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Alt-rules for languages...

The Linguistics skill.... it's one of those skills I love to hate. On the one hand, I want people to invest in stories and the overall narrative, and if I can get there by making language less of a barrier, I'm generally all in. But learning languages, especially as an adult, isn't the easier thing on the planet. In fact, I'd almost equate learning a new language (and sure, I'll include programming languages in that group) like learning magic. I imagine magic, like language, has a syntax, verbs, nouns, objects, and even rogue adjectives that one has to master before you can get off the easiest of spells.

I'm talking cantrips here, folks. Cantrips.

My point, of course, is that learning a full language should take more than simply earning a single skill rank. And the more I think about it, well, the more I think there has got to be a better way to handle languages.

Ironically, this is one of the very first things we discussed when I originally stepped onto the design team for The Shadowlands; at the time, I didn't really have a working answer for how to fix the problem of potentially speaking 15+ languages by level 15 (which is just stupid crazy when you actually think about it). So, I shelved the problem for a bit and went on about my day(s).

I was recently working on Bloodlines & Black Magic and the problem of languages came up again. For me, the problem still wasn't resolved and I couldn't, for the life of me, find a good working rule that I was comfortable (although I'd love to see your ideas, so feel free to leave them in the comments below). Anyway, here I was in this room with this particular hobgoblin, again, looking at how to best solve this problem.

In the process, I wrote this rule, which at the time I called the Immersion Rule (I'm not settled on this title, either). I'd like to share it with all of you, below. Note: This text is taken from the working manuscript of Bloodlines & Black Magic.

Drunk guy holding up a martini

Modern Languages

Language is as important in Bloodlines & Black Magic as it is in the world we know today, and that’s before considering that there are hidden kingdoms singing in Celestial and forgotten gods who refuse to speak with anyone unless they address them in Punjabi. While the technologically savvy can easily use a modern translator, they cannot mimic the connection people establish when they speak the actual language; there is a special magic in learning a new tongue. Academics will quickly point out that there are important flags that involve language; there is a nuance and cultural connection that translators, electronic or organic, just can’t convey.

Smart travelers already know this.

When one dares walk beyond the Veil, a mastery of language gives you a distinct edge, although that’s no promise your efforts will find fertile soil – everyone who’s seen it know things beyond the Veil get weird, fast.

When learning languages in Bloodlines & Black Magic, PCs have two options at their disposal. GMs wishing to stay close to classic method described in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook can refer to Chapter 4 – Skills for more information on how to learn new skills using Linguistics. PCs wanting a more detailed or realistic method of learning new languages should consider the Immersion Rule, described below:

The Immersion Rule The immersion rule assumes that language is difficult to learn, but that this learning can be reflected with a simple, three-tiered model. Using this model, each rank invested in a language describes a greater understanding of that language, including nonverbal traits, particular bits of lexicon, and even insight into the wider culture from which the language arises. Simply put, each individual’s understanding of a single language is broken down into three parts.

  • 1st Rank - When an individual invests a single rank into a language, they gain a basic understanding of that language; this includes speaking, writing, or even listening to others. These characters have to speak slowly, often take longer to read things, and may even have to ask NPCs to repeat themselves during encounters. These players may have to make Linguistics skill checks during play to understand a particular concept. Finally, individuals who barely speak a language suffer a -1 penalty on all Charisma-based skill checks while speaking that language.

  • 2nd rank - When an individual invests a second rank in a particular language, they gain full proficiency in that language; although they are clearly not native speakers, their abilities are respectable and they can navigate most conversations with ease. These players rarely have to make Linguistics skill checks while speaking or listening.

  • 3rd Rank - When an individual invests a third, final rank into a language, they gain a mastery of that language; these individuals can argue over nuance and meaning, easily matching native speakers in their understanding of that language. Although they may not be scholars, these individuals have the strongest understanding of a particular language. Moreover, individuals who master a language gain a +1 insight bonus on all Charisma-based skill checks with targets who share that same language as one of their native tongues.

This is described in the skill block like this:

Languages Language 3, Language 1, Language 1…

Example: Languages English 3, Spanish 1, Elven 1

Characters beginning play using this rule start play fully proficient (2 ranks) in a single language, which you select from Table X: Modern Languages. This first language is generally the dominant language of your family, tribe, or social group, even if it doesn’t match that of the wider culture into which you were born. Players should discuss how best to implement any deviations to this guideline with their GMs.

Additionally, you gain a number of ranks equal to your Intelligence score modifier; you may immediately invest these into one or more languages, gaining proficiency and eventual mastery in these new languages as you see fit, provided you could pay the cost to do so.

Finally, every time you gain a new rank in Linguistics, you may apply it to any single language you have access to (and pending GM approval), provided you have not already mastered that language.

Example Carissa (a 1st level expert with a 15 Intelligence) begins play proficient in a single language. Because her character is from California, she decides her occultist speaks English. However, because of her Intelligence score is 15, she gains two additional points she can immediately convert into ranks in Linguistics (she can't do anything else with these points). This means Carissa could, if she wanted, learn two additional languages – like French and Spanish – although she’d hardly be fluent in either. Of course, Carissa could also focus on a second language, dumping those points in Spanish, gaining complete proficiency in the process. If Carissa did this and gained another rank in Linguistics, she could master either of these two languages. She could also invest that rank into learning a third language if she wanted!

Of course, Carissa would still calculate all of her Linguistics skill checks using her total skill bonus from Linguistics, not based on any individual language. Even if Carissa only invested a single rank into learning Spanish, she'd skill make all her skill checks using her +8 (+2 Int, +3 ranks, +3 class skill), which allows her to focus all of her training toward a single problem, whether she's masted that tongue or not.

Sure, it may not be as simple as the current skill works, but I think it adds some realism to the system. I'd be especially curious to hear your thoughts! Is this something you'd use in your game?

Cheers, Jaye

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