Why have different languages in an RPG? How can they be used to enhance a story? And what’s wrong with Universal Translators, anyway?

Ask the gamemasters

I have a question about using languages in fantasy RPGs. There are numerous articles and advice out there on how to create fictitious languages and make them sound realistic or add verisimilitude to the campaign setting, but that’s not my question. My question is, what’s the point? Why (other than verisimilitude) include languages at all, or have rules for them? From a narrative or game-play standpoint, why have multiple languages, or why not allow PCs to speak every language?

My question is prompted by a low-level magic item in D&D 4e called The Reading Glasses, which allow the wearer to read any language. My players grabbed this item immediately, but I felt that the game somehow lost something. But I wasn’t sure exactly what.

If the players can understand every language, you can’t have a plot line involving translating an ancient inscription, nor can the one player who speaks Goblinoid translate for the party. Are languages in RPGs just another plot device, or are they something more?

There’s a lot of advice out there for how to make languages seem realistic and sound good, but not much advice on how to actually use them in the game to enhance the story.

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s answer:

What a great question! In fact, it’s three great questions in one: “Why have different languages?”, “What’s wrong with Universal Translators?”, and “How can Languages be used to enhance a game?”. Hopefully, answering the first two will provide most of the answers to the third along the way.

Verisimilitude

So let’s start with the obvious: People speak different languages and any game with any pretensions to believability has to acknowledge that in some way within the rules system. It can often be inconvenient and hard work for the GM and the players, but there it is.

Something a lot of people don’t realise is that languages are impure – some moreso than others. English is infamous, linguistically, for stealing words from other languages. Sometime when you’ve got a spare couple of hours, grab a cheap dictionary and go through crossing out all the words that have derived from other languages and see how little you are left with! I have seen estimates that 70% of basic English are words stolen from elsewhere.

This is because a Language grows to encompass ideas for which the root has no conception, or which express concepts more eloquently or succinctly, whenever a speaker of that language rubs shoulders with someone who uses a different lingo. The Hero System contains a language chart that attempts to codify the relatedness of one language to another. It’s notoriously flawed, but still one of the most ingenious approaches that I’ve seen.

Here’s a bit of fun to contemplate: the origins of particular words can be different in a fantasy game to those in real life. If “English” is how “common” is represented, then it would derive its vocabulary from a number of different lingual sources. These can’t be French, or German, or any other real-world language, so there must have been some other source. You can represent that by applying different accents to appropriate words, just for a bit of extra colour. Let’s assume that most of the words relating to brutal violence derive from Orcish, for example – then you could pronounce “Crunch” as “K’runch” (a slight hesitation after the initial “K” sound) to give your delivery a little more colour.

In my Shards Of Divinity campaign, I have actually mapped out how each language developed and derived and contaminated its neighbours, and in what order, so that if a character knows Orcish, I can tell how easily he can understand Giant, or vice versa. Why? Verisimilitude, more precious in a campaign than pearls. (You can download the chart from here as a PDF. To use it, all you have to know is that “Kingdom” is the name of the Common Tongue in the campaign, “Pious” is a Church language used for Holy Scriptures and Religious Services, and that you don’t have to worry about the different line weights and colours – they’re a leftover from the analysis. The entire history of the campaign world is hinted at and synopsised by this chart.

Colour

Beyond verisimilitude, and implied by the “Orcish pronunciation” suggestion, the use of other languages by the GM is a way of immediately giving flavour and colour to a population. This is something I wrote about in “The Floi Af Loft and Ryk Bolti”, where the Dwarvlings had their own language and place names, and the PCs were outsiders, and the selective use of non-English was a perpetual reminder to them of that.

