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Why I Love Coming Up With Names

Posted By Martin Ralya On September 22, 2008 @ 5:01 am In GMing Advice | 23 Comments

I love names.

As a player, naming my character is one of my favorite aspects of character creation. It usually shakes out one of two ways:

  • I hit on the perfect name right away and it instantly helps me define the character. Sometimes this comes at the end of the process, sometimes at the start (it’s better at the start).
  • I agonize over choosing a name. I try real names, random inventions of my own, names from the huge list of names I keep on my computer — and eventually find a good one.

As a GM, it’s even better. Not only do I get to name more characters, from the piddling sideline characters who’ll never come up again (and who’re usually named on the spot) to major NPCs in whom I’ve invested a lot of time, love and attention (and name all sorts of other stuff, too), but there’s so much more:

  • A name can be a signal. You know how some names just sound nice, or evil, or slimy? That’s a great tool.
  • It’s a challenge to come up with a good name that will stand the test of repetition over the course of an entire campaign. I love that challenge.
  • Major NPCs — the ones whose names come up a lot — take on a whole new dimension for me if they have a good name. Hopefully my players feel the same way.
  • I get to fiddle with dictionaries. In my current campaign — Mage: The Awakening — nearly every NPC mage’s shadow name means something, usually in Latin but sometimes in Greek, German or whatever other language grabbed me at the time. Will my players try to figure them out? Probably not — but they could.
  • I love naming adventures, story arcs and campaigns. This is such a simple thing, but I think it adds so much to the game. With Mage, I send my players an e-card the night before our games announcing the name of the next day’s chapter.
  • Names can tie groups and cultures together. Having a few minor naming rules on hand for each group is a great way to make sure your on-the-fly invented names fit their origins.
  • There’s no feeling quite like when the perfect — I mean abosultely fucking perfect — badass, awesome name pops into your head, and you get to use it in your game. I love that feeling.

I probably spend way too long naming elements of my games, but I don’t care — it’s so much fun. I’m guessing I spend too long on it because I know that when, for example, I create an alt in WoW, if the name doesn’t feel right after the first few minutes — or even hours — of play, I delete the character and start fresh. Weird, I know.

Coming up with names is one of my favorite things about being a GM.

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Why I Love Coming Up With Names"

#1 Comment By baron On September 22, 2008 @ 5:35 am

I hate you.

OK maybe I’m being a bit harsh there. It’s not like I don’t like cool names and like coming up with names, but trying to find a name that’s “just right” or on the fly in the middle of a session when you’re thinking about a million other things is not easy. Naming mooks that are only going to be part of the session once (and their dog and their wife and there friend, cos it’s come up in conversation) aint fun.

I hate you.

;-)

Good post. The needing to get it right for important NPCs or your brand new PC can drive you mad, but when you get there it’s worth it.

#2 Comment By Noumenon On September 22, 2008 @ 6:52 am

Naming mooks that are only going to be part of the session once (and their dog and their wife and there friend, cos it’s come up in conversation) aint fun.

I don’t see why players even want names for every random shopkeeper. I think of it like a TV series. If they’re important, they get a name. If not, well, they might have a name but you’re going to have to squint to see it in the credits.

#3 Comment By nblade On September 22, 2008 @ 7:06 am

@Noumenon – Because players don’t think like you or me. No really. As a GM, you know the shopkeeper is not important. The players might not think so and so they want to name the shopkeeper.

@Martin – Wow, from you post it seems like you spend a lot of time on names. Still, I think you hit on few good point. I think names in region should have some sort of logic. Hell names should even be reused. After all how many people have the given name John? or the surname Smith? Oh, I’m sorry you tracked down the wrong John Smith, the one you wanted lived across the street.

#4 Comment By PatrickWR On September 22, 2008 @ 7:16 am

I love names too. My forte as both player and GM is coming up with cool, appropriate names on the fly. In our Burning Wheel campaign, I fired off a half dozen names for a Dwarven clan in the space of a few minutes, and we used ‘em for months.

The flip side of that coin is that I can only rarely come up with decent names outside of a game. For some reason the high pressure of a campaign session really energizes my name-creation abilities…which then prove to be totally tapped out when it comes time to write more for the campaign.

#5 Comment By itliaf On September 22, 2008 @ 7:43 am

Is there really any other way to come up with a good name than the two you listed?

