Dungeons & Dragons Online

Roll for Linguistics! [5e] [New Skill]


Linguistics – The Skill 5e Forgot

Languages are a living thing. They evolve, mutate, mix and diverge.

People fluent in multiple languages find it easier to learn or pickup words in new languages.

Some languages share a common alphabet, vocabulary, syntax, grammar.

Spending a short time surrounded by people who speak a foreign tongue, will allow most people to acquire some basic understanding of the language, and, this knowledge will be perishable quickly if not practiced.

Nothing of this is covered in the standard D&D 5e Language rules and while there is the Comprehend Languages spell (PHB 224), handling multi-lingual encounters / events without it – often feels too binary (you either know or don't know the language).


Why do you need it?

Because you feel that without magical means, PCs can attempt to gain partial understanding of languages they might not know or have picked up at character creation / leveling up.

And because you welcome a more non-binary (success/fail) approach to handling conversations and correspondence in your campaign

The Party camps out in a large empty cave, after noticing one cave wall is riddled with strange markings / runes…

DM: "On a closer look, the strange markings on the wall appear to be some text paragraph in some unfamiliar alphabet."

PC: "Before I go to sleep, I will spend an hour or two studying it by the campfire light, taking notes of my research (I have ink pen and parchment)"

DM: "Cool. Make a Linguistics roll with advantage (for the time taken and the fact you are writing it down)"

PC: "Errr… I don't have *Linguistics* on my character sheet"


Rolling for Linguistics?

Ability modifier (Wisdom) + Proficiency modifier (see below) + Expertise modifier (see below) 

– Ability Modifier

WIS, not INT. Why?

It has been my experience, traveling the world, that street urchins and beggars of zero education but lots of street-smarts and common sense – speak a plethora of languages (basically all the tongues of the tourists that visit there) – way more than most academia established professors (for the most part). For me, that means languages is more Wisdom based than Intelligence.

I can see arguments to the other side – at the end of the day, go with what seems right to your campaign.

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– Proficiency Modifier

Chances are, none of your party PCs is proficient in this, as they didn't know it was an option to choose. But they can gain proficiency in it when they level up and get a chance to take another skill proficiency. PCs proficient in linguistics, have an above average knack / knowhow / background experience with studying multiple, foreign languages.

You might consider giving this proficiency for "free" to one or more PCs, if it seems to be "right up their alley" with their background / character design.


– Expertise Modifier

A person who speaks several languages, find it easier to learn more new languages. Again, this is something from my experience and I want this represented in the game.

For every known language, except their native one, a PC gets +1 to their Linguistics roll.

+1 per known language -1

Example: A Dwarf/Rogue PC speaking Common, Dwarf, Undercommon, and Thieve's Cant – would get a +3 (+4 for total languages, -1 for their native Dwarf tongue).

And yes, I would include Thieves Cant, Druidic and everything you consider to be a "real language" in your campaign world.


Setting Linguistics DCs

As always, setting the DC is mostly about gauging the right difficulty level. Contextual modifiers apply here as usual of course (how much time is spent? are there interruptions? visibility / audibility optimal or subpar?). In addition to these, try to consider modifiers based on the source language's familiarity / foreignness to the languages the PC already knows.

Example: So a PC who speaks Sylvan but not Elvish, might benefit a modifier bonus when attempting to decipher an Elvish text, as, in our campaign, Elvish is derived from Sylvan.


– Oral vs. written Linguistics

While a written text is usually there to be examined thoroughly and carefully, it offers no clues as to intonation, context, sarcasm, emotion, etc…

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On the other hand, being present in a conversation (seeing and hearing), does offer a whole lot more context. Even heard only phrases may betray intonation, urgency, fear, etc. Conversations, though, are heard / perceived only once – and then go into the realm of memory.

Considering the above, it is my feeling that neither should be easier / harder to decipher using Linguistic rolls. Once more, this will usually be determined contextually, at the session, at the given encounter.

An insight roll (At disadvantage) might be a better way to gauge emotions (fear, urgency, etc.) of someone crying in the dark in an unknown language, than a Linguistics roll. Eavesdropping on a bugbear hunting pack w/o knowing Bugbear, however, may be a good case for a Linguistics roll.


– Variant: Open Linguistics Rolls

The open roll is a riff on some older D&D edition mechanic (I don't recall which now), that may apply to many proficiency / skill checks, but I will describe how to use it with Linguistics.

The PC rolls his D20 and adds their modifier as usual, but instead of overcoming a DC, they count "successes", where each success is worth 5. This basically means:

1d20 + all modifiers / 5 rounded down.

The more successes netted, the better understanding of the text heard / read.

Result Successes DM Interpretation / Ruling
1-4 Total failure – nothing perceived / understood
5-9 1 Mostly failed, some minor hint or revelation (here's a vowel)
10-14 2 Near success. PC gain 25%-50% understanding of the text
15-19 3 Partial Success. PC gains 50%-75% understanding of the text
20-24 4 Success. PC gains 75%-90% understanding of the text
25+ 5+ Complete success. PC gain 90%-100% understanding of the text

Note: a natural 20 is just a 20 in an open roll. no auto-success


Linguistics and Cyphers

Often times in a D&D adventure, the players will encounter unfamiliar texts as puzzle handouts – the idea being the players have to use their own brains to decipher the text, rather than just have their PCs roll for everything.

You can decide to augment these puzzles with Linguistics checks, especially if the players are having a hard time. A good roll may provide some vowels, letters, or reveal a specific word.

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Other Notes

There are a lot more ways you can expand and extend languages and linguistics in your game-world, if this adds a value to you and your players

  • Consider creating a basic "ancestry tree" for your campaign's languages
  • Spend some time pondering:
    • Which languages came first?
    • Which languages derive from which?
    • Which languages are known outside their respective lands / cultures?
  • Consider how much slang and local dialects your campaign's main languages has?
  • Consider unique words in your world, that might permeate several languages. For instance, decide that the word Dragon / Drake is used in all languages similarly (sort of like we use the word "internet" in most languages in our world)
  • Consider crafting a list of common greetings, farewells, swear words and exclamations. Some words (for instance "mofo") become so well known they transcend language and may be used uttered or recognized in many tongues…

Comprehend Languages

This spell, lets the caster full knowledge of any language they see or hear (written texts require touch range).

Using Linguistics in a party where members have access to this spell should not be problematic. Keep using the spell as is – meaning no Linguistics rolls are required when dealing with languages while under the spell effect. Linguistics should come into play whenever you deal with languages without arcane or divine power.

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