NPC Naming. Wow do I hate coming up with NPC names of the fly. A throwaway NPC suddenly becomes important and then bam! the player asks for a name . . . . . . .. . Great.
Moments like this often result in names like Pilo (pillow) or Pyul Que (Pool cue) because of things that happen to be in my line of sight, or they tend to be mish-mashed syllabic names that don’t sound very realistic, even for a fantasy setting. I’ve turned to name generators and name lists, but because of my gamer short attention span, I’ve forgotten to keep up with using them or I’ve left them behind when I get to the table. Then I saw the T.V. show supernatural and got inspired.
The general plot of supernatural  is two guys go around hunting ghosts and monsters. As part of this they constantly use fake names that are blatanly ripped from a variety of sources. Sometimes their names com from rock bands (“Father Simmons” and “Father Frehley”, two members of
Queen Kiss.) or the pinnacles of geekery (agents Hammil and ford, as in Mark Hammil and Harrison Ford) or a variety of movie references.
Thinking about this, it seems like an excellent way to generate on the fly names for NPCS. Having a Captain Bogart, head of the imperial guard or a Mischa Barton, girl who works at the coffee shop and saw the incident might seem a little silly, but the players are bound to associate the name more-so than if it were a generic or quickly generated. Here are a couple of tips/ideas on using this approach.
Make it a celebrity cameo
If you are going to use a well known name, then go for glory and use some of the celebrity’s personality or physical traits in the npc. Captain Bogart might have a broken nose or talk with a low rolling voice. Grab a picture of good old Humphrey and show it to your players.
Part of the name and last names first
If you don’t want to go so blatant with the NPC celebrity cameo, then just use part of the name. Cindy, the barmaid. Morgan, a spellcaster who holds the item the players need. Estella, the internal affairs agent for the space station. Use the last name for the full name of the NPC. Crawford, the town’s mayor. Freeman, a hardnosed detective. Warren, mild mannered alter alias of an international jewel thief. Using this route you will often get a name that sounds believable, but doesn’t make the players think of anyone in particular.
Merge two related names
Tyler Perry. Chris Stewey. Rogen Smith. Any of these names sound plausible and will work for an NPC. The benefit in a merged name is that the npc still seem familiar to the players. While the players may not know exactly who is being referenced, they will remember the name and the npc.
A name doesn’t have to come from a celebrity. I’ve often run my head through a newspaper and picked some random person or author’s name to use. While there won’t be the subconscious recognition in the players, the name will still sound believable.
The major benefit of this approach is the fact that it instantly fleshes out npcs who were afterthoughts. Once a well known name is applied to an NPC it is incredibly difficult not to associate elements of the person with the NPC. Captain Bogart tends to flow more heavily towards the hard nosed take crap from nobody role once he has been so illustriously named. However, one thing to keep in mind with this tactic is that it requires a good understanding between the players and the GM. Introducing a celebrity named NPC will probably cause the players to interact with that NPC as the celebrity. While this might generate some good role-playing, it will also generate a few groans and a couple of run-away jokes. Given the opportunity, a character might be more likely to hit on the barmaid now that she is obviously a super-model. Her name is Rebecca Romijn, she has to be incredibly attractive. Characters might also be more apt to pick a fight with VinHelm Deisel just to say they took him down.
What do you think of this naming tactic? Any celebrity NPCs you’ve used? Any better strategies for finding names on the fly?