Friday, September 19, 2014

Fallen Empire - Reviving the D&D Language System


The immolation of the Imperial Archives by disgruntled boxing
devotees in the 7th Century of the Successor Empire helped
limit learning to those with access to private libraries
One of the class abilities that both magic-users and nobles (dual classed F/MU with skills in scholarship and ancient knowledge) have is the ability to speak one or more esoteric languages.  In early editions of D&D language skills were handed out to characters with a decent Intelligence in huge bundles, and even more common amongst demi-humans.  These language skills had value as reaction rolls and morale rolls with intelligent monsters often allowed an opportunity for parley or surrender, providing a very fun roleplaying-rich way of avoiding combat encounters and entering into the ‘faction game’ amongst dungeon dwellers.  Just thinking about the set-up of the feuding humanoids in B2 – Keep on the Borderlands should offer an example of how useful speaking orc, goblin and kobald might be in an old Gygax adventure.  I have no desire to track the uses and relationships between fifty fantasy languages, however and while I greatly enjoy a tense parley as both a player and GM, for Fallen Empire I want to emphasize a largely human world and primarily use ‘common’ as a language available to all players.

Rather than create languages that are specific to races or types of monsters I have decided to create a set of languages that is useful in dealing with certain classes of society or broad groups of monsters.  A scholar need not worry if they speak hobgoblin or goblin, but should be able to talk to denizens of the underdark (yes there is an underdark in Fallen Empire – Deep Carbon Observatory made that certain) if they know the Underdark’s version of common – “Crawl”.  Another expected advantage with a smaller number of languages is that inscriptions and mysterious texts can be accessible (assuming you have a scholar in your party) while still being strange and mysterious.  I intend to have two tables of languages - Esoteric Languages and Living Languages, with the first only available in very limited numbers to Magic-Users and more easily to noble scholars, and the second open to anyone based on intelligence (likely only one or two extra per PC to keep the numbers down).

In addition I have made the parley game slightly more amusing for me by constructing language meta-games with mild mechanical effects.  Speaking Crawl works better if you talk like a cartoon cave man, and trying to overawe bureaucratic robbers or get information out of reluctant functionaries (really the most common kind of bandit in Fallen Empire) will work better if you can speak in Imperial Law and use a really long word or two. 

Below is another letter from the wandering and addled noble Imperial Noble "Pepinot Vex, Hereditary Peinkernes Extraordinary" regarding his continued efforts to reach his beloved cousin's country estate.  Apologies in advance for the bad fiction - it's just one of those weeks.  Feel free to skip to the table of Esoteric Languages at the bottom of the post.  

Dearest Cousin,

Winter of the Imperial Septuagennial

I confess I did not appreciate the hardships of travel when I chose to wander beyond the Capital’s crumbling white walls. The road has many twists and turns, to abuse a popular phrase .  First we detoured around the trenches and bastions of a range war between fighting rural houses – the flashes of black magic rising along a distant ridge as boorish houseguards, while barely understanding how to prime and fire, kept hurling charges from a snub nosed void projector more ancient then the line of the three village Atman who commanded them in the pointless struggle against his neighbor. I do not mean to be harsh to the county squires of the Empire, dear cousin, as I know you count your father and brothers among them, but the thin blooded lot I encountered blocking the high road, held none that would allow us through and call a truce in their petty feud over a village of poxed toilers, or was it a herd of poxed cattle – it hardly mattered as from the stench the prize had been caught between the lines of battle and slaughtered weeks prior.

This was only the first of the obstacles that my ‘entourage’ and I encountered on the road and it occasioned me to hire a local guide, a rough hunter sort named Zaoimillian who presented himself as  knowledgeable of the roads and wilderness between them.  With Zao’s guidance we increased or speed, on back roads, herd paths and graveled lanes, but never fully stopped encountering difficulties. Gorg and I were forced to beat ruffians away from the camp more than once, while Zaoimillian and Tanzil put a few arrows into some magical sport that came sniffing around our fire one night.

