Language as a Key Gameplay Element
Table of Contents
II. Core System
III. How It World
IV. Benefits of Language Mastery
V. Additional Systems
Using Language to Restrict Class Access or Progression
Minor Passive Bonuses
Language Conversion for Non-Speakers
Ancient / Dead Language Inclusion
Language Mastery Parameter Weighting
Mastery Decay from Non-Use
Each Mastered Language Increases Learning Speed
Language Immersion Learning Momentum
Real-world Language Learning Terminology and Application
Languages from the different races and cultures be used to further advance character development and improvement of solo and group gameplay. Star Wars Galaxies had the beginning of a great idea with its language system, and I believe there are ways to improve the inclusion of racial or cultural / regional languages into new games to enhance gameplay as a whole.
Below I shall explain the core elements of the proposed language system and how it works, followed by a series of additional systems that can be used to further enhance the functionality or specificity of the language system. Each different language will represent the race or culture or region from which it originates, including the functional and aesthetic differences.
II. Core system
The core of the language system is that players only start with a common language and a racial / regional / cultural language, and they must slowly learn other languages in order to improve their ability to interact with native speakers or read text from those languages. When speaking and understanding another language is possible, it can change the paradigm by which the character thinks, making some tasks potentially easier or more difficult. For the scope of this document, I’ll be sticking to racial languages, but other options are definitely possible to fit the lore of the game where this is used.
A team where everyone has Mousqueak language mastery will likely be better at stealth and generating less aggro when desired, while a team speaking the language of the Amphibors may have improved poison damage and leaping ability. Different languages may help groups of crafters, such as Gnome language helping with gadgets, or Dwarf language helping with brewing beer or mining or metalworking.
Using language as a gameplay element is great for everyone, from casual players that want to have something for their character to do passively in their long stretches of offline downtime, to hardcore players focused on stat-maximization, to players role-playing a “nationalist” group is only willing to recruit an off-race into their ranks by forcing them to master a language they may not yet know at all through total immersion. (I think of the earlier parts of the film “The 13th Warrior” with the last example.)
Languages could also be used to unlock things that aren’t available to most players. Learning and speaking the language of non-player races can allow players the opportunity to surrender, negotiate, or even accept quests from non-player races or factions. Being able to communicate with dragons may lead to precarious alliances, or simply get a player snatched up and dropped from the clouds by a dragon who dislikes their pronunciation. Entire teams who speak the language of dragons could potentially get special bonuses to elemental damage and resistances that may not be otherwise available.
III. How it works
The player starts with two languages, a Common language so they can communicate on neutral ground with everyone else, and a Racial (or cultural, or regional) language which they can speak freely with anyone else who speaks it. Languages other than Common matter when interacting with NPCs and in a party, as NPCs may be restricted to or prefer a certain language, while a party leader can assign the language which they speak while adventuring (and change it on the fly as needed). Lacking a basic level of mastery in a language means communications in that language may be garbled or have words randomly translocated to represent the inability to understand it, and the ability to use it effectively in a party is brought to the point of penalty.
Mastery of a language has four parts: Literacy, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Synthesis.
Literacy is the ability to parse the grammar and punctuation properly, as well as recognizing all the letters and symbols used, in order to interpret the written language. This is also helpful for reading notes written with poor handwriting.
Fluency is the ability to vocalize and pronounce the words in the proper pattern and rhythm, as well as being able to keep up when a native speaker is speaking the language at a comfortable or fast pace.
Vocabulary is the understanding of the words themselves and their meanings, and the volume of words readily available when thinking or communicating.
Synthesis is the ability to put words together in a meaningful way. Technical explanation, comedy and poetry, issuing orders during combat, and potentially other things get better as synthesis improves.
Total 100% mastery of each language is built on the 25% provided by each of the four categories, and as each one is used, the character slowly develops them further. Reading more and logging off with a book will help fill in literacy and vocabulary. Fighting or working alongside another player in that language will improve fluency, vocabulary. Everything helps build synthesis, and it builds much faster when the player is actively engaged with the language (speaking or writing in that language) than passively engaged (reading a book or eavesdropping on a conversation).
Not every language may be as challenging to learn as the rest. Some languages may be easier to pick up, but the trade-off is that they don’t provide the same kinds of benefits and bonuses which more difficult languages may provide. Some ancient languages may contain great power when a team with mastery in that language works together, but it could be very tough to learn as a trade-off. Likewise, an invented languages based on Common might be very easy to learn, but provide little extra benefits.
