Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Everything Can Listen, But Nothing Wants to Talk

This is (an increasingly not so short) reflection on how being able to talk to everything has changed my 5e home game: Tidelock. The Tidelock Languages post details alterations I made to the language system traditional to most fantasy games.


I introduced the change relatively late into the campaign - just about a year ago in a game that started in late 2015. It was retconned in to ignore what no doubt would've been a radical change in philosophy and understanding in-world: something I've always wanted the player-characters to instigate themselves, rather than being inconsequentially dragged along for the ride.

The change was to the nature of language, principally Common, and was thus: Everything can speak and understand Common. That's Everything with a capital "E", in the sense that everything a person could interact with (vegetable, animal, and mineral) can talk. Anything can have a discussion.

It may seem radical at first, but really this isn't a huge long shot for fantasy games. In many campaigns talking animals, intelligent swords, and speaking elementals aren't farfetched, they're just assumed to be a part of the universe.

But, you may ask, how is this not a chaotic mess? If Everything loved to talk one would imagine it hard to do anything: there's a bug on a frog on a log on a river in a valley, and they're all simultaneously screaming. You can't see the forest for the trees, because the intermittent air is annoying you with puns.

The solution: Everything can listen, but nothing wants to talk. Everything can understand you, but operating on human levels of discussion is hard for most things. Animals are distrustful. For most "inanimate objects" talking is painful. Air is notoriously multitudinous and fickle. Cells are talkative but very quiet.

I got inspiration for this from Caves of Qud, which allows you to attempt to talk and trade with most things, plants and pond fish included. They make poor traders and conversationalists. Still, being able to say: "Live and drink, aquafriend." is a pretty significant bit of worldbuilding.

Effect on the Game

Introducing this change has caused a significant shift in how the players interact with the world, especially during adventures and dungeon delving. Above all, it means that every single encounter is a potential negotiation. As such, I've noticed a sharp increase in attempts to negotiate. 

Side note: (One side effect of this is that I now have to think through the personalities of more things than I usually would).

Being the party face has suddenly become a vastly more important job, and the number of combats in any session has consequentially dropped. Personally, I find this most agreeable with 5e D&D, as combats using this system can sometimes run up to half the time of a 3-hour session, due in no small part to the bloat of the system.

Negotiations are like a puzzle, both for the players and for me. We both need to consider:

  • Is discussion something this thing wants?
  • If not, why not?
  • If yes, then what's its personality?
  • If yes, then what does it want?

The short list of things I've had to improvise include: rose bushes, a frog with a tongue siren parasite (separately), air, swords, a pile of garbage, birds, fish, and a field of corn.

This might seem a little daunting, but it isn't too hard to come up with some general rules for personalities. As humans, we already tend to anthropomorphize lots of stuff. Hence, there's already a rich cultural fabric to assist a DM. For example: we tend to think of foxes and mischievous and energetic. That one's easy. What about the pile of garbage? Or the field of corn? Or a pile of sand? Or a severed hand?

I've found some general rules can help:

  • Inanimate objects are usually pretty okay doing what they're doing. Sand is just fine being sand. They're not insecure about being what they are (most of the time).
  • The closer any particular thing is to human society, the more likely it wants to talk to humans. A basket made of woven reeds, for instance, would be more likely to talk to a human than those component reeds in the wild. A dog is more talkative than a sea urchin.
  • Plants and minerals are way more chill with death and ego annihilation than animals.
  • Personify descriptive adjectives: a block of ice might be pretty chill; a sharp stone might be clever and stubborn; a pile of garbage is a piece of crap, or perhaps its simply misunderstood.
  • Identifying units are treated as individuals. Despite a boulder or a human being made of many little pieces and atoms, we're going to treat it as one thing. Exceptions can be made, but they require special tools (languages) to microscope in on stuff. This scales up and down. Cells talk on the cellular level. Atoms on the atomic. Stars talk on the planetary level.
  • The more something stands out, the more unique its personality. The inverse is also true. So, like, a corn plant in a field of corn is pretty conformist, but a corn plant solitary in the wilderness might be a bit of a renegade loner. This applies doubly to magic items.



As a fun bit of worldbuilding, what are some of the unexplored implications?

For starters, it provides the basis of an invocational magic system. Much in a style of Earthsea, it's all about knowing the True Name of things. Conjuring a Fireball? Know fire's name. Speaking with Animals? Know the names of Animals. Craft an illusion? Know the names of empty space. Magic and power become an exercise in Linguistics.

Perhaps more importantly, though, it provides the groundwork for interesting philosophy regarding personhood. One can imagine that the communication barrier is a large hinderance for who or what is considered within our sphere of social consideration. With that barrier dissolved, how does this change things? Are animals considered people now? Are man-made objects like swords and textiles? Do you need to apologize to the ground on which your constantly tread? Does one consider Everything to be within its sphere of social consideration, and go about considering Everything this way and that? How would this affect society and law?

Everything Can Listen, I've found, is also a bit pessimistic. On some level its inherently alienating: you're effectively surrounded by people and (almost) nobody wants to talk. It's like being alone at a party, but the party is the world and you can't stop drinking to drown out your existential loneliness, but even the booze you keep staring at doesn't want to talk.


  1. I should say there were actually three inspirations: Caves of Qud, Disco Elysium, and a chapter in a book that I have been trying to find again for like three years regarding personification of objects.

  2. There is a spell (from kobold press?) Called speak with inanimate objects that led to basically this in one of my campaigns. The table joke was one day the party would find out there is no such spell and the caster was just making it all up in an elaborate gm/player ruse.

    1. I utilized an ability like that for my Infinity Hotel one-shot (you can find that content in the Labels section). Cleric of bestowing sentience upon anything he chose.

      High point was using that on a Pain Machine - a machine whose only function is to feel pain when a button is pressed. Hilarious and terrifying!