Roleplayer #26, October 1991

The Gift of Tongues

Optional Language Rules for GURPS

by Steffan O'Sullivan

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, can 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.

(Editor's note: Agreed! The language rules are playable, but fail the reality check when high-IQ characters are involved. However, there's no agreement yet on the best fix, even as an optional rule. So we're presenting Steffan's article first . . . and following it with comments and suggestions made by other GURPS players who have hacked at the language rules. Game rules don't come out of thin air; sometimes we go back and forth for years before settling on something, especially when it involved a change to an existing system. Here's a look at the process. Your own comments will be welcomed!)

Accent vs. Knowledge

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.

Mimicking an Accent

This optional rule can be used either with the rules above or with the existing 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 penalty to the speaker'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 someone 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 speaker'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 someone 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 penalty 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 and short 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.

Other Approaches

That ends Steffan's system. Some other optional language rules that have been suggested:

Everyone learns accents at the same rate. Compute a character's accent as though he had an IQ of 10, regardless of his actual IQ. So if Olaf the Slow and Willem the Wise each puts 1 point into studying, say, Arabic, Willem will learn much more of the language . . . but Olaf's accent, on those few words he knows, will be just as good. The Language Talent and Mimicry bonuses would still apply, raising the effective accent IQ from 10. So if Olaf has Language Talent, he could end up with a poorer vocabulary, but much better accent, for the same amount of study. (This is based on several comments on Usenet and the BBS, from campaigns using more or less the same system.)

Base languages on half of IQ. (Suggested by Erol K. Bayburt Jr.)

Languages are mental skills based on IQ/2 rather than IQ. (Linguistics, Language Talent and so on add to this base normally; 1 level of Language Talent would give a base ((IQ/2)+1.)

The absolute level of someone's skill determines the size of his vocabulary.

The skill level relative to the character's IQ determines accent.

Grammar and syntax depend on both the absolute and relative levels of skill.

If a character's language skill is less than his IQ, he has an accent. The strength of the accent depends on how far the skill is below IQ. 1 point less than IQ would give a slight accent; more would give a stronger accent.

If a character's skill equals his IQ, he can speak without an accent (unless he takes the quirk "Speaks with a foreign accent"). He can also think in the language and pass as a native speaker.

A character with language skill at least equal to IQ (either as a foreign or a native speaker) may also attempt to use an accent or dialect, rolling against default accent/dialect skill (parent language -1 to -3) for each sentence.

If the default skill is at least equal to the character's IQ (due to the parent language skill being greater than IQ), then the character can use the accent/dialect without making any skill rolls.

A problem with this rule, pointed out by playtesters on the BBS: high-IQ characters have a thicker accent and must invest more points in their Language skill to get rid of it! Example: Arthur has IQ 10, while Bob has IQ 18; they both have 1 point in Vogelpuk (M/E).

Arthur's skill is 10/2 = 5, giving him a "5" accent.

Bob's skill is 18/2 = 9, making him a better conversationalist, but he has a "9" accent! So nobody understands him . . .

Make Language Talent more costly or less effective. (Suggested by Tim Keating)

Most levels with language skills cost 2 points – the same as a level of Language Talent. Why pay for +1 to one skill when you can have +1 to all of them? Make Language Talent a one-time advantage, giving +3 to all language abilities for 10 points.

Specifically define the Unusual Background required for extra "native" languages. (Suggested by Tim Keating)

Some individuals are raised to speak more than one language, and have each of these languages as a "native" language. This is a special case of Unusual Background. To be Bilingual is an advantage worth 5 points. Each additional native language costs 3 points. Those who might possess this advantage include second-generation immigrants, itinerants (such as gypsies) and people who grew up in a multicultural area.

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