Hot Button: Language, The Common Denominator?

image One issue that comes up at the start of every campaign, at least in my group, is whether everyone speaks a common language or not. Sometimes we talk about whether the game setting should even have one? Something that acts as a lingua-franca, a widely spread language shared by many people throughout the world.  With Gnome Stew being translated into other languages, this seems like the perfect time to look at the case for and against a common language.

A Common Language In The World?
D&D has common, modern/realistic games assume that most characters will speak the language of the country being played in unless specified otherwise, and futuristic settings often have commonly available means around such issues (such as translators). It seems that the rule, as opposed to the exception, is that a common language or means of communication exists, at least in the sense that most people the PCs encounter will be speaking the same language.

But is a common language realistic for an entire setting? It depends. There might be driving forces that spread a language across many otherwise insurmountable divides. Things like commerce across country borders spread languages. Conquering armies bring languages with them and leave them behind. Some forces, like the internet or television, can take a single language and spread it across a vast space and number of people.

Aside from a driving force, a language has to have an ability to spread in the world setting. Some force that lets the language be learned by those far from its originating source. Without something like widely available transportation, some global means of communication, or a reason that the common language can spread can a common language exist. There could be many reasons for this in a game setting. Perhaps a setting spanning empire mandates a specific language, a shared commerce language might exist, an ancient empire might have seeded the commonly spoken language, or translation magic or technology allows enough people to pick up the language. While we in the real world have no common language, there are many ways to write a realistic one into a fantasy setting.

Pros and Cons for  A Common Setting Language


  • Increases the number of people the party can communicate with
  • Removes annoying Abbot and Costello translation routines that could slow down game play
  • Allows you to handwave away any language barrier issues that would slow down gameplay by saying that it occurs in the common langauge.


  • Adventures or ideas that rely on a lack of communication can be foiled because players expecting the common language
  • A common language may not be realistic for the game setting
  • Removes comedic Abbot and Costello routines that could add to group enjoyment
  • Can remove a sense of uniqueness about countries or regions

I, personally, have trouble deciding whether world settings should have common languages or not. Some settings make them feel very natural and realistic, others just seem to have them for the sake of ease for play. My biggest complaint about common languages is that they can sometimes kill the uniqueness of a game setting. Travelling to other countries doesn’t seem nearly as epic when they speak the same thing there as they did in the last one.

If There Isn’t A Common World Language, Is There Even A Common Language In The Party?
Slightly easier to tackle than the idea of a common language in the world is the thought of a common language in the party. Ever had the situation where at least one party member doesn’t speak any language that the other party members speak? Groups that enjoy hardcore roleplaying often start out playing up the efforts required to translate between the languages the party speaks. Does the human have to translate for the dwarf so that the elf can translate into Oricsh so that the mage can translate into elemental? This can be entertaining and funny for a while, but often gets tedious. I’ve found that most groups I’ve played in usually deal with any language issues on their own. Eventually the group handwaves the language issue away in-group or people pick up a common language that they can share. Often one that few other people in the world would speak.

This is an issue that I’m very curious about, which is part of the reason I wrote this as a hot button article. So, how does your group handle the language issue? Do you find common languages in the world annoying or lifesavers? What about common languages in the group – does your group usually have a common language or do they do without?

IMG © Hans Hillewaert | CC3.0

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John Arcadian is a writer, gamer, art director, web designer, crafter, and kilt-wearer. You can find more of his writings on gaming over at For web-design projects, check out
  1. stephantravels     | Reply

    This came up several years ago when I ran twilight 2000, and then another time in a pendragon campaign. In both nationality and cultural difference were major themes and that overcoming language differences was a major plot point. I always insured that at least two PCs spoke the each language and that there would be an overlap of at least some skill. thus a choice of laurel and hardy or straighforward translation based on my and the players mood and the situation they found themselves in. In a fantasy setting such as ad&d I recently ran a game where the PCs were magically transported to another distant fantasy world and could understand anyone they talked to but where NPCs often couldnt understand each other.
    Reading it now its often been a theme for the reasons discussed above,language is such a big part of creating an exotic setting its not worth the hastles to me to make PCs roll every time they want to say anything but simply “everyone speaks common” seems to be a missed opportunity to me.
    loved the post

  2. Kurt "Telas" Schneider     | Reply

    This is another one of those topics that really depends on the group, setting, etc. I’m looking forward to the comments…

    My world has many different languages (racial, cultural, etc), but one Trade Tongue, which is a very simple pidgin language.

