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What’s in a name?

Gnomestew reader Idran’s comment [1] on Martin’s article on the Decamer Campaign [2]started me thinking about RPG monsters. Turns out, they’re quite an international bunch, and while I certainly don’t begrudge the creators and designers of RPGs from drawing from a myriad of sources, and though it’s never bothered me before, suddenly it became obvious the nonsensical nature of the convention of retaining original names when drawing from a wide variety of sources.

Using Martin’s Decamer campaign which features only ten monsters as an example, we have the slaad (made up name), the giant space hamster (German name), owlbear (English name), dinosaurs (Greek name), ocularon (nonsense name trying to sound Greek?),   senmurv (Iranian name),  giff (made up name?), the unpronounceable hecatoncheires (Greek name), phasm (Greek name), and the dragonne (a mashup of Dragon and the West African Leone I assume). Now, Explain to me how the culture in Martin’s campaign world decided to name the cross between an Owl and a Bear an Owlbear, but didn’t call the Dragon-Lion cross a Liondragon or Dragonlion (or perhaps Lionlizard since dragons don’t exist in his world). Since most of the monsters names are Greek or at least Greek-sounding, why aren’t the rest of them? We could assume that the world of your RPG campaign is relatively cosmopolitan and a melting pot for various cultures, but given the medieval model around which most RPGs are based, it’s unlikely that people would use foreign names or words to describe local creatures.

So what is a GM to do?

While you could ignore the issue (by far the most common response and if the issue doesn’t bother you or your players, why not?) or tailor your monster lists to be appropriate to the culture near which they are found (which means working with a limited monster list which may not fill all the niches and functions you want, and may still force you to deal with thematically appropriate monsters whose names have been anglicized, such as the ogre mage) perhaps the best solution is to simply pick a naming convention and rename any monsters you want to use whose names don’t fit your convention. If you’re familiar enough with the culture, language, or mythos associated with the naming convention you wish to use, that’s a simple enough matter. Just translate simple names and choose rough analogs for anything that would be too much of a pain to translate or find an exact match for (like made-up names with no real-world analogs). If you’re not that familiar with the culture, language, or mythos in question, it’s a little harder, but still as easy as an internet search or two away.

Continuing with the example of Martin’s Decamer campaign, I’m choosing a Greek naming convention because 40% of his monsters already have Greek or Greek-sounding names. Plus, adding a Greek-inspired culture with classic Greek architecture in the middle of his jungle-based campaign strikes me as awesome. That means we need to find some Greek names for the following creatures: Slaad, Giant Space Hamster, Owlbear, Senmurv,  Giff , and Dragonne. This whole concept has reminded me of an old article I read in Dragon Magazine #158 years ago entitled Also Known as the Orc, which was a thesaurus of alternate names for common DnD creatures from other cultures, so I’ve pulled out my copy as my reference here. Not surprisingly, none of these creatures are listed, but substitutions are fine. I can use the Greek name for mermen (gorgona) for the slaad, bugbears (mormolux) for the space hamster, the harpy (arpuiai) for owlbear, the griffon (grup) for the senmurv (interestingly, the article suggests senmurv as an alternate name for griffon) , centaurs (apotharni) for the giff , and cocatrice (icheumon) for the dragonne. Of course, none of these are perfect matches but unless one of Martin’s players is a Greek mythology buff (in which case he should be consulting with them for names instead of me) they’re unlikely to notice.

This makes our final more coherent and less mind-boggling monster list-

In addition, associating your monster set with other monsters may inspire ways to tweak them and make them your own. From this list, maybe some arpuiai (owlbears named after harpies) have the mesmerizing song of the harpies. Perhaps a pack of them terrorizes a village in your campaign world, eating or destroying any food the village tries to raise. Maybe apotharni (giff named after centaurs) fill the centaur’s traditional role as horse bowmen, but because they’re hippo-men they range the waterways of your campaign, striking at range with blowguns, then escaping with their high swim speed. Finally, perhaps some old and powerful icheumon (dragonnes named after cockatrices) gain the petrifying gaze or poison of the cockatrice, and perhaps they are born from the cubs of great cats abandoned by their mother who keep warm by burrowing into dung heaps and eat the vermin who live there to survive.

