House Rules: Languages & Linguistics

Longterm readers of my blog will know I’m a fan of sane levels of realism in my games (as opposed to insane levels of realism). While D&D, Pathfinder and the like contain orcs, dragons and demons that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace a level of realism that makes the game better for the participants. (And by “better” I mean more enjoyable).


With that in mind, I’ve never been completely happy with the way 3.0 and its descendants handle speaking, reading and writing. 

My game of choice is currently Pathfinder, and so my house rule deals with the mechanics of that system. If you want to take and modify my rule to work with your game of choice, fill your boots (English for, “Go for it”!)

If you think about it, Linguistics is the only skill in Pathfinder that has—in some instances—a 100% success rate without any dice rolling. Spend one rank on Linguistics to learn Draconic—for example—and you can now speak, read and write Draconic with no chance of failure. 

Think about your command of the English language for a moment: do you speak, read and write English perfectly? Do you know the meaning of every word? What does “gallimaufry” mean? (Gallimaufry is clearly one of the greatest words of all time!)Still, no matter, your average fighter with an Intelligence of 9 can read the most sagacious and erudite words of a long-dead sage with no chance of error or misinterpretation even if the sage had atrocious handwriting or the manuscript uses archaic vocabulary. 

And more than that, in the default game world—a fantasy version of medieval Europe—everyone is literate from the lowest peasant to the mightiest lord. How? Where are all these schools and teachers? How many village, town and city books have schools and universities? Who pays for the peasants’ education? Why?

Now you might not care about this, and that’s cool, but as a world builder this kind of detail really bugs me.  

That’s why in my Adventures in Shadow campaign, I have the following house rule:


(Important Note: I use the Background Skills rule from Pathfinder Unchained which—essentially—gives every PC two extra skill ranks every time they level). 

The folk of Ashlar are not generally literate. Literacy is the preserve of the upper classes—rich merchants, the nobility, the clergy and learned wizards and sages—who engage tutors or send their children to the Dreaming Spires for their education.

Characters learn to speak languages in the normal way, but to become literate in a language, a character spends an additional skill rank. This skill rank can be a background skill rank or a normal skill rank. Thus, for example, to speak Draconic and to also be able to read and write the language costs two skill points. 

This achieves several things:

  • It makes people who can read and write special.
  • Adds depths and verisimilitude to the world (which makes me happy).

Additional Rule

I’m also thinking of adding this amendment to the rule: 

When characters are reading, they are generally assumed to be taking 10. Thus most texts are easy to read. However, understanding some texts can be difficult because of their age, condition, handwriting or vocabulary. To read such documents, the character must make a special Linguistics check with a modifier equal 1 + the character’s Intelligence modifier. The DCs are as follows:

  • Easy Text: DC 5
  • Normal text: DC 10
  • Hard text: DC 15
  • Very Hard Text: DC 20
  • Virtually Impossible: DC 25

This means only wise sages, skilled scribes and most erudite of wizards can read the hardest to understand texts. I think that’s a cool addition to the game as it makes such characters—both NPCs and PCs—important. While it might not be fair to Joe the fighter it adds an extra layer of verisimilitude to the game world, and that’s something I like!

What Do You Think?

Is this stupid? Am I evil for adding extra realism into my game? Let me know, in the comments below.


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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

19 thoughts on “House Rules: Languages & Linguistics”

  1. I like the idea. I do something similar within the AD&D 2nd Ed. rules. I really like the idea that being able to speak a language doesn’t automatically give you the ability of reading/writing it. (I experienced this first hand in real life…)

