One of the huge problems I see most often, both in players and Dungeon Masters, is naming things. Everything else comes easily, you’ve got a character or an idea and it all comes flooding out, and then you’re left staring at this blank space on the page labeled “name.”
So, I’m going to share some of what works for me when it comes to naming things, and hopefully it will find its way to the hands of someone for whom it will be useful.
Let’s begin with characters!
The first step to never having a problem naming a character again starts before you get to the gaming table. You’ll see this advice all over the place, but it is good advice, so I’m going to tell you again: when you see a name you love, write it down. Keep a list. It doesn’t matter how many names you have on that list, keep adding more as you find them.
Names can come from all over the place. You can find them talking to people, looking at baby name websites, reading census data, looking at some of the older headstones in cemeteries or even from TV shows and books you like. Although, if you’re planning on stealing a name from a show or book series and it’s fairly unique, you may want to make sure your group doesn’t know or doesn’t care. On one hand, it’s D&D and no one is going to rib you too hard for naming your character after a minor noble in Game of Thrones or something. On the other hand, though, there’s only one Drizzt, and you might find yourself on the receiving end of a Vicious Mockery by your party members if you try to usurp him.
Another method you can use, particularly if you didn’t have the foresight to make a list in the first place, is to look around you at the objects in the area and play with some of the letters. One of my good friends and fellow tabletop enthusiasts, Shannon, is particularly skilled at this, so I’ll use him as an example. He once named his kobold monk after the Crown Royal bag that was sitting on the table in front of him, and all he had to do was replace the ‘o’ in Royal with an ‘e’ to make Reyal — a beautiful name that doesn’t sound at all like the source he took it from.
Raistlin and Caramon from the Dragonlance series were named based on the words “wasting man” and “caring man.” There are other regular word sources you can draw from, too. For example, the names of herbs and flowers often make beautiful names for characters. I’m willing to bet you know someone in real life named Lily, Rose or Holly, but you don’t have to go that modern if you don’t want to. Katniss from The Hunger Games was named after a fairly obscure root plant, for example.
The best part about this approach is that it is completely believable for a couple in a fantasy setting to name their children after some of the herbs and spices they work with every day. It’s why there are so many floral names that people still use for their daughters in the present. Alder, Ash or Thorn would all be lovely names for boys, and you need look no farther than your own backyard to find them.
You could also name your character after some kind of guiding attribute. In Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, it was a cultural style for nobles to name their children after qualities they wanted those children to have. Of course there were some normal sounding names like “Faith” and “Grace,” but also stranger names like “Regal” and “Celerity.” It sounds a little strange at first, but this is fantasy; eventually whatever you choose will simply be your character’s name, and it won’t sound odd at all.
Something else you want to consider as a dungeon master are how many characters you have in your game and what their names are. You don’t want to have a John and a Jack in the same place unless they’re particularly interchangeable; stagger the first letters of the names of your NPCs, the numbers of syllables in those names and the general feel and cadence to them.
Aside from individual characters, you’ll also want to consider names for factions and organizations of people. Thieves guilds, orders of knights, covens of mages, all of these things probably have names beyond just being called what they are. Often in the middle of a game of D&D we don’t delve into things like this. It’s not necessary, not really, compared to keeping the action flowing, and yet it is another one of those little things that can really spice up your game and make your world feel more real.
Consider who is in the faction and who is in charge of it. What would they call it, from an in-world perspective? Are they arrogant enough to name their group after themselves? Would they name it after someone else? For example, in a game I’m planning presently, the city guard is operated from the inside by a noble family whose sigil is an owl. A flock of owls is called a “parliament,” so the guard is often referred to as “the Parliament” by locals to reflect that.
Consider what this faction is there to do, what purpose they serve. Are they a gang of people trying to gain respect and acceptance for themselves? Think about the names of real-life gangs and how those came about. Consider what group the faction is comprised of. A syndicate whose member base is over 90% tiefling might go with something demonic or fiery. Are they in search of more knowledge and arcane secrets? Something scholarly would be appropriate; perhaps they could refer to themselves as a library instead of a brotherhood.
My fiancé has an order of half-orc paladins who were all born and raised for the mutual protection of the humans and orcs in their area. They are specifically trained to bring out the best parts their bloodlines bring to them and serve to keep the peace between their peoples and keep them safe from outsiders as well. He calls them “The Bastard Army.”
Considering the naming conventions of the various cultures in your game setting can really help you flesh out your world. Some seriously interesting stories can come from digging a little bit deeper to find names for your factions and characters. Names can be so much more than a series of interesting sounds strung together — but they don’t have to be.
You probably want to steer clear of names that are excessively difficult to pronounce, or resign yourself to your character having a nickname. Something with multiple apostrophes and a few x’s is probably not going to go over well. My current D&D party has trouble with “Nicophel” and he’s been stuck with the name “Niko” since level 5. Remember that with an interesting enough character attached to it, even a plain sounding name can stand on its own.
Find a name you love and wear it with pride. The most important thing is that you like it. Keep using it. Say it over and over until the party starts using it too. Whatever your personal style, you’ll find a way to make it work.