Thursday, October 11, 2018

Languages in Dungeon Fantasy and Starfall

I have been mapping a lot lately, and despite adding hundreds of rooms to my maps, it feels like I’m not getting anywhere. I guess that’s because this is a megadungeon, and not just a regular dungeon. So I decided to give myself a morale boost and tackle some seemingly simple things from my To Do list. That was going well until I ran up against one note that read, “List and Describe Languages”.

Normally, this wouldn’t be a big issue. After all, there’s Common, Dwarvish, Elvish, Gnomish, etc., right? But this isn’t Dungeons & Dragons and it isn’t bog-standard Dungeon Fantasy, either. Nope, it’s Starfall, and that seems to mean work. Not that I’m complaining, but seriously, I thought making a list of languages would be simple. So why isn’t it?

The number of playable races in Starfall is precisely one – humans. So all of those nifty racial languages don’t mean squat to PCs. Also, the megadungeon is about as far from other kingdoms as anyone can get. So if I list all of these languages that the players will likely never encounter, it’s a waste for them to even buy proficiency in them. So why bother with them? That got me to thinking . . .

What Role Do Languages Serve?

What purpose to languages have in a game? Not The Lord of the Rings or other works of fiction. A game. At a table. With people who probably don’t give a damn about the elaborate conlangs you created. Yeah. Game purpose. As best as I can tell, there are four in general, and I’ll go through each one, here.

Immediately, I’ll claim languages see a lot of use in character background. Derek the Dwarf speaks Dwarvish because he is a dwarf, and not speaking Dwarvish would be circumspect. Sure, there could be cool backstory reasons not to speak Dwarvish, and that plays into character background just as much as Erik the Elf speaking Dwarvish does. It helps define the character. So there’s that reason to have generally useless languages available for players to be fluent in, as long as the players know up front that they probably won’t get any utility out of the language.

Next up, let’s talk about the opposite side of the coin: worldbuilding. Those people down in the Aranthian Plains need to speak something, and they probably don’t speak the same language as the Uskings, since they are different peoples with different cultures and societies. Giving them a different language – say Aranthian – helps breathe life into the world for the players, because if they ever meet an Aranthian horseman, he’ll speak a different language. Suspension of disbelief preserved. Yay.

Those two functions are pretty obvious, though. Also, they assume a game where the players and the GM actually care about more than getting in that hole and murderizing monsters for loot. So what role can languages play in a dungeon? Well, they’re puzzles of a different variety. You found a clue, but it’s a riddle? Now you have to do stuff to decipher its meaning. You found a clue, but it’s in a different language? Now you have to do stuff to decipher its meaning. Same thing, different flavor.

That’s pretty good, eh? Languages are challenges and barriers to progress. They prevent players from immediately accessing information. That’s a fantastic tool for a GM. You can reward players with clues without giving them immediate access to those clues but still egging the players on to more action. That’s some good stuff. And those players who spend resources (character points, money, time, etc.) on access to the language get to know what the message means. This is a very real reason to have languages in your game. It is also a very real reason to charge points for them.

But let’s think a moment about languages as obstacles. This doesn’t have to be restricted to the dungeon. Languages can easily prove a barrier to travel. Imagine if there is no lingua franca. Instead, players speak the local language just like everyone else, but if they stray too far, they can’t communicate with anyone. That is going to be a serious barrier to travel. That can be extremely useful because you, as the GM, hasn’t told the players “No you can’t go there. Now delve in my dungeon dammit!” The players have tried to go elsewhere, encountered reasonable and realistic impediments to their goal, and are likely to turn back.

Well, that or say things like, “I don’t speak Aranthian, but my axe does!” And that raises another point. Overuse of languages the PCs don’t speak can easily lead to a more hack-and-slash approach, since the PCs have one less tool in their toolbox. This can be good or bad, depending on what sort of behavior the GM and the players want. So while using languages as a way to solidify borders and keep the PCs confined, that won’t be appropriate in a dungeon where the players are expected to negotiate with the inhabitants.

