Language of Culture

So you have the DM’s Kit, you have read through it and you want to give World Building a bit of a shot. World building is one of the fun parts about being a DM. I know I have sketched out dozens of worlds over the years. But world building is probably one of the most thankless tasks a DM does, and this might explain the popularity of published settings. Handing your players a book that has pictures and has been professionally written and edited is nearly always more likely to get their interest than your cobbled together notes. (I know I have a blog at which I maintain my home brew setting for my players on, I’m not sure more than one of them has actually spent any time there.)

In the last couple of articles in this column I have presented ideas for worlds that diverge in one way or another from the typical DnD setting, and while those settings could be fun and you could do much with them, they are not necessarily good first worlds, and certainly there is much to do to make them into living and breathing worlds. It is those breathes of life that I intend to focus on in this article especially on some shorthand ways of breathing life into your setting.

“You must bow before the king.”

Culture is an important tool in making your setting unique and special. Yet there are problems with just lumping a culture on a setting, your players will come to the game with preconceived ideas about the setting, and “Fantasy” has a very generic culture that is now well entrenched in our world views, that is well echoed in books such as the two “Heroes of..” guides.

So before you start making a culture a major feature of your setting (unless you and your players have a common interest in that culture) I suggest focusing on small things you can adopt from the culture you are interested in and adding those one without greatly disturbing the generic fantasy cultures described in the 4E core materials. You can see examples of this in Dark Sun (Balic is the most obvious), Forgotten Realms, and Dragonlance, published settings that borrow small, or large, parts of real world cultures to give a distinct flavor to a part of their world.

You can borrow things from the names of government offices to building styles, to eating utensils. All of these things are not critical to the general fantasy feel of the 4E core assumptions, but they can make your world a unique place.

“Who knew they were French?”

In DnD language is often hand waved away, it is an inconvenience for the players not to be able to understand each other or other races, but the truth is that this simplification of language removes a lot of flavor and plot options from a game. Keep in mind when you are working on your setting that you don’t have to include a universal language, but also keep in mind that the players will have access to Comprehend Language. If different languages are going to be important it is however wise to let the players know, especially if the languages are going to be tied to something more than broad races as they are in the core DnD books.

Being able to use language to highlight differences is also a simple tool, haughty eladrin that will only speak to you in the Elven language, halflings from different lands who speak a different language and have thick accents, all of these things are simple. In fact accents are one of the easiest ways of highlighting language and culture at the same time.

Maybe all your elves have an Indian accent, your Orcs and giants sound Russian, your Dwarves have German or Scandinavian accents. The sounds of these accents create associations in your players minds, they hear an Indian accent and they see domed minarets, Hindu art and so on. These shortcuts to your player’s memories are easily accessed by using different sounds, and it is easier than trying to organize smells, tastes, touches or sights, especially when what you might well be trying to highlight is how the person the characters are talking to is different from the characters.

“Who studies Latin anymore?”

The Common tongue might at first seem to be a strange thing when you first come to DnD, but it isn’t as strange as it might seem. As an Empire expands it takes its language and culture with it. Looking back at the history of Europe you can observe the spread and influence of the Roman Empire in both language and archeological finds, and even buildings that remain standing today. As an Empire spreads one of the surest ways to have control over your empire is to have a common language in that Empire, local languages might still exist, but people who want to deal with strangers from other parts of the Empire (like PCs) are best served by learning that common language. In the 4E core assumptions there is a “lost empire” in the recent history (a mere 100 years, remember elves live for well over 200 years), and so it is easiest to imagine that “Common” is the language of that empire.

You can give common another name (Nerathese, Nerago, Nerathi), or leave it as Common, then you can make up regional dialects and languages. Maybe the people of the Nentir Vale have a regional language they all speak. If all your players come from the Vale then give them that language.

The other thing that Rome suggests is that this ancient empire should have buildings and architecture it has left behind, not just in ruins that adventurers will explore, but useful buildings that are still parts of cities. Coliseums, bathes, aqueducts, pagodas, domed copulas, all are buildings or structures you can place in cities or towns that have existed since before the empire fell, or that rose up and copied its styles afterward. Just remember that there is nearly nothing known about the Nerathi Empire, so you can flavor it liberally to suit your desires.

“Do you speak-a my language?”

So your game has broken out of your character’s home area and gone to a different plane, and yet everyone is speaking common still, why is that? Maybe in the Shadowfell where a common language might be needed, but nearly everything that can speak in the Feywild speaks Elven, so why are they using Common, or worse why in the Astral Sea or Elemental Chaos?

There are essentially two approaches to this, the “everyone speaks English” approach, which is unrealistic but it keeps the game about the story and puts language in the back seat in a pronounced way if anyone ever stops to think about it. You will notice in 4E that there are two “universal translation” languages, Abyssal and Supernal, these languages when spoken by some beings are automatically understood by all listeners. Between this effect and the “everyone speaks common” there is plenty of scope to hand wave away language as a barrier to adventure (oh and at Paragon a Gem of Colloquy for a given language is a pretty easy purchase removing the barrier entirely).

The other approach is the “what did he say?” one. In this approach, common is only a native language of your corner of the world, get to far away from that, or travel to a different plane and people suddenly stop speaking your language. This approach allows you to have more utility in language, and make the other places more alien, forcing the characters to find the means to communicate with the different people and cultures they encounter away from their world.

“Talk slowly and loudly…”

Using language and cultural elements allows you to make your setting unique and bring it to life more in your players mind, and in yours. You can invest a little time in these elements by simply sprinkling flavor through a generic fantasy mix, or you can spend a lot of time carefully crafting a complete culture for your world or region. How much time and effort you invest is up to you of course, but as you start out it is always best to start small. If you start small you can always add more details later, and you can tweak and adjust more readily to allow for things you discover as you play the game.

Just remember to steal liberally from real cultures that are of interest to you and your players, this will make things much easier for you and them to understand what is happening in your game.

However, the most important thing is, season to taste, add just enough culture and language so that the players can understand more of their character’s world and use it in your stories as much as it demands, without making piles of work for yourself on trivia your players will likely never read, and will care about even less (unless they are really interested in that stuff like you).

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