IV. Benefits of Language Mastery
As the player advances their character’s language mastery, they gain more personal bonuses, as well as contributing more to party bonuses when spoken with a party. There are individual benefits which affect the individual’s ability to perform certain actions, or to communicate with language-specific NPCs. There are also group bonuses, such as things related to mobility or better exploiting an enemy’s weak point.
Each language also has a unique set of penalties if the player or party is below the mastery threshold of 30, which generally counteract the bonuses and add some quirky penalties like getting confused when trying to heal an ally. The penalties are there to represent the character’s inability to think and work in that language, as well as the difficulty of the entire party to communicate and coordinate when people are saying the wrong words or don’t understand what they were told to do.
Below is the proposed progression for how language mastery applies bonuses and penalties:
Personal Bonuses and Penalties
When a character is below 30 mastery, they suffer a personal penalty of 3% of whatever the language’s designated penalty is per point below 30.
When a character is up to 30 mastery in a language, they no longer face personal penalties.
Each point from 31 to 50 provides an increase of 1% personal language bonuses, totaling 20% at 50.
Each point from 51 to 80 provides an increase of 1.5%, totaling 65% at 80.
Each point from 81 to 100 provides an increase of 1.75%, totaling 100% at 100.
Party Bonuses and Penalties
When the average language mastery for a party is below 30, everyone in the party suffers a 0.33% group language penalty per point below 30.
When the average language mastery for a party is above 30, the party no longer suffers no group penalties.
Group mastery bonus progression follows the same value ranges as personal language bonuses. (+1% per point 31-50, +1.5% per point 51-80, +1.75% per point 81-100)
What bonuses are actually available, and the impact of those bonuses, varies from language to language based on the culture from which it originates. Without knowledge of the scale of attributes, variety of skills, and types of bonuses and penalties which the game could have, I can’t really give much in the way of suggestions here.
One example I’ve thought of is a 10% increase to a certain industrial skill for having a language maximized. Surveying, mining, refining ore, scavenging materials in an area, scavenging materials from pieces of equipment, skinning animals, harvesting lumber or herbs, farming, cooking, brewing, metalworking, woodworking for weapons or for furniture, weaponsmithing for a certain style of weapon, armorsmithing for a certain type of armor, improvised crafting with salvaged parts, musical instrument crafting, bricklaying and masonry, architecture, and potentially many other things could be enhanced by knowing the language of the culture who is best at it.
The explanation is that understanding the language and its culture allows the character to think in the way of that culture and use instructions written in that language to improve understanding. Whether it is the way the language is spoken, the meanings of certain words or phrases, or the ability to describe something to a level of detail and specificity that other languages cannot, mastery in a language would provide improved communication and thinking that improves the quality of a specific task or role.
V. Additional Systems
Now that I’ve gone through the details of the core system, there are a series of robust options designed to further improve gameplay and immersion. These additional systems can be utilized to add any additional features or components that weren’t included in the core system. The systems are organized into two categories, learning-related and gameplay-related. Gameplay-related systems are ways where language can be tied to things like skills, attributes, and group abilities. Learning-related systems involve different ways which the characters can learn different languages, or ways that learning languages will help with learning other languages.
Gameplay-Related Additional Systems
1) Additional System – Using Language to Restrict Class Access or Progression
Every race can potentially grow into every class in the game, though each individual character is not necessarily going to be able to access every single class. Some races may be more adept than others for certain classes, to the point where not speaking the language of one of these races can keep the character out of certain abilities or advancement, or even from learning the class altogether.
For example, every race may not have a Defender class as a starting option. Races who may start as a Defender can easily unlock the class through gameplay, when compared to the challenge presented to characters of other races. The player must start getting their character’s language skills up in one of the languages of a race that accesses the class by default, and get that language to a proficient level of mastery, before they can either learn or be taught how to perform effectively as that class.
This could go even deeper, providing different versions of common class skills based on which language the character knows. For example, a Dwarf Defender who has learned Ogre language may be able to do the Ogre’s style of shield bash attack instead of the classic Dwarf style shield bash. The Ogre could potentially be more of a slashing strike that uses the edge of the shield, while the Dwarf version could be more focused on knocking an enemy off-balance so a clean hit can be scored as a follow-up. A Mousqueak who learns Dwarf and Ogre languages would have access to both versions of the shield bash.
