It’s A Kind of Magic, Part 4 – Language

One of the most notable parts of spellcasting is the verbal component. Yes, there are dramatic gestures and it’s surely odd to see someone waving around random junk, but the shouted words are the most dramatic part. From “abracadabra” to “expelliarmus,” what we remember is the verbal incanting that triggers the spell.

But what’s the significance of the words? Does the language really matter? And for that matter, what language is it, exactly? For all the different ways to look at the language of magic, Pathfinder is silent on the issue. So then we’ll have to insert a few choice words in hopes of actually saying something.

Here is the language of magic in your Pathfinder game.

A Word of Warning

In previous instances of this series, we were looking at ways to describe the in-game nature of how magic is described in the Pathfinder game rules. This time around, things are going to be a little different. For this article, we’ll be looking at some alternate game rules to help promote the in-character changes we discuss.

For the most part, the game-world fluff changes in this article can be used without any major mechanical changes. Rather, the alternate rules we’ll be talking about help to reinforce the importance of the alterations we’ll be making. Pathfinder, like any role-playing game, works best when the fluff and the crunch support each other; hence these tweaks.

Foreword

Before we get into issues of the language for how spells are verbalized, we need to take a step back and look at how language itself is treated in Pathfinder, which lays down the foundation for verbal spellcasting.

Unfortunately, the results aren’t very promising. While abstraction is a natural part of the game, language in Pathfinder is, in a word, gimped. Reduced to a single skill, with each skill point spent earning spoken and written fluency in a given language – to say nothing of magic that makes communication quick and easy – is only half the problem. The other half is that the languages themselves are reduced to little more than near-universal racial tongues, with no sense of interconnectedness or development.

So yeah, we’re going to have to make some changes.

The Mechanics of Talking the Talk

For this section, there’s a particular third-party product that I turn to for inspiration. Ars Lingua, from Tangent Games, is a 3.5 product that nevertheless works great in Pathfinder. We’re going to be looking to it for inspiration in regards to how to make languages have a bit more variety.

The first thing to do is throw away and replace all of the mechanics that de-emphasize the importance of language in the game world. That means ditching the Linguistics skill. In its place, we’re going to import the Speak Language and Read/Write Language skills.

Moreover, each of these skills is separate for a given language. That is, when you first take a rank in one of these skills, you note which particular language it’s for. Having 5 ranks in Speak Language (elven) doesn’t count for anything towards Speak Language (dwarven), and certainly not towards Read/Write Language of any given language.

Now, a few caveats must be made clear with this system. First, these are trained-only, Intelligence-based skills. Second, all characters who had Linguistics as a class skill have both of these as class skills (optionally, NPC classes – and barbarians – only have Speak Language as a class skill if they had Linguistics as a class skill). Third, at character creation, each character receives a number of bonus skill ranks in Speak Language and Read/Write Language equal to their Intelligence score, for each skill. This denotes their native language (again, NPC classes and barbarians may choose to omit the free ranks in Read/Write Language). Finally, both of these skills officially have no cap on the number of ranks you can have – your ranks may exceed your level without penalty.

A few more things must be said about these replacement skills. First, you are considered fluent in these skills when your total skill bonus reaches +20 (which will usually mean you reach full fluency with less than 20 ranks). Second, most functions of the discarded Linguistics skill are used with the relevant Speak Language or Read/Write Language skill check. For example, trying to detect a forgery written in Elven would be a Read/Write Language (elven) skill check.

And this is all I have to say about somatic components

One other thing worth noting is that Ars Lingua does showcase tables for standard DCs for both of these skills to showcase how much you understand on a given check. For example, it’s a DC 5 Speak Language check to understand simple phrases like “Where is the bathroom?” On the other hand, it’s a DC 25 Speak Language check to use technical terms for a special area of knowledge (e.g. being able to speak and understand medical lingo). There’s more to this, but I’ve already given away quite a bit of the book’s material.

Having done all of that, we’re also going to get rid of the spells read magic, comprehend languages, and tongues, as well as all related magic items (e.g. the helm of comprehend languages and read magic). It makes little point to play up language if we’re going to have magic negate all of the intricacies of it, after all. However, you may want to keep monstrous abilities that bypass language – such as truespeech and telepathy – if you want your monsters with those powers to seem otherworldly.

Okay, so now that we’ve created a subset of rules that lend more weight to languages in the game, how do we make the game world reflect this?

The Fluff of Talking the Talk

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like there’s much to be done with reskinning the existing languages in the context of the game…right? Well, no, not really. First things first, the naming conventions for languages are pretty silly. In the real world, languages are largely named based on their country or region of origin, i.e. they speak German in Germany. But in the Pathfinder RPG, languages are racial. Elves speak Elvish, no matter where they were raised.

So the first thing to do is ditch racial languages; instead, appoint various languages as the major languages for the various countries/regions in your game world. Don’t worry if you want to appoint more than one, several countries in the real world have two or more major languages. Likewise, this doesn’t set what your character has to have as their native language; plenty of families, often immigrants, speak another language and raise their children to speak that one first.

The next step is trickier. This involves charting language families and determining what languages are related to each other. This is important because it will (at the GM’s discretion) allow a bonus on Speak Language and Read/Write Language checks for related languages. For simplicity’s sake, you can have all related languages use the same alphabet so that the written forms keep the same degree of similarity. Don’t be afraid to have languages that are completely divorced from all other languages. Finally, sketch out some dead languages for good measure.

