Languages in GURPS – some thoughts.

Lately I’ve been thinking a little about how GURPS treats languages.  This element of the system is kind of brilliant in ways I’ll explore in a moment – and yet it still never quite does what I want it to.

I’d be interested to learn whether or not others have had the same experience.

Q: What’s Your Beef with the way GURPS does Languages, Collaborative Dude?

A: Well, basically, at 6pts per language, GURPS 4th ed makes languages quite expensive – and yet I find that they’re very rarely worth the price, because (in my campaigns, at least) scenes which truly put the spotlight on these expensive language-use abilities are very rare.

In my experience, if you spend a lot of your points on languages, then you’re devoting a big chunk of your points to abilities that are only very rarely going to become central to the drama of a scene.

Q: Ok – but your beef isn’t really valid, because this is easily solved: why don’t you just make points spent on languages worthwhile by filling your own campaign with really dramatic and exciting translation scenes?

A: That seems like one solution, sure.  But I think there’s a deeper problem here.  There are at least two good reason why most campaigns don’t revolve around dramatic translation scenes.

The first is that it’s just the nature of the beast. The fact is that translation just isn’t as obviously dramatic and exciting as, say, fighting for your life, or scaling a high cliff, or summoning up demons, or even trying to track down clues that lead to the killer – which is to say, it’s just not as exciting as all the other things PCs tend to spend big chunks of points qualifying themselves to do.   A GM has to work a bit harder to make a translation scene exciting – and so mostly, translation scenes fall by the wayside, and then the big chunk of points the linguist has spent on languages can seem a bit of a waste of resources.

There’s obviously nothing we can do about that.

But there’s a second reason that translation scenes are hard to make exciting and dramatic in GURPS, and it’s a more interesting reason, because it has to do with the way 4th edition works.

GURPS 4th edition really doesn’t go out of its way to make translation scenes dramatic.  In fact, I almost want to go so far as to say that 4th edition GURPS actively resists making translation scenes dramatically interesting.

Q: Woah!  Too far, too far!  Aren’t you always saying that you absolutely love GURPS?  Why, then, are you spreading around these horrible, unthinkable accusations!?!?

nun looking up
Me, thinking about GURPS.  (Artist’s impression)

A: Yes, I love GURPS with a wild and desperate abandon, like a nun loves god, like an owl loves the night-time, like a poet loves the moon.  But consider this for a moment: if you were trying to plan a really dramatic and exciting scene of translation, in what ways would the mechanics of the system help you?  And in what ways would they prove an obstacle?


To see my point here, let’s backtrack for a moment to recall (very quickly!) how GURPS 3rd edition handled languages.  This will allow us to see something important about the strengths and weaknesses of the 4th edition approach.

How 3rd Edition Handled Languages

In 3rd edition, Languages were simply skills.  This method had some obvious pros:GURPS 3rd Edition cover

  • Languages were handled using an existing core mechanic, which is always good game design.
  • You could differentiate between languages with different objective complexities: Mandarin Chinese was” Hard,” Esperanto was “Easy”, etc.
  • Most importantly, challenging language-use required a skill roll.  This raised the stakes of translation scenes, and created moments of dramatic tension at the table.  We’ll come back to this crucial point in a moment.

This method also had some serious cons:

  • Since languages were skills, IQ had a huge effect on your language ability – too huge an effect, really.  (The fact that IQs were higher in 3e, and the other fact that 1/2 pts existed, both really exacerbated this problem.)  Your average IQ 15 wizard PC could put a 1/2 point in an “Average” language and get it at 14 – which meant that with a tiny amount of study they were able to acquire a mastery that far, far exceeded that of normal native speakers.
  • This meant that ridiculous linguistic competency could be had absurdly cheaply.  Your IQ 15 wizard could set aside a mere 10 pts for languages, and thereby acquire 20 (!) languages, at a level of fluency that far exceeded that of normal native speakers.   Bargain!  But it stretched credibility a bit.

So something seemed way out of whack.  Enter 4th edition!

