Game Master Tip #8 – What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?  As said by Shakespeare’s Juliet “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” And while our star-crossed lovers may still have quaffed their apothecary’s brew, I doubt audiences would be as eager to attend “Garth and Janet” as they are “Romeo and Juliet”.   But what can we do to improve our characters’ names?

Whether creating the next big villain or simply adding some good back-story flair to that goblin the party just decided to interrogate, creating a name for your non-player characters (NPCs) can set the scene as well as any physical description.

It should come as no surprise to loyal Thirdwallers that names are a pretty big deal around the Thirdwalling table.  As we’ve discussed before, if the players interact with it in any way, it must have a title for them to refer to it or they will certainly invent their own.  But what should the aspiring Game Master consider when they’re building this nom de lutin?  (That one’s for you, Leg Up.)

1.) Remember your Genre.

Names are a part of your world, and a good name grows from it (as we’ll discuss in #2) as well as enhances it.  So the Game Master must be Genre Savvy when giving NPCs a name (and players, you should do the same when naming your PCs!) or they risk damaging the immersion of the game.  For this reason, we don’t put Jake Starslayer in a High Fantasy game set in the D&D style or I’ron Rustybeard wouldn’t be a suitable name in most Sci-Fi settings.

2.) Incorporate their background.

Back in the days of yore, when surnames were being passed out, they had a meaning.  This is true in the Fantasy world, the SciFi world and the real world alike.  Think about the character’s family history or the origin of the place when you’re assigning a name.  For people, nobles were often given names based on their estates while blue-collar folks were given names based on their trades or the cities where they were from.  Some took their surnames from their tribes or clans, which were often named for the local geography (Bryon of Three Rivers, for example).  For locations, consider the industries that grew up there and alternative or “industry” names for them (like “Stannery” for a town with Tin mines, etc).

In this way, the history of the person or place (or even magic items!) can be told just in their name.

3.) Make it memorable, keep it simple.

We mentioned this before in our previous “Give it a Name” tip, but it certainly bears repeating again.  Names should be simple and memorable in games, because there’s a chance your party will be screaming it later.  Consider simple, real-world first names, made slightly more Genre-savvy.  “Petyr” or “Bryon” are real-world names that the players are likely to remember, but with a flair that will remind them that they’re playing a fantasy game.  Which brings me to…

4.) Avoid cliches and melodrama.

As fun as it is to say “Dark Thunderstrike!”, how did the Thunderstrike family get its name?  And how on earth did a villain named “Sir Total-party-kill” manage to get knighted?  That doesn’t mean you can’t throw hints to the character’s personality into their name (Petyr Stonebeard is a stubborn dwarf), but be subtle about it or you’ll damage your immersion with all the groans.

So what guidelines do you follow when you’re giving a character (player or non-player) a name?  Take it to the comments!

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[ Featured image is “Balkong, Nordisk familjebok”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. ]

3 thoughts on “Game Master Tip #8 – What’s in a name?

  1. Is it so wrong to let players name stuff on their own? Aside from silliness because every single monster I have ever run across already has a name. even if in character we have no clue WTF it is shouldn’t we _get_ to name it?

  2. Great point! When it comes to the player’s gear and monsters they encounter (especially new ones that they haven’t learned the “proper” name for yet) they should be encouraged to name them themselves!

    My statement of “If I don’t name it, the players will” was more intended as humor at the silly names they come up with for people if I’m not ready with a name when they introduce themselves. One of my more serious NPCs has earned the unfortunate nickname of “Loverboy” and the villain of the PC’s first encounter will forever be known as “Mayor McPrick”. Certainly fun, but it can ruin the immersion during a more “serious” game.

  3. Backing up the ole 3walls on that one. Our D6 Fantasy crew often meets creatures with interesting twists. We faced off against some kind of giant yellow skinned, acid blooded brute which proved to be awesome, due in part to that fact that we didn’t know that these monsters were that world’s version of ogres. Because 3wheezy held back the name from us, I couldn’t help but wonder what they really were. Giving names and hiding names really adds another dimension to the gameplay.

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