I’m not sure if there’s any thorn that sticks in the side of Game Masters more than coming up with unique, believable names. When we succeed, it’s glorious; our friends remember the names of their deadliest foes and favorite characters. When we fail, those characters are consigned to the dustbin of memory where all single-appearance innkeepers and bartenders tend to go.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve forgotten to name someone. Or named someone so poorly that the players could not remember their name the following session. Or named someone close enough to the name of a well-known actor that they just started calling him “Brad Pitt”. Sometimes my players even pause the action and ask me how to spell the names of NPCs that just appeared, if for no reason other than forcing it into the little grey cells.
There are lots of sites out there with advice about how to come up with names on the spot for random NPCs that you never expected the players would talk to. I think many of them are great ideas, so I’m not going to re-tread them here. I’m going to try and help come up with the long-term names, the memorable names, the planned monikers. Some of what I say you might find useful, some you might just throw out.
With those stunning credentials, who better to lead you through a crash-course in naming things?
Where to begin? Let’s start with the big things that end up needing names in your games:
- People (NPCs)
- Cities/Countries/Regions/Planets/Biodomes (places where those NPCs live)
- Geographic Features (rivers/lakes/mountains/oceans/swamps)
- Organizations (religions/cults/guilds/bueraucracies, and I’ll include Races in here also)
Various other things need names as well, but I think these are a good place to start. Our goal is to create names that are memorable and appropriate. In every section on game-mastering, there’s always a blurb about tone. If you’re running a slapstick superhero game, it’s fine and appropriate to have characters named Puddledunk McGurk or Big McLargeHuge. If you’re running a serious, noir World of Darkness game…. not so much. So, you’ve got to set for yourself (and your characters) a baseline for what’s appropriate. Keep in mind, though, that sometimes things to slip through unintentionally.
Once you’ve got your general tone down, you can actually come to naming conventions. I named my post after that phrase, and I want to reiterate how important it is. Names for things do not just appear wholesale from the ether. Nothing is created in a vacuum. Ultimately, assigning names to things is a shorthand classification system – we call a city London so we don’t have to say “that place on that large river where all the people from this continent live”. (We also call it London because it was initially called Londinium). Proper names serve to identify but also convey a lot of meaning quickly. The names that intelligent cultures give things are ultimately meaningful, and so should the names in any game that you run. I’m not suggesting that every character named Puddledunk is named that way because he was dropped into a puddle as a baby, or that his naming was to cherish the memory of his mother’s elder brother who died as a lad and was also named Puddledunk.
What I am saying is that when someone is named James, there’s a reason for it. Sure, there’s the immediate reason, their parents liked the name or it was somehow meaningful to them or they wanted a girl and ended up having to use a random name generator when it ended up being a boy, but there’s also a deeper cultural reason why people are named James. If the king for the last thirty years has been named Vusk, there might be a preponderance of babies names Vusk during his reign. If he turned out to be a cruel, sadistic dictator, that name might never be heard again.
And culture doesn’t necessarily mean historic ways for naming humans. Naming conventions exist for how to properly identify species, how to maintain uniformity in computer programming languages, how to keep units and measurements straight. Systems exist even if you can’t necessarily see them. Pull back the curtain a little bit and ask yourself why something is named the way it is.
The connection between language and names
Culture also did not spring up spontaneously from the void, it grew and evolved (or was snuffed out) slowly or quickly in many different places at once. There are hundreds of known languages spoken be exponentially more cultures, and those are just the ones that survived. We have no way of knowing what languages died out, though we do know that some have even in our lifetimes.
I’m not an expert on linguistics, but I can say that you can try this little experiment: look at a map of the places around you. How are they named? Many of them are just words from different languages: Los Angeles, Minnesota, Manhattan. Or your friends’ names: Rebecca, Clair, Muhammad. All are derived directly from (or simply) are words from other languages.
If you’re running a fantasy game or building a fantasy world, take this into account. It initially seems like a daunting task, but I’d say that it’s no more daunting than coming up with the names in the first place. You don’t have to go through the Elvish language in your world and come up with words for every common thing. Every time you create a new NPC with a new name, just add that name to a “name file”, a document you have on your computer with the origin of your characters’ names. I need the name for an elven princess, OK, it’s Aliera, which comes from the elvish for “light of the sky”. Later, I want to name another elf with a light-convention, so maybe I call her Aliestra and now I can say the prefix Alie- means Light (and maybe stra means “of the gods”). Does it have to be perfect? No. But it’s a little thing that your players might pick up on, and it adds a huge amount of depth to your game for relatively little work.
I’ll cover some more specific examples below, but I always recommend just looking around and seeing how we as people do it.
I think the great thing about this is that once you’ve been naming things for a long time, the names start to write themselves. You can start to even develop details about your characters based simply on the way they’re named, and your players will begin to ooh and aww at BBEGs who are named Tremelerrie, which actually means “deathbringer” in Pixie.
