How To Handle Language Barriers

Over at RPG Geek they’re talking about language barriers in games. I was surprised at how many people had bad experiences with them but when they explained why, it was because the GM was using them wrong. Another problem people had was that they thought a language barrier only allows for a single kind of role play experience. That’s not true at all.

Barriers in the right places

You wouldn’t put an invisible wall around the players preventing them from continuing on in the story would you? Not without good reason I hope. This is what a language barrier is, an invisible wall. You would put up walls that the players have to get around, over or though right? In many ways a GM frequently puts up barriers that focus the efforts of the players. This is the role of a language barrier. They should never be used haphazardly or randomly.

A language barrier can be used occasionally to slow the players down. This is the most often considered use but it’s like using a screwdriver’s handle for a hammer. It’s not a lot of fun. The players have to figure out how to pantomime or draw pictures in the dirt to convey the right idea. This is the worst use of a language barrier.

A language barrier can be used for comedic effect. This is often used in the wrong way, where the GM tries to make the player characters look silly. You may get some half hearted laughs this way but players don’t usually like their characters being the butt of the jokes. A better way to use a language barrier for comedic effect is to have someone that is trying to help the players but has only a basic understanding of their language and keeps mixing up words like “kitchen” and “chicken” or misunderstanding words. This way the players get to laugh at the NPC and fun is had all around.

It can be used to create the feeling of a stranger in a strange land. In this situation the language barrier rarely actually comes up in the game overtly. The GM provides the players with a few contacts they can speak to and get the things they need. The rest of the population are in effect off limits. They have little need to deal with these foreigners that cannot speak intelligently. This constrains the players available options and creates a harsher atmosphere. This can be used in the wrong places if the GM is only looking to make things hard on the PCs and it isn’t a real thematic use of the barrier.

Language can also be used to limit the amount of information gathering the players try to do. I did this recently with a game where the players were tracking down a missing person, they found his notebook but couldn’t read it but there was a hand drawn map in it that they could follow. The notebook clue was useful, but didn’t give the game away by being able to read the whole thing. A GM should always make the information the players need available to them but can use the language to restrict their access to more that would spoil the plot. For example, if the players capture an enemy and try to interrogate them. If they don’t speak their language, they won’t get very far.

Another use is to provide the players with a translator that they start to not trust. Maybe he’s making some things up because of incompetence or maybe he’s lying to the PCs. This has to start off by establishing the translator’s credibility at first and only very slowly and subtlety introduced. Players tend to jump on inconsistencies quickly. This can also be reversed and have the players questioning perceived inconsistencies in the translator when there really are none to induce a feeling of paranoia (if that’s right for the tone of the game).

So plan out where your language barriers will be. Get them to add to the game’s feel instead of detract from it. This is a social wall, you can make an invisible maze out of it and fill that maze with monsters but never make all the passages lead to dead ends.


Filed under GM Advice

2 Responses to How To Handle Language Barriers

  1. the last fantasy game I played in had a world built of many nations each with their own language. The start of the last adventure was all about finding a common tongue, or something that most people could at least understand, and then working out a chain of translation for those who couldn’t. The GM used the barrier very well indeed in a realistic way involving a touch of jingoism after one country tried and failed to invade another. The players also had the fun of pretending not to speak the native tongue so they could eavesdrop on conversations without too much attention on them.

    • Loc

      Which is a good example of a kind of maze to be negotiated, only socially. It also is a kind of resource management challenge, which when done right, can be quite enjoyable.

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