  2. This is a neat idea, but one issue remains: If a character speaks / reads / writes x languages, they are equally proficient in every language they know. Linguistics +8 invariably translates to +8 in Draconic, +8 in Common, + 8 in Dwarven, and so on.
    I’ve been toying with using a subsystem of sorts, where academic skills like Linguistics and Knowledge cover a broader range of sub-skills (i.e. Arcana, Nature, etc for Knowledge and the different languages for Linguistics.
    For every rank you put into Linguistics, for instance, you get a number of ‘subset skill points’ to allocate among those subset skills, equal to your INT modifier. You can then allocate these subset points to different languages / knowledge domains before applying modifiers. E.g. With INT 15 (+3) and an investment of two ranks in Linguistics, you’d gain six subset points to spend on individual languages.
    The net result is that different languages can have different mastery levels, without diluting the value of those skill ranks so much that the investment becomes worthless.
    On the downside, you do potentially get a lot more skill entries on an already crowded sheet, so I’m not yet 100% happy with it.

    1. You are right, Bart! I did consider a similar solution to the one you suggest above, but the amount of record keeping didn’t seem optimal. My search continues for a way to come up with a similar system which is easy to administer and use!

  3. I run RAW when I am at the local game store running a public game. However, when I am running my home games I run with a similar rule. I just never thought about the DC’s for different quality of texts. That is a nice addition I may have ‘steal’ and add to what I use now. Would make for more interesting events.

  4. While it makes the Barbarian penalty for being illiterate not a penalty, I have been toying with this as well. Along with Bart’s idea since I read a book called ‘LoreFinder’ from some other third-party company that escapes me at this time and I am too lazy to Google it.
    I have been wanting to do the whole “not everyone can read” thing, but the barbarian gets me stuck. I am still trying to think of a different penalty for them…

  5. I like this idea – it makes sense and would help to make a world seem more real.
    I will borrow it, if you don’t mind.

  6. I’ve always been disappointed with linguistics in D&D, and more so with Pathfinder because they added a specific skill for it then made it meaningless. I’ve been working on house rules where understanding what someone is saying in a language you don’t fully understand is a Linguistics check. The DC is based on how closely related the languages are. So any two human languages would be 15 or 20, celestial and infernal would 40 or greater. The big drawback is that as a GM you have to map out the language family tree(s).

  7. I like it, it gives the high intelligence and magic type users another feather in their cap. I use Rolemaster but a similar language rank system exists.

  8. I like it

    I’m doing a first/second/third languages system for 5e D&D, where you can talk fluently in second language but anything charisma based like persuasion that requires clever use of language hass disadvantage, and communicating anything more than a basic idea in your third language needs a check

  9. I share your opinion and am experimenting with different ideas. Originally I modified the rules from Atlas Games “Ars Magica” system (4.0 ed) and had speak (language) and scribe (language) as a separate skill for each language. For speak (language) I used the following rough guide:
    1 rank = tourist w/ a tourist dictionary,
    2 ranks = about an elementary school level education,
    3 ranks = secondary school (US High school),
    4 ranks = college level,
    5 ranks = full mastery (graduate level college)

    For scribe (language) I used DC’s similar to what you are using – with increased difficulty for regional dialects and damaged writings (like a blood covered note handed to the PCs via a dying messenger).

    I also gave each person Speak (native language) 5 as a starting bonus but they had to spend skill points to speak other languages. Only wizards and clerics started with scribe (native language) 5 with wizards also having scribe (ancient latin) [the language of magic in my world].

    This worked ok in 3.5 b/c of the difference in starting skills but ran into problems w/ Pathfinder b/c of its lower # of starting skills. Esp. when the PCs all wanted to be from different cultures and races.

    I’m thinking of dropping the speak (language) rule but keeping the scribe (language) rule – it is still a bit of work in progress for me.

  10. In pathfinder I’ve split fluency in speech and in writing completely. A skill rank gives you one or the other.

  11. My fave Linguistics rules were from Rolemaster, where a PC had varying degrees of spoken/written knowledge in various languages.
    5-6 was average fluency, iirc.

    Rustic Wood Elves?
    For instance:
    Wood Elf 6/5
    High Elf 5/3
    Common 4/4
    Goblin 4/2

    The wood elves value spoken word over written in fevers. They understand the languages of their cousins, though not their prolific writing system ( As much).
    They must deal with nearby human settlements, and be wary of their ( too-many) posted signs, and other posted laws. Finally, Goblins infest the hills adjacent to their woods, so understanding the malicious little things is a priority, though not their crude scrawlungs so much.

