Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why All Those Languages?

One of the things that puzzled me when I first started playing the game, and which I've seen come up from time to time in discussions, is the question of why the rules bother to include player characters speaking a multitude of other languages. Dwarves speak goblin, kobold, and orcish. Elves speak those languages plus hobgoblin and gnoll. Other sorts of demi-humans have their own selection of humanoid tongues that they begin the game speaking, and humans can learn new ones as well. Why?

Too, if you look at a lot of the early dungeon adventures, they all seem to have a lot more detail about the villains than would be needed, if the expectation was that the PCs were just going to mow through them, vorpal swords a-whirling. What use the carefully detailed rivalry between the Eilservs and the Lolth-worshiping drow? Why bother hinting at intrigues-within-intrigues in the Temple of Elemental Evil? If the game is nothing more than a tactical exercise in destroying the monsters, then these sorts of subtleties are at best eye candy for the game master.

I think one of the things that was almost instantly lost when Gygax et al published their game was the notion that not all encounters would automatically end up as battles. In the 1E DMG, the encounter reactions table on p. 63 shows that there is only a 5% chance that an encounter will result in an immediate attack, and only a further 20% chance that it will be hostile. The original rules had a similar section; only on a roll of 2-5 on 2d6 would an intelligent monster be immediately hostile (U&WA, p. 12). That's why all those languages are there; to allow them to converse rather than always immediately attack.

This is another instance where charisma ceases to be a "dump stat". If the PCs are in the habit of attempting to engage orcs encountered in a dungeon in conversation, rather than in melee, this does several things for the game.
  1. It allows both the players and game master to indulge in role-playing rather than hack-and-slash dice rolling (which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but does get stale when there's nothing but in a game).
  2. It allows the game master to feed the players information about the political fracture-lines of the monsters. Do the orcs in the Caverns of Chaos have a loose alliance with the gnolls? Do the hobgoblins have an understanding with the goblins? There's almost no way for the PCs to know this and take advantage of it unless they are told about it, maybe by the angry kobolds who resent not having any allies of their own...
  3. It allows the inhabitants of the dungeon to possibly become aware of some of the capabilities of the PCs. Perhaps the shrewd hobgoblin medicine man will try to figure out which of them has spell-casting abilities, so the next time they meet, his tribe will know who to attack with arrows first. Perhaps they're just stalling for time to set up an ambush. Not all information transfer is necessarily in the PCs' favor.
For some parties, simply reminding them of the "parley" option prior to the start of play should be enough. Perhaps having your own orcs or hobgoblins attempting to parley rather than simply opening fire would be hint enough. In my own game the players often engage the more intelligent monsters in conversation, sometimes even turning would-be enemies into sometimes-allies. Of course, it doesn't always work, but it does add a lot of role-playing fun to what might otherwise be a grind.