Musings on Game Design and Revisiting AD&D 1st Edition: Languages #DnD #RPG #ADnD

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Introduction to Each Post in This Series

On Friday (July 23, 2021), I mentioned that I was relearning AD&D 1st Edition (“1e“) with the intention of running it. As I read through the Player’s Handbook (“PHB“), certain mechanics or text will strike me as odd or surprising, but in either case worthy of discussion. In fact, the most surprising thing I’m experiencing is that I’m finding a lot more great ideas in 1e that we’ve since abandoned. I find myself asking, “Why?” As a result, I’ll be writing several posts over the next few weeks. I’m sure everything I’m thinking has been discussed before — sometimes by me — so perhaps my questions have been answered, and my concerns resolved, years ago. My experience with RPGs is relatively limited in scope, having played a small number of games, so I’m sure a lot of what I’m going to say has been incorporated into games I’ve never even heard of. (Some have certainly been addressed by future editions of D&D themselves.) Nevertheless, bringing this directed conversation to the public is new to me, so here it goes.

Posts in this series: | My Playlist | Campaign Settings and Pantheons | Languages | Level | “Dead Levels” | Division of Labor, Distance, and Time | Initiative | Combat Subsystems | Armor Class Ratings | Alignment and Reputation | The Feel of a School of Magic | Boring Magic Items | Ability Score Bonuses and Skill Rolls | The Problem with Democracies | Hitting More Frequently | Encounter Balance and Shooting Yourselves in the Feet |

Languages

So this post is my first substantive post in this series actually on game mechanics, and completely by coincidence, it came on the best day possible.

Celebrating Gary Gygax Day, Happy Birthday To The Late Gary Gygax | DDO  Players
Seriously, I just found out about this yesterday.

Thursday night, I tweeted the following:

This is (yet another) something that’s bugged me for a while. Think of the Fellowship of the Ring trying to get into the mines of Moria. Imagine if none of them spoke Elven. That’d be quite an inconvenience (especially for Legalos). Sure, they could head back to the mountains, and because it was a movie, the audience could ignore the time that passes, but it really would have been a pain in the ass. A game system should be built such that it’s likely at least one of the characters speaks Elven so that in such a situation the story doesn’t pause, drag out unbearably, or outright end. This would instead give one of those players a chance to shine, jumping in as the one person that speaks the language in question. Once we get past that language barrier, then we enter the real fun of solving the riddle.

1e gets this right. A high intelligence score grants a player extra languages as a bonus to the other mechanical benefits you received from that score. That is, languages didn’t have a cost. To my recollection, unlike 4the Edition D&D, which made Abyssal and Supernal inaccessible at character creation, the language chosen could be any language in the game. You could choose for the long haul, but if the party missed one, by the time they needed a language like that, casting Comprehend Languages was trivial (i.e., it still had a very low cost).

Additionally, no matter their intelligence, certain characters get a long list of known languages. Looking at the non-human races of 1e, they all speak several languages even if their intelligences are low. In addition to their alignment language, elves speak elvish (duh), gnome, halfling, goblin, hobgoblin, orcish, gnoll, and common. The list for half-elves is the same. The list for gnomes is dwarvish, gnome, halfling, goblin, and kobold, plus they can communicate with any burrowing animal to the extent that animal can understand. The other non-human races have such lists, and all of them have other means to learn additional languages. Alignment languages may be overkill, but having Thieves’ Cant is an awesome idea. Druidic? Not so much. I’d call that piling on to a cool idea, and thus more overkill. Doing something cool too many times is uncool. YMMV.

If you find yourself asking why I’m making such a big deal out of this, ask instead why game designers are. Everything has to have a cost, including languages. In 3.5 Edition D&D, you could buy a language with skill points, but that would cost as much as your points in mechanically important skills like Hide, Spellcraft, or Tumble. By associating such a cost with flavor elements, flavor gave way to mechanics, and the story we were telling came down to a die roll instead of a creative character element. Perhaps instead of a character’s backstory providing a means to explain their entry into the mines of Moria, the DM was forced to pull out a deus ex machina so that everyone could keep playing. That’s cheap and robs players of their accomplishments.

I suspect most of you agree with at least the broad strokes of this argument but handle it by avoiding situations in which knowing a language is the only way to push the story forward. You may instead allow intelligence-based skill checks to figure out the script, but that means only the smart characters get to shine in this regard, and it dilutes the value of, for example, the 5th Edition D&D Linguist feat even if someone is willing to pay such a cost. Game designers, not players, are in the best position to fix this, and they should. Maybe they have in some games, but not in any I’ve ever played.

On rare occassions, the best way to move forward is to move backwards.

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