2) Additional System – Language-Based Skills
Some skills or abilities, or modifiers for those skills or abilities, could be made available when a certain language has reached full mastery. These may be skills or abilities that can only be effectively explained in a certain language, such as understanding Amphibor to know how they prepare their styles of food so that everyone can enjoy it. This could also be a way to enhance abilities that the player has already learned, such as increasing the ferocity of a roar-based radial debuff with an understanding of Dwarf pronunciation, or improving the range using Ogre war screams.
This opens the door for some natural racial skills and abilities to be available to other races, like their crafting style and culinary knowledge, or group abilities like Orc battle chants or Dwarf mining songs. There could still be some penalties to effectiveness for using language abilities of a different race, but these penalties would be mitigated in a group where everyone has that language mastered and has the skill or ability unlocked.
Having skills that cannot be fully utilized or accessed without certain languages being learned puts an emphasis on players to spend time learning new languages. This could add an extra layer of depth to the game, giving players another thing to do as they continue their questing. This would also promote role-playing and non-RP gameplay between characters of a similar race, as the racial language mastery will allow them to work well together.
3) Additional System – Minor Passive Bonuses
As the player learns and understands a language better, some aspects of the logic and culture and best practices become ingrained in the character’s mind. Whether or not they must be speaking the language to get active bonuses, the character could be granted small passive bonuses for each and every language they have mastered.
Each language would have very small attribute boosts for different levels of mastery. Basic stat attributes, additional damage or defenses against certain types of creatures, innate negotiation bonuses with NPC who are not player-directed, and potentially other features. These features may be amplified when a group is actively speaking the language, or these could be separate from active language usage in a group or as an individual.
This would further encourage players to learn other languages, since it would provide minimal bonuses in a lot of different places, which would add up to a small increase in overall performance and ability for the character. Think of the DCUO weapon skill system, where players invest time and effort in mastering weapons they don’t use in order to get access to raw attribute increases.
4) Additional System – Language Conversion for Non-Speakers
When a language is spoken (typed) in-game and players who don’t understand it are nearby, the language will be mashed up and garbled in a way that makes it seem like it was legitimately spoken in that tongue. This does not have to be a very complex system, though it could be pushed very far to preserve the feeling of authenticity when exposed to a different language.
A simpler system would be merely swapping letters. A, E, I, O, U, and Y could be mixed up to keep vowels in the same positions, while replacing consonants for other consonants, and italicizing everything that is not translated. Letter replacements should be consistent with the language, so the same sentence will look the same way if spoken twice consecutively to someone lacking language mastery. As the player learns the language more, some letters in some words will be in their proper positions and without italics. The downside of this system is that experienced players will potentially be able to decipher something that their character doesn’t understand after seeing a language enough times (possibly on other characters).
A more advanced system would be to take groups of letters in a word and replace them with a group of two to five letters that fit the style of the language being spoken. For example, the word “Attack” in Wood Elf could translate as “Leyanani,” where “att” would be replaced with “leyan,” and “ack” would be replaced with “ani.” Likewise, Ogre might reduce “Attack” to “Uhx,” replacing “at” for “u,” “ta” for “h,” and “ck” for “x.” This system would allow for more of the diversity of languages to come out, as the letter group replacements would only contain letters that make sense for the language being spoken. This would be far less predictable than the letter swapping system above, since common words or phrases would look distinctly different in every language. As with the letter swapping system, untranslated text would be italicized, but it would make more sense if entire words are translated at a time rather than a few letters out of each word.
A very complex system would involve interpreting language or detecting and translocating certain words in a sentence, to represent languages having different grammar and parsing than other languages. After applying either letter replacement or letter group replacement, changing the positions of prepositions, adjectives, and adverbs based on their context can make it seem like an entirely different language. If possible, proper nouns and names would be detected and spoken in the Common language since the pronunciation of someone’s name wouldn’t really change much because of differences in language.
The next level of complexity beyond that is actually bringing linguistics scholars on the dev team and inventing languages for every race. For words that can’t be translated because they don’t exist in the language, one of the above systems could be used to obfuscate whatever is being said.
One further method that could be utilized is creating a different set of letters for each language, and characters who do not know the language will see and read the language in that language’s letters / font characters. Levels of mastery will reduce the placement of language letters and show the translated text in the player’s designated real-world language.