    I haven’t pursued this as much as I plan to, but when the party travels, only simple communication is possible (unless there’s another shared language). I suspect this will be another situation that calls for a firm hand on the tiller, to keep the game enjoyable, but not too frustrating.

  3. John Arcadian - Post Author     | Reply

    @Harald – So do players automatically get the languages of the major cultures then?

    @stephantravels – What you describe is one of the prime reasons I always get a comprehend languages magic item for my character anytime I play D&D. I like being able to speak languages in a game. If anyone can do it though,there are so many missed world opportunities. There are many old stories about spies being outed in WWII because they said “Ja” or “Da” instead of yes. That is how ingrained a native language is. In a purely mechanical aspect, not being able to communicate can be a pain or a story element. It is hard to walk the line to get the best of both.

    @Kurt “Telas” Schneider – The one world I had a hand in designing takes that route too. There is a pidgin “traveler’s tongue” that has no grammar and is viable to do basic business in. I give it free to everyone at the table when I run a game in that world, that way everyone can handwave the very basics away but I can maintain that exoticism of foreign languaes.

  4. Knight of Roses     | Reply

    I have run games that did not have a common language (modeling Renaissance Europe) and that proved to be far more pain than pleasure. I go for a lingua-franca in my current campaign that is wide spread enough that you can get by almost anywhere with it but if you end up in the far backwoods of beyond, you might be in trouble.

  5. Enchelion     | Reply

    I had an idea for an interesting middle-ground, edging towards the hardcore gamist side. Independent languages exist, but allow for a simple roll to determine whether a character can get the concept across that they need to. Something like d20+Int (in a DnD-type game) with a +2 modifier for each language the character knows. If you allow taking 10’s or similar rules, then this opens up some options where two people speak different languages. The downside is that it takes a lot of GM adjudication when it comes to the depth of concepts which can be communicated.

    TLDR: Let players roll to get ideas across language-barriers, those with more languages are better at it.

  6. xaktarsonis     | Reply

    In my Norse mythology world, most everyone knows a little bit of Low Norse. a common trade language. there is the deities language which is high Norse and most other countries have their own languages, most of time a dialect of Norse. Some of the nations such as those far out on the sea have evolved their own languages and each of the major races, such as elves, both light and and dark, as well as the dwarves have their own languages

  7. Roxysteve     | Reply

    The thing *I* find odd is that going back to White Box D&D (where the concept of Common Tongue was first laid out in gaming terms) the Common Tongue is always assumed to be the baseline for fluency in-game – if you speak common you always speak it at 100% in BRP terms.

    A more realistic approach would be to treat Common Tongue indeed as a lingua-franca, a second language at best, and hence conferring an implied less-than-fluency on each speaker (unless they did something about that).

    It might even be argued, persuasively from my thinking, that such a Common Tongue would probably be an incomplete language, best suited for trade purposes and not well-suited for courtly discourse, public oratory or other similar tasks.

    It might follow from this that using Common Tongue would be considered oafish, marking the speaker as an outlander at best, a foreigner at worst and most definitely of low social caste. In certain situations it might provoke NPCs to speak loudly and slowly in their native language as a studied insult.

    I never really thought about this in these terms before. There’s a lot of scope there. Hmm…

  8. Roxysteve     | Reply

    Of course, the true RPG language nut is best steered towards any of the versions of “Empire of the Petal Throne” which, having been designed by a linguist, is chock-a-block with languages including a double handful of *dead* languages.

    Try figuring out a technological treasure from ages past when the instructions are in a language no-one has spoken for three thousand years.

    It doesn’t have a Common Tongue either, as far as I recall.

