Wednesday, November 15, 2017

When You Just Cant

Ey, girl, lemme whispa in ya ear
Language in games is a tricky business.

Sometimes it's easy - just have a creature only able to speak broken Common, or put something in a language that a player can translate. Or have a code-style minigame, where the players slowly gather words and translate a message.

However, there are two languages that are a bit special: Thieves' Cant and Druidic. These "class languages" are supposed to be known by everyone who has received the training required to be a Druid/Rogue. But surely not every Thieves' Guild uses the same signals and codes. Surely each forest has a different language.

So, here's some ideas to spice up these "code" languages in your game. Also, how to justify that whole "Thieves' Cant takes four times as long as normal speech" thing.

Thieves' Cant

In essence, this is a manufactured code. It doesn't have to be sophisticated, though.
Like murderhobos, but without the murder
Every Thieves' Guild, Urchin Collective, and League of Assassins will have their own version of the Thieves' Cant. Just because a rogue knows Thieves' Cant doesn't mean they'll completely understand someone who learned to speak Cant in another city or country. However, you could certainly say they have advantage on deciphering it, or give them a few words of the overall message.

Thieves' Cant (according to the PHB) comes in two varieties: spoken and written. The spoken variety is the trickier of the two, so here's some good ways to implement it within a community of rogues.

  1. Doublespeak. The least sophisticated type. You simply say one thing and mean another, like "I whacked the guy." It can be used as slang, and low-intelligence thieves might use this exclusively as their spoken language.
  2. Hand Signs. Usually different than the signs used by the deaf community, to avoid being spied on by deaf people. In the Forgotten Realms, the Drow have this kind of communication. More common among political rogues, who already lie about everything.
  3. Codespeak. Requires a decent level of intelligence. This will sound like gibberish unless you understand the rules of the Cant. Pig latin is a classic example: "I-ay illed-kay im-hay".
  4. Key Words. This is a very difficult type to implement into a community, which means it's usually the best for keeping dark secrets. In this Cant, certain words have predetermined meanings. Instead of "I killed him", you might say "the Pegasus has flown the coop". Without knowledge of the predetermined meaning, the message is undecipherable.
  5. Magic. Finally, among arcane tricksters, spells like Message and Silence would certainly be used to conceal communication. Of course, they'd probably be used in conjunction with the above methods.

Of course, these are drawn from real code languages. Here's a good list of them. (Note that the "official" thieves' cant is a Key Word code. That's tricky to implement among a less-educated medieval population...)

As for the written language, I would actually shy away from using coded messages. First off, we want something that even the burliest of thugs could understand. Second, I don't want to step on the toes of the linguist feat. And finally, if I do put a code in game, I usually want the players to solve it, not the characters. So having the rogue simply read it would break the encounter.

Instead, we can use the simple symbols used by miners and wanderers as Thieves' Cant. They do this in Skyrim and it's very good.

At the very least, you need symbols for "safe", "danger", and "this way". Symbols for "home" and "loot" aren't a bad addition. After that, you can simply combine the symbols together or make them more specific.

And remember, each city will have different symbols. A rogue might need to relearn the code when they visit a new city. However, unlike spoken languages, all organizations within a single city will usually use the same symbols.


Druidic can be manufactured as a code language, but that never really felt right to me. If you can turn into animals, why not just talk like the animals do?

Bark, bark
If spoken, druids can simply imitate the calls of animals and understand them. Practically, this would work like the Key Words codes above, but with noises instead of words. A druid might give the howl of a wolf, the taps of a woodpecker, or the melody of a bluebird. And they could differentiate it just enough that another druid would know it wasn't an actual animal.

Some forests have wilder druids who wouldn't want to memorize such calls. They could communicate like dogs do - mostly through facial expression. Or they could train their bodies to give off certain pheromones, then interpret them entirely via instinct. Either way - nonverbal communication that wouldn't be accessible to non-druids.

As for written communication, I think they would use the natural environment when possible. It'd be very similar to tracking - a broken branch here, an upturned stone there. Together, they form a message.

Finally, every forest is different. The birds of one forest sing differently than those from a distant wood. Though druids would likely pick up on simple messages more easily, they would still require some time to learn the full lexicon of Druidic in a new forest.

How to Use This

If your rogue comes from a different city, or if your druid comes from a distant land, they'll have to learn the new signs. Could be a fun mini-game, especially in a quest oriented around starting a new thieves guild or moving to a new area.

Every rogue/druid will have a particular method of communication they prefer, and not all members of their class will communicate the same way. Similar to a dialect of the language, the player might need to figure out what an NPC means or risk misunderstanding.

Or, just treat it like a different language or ignore it altogether. Not every group of players enjoys decoding messages and learning about regional dialects!

Thanks for reading!

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