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.