Partial Languages for 5e

I’ve been playing through Dungeon of the Mad Mage and how we’ve been handling language has been bothering me. It might be because every time we find some new warning an a wall written in blood or whatever, the DM asks us what languages we known and then all of us rattle off our 4+ languages, because we know language is a thing in dungeons and it takes a good 3 minutes each bit of graphitti.  

The time spent is not the main issue I have with language (although it is a factor.) What bothers me is language doesn’t work like that. It’s not a binary “You know it or you don’t” I know maybe 3 words in Russian and German, 20 words in Spanish, and I could probably pick out a few phrases in Japanese, although they’d be cliché anime phrases, I’m sure. That’s not even counting my 3 years of high school French.

So, even though I might not be able to understand entirely what’s going on, I might be able to get a glimmer of understanding. I think that’s worth trying to emulate and today, here’s my system I came up with to do so!

Percentage Based Langauges

There is no more Language Proficiency. This Percentage system replaces all of that. It is not a simpler system, but it handles partial interpretation better. (Supposedly.)

Each language a character has interacted with has a score from 0 to 10. This number goes up as they become more fluent in the language.

  • A Score of 10 is perfect Mastery. You know all of the words, even the difficult ones, the ones lawyers keep secret. You’ve got the sciency and the magicy ones too.
  • A Score of 7 is Fluency. You’re able to hold conversations about almost any topic, as long as you avoid the esoteric (that means weird). You also speak the language well enough that you can help tutor others.
  • A score of 5 is Conversational. You can basically get around in the language, although its better suited to finding the way to the docks than discussing philosophy. At this level, as long as its not too specific, you don’t need to make checks to hold a conversation.
  • A score of 3 is basic. If you wave your hands and yell the few words you know, your gist gets across. Simple ideas can be communicated, which is enough to lead troops in combat.
  • A score of 0 is not understandable. However, you’ve run across this language enough to be able to recognize it should you see it or hear it.

At Character Creation

When you normally create a character, there are several places that give you language proficiency. In this system, those places that give you a language give you a percentage of fluency instead.

  • If you would get a language proficiency from your race, you instead gain a score of 7 in those languages instead.
  • If you would gain a language proficiency from your class, background, or a feat choice, you instead gain a score of 7 in those languages instead.

Once your base fluency has been established, the second step is to add some study. During this step, you can buy increased fluency. You have a pool of points equal to your Intelligence Score. Increasing a known language by one point cost one point. You cannot go above a 10.

Learning a new language with thes points costs 2 points to get to score 1 in an standard language. It costs 3 points to get to score 1 in an exotic language

  • Standard Languages
    • Common
    • Dwarvish
    • Elvish
    • Gnomish
    • Halfling
    • Orc
    • Goblin
    • Giant
  • Exotic Languages
    • Abyssal
    • Celestial
    • Draconic
    • Deep Speech
    • Infernal
    • Primordial
    • Sylvan
    • Undercommon
    • Drudic
    • Thieves Cant

 After First Level

After character creation, languages are not as easy to acquire, although it is still doable. You can attempt to increase your fluency either after a sizeable amount of downtime studying, or as your character levels up. In both case, you will be making an intelligence check with the DC being 15 + the fluency score in the language you’re seeking to improve. You only get the one roll and the one attempt. If you’ve been learning the language from someone with a score of 7 in that language, the DC is 10 plus the score in the skill.

Note: Spells like Guidance, Enhance Ability, or a Bardic Inspiration won’t help. Learning comes from within, not from the outside.

How to use in game

I imagine it would play out similar to how languages tend to work, except the dice get some say in the matter.

Picture, if you will, a statue of a dwarf. The DM points out an inscription underneath.
Player: “Ooh! I Speak a bit of Dwarf! 3 speaks worth.
DM: “Three, huh? That gets you common words. You can clearly make out the name Kazrund. Roll for dwarvish.”

The player would then roll, of course, and if a 1, 2,or 3, the full title of Kazrund, Traps were his treasure. But if it was a 4 or higher on the d10, the words would be more complex. The DM might give just the name, or, if the player needed some more inspiration, might mention “it says something about treasure, but you can’t make it out clearly.”  (Remember, folks, tip your DMs!)

Also, on the monster side, I think the DM can roll to see if the creature understands what the party is whispering about in elvish. Roll a d10 surreptitiously. If it’s under the Int mod, the creature recognizes a word or two, probably useful ones that can easily be misconstrued messing up whatever plan before the players have a chance to mess it up.


So that’s my thoughts.. I don’t know how it will work. I’ll be testing it tonight and seeing what players think. I’ll let you know and see how it goes, I guess

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