The strangest incident was our encounter with a band of actual robbers, which may seem surprising given the traditional fear that the Imperial Road Wardens supposedly inspire.  Eight or ten men armed with spear and bow, motley clad in piecemail armor and bucksins, their faces marked with the traits of brute nations.  Most surprising was their leader, an oleaginous old man, clad in the tattered robes of an Imperial Vicar. The Emperor’s faces on his pectoral were carved from wood by a crippled ape, and badly gilded, but this was a bandit, pretending to be a servant of the Imperial cult.  I shouted a challenge, demanding the ruffians move on with a showing three inches of white saber blade, while Grog hefted his partisan.  The bandits were unimpressed, and their false vicar stepped forward to demand “contributions, for the church.”  When he saw the rage in my eyes and the fingers of my off hand curling into the snake signs that are the first iteration of the ‘evocation of smoke and sorrow’, the bandit leader paused and uncorked a huge flask held by a hairy brute I presume was his lieutenant.  

My concentration was disrupted and I felt the sorcery slip from my fingers as a torrent of light poured from the flask, coiling into the form of a beleaguered Scout Cherubim - regarded as one of the most pitiful of military sending, the entity was a far different matter when facing it across a desolate gravel track then when marvelling at the illustrations in “The Dictionary of Biddable Immortals” under the drunkenly watchful eye of Grey Peter, my childhood tutor.  The Cherubim stood eight feet tall, or would have had it not been hovering on a great nimbus of frantically whirling wings.   It’s flesh was curved in soft pillowing shapes, but gleamed like white stone, and the immortal’s eyes shone with perilous light. On closer inspection the Cherubim had seen better days, strange green bruises marked it’s flesh, there were gaps in its feathers and while its eyes shone, no radiant halo surrounded its head.  It was a weak sending, and injured, long without the ambrosia such things require to work their full powers, but it was still an Imperial sending, dating from the war of succession and intended to harry sorcerer dragoons across cloudscapes or rain bolts of righteous fire against demon warded war machines.  The Cherubim would do for my cantrips, Gorg’s training and the odd unexpected bravery of Zao and Tanzil.

The fallen vicar, for I now realized that the bandit leader must have at one time been a true priest and maybe still considered himself one, sang out in the musical language of the Heavenly Thrones, commanding the Cherubim to destroy us. “The glory of battle is upon you again, destroy them.”  Yet in this emphatic command was the seed of our salvation, as the old vicar’s Celestial was execrable, I doubt he even knew the full extent of the command he repeated, or that it contained a very great flaw of divine grammer.  The first of Grey Peter’s lessons in Celestial was that there are no discordant phrases in that language of song, no negative words truly exist amongst the Thrones, and all unpleasant words and concepts: want, death, sadness, no, and destruction are but poor human approximations and translations that grate Celestial ears and souls.  Seeing my chance in the bandit priest’s ignorant butchery of the Throne Song, I dug into my memory for the phrases Grey Peter had drummed into my child's mind during the summers of my ninth and tenth years, before he was chased away for stealing and selling some smaller pieces of erotic statuary from doddering Great Uncle’s collection.

“The good news is upon us! Freedom, glory and the will of the great Empire, sublime servant of the Thrones, revel in the glory of battle again, then you ascend again Cherubim, as you will have shown the happy servants of the Empire and the Thrones the light of your glorious protection.”   

In explaining what I had said afterwards to my simple but curious companions I told them that I asserted that we were Imperial servants and promised to free the sending from this sphere of existence if it would slaughter the bandits in exchange.  The sending liked what it heard, sung properly without the jarring doubt and malice of the vicar’s own commands and it turned, it’s hands crackling arcs of white fire.

We did not stay, as presumably the offer of freedom needed no action on my part, and if it had I lacked the instruments of a legionnaire thaumaturge to deliver it.  Luckily the Cherubim was a simple creature and delighted in its “glorious conflict” with its former masters, slowly “bringing justice and ascendant peace” to the bandits, long after we had fled even the sounds of the endless screaming.  