5) Additional System – Ancient / Dead Language Inclusion
Usually the game world wasn’t created a day before the game begins. There are generations of history, civilizations have risen to power and faded into the sands of time, and we begin with a rich history behind us in any lore-heavy game. The remnants of those languages linger in the ruins and underdepths, and are there for players to discover and decipher.
Tomes or tablets from ancient civilizations may show up all across the world, in anything from an Orc treasure cache to the hoard of a dragon attempting to learn one such language. The occasional ancient malevolent spirit of a bygone age may be cursing the characters for their intrusion on sacred ground, meanwhile players are taking in the opportunity to attempt to link a spoken language to the written words revealed by ancient tomes and tablets so they can better understand it in their path to mastery.
Learning a dead or ancient language should be no easy goal to complete, but largely rewarding for anyone who can take the time or collect the resources to complete the task. Unique bonuses provided by these languages, as well as personal opportunities which may become available through NPCs with this language, are the reward for completing this difficult task. Opportunities to interact with certain types of NPCs may only manifest when an ancient language is spoken by that character. The player can choose to train other player’s characters in that language (possibly charging a hefty fee for training) or whether they will keep it for themselves as a secret.
6) Additional System – Language Development
Languages don’t have to be finite in number, and could actually be something players can create and maintain as a part of gameplay. There are many reasons why an invented language could be useful, both for the players and for the game as a whole.
Even knowing every language in the game, a group of players will not necessarily have everything they want from those languages, and seek to form a new language which empowers them for their particular purpose. Perhaps there is no language that talks deeply and precisely of the methods of slaying animate trees and plants, and the players seek to create a language that will aid them in the quest to purge the forests of malevolent plant creatures. The spoken and written language would be designed to allow all kinds of thinking and activities, but would be focused on the structure of phrases and wording related to their specific task. Bonuses to fighting plant creatures, bonuses to harvesting resources and crafting goods from slain plant creatures, and bonuses to detecting plant creatures from further away, could all be features of the new language.
Beyond the benefit of this new language, the players who develop it would be recognized as the creators. They would have exclusive control over the language, choosing individually who they teach it to, whether they will charge for training or sell translation or learning books, and would allow role-players to exclude another player from their typed conversations. NPCs hired to the town owned by those players could be taught the language and be instructed to speak it exclusively, in order to ward off non-speakers and set a tone of exclusivity for the town.
Finally, in the name of emergent gameplay, the ability to create new languages would allow for a very unique form of diversity across every server, as each language formed by players would only exist on that server. The terms of a server transfer may include locking out languages from other servers, unless the player returns to that server with another transfer, or that server is merged with the server which the player is on. This restriction might not apply to language inventors who transfer servers, which may give some players the impetus to transfer servers and spread their language around.
Language-Related Additional Systems
7) Additional System – Language Mastery Parameter Weighting
Not all languages are created with an even emphasis on literacy, fluency, vocabulary, and synthesis. Each aspect of language mastery is balanced differently for each language, to represent the characteristics and nuance of that language and the culture it comes from. The score of 100% mastery is broken down into four uneven portions, representing the emphasis on having more or less literacy, fluency, vocabulary, or synthesis to fully understand that language. A character-based language (ex. Chinese) would have a large vocabulary and literacy requirement, possibly causing fluency to be less emphasized in learning the language, or less synthesis to be needed to communicate complex ideas.
This impacts the ways in which players must approach learning each language. Some languages may be easier to learn with language-to-language translation books, vocabulary-building dictionaries, or even books on etiquette and mannerisms. Others may not be as easy to learn from books, but
For example, Ogre might be based on a series of complex grunts, snorts, and stomps, so the literacy and vocabulary requirements might be on the low side, but fluency and synthesis may be weighted more heavily. A book on etiquette and mannerisms may all that is offered for Ogre language scholars, to understand the history of why a left foot stomp and two snorts is a grave insult but a right foot stomp and two snorts is a compliment. Ogre might also be far easier to learn than other languages.
Likewise, Elf might be a very wordy language that is read and spoken in a very simple way. In that case, it would have high vocabulary while being weighted lower for synthesis, and books about vocabulary and use of different words to be expressive or brief may aid faster learning. It may also be easier to utilize language-to-language translation books.
8) Additional System – Mastery Decay from Non-Use
As other languages are learned and used, one language can start to experience mastery decay. It can never drop below a certain threshold below where it has been mastered, but the margin of decay is larger for players with a lower level of mastery in a language. Recovering mastery lost to decay goes at an increased rate compared to learning it the first time. Even being near a conversation in a language can help stave off decay or restore decayed mastery.