Returning to How 4th Edition Handles Languages….

basic1_lgWith the update to 4th edition, GURPS rather brilliantly got rid of all those “cons.”  By treating languages as a special kind of advantage, rather than as skills, it totally removed IQ from the equation.  Now everyone had to pay a lot for language mastery.  Problem solved!

Yet it also threw out the three “pros” of the 3rd edition approach.  Now, the first two don’t matter to me much – I’m actually fine with introducing a new “language” sub-system (especially since the system itself is so elegant), and I’m 100% ok with losing the ability to distinguish between easy and hard languages – who cares?

But the loss of the skill roll troubles me, especially in combination with the greatly increased cost.  The comparison with 3rd edition helps me to illustrate why:

In comparison with 3rd Edition, 4th Edition makes broad language mastery extremely expensive….

In 4th ed, extreme language mastery is a much more expensive proposition.  In fact, for sage-types, the difference in point costs is truly massive.   In 4th ed, languages are 6pts each, so if your wizard or sage wants to have mastered 20 languages, then that will be 120 pts (!!) thanks.  (Of course, it would be more efficient to spend 10pts on “Language Talent” first – then the total cost would be just 90 pts. But that’s still a big chunk of points.)  This compares with 10pts in 3rd edition.  Big difference!

Of course, this is a really extreme case – but still, the comparison helps to emphasize how extremely much more expensive broad language mastery became in GURPS 4th edition.

… and at the same time, by removing the skill roll, 4th ed removes much of the drama from scenes of language use.

In 4th ed, language ability is more expensive, but scenes that involve it are less dramatically interesting – there’s no skill roll; you either know it at a certain level or you don’t.  It’s the combination of the two that conspires to make the cost of languages seem way out of whack with the actual screen time they tend to get.

So what can be done about it?

In my own solo campaign, I opted for a really simple and shoddy solution, which is to simply ignore languages as separate abilities, and instead roll them into other skills on a case-by-case basis.  So if you come across some ancient writings, you can roll against Archaeology to decipher them; for magical writings you use Thaumatology; for modern foreign languages you use the appropriate specialty of Area Knowledge… etc.

Clearly this is a crap solution.

What other, better solutions are out there?  I’m sure there are many, and I’d be interested to hear about any that people can refer me to.

Maybe for a future post (probably not right now, though – I’m pretty busy with this solo campaign!) I’ll go through my Pyramid collection and see if I can compile a big list of alternative language rules that have been proposed.  That would be useful.



24 thoughts on “Languages in GURPS – some thoughts.

  1. OK, but in what kind of campaign context does anyone actually have a use for 20 languages? The number of real-world people who have spoken that many is disputed, but small.

    I’ve found the 4e language rules working rather well for a couple of multi-year campaign in which the characters have gradually needed more languages, and have learned them. I’ve found that if the characters spend 200 hours training for each spoken point, and invest earned experience to buy the written points at the same time, nothing breaks, not even suspension of disbelief. Social Engineering: Back to School has a rule for buying Language Talent that works nicely, to allow a character to get better at learning languages after having done a fair bit of it.

    As regards drama, trying to communicate in a language you don’t speak well is mostly dramatic if you’re trying to say something that’s either time-sensitive, or has life-or-death importance. I had to cope with a case of the latter when trying to communicate with zombie Spetsnaz who spoke no English. My character had no Russian, although he did have a dictionary and a phrase book, which naturally didn’t cover the topics at hand. The GM handled this by having me try to speak English as simply as possible (no, more simply than that) as a proxy for trying to construct Russian phrases on paper, and roleplaying the Spetsnaz body language and reactions. Since one of them was more than a match for the entire party, this was quite exciting enough.


    1. Hi John – what a pleasure to see you here.

      Ok, so firstly and most importantly, can I just say that the scene you describe (“…when trying to communicate with zombie Spetsnaz who spoke no English. My character had no Russian, although he did have a dictionary and a phrase book, which naturally didn’t cover the topics at hand”) …. sounds like huge fun!

