Languages in most Dungeons & Dragons settings is rather rudimentary. There’s the pidgin-trade tongue of Common (and sometimes Undercommon. From there, the typical known languages are based on races and the planes.
A character might know Common, Elvish, and Primordial for example.
This is bland, unnecessary, and lacks verisimilitude. Get rid of languages. They rarely come up at the table. For most tables, languages are simply “You can communicate” or “You must use gestures.” Few encounters are successes and failures based on the 3-7 languages a character knows.
Instead replace them with Culture: NAME.
This would also replace Intelligence (History). This small tweak aids deeper connections between certain character classes and backgrounds with the world in which they are played.
What do you gain from adding Culture?
Especially in games with heavier social and exploration pillars you have a better idea of what your character knows. Rather than have a wood elf raised as an urchin on the streets of Waterdeep be capable of talking to every single elf in the world, as if language is hard-coded in the soul, it is instead a learned thing.
Said wood elf would instead know Common and the Culture of the Sword Coast, able to communicate with the peoples in and around Waterdeep, as well as knowing the traditions of the various peoples, their symbols, their stories.
The characters are deeper, with more connections to the world in which they play. A Fighter-Sage would be intimately familiar with many nations and cultures, rather than just a few and whatever the DM determines is known through a d20. A character that has studied the Dalelands would know the holidays, conflicts, and ways to communicate that are common in the the Moon Sea and the Inner Sea.
At its simplest with Culture, you know more.
What do you lose by removing Languages and History?
The characters will still be able to communicate as always. There may be a perceived penalty for a few backgrounds, but there is a fix for that.
There is additional bookkeeping. You will have to use a custom field on DnDBeyond.com, for example.
How does adding Culture work when building a Player Character?
While building your character in the standard order (Race, Class, Background) take note of every language learned. Each of these are replaced with adding a single culture.
When you would take History you would now have the option to take another proficiency or take a culture.
Additionally, I would encourage most tables to use a PC’s Intelligence modifier to add (or subtract) from known cultures. This is mostly because Intelligence is undervalued within the game.
Example: A High Elf, Fighter, Sage would begin knowing as many as 8 cultures known. This would represent their studious familiarity with many peoples.
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How do you use Culture?
Use Culture like you would use History, but apply it like a tool. Most often it would connect with Intelligence, but there are times when your proficiency in a culture would apply to a check based off of Wisdom (if a character isn’t proficient in Insight their awareness of the opponent’s culture might help them) or Charisma would apply.
Knowing a culture of a peoples with which you are interacting is particularly helpful in social encounters. A character familiar with a particular empire should be able to take advantage of that knowledge at the table!
Are you familiar with the Dalelands? Then you would recognize their heraldry, for example. Hidden societies, or subsets of a culture may require a check (DC: 15) to see if you have studied or are aware of that aspect.
Practical Examples of Cultures in D&D
Within the World of the Everflow, a rather narrow setting, the following cultures would be available;
- Western Wildes
- Ancient Sheljar
- Ancient Gallinor
- Crinth Confederacy
- Gobkon Union
- Church of Quar (yes, this is cross-national group with influence throughout the continent of Kin)
- There are other faiths and cults that may be appropriate
- The Scholars and Proctors of Grace
In a more explored and developed setting such as the Forgotten Realms I would recommend using the super-national regions such as, but not limited to the Sword Coast or the Dalelands or Chult. If you are a member of a Faction, assume that you know their Culture too. The list of political groups, religions, factions, and other strong cultural groups within the Forgotten Realms would fill an entire wiki.
If you are playing in Eberron: Rising from the Last War the various nations of Khorvaire would all be appropriate Cultures as would most of the religions.
Tables that use other setting would have to assess that setting. Do not make the cultures too narrow, nor too broad (then you just have the language problem, but different).