and intrigue.

    The trouble with the game and languages IMO is Common. Remove the Common tongue and suddenly those racial languages and subdialects make a difference.

  11. Hi, just stumbled across this while blog surfing… I havent played RPGs in many years, but do seem to remember something about XPs were gained for effectively 'dealing' with the monster. OK killing it was one way, but if you talked your way past it and nullified the threat, you still got the XPs.???
    If so, no need to kill them all…

Comments are closed.