Using linguistic false friends in your games

In linguistics there are sometimes words in two different languages which sound like their meaning will be obvious, but actually they aren’t.

Some false friends have very separate meanings. The English embarrassed and the Spanish embarazada (pregnant). They might cause some miscommunications, but most of the time it will be obvious that an error has been made.

Some are trickier. Je passe mes examens is not French for I pass my exams. It means I take my exams. This is a particularly tricky one because the meanings are quite far apart, but are used in the same context, so the error can go completely unnoticed.

One I hear a lot from Greek-speakers using English is the word costume – they will use it to mean outfit or suit. For instance ‘The astronaut’s costume’ or ‘The groom’s costume’. Costume is a false friend here, it sounds like the greek word κουστούμι (koustoúmi), and some of the uses are the same, but often it is different. It’s not as bad as passe/take because it’s on easy to spot error with a vey close meaning.

So false friends are words that you expect to have one meaning from your own cultural/linguistic context, but actually have a different meaning.

A false friend can be worse than a terrible translation, in that all participants can think their has been no miscommunication, and walk away from the conversation with completely different understandings.

D&D 5e false friends

D&D 5e has some magical false friends in its spells. These are spells which someone might expect to have one effect from the gaming/fantasy context, but actually have a different effect.

Chill Touch sounds like it is a melee spell attack that does cold damage. However, it is a 120ft range spell attack which does necrotic damage.

Dimension Door sounds like it would create a door though which you can pass to another dimension. However, it’s a 500ft teleport.

Thunderwave sounds like it will release a wave of energy outwards, with the caster at its epicenter. However, it is a cube of energy placed adjacent to the caster.

Misconceived Thunderwave vs the actual Thunderwave

How to use this in your game?

It’s easy enough to allow the players to miscommunicate if your game has language barriers.

The hard part is avoiding that ‘gotcha’ feeling.

The players have to feel like they (or their characters) made errors. And not because you tell them what the errors were that they made.

For instance, the players are searching for a dragon. They talk to some local Gnomes using broken Dwarvish, and the Gnomes tell them that a terrible scaled monster called ‘Dracusa’ lives in an abandoned castle in the hills. So the players think this is the dragon and head off to the castle.

But Dracusa is a false friend. Dracusa is actually a medusa. Or Dracula. Or both. It doesn’t matter what you choose, as long as its not a gotcha. So how do you avoid the gotcha?

  • Give the players the option to spend time and/or money on getting a better translation.
  • Layer in clues that it might not be a dragon. Describe wild sheep and goats roaming the nearby countryside. Abandoned farmsteads but no fire damage.
  • Drop hints of the real nature of the creature. Bats and mist for Dracula, life-like statues for medusa.
  • Most importantly, don’t mentally commit to the moment of the twist. If the players send out a shapeshifter or a familiar to scout ahead, let them spot the mistake if its reasonable.
  • Make the situation with the real monster complex. The medusa is sobbing; Dracula is tutoring some orphans in the castle’s library.

You can also do false friends with spells (as evidenced by d&d 5e) and magic items.

A classic example occurs in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, where the characters can find an alien gun. Because the alien physiology and design expectations are different, the way you expect to hold the gun is backwards, leading players to often shoot themselves in the face. A cautious player would avoid this by experimenting on the pistol with care.

Which direction does this gun fire? To the left or the right?

One last example is location names. This is not really a false friend, but it serves as a good example.

We don’t know exactly how Iceland got its name, but we assume its to do with the frigid climate.

Greenland, which is more more cold and more icy, has a much more pleasant sounding name.

In the Saga of Erik the Red, we learn that Erik was exiled from Iceland and founded a settlement in Greenland, calling it Grœnland, precisely so that it would be more attractive to settlers.

In the summer Eirik went to live in the land which he had discovered, and which he called Greenland, “Because,” said he, “men will desire much the more to go there if the land has a good name.”

The Saga of Erik the Red, chapter 2 (read the whole saga here)

So it’s not really a false friend, but it fits this general category of ‘linguistic trickery which might waylay an ill-informed player character’.

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