A few weeks ago I posted on making the Read/Write skill interestingly useful, but that just raises the question of language skills in general. Tim Eccles’s article on this topic in Warpstone #19 is excellent on the historical and linguistic implications of what we knew about (then-)canon, but this post, like the last one, is going to concentrate more on the in-game practicalities of the skills. Because, like with Read/Write, the exclusivity of the language skills may work in favour of flavour, so to speak, but against the kind of communication a game needs to flow:
This is an example of language problems used wonderfully, but unfortunately few of us are Simon Pegg or Edgar Wright!
The first assumption I would make is that the common ‘Old Worlder’ tongue is still the basis for all the other Human ones, as it was in 1e. That means that anyone with any of the Human languages of the Old World can communicate with each other if they want. It is, in effect, a trade language. Each variety of Old Worlder, though, whether Reikspiel, Tilean or Breton, is its own dialect and is not intelligible to outsiders unless the speaker makes an effort. Thus without the local dialect, no PC will be able to overhear or eavesdrop on a conversation between locals.
Then the questions arise as to when you should roll language skills at all, and whether different levels of skill mean different things.
In my scenario A Bitter Harvest, I asked for language rolls to make out what people were saying from a distance. In my experience, it’s a matter of linguistic skill to be able to piece together meaning when you only catch bits of a conversation. Certainly this is true for learned languages, if not the listener’s native one.
They should also be made for composition: the better your language skills, the better your ability to express yourself clearly, subtly and beautifully. This would especially be the case for your native language; a high skill in that indicates an extraordinary vocabulary and mastery of style. The character can compose poems, speeches and plays to a high order, although performing them requires other skills.
Similarly, language skills might reflect an ability to hide your accent. Someone with only one level in a skill will have strong accent, either regional in the case of their native language or foreign in the case of a foreign one. A second level would indicate a mastery of the standard, learned form of the language. You would still have an accent, but it might take a roll on the part of the listener to pinpoint exactly where it was from. Finally, the last level would indicate complete fluency in the case of foreign languages. In fact, maybe the PC could have the option of ‘converting’ it into a second native language and continuing to advance it as such.
So-called ‘secret’ languages are entirely different, since they generally represent professional jargon. In that case, I would rule that different levels of skill represent increasingly ‘true’ language-like abilities. Thus, the first level would indicate a capacity for communication in simple statements, questions and commands and an understanding of jargon when it occurs in ordinary speech. The second level renders a character capable of nuance, such as the expression of conditionals, doubt, insistence and probabilities. Finally, the last level of expertise confers full conversational ability, including wit and puns.
Lastly, in each case a successful roll should allow the character to operate at one level above their normal skill, such as to hide their accent.