Use Secret Language for Clues

Last week, I wondered how you might prove one’s citizenship in a low-tech fantasy setting. Even if this isn’t a factor in your adventures, it’s a cool little detail to help your setting feel real.

I received two language-related responses I thought you might find interesting:

The first is from RPT GM Maja:

Thanks for the tips. I’d think the easiest way to know if somebody belongs to your people or not might be language.

Most people will only speak one and identify through it. Language will identify them much clearer than a tattoo.

Even if they speak more than one language, their mother tongue will give an accent to most.

Comment from Johnn: A couple of great ideas there from Maja I intend to yoink for my campaign.

First is using accents as clues. For example, the PCs might need to meet a stranger, but they don’t know what the stranger looks like. Or, perhaps a PC overhears an accented-NPC speaking and that detail proves important for your adventure.

Second is using languages for puzzles and clues. Languages Known soon becomes like a ten foot pole on a character sheet — quickly forgotten, never updated, and eventually taking up valuable sheet space that could be used to list treasure.

Perhaps the one the party seeks knows a rare language that the wizard can speak. Or maybe a word also means something special (and that meaning is relevant to the puzzle) and only a native speaker would know that.

And RPT GM Vanveen shares:

There was of course the shibboleth: a word that could not be pronounced properly by certain groups. Chillingly, Trujillo used this concept in the 20th century to purge thousands of his own countrymen.

Also recently read the Travels of Hanna Diyab, c. 1700, much of which was still relevant to a mid-renaissance period. Under the sultans of the Ottomans, religion was a major dividing force: Christians and Muslims lived together in relative harmony.

However, Christians were subject to a tax to support the Empire. Interestingly, they were allowed to sell wine and pork openly, in order to be able to pay the tax. Even MORE interestingly, they were strongly discouraged from converting, since the local bey would lose the income…which he owed to guys further up the chain!

Comment from Johnn: Regarding a shibboleth, I did not really know what that word meant before. Thank you! I can see using a shibboleth as a password or signal in roleplaying encounters in the future. And faction play could make of great use of shibboleths.

Finally, I received great responses from GMs advocating for magic use. Spells, magic items, and magic effects could all be used to prove citizenship. Great ideas, thank you.

A little bit of bureaucracy can actually be good for your game. In a world building sense, that is. If interested in similar tips, check out 5 Tips On Using Bureaucracy In Your Game World RPT#0056.

Have more fun at every game!

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