How about you? Has the mish-mosh of languages, cultures and mythoses in your favorite RPG ever bothered you? What did you do about it?

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "What’s in a name?"

#1 Comment By Bastian.Flinspach On November 17, 2009 @ 4:33 am

Great Article!

I never thought about monster names and cultures before. Granted, in my games it’s not much of a concern, because the most monsters are just plain old orcs, goblins und kobolds and i think there is nothing wrong with everyone calling them that.
But i will certainly think about this, because it should add a lot of flavour if people have different names for the same monsters…

#2 Comment By deadlytoque On November 17, 2009 @ 9:11 am

That’s a great approach.

When I run fantasy, I tend towards pulp, which usually means my enemies are very common (player races) or basically unique, so I rarely name them. It’s very rare that someone says to Conan “There is an otyugh in that chasm!” Instead, they say “Beware the chasm, for it is inhabited by a beast of nightmare!” So that usually works for me.

I’m also very guilty of Shemping (using the stats of one monster but describing it in a different way that better suits my campaign), so I’m usually free to use whatever name I like.

#3 Comment By Rafe On November 17, 2009 @ 10:00 am

I find I really get thrown by cultural leaps when it comes to monsters and such in fantasy games. I usually rename something I want to use (and change its description, if the description seems out of sorts with the theme of the game), or I leave it out.

For me, though, it isn’t a huge matter of the name that gets me: It’s the role and tone of the creature and how badly it will jar with the theme of the campaign. Like I said above, if there’s a thematic difference, I either reskin it or don’t use it.

#4 Comment By Knight of Roses On November 17, 2009 @ 10:01 am

Honestly, it has never bothered my much. I assume that the characters in the game world speak their languages and the monsters are named appropriately for those language. But I can see going the theme-reinforcing route you have above.

#5 Comment By drow On November 17, 2009 @ 10:54 am

in a game where every PC is likely to be a polyglot, it doesn’t really bother me much.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On November 17, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

Names are great at reinforcing the feel of a place, and are the easiest reskinning of all. The article makes me want to look at that closely before launching a new campaign– it sounds like it could really help the feel, easily.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 17, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

Traditionally: I don’t worry too much about it. Scott makes a great point in that names are a cheap and efficient re-skin, so I may rethink this.

Currently: My four Human cultures are Northman, Gael, Saracen, and Atlantean (Greco-Roman). This pretty much covers everything that’s not Native American or Asian… 😉

#8 Comment By Sarlax On November 17, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

I haven’t been bothered by blend of name styles that appear in RPGs like D&D. I don’t care that one monster might have a Germanic name and another is Aztec. After all, I’m not upset that my group isn’t speaking old English, and not every character in the game is named “Jon.” I do care about names, though.

I want monsters with names that sound like they come from fantasy. I was greatly irritated with 3E’s generally stupefying of monster names. It stands out most strongly with the baatezu and tanar’ri. Er, pardon me, the “devils” and “demons.” Not to mention the bearded devils and chain devils – formerly barbazu and kytons.

So long as the names are more or less interesting, I can get behind them.

#9 Comment By Crimson Newb On November 17, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

It’s never bothered me before, although I generally pick a language to base proper names on in my campaigns. Renaming monsters with the same language is a good idea for maintaining consistency. I’d use a dictionary or online translator to get more accurate names, though (e.g. koukouvaliarktos for owlbear).

#10 Comment By Mairkurion On November 17, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

Not only has it never bothered me, but I’ve always enjoyed the exotic mix of monster names, just as I enjoyed the expansion of my vocabulary when I started out as a kid. Now, if a particular name annoys me, or I want to give it a local name to cut out meta-gaming, then I’ll make up names as needed. Thanks for picking up on this little noticed aspect of the game.