  9. Roxysteve     | Reply

    In magical High Fantasy game worlds I suppose the Common Tongue could in fact be a magical artifact – a gift from either a very powerful sorcerer with a social-engineering bent or some God or other for whatever purpose it was working towards at the time.

    Which would make all my previous reservations moot.

  10. John Arcadian - Post Author     | Reply

    @Knight of Roses – There is actually historical basis for a semi lingua-franca in the real world. It wasn’t spoken by everyone, but those who did travel and do business abroad had a mix of the primary languages in use. It worked for regions and trade routes, but not for the mass populace.

    @Enchelion – That is a pretty decent idea. I’ve implemented something like that when players have needed to talk to people who share no common language, letting them roll and try to convey enough of the idea to function.

    @xaktarsonis – I find it important for the non common races (in a norse world the Elves and Dwarves) to have their own languages. Without their own racial language you lose a sense that they have that separateness from the human standard. Do the elves and dwarves in your world speak the low norse as well?

    @Roxysteve – Your comment about a common tongue being the base language definitely seems like the realistic option. High dignitaries and nobles would be much less likely to converse in the “vulgar” tongue as specialization of languages leads to exclusivity.

  11. Harald     | Reply

    @John Arcadian
    So far I’ve only had characters from the European-derived culture, and they start with the Common Tongue, i.e. the pidgin. Each realm has its own form, but there’s enough similarities between different realms that communication can flow. Think severe dialects, so a roll might be called for if the speaker is slurring or talking fast.

    1 dot in Academics means schooling, and with this comes literacy and knowledge of the formal language. Most educated people will converse in this tongue. Speaking Common is, as Roxysteve said, considered oafish and uneducated.

    The other cultures are mostly large realms (the Arabic-like sultanate, the Chinese-like empire, et al.), and these each have their own language.

  12. Sarlax     | Reply

    I always consider languages, and I’d like to incorporate realism, but I end up settling on some kind of Common once I can craft an excuse for it which has at least some substance. At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s going to be as fun to spend time at the table learning how to talk to NPCs – or worse, the other PCs. There’s a reason why language went from being a key plot point in the Stargate film to being a minor piece of fluff in the TV series.

    That said, there’s room for compromise. It’s possible to have a skill-check system to allow characters to learn enough of a language to communicate (e.g., make a Diplomacy check, a History check, and a third check related to the group to get by in conversation). Otherwise, there’s no conversation.

    Going with Roxysteve’s idea, if it sounded fun to the players, I’d have Common be a pidgin rather a complete language. The simplest way to represent this in-game is probably skill penalties. If you’re using Diplomacy, Bluff, etc. in Common, you take a constant -X penalty because you just don’t have the words and syntax to get your idea completely across.

    This would also require creating a new default language in some games; in D&D, there’s no “Human,” but there is Elven. To allow every group to communicate effectively internally, you’d have to supply some default language.

    A campaign could take this further and have some languages, which the game by default treats as complete, actually be pidgins. For instance, Orcish might be a pidgin because the tribes are mutually hostile, don’t trade, and are frequently illiterate. The result is that all social checks in Orcish entail social penalties, and this suits orc stereotypes just fine.

  13. Roxysteve     | Reply

    @Sarlax – But switching to another universal language just sidesteps the issue. Why bother?

    You know, Conan has no “common tongue” and works just fine. Every character knows a bunch of languages, not just one, and they make sense – at least as much as these things ever do.

    I think there’s mileage in concepts like trading languages which can describe weights and measures and commodities in detail, but can’t be used without portmanteau words for giving directions, or a battle language that is rich in situational adjectives and verbs but is pig-useless for discussing the benefits of one restaurant over another.

    However, these things aren’t important in most games. Why buy work for yourself? Players are willing to hand-wave some surprising stuff, and language is one of them.

  14. Sarlax     | Reply


    To clarify, I did not mean that there should be another universal language, just that there’s a language which replaces Common for those who speak it as a primary language. In games like D&D, if you subtract Common (or make it an incomplete language), you’re left with races like humans which otherwise have no language. They need need their own language, or at least regional languages, to avoid being unduly disadvantaged. So humans speak Human, elves speak Elven, and dwarves speak Dwarven, and Common is a pidgin which imposes a -4 penalty on all social skill checks.