      Obviously you’re right that my example is extreme – *20* languages?! Really?!? – but I’m just trying to dramatize how different the pricing structures for languages are in 4e compared to 3e. Here’s a more reasonable example: in a fairly standard fantasy campaign, you might well want to play a “sage” style character who is master of ancient languages, lost writings, and so on. How many languages does this require? Obviously the answer will vary wildly campaign by campaign, but say, 5 languages, at”accented” level strikes me as a plausible lower limit. In 3rd edition, that was a 2.5 pt investment (ridiculously low); in 4E, that’s a 20pt investment – which, from a “realism” point of view, seems much more reasonable.

      But it just strikes me that in most campaigns those (bare minimum!) 20 pts aren’t going to see anywhere near as much use as the 20 pts someone else spent on +1 DX, or +1 IQ, or Weapon Master (Greatsword), or Charisma 4, or whatever. This is because, unlike most other things in GURPS, you need to spend fairly big sums on languages just *on the chance* of any one of them coming up.

      Regarding the suspension of disbelief question, I think I agree: going by the old “200hrs practice = 1pt” guideline, the 4th ed prices for languages *do* seem pretty realistic, in that you have to spend a lot of time learning a language to acquire competence. My inner simulationist is pleased by this! But the narrativist and gamist in me are left wondering why the master linguist PC has to set aside a whole bunch of points as offerings to the god of Realism, while the master (wizard/swordsman/spy/thief/whatever) PC gets to spend those points on things (in my own experience, at least) tend to come up more regularly, and dramatically, in game.

      (Having said all that: for a fairly realistic campaign, I really like your idea of requiring the 200hrs for each pt in a spoken language, but allowing the investment of earned pts for the written component – I can imagine that striking a great balance between realism and playability in many campaigns).

      Thanks again for your very thoughtful comment! As I said, it’s a pleasure to see you hanging out here.


      1. Five ancient lore languages as a minimum? OK, let’s try a couple of examples: Ars Magica and Call of Cthulhu both involve a lot of lore-delving and mostly use real-world languages. Which ones do you need? Latin comes first for both of them. Greek probably second. Then Hebrew and/or Arabic, and then it starts to get thin. Could be you’d need Persian, or Gothic, or Hindi, but unless you have some big hint up-front, putting a 3e half-point into them is chancy. OK, it’s only a half-point, rather than 4e [2] to read them at Accented.

        One answer is to learn them as you need them. That doesn’t work so well when you’re in the cinematic “Must do this now!” mode, but if the game is that cinematic, magic or Modular Abilities to be able to read any language instantly seem plausible.


        1. What you say here makes me think that maybe my view stems from the fact that I’m thinking mostly about a slightly (or greatly? I’m not sure) more cinematic level of play than I think you’re describing. In fact, I was starting to think about a future post in which I propose a modular ability-style solution (or two, or three), just running it up the flagpole to see who salutes, as it were. (I was thinking about proposing a solution based on “Wild Talent”, actually – but the spirit is the same)

          The example in my head when I think about this is often the fairly cinematic fantasy sage type – the person whose ability to decipher ancient lore seems determined more by the needs of the scene, plot, and genre rather than realism – the sort of character for which you don’t really want to specify an exact list of languages in advance.

          Your method sounds just right to me for a more grounded or simulationist style of play (which is also fun!)


          1. In my games I allow Languages to be purchased as Alternate Abilities at 1/6 cost… Each full Native Language they buy (beyond their free Native language) gives a “Translation Slot” and then every 1 point spent on Alt Languages gives 6 points worth of Languages.

            I also drop Language Talent to 5 points if they have 5 or more points in “Mitigator Advantages” (Cultural Familiarity, Cultural Adaptability, Eidectic/Photographic Memory, Smooth Operator, etc).


          2. If you have two languages as Alternate Abilities, you only have one of them at a time, and therefore can’t translate between them. Of course, this may not matter if your native language is the dominant language of the setting.


          3. I know – technically speaking, it’s a problem – especially if you want to translate from one to the other! But I suspect one would just wand-wave all this. Whether or not that’s a satisfactory solution depends on your perspective, of course….


