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. ]