 Loquamancy

At this point, you might be wondering just what all of this has to do with the verbal component of casting a spell. That’s a fair question, so we’re going to bring things back around to that point now. This part of this article was influenced from some of the ideas found in Wild Hunt Studio’s book The Way of the Magus – On Language and Research.

First, we’re going to operate under the assumption that the spoken words used to cast a spell aren’t some sort of special magical language – in fact, we’re going to go one step further and presume that the actual language used in spellcasting really isn’t that important; one works just as well as another.

What’s important to take away from this, however, is that various magical traditions (usually geographically-based) will use one specific language – oftentimes a particular ancient, dead language – as the language of spellcasting. For example, the wizards of Draedoria might teach their students only in Estic, a language that has been dead for over a thousand years. Hence, when spellcasting, wizards from Draedoria speak Estic as their verbal component, despite their normal language for everyday speech being Veltine.

The game mechanics of this are reflected in that characters taking their first level in a spellcasting class – just like new characters – gain automatic ranks equal to their spellcasting ability score (e.g. Intelligence for wizards, Charisma for sorcerers, etc.) in Speak Language and Read/Write Language for the language of their spellcasting class. Optionally, classes that don’t need a written source in order to prepare spells (e.g. a sorcerer) may not get the Read Language ranks.

The reason for this is that it creates a sense of regional (or other group) identity among spellcasters. Realizing that someone is speaking a given language while casting a spell gives you a clue to their identity. It’s worth noting that the nature of the organization the spellcaster belongs to varies depending on what sort of spellcaster they are. Wizards might be regional, but clerics will use a given religious language as taught in their church.

Finally your spellbooks can be more intricate than this.

Sorcerers, it should be noted, are generally hinted at being persecuted in the game world for their spontaneous magical powers. Using these rules adds an additional reason for it – unlike studious wizards, who learn their country’s language for spellcasting, sorcerers just suddenly start speaking a particular language when their powers manifest. If it’s from a hostile country, for instance, or is known as the tongue of parts of the Abyss, then it’s no wonder people look askance at the powers sorcerers command!

Bards, by contrast, would also likely know a foreign tongue for spellcasting, but in this case people would likely forgive them that simply because they’re itinerant by profession, so it’s natural that they’d have picked up their spellcasting somewhere else. This isn’t absolute, of course; if a bard’s language for spellcasting is that used by wizards of a nation that’s at war with another nation, people in that other nation won’t be too keen on that particular bard (if they hear him cast spells).

One idea that characters may have is to, since the actual language used isn’t too important when spellcasting, try casting in a foreign language. This is possible, but extremely difficult, since the character needs to precisely and quickly rattle off what’s likely a difficult set of verses, all in a foreign tongue. This should likely be a Speak Language check at a high DC (perhaps 15 + double the spell level), with failure meaning the spell is lost.

Meaning

One thing that hasn’t been addressed so far is the actual meaning of the words being spoken, regardless of the language their spoken in, when casting a spell. In fact, this isn’t very important; the metaphysical nature of shaping ambient energy into specific effects likely means that the words spoken will be esoteric in nature. Though there’s doubtless a connection between the words and why a spell acts like it does, that’s more philosophical than practical.

One of the best examples of this is found in the anime Bleach (yes, yes, it’s an anime reference for table-top role-playing; just move on). The verbal incantation to invoke the black coffin spell, which apparently crushes an enemy with gravity, is as follows:

Seeping crest of turbidity.

Arrogant vessel of lunacy!

Boil forth and deny!

Grow numb and flicker!

Disrupt sleep!

Crawling queen of iron!

Eternally self-destructing doll of mud!

Unite!

Repulse!

Fill with soil and know your own powerlessness!

Now THAT’S what it should sound like when you incant a spell. Just put that in a foreign language, and it’s appropriately strange and mystic enough to sound like you’re working real magic.

A Few Words More

Although it goes beyond the scope of language in magic, one further way to emphasize the difference between spellcasters of different countries, religions, and other groups is to make thematic spell lists for each such group. This is a lot of work, of course, but it lends a great deal of cultural distinction to magical practitioners. If the fireball spell is known as an invention of Draedoria, and you see somebody cast that spell while speaking Estic, you can bet where that wizard was trained, which can lead to all kinds of intrigue.

Making spell lists that are customized by country (or other boundary) is tricky, however. Don’t trim them down too narrowly or the PCs will quickly go beyond the spells that are considered “patriotic.” This especially means don’t theme them by school, since that virtually guarantees that characters will learn spells that are outside of the national paradigm for spellcasting. It might be a good idea to establish a large number of spells as universal – that is, they’ve been around so long that they aren’t regarded as belonging to any particular group – and make the cultural spell lists smaller.

Afterword

With this, we conclude the It’s A Kind of Magic series of articles. Hopefully it’s given you some good material for your home game, and if not then I hope you at least enjoyed reading these ideas. Remember, spellcasting in Pathfinder might be mechanical to us, but to your characters, it’s magic!

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One Response to “It’s A Kind of Magic, Part 4 – Language”

  1. Damien RS Says:

    That was really cool! If I ever ran a D&Dish game I’d definitely think about using these ideas. Though the sorceror spontaneously talking in e.g. Latin doesn’t mesh well with the language just being a part of the culture rather than inherently magical. Probably need to either have a magical language or have sorcerors shouting in their own language (if any) as some sort of mental focus. Or scrap their verbal components, more like psions.

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