          4. Yeah, I mostly handwave it. If it really matters I treated comprehension levels as ‘one lower’ for the Alt Languages, representing “they aren’t as completely proficient”. It works well to let PCs play ‘linguists’ and ‘ancient language scholars’ without spending boatloads of points on abilities that aren’t a campaign focus (even if multiple languages and miscommunication is a key concept to the campaign, it’s rarely the Core Precept).


  2. Two comments:

    First, Languages–like any other skill or advantage–are going to be more useful in some settings than in others. In an international spy setting, for instance, languages could be far more worthwhile than in a campaign with either a more local flavor or less subtle goals. Likewise, some mages in alternate magic systems could get a lot of bang for their buck out of knowing an array of ancient languages (see grimoires in RPM, for example). So, the “dramatic translation scene” may be a little more likely in some settings, and knowing a particular language may be the difference between success and failure in others.

    Secondly, and a lesser one, is that, in 4th Edition GURPS, anyone wanting to learn 5 or more languages would benefit from the Language Talent ability (although, yeah, you still have 30 CPs tied up at that point).

    In all, though, I agree that it makes sense to make them skills, and I think if they “broke the mold” a bit by having them based on a straight 10/H or VH rather than IQ, you could iron out some of the quirks. There wouldn’t be an IQ default for them, but characters could default to other languages within language groups (ie. romantic, Germanic, etc.). Then, a Language Talent ability would allow a character to simply base the languages on their IQ rather than the base of 10.

    Lastly, although languages aren’t currently skills, you could still treat them as such: Assume Native ability is equal to a master level skill (20), Accented is expert level (14), and Broken is ordinary (8).

    Ummm… that was more than two comments, wasn’t it?


    1. Warm thanks for these thoughts!
      Of all the excellent things you just wrote, let me just call out one I particularly like: when you point out that treating languages as skills has the benefit of allowing you to use defaults, so that someone who speaks a particular language really fluently can attempt default use of similar languages. That seems entirely realistic, within certain limits, and it’s also entirely simple, since it simply re-uses an existing core mechanic. A real pro!


  3. There’s a treatment of languages as 10-based skills in Roger Burton West’s article “Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously” in Pyramid #3/44 “Alternate GURPS II”.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I dunno if I can think of a good response to this problem at all, but I do play GURPS with a more gamist slant, so I can empathize with this problem. I changed a campaign once because I wanted players to learn some indigenous languages originally, but when it seemed like it would take 400 hours of self study to learn a spoken language at broken levels, and I couldn’t think of anything between “400 hours of learning” and “just spend a point in this one language you’ll never use again, probably,” I just decided that everyone spoke common… not the best compromise.


    1. Hah! That’s quite a funny example. I think maybe it’s sits at about the same level as my “Actually, languages don’t exist! Just use your existing skills!” solution! (for which “non-solution” might really be the better term…)


  5. IQ is used in tongues in GURPS 4e. I don’t see how you could have missed this, but right from p. B24, for having Broken understanding:

    “In stressful situations – e.g., encounters involv-ing combat or reaction rolls – you must roll against IQ to understand or make yourself understood in the language. On a failure, you convey no information, but you may try again. Critical failure means you convey the wrong information!”

    The sidebar further notes that Broken to Broken conversation is always stressful. Furthermore, the list of skills to which the comprehension penalty applies are almost all IQ-based skills, other than Singing. Fast-Talk is outright listed, and I’d gather that any IQ-based influence skill would take the penalty, which excludes Intimidation and Sex Appeal.


    1. You’re right, of course – 4E does explicitly call for IQ rolls when trying to operate at the lowest level of comprehension(“Broken”), and also provides for penalties to many IQ-based skills. You’re also right to say that you’re not sure how I could have missed this – I couldn’t, and didn’t! As you say, it’s right there in the section on languages.

      So I probably shouldn’t have written the line”4e “totally removes IQ from the equation” – it’s too easy to read “equation” there are as meaning “everything relating to language learning”, and then the statement is quite wrong, as you point out. What I ought to have said was that 4E removes IQ from the equation in which you determine your base level of competence. That would have been finicky, maybe, but certainly more accurate.

