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Old 10-29-2019, 09:57 AM   #1
Joseph Paul
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Default Harsh realism for languages

So my experience with language in RPGs is that we often gloss over the difficulties that arise when two or more parties do not have a language in common. We do this by conveniently having an NPC that can translate or using magic or Ultratech translation devices or telepathy or ruling that the setting does have a common tongue that everyone knows. We do such things because not being able to communicate in a game effectively stops the pursuit of any mystery or puzzle and that frustrates players and GMs alike.

I want to do a space exploration setting that will have little in the way of common languages or technological means of translating, at least at first.

So has anyone else trod this path of harsh realism for languages?

What did you do and how did it go?
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Old 10-29-2019, 10:54 AM   #2
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Default Re: Harsh realism for languages

I'm running a campaign in which a borderline-sapient-borderline-not alien species plays a role, and the establishing of contact and a common communication method took many months of in-game time, and perhaps a few sessions worth of 'at-table' time. Logarithmic progress seems to have been an important part of it - at first it took very long to convey single concepts; by the end it was a matter of expanding the vocabulary by dozens of words per day.
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Old 10-29-2019, 11:12 AM   #3
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Default Re: Harsh realism for languages

More frustration than fun.

Which, when I did it, I was using a fantasy setting, and lead to just killing them and taking their stuff.
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Old 10-29-2019, 12:11 PM   #4
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Default Re: Harsh realism for languages

Originally Posted by ak_aramis View Post
More frustration than fun.
This. Did this in a first contact situation in a SF setting. Worst thing I ever did as a GM, and a fine illustration of why I don't do realism any more than I absolutely must. Lots of reality is boring, and sitting around a table frustrating my friends is not just a waste of time, but a waste of what could have been a good time.
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Old 10-29-2019, 12:59 PM   #5
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Default Re: Harsh realism for languages

We don't deal with language a lot but most of our games have some context of it and it's very rarely just dealt with with a spell or gadget. We usually have to figure things out with gestures or pictionary.
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Old 10-29-2019, 01:49 PM   #6
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Default Re: Harsh realism for languages

In general, it is better if it is played for humor (as it is endlessly frustrating in real life). Anyway, some things translate without language, as long as there is Cultural Familiarity (a kiss between a strange man and a strange woman means different things in American culture than it does in Indian culture).
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Old 10-29-2019, 02:15 PM   #7
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Default Re: Harsh realism for languages

Originally Posted by ak_aramis View Post
More frustration than fun.
Yeah, my experience too. You can do a few complications for a part of a session, and maybe bring it back out for a comedy scene every once in a while, but any ongoing application of language problems is never any fun. There's a reason you never see this sort of thing in adventure stories after the first couple set-up chapters - it's a story killer. People you can't communicate with fairly easily aren't *characters* in the story, they're obstacles, and ones there are no real options for dealing with other than force.
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Old 10-29-2019, 02:57 PM   #8
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Default Re: Harsh realism for languages

If you want harsh realism, GURPS makes it too easy to learn a language well enough to pass for a native. In the real world, few can do that without living in the country in question for years, preferably as a child.

I've run a game where communication was one of the major barriers to success, under Call of Cthulhu. It was Return to the Mountains of Madness, a huge scenario pack set in 1933-34 that follows on from Lovecraft's story At the Mountains of Madness.

The PCs get to go to the City of the Elder Things, and my players, who were all SF fans, decided to try to communicate with the Elder Things. They are material beings, with the kinds of basic motivations that implies, so this is a lot more feasible than talking to star-spawn of Cthulhu or other beings that are supernatural as well as inhuman.

The NPCs provided with the scenario include a very capable linguist and an excellent cryptographer, and the original story says that the Elder Thing written language is remarkably easy to figure out, so they succeeded. The Elder Things have strong but spoileriffic, motive to seek help from humans, and contributed a trick I stole from Vernor Vinge.

To species with any reasonable knowledge of science, the Periodic Table of the Elements is a cross-species Rosetta Stone, when there's co-operation. It gives you numbers, many colours, names of substances, ideas like danger, radioactivity, and so on: it really helps. Since vocalising each other's languages was hard for both sides, lots of time was saved by devising gestures that both sides could make. This turned into an excellent game session as the PCs learned a lot of history, came to understand what the Elder Things needed from them and began to make plans to learn advanced technology and take out patents.

First, however, they needed to solve the urgent problem the ETs had, and while doing that, things went rather pear-shaped, the body-count rose exponentially, and SAN levels fell along a similar curve. They got out of Antarctica while they could, but I got a follow-up scenario set in the International Geophysical Year out of it.
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Old 10-29-2019, 02:58 PM   #9
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Default Re: Harsh realism for languages

One of the players in my original GURPS science fiction campaign ran an SF first contact game which was also the first GURPS adventure she ran. In it, the space aliens knew our language, but we didn't know theirs. My human PC was a spy/linguist whose primary job was to translate the alien's language (we had some technology to help).

But in that adventure, we really didn't deal with the aliens much directly even though their ship was docked where we were at. So almost everyone we actually dealt with spoke our language.

I was also in a time-traveler-meets-primitive-humans game where I had to try to communicate, but that was a one- or two-session adventure with just me and the GM.

I think it's really difficult to make a "we can't talk to them and they can't talk to us" playable for more than a session or two.
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Old 10-29-2019, 07:10 PM   #10
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Default Re: Harsh realism for languages

In GURPS, I'd probably have characters rely on gestures, with rolls against the Gesture skill (or its IQ-based default) to get messages across. Note those you don't share a language with are also rather unlikely to share your culture, so Cultural Familiarity penalties are going to be in force. Vocalizations will undoubtedly be involved, so characters may eventually start to pick up smatterings of the others' language, perhaps enough for the two groups to develop a pidgin (which is probably a language that can't be purchased above Broken, but that the GM would be justified in letting characters purchase at a reduced cost - either in place of a skill in the Dabbler Perk or simply acquiring the necessary [1] with fewer hours of study).

Tangentially, I'm now tempted to try and design a character who, unbeknownst to him, has a psionic ability to be understood at the Broken level, so long as he speaks his native tongue clearly and loudly. Said ability would, naturally, be called GOLE - Good Old Loud English (I think that's the term I've seen used, but for some reason Google gives me no relevant hits). He may have a Delusion that everyone can understand Good Old Loud English to some degree.
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