While I Remain, 
Pepinot Vex, Hereditary Peinkernes Extraordinary


Esoteric Language of the Successor Empire
Pit – The languages of the demons and devils of the underworld, uncommon and usually unnecessary, but very useful, as all denizens of the furnace desire conversation.  (Expressions of desire or need, especially asking for anything, are a sign of weakness in Pit, and any request that is phrased as such gives a -1 to the associated reaction roll or CHR check).
Celestial – The music of the Celestial Thrones is a language, one where no negative or unpleasant word may be spoken.  A useful tongue as the ancients weaponized a great many of the angelic host in their waning years. (-1 to any reaction/CHR roll, and speech must stop if a negative phrase or sentiment is uttered).
Crawl – That language of desperate grunt and half utterances spoken by those exiled beneath the Earth into the vast anti-world below.  Crawl is a trade speech and while many races and species of underdwellers know it, it is so simple that it allows little elegant expression (-1 to CHR or reaction roll for every contraction or connection word used in speech).
Birdsong – An unsubtle speech, spoken by most avian life.  Most do not realize that birds speak, and speakers of birdsong often opine that it would be best if the vast majority of birds never spoke, so garbled, self-obsessed and pedestrian are their thoughts. Yet birdsong is a beautiful language and in the hands of an intelligent speaker with a good voice and poetic tendencies it can be a sublime to hear even for those who do not understand it.
The Voice of Paath – The speech of the machine intelligences, difficult to learn, and harder to speak.  All meaning is created through patterns of two tones or sounds and thus complex expression must be carefully considered to avoid overly long or inexact phrases of the sort that the Machine Intelligences deem inelegant. (-1 to CHR check or reaction roll for each word over three syllables used).
Foul – Born amongst the lich cults of the Successor Empire’s silver age, this language is designed to be spoken with a dry throat and tongue withered to a husk.  Its simpler phrases can even be spoken with only the clacking of bare teeth or bone against bone.  The truly dead never speak Foul, but those that have been reanimated often speak it, if they speak at all.
Priest’s Cant – The droning liturgy of the Imperial Cult conceals within it a wealth of meaning that allows its speaker to sneer at outsiders it also provides the proper ritual observences to speak to many of the ancient artifacts, automaton, and abominations associated with the Imperial Cult. Speaker’s of Priest’s Cant are few in the current age, but a great many tomes of ancient knowledge, scrolls of power and inscriptions are written in it, making it a useful language for explorers of lost places.
Imperial Law – The Law of the Empires, both Ancient and Successor is voluminous and was once a source of justice and regulation that benefited all.  Over the years it has changed into another means of self-aggrandizement and manipulation, it’s voluminous and often rewritten codes allow a skilled speaker to justify almost anything.  While the language of the Imperial Law is comprehensible to any who speak Common, it’s meanings are not, as almost every word is a term of art, and many a phrase can be built in a way to mean it’s opposite. (Complexity and confusion are the hallmarks of Imperial Law, if a character uses a word of more than five syllables while speaking it, they gain a +1 to any reaction or CHR roll.)
Vheissuian – The language of the distant menace, that land of volcanos, prophetic masks and rainbow monkeys – Vheissu.  Some call Vheissu the greatest of the Resurgent Kingdoms, but there is no doubt that it is something more.  Vheissuian flame hierophants are powerful, and that their Ash Brigades, once the guards of Emperors before the advent of the Ecclesiastic Praetorians represent the only force left in the world comparable to the Empire’s lost legions.  Yet, Vheissu is distant and its presence in the Imperial sphere, never great, appears to be waning, rather than filling the power vacuum left by decay.
Field Sign – An elaborate language of gestures, courtesies and pithy clichés that has long allowed the country people of the Empire and even the magically altered workers of its Hive Factors to communicate with each other beyond the understanding of outsiders.  Hints or phrase books of this language are sometimes found in the better sort of agricultural management texts, and some knowledge of it is indeed useful in dealing with rural Imperials, as Field Sign is the way these people determine who is “good” and who is an outsider worthy of contempt or violence.  


  1. These are wonderful - I try to do a similar thing, but I've yet to manage to match how evocative these are. I especially love this bit;

    "...speaking Crawl works better if you talk like a cartoon cave man, and trying to overawe bureaucratic robbers or get information out of reluctant functionaries (really the most common kind of bandit in Fallen Empire) will work better if you can speak in Imperial Law and use a really long word or two."

    As someone who has an inordinate love of silly voices, this is too good.

    1. Note the mechanics are in the language description e.g. use a 5 syllable or greater word talking in Imperial Law and get +1 to the reaction roll. Same with crawl, use a contraction or connector word - get a -1 one.