Language, Lights & Locks


Dabus from Planescape

I had a bit of a self realization, or maybe mental crystallization of what had previously been vague thoughts the other day on Discord.

I think languages, light and locks are all effectively the same thing from a TTRPG perspective. Or at least, they all serve the same role in the game (to use a potentially fraught word): they gatekeep players from content.

The question asked in the Swordfish Islands Discord (come join if you haven't): 

I've got a question about languages: how did you people manage possible/probable language-differences of the pcs and the native factions on the island? i read that there are a few Ogres trying to learn adventure-tongue but what about the rest? just can't talk to them?
When it comes to languages, light and locks, my default assumption is that the players can communicate with the monsters, can see in the dungeon, and can open the door. Unless they can't. And if they can't there's a specific reason/puzzle involved.

Let's start in the middle shall we, with light, or perhaps it's better to flip it around and focus on darkness. For starters, I think resource management games can be fun, and tracking torches can be nice. But when I'm playing a game like that, I kind of want it to be the whole game. Or at least have it deeply enmeshed in the core of the mechanics. 

For example. if your game world is effectively the mega dungeon below the city, and everything is about going in and out of that dungeon, then light sources can function as "party HP" and you can "push your luck" to explore a little further and risk running out of torches and supplies. In Hot Springs Island however, I envision it being much more about going in and out of locations, all around the island, and interacting with the factions/NPCs. The game's not about pushing your luck dungeon crawling, to me it's more about "how the hell are we going to resolve the current trolly problem in which we find ourselved enmeshed?" So meticuliously tracking torches in that sort of environment feels more like a distracting "tax". Someone in the party makes a note on their character sheet to remind them to spend the trivial amount of gold it takes to stock up on torches when they get to town. It becomes a macro.

By making the dngeon environments places where you can (generally) see places that are dark can stand out more as tactical or situational or puzzle type scenarios. It becomes an obstacle to overcome or an abnormality to explore. The optional hallway is dark, what lurks within? How could we use it to our advantage? How can we light it up? Or is there more to it?


Similarly, languages. Hot Springs Island has approximately 6 factions. The factions are all at an effective stalemate with each other until the players arrive on the island and begin upsetting the status quo. I WANT the players to get into shit with the factions. I want the players to PLAY with the factions. Why would I gate that faction content behind "did you choose the correct monster language before we began playing the game?"

I also cannot personally stand the RP situation at a table where only one character can speak the necessary language. It may just be my luck, but the character with the right language is often a shy player, and the gregarious players can end up walking all over them. It also makes the DMs ability to provide info to the party a problem. Constant questions of "Do we know that? Did our tanslator tell us?" "I don't know, Brad did you tell everyone what the lizardman said?"

And this opens up an akward meta situation where the translator begins lying to the party, and the players know the character is lying, but then must decide to pretend that their character doesn't know, and frankly, I can't stand that situation. I hate it. It's not fun for me. It doesn't happen every time, but I've seen enough of these language chokepoint scenarios develop into an unpleasant PvP type situation.

That said, I DO really like it when monsters are multi-lingual. They can engage in common, but they can also try to talk to each other "secretly" in their own language. This makes it a PvE scenario where the player with the correct language can now potentially get extra info. Their language choice becomes a bonus, not a tax necessary to participate in the adventure chosen by their DM.

Finally, referencing the image from Final Fantasy above, it can be a nice quest/puzzle to lock a specific location or group of NPCs behind a language barrier. On Hot Springs I think it would be perfectly appropriate to lock the Obsidian Giants behind a special language in order to make them more inscrutable. It's also good if it's not a regular language, so you can setup a fun scenario with a potentially untrustworthy NPC translator. It can also work very well as a motivation for players to quest to find a special McGuffin that will get them access to an optional area or group.

Bringing us to locks. In many dungeons on Hot Springs Island there aren't even doors. And in places where there are doors, most of them are unlocked. There are a very few locked doors, and I think almost all of them are on optional locations. You don't NEED to unlock the booze vault, but it's such a juicy target and it has such interesting things inside of it. Locking that one special door, and having regular enemy movements around it paints such a huge target on it for player attention.

All of this may very well be because I played video games before I played table top RPGs. So it could be a generational difference of default expectations/assumptions. But there you go.