"Bonus" Languages and You

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This is a somewhat longish “Storytime with Brend” post. If you’re in a hurry, skip to the end.

When I started my longest-running campaign—the Ilfreann campaign is at least 14 years and counting—I took a lot of world-building ideas from existing sources. The geographic and political area the campaign focused on at the start was based on the works of a fiction author that posted their story to a newsgroup1. From their setting I took the initial geography and political situation, as well as the starting set of gods and their related churches.

To complement the setting—and because at that point in time I only had a few years of world-building experience—I took the races from the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 handbooks. Though I did start out by immediately banning Gnomes, Halflings, and Dwarfs from my game world based on some not-so-very-thorough ecological arguments.

I went on to expand the set of known gods with several others based on the D&D 3.5 axis of Good-Evil and Law-Chaos. Maps were drawn up to fill out some of the ‘uncharted lands’ surrounding the kingdom that formed the core of the world. Big decisions were made that affected the whole of Ilfreann. Looking back, I was rather opinionated on what made a good setting, and not always with the most thought-out of opinions.

I would say that most decisions and design choices aged well. There are a few things that have been adjusted over time—such as the removal of Resurrection and other coming-back-from-the-dead methods—but many of the opinionated decisions such as “Dragon’s do not go around flaunting they are dragons2” or “The material plane Ilfreann itself is a god” have turned out to be a strong foundations for many, many stories and intricacies.

When it came to languages I simply used what the D&D books said. After all, the languages are part of the rules, are they not? The single tweak I made was to swap out “Elven” with “Human”, because the campaign started out in elven lands, and I felt at the time that “Common” ought to mean “whichever language is commonly spoken.”


That was not a good decision.

As it turns out, languages and cultures are both important, and very much related, parts of world-building. To the point that most larger cultures should come with at least one or two languages related to them, and vice-versa!

Unfortunately, most roleplay books seem to take the “the Human Kingdom speaks Human”, “the Elven Kingdom speaks Elven”, “the Orc Horde speaks Orcish” approach. Which is, in my opinion, the exact opposite of what you would want in a campaign setting. It turns the world into a strange place where each races has one culture specifically for that races. Depending somewhat in the publication year of your roleplay system of choice the human races might get some special treatment and get multiple cultures, le gasp!

Because languages play a big role in how your character interacts with the game world it makes sense for them to start out with one or more languages. In D&D and Pathfinder this is reflected in the idea of Bonus Languages: if your character has a high intelligence, they get access to additional languages, and you get to pick them from the Bonus languages list.

And how do the rules decide which languages are on the “Bonus Languages” list for a character? Yep. You guessed it: via the character’s race. Your character is an elf? Well, you get to pick from Draconic, Gnoll, Gnome, Goblin, Orc, and Sylvan. Though luck if you want to start out knowing Dwarven. Of course, the game master will make an exception to the rules for any elves that happen to grow up next to a community of dwarves. The default rules are really, really, dropping the ball here.3

I think a better way to do this would be to build up the Bonus Languages list based on two factors of the character: their culture or culture group, and the place they grew up in. This is, of course, still a crude model, but it offers two important things: cultural identity, and influences from nearby communities.

The culture or culture group your characters belongs to (and most likely feels a part of) defines in large strokes what languages are more easily accessible: strongly religious cultures will have alignment-languages as bonus languages, cultures based on the elements most likely have elemental languages as bonus languages, and cultures based on geography most likely have historical and official languages as bonus languages.

Add to that some bonus languages from nearby culture groups, and you have a much improved model.4 I am not one-hundred percent sure on how to make a good rule for the location based bonus languages; I’m still working on that part and I am very much open to suggestions (let me know in the general discussion community forum if you have an idea to tackle this).

So, why am I writing this rather long blog post on the world-building choices on languages?

With Mercury’s updates to bonuses from two weeks ago it is now possible to implement my Bonus Language house rule in RPGpad without special house rule code!

This means that everyone running a Pathfinder campaign can now:

  1. Add a custom field ‘Culture Group’ to character sheets with a choice from their world’s cultures,
  2. Set, for each culture, the bonus languages that the character should have access to.
  3. Automatically get the per-culture bonus language choices updated on each character sheet.

You can even add a second field for other factors you think are important, and add even further bonus languages. I am really excited to use this feature for the Ilfreann campaign, and feel that this feature of RPGpad’s bonus system deserves to be put in the spotlight!

As always, we have this week’s changelog ready for you. And if you have any opinions, questions, suggestions, or just want to throw your words at me, feel free to open a thread in the community forum.

  1. They graciously gave me permission to use their setting as the start of my campaign world after I mailed them about it. I was very much encouraged by this to keep building my own campaign world, instead of using on of the published settings. I can warmly advise anyone starting a new campaign to build their own setting, it helps immensely with getting your players interested. 

  2. See, the thing is Dragonhide armor exists; it isn’t very good though. But I reasoned that with dragon’s having big honking piles of valuables and being walking sources of high-quality crafting materials, there would most likely be parties of dragon-hunters going around to “liberate” those valuables and crafting materials. This is also why all dragons in the setting can shapeshift into their own humanoid shape, and will either go live somewhere away from civilization as hermits, or embed themselves in a local power structure as nobles or other dependents in a much larger faction. 

  3. To be fair, neither D&D nor Pathfinder come with a compelling setting in the core books. I think this also leads to the inane bonus languages lists. Because they have no setting to speak of, they cannot have any cultures in that setting, and because they have no cultures, they have to make do with what little information is available… And a character’s race is probably the least bad indicator. 

  4. Readers of this blog are getting a bit of a sneak preview: I will be proposing the Culture/Location split as a house rule to the players of the Ilfreann campaign in the near future. Though for the Ilfreann campaign I might split it down Culture/Education.