In Shards Of Divinity, I have created “rules” for simulating each language as necessary. For example:

Elvish

  • Use French translations and search-and-replace as specified below.
  • The elvish alphabet contains no equivalent letters to ‘C’, ‘CH’, ‘G’, ‘P’, ‘Q’, ‘T’ (but does have ‘TH’), ‘V’, ‘X’, and ‘Z’.
  • Use ‘S’ for ‘TT’ and ‘FL’ for ‘J’.
  • Any ‘S’ followed by a consonant is doubled unless it is followed by a double consonant.
  • Use ‘Fe’ for ‘The’ and remove spaces between words (replace with hyphens).
  • Then tweak the result for a flowing pronunciation, converting some hyphens back into spaces.

Dwarvish

  • Use German, Hungarian or Russian translations and search-and-replace as specified below. If the resulting language uses a different typeface, convert the unicode to standard.
  • Dwarvish words emphasise A’s, K’s and Z’s. replace ‘A’ with ‘AA’, ‘CH’ with ‘K’, ‘S’ with ‘Z’, and ‘E’ to ‘U’. Also replace any sibilant ‘C’ with ‘Z’ (eg ‘sincere’ to ‘zinzuru’.)
  • Replace all R’s with H’s. (e.g. ‘zinzuru’ to ‘zinzuhu’)
  • The syllable “Kha” often figures prominently and means ‘deep’ or ‘strong’ or ‘valuable’ or ‘important’ depending on the phrasing and pronunciation, much of which is inaudible to the human ear. Insert it using copy and paste before the most important adjective(s) or nouns in any sentence. (so ‘sincere’ would be ‘zinzuru’ but ‘really truly sincere’ in the ‘you can trust me’ sense would be ‘khazin-zuru’ – note that I have inserted a hyphen to make the result phonetically easier to pronounce).

I translate selected nouns-and-adjectives using these techniques to give each race its own lingual flavour.

The Shape Of Thinking

Languages both shape, and are shaped by, the attitudes and values and philosophies of the races that speak them. In a warlike or paranoid culture, the literal translation of their word for ‘stranger’ is ‘enemy’. In a neutral culture, it might be ‘outsider’. In an arrogant culture, it might be ‘barbarian’. In a sociable society, it might be ‘guest’. The words you put in a character’s mouth can be deliberately ‘loaded’ to reflect that culture.

At the same time, the language spoken from birth colours the attitude of the individual, creating unrecognised and frequently unspoken assumptions that define commonalities of personality. This is less a factor in modern times, with improvements to communications technology exposing even the very young to foreign languages and cultures to some extent, but in any less-advanced culture, it would be far more prevalent. This is why a generic personality profile can be used to describe a ‘typical dwarf’ or a ‘typical elf’.

If something is truly unthinkable, there will be no word for it in the language. This shows up most clearly when translating text from one language into another and then back again. The technical term for this is Semantic Content, and the study of meaning is Semantics. It can be argued that English-speaking nations are more multi-cultural than non-English nations because English incorporates so much content from other languages, though I think that’s taking things too far and assuming causative connections that are unproven, to say the least.

This can be utilised by GMs – often without even thinking about it – simply by choosing phrasing appropriate to the culture when describing or speaking for them. But spelling it out in black-and-white enables players representing the cultures in question to further add to it.

I use this technique to ensure that even when I am speaking straightforward English to the players, what I am saying communicates, almost subliminally, something of the nature of the speaker. We all do – it’s part of the process of characterisation. Consider the following pair of statements, which mean essentially the same thing:

  • “Welcome, welcome, come in, sit down, make yourself comfortable, tea will be ready in just a moment, you will stay for dinner of course…”
  • “Go into Nag-luk’s home. In! Sit on floor in dirt. Put down weapons, take off armour, Nag-luk not attack. I kill food for you, keep you strong. Nag-luk say you stay here.”

A Vehicle for Prejudice

The incorporation of ill-defined and often submerged attitudes within a language makes it a vehicle for the transmission and assimilation of prejudice. Political Correctness has led to changes in the usage of English to remove many of these prejudices against women and other social minorities – there are those who say it has gone too far, but that’s not relevant to us at the moment.

