Lost in translation

Language can be a primary barrier between creatures in the Dungeons & Dragons game. Although the simplified language rules used in the fourth edition (4e) of the game make it easier than ever for heroes to interact with others in the campaign world, there still will be times when no one in the party will know the language of a person or group encountered.

In such situations, the heroes may be tempted not to interact with the other group due to the language barrier. I once ran a game for a group that would take no prisoners in the event that they couldn’t speak with a foe; why drag prisoners along when they would slow the group’s pace, reveal the group’s position and provide no useful information?

One way to encourage communication when a language barrier exists – and provide very fertile soil for memorable role-playing encounters – is to employ pigdin speech in your D&D campaign.

A pigdin is a simplified language that develops between two groups that don’t share a common language. They are characterized by their small size (typically fewer than 2,000 words), limited range of subject matter (usually diplomacy or trade) and by borrowing words and grammatical constructions from the respecive languages of the two groups.

The best-known pigdin examples from our own history developed when European traders and missionaries encountered peoples from Africa, Asia and Indonesia.

In a D&D campaign, it is probable that pigdins exist in situations where two groups have recently made their first contact. In this writer’s own campaign, dwarves have recently re-emerged from their mountain holds due to increased incursions from below, and pigdin languages have developed in many border areas.

How can the concept of the pigdin be brought into a D&D game? One way to approach the issue in a 4e game involves allowing characters who speak one of the pigdin’s parent languages to understand a portion of the pigdin speech, represented by the dungeon master substituting nonsensical words in portions of the other party’s responses.

Another way to introduce pigdins is to allow heroes to be fluent in the pigdins themselves. This option is most appropriate for heroes with a background involving trade or diplomacy, and should allow the players to have relatively clear conversations on those topics.

But what happens when the heroes need to discuss something other than trade or diplomacy? Such situations fall into linguistically uncharted territory, and present unique role-playing opportunities. It is at such points where misinterpreted gestures, mispronounced words and misunderstood concepts become the stuff of role-playing memories.

A fun way of defining these misunderstandings involves the use of the babelfish translator. Before the role-playing encounter, the dungeon master must anticipate a few phrases that will likely emerge during the conversation, and write them down. Then enter each into babelfish, translating first from English to another language; then from the second language to a third, then from the third back to English.

For example, consider a party of heroes who are trying to obtain a great crystal from a primitive, remote location, which is a required component for a ritual that will prevent a sleeping evil from destroying the region. The natives worship the great crystal as a god, and the only language both groups can use is a trade pigdin combining Common and the natives’ tongue.

Using the babelfish method described above, the heroes’ statement, “We need the crystal to prevent evil from destroying your homes,” becomes, “We have need crystal d’ to prevent that it destroys angry of them repousos.”

When the natives try to say, “What you tell us makes no sense,” the heroes hear, “What you c’ is the proverb does absolutely no direction.”

Knowing how the natives will hear the party’s statements, the dungeon master can then use babelfish to generate a few similarly garbled responses, and then the fun can begin.

It is important to keep the pre-generated respones to a minimum, as no clear grammar rules will exist between them, and the players will be overwhelmed if they are presented with too many nonsensical words to define and use. Four or five statements and responses is more than enough.

In a 4e game, using pigdin speech to accomplish role-playing goals can generate experience points for the party through the skill challenge mechanic, basing the challenge level and complexity on the quality of the shared language and the relative ability of that language to discuss the matter at hand.

In our crystal example, a trade-based pigdin exists between the two groups, so the idea of transferring ownership of an item should be relatively clear; a  complexity of 3 would probably be sufficient. Persuading the natives to part with their god-crystal is a very delicate matter, though, so the level of the challenge should be increased to require “hard” DC rolls for success.

Watching players wrestle with this sort of role-playing is indescribably fun; it’s rather like watching Drizzt Do’Urden, Conan the Barbarian and Frodo Baggins playing Pictionary while armed. Try it and see.

Thanks are due to Max Elliot for his mention of babelfish while commenting on another post in this blog. It formed the inspiration for this posting.


6 comments on “Lost in translation

  1. Aaron says:

    That’s a brilliant idea to use babelfish! I can’t wait to find some place to “pigdin”-hole this into my campaign (oh, god, did I seriously just say that?).


    • Alric says:

      Hi Aaron,

      It appears that you’ve just coined a phrase and earned the RPG Athenaeum’s undying respect by creating the blog’s first official pun. Nice work.

  2. Max.Elliott says:


  3. Michelle says:

    Used this in our game last week. The players really struggled to understand what the Nerull cleric (speaking an archaic form of infernal) was saying. Created a great roleplaying opportunity.



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