Spice up the common tongue with campaign slang

A curious aspect of the Dungeons & Dragons game is the idea of a “common” tongue spoken by everyone. The thought of such a universal language developing in a Medieval setting is absurd, considering the slow modes of travel and communication, rampant illiteracy and limited access to information.

Of course, simply by engaging in the act of playing D&D, players choose to suspend disbelief long enough to pretend magic is real, the dead can walk, dragons prowl the land and the fabric of reality can be rent with a few magic words. If we’ve already agreed to pretend at that level, a continental, common language isn’t too much more to add, and as a game feature, a common language lets players interact with the setting instead of trying to interact with the setting, which quickly becomes frustrating.

There are ways, however, for a dungeon master (DM) to give players the impression that they are in different cultural areas when their heroes wander far from home. When heroes are in especially remote or distant areas, creating pigdin speech for role-playing may be appropriate. But to give a “sense of place” without actually altering the common language, the DM can make use of campaign slang to create dialects.

Fantasy literature, computer role-playing games and setting-specific tabletop RPG supplements are rife with examples of slang that gives the reader or player a unique sense of place; residents of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern exclaim, “Shards!” when frustrated, while denizens of Baldur’s Gate may call an inconsiderate person a “Berk.” One of the most colorful examples of area slang appears in the D&D Gazeteer for the Republic of Darokin, which details a culture where talent in trade and finance is valued above all; natives describe a poor things (ranging from weather to business conditions) as “copper,” average things as “silver and gold,” and exceptional things as “platinum.”

While original slang terms created for a campaign have the advantage of being absolutely unique, there are other sources for real-world slang terms which could be adopted for game use, particularly if a campaign culture emulates a real Medieval culture.

For example, one society in this writer’s ongoing campaign draws heavily upon Irish and Scottish culture, ranging from clan organization and social outlook to modes of dress and armament. Apart from bringing those details into the game through descriptions and role-playing – with an admittedly poor brogue – peppering a non-player character’s speech with real Irish slang can add a great deal to an encounter, especially after the heroes learn the meanings of some of the phrases.

Obviously, it’s important that DMs select slang from cultures different from their own; this writer’s American players will sense that they are in a different place when they hear Irish slang, but Irish players probably wouldn’t be taken away by a poorly-rehearsed brogue. 

For illustrative purposes, an Internet search on “Irish slang” brought up dozens of sites including this one, which offered the following terms and phrases that may be used in a D&D game:

  • Afters (n): dessert
  • Alco (n): someone who’s always drunk
  • As weak as a salmon in a sandpit: hungry
  • Baldy, as in “I haven’t got a baldy” (phr): I haven’t a clue
  • Be wide (phr): be careful
  • Bobble (v): to walk or to move somewhere
  • Brown Trout (n): excrement
  • Chinwag (n): a chat
  • Cnawvshawling (v): complaining
  • Far wack, the (n): over on the opposite side.
  • Fine thing/fine bit of stuff (n): admiring comment on member of opposite sex
  • Gobshite (n): idiot
  • I’ve a mouth on me (phr): I’m hungry
  • I’ve a throat on me (phr): I’m thirsty
  • Lady Muck (n): a stuck-up woman
  • Manky (a): filthy dirty
  • Millie up! (phr): a fight going to start
  • Oxters (n): armpits
  • Pulling me plum (v): doing absolutely nothing
  • Rag order (n): disorganised
  • Ructions (n): Loud arguing or commotion – ‘There were great ructions at our house last night’
  • Scab (n): ugly woman/man
  • Scratcher (n): bed
  • Squizz (n): a look-see
  • Twistin’ hay (v): means you’re starting trouble, usually in a playful way
  • Want in him, there’s a (phr): he’s a bit slow

It is important to note that these terms haven’t been checked for accuracy, since they’re would only appear in a fictional story, anyway, but they can make for colorful role-playing for those unfamiliar with the terms.

Another option at the DMs disposal is taking existing, real-world slang and changing the meaning to suit the campaign. If the players aren’t familiar with Irish slang, and you think the word banjaxed (slang for tired) would be a fun way of describing someone who is intoxicated, no one needs to know about the change; it is still your campaign.

