You are skilled at working with language, in both its spoken and written forms. You can speak multiple languages, and can decipher nearly any tongue given enough time. Your skill in writing allows you to create and detect forgeries as well.
That’s the definition you’ll find for linguistics on D20PFSRD.com. In the few campaigns I’ve played I’ve only ever once used this skill to decipher text and that was a road sign that had been worn by the weather and damaged by time. I’ve never had to spot a forgery or had any use for the multitude of languages I learned by putting skill points in it (beyond 3 or 4). So scrapping this skill would be easy. But easy is for losers… well maybe not, but for the sake of this argument it is.
So how can I keep it and keep it interesting?
Well, it’s sort of a spin-off of decipher text, Interpret Language. Unlike learning a language (which for my house rules isn’t decided by this skill) linguistics gives a character the chance to interpret a language that he doesn’t know. It’s a reflection of the character’s time devoted to studying language in general and the chance that they may have come across a particular speech. Here’s the scenario…
DM: The hallway is almost pitch black save for the yellow light escaping through the gap between a door and the stone floor.
Player: I quietly crawl up to the door placing my ear against it…
DM: You hear voices, only slightly muffled by the door you can tell they sound upset, but they’re speaking a language you don’t know…
Player: I’ve studied foreign tongues for years and have been to many places around the world, can I interpret what they’re saying?
DM: Roll linguistics…
Now here’s where those skill points come in handy. The higher you roll the more you understand of the conversation, the lower, the less. I’ve broken the check up into four levels of proficiency: Basic, Simple, Competent and Complex. (you could probably make it 3 if you wanted).
Basic: You can understand and speak simple individual words and commands, e.g., go, move, attack, run, happy, sad, etc.
- To Understand: DC15
- To Speak: DC20
Simple: You can understand and speak simple sentences such as, “See Gorm run.” and “Run Yrt, run!”
- To Understand: DC20
- To Speak: DC25
Competent: You can understand and speak compound sentences like, “Do you need a heal, or can we continue?”
- To Understand: DC25
- To Speak: DC30
Complex: Basically everything else making you 100% conversational, example, “He was found stabbed with the dagger your father made 10 years ago.”
- To Understand: DC30
- To Speak: DC35
In all honesty you probably should combine the last two to avoid confusion and debates at the table (I don’t know the level of literacy or linguistics your actual players have, hell, they could be smarter than you). But the point of this addition to the skill should be clear. It could give players access to information they might not otherwise know.
Now before you spout off, “If it’s information they need to know then why not give it to them? And if it isn’t pertinent information than how is this skill still relevant?”
First, the example I gave wasn’t a mission to collect information. If I sent players on a gather information mission then the challenge would be in getting there and escaping, but I would give them the information when they were there. I wouldn’t withhold pertinent information from the players. So onto the latter objection.
If it isn’t pertinent information why does this skill still matter? Well I think as the GM you should view this roll as a “rewards roll” of sorts. If the player fails then think nothing of it, they are unable to to figure out what is being said. But if they pass you could reward them with information that will make their mission easier, such as learning about a hallway where an ambush has been set or learning which floor the princess is being held on. The higher the roll, the higher the reward. That’s how I plan on using it anyway.
The other obvious situation would be where players are about to enter a fight with another group. Passing their linguistics roll would give them a chance to talk their way out of the fight and look for another solution, or at the very least know what the enemy is planning on doing to them in the moments ahead (such as who will be targeted most). Get creative with it. Lastly I only require/allow one roll per encounter. You pass or fail once, period. If you later run into the same group or another group speaking the same language you get another chance to pass or fail.
Now earlier I mentioned that I don’t use linguistics to learn languages. This is a personal choice primarily driven by the fact that I don’t want players knowing 20+ languages. So what you could do is have learning languages tied to your intelligence modifier. You can know as many bonus languages as your modifier.
So there you have it. I didn’t want to get rid of this skill as both LS and -C suggested because in the campaigns my usual GM runs we find ourselves in scenarios where we don’t understand our enemy or a neutral party on a consistent basis. Easily more often than I find myself deciphering writing or detecting forgeries. So this is my current best attempt to make this a more worthwhile skill, but perhaps you still have no need of it. Thoughts?
(EDIT: I have not forgotten about the Comprehend Languages spell, only chose not to mention it… not everyone can cast it after all.)