This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Problem: What Did He Say?
In our weekly gaming group, we have a minor dispute about the impact/importance of the language Common. The debate is about how extensive the language really is. Some of us claim that you can use it to talk freely as if it were its own language. Others claim that you can only use it to speak like a stereotypical Orc ("Me buy sword, you twelve coin"). We would like you to clear this up for us once and for all -- settle the score so to say.
-- Peter, from AskWizards.com
Before I answer your question, I will address another issue that lurks under the surface of the question you ask -- why is there a Common language at all? Isn't it a little unrealistic for everyone to speak the same language, especially in a medieval-ish society where most people never travel more than a few days' ride from home?
This is one of those questions that you don't want to think too hard about. It's like watching a movie about the Middle Ages and wondering why everyone speaks modern English (probably with a British accent). OK, yeah, you got 'em. It's not realistic. You win. Happy now?
The thing is, it's easier to watch the movie and follow what's going on if the people speak English than if they speak a language you don't understand. This is especially true if it is an entirely made-up language such as elvish or orcish. A real-world language will at least be understood in certain countries. In a game, you need to weigh ease of use and playability against 'realism' and decide which way you want to go.
The question you ask -- how effective is Common as a a communication tool -- is a question without an answer other than the one you give it. I will give you a couple of suggestions on how to think about a Common language and how you want to answer that question, but there is no real, final, official answer. I can't settle the score or set the record straight, because it exactly what the Common language is all about is (perhaps intentionally) ambiguous in the rules. All that the Player's Handbook states is, "The language heard most, however, is Common, a tongue shared by all who take part in the culture at large" (p. 12). The answer is not in the book -- it's all in how you want to play it.
1. Get Rid of Language Skills Entirely
This is the simplest solution. Everyone in the game wants to be able to communicate, so stop worrying about separate languages and just assume everyone can talk to one another. Everyone -- everyone! -- speaks Common, and no one speaks anything else. Some creatures will have funny accents or speech mannerisms, but pretty much everyone speaks the same, even in the Land Across the Sea or the Far Eastern Realms across the Silk Road or wherever. Spells such as tongues go away. You could keep something comprehend languages and a skill such as Decipher Script as a way to figure out coded messages or if you want to assume that once upon a time there were ancient runes and languages that are no longer understood, or at least, no one speaks them anymore. Because no one knows enough of these languages to piece together a whole lexicon, deciphering them is about piecing together fragments to discern general meanings or knowing a handful of words and phrases. Hey, it works in the Wheel of Time, so why not in D&D?
2. Get Rid of Common
This is the opposite extreme. If Common creates confusion, get rid of it. There is no Common. All languages are regional or cultural or national. Problem solved in the other direction. Heck, you can even make local dialects for places such as the Hordelands of Forgotten Realms! If you go this way, either make it easier to learn languages and dialects, restrict your adventuring to a limited geographic area, or expect to spend a lot of time dealing with translation issues.
3. Common as Trade Pidgin
Some in your group suggest this -- Common as a patchwork, Creole tongue that includes bits and pieces of everything. It's enough to let you buy and sell and communicate general ideas, and that's about it. That's fine. It works, because PCs can get done what they need to get done, and you can impose appropriate skill penalties if they try to overdo Bluff, Diplomacy, or the like when Common is the only mode of communication. I've never quite liked this idea, even though it makes a kind of sense. It sounds dumb to my ear when you roleplay it. It's probably better for a DM to just make a note of what can be communicated using Common, and restrict PCs to that.
4. Common is the Universal Language
While the other solutions work, I think the standard for D&D and the most direct answer to your question is that Common is the language that most people speak. For whatever reason, it has propagated throughout almost all human societies (and even most nonhuman ones) and has gradually displaced local languages to the point where they have fallen into disuse. Once the language reaches a certain critical mass, it becomes difficult to do business or interact with people without it. Even though local tongues might persist as home languages, especially in remote areas (as in the AD&D World of Greyhawk setting), the new, universal language becomes progressively more universal as people find themselves at a disadvantage if they don't learn and use it. This sort of cultural imperialism is not an automatic process, but you can assume for the sake of argument that it works and it happened in the D&D world.
This way is easy. You still have separate languages that people can learn if they want, and different languages will be useful at different times in the campaign. For most people, Common is all they need to know to be functional citizens of the game world.
The people that would not adopt the universal language (or not necessarily) are the nonhuman races. They have their own sense of racial identity and culture that allows them to hold on to their own traditions, especially when dealing with one another rather than humans. They will probably learn Common to deal with the more numerous humans, but they would view it as a second language. Of course, why should all elves or all dwarves or all kobolds or all dragons even speak the same racial language? You can make arguments based on their greater lifespan that their languages evolve and change at a much slower rate than human tongues, so even though these races are old, they have not had the generational turnover of humans. Their root culture has stayed mostly intact. Then again, since these races are older and presumably wiser than humans, why didn't they teach the humans to speak their language? Too haughty, too insular, not wanting to give away racial secrets … it could be anything, but you can assume each race has its own racial Common language. Given the way that races cross-proliferate and live together in a typical D&D campaign, maybe it seems a little silly that each would develop its own Common language in parallel, but you can assume that most races have lived with their own race for most of the time. The mixing of cultures would have happened recently enough that races kept their own tongues.
If you want an easy, in-game rationale for why a Common language exists, the simplest answer is that the current campaign scenario is set upon the bones of a recently crumbled empire (like the AD&D Birthright setting) or is still in the midst of an imperial system (as with the Enlightened rule of the Grand Caliph of Huzuz in Al-Qadim). For reasons of politics, religion, or both, the empire developed and enforced the use of its language as universal. Everyone who interacted with the empire had to know it. This rationale is harder to use in a more fragmented world such as Eberron or Forgotten Realms, but you can easily pull something together with a little thought.
As an aside, this same concept works for universal coinage. Why is a gold piece a gold piece everywhere, why is it 10 coppers to a silver, and so on. Local and regional coinage can be an entertaining campaign device just as local languages can be, but it can also be a maddening exercise in bean-counting. If you assume the empire standardized weights, measures, and coinage, then a universal monetary system makes perfect sense. The coins may have different names and shapes in different places, but they're all the same in value.
It's all a matter of ease of play vs. realism. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages, so you have to make your own choice about where you fall. Common is as useful and as universal as you want it to be. You and your group need to make up your own minds about how you want to use it.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.