Game environments rarely have the same prejudices against women, and so the language should not have the same prejudiced content and semantics. On the other hand, there are many other targets for prejudice that should take its place. Frankly, this is one of the hardest aspects of language to simulate in any way; in general, we are reduced to using the subject of the prejudice as an insult when applied to non-members of the species. Referring to a foul-mouthed shopkeeper as a “Dirty Orc”, for example.

Dynamic Linguistics

Another aspect of Language GMs can take advantage of is it naturally evolves in usage. “Gay” used to be a complimentary adjective used to refer to someone who was happy-go-lucky or light-hearted. Then it became a derogatory adjective used to refer to a homosexual or (to a lesser extent) a lesbian, when that was socially unacceptable; and, in more modern times, with the legitimisation of that sexual orientation, it has lost its negative connotations, without losing its newer meaning.

If you read some of the newspaper stories and fiction from late in the 19th century – HG Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle – you can see how the usage of ordinary language has changed in just a short span of time; I’m not talking about the advent of new terminology to describe new technologies, I mean everyday basic language. You can look even further afield to Shakespeare for more extreme examples.

I’ve seen newsreel footage, documentary features, and interviews from 60-70 years ago, and I can state explicitly that they have similar but even more pronounced shifts in spoken language in the same span of time. In fact, the Australian dialect has gone through at least four significant evolutions in that period of time, identifiable changes that are instantly recognisable and distinctive. I can’t speak for other countries, but I find that rate of change to be both notable and significant. Language reflects and embodies the history of a society, changing in response to changes in society and culture.

While it is difficult to do so, this can be sometimes used as a tool by the GM. It “merely” requires a detailed understanding of the history of the culture of the in-game speaker and some notion of how the language evolved in consequence of that history. Evolution of language might be slower in a fantasy game, because the social structure is developing less rapidly, but nevertheless there would be appreciable shifts in the language over time – meaning that Elves and other long-lived races probably don’t speak quite the same “common” as everyone else.

In an early Fumanor scenario, I used this phenomenon to offer the first hints that a high-ranking member of the town guard in Fort Sharpfang was in fact a Drow spy. The players couldn’t quite put their finger on what was wrong with Captain Winter, but they knew that there was something odd in the way he spoke. Instead of hitting them over the head with this information by means of exposition, I was able to implant it almost subliminally, shaping the players’ (and hence the characters’) reactions without their even being aware of it.

Something’s missing

So let’s start to transition from the discussion of language to a discussion of what can be lost when the distinctions of language are removed from the game by means of a spell or a magic device. Much of what’s been written above focuses on the spoken language, but the same principles apply to the written tongue.

What are the ways in which language is used that are no longer available to the GM under these circumstances?

Diplomatic Impact

Well, to start, Diplomatic Lag is no longer a factor. It is often the case that when two leaders communicate, the process introduces a delay into each exchange as statements are translated first one way and then the next. World leaders are often educated men who may well speak the language in question quite well, rendering the translator unnecessary; and it has long been an accepted diplomatic tactic to ignore the translator and use the delay to put a little more thought into the reply. That means in turn that diplomats and leaders have less to shield them from hasty and ill-advised decisions, and that prejudices will have an even greater impact on treaties and the like.

The consequence, in turn, is that there is a greater risk of offending the other party in any sort of negotiations – and not just diplomatic ones – leading to a breakdown of relations. Deals go south more abruptly, little wars and attitudes of belligerence will be more frequent – even if only a little.

The PCs should experience the impact in their negotiations – one makes what seems like an innocuous comment while trying to sell some leftover armour and the reply is for them to “get out of my tent/store before I call the Watch and have you arrested!” Wars should still be infrequent impediments but lesser expressions of anger – taxes on products from certain sources or whatever – should be more frequent.

