Optional Accent Rules
By Steffan O'Sullivan
This article was published in Roleplayer magazine and is copyright Steve Jackson Games, all rights reserved.
Separating Accent Ability from Knowledge of a Language
Have you ever had a run-in with an IQ 15 character who has half a point in four different languages? He speaks German, Arabic, Russian and Chinese fluently, being able to mimic regional accents effortlessly, and can fool any KGB or CIA man he meets – all for 2 points total! While GURPS is an excellent system in general, the language rules leave a little to be desired.
Basically, this proposal divorces accent from general knowledge of a foreign language. When implementing these rules, leave knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, syntax, etc., as it is in the Basic Set. But mastering an accent takes time – or a native ability represented more by the Language Talent advantage than by IQ. Therefore, this proposal does not tie learning an accent to IQ.
To use these rules, simply follow the table Levels of Language Skill on p. B55. However, ignore all references to accent in that table, and use the following simple rule instead:
This rule will insure that if a spy wants to fool Saddam Hussein into believing he's an Arab, he will have spent more than ½ point in Arabic!
Note that Language Talent, Eidetic Memory and Linguistics all contribute to learning an accent.
For those who use the Mimicry: Human Speech skill found in GURPS Ice Age, add 1/5 of the Mimicry skill (rounded down) to accent ability – but not to knowledge of any language.
Rolling for a Passable Accent
This optional rule can be used with the rules above or with the rules in the Basic Set. An accent in this case refers to regional accents as well as generic, undefined foreign accents. These rules might be very useful in a spy campaign, but not come into much use otherwise.
According to the Basic Set, mimicking a regional accent is automatic once you have skill level 13, and impossible before that. This article proposes that a skill roll should usually be required, at least the first time the character attempts to mimic an accent. There will be a minus to the character's language skill, as defined below. If the accent being mimicked is fairly close, regionally, there is a -1 penalty. This might be the case where a Virginian were trying to sound like a Georgian, for example. Where the accent is further apart – a New Englander and a Texan, for example – there is a -2 or -3 penalty. For foreign accents of the same language, such as an American trying to sound Australian, there would be a -3 or -4 penalty. The GM is the final arbiter of the penalty assessed.
If the character is trying to mimic a regional accent in a language that is not his native language, use the above rules for those whose skill in the language is 13 or higher. If the character's skill is not that high, there is an additional penalty: -1 per level below 13. Thus, a character with a German skill of 10 trying to sound as if he were from Berlin would roll at -4 – only on a 6 or less would he deceive any native speaker!
When a character learns a language, he may decide which accent his teacher taught him. Thus, the character above would only need to roll a 10 to sound like a Berliner if his teacher were from Berlin – there is no minus, because he isn't trying to mimic an accent: he's merely speaking German as he learned it. In that case, though, he would need to roll a 6 or less to sound Bavarian (-3 for being 3 levels below 13, and -1 for regional difference). He would need a critical success to sound like a Swiss national.
If the character is only speaking very simple, short and common words and phrases, the GM may allow a bonus to the roll. For example, I once knew a man from Mexico who only knew one sentence in English ("Take it easy, boy!") – but he said it in a perfect west Texas accent! Had he said only that one sentence over a phone or through a door, he could have passed as the head of an oil company with no problems – even though his skill in English was probably a 3 in GURPS terms! This proviso may save a PC's life in a Cliffhangers or Special Ops scenario – or even a fantasy or space campaign on occasion! The GM should be lenient if the player has a plausible reason for his character to know a few phrases fluently.
Above all, remember to have fun with any rules you introduce into any game!