Imaginary Languages Excite the Brain and Add Depth to Your Campaign

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0008

Table of Contents:

I remember the first time I played using the “local tongue” of my gaming group. What a great experience. Using foreign and fictional words made me feel like a real native from the game world I was playing in. It added a depth and style to the campaign which I’ll never forget.

The easiest way to tamper with language in your games is through naming conventions. How are people and monsters named in your games? The campaign I played in consistently used French style names with a special pre-fix system that indicated a person’s rank. For example, all noble names began with the letters “Al’”.

This simple technique made a huge impact on our game. Whenever PC & NPC introductions were made we immediately knew our social situation–were we dealing with nobles or commoners? It made a difference. Also, as soon as we met someone whose name didn’t sound French, we knew they were outsiders…and we actually started treating them as such after awhile.

Another way to harness language for effect is to come up with your own fake language “system” and require all parleys use that language or risk being understood by the locals.

Take, for example, Pig Latin. This sounds like a silly idea, but because Pig Latin is a system to transform English words consistently, everybody can figure it out and participate.

Even better, make up your own version of Pig Latin. Create a simple rule that applies to all words. For example, add the phrase “innag” between all syllables of words (one syllable words simply start with “innag”.) N-innag-ow, y-innag-ou hi-nnag-ave y-innag-our innag-own lang-innag-u-innag-age!

It works. It adds excitement to roleplaying and flavour to games. Why? I’m not sure, but I think it allows people to use their brains in a different way than they’re used to. It requires concentration and learning a new skill in order to become proficient with saying and understanding Pig Latin. Also, the languages become instant clues to the nature of things in your universe–subtle clues which add depth to your game.

Here are some tips before using a made-up language:

  • Put the language rules in writing. If you can clearly write them down then you firmly understand the system– because if you don’t understand it, who will?
  • Pig Latin and other made-up languages will be novel and very funny in the beginning. Go along with the first few jokes and then treat the topic with seriousness and respect. The players will soon take your queue and really get into the spirit of things.
  • Establish and then enforce social rules about using the language during play. Let the players know who speaks the language and what the social implications will be if they slip and start speaking “plain English”. Perhaps some NPCs will grow suspicious because they don’t understand the “plain English” the characters are using. Or maybe the characters will be labelled as strangers–or even branded as heretics.
  • Give it some time. Don’t quit until you’ve had at least one conversation that went fairly fluidly. It may take time but the work and wait is worth it. That first true conversation is magic and unforgettable.

Here’s a trick for creating neat, written languages that can still be puzzled out by the players. Create three rules of letter or phrase replacement to build your own language.

For example:

  • Change all a’s to uur’s.
  • Ch-uur-nge uur-ll Ch’s to Kl’s.
  • Kl-uur-nge uur-ll n’s to k’s.
  • Uur-k-d k-ow you h-urr-ve uur f-urr-k-t-uur-sy l-uur-k-gu-uur-ge!

Hint: If this idea appeals to you (i.e. for player handouts and such) imagine what you can do with the Search & Replace feature in your word processor to automate language conversion and to invent new ones!

One last technique, start inventing new words for nouns and verbs and then introducing them gradually during play. No system or language rules are required. Just make up the words and start substituting. Choose common words so that players will get to use substitutions often: gold, sword, king, mage, attack, etc.

Invent a penalty and reward system to encourage the use of the new words. For example, give out an experience point or story point every time a player correctly uses a new word. And subtract a point every time they slip and use the old word. I’d recommend not letting players actually lose EXPs or points by slipping too many times–bottom the penalty out to just cancelling any gains made by correctly using the new vocabulary.

Finally, keep the flow of new words down to a trickle. Remember memorizing all those terms in biology? Not fun. Try having the Word Of The Week and increase frequency if your group is enjoying it.

So, create your own Pig Latin and let me know how it’s affected your game.

Help Request: Campaign Journals

I received the following email from a RoleplayingTips subscriber and would like your help with the answer to their questions:

Hi Johnn,

I wanted to request a topic. I would like to know how you handle keeping a journal. Do you have any tips? I’m terrible at it, and yet I really treasure even the bits that I’ve managed to write down as they help remind me of the adventure years after I’ve played it. What techniques allow you to both keep a journal and play at the same time? I hate it when the journal interferes with the gameplay.

So, I’m doing research for a future article on this topic to help supplement my own ideas and experiences. How about you? Do you keep campaign journals? Tell me about them.

Graphic of section divider

Discuss these game master tips in this thread at the official Roleplaying Tips community forum.