My friend Crypt Thing from Swords Against Dungeons gave me a shoutout in an article about fantasy languages last month, so I figured I’d chime in on the subject. CT’s post touches on a lot of topics, but I’ll just pull out a few of them.
First and foremost, “Common” is replaced by regional languages.
Common gets a bad rap for at least two related reasons, both of which are reasonable reactions to the way Common is used in many classic fantasy settings.
First, there’s a family of arguments that say that glossing over linguistic differences harms the setting and makes the game world less “rich” or believable, because language should be one of the most obvious markers of difference and interest in games where travel and travelers otherwise take center stage. I’ll call this the “Common is unrealistic” argument.
The second family of arguments takes this further and says glossing over language in this way is actively harmful because of how easily Common can make one culture or set of viewpoints the default. Under this view, it’s not just that Common is unrealistic, or even boring, but that Common has a homogenizing effect that erases differences.
To the “Common is unrealistic” camp, I’d say that there’s more precedent to this than you might think: Throughout history, disparate groups have settled on common languages to use for trade or government purposes while still retaining their native languages. This is often called a lingua franca. (The TVTropes page on the Common Tongue actually covers this fairly well.) If you imagine your setting’s Common as a trade language, or the language imposed by an empire that fell a couple hundred years before, it’s totally reasonable that many people would speak it, at least in the circles that adventurers tend to move in.
To the “Common is homogenizing” camp, we need to retcon Common so that it becomes a reminder to celebrate differences instead of ignore them. This post offers a nice fix along these lines to avoid falling into the trap of human = common = default, suggesting that you make Common a trade language that developed from a pidgin of multiple major languages in your setting. If you must have languages that are named after fantasy species, then just adding “Human” alongside “Elven” and “Dwarven” (as separate from Common) can be a step in the right direction.
The magical language faculty
[S]tart thinking of other factors in your world: magic, monsters, and the influences they will have in language as a whole
In particular, I like the idea of painting the world with language the way that we paint it with magic. What if mortal children could speak the language of the Fey? What if it were impossible to learn Thieves’ Cant until you’ve committed an irrevocable crime?
Language in play
Does this mean you could get a party where nobody speaks the same languages? Absolutely. […] I think that, unless the player wants that challenge, that it’s something to avoid.
I’m in favor of rolling in the open, sharing information with players that their characters don’t know, and generally doing whatever I can to keep information flowing around the table. To that end, I agree that characters ought to be able to communicate with one another, and tend to make it a requirement that everyone speaks mutually intelligible languages, on par with the requirement that the characters start with a reason to work together, rather than just having them meet up in a bar. (“You look trustworthy!”)
That said, navigating the world and conversing with NPCs is another matter, and I’d have no problem with the party deciding that they don’t really speak the language where they’re adventuring.
One alternative to making that kind of decision up front is to let the dice decide. This is how language skills work in Lamentations of the Flame Princess; language knowledge is determined at the time the language is encountered in-game. For some related thoughts, Necropraxis has a good article.
There’s also some article out there which I haven’t been able to track down, but I recall it makes a point about identifying languages, and how any adventurer worth their boots would have at least passing familiarity with the languages that are prevalent in their world.