    As for trade languages, battle languages, etc., it’s neat and realistic, but, agreeing with you, I think it’s possible that using them just creates work. However, you can simulate the limitations of such languages with fixed penalties, avoiding the work, rather than monitoring players’ communications to verify they aren’t using forbidden words.

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  16. Lugh     | Reply

    I actually took the concept a bit further for my world. There are actually *four* “common” tongues. (I originally borrowed the concept from Dragonlance.) Camp Common is spoken by soldiers. It is crude, with virtually no grammar, but is also the only language that has a silent sign language that goes with it. Trade Common evolved from sailor’s pidgin, which became adopted by other merchants. The combination of salty sailor’s epithets and fierce bartering terms has led to a very … *descriptive* language. Imperial is the court language, spoken by all nobility and used for official functions. Draconic is the language of scholars, and virtually all academic works are written in it.

    This actually isn’t that dissimilar from actual language use in Europe in the Renaissance. There wasn’t, as far as I know, an equivalent of Camp Common, but I added that due to backstory of multiple armies being fused together without regard to nationality. There really was a sailor’s pidgin (well, more than one, depending on how you choose to put boundaries around such a rough language). The remnants of it are what we often refer to as “pirate speak” today. French or Italian often served as courtly languages, even outside France and Italy. And, of course, any educated man read both Latin and Greek fluently, as that is what nearly all the books were written in.

    I like the idea of explicitly forbidding any of the common tongues as native languages. That makes perfect sense.

    It has been my experience, though, that most uses of languages fall into one of three broad categories. The story requires you to communicate, so you have a language in common. The story requires the players to not understand the people they are listening to, so they don’t. The story requires broken language with frustration and mis-spoken words, so the NPC has only a broken understanding. Actual rules about languages, no matter what they are, are generally hand-waved to fit into whichever category they belong in.

  17. GeoffA     | Reply

    I had this come up in a game recently, where I hadn’t really expected language to be an issue. I was running a DnD (4th ed) game, which was designed to be an introduction for new players, but ended up involving mostly experienced players trying out new characters.

    The one character who stands out was a young dragonborn barbarian. The player portrayed him as having only recently learned common. It wasn’t enough to disrupt the game, just occasionally pretending to stop and think of the right word. “You want us to . . . how do you say it . . . surround the house?” It gave that character something distinctive to make him interesting relative to every other 1st level barbarian.

    I guess the moral of this story is that it is mechanically useful to have a common language, but it could be characterful to play around with the idea that someone is not familiar with the language.

  18. fmitchell     | Reply

    Another solution is to assume a widespread language that has split into mostly-intelligible dialects. More isolated communities, or those farther from home, might speke weyerdlike. Speakers of Turkish exist from Turkey to Central Asia, with each dialect intelligible to its neighbors but not to those further away.

    Perhaps, also, a far-away empire conquered the campaign’s region: everybody who travels or reads can speak both High Dominator and their ancestral local language.

    For example, in one campaign that fizzled the PCs — who were non-evil orcs for all intents and purposes — everyone spoke a dialect of the same language, written with ideograms from their fallen civilization. The Invaders (humans) came from multiple nations, all conquered by a theocratic empire and speaking the same demotic form of the holy language. (Think Classical Arabic vs. modern dialects of Arabic.) A proposed campaign, set in the same world, followed one conquered human territory and its war against the elves … who, themselves, spoke one language with four dialects: Light Elvish, Dark Elvish, Wood Elvish, and Slave Elvish. (Yep, the elves had human slaves. The Light Elves. It was that kind of world.)

    Mechanically, one BRP game I played in had a general “Languages” skill, representing how well they understood the welter of alien tongues around them. Lamentations of the Flame Princess has a similar mechanic to determine whether the character understands a *specific* language, with a spot on the character sheet to record ones he does and does not understand. (PCs can recheck languages they did not understand when they level up.)

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John Arcadian