Lastly, I’d be remiss not to mention the age old trick of the entire party taking the same language that no one else in the area speaks. This gives the players a means to communicate secretly while in plain sight. It should probably earn them a social stigma if they do it a lot, since that’s pretty rude, but it is tactically useful. And with that, I think I’ve hit on all of the uses languages see in gaming.

What Languages Am I Use?

Since we now know what languages are for, it’s time to decide which languages to have in the game. Immediately, I know I want my players to stay put and explore this megadungeon. Moreover, I am not investing much of anything in any lands outside of Usk, so I really don’t want the players leaving. That means there won’t be a Common. People in Usk speak Uskan. That also means people in Aranthia speak Aranthian, and people in Carantania speak Carantanian. The Wilderlands and Vitrdauth aren’t really inhabited by humans and are locations for adventure; they don’t need their own languages.

Since players might want their own “secret” language and because Alnwich should really feel like it’s on the edge of society, there will be a local language that predates the lands about the Trollenmere’s annexation by Usk. The area is populated by the descendents of the Skidafolk, so let’s call that language Skidisk. Players who don’t want the pesky Uskans to know what they are saying can learn that, and they won’t be shunned by the locals, since that is in their heritage.

Next up, let’s look at languages that make good obstacles. These are usually dead or supernatural languages, and we should probably have both for flavor. I’d saying running with the old tropes of Abyssal, Celestial, and Sylvan is a good start. Also, Druids will have their own writing system called Druidic, but it won’t be a spoken language – the magic is in the writing. We need an arcane tongue, and I’m not sure Draconic will be it. I’m actually waffling a lot on Draconic being a language. I’ll probably include it for now and axe it later if it doesn’t get used. Oh, and one more exotic supernatural language is needed – one for Elder Things. Lastly, we will need a dead language, possibly two or three. For now, I’ll use the language that was spoken in Thanras before its downfall.

So without further ado, here are the languages currently in Starfall:
  • Abyssal The language of those fiendish divine servitors who have turned on their deific lords and banded together for protection. Mostly spoken by shamans and diabolists.
  • Aranthian The language of the nomadic horsemen far to the south. Not spoken in Alnwich.
  • Carantanian The language of the warlike Carantanian chiefdoms. Not spoken in Alnwich.
  • Draconic The language of the primeval dragons.
  • Druidic The written language of runes used by druids. There is no spoken druidic language.
  • Lumian Likuma’s divine language of civilization from which all earthly languages are believed to derive. Spoken by divinities and their servants.
  • Noctian The language of Mënes, the Three-Formed. Sometimes called the Moon-Script or Crescent-Tongue, it is commonly used for magical writings.
  • Skidisk The language of those native to the lands about the Trollenmere. Still widely spoken by locals in Alnwich.
  • Sylvan The language of the fae. Not widely known outside of certain eclectic magical or spiritual circles.
  • Taylorian An unearthly series of glyphs that form the basis of unending dimensions in whose maddening angles and geometries stalk ideas unfathomable to those uncanny in that infinite space out of time.
  • Thanrasian The dead language of Thanras whose strange glyphs adorn the ruins of the doomed city and other ruins around the Trollenmere.
  • Uskan The language of Usk. Dialects are spoken all over the realm, but these mostly result in funny accents and idioms.


  1. I just want to add that languages can also be an advantage. For example, a medieval person didn't just learn Latin to be able to talk to people who only spoke Latin, or to finally unveil the mysteries of the bible, but as a measure of his own status. It allowed him to talk over the heads of others to the few educated people around him who knew the language, and it impressed the clergy. Similarly, a wizard might learn High Enochian not so he can finally talk to other people who only speak High Enochian, but to provide far greater oomph to his spells.

    Personally, I try to mix in some advantages into a language, so that it feels like more than just getting around an arbitrary barrier that the GM has put in your way.

    1. That's not a bad idea at all. I could see mundane languages giving a +1 reaction bonus from people from areas where that is the local language. I can also see casting certain flavors of spells in certain languages as giving some sort of bonus. I think I'm going to go back and see what I can add to languages, and see what sort of point value they should have when all is said and done - I'm not convinced they are worth a full 6 points to speak and read in a DF context.