Coming up with plausible names for characters, NPCs and even the villages, towns and cities in a scenario or campaign can be a bit of a bind. I love to think I have a creative mind but I often go blank when faced with this challenge. When you think about it, the roleplaying names used in your games have no real value but in truth, they are vital. A name defines a character or a landscape or culture and represents an individual’s values, actions and achievements in the eyes of others. They get awards, titles and depending on behaviour, notoriety attached to them, so picking a good moniker is actually quite important.
What’s In A Name?
Apparently I am in good company. I remember reading a very interesting essay in the back of an old Conan novel many years ago where the writer discussed Robert E. Howard’s use of names. Now I love Conan (the originals anyway) but agree that Howard struggled with names. The essay points out that the ones he created lacked originality (like Thog, Thaug etc) and the rest were usually based upon historical names. Interestingly, Howard often used the same names is several different stories and on occasion modified and recycled them. The other extreme has to be J. R. R. Tolkien who not only created original names but took the trouble to put together the Elven language to put them into context. I do not believe for a minute that any gamer should go to the lengths Tolkien did to give an authentic feel to their roleplaying names, but both Howard and Tolkien do offer some useful approaches.
Where names come from and why
Names are a product of many aspects of society. They reflect culture, status, sometimes religion and of course are based in the language of the place they originate. This is one reason I am cautious about random name generators. What you cannot build into somebody’s name generator is the variables of the society your individual comes from. You might get a good random result but if you wanted another 10 similarly themed names (for perhaps other villagers in the place you are writing up), you would be left wanting as most generators are more or less completely random. For this reason, I’m with Howard and the use of historical names. You do not have to be in a historical campaign to use them as roleplaying names, just pick a culture that works for you and is obscure enough to be “fantasy” to your audience. If you would rather stay entirely original, I recommend creating your own names based on some simple structural rules.
The Structure of Names
Of course names have common themes, distinctive endings and characteristic letter combinations which give them a cultural identity. If you get some or all of these factors right, you’ll have fantasy roleplaying names that enhance your world background or character. Good, stereotypical examples of name endings are Slavic -ov, -tri and Scandinavian -us. Coming up with some signature name endings can be a good place to start. Three Orc endings like -vag, -gush, and -okk will give you nine or ten decent Orc names for your gang. Your language should have a pattern as well. The number of syllables is another aspect to consider but why not be adventurous? The further you go from human kind the more justifiable it is be more radical. Names reflect the shape of your mouth as much as the complexity of your culture so you might for example give your Ogres hyphenated names or ones with other punctuation.
The Meaning of Names
From browsing the blogs it is clear to me that most role players like to give their names meaning. I agree it can be a really helpful basis for an identity. However you really need a good language to get good names with appropriate and characterful meanings. Tolkien did this and I recommend the appendix in the Silmarillion for meaningful Elven names. What is hard to justify is spending any creative juices inventing a stylish language. Baby name web sites are great alternative as you can pick obscure real cultures or historical ones and find interesting meaningful names that fit. I picked the African name Kanene for a female warrior from a tribal savannah society meaning “a little thing in the eye is big” (a joke about her size). Pronounced Kaneenee it fits her very well and contrasts her huge bulk dancing around in combat and how I roleplay and describe it. Whatever you do, put in a bit of effort on your roleplaying names. Their really make the great games memorable.
Image Credit – Hello My Name Is by Quinn Dombrowski – CC-BY-SA-2.0