My problem is that once I get a good name via method one, I hoard it. Because I occasionally play as well as DM, I want to save the good names for my own PCs. Perhaps I am laboring under the delusion that my character, is to be memorable, it will be decided in that first session where the introductions go around. Of course none of the names I have hoarded actually come to mind during character creation. I am currently stuck with a PC whose name I hate, and have already composed a contrived backstory to the effect that the crappy name is merely an alias which will be shed as soon as she realizes she can trust her fellow party members (a realization which will almost certainly occur in the first five minutes of our next session)

#6 Comment By Ben Overmyer On September 22, 2008 @ 8:10 am

I’ve found that my ability to come up with unique and interesting names is directly proportional to the amount of fiddling with languages I do.

I’m not just talking about constructed languages either, here. Someone who knows a smattering of words from a couple dozen languages and has references on twice that will always have an advantage over someone who relies purely on their creativity alone.

For fun, try combining bits of Aramaic and Ancient Greek to name your next demonic villain…. or lawful good PC.

#7 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On September 22, 2008 @ 8:41 am

I hate coming up with names. Usually big NPCs aren’t a problem. You can pull something out of your butt that fits because you have a feel for who they are.
Organizations are the same. They’re major movers-shakers so they more or less speak to you.

Generic towns, generic “little” NPCs, even my own characters sometimes simply DON’T speak to me like that. In fact, my current 4e human cleric is named Hugh Man simply becaus I could come up with nothing else, and another player suggested it right as the game started as a joke.

I guess the lesson for ME here, though it may not apply to everyone equally, is that I need to make everything memorable or meaningful. There should be no “generic fishing villiages” or “generic innkeepers” If the fishing village has a red brick wall from the orc wars a generation back, it’s redwall. If the innkeeper’s wife has passed away, he’s Widower John…

#8 Comment By Cole On September 22, 2008 @ 9:25 am

When I play someone’s games, I usually spend a considerable amount of time on names. Last Mutant and Masterminds game, I played Hans Blix from the UN. Another player loved the idea and set herself up as my secretary. Everything I did in game required a vote, I loved filling out forms, and my character could not even tie his shoes without his secretary. The name and his line of work opened up an immense realm of roleplaying possibilities for that game.

As a GM, all my names are random generated. I printed a three page spreadsheet with random names for use during play. To remember which one I used, I usually mark them on my notes.

#9 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 22, 2008 @ 9:52 am

I love the naming. Back when I was a True Geek (before cars and women appeared on my horizon), I made up a number of names based on Tolkein’s languages. One is my current handle, and in true Elven fashion, it has multiple meanings. (Not that I could tell you what any of them are these days…)

I have a list of somewhat archaic or unusual, but still familiar names that I use for NPCs: Conrad, Joshua, Geoffrey, Ishmael, etc. I pick one and usually shorten it, so “Ish, the itinerant merchant” is born.

#10 Comment By Swordgleam On September 22, 2008 @ 10:56 am

Coming up with names is my least favourite thing. My solutions:
1) Wrote a name generator
2) Know lots of dead languages.

Between those two, I can usually come up with something. Sometimes I’ll also take two adjectives that describe something, and mix around the letters until I get something that sounds cool. So for example, “demon realm” with letters deleted becomes “Donaelm.”

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On September 22, 2008 @ 11:19 am

@itliaf – I use the same solution as Swordgleam mentions below; Name Lists/generators.

For my current campaign, I mapped the various race’s names to real world cultures, then generated top 20 lists of names for the culture so I have names I can pull out of a hat. (For the dominant culture in the region, the gnomes, I have a page of names– cribbed from Welsh if I remember correctly.)

It works for me, because I’m not good at thinking about the names– but by picking the names from the same culture, it makes them sound related, which is what I want. It really reinforces the different types of dwarves. (Clay dwarves have simple names, usually only one syllable of a full dwarf’s name, reinforcing the culture’s disdain for their people. Illustrious commanders tend to have several names, clans, and titles that can be called out in battle.)

#12 Comment By MountZionRyan On September 22, 2008 @ 11:20 am

I share the love of naming. Here’s a cool tool:
The Story Games Name Project
http://www.story-names.com/

#13 Comment By BryanB On September 22, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

I hate coming up with names almost as much as I hate working on d20 stat blocks. Every now and then inspiration will strike and I come up with a great name but for the most part I am content to look at random name generators and the like.

I usually keep a list of Star Warsy names sitting by in case the PCs decide to speak to the guy sweeping the cantina after hours for whatever reason.

