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The Gamer's Guide to Hitch Hiking

My Fishless Ear

by Justin Unrau
Oct 04,2005

 

My Fishless Ear

He was screaming up into my face. But being six inches taller than someone doesn't give you that much satisfaction when that someone is wearing a uniform and has a gun and the People's Liberation Army behind him. And you can't understand a word.

The crowd had taken a collective step away from me. I was in the centre of a bubble with morbidly curious onlookers wondering what was going to happen to the dumb foreigner who tried to take a picture of the riot cops. After I'd put the camera back in my pocket the first thing I'd done was put my hands in the air and repeating that oh so useful phrase.

"Duibuqi! Ting bu dong! Ting bu dong!" (Sorry! I hear but don't understand!)

But the officer was still yelling when my saviour appeared. She was a thirty-someodd year old woman who pushed through the crowd and asked the officer something. He gesticulated at me, at the pocket where my camera was and generally turned his frothy torrent of language on her.

He paused and she cooly turned to me.

"You are not allowed to take pictures."

Really? I had no idea.

My characters in RPGs tend to be idealized versions of some aspect of my personality. I tend not to play wildly against who I am. Except for one thing. I love playing language savants, characters that Baudoli no's got nothing on.

This is in stark contrast to reality.

For someone who grew up in a bilingual country and had to study German as well until the age of fifteen, you'd think I'd have a better grasp on Not English. But I don't. And you know what? It hasn't hurt me in my travelling life as much as you might expect. So consider this column a justification for playing monolingual characters.

The big thing we run into in D&D style games is that arch enemy of linguistic realism: Common. How do all these diverse cultures in a non-internet connected world actually speak the same tongue? Well, I won't get into that, but if you're playing in a world with Common you could do worse than use English as your model.

I don't know any Arabic. Or Turkish. Or Hindi. Or Telugu. Or Malayalam. But I still got through places where those are what people speak. This is the case for many the monolingual adventurer, so how do you do it?

You learn to speak with your body. We play it for laughs but really, you can do a lot without saying a word. Maybe not getting across "An unspeakable evil will be set upon the world if you don't give me the access code right now" but "It's really important" is very doable.

And that's the thing. You change your expectations as a traveller. At least if you don't want to be one of those jerks who goes to foreign lands just to complain that they aren't just like home (I'll be talking more about this when I do my food column). Even if you can't learn enough to carry on conversations you'll learn what's important to you. And if you relax about it things generally get done.

This summer I met an American who'd been in China for a year and had his stock question "Keyi ma?" (roughly "Is it possible?") that he used for everything he ever needed to do. If worked for buying cameras, ordering dumplings, getting on a train to Xinjiang. For me, I can read enough Chinese to get through menus and all the travelling necessities like buying tickets. And I can speak just enough (in "Me want Beijing arrive bed" style) to upgrade said tickets when we decide we don't want to spend 36 hours crouched in an aisle.

For the GM this means that she can relax a bit about portraying tonnes of horrible difficulties to language deficient characters. Even in really different languages, a lazy learner can get by. Sure, if the character's really anal about stuff then things can get frustrating, but in my experience it's about inconveniences instead of catastrophes.

And if we're going on with English as Common, well it can be really useful. I betray my anti-globalization leanings everytime I benefit from the horrors of British imperialism. Places like India have so many different languages it could be a nightmare to learn all of them. If you want a unifying principle for long term ease of control, there are few things higher on the list than a language.

But it's not like everyone speaks English the way I see it assumed that everyone speaks Common. English is common enough that you can usually find a person to speak it and translate. Outside a university's English department you won't be having lots of luck getting information from random passers by (and even within it can be tricky).

If you're paying attention you see I've sort of written at cross-purposes there: "It's easier than you think." "It's harder than you think." Truth is, it's both. That's the kind of difference I want to portray in my games. As I see it, it's not about being a dick and making characters with low language scores roll for each little thing they want to say. Rolling to find a Common speaker would probably make sense though (with your skill making it easier to explain to your translator what you want to say). Just some ideas.

Now China's got lots of regional dialects. An acquaintance once explained how she came to learn Chinese because "Hey, a billion people can't be wrong!" but was a bit disheartened when she saw coastal Chinese staring blankly at the Sichuan farmer when he talked. Almost as blankly as they stared at her.

But the coolest thing about Chinese is the standardized script. It's the same writing all over the country. Cantonese, Mandarin or Shangainese, it doesn't matter. (Well, it sort of does since the CPC did a round of simplification on the characters in the 1950s, but thopse only applied to the Mainland. Hong Kong and Taiwan still use the Traditional characters.) And this script has history to it. A reader of modern Chinese can also read original texts from over 2000 years ago. That finds its parallels in fantasy games pretty easily, but I sometimes picture running a Call of Cthulhu game where a bunch of literate but unscholarly Chinese discover spellbooks and such with hilarity ensuing. Easily understood ancient knowledge could be a fun to play with.

And finally there's the ignorant foreigner excuse. Sometimes it works. Sometimes you get your tongue cut out. My PLA encounter from the top of this article ended well for me. I wasn't thrown in jail, deported, or picking up the pieces of a smashed camera. I was lucky, there's no doubt of that, but I was conciliatory and had no idea what was going on. Playing dumb in the face of angry military people is way more convincing if you have no idea what anyone's saying. It must be terror sweat or they'll realize you knew exactly what you were doing (but hoping to be sneaky about it).

Anyway, that's a bit about adventuring for monolinguists. I didn't really touch on using smatterings of other languages, or the lack of "secret languages" when all you speak is English. Oh well. Some other column.

Till next month. When we discuss food. Delicious food.

J Unrau
Hungry J Propaganda:
www.djs5.com/hjp

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