Below are examples of ranges for mastery decay:
Languages in which the character has not exceeded 50 mastery have a decay margin of 30 points. Re-learning a language is always much faster than the first time learning it, so getting back to 50 mastery from the maximum decay of 20 is not a terrible feat to accomplish.
Languages that have exceeded 50 mastery, but not 80 mastery, have a decay margin of 20. Even if the language mastery score only reaches 51 before decay sets in, the lowest it will decline from there is 31. The language is familiar at this point, but not known as well as a native speaker of that language.
Languages that have exceeded 80 mastery, but have not reached 100 mastery, will only suffer a decay of 10 at the most. This language is comfortable to the character, but there are still things which they might not understand or be able to effectively communicate.
Languages that have reached 100 mastery are only able to decay by 5 points at most. This language is second-nature to the character, but they may misspeak or forget an archaic word a few times if they have spent a long time in other languages.
9) Additional System – Each Mastered Language Increases Learning Speed
For each language that a character gets up to 100 mastery, aside from the default languages, will provide a benefit that adds an extra +1% to language learning speed. For the first few languages, the increase will be very minimal and difficult to notice, but accumulating knowledge of more languages will start to increase the pace of learning. It encourages players to get languages all the way to 100% when they can, rather than jumping around and getting a little bit here and there. It also helps reduce the difficulty of learning challenging or scarcely-used languages as the player discovers them.
This can be augmented by grouping languages into families. Languages that are similar in roots and origin are going to be easier to learn for someone who knows one of those languages, but someone with no exposure to those languages will have a tougher time. Races and cultures who share similar roots may have a lot of words and phrases in common, so the increased rate of learning for those languages may be higher while providing little to no benefit to learning languages that are not associated.
An alternate way for this system to work is for each language in a family to add a passive increase to other languages in that family. With some words and pronunciations in common, knowing one language in full will give a scant amount of understanding of a different language. A Wood Elf might have 5% mastery of Dark Elf language by default, for example. This could even be combined with the increased learning rate, making it easier to learn each new language in that language family.
10) Additional System – Language Immersion Learning Momentum
The longer a character spends with a language without having exposure to other languages, the more they are fully immersed in that language. While the penalties will not be negated in any way, being exposed to only one language at once can potentially increase the rate of learning that language by a high degree. For every hour the player is exposed to one language exclusively, they gain a compounding “momentum” bonus to the rate of language learning (somewhere in the range of +5% to +10% per hour) which helps to facilitate rapid learning of new languages for very dedicated players.
This is something a group of players must do by choice. Since every player will already have mastery of the Common language, it would require a group to all agree to speak one language, and never respond in the common language unless they want to risk negating the hour’s bonus or even reducing the immersion bonus set from previous hours of work. The bonus for restricting players in this way is to provide accelerated learning for their allies.
11) Additional System – Real-world Language Learning Terminology and Application
The choice to use Literacy, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Synthesis, is done because those are simple terms which are easy for players to understand. In the science behind the study of how languages are learned, there are a few recognized elements that are considered the fundamental aspects of how languages are learned. Instead of these, language learning could be broken up into categories based on real-world research and understanding of the subject.
It would be possible to rework everything above to accommodate the change from the simpler parts of language which mastery is built on, in order to replace it with terminology that reflects real-world understanding of how language is actually learned.
The first link describes language as being made up of 4 parts: Phonology, Semantics, Pragmatics, and Syntax. Phonology is the character’s ability to interpret sounds as communicable speech, and Semantics is the character’s ability to recognize the meaning of what is being vocalized in a language. Pragmatics is how these sounds are being used. All three of these are important in speech and conversation, but not necessary for reading. Syntax is the placement and context of words being used in a sentence, and this is important to reading. While this applies to speech, the content in this link does not address the written language and how that may be understood, and doesn’t provide any insight into how overall mastery of a language involves the written word.
The second link has the same four characteristics, as well as including Phonetics and Morphology to the discussion. Morphology addresses how the word is constructed, which would be more important for reading the written language. Phonetics is understanding how the sounds are actually produced, which is different from Phonology. Using the second link as a guide, the divisions of mastery described in the core document could be changed as follows (or something similar):
Vocabulary → Pragmatics
Synthesis → Syntax
Fluency → Phonetics
Literacy → Morphology