Reputations will also be more fragile, more easily undermined. Remember when whats-his-name from Seinfeld got into trouble for shooting his mouth off at a drunken critic while doing a stand-up routine? Even politicians would not be immune – but there would be (as a result) slightly more tolerance for the occasional gaffe, which might well mean that a political figure could get away with something that they shouldn’t, at least for a longer span of time.

This innocuous piece of technology undermines social stability everywhere it is introduced. More perspicacious leaders might prefer to ban them, judging that to have a lower social cost than having a ubiquitous translation service available to one and all.

Mistranslation Plots

Any plot that revolves around mis-translations would become impossible (or do they? Keep reading…). Probably the most famous example is “To Serve Man” by Damon Knight, which was adopted into a classic Twilight Zone episode of the same title, which in turn was lampooned by The Simpsons in the first “Treehouse Of Horror” episode.

Even if the translators are banned, as proposed above, the mere fact of the banning would make people more aware of the possibility of a mistranslation and more cautious, undermining these plots.

Riddles and Word Games

These actually become either easier OR more difficult with the implementation of such technology. Consider the entrance to the Mines Of Moria in The Lord Of The Rings. What is the likelihood of being able to speak the Elvish word for “Friend” when you rely on magical translation services instead of actually learning the ‘foreign’ language? Consider also the riddles in Dream Park by Larry Niven in this context.

Precision in language, essential to such contests, is lost because most such devices would have a limited vocabulary, or would translate literally. Double-meanings and puns become impossible because either the translation is imperfect (drowning the intended double-meaning in a flood of unintended ones) or because it is so perfect that it makes clear one specific meaning, losing the ambiguity of language these games rely on.

In fact, accidental humour is more-or-less reduced to the pratfall; and when I picture the resulting society, it seems just a little grey and colourless. A subtle source of life has been drained from the social palette.

There are those who would argue that this is the inevitable end-product of any advance of technology. But this is a game, and the purpose and intent is to have fun – so I would counter that this is a level of realism that is counter-productive.

The Reading Glasses – NOT a minor item?

Our Enquiring GM describes The Reading Glasses as a minor item within the 4e canon, and technically it is possible that they are just that – but the level of impact that they have is far more significant than that. The ubiquity that is implied is such that this technology would radically reshape the game environment in all manner of subtle ways, as the preceding paragraphs attest. The same problem exists in D&D 3.x, where a first-level spell, “Comprehend Languages” permits characters to “understand all spoken and written languages”.

This sort of problem is inevitable in any campaign. It is the nature of GMs to pose impediments and challenges to players – a key contributing element of the entertainment of the game derives from overcoming those problems. And it is the nature of players to seek a universal solution to what they perceive as inconveniences, especially if the GM overuses a tactic or gets the party into enough trouble with it. I have not read the full description of The Reading Glasses – I searched online without success and don’t own a copy of the 4e manuals – but my first thought on reading what our Enquiring GM has written about them was ‘this sounds like something a player came up with’.

Why? Because, while it’s good for the players (as evidenced by the Enquiring GM’s party rushing to obtain a set), I think that it’s bad for most campaigns and for the game in general to make things so easy for the PCs. The positive virtues resulting from the presence of such a magic item are not outweighed by the negatives.

So, on the assumption that these are indeed a minor wondrous item, the only way to make the impact that they pose representative of a minor item and not something of unwarranted significance, the remainder of this answer will focus on ways of limiting the benefits that they offer to something more appropriate for a minor item. Even Comprehend Languages is restricted in duration (barely) and in effect to a literal translation.

These are all restrictions that I normally apply to Comprehend Languages in my campaigns (the alternative being to raise the level of the spell to something more appropriate), though I’ve never had to actually codify them before. They all stem from, and are exploitations of, the ‘literal translation’ restriction inherent in the spell. I call them ‘reasonable limits’.

