Does anybody actually use language mechanics? I suppose there must be some not-insignificant number of people who do. There wouldn’t be so many games that include languages if nobody was using them. But the people using them sure aren’t playing with me. I can’t recall the last time I encountered an NPC who only spoke some specific non-common language. Occasionally I’ve encountered non-common inscriptions or writings. Usually, though, those seem to be intended as set dressing, rather than as something meant to have an impact on the game. That’s a poor justification for having a language skill.
It makes sense. Both why we have languages in the game, and why nobody uses them. Language barriers are intrinsic to the sort of genre fiction a lot of us have in mind when we play D&D. But games and fiction are different things. In a game sense, language barriers don’t work out to be very fun for anybody.
For players, encountering a language you don’t know generally means you’re going to miss out on information that is helpful, but not strictly necessary to move forward. You could waste time finding a translator, or you could waste a spell slot carrying around “Comprehend Languages,” but usually there’s an easier way around the problem.
For the referee, why bother doing anything in any language other than common? If your players do speak Elvish, then the only benefits from adding anything Elvish to the game are:
1. Atmosphere, and
2. to validate the usefulness of speaking Elvish.
On the flip side of things, if none of your players speak Elvish, you’ve either got to put work into making something interesting that they’ll probably never see, or you’ve got to validate their apathy by making something trivial.
None of which is to say that languages can’t work in their current form. I realize that the above criticisms are an oversimplification. But I do think it’s a reasonable assessment of how languages work in practice. So instead of modifying the way we play to accommodate the rules system, I thought I’d take a shot at modifying the rules system to accommodate the way we (I?) play. I have two proposals.
The first is to divide languages into two groups. There are the languages of the common folk, and the languages of the uncommon folk.
Common folk are any species that has a widespread, peaceful presence in the game world. In a standard fantasy setting that’d be stuff like elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, humans, and so on. Every single member of all of these races speak Common. There will never be any language barrier to talking with them. However, everybody prefers to speak in their native languages when possible. If you meet a dwarf, and you speak to them in the dwarf tongue, it will be taken as a sign of respect. Speaking to a member of a common race that is not your own in their native tongue grants a +1 bonus on reaction rolls and social actions.
The uncommon folk are the sorts of things that aren’t part of normal society. The creatures your players don’t normally talk to. Oozes, Dragons, Beholders, Orcs, Goblins, etc. These creatures only speak their native tongues. So if you want to parley with them, you’ll need to speak it as well.
Using this system, knowing a commonplace language grants the player a significant, logical benefit, without requiring that the referee change the way they prepare their game in the slightest. Meanwhile, knowing an uncommon language ‘unlocks’ the ability to speak with a whole group of monsters. There’s no need to make an individual orc particularly interesting to make knowing Orcish worthwhile. The very fact that you can talk to any orc ever at all is the interesting thing.
Alternatively, language could be used as a kind of fence. A way to keep your players penned into an easy to manage area without being too heavy handed. After all, this is pretty much how language works in the real world.
Ya see, here they speak English. You can undersatand what everybody is saying. Because of that, you can function effectively in this part of the world. If you go too far to the east, then everybody will speak French. You don’t speak French, so you won’t be able to understand anybody in that area. You can go there if you want, but it’s unlikely anybody will want to hire you, and even if they do you’ll have a hard time understanding what they want. Probably easiest just to stay within these English-speaking hexes here.
If you were to use language this way you’d probably want to alter the language system to be more limited. I’d start players off speaking only their native language. They could spend X amount of time and gold to learn a new language, thus allowing them to go to a territory which speaks that language without difficulty. (Not to mention giving me some lead-time to prepare interesting stuff to go there).