GM Tips: What's in a Name
"Lineup" by Dean Spencer
So, you’ve drawn your maps, written your adventure, and decided on NPC motivations, but there’s one thing you haven’t considered; What do I call them? For many people I know, naming is the hardest part of character creation and people who have never tried running a game don’t understand the pain of having to name not one, but dozens of characters!
There are also those players who take a perverse glee in asking the names of every random trader, beggar, passer-by or horse in every town they come to! Personally, I want to avoid using too many modern names (especially Bob – sorry to all Bobs out there, but it’s overdone!) as I want to keep immersion as high as possible. Also, naming every guard, peasant, goblin, or mount that the players will ever come across is an unreasonable expectation, so I’ve put together some tips on how to overcome the naming dilemma.
1: Use the Samples
Many TTRPGs now provide sample names in the description of each different ancestry or race, which can be very handy. The downside to this is that you will eventually run out of names, as few of these sample lists have no more than a dozen or so names. Players quickly grow suspicious about the number of NPCs using the same surname or infer patterns where there may be none. Using sample names is good in a pinch or when you’re just starting out, but you’ll want to broaden your scope the further into a campaign you get.
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2: Name Lists
This is a great way of making sure that you have plenty of names but can be a bit of extra work on your part. It does serve a double purpose in that, once you have your lists, you can mix and match to create more names than the base list by a factor of (math happens in background) lots. You can then run through your lists in order or turn them into random tables that you can roll on when you need to.
3: Cultural Traditions
Even in our own history and naming conventions there are plenty of cultural traditions and references, many of which have been forgotten (for instance, ‘Fitz’ as a prefix on a name generally means ‘bastard child of’ – usually associated with nobility. Fitzwilliam would be the illegitimate child of a noble called William. This was given as an identifier, but then often inherited! Every culture has their own take on this – Arabic uses both ‘Ibn’ and ‘Bin’ as ‘son of’ and ‘Abu’ as ‘father of’ male relatives). Translate this into your fantasy worlds however you can. For example, in most worlds I create, the Dwarven ancestry considers trade and profession as important as family, so all Dwarven folk take a ‘trade name’. Lyrasia Coppertoe was one such character, where ‘Coppertoe’ was her trade name from working as a coppersmith when younger.
A Kenning is a figure of speech that uses a poetic descriptor in place of a name for an item – for example a ship becomes ‘wave-steed’. Kennings come from an Old Norse tradition, but still exist in some form today. When applied to names, Kennings are often used to describe traits of characters or figures of legend. Odin has around two hundred Kennings!
Generally, a Kenning is earned by a great deed or by a notable feature, so you’re just as likely to have a Kenning for having the biggest nose in town as for being the hero who slew a dragon! Don’t be afraid to have a character named Froki Big-Nose – it’s historically acceptable! Give your PCs Kennings as rewards!
5: Baby Name Websites!
Bear in mind that not every baby name website is created equally, so if you want to avoid having NPCs given ‘trendy’ modern names, some sites are significantly better than others! My personal favorite is Behind The Name which has a random name generator that can be linked to existing world cultures but also has a few alien/fantasy alternatives.
Not only is there a random name generator, but there’s also a function to choose by gender and culture, so you can focus in on appropriate-sounding names to enrich the flavor of your world. On top of that, all of the real-world names link to a descriptor that tells you what the name means. There’s also a search function where you can look up names linked to specific meanings or traits, so if you want an NPC to have a name that means ‘fire’, you can absolutely do that!
What's your method for naming NPCs? Let me know in the comments below!