I got a lot of jibes from my players over a false name I had an NPC use: Ethan. Even after they found out the NPCs real name, the players refused to use it, prefering to throw “Ethan” around instead. It was embarassing. :)

#14 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 22, 2008 @ 8:42 pm

@BryanB – For d20 stat blocks, use HeroForge or any of its contemporaries for d20 Modern, etc. HF is the one tool that kept me GMing D&D 3.5 after 5th level.

#15 Comment By Vampir On September 22, 2008 @ 11:22 pm

I always have trouble making up names… generators and languages do help, but it’s still my least favourite part of gaming…

#16 Comment By Patrigan On September 23, 2008 @ 1:10 am

I hate naming, I have never been able to do it right…

I usually create a complete character, but leave the name and force me to create one at the table… This does add the element that my player think I can create whole characters while actually sitting at the table, so it’s not that bad.

#17 Comment By Raf Blutaxt On September 23, 2008 @ 5:25 am

I usually try to come up with something from ancient languages, maybe change some letters. I really like names that have some meaning if the players only bother to find out. But if they don’t I can sit at the table chuckling in evil delight cause they don’t realise they are talking to a bad guy.

A big problem however is the tendency of players to make fun out of every name. Almost every PC and most NPC’s can’t keep their name for more then five minutes without aquiring some nickname that’s a bad pun on their real name.

#18 Comment By BryanB On September 23, 2008 @ 10:37 am

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Thanks for the link. I happen to be using a newer version of the Sagasheet (1.22) than the one they have listed for d20 Star Wars SE (1.16). As much as I like Star Wars SE, I don’t know how I would have managed my games without that Sagasheet.

I can come up with NPC concepts, plotlines, and settings, but the statblocks drive me nuts. The Sagasheet has a random name generator in it, but you end up getting names like “Ethan” most of the time.

There is a good list of random names inside of the Galactic Campaign Guide (d20 Star Wars revised) which comes in handy.

#19 Comment By BryanB On September 23, 2008 @ 10:45 am

@Raf Blutaxt – Players love to make fun of names. I used to have a player that turned every name into a pun. It drove us crazy. Sometimes it was funny though, especially when they started calling the NPC that in character.

In our last Primetime Adventure series, one of the PCs met a guy named Steve that was dating his PC’s daughter. The PC would not call him Steve but kept refering to him as some other “S” name: Stan, Stewie, Sam, Simon, Sid, Shawn, etc. and it was hilarious.

#20 Comment By Adam On September 25, 2008 @ 9:15 am

The best way to come up with a bar or inn name is to get a deck of Apples to Apples cards. Pull an adjective and then a noun.

Endless fun.

#21 Comment By Martin Ralya On September 29, 2008 @ 7:34 am

Secretly, I assumed ALL GMs liked coming up with names — it’s good be disillusioned of that misconception! ;)

Maybe the folks who really like doing d20 stat blocks (I’d rather fall down the stairs, myself) secretly think everyone likes those, too?

Anyhoo, I enjoyed your comments. :)

#22 Comment By penguin133 On September 3, 2009 @ 6:39 am

I also love coming up with names, half the time it is in fact the beginning of a character. Other sources of inspiration are seeing a figure or indeed painting it, that will usually define a personality. Third source is a story or adventure, for which you actually need a specific character or type? For NPCs it depends on how important to the story a particular character is; random shopkeepers etc. aren’t likely to have names, though I’ll usually come up with a random one if the players ask for it? Bars, inns, temples etc. are usually easier, as someone says above use a noun and adjective, possibly with a particular flavour reminiscent of what and where it is, Jolly Mermaid for a coastal/port one or something less trite? Stock inn I use is the “Green Goblin” with an inn sign of a Goblin’s head which I drew, and a set of “Rules” I drafted! It was based loosely on the Prancing Pony of Bree, in Lord of the Rings. I also find names very important when writing adventures, hard to come up with an apt title without giving away too much?
I have a huge list of names, but it is on an Office 2007 Database and I lost Office when reformatting so now I can’t read it! Open Office does everything I need EXCEPT read Databases! Damn!
Ian Winterbottom

#23 Comment By Sewicked On September 28, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

There’s a reason that I collect baby name books; plus I bought this book http://www.amazon.com/Writers-Digest-Character-Naming-Sourcebook/dp/0898796326
It wasn’t cheap and it doesn’t have a few ethnicities/nationalities that I wish that it did; but oh it has so many. It has both personal and family names, sorted by language/region/etc.

I collect naming lists from whatever source that I find them. I collect real names, of people, towns and inns.

I love naming characters, etc. It doesn’t mean that I’m good at it. My friends still tease me about my gaijin-named L5R character (yes, she had the flaw), Carisma.


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