      In any case, my point is just that in 3e, the skill roll was central to many cases of language use, because you record your language ability as a target number, as with any other skill. Whereas in 4E, you record your language ability not as a target number, but as a descriptor (Broken, Accented, Native, plus the written vs spoken breakdowns, maybe) – and descriptors don’t themselves call for skill rolls. Now, as you point out, there are certainly cases where the GM might call for additional IQ rolls (and obviously rolls against other social skills, like Acting, Diplomacy etc, are almost always going to be called for in such situations) – but that’s always the case – and I think it’s equally true of both editions. I’m pointing instead to the difference between the editions, such that the 4E mechanic doesn’t make rolling against skill a central a part of language scenes.

      Hey, thanks for your comment, by the way – I always enjoy your comments on


  6. You might like PK’s house rule for languages (number 13 on the list). Basically, when you learn a language, you either learn multiple related languages simultaneously, or the GM agrees to conveniently have most NPCs you encounter in an area speak your chosen language, even if others should realistically be common.

    And here are a few more ideas. These are just off the top of my head, though, so caveat emptor. You could add a fourth comprehension level, between Broken and Accented. Call it Intermediate, perhaps. At this level you take -2/-4 on skills, and have to make IQ rolls under stress as for broken. But if you actually have Broken comprehension, the IQ rolls are at a penalty. And of course, situational modifiers apply to these IQ rolls. IQ rolls could also be required for Accented speakers, but with a bonus, and the roll is waived if the modified IQ is greater than the character’s unmodified IQ.

    But you only pay 1 cp per two levels of a language (either written or spoken). So if you have Latin (written) at Accented and Latin (spoken) at Broken, you pay 2 cp. That way, you get more detail on comprehension levels, but the cost to master a language drops to 4 cp.

    You could also reduce the cost of Language Talent. I think a cost as low as 3 cp is justifiable. In real life, the first foreign language is the hardest to learn. Studies have shown that people learn a second foreign language considerably faster than their first. If we understand Language Talent to simply represent the cognitive effects of mastering a foreign language or being bilingual, then charging 3 cp gives us fairly plausible results.


    1. Thanks for these thoughts! I like PK’s way of doing it, for modern real-world games – that makes things simple. It makes me think that I should come up with a language list for the fantasy world in which my solo campaign is set. But then, I immediately realize that I don’t want to have to determine all those things in advance – I’d like to leave a lot of the world-building to be done in response to play. In this situation, laying out a table of all the world’s most significant languages in advance seems like it commits too much to print, too early. I’d totally use that rule for a real-world game, though.

      Reducing the cost of language talent is an interesting idea. Hmmm… I wonder – if you reduced it all the way to 3pts, as you suggest, then it would be worth getting even if you were only going to learn just 2 languages, an you wanted them at better than “Broken”. So, really, everyone who went for more than one extra language would get it. That could be a good thing, I suppose.


  7. In addition to my house rules, I wrote an article /specifically/ to address the inflated cost of learning multiple languages. It’s called “Speaking in Tongues” from Pyramid #3/54: Social Engineering.


    1. Neat. I missed that somehow. I like the language defaults and linguistic groups. I wasn’t aware of the Omnilingual advantage, either. Now I know how to write up Daniel Jackson from Stargate SG-1. 🙂


  8. When would you ever want to master 20 languages that lack any defaults between them? I suppose that 20 unrelated or isolate languages could exist in a game, in which they all matter (perhaps a game about interstellar linguistics?) but that’s a pretty extreme example.


    1. You’re right – you wouldn’t. But if your game includes “defaults” between languages, then you’re *already* using some kind of alternative Language rules, beyond those in the Basic Set – probably the rules that PK was kind enough to point out to me just above.

      Which is to say, you’re probably already using rules designed to address precisely the problem I talk about in this post 🙂

      Of course, to my mind PK’s language rules, while brilliant in their own way (particularly for modern action games) don’t quite hit the spot for fantasy sages… But maybe that’s another discussion.

      Thanks for your comment! Good to see an old post still being read.


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