Names are an important part of creating a world, so it’s vital that a DM is able to come up with memorable and believable options with barely a moment’s hesitation.
For some people this comes naturally and they’re able to reel off list of NPCs with realistic-sounding names and titles at the drop of a hat. Others need to rely on random lists and clever tricks if they’re to avoid accidentally creating a dread lich named Fred.
There’s more to names that just tossing a few syllables together, however. Decades of fantasy and sci-fi culture have left us with certain expectations of names and if they don’t fit then the players can easily get confused.
For example, if you take a look at the names below you can probably already guess which one is a Dwarf, which one is a Halfling and which one is an Elf.
- Bunblow Waterskip
- Drali Kazthur
- Melendil Fanwaye
As well as racial and cultural influences, names can also convey plenty of information about a character’s personality and role in the story. We expect villains to have certain sounds in their names, particularly harsh and sharp ones, while heroes and allies get softer names.
If you introduced two NPCs to the party named Greythyr and Graxthaz it’s not hard to predict which one they would warm to first, and while it can sometimes it can be fun to subvert the players’ expectations, if you do it too much it can also be a little confusing.
We can use these conventions to make names easier to remember, both for the players and for ourselves. As with many other skills this requires plenty of practice, but there are a few techniques than can help.
Keep a list
It’s amazing how often we have great ideas at the precise moment we can’t do anything about them. There are plenty of examples of this, but the one that matters right now if the fact that great names always seem to crop up when we’re at work, doing the laundry or one of a million other non-DMing tasks.
Fortunately, virtually everybody reading this probably carries a smartphone with them at all times, and that means there’s no barrier to jotting down interesting ideas as soon as they occur to you.
Whipping out your phone every time a new NPC joins the scene may be a little obvious, but an idea shamelessly stolen from Chris Perkins’ excellent The Dungeons Master Experience column is to keep a long list of potential names at the front of your DMing notes. Copy everything you think of into the notebook, and when you use one just cross it off.
One of the most effective ways to create believable fantasy names is to take conventional ones and juggle them around a bit.
A Goblin named Michael Scott may sound silly, but it gets much better if you convert it into Mixael Skritt or Millek Kott. Just a few small changes can keep things sounding setting-appropriate and with a bit of practice you should be able to disguise the name’s origins with ease.
Sometimes this produces slightly weird results so it can be best to use this process for drumming up the more throwaway NPCs and incidental characters – though it can be fun to create a somewhat self-indulgent Bard and ‘voice of a generation’ named Kayne Weist.
If you’re DMing an RPG the odds are good that you’ve good a decent grounding in fantasy media, whether this comes from Tolkien or World of Warcraft, and that means you’ve been exposed to a lot of very strange names.
Of you spend a few minutes thinking about it you can probably reel off a huge list of minor characters, mid-level villains and quest-givers. This gives you a huge database to pull from, and even if you don’t want to pull names directly – a good idea of your players have probably heard them before – you can mix and match forenames and surnames to your heart’s content.