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What’s in a name?
Posted By Matthew J. Neagley On November 17, 2009 @ 1:23 am In GMing Advice | 10 Comments
Gnomestew reader Idran’s comment on Martin’s article on the Decamer Campaignstarted 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?
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