Every culture has a history
… and the names of people, places, and things evoke that history. You can see every day how many things we’ve named after our leaders, our saints, and our heroes. The word “Kaiser”, once the leader of Germany, descends directly from the dictatorial Julius Caesar and his eventual dynastic succession.
You don’t have to write out a long history about every name, but it helps to at least conceptualize that X is named after the cruel king who once ruled there, or that Y was named after the historic battle that saved the nation. What those battles are doesn’t nearly matter as much as the simple fact that they are there to reference.
Ok, so I won’t leave you without some tips that I use for naming conventions. I’d also love to hear yours.
NPCs: One of the old tried-and-true methods is translating a word into a different language, like Russian, German, Tagalog, whatnot. I think it gives the name a more natural feel, since it comes from a pre-generated naming system (a language) that evolved partly because it was memorable and slipped off the tongue rather easily (at least in one language).
Another is what I call the “George R. R. Martin” approach. Take a name from the real world. Let’s say, Nicholas (my name). Now remove or change one letter, or do both. I’ll remove the O and change the i to an a. Nachlas, the Barbed Devil. Gregory —> Tregora, the witch from (Paris —>) Larys Bog.
I like working with names that have a basis in English (or a Romance/Germanic language). Since all my players are generally American, it gives us a nice, familiar foundation for the civilized parts of the world. When they get farther and farther away from their comfort zones, I like to have the names become more and more bizarre. Aberrations and extraplanar beings usually have unpronouncable names or 20 syllable ones, things that are beyond the ken of normal beings. It’s just like Tolkien did, basing his archetypal fantasy world on flavors drawn from different cultures.
That simple guide I have above is itself a naming convention (civilization = more familiar, wild = less familiar, alien = bizarre) which can get you very far.
One other thing I like to do in D&D is use common first names that have been “Martinized” (Jeemes, Anjela, Ralf, etc.) , and couple that with surnames that are far more fantasy-oriented. Remember that surnames themselves are a naming convention – there’s no reason that all members of a family need to share any part of a name, it’s just something that Western culture has been doing for a long time.
Organizations follow many of the same naming conventions as NPCs, usually being named after their famous or important forebears, their area of origin, or simply functional translations from other languages (e.g. Luftwaffe = air force).
Towns: For locations, I tend to veer more towards functionality. This city is the only independent trading port in the known world, OK, it’s called Freeport. Common names like this are fine, but don’t overdo it. For every Riverton there should be a Gragnark. In my opinion, the world loses a lot of flavor when it has too many genericized names.
Places are also frequently named after people. This is especially relevant for regions that are not “old civilization”, where explorers might have named provinces for monarchs back home, or where conquerors conquered and placed their immortal stamp on the area with their name. If you take a few minutes to plot out, say, the last 5 or 6 kings and their reigns (even if you just give them placeholder names), you can extrapolate from that timeline when cities might have been founded or new regions charted.
Geographic features tend to be culled more from language than from proper names, but both are rather common. In old civilization areas, rivers and mountains might be named for long-dead rulers or dynasties. In religion-heavy worlds, natural features are the perfect ever-present things to name after deities, mythical figures, and systems of worship.
Some final advice I have is to be both consistent and varied. How so? Each naming convention should be internally consistent: if Dol Guldur means “Hill of Sorcery” and Dol Amroth means “hill of Amroth”, then Hill of Might should not be Smar-dur (unless you have a justified reason, such as a different dialect?). However, you need to mix it up: if Val- is the prefix for city, every Elvish city need not start with Val- (just like every American city does not have the word city in its proper name), but perhaps that is the most common naming convention for Elvish cities.
By including a method to your naming, it forces you to think about the internal consistency of your world. If you’re planning a campaign in the city of Harira, it could just be that, another campaign in the city. But if you are forced to think about why the city is named Harira (after the founder, Sir Harir, the King’s Knight-Protector), a dozen little ideas bubble up in your head surrounding that one tidbit of information. Why was it named after him? They changed the name 20 years ago to mark the 200th anniversary of his death. What was the name before it? Grellburg, after Simen Grell, the now-disgraced former emperor. And so on.
If there’s one piece of advice to follow, I hope it’s this: every piece of creative work in your world should have an origin, somewhere. It’s not just names. You can easily get them wrong just by trying to make them all sound cool. It happens with maps as well, where it seems cool to have a river run from one ocean to another, until you realize that (unless MAGIC!), well, that really doesn’t make sense. The thing I love about role-playing games and being a gamemaster is seeing where the rabbit hole goes, and following my inspiration to wherever it will take me. Sometimes I try to name a city and end up with a 3000 word history of its 3rd mayor. I hope you can do the same!