What’s in a name?

Names. Names are everything. Names are a part of your identity and with the right name you can compel a demon to do your bidding and in some settings reshape the world.

Names are also really hard! Giving a character or NPC a name is a very tricky task indeed and requires you to carefully consider just what that name means for a person in your world.
Names tend to have meanings attached to them, implied characteristics and cultural baggage and choosing the wrong name for an NPC is worse than not naming them at all.

Discussed here are a few examples of doing this right and doing it wrong. Of course these aren’t hard and fast rules but I hope I can teach you a thing or two with regards to naming.

An example of how not to do this:
GM: “You walk into the palace of the Wizard-King, his eternal guards turning their head to track your every movement. The Wizard-King sits on his throne and rises when you enter, his emerald robes fluttering in a non-existent breeze”
Player: “What’s the Wizard-King’s name anyway?”
GM: “Bob”

Now unless you’re going for a monty python-esque type of comedy (Tim the Enchanter comes to mind) this is going to ruin any sense of tension you’ve established. Bob isn’t a name that makes sense for an ancient wizard and doesn’t invoke the kind of respect and dread you’d expect from an ancient wizard.

Similarly, keep an eye on what names you’ve used so far and how similar they are. When I ran Legend of the Five Rings, I had a huge problem coming up with names. I’m not much of a japanophile and had picked up the ruleset mostly because the book was absolutely gorgeous. As a result, most of the names I had available were either example names from the book or a few I had picked up watching Anime. Conversations like these happened more often than was comfortable:
Player: “So which Hanzo is this again? The scorpion or the Lion one?”
GM: “Lion”
Player: “Wait, this girl’s also called Aiko? What is that, the third one?”
GM (desperate): “It’s a very common name”

Related to this, in a Burning Wheel game set in a scandinavia-inspired setting, we had the following names: Thyra, Tarben and Tarval. Sure, they were all related, but one would think that their parents would be a little more creative.
As you can tell, similar names are easily as problematic as poorly chosen names.

There are many solutions to this kind of problem. I tend to keep a list of names for settings to throw out when I need them. Random name generators also work really well, both to produce the names or to provide inspiration.

One trick I tend to use, especially with strange cultures, is to pick a theme for the names. One orc sub-culture in my campaign was very closely related to the earth in terms of abilities and practices. So I fired up the old wikipedia and started looking for obscure geological terms. Tweak them a little and suddenly your culture has a very distinct identity. These orcs had names like Arenisca, Löss, Andesite, Copal and Esker.
Similarly, the elves in that setting had themes to their names as well. In keeping with their highly hierarchical culture, noble elves had a litany of names, tracing their ancestry back to the first empress. A longer list was considered to be more important and those who married into a family often merely had their own name and that of the first Empress. The only downside was that it was a pain to write.

As you can see, there are many ways to deal with names in RPGs and choosing the right one is very important. As a last piece of advice, and this one’s directed mostly at player character names, make sure you think of potential nicknames or shortened names before you pick a name.
Nothing ruins a character’s credibility faster than introducing yourself as “Suzushiro Aoi” and having everyone refer to you as “Suzy” or introducing yourself as “Theldran Whiteoak of the Mirkwood” and having everyone refer to you as “elf”.

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