Reasonable Limit: Dynamic Languages

Key words in the text may have changed in meaning, as demonstrated regarding the word “gay” in the English of the last century or so. The GM is quite within his rights to exploit such changes in language to mislead the party. Tone and context should be appropriate to offer the players a clue – other Victorian turns of phrase, for example, and a lack of contractions, and a slightly stiff tonal quality.

Furthermore, the GM is fully entitled to state that such-and-such a word meant something else historically within the campaign, and to use that word in a deceptive manner in this way – so long as there is a reasonable means for the PCs to grasp the significance in advance. Give them fair warning (perhaps by means of a trivial example) and then let the chips fall where they may if they ignore the warning.

Reasonable Limit: Codes and Double Meanings

The description of Comprehend Languages for 3.x states outright that it will not solve codes. Context suggests that whoever wrote the spell description didn’t know the difference between a code and a cypher (look them up on Wikipedia if you don’t, either). Taking the description literally gives the GM another weapon in his arsenal, because the best codes sound like natural speech. A phrase like “Good Morning,” could mean what it seems to mean, or it could mean “Run for your life” or it could mean “buy 1000 ale-kegs” or anything else that the parties have agreed for it to mean. So far as the spell is concerned, it just says “Good Morning”.

Reasonable Limit: Invented Languages

An extension to that argument leads us into the grey area of Invented Languages like Esperanto, where individual syllable groups mean things that are defined by the inventor of the language. The GM has to rule on this for themselves, as it could be argued either way – but my read is that an Invented Language is just another type of code, one that is more comprehensive than the less obvious ones.

While a Sage might be able to explain why the spell fails to render a comprehensible translation, all the PCs should know is that the writing they are attempting to read is beyond the limits of the spell’s power – just how much do they expect a first-level spell or minor magic item to be able to do, anyway?

Reasonable Limit: “The Ensigns Of Command”

Another limitation is made evident by this episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, in which Picard must negotiate with “The Shelliak Corporate” (my spelling may be suspect). The Shelliak refuse (or fail) to understand anything which is not phrased in corporate policy-style language, as it does not fit their psychology. Similarly, you may be able to translate it, but the arrangement of the words may make no sense because the magic item is unable to cope with the psychology of some of the more bizarre creatures in existence.

While this is not a technique that can be used all the time, it can be devastatingly effective if employed at the right time. Consider a race in which action is more important than anything else: their language structure might be verb 1, verb 2, verb 3, etc, then adjective 1, 2, and 3, and then noun 1, noun 2, noun 3, etc., then terms that link those. So “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” might translate, literally, to “Jump quick-brown lazy fox dog over”. This example phrase is so well known that it is easy to guess at the meaning – but take that advantage away, and watch the look of confusion wash over your players!

Reasonable Limit: Caster Prejudice

If the spell gets its vocabulary from the owner, there will never be a word used that he does not know, so that’s not an issue. Put that spell in a magic item and this can suddenly be a serious consideration. Mages tend to have a high intelligence, and therefore have a bigger vocabulary than others – so there is nothing to stop the magic item from providing a literal translation of “pococurante” when it means “indifferent”. While most people will know what the second word means, few would have the first within their vocabularies.

But, even beyond that, there is the question of subliminal caster prejudice. If the caster is prejudiced against Orcs, the “literal” translation of anything Orcish or relating to Orcs may well be tainted with his attitude. The instruction “be friendly” to an Orc, under this circumstance, might be translated as “pretend to friendship” or “feign friendship” or “ACT friendly”. The last is the most subtle and hence the most likely to generate trouble for the PCs!

Reasonable Limit: Emotional Nuance

And yet, at the same time, plain text rarely contains the same ability to communicate emotional nuance, and this limitation can only be enhanced when the translation is furnished by an emotionless thing. Modern languages have evolved punctuation and emoticons to convey an emotional content in a technically emotionless medium. The translations by spells and magic items should lack these crutches to comprehension, except where they explicitly alter the meaning.