    I’ve made up the numbers, in a remembered approximation of the wood elves, and the justifying prose is entirely mine, as RM didn’t give detailed explanations.

  12. I devised a scale of linguistic ability for a spell, “Borrow Language” (Reversed form, “Lend Language”). This allowed the caster to “borrow” another individual’s skill in a particular language, or “lend” to another individual some amount of skill in the caster’s language. (Caster’s choice, if lending, otherwise primary language by default.)

    (Going from memory here…)
    So, if the spell transfers some “levels” of language ability, how do we measure that?
    I decided a major factor would be vocabulary size.
    Level 1: about 10 words. Level 2: about 30 words. Level 3: 100 words.
    Following this progression, at level 7 we’re looking at a vocabulary of 10,000 words.
    So each level after that adds an additional 10,000 words, up to the limits of the individual language.

    At different levels, one can convey different levels of thought. Level 3 limits one to basic phrases and a few common words.
    Level 5 (1000 words) is enough to read a handbill.
    Level 6 introduces some idiomatic forms. “Make good” (be successful); “Take for a ride” (kill and dispose of body); “Harpy’s breakfast” (gone before you got to it)
    Level 7 is enough to read almost anything in common use, with some ability to understand poetic and literary forms. Essentially fluent, for most practical purposes.
    Level 8: familiar with most idioms, many poetic and literary forms, and some knowledge of word origins. Fluent as far as most scribes are concerned.
    Level 10: Expert in language. Understands almost all idiomatic forms and familiar with even the most obscure rules of grammar. Some familiarity with archaic forms of the language, or with precursors to the language. (For example, a Level 10 English speaker has read a fair amount of Middle English and may know some Anglo-Saxon.)

    I haven’t really used this a lot, but it’s available if I choose to use it.

  13. Hello Creighton

    I find this a very cool idea and even I did overdo in the past the realism I let it drop to for more playable rules. Why I handle literacy similar to you I still distinguish between reading and writing. And it is easier to read than to write as it is easier to understand than to speak (scripture or language). With this I cover the passive knowledge versus the active knowledge.

    Just my two cents to this interesting topic.

  14. I believe you are overestimating the requirements of basic literacy. Most children can read by third grade in modern educational settings. Even without tutors or schools, being taught ones letters and how to make them into sounds could be taught by any family family member with the skill. So by adulthood, anyone from any family could know basic common, even if many do not see the need. It may be slow, or incomplete, but that is determined with roleplaying, not rules. Forcing them to spend a skill point does nothing to balance the game. Player characters are supposed to be a cut above the common cloth.

    Now, I agree that the verbose, fading writing of a long dead sage could be hard for a 9 int fighter to understand. But then you can ask of intelligence checks with a moderate DC, perception checks, or tell them it might take a while, or the dialect is so old some words are no longer part of the Common tounge. And all of that is DM action. I do not believe any rules changes are needed, just even handed DMing and use of the tools you already have.

  15. Interesting take on Linguistics. However, command and use of language isn’t just about literacy. Indeed a lot of cultures place more emphasis on Oral tradition, to preserve their History and Culture. Ancient Greece and more recently the Zulus, are two examples. Zulu Elders correctly identified discrepancies in a treaty drawn up between them and the English, when the latter accused them of border infringements prior to the Anglo-Zulu war of the 19th Century. Don’t get me wrong, I like your rules, but I’m trying to make a case for those with a fine command of language, but not of literacy. Such a skill would probably be far more common in a Mediaeval (ish) environment, where as you rightly say, literacy is not common. Consider the Celtic Bardic tradition. I get that this might be covered by the Performance skill, but the sheer amount of learning behind it should surely count for something. And such a person could certainly command the language! What do you think?

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