Improving Languages in 5th Edition in The Missing Archives | World Anvil

Improving Languages in 5th Edition

One of my favorite aspects of both building worlds and running tabletop games is culture and lore. I use it as the bedrock for my worlds to understand major conflicts, histories, and even the finer details of societal behaviors. I think it also makes for a richer game, and one of the major components for both culture and lore is language. I primarily run D&D 5e games, which unfortunately is lacking in the language area, presenting a few problems when attempting to integrate your own conlang into the game system in a harmonious way.

In 5e, languages are essentially generic to each race. Dwarves speak dwarvish, Gnomes speak gnomish, and so on. Additionally, the Dungeon Masters Guide for 5e only dedicates a couple paragraphs to languages and how they might be used, but nothing concrete when it comes to integrating them into their system. While this may not be an important aspect for all campaigns(which I totally understand and respect other play styles), I found this disappointing and very flat for deeper, lore-driven campaigns.

Another problem that the 5e system presents in regards to languages is the way languages are part of a character build. They are picked at the beginning of the game with limited options to pick up new languages with character progression. This creates a problem if you're creating languages mid-campaign since nobody will know the language, and it may be a slog to wait until a player has the chance to learn it through the game systems.

The final problem I run into with the 5e system is in the way the game offers cheats to bridge the language barriers. A simple, first level spell can essentially shatter all need for language learning for an entire party. Again, this may be fine for games that aren't looking for depth in this area, but for a game with conlangs this is very frustrating.


So after a significant amount of thought and working through ideas, I landed on a few solutions that I think will greatly improve languages in 5e without making conlangs onerous on the players.


First, I turned the flat language system 5e offers into language classes or families. Like the romantic languages, if you know one you can at least glean information from the others in different ways. Then any conlangs I brought into the game were assigned one or more language classes depending on the language. Pidgin language might be classed as a common language, while a gnome devil-worshipping cult might speak an infernal-based language with hints of gnomish. This meant players didn't need to worry about learning individual languages, and new languages could easily be adapted into the game where it made sense.


To give a little more depth though, players couldn't necessarily read or speak every language in the class. Instead they would make intelligence or history checks with proficiency that could give them clear or rough estimations of what a character or text might be saying. If a language was in multiple classes and the player knew each, that proficiency bonus was stacked, but the player had to know at least one of the classes to be able to make the check. The check would be waived if it was clear for whatever reason that the character knew the given language.


The final issue being some of the cheats 5e offers also needed to be dealt with. At first I just wanted to remove the spell and abilities from the game entirely, but that didn't particularly feel right. Afterall, magic users would have good reason to desire comprehension of many languages. So instead I altered the spell to allow the character to rolle the check on a language in a class they didn't know, with the level of the spell as the modifier. This would allow some players to not have to rely entirely on the language system without it being so prevalent that it breaks the lore and language difficulties intentionally placed.


What I have outlined certainly isn't the only solution to make conlangs more usable in 5e, however it is the system that has worked the best for me so far, and the system players have liked the most. I would encourage anyone who wants depth in a particular area to bend rules to better fit the style of play you and your players want because that's where you get the real fun of the game. What solutions do you use to introduce conlangs to your players or bend the rules to fit your theme?


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Jan 28, 2022 18:01

I love these ideas! The languages system in D&D 5e has bugged me a bit for a while too. The ideas I hit on were, similarly to you, grouping languages into related families (e.g. Sylvan is related to Elven, so if you speak one you can make a stab at understanding the other), and also blurring the species-language lines (e.g. "elvish" is a blanket term to describe the language and dialects used by all the fey on the material plane, not just the elves.) To get around the translation spells issue, I'm considering asking for an arcana check, and a lower roll will give the caster a worse, google-translate-style literal translation that doesn't take into account anything like context, ***phones, etc. Similarly, Tongues would give the caster an idea of all the vocabulary and grammar structures they need, but not necessarily the cultural context they'd need for a completely coherent conversation. Awesome post!

Jan 30, 2022 00:42

Thanks for the comment and the feedback!! Yes! I love utilizing rolls to determine maybe how much information a player gets. And even if they roll low maybe they get a bad translation that they THINK is correct and that could lead to some serious fun. I have started incorporating this into my current campaign and I have one player who is a sort of 'Lore Master' that carries many books and does research and he tried to actively translate things as we go which is very fun too.