That’s why the GM should never read such a translation aloud, but should provide a copy of the translated text, void of such supports, to the players, and let them punctuate where they will.

More than nine times out of ten, this will make no difference whatsoever. But on rare occasions, misplaced punctuation can completely alter the meaning of a sentence; and with a little practice, the GM can exploit this to their own ends. This can be especially, devastatingly, effective, in combination with the Caster Prejudice item above, and the Inferred Emotional Content item that follows.

Reasonable Limit: Inferred Emotional Context

Anyone who has used email for anything more than business or technical discussions can attest to the occasional misunderstanding that occurs where the reader infers an emotional context to the statement that was never intended by the author. It’s happened to just about everyone at some point. It is a natural human impulse to impart an emotional context into a void, and the most innocuous of comments can be transformed thereby into something the author can barely recognise. Sarcasm and rhetoric are the worst offenders.

If the translation technology – be it spells or magic item or supercomputer – strips emotional nuance out of the communication being translated, as was suggested earlier, then it is only natural the readers of that translated text will infer their own emotional context, guided by the few clues that remain. This can be deliberately exploited by the GM by planting a couple of emotionally-loaded terms early in the translation that are at odds with the true context of the overall message and letting the PCs make more soup out of the bones than is warranted.

Reasonable Limit: The Skill Of The Caster

When it comes to technical documents, there are three caveats that have to be within the mind of the GM. The first is that in a choice between a technical interpretation of a term of reference and a plain-language interpretation, the plain-English will always be chosen by the technology – rightly or wrongly. The second is that if the vocabulary is that of the caster of the spell, and a technical concept is beyond his understanding, it will probably be described poorly or not translated at all – in other words, if it is beyond the skills of the caster, it will not come out translated properly, one way or another. And the third is that technical concepts suffer in translation at the best of times; notoriously in the case of Asian-language operating or assembly instructions to English.

All of these problems should afflict technical documentation translated by magical or technological means, just as they would if translated any other way.

Reasonable Limit: One At A Time!

Coming to the end of the list of Reasonable Limits: the spell description for Comprehend Language in 3.x continually refers to language, singular, not languages, plural. There is no suggestion, not even a hint, that multiple languages can be translated at the same time, or even by a single casting. That might have changed with 4th ed., but everything suggests that this is an application of a First-Level Spell. Don’t expect Miracles.

Using Language to enhance your game

I hope that this discussion has pointed out a number of ways in which multilingual campaigns are, or can be, enhanced through the use of different languages, even in the face of technology or magics intended to neutralise the distinctiveness they contain. It might be suggested that the limitations proposed above are intended to make the magic item worthless, or worse than worthless. I would dispute that; the intent is to reintroduce the challenge of different languages without negating the basic utility of the magic item in question.

It might also be suggested that the above represents a counter-attack in the GM-vs-players contest that I hinted at in the section introducing the subject of The Reading Glasses. If, by that, it is meant that I am trying to keep an over-the-top magic item from being all-powerful, I would agree. The GM is the custodian of the larger campaign, and it is sometimes his job to deny the players an easy answer, no matter how much it might appeal to them in the short term.

Lastly, it might be suggested that by proposing these restrictions, I am attempting to leave room for language to enhance the campaign despite the presence of a magic item that – at face value – destroys that potential; to that charge, I would happily plead Guilty. It’s called being a good GM.

Some references that might be useful

And now, it’s over to Johnn for his take on the issue….
Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s answer:

Sweet Orcus, Mike, that’s an awesome and thorough answer. All I can say is this: Johnn think language gud. Johnn think language fun. Johnn think language help game.

The glasses might translate written text, but not verbal. If the item is low level, it might be common, in which case foes would take advantage instead of non-word forms of communication to get the message out to minions and others. Examples: Spoken-only – Who goes there? Flags. Smoke signals. Symbols. Maps. Puzzles. Therefore, the item is not a terrible plot foiler.

