When I started gaming, I loved to read the early Dragon anthologies for their insight into the early game. One of my favorite anecdotes was about a Lake Geneva player who took “wall" as a language, and proceeded to interrogate dungeon walls as to what was behind them. His creativity was only matched by the DM, who had all the walls reply in drunken slurs that they had no idea because they were all “plastered.”
Apart from comic relief, this scenario raises the question of the role languages might play in various games. The Ravenloft setting dispensed with the simplicity of a “Common" tongue found in other settings because it clashed with the insular, xenophobic nature of the setting. This has forced players to strongly consider their choices for what many other settings consider an afterthought. To make sure you are covering all you bases, consider the 4 S’s.
1) Secret Societies
Like Druidic in previous editions, knowledge of a particular language is extremely useful for identifying who is part of your secret club. Hidden messages become much more secure, as the eccentricities of a language are far more confusing than any code. Even when translated by magic, cryptic jargon or slang still remains, such as with Navajo code talking. This also adds to the flavor of the secret society, as the language in question is tied to pragmatic or philosophical roots of the group. Vampyrs of Falkovnia might use Wardin (the language of their leader’s lost world) as a way to express their ambitions, and a prospective Knight of the Shadows might be expected to learn Nidalan before the annual trip to the The Shadowlands.
It was suggested in the Ravenloft Dungeon Master’s Guide that Draconic--the language of arcane spellcasting--was one possible bridge between the diverse patchwork of peoples scattered throughout the Mists. An example of this was given in Van Richten's Arsenal, when Celebrant Agatha Clairmont and Gennifer Weathermay-Foxgrove found it the only common language they could write letters in. In academic circles, knowledge of Draconic or other dead languages might be a significant status symbol. After all, Mordentish may be the language of scholars across the Core, but in Mordent it’s the language of everyone, from the dean to the drunkards. Dead languages are a much better reference than living ones when you are trying to sort out the ones who had quality schooling.
Summoning spells get short shrift in Ravenloft due to the restrictions on summoning extraplanar creatures, but there are ways around these restrictions. The simplest is the Entities from the Id feat from the RLDMG, which allows the full summoning list to anyone who has failed a Madness check. This has been expanded on for Pathfinder to allow for the Summoner core class using madness in a character backstory. However you choose to specialize in summoning, many summoned creatures need direction in their own language to do anything other than attack, so language slots add a lot to their versatility.
Sometimes the language slot is the best place for a language-like skill that doesn't fit elsewhere. Vistani ‘tralaks’ or trail signs don't have a ‘spoken’ form, but this is a language available to PC’s, unlike Paaterna. Like gnomes speaking to burrowing mammals, there might be a character with a supernatural ability to understand the speech of the undead, the shared chorus of elementals, or some ancient language from a past life.
I thought about that guy who talked to walls when a player unfamiliar with Ravenloft put drow sign language in their list of languages. Drow are barely even legends in Ravenloft, so this was perhaps the least useful language choice possible. However, it inspired me to think about the role of sign language in the Land of Mists, and I created an esoteric sign language for this character, one used by La Serrure et Cle due to problems speaking while masked (and to further hide deformities that affected speech). Years later, “Surreran Sign" continues to be an interesting feature of my games. Consider this challenge next time a player proposes a rare or unorthodox language. There could be a great story there, and at the end of the day, great stories are what roleplaying games are all about.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement. He is currently running the “Queen of Orphans” Ravenloft campaign on Discord.
Picture Reference: http://termcoord.eu/2016/04/j-r-r-tolkiens-guide-to-inventing-a-fantasy-language/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.