Languages in RPG: does it matter?

We had quite interesting discussions about the use of Battle-map, the importance of Alignments and recently I just thought about another one: the use of languages in RPG.

Maybe it is only my perception, but languages are only a rarely used flavor in these games?
Most games have some kind of “common” which pretty much everybody uses (including players, NPCs and villians) and the knowledge of some kind of arcane language (latin, runes, arcane) can help to uncover some clues while listening to goblins might reveal some funny discussions, but pretty much that’s it. Or at least this is my experience.

But was this always so (even in previous editions)? Or simply the authors/DMs/players in general don’t bother with it?

i tend to use languages a bit more, or try to at least
but it becomes tedious very quickly if players can’t at least understand each other (hence common), and major npcs not being able to communicate with players also can be annoying rather than interesting

Agreed with Tersidian. You can do some interesting things with languages - and dialects, too - like provide optional information, improve reactions, and the like, or even add some encounters where both sides wind up having to communicate with gestures, but not being able to communicate entirely can get old fast. Common makes life a whole lot easier for everyone.

To add to this - concur with the general sentiment of ‘use it where it adds to the fun’.

One thing I have had fun with is that long-lived creatures - elves, dragons, planar entities, gods - are going to act as stabilizing influences on language - there is still an elf here that speaks as he did 1000 years ago. This means that these stable languages are good go-to’s for trying to find common ground with strangers. Some specific cases where I have played with language recently in game:

  1. Players ran into some extra-planar kobolds, managed to work out they shared old draconic as a root and got into a nouns and verbs pidgin for general communication, then occasionally cast spells where it became important
  2. Summoning a bunch of celestial creatures to act as special effects for a bards show and getting to listen to them all chattering to each other since one of the party could speak celestial

I think having ‘there are other languages, you don’t speak all of them’ as part of the setting is good for making it seem real and lived in. For most mundane people and encounters, since most travel is slow, you will be able to figure out a pidgin or share trade common or the like - but it then helps to emphasize how far a party has traveled when they take a long voyage or cross the planes (or summon something) and then are faced with a language barrier. Make ‘figure out how to speak with people’ one of the things to sort out on a long journey but no need to make the solution very arduous.

It really depends on the system you are using. In a game that is based on a realistic setting like Call of Cthulhu a language barrier can be a valid obstacle the players actively work to overcome. “You found a suspicious tome in this cultist hideout? Does one of us speak ancient greek? Alright we have to decipher this!” can actually be a fun hook and/or challange! Tracking down someone or a way to decypher and putting other obstacles in their way during that.

In a fantasy setting I tend to not care about languages a lot if a language barrier it is not specifically important to the plot. I usually let everyone speak at least one language together (like common in DnD). If characters share a more uncommon language and they secretly want to communicate something in that language that’s fine but that is the extend to how I use Languages in fantasy.

That’s probably just my personal preference but I only had good experiences so far running my games like that.