You asked why use language in your game. I encourage you to get your players speaking your fantasy languages as much as possible. Speaking other languages gets a whole different part of the brain going than the areas that calculate dice rolls, speak English, roleplay, or ponder what munchies bag to open next. Speaking new languages – fake or otherwise – literally changes the way your players think during the game. It’s a ton of fun.

I experienced this when a GM years ago had us using more and more quasi-fictional French as our PCs were in a region based on medieval France. It was fun learning, remembering and using the new words in-character. It changed the texture and ambiance of the whole game. I was surprised at its powerful effects.

For my current game I have a to-be-deployed plan of getting players to speak in the language common to Riddleport. To do that, I’ll be offering rewards and penalties. I identify two new words each game and put them on index cards clipped player-side to my GM screen. Each time a player uses one of the new words, they get a check mark. Each time they slip and use the English word, they lose three check marks. At the end of the session, the check marks earn them a bonus, if in the positive.

I’ve used this trick before when I was in Vancouver, and it’s a super way to help players learn the names for all the currencies, days of the week, months, and other pronouns. I do not know about you, but I’m tired of hearing the word gold piece in my campaigns.

Anyway, I’m off to re-read Mike’s reply as he lists a lot of techniques that I need to mull over and think about how to apply in my game.

Mike, perhaps as a follow-up post, I’d love to hear more examples of any of the techniques and ideas you’ve employed in your games. For example, how did the Drow you mentioned speak, exactly, to tip off the players? And more examples of the human vs. other race greetings in a wider variety of situations would be great. I only speak English, so when I try to roleplay another culture’s speech, I tend to either speak like a child or a pirate. Heh.
Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s answer continued:

Okay, Johnn, you want more? You’ve got more.

How did the Drow speak?

This required thought and practice, so be warned. There were three things that were notable about the Drow’s speech patterns.

  1. Archaisms: I carefully avoided employing contractions or other lingual shortcuts, and dropped the occasional deliberate archaism into the character’s speech. These were achieved by looking at 19th century english, especially HG Wells’ “War Of The Worlds”, and deliberately mimicking the narrative. The Right Word At The Right Time helped by mapping out the changes in modern language in that time. “Lay up your Scaramanche, cease ye and desist your violence, with despatch” instead of “Put down your weapons, stop fighting, right now!“. Since the Drow had been isolated for about a century, contemporary language had evolved, and his had not.
  2. Inappropiate Culural Attitudes: I made sure that the character didn’t care about things that a Drow wouldn’t care about, such as the mistreatment of prisoners, the fate of slaves, the opinions of subordinates, the use of excessive force, and so on, while caring too much about the wrong things, such as a fear of Clerics, care of Spiders, and so on. Initially, this came across as nothing but a somewhat exotic characterisation, but at the first hint of suspicion, the pattern became far more obvious. On the other hand, he was not afraid of things that he should have been afraid of, under the circumstances, like allegations of the use of Arcane Magic (forbidden), maintaining order, following the law, etc.
  3. Misplaced Emphasis: this is one of the most subtle of tools. Do it once and it just sounds like you have misread the prepared dialogue; do it consistanrly and repeatedly, and it starts sounding like an accent. Then make sure that no-one else has anything even close to the same accent. Keep it subtle, and you will slowly build up the impression of someone who comes from somewhere else. “Did you really think that you could evade the ever-watchful gaze of the law?” sounds quite different depending on where you place the emphasis by raising the tone of your voice – try it emphasing the first “you”, then “really”, then “think”, then “evade” and they will all sound different and suggest a different attitude on the part of the speaker, but all reasonable. Now try it emphasising “could” instead – and it just sounds wrong.

