Languages known is a bit of a sticky wicket in character creation from my point of view. On the one hand, it seems like a way to make the world diverse and your character worldly within it. Do your languages known result from culture and heritage or are they result of study, a pursuit, or an obsession?
While character creation is something I hold sacred as a matter of player agency, since language stems from culture and history of the world it does fall to the Dungeon Master (DM) to provide some context for the world and languages within it. After all, the full compendium includes upwards of 50 different languages these days.
It’s already advised in manuals and guides, but I strongly recommend doing the work in world planning and devising a list of a dozen or so languages that exist within the game universe. Too few and your party won’t have that wonderful moment of mystery where they come across an artifact or tome they can’t decipher. Too many and it just feels like an arbitrary game of chance.
However, I’m here to offer a tip beyond what you find in the guide and this is a trick for player immersion and making your world feel more like the real world:
When you pick out the dozen languages that exist in your world, create a key for yourself with three columns: The languages, Where the languages are spoken in your campaign world, and a real world language you can use as an equivalent.
The last one is where the fun really begins. You do not need to be a cunning linguist to enjoy it, just keep a quick translation tool open while you’re DMing and run signs, book titles, or NPC phrases through them. Does this mean that your players who might recognize a phrase in French see through it? Sure it does. That’s part of the point.
If you’ve ever traveled to a foreign country and don’t speak the native tongue does that prevent you from reading signs? Does it prevent you from guessing what words or phrases might mean based on context or at least the sound of them? Of course not.
In the old structure of languages in DND encountering a non-common language results in the DM asking “Does anyone speak gnomish?” and when the party says no the DM shrugs and says, “you can’t understand what they’re saying, but they seem distressed and keep pointing at the forest.”
However, if you have a quick key you can reference that gnomish might be linked to German, and you can tell the party, “you hear the distressed gnome shouting ‘meine frau ist weg!’ and pointing desperately at the forest. Even if most of that sentence is a mystery, it’s not unreasonable for players and their characters to get a sense of “meine” meaning “my” and deducing that the NPC has lost something or someone (in this case, their wife disappeared).
This technique makes the world, which should already feel more diverse, feel more immersive. You’re able to engage with the fantasy the same way you would real world language challenges and helps create value of the languages your players selected as fantasy fulfillment. In addition to having chosen Dwarvish, they get the extra satisfaction of picturing their character speaking French fluently.
This is a relatively new technique I’ve started utilizing and I’ve seen immediate returns on it. Making the game world feel as real as our own sometimes comes down to little things, and this is one fun way to do so because it helps you also play your NPCs more organically as well.