Any readers aware of interesting slang terms, or those who have created such terms for their own games, please consider posting them in a comment to this post, so that all readers may benefit from your experience.

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10 comments on “Spice up the common tongue with campaign slang

  1. “The thought of such a universal language developing in a Medieval setting is absurd”

    Great comment. I actually think that if you got rid of the ‘Common’ language in fantasy settings, it would add a whole new level of distinction and roleplaying to the game. Just like adding ‘Basic’ in Star Wars is kind of a cheeseball way of making sure players can interact easily.

    You can make entire adventures off of being unable to communicate with NPCs. Hell, Star Trek (TV) has several episodes based off this single concept.

    • Alric says:

      Agreed, Sam. Of course, there’s nothing to stop individual DMs from creating their own regional versions of common that are effectively different languages. The pigdin post referenced in this posting tried to tackle that idea.

      On an unrelated note, I’m guessing at the uniform in your profile pic – is that NYS DEC?

  2. Ameron says:

    Great article. I’ve found that the Eberron campaign setting is really good at reminding DMs and Players that there is slang in D&D. The characters in the Eberron novels often use local slang. And it’s interesting to note that characters from different countries or regions use different slang. The Player’s Guide to Eberron (3e) actually has some examples of local slang terms.

    I’m always impressed when PCs at my game table use slang in character. The most common ones are “Tower Spit!” from the guy whose PC grew up in Sharn and “By the Flame!” from the PC playing the Paladin of the Silver Flame.

    • Alric says:

      There seems to be a lot of good stuff in those Eberron books. I’ll need to take a look at those.

      Thanks for the suggestions, Ameron.

  3. Nermal2097 says:

    :) As a UK commenter, some of the definitions you have there are quite amusing.

    Some more for you.

    Sen (n): Self, as in “Get ya sen down t’pub!” = “You should relocate yourself to the nearest tavern.”
    Cracking (adj): Very good.
    Adding the word Tidy as a prefix to indicate a large amount or distance as in Tidy Sum = a large amount of coin or Tidy Step = a long distance

    • Alric says:

      Hello again, Nermal.

      Actually, I don’t know if those are used or not in Ireland – I just copied a few from that Irish slang site. Hopefully, they are at least a little accurate…

      And thanks for the UK slang, too. It’s very colorful for us Americans.

  4. Philo Pharynx says:

    “The thought of such a universal language developing in a Medieval setting is absurd, considering the slow modes of travel and communication, rampant illiteracy and limited access to information.”

    But in a magical setting this is different. Spells can greatly enhance movement and communication. Eberron has a reasonable explanation, though I don’t think it’s explicitly stated. The nation of Galifar was an empire founded by one man. It covered most of the continent of Khorvaire. Since the majority of PC’s come from Khorvaire, they would know enough of the tongue of Galifar to get by. I usualy ruled that PC’s from other continents would get other languages as their starting language. Likewise, Star Wars had the galactic republic to spread a single language across the galaxy. Most aliens would learn it to get by.

    English is commonly used as common tongue in international business. I work for a Swiss company, and it’s official language is English. Even in medieval society, educated people could communicate in Latin.

    A related issue is that language difficulties are something that works well in fiction, but don’t always play in gaming. It can be hard when the majority of PC’s can’t interact in a roleplaying scene. Or when the members of a party don’t all speak a common language. It gets in the way of some types of gaming styles. Above Samuel Van Der Wall mentioned the Star Trek epsiodes where language difficulties were a problem. What he doesn’t mention is that most episodes rely on the “universal translator” in order to bypass language issues so they can focus on the other challenges of the episode. As a plot device it’s easier to imagine a group that doesn’t know any PC languages than a race that has a language that can’t be translated by this nigh-magical machine.

    Back to the original post about slang – This can be a great way to introduce legends and history. A village might swear on the name of a great hero of the past. Or perhaps an elven community uses some dwarvish slang even though there are no dwarves in the area. Most people may not know why, but if people get curious, they might dig into this and find some clues.

  5. […] reorganizing Athenaeum content into a forthcoming post index, this writer happened upon this post, which dealt with developing a unique flavor in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign by developing […]

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