Suspicion did not flower all at once, but repeated interactions – sometimes being strict and harsh when it comes to the Laws and sometimes blase, and incorrectly given the different situations – and it creeps in, and never goes away. This was a character who would eviscerate a pet dog as punishment for disrespect, but who was perfunctory in his investigation of the violent murder of a wealthy merchant and the incineration of a grocer by local criminals, and eventually, this behaviour was connected with a chance comment by one of the players, and the pattern became suddenly obvious to everyone.

More Greetings Examples

In all cases, the objective is to give some personality or expression to the greeting. Keeping the cultural values expressed consistant, even when used by another member of the same race, makes it clear that this expression is common to the race or class or society in question.

  • “Ring the bells, summon ale, and all down tools, for Word of your coming echos through the deeps!”
  • “The insecurities of the ignorant notwithstanding, you would do well to watch your tone in my presence, for I have not fed in weeks and one or two of you would appear to be most toothsome.”
  • “Though comets may crash to the ground and mountains take to the sky like birds, you are safe here.”
  • “Seek the shaded glade within and be at peace with your place in the world for however long you dwell here.”
  • “I would strip the meat from your bones and use your flesh as carpet were you not under the protection of the Chieftan.”
  • “Surely this is a miracle to echo throughout the ages; for whoever could have foreseen that such mighty warriors would deign to abide with so lowly a worm as I?”
  • “The phases of the moon align with the shadows of destiny as the bluebells sing of your presence.”
  • “In this place, may your roots rest and drink deep of the waters of renewal.”

Add an accent to ramp them up a notch.

Roleplaying Another Culture’s Speech:

The following speeches rely on “Selected Translations From Dwarvling” which was written for the scenario that I published here as “The Floi Af Loft and Ryk Bolti”. Without that document, which you can download as a PDF from here, they won’t make much sense.

  • “Greetings, Leif unkinden Eirifkenn. You and the Ókunnur Maður Handan Frá are welcome here. Follow the passage marked by Blue Tile to reach the Höfðingi, who awaits your presence as we speak.”
  • “In the name of the Dreki Tönn, I bid you welcome, Ókunnur Maður. You are especially welcome here, Leif unkinden Eirifkenn. Welcome home… Great-Uncle.”
  • “My father — where is my father? Where is Höfðingi Eirifkenn?”

There are a couple of observations to be made about the above. As you can see, I made myself a Cheat Sheet of key translations. When I wote them for use in the scenario, I bolded all the non-english words to forewarn me of them. Where the information was important to the players understanding, I used the normal english term – hence “blue tile” and “great-uncle” and even “father” are untranslated. And lastly, I practiced a couple of times so that I could rattle them off at a normal speaking pace. Try it yourself – just pronounce things phonetically a couple of times until your tongue wraps around the strange words naturally.

I also use the same tricks when I have to deliver an accent – spell it out phonetically and emphasise. To finish, here’s an example of doing that, and a PDF of Some Key Italian Phrases:

  • Mike (Bella Lugosi voice at high speed): Qualcosa ha torto? Tutto il bagaglio dal suo volo è stato con-segnato. (English: Is something wrong? All the luggage from your flight has been delivered.) Lei parla l’italiano? Lei me capisce? C’è nessuno più bagaglio essere ispez-ionato! (English: Do you speak Italian? Do you understand me? There is no more luggage to be inspected.)
  • Mike (Bella Lugosi voice at high speed): “Ifa you luggage isa missing, you muzt report it to the lozt property officer. Room Fifve. Thisa way.”

Note that an exaggerated accent has been specified that I can immediatly call to mind and imitate (even if it’s not Italian). That makes a big difference to the pronunciation of the Italian and in keeping the “mediocre english” consistantly characterised and immediately recognisable as being the same person speaking. If I were to use a Ronald Reagan “voice”, it would sound completely different. And note that the only language I actually speak is English, Johnn – but with these tricks and techniques, I certainly don’t sound like a Pirate, or a child! They don’t let me speak Italian (and I apologise to anyone who does), but they at least let me sound like I’m speaking Italian – and it impresses the hell out of the players!

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