Fleshing Out Language Proficiencies in 5th Edition D&D

I recently wrote up my houserules for giving the Medicine skill a little more depth and utility.  When push came to shove, I scaled back some of the “crunchy” benefits I had incorporated because the changes didn’t feel right to me in light of 5th edition’s streamlined rules.   At the same time I wanted to stress the use of Medicine in diagnosing and treating long-term illnesses and poisoned creatures without adding unneeded complexity.

With that in mind I got thinking about ways to expand upon the uses of other skills and proficiencies in 5th edition.  Today’s proficiency:

LANGUAGES

According to the Player’s Handbook, your character can speak, read, and write certain languages “by virtue of their race”.  In addition characters may gain languages from their class choice (i.e. bards know additional languages, druids speak Druidic, and rogues speak Thieves’ Cant) and/or from class archetypes (knowledge domain clerics are learned and, as such, gain additional languages).  Finally, both backgrounds and some feats grant added languages.

But what does knowing a language mean beyond understanding its spoken and written words?  Here are some insights from the Player’s Handbook:

  • Draconic is thought to be one of the oldest languages and is often used in the study of magic.
  • Elven literature is rich and varied, and their songs and poems are famous among other races. Many bards learn their language so they can add Elvish ballads to their repertoires.
  • Humans typically learn the languages of other peoples they deal with, including obscure dialects. They are fond of sprinkling their speech with words borrowed from other tongues: Orc curses, Elvish musical expressions, Dwarvish military phrases, and so on.
  • The Gnomish language, which uses the Dwarvish script, is renowned for its technical treatises and its catalogs of knowledge about the natural world.

As such, it’s pretty clear that knowing languages should impart a character with insights into that race’s cultural and social mores, history, idioms (phrases that have both a literal and figurative meaning), works of literature and music, and generally provide give an inkling of that race’s outlook on life.  Speaking elven, for example, should allow that speaker to know a bit of their history, to be familiar with passages from elven works of literature, to be able to know some elven poems and songs, and better understand the elven people.

Also, HOW the character came to know the language should be factored into the equation.  Did a character who speaks Elven live among the elves for years, did an elven friend or paramour teach them, was it learned in a college of magic or bardic college, or did the character pore over tomes in order to teach themselves the tongue?

When considering Intelligence-based skills, I try to consider which languages could relate to them.  For example, I try to remember which characters speak Elven and Draconic (and, sometimes, other languages… such as Gnomish) when magical texts are found because those texts will often be written, at least in part, in those tongues.  When that’s the case, the character will gain advantage on their Arcana roll.   At the same, I would grant disadvantage on a History check when the check involves a race whose language a character isn’t fluent in.

Use of Charisma-based skills would also benefit.  For example, a character who speaks Orc would know when to use Intimidation and when to use Persuasion (or Deception) when parlaying with a band of orcs.  Likewise, a character who speaks Dwarven very possibly had extensive dealing with the dwarves (who don’t just teach their language to anyone), and would know how best to address a dwarven lord or haggle with a merchant.  Not speaking a race’s language could grant disadvantage when dealing with members of that race… depending on the circumstances.  While Common would allow for communication between a human and dwarf, things would go more smoothly if the human spoke dwarven (which would impart some degree of dwarven etiquette).

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