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 character 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 on. 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!?!?
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:
- 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….
With 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.