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Worlds of Design: What's in a Name?

Character names and where we might get them from are today’s topics. This is important insofar as we don't want to delay the start of the actual adventure because someone is trying to think of a name!

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

A book often referred to among the founding works of American science fiction is named after the principle character: Ralph 124C 41+ (by Hugo Gernsback). Wikipedia says there's a reason (outside of the novel) for the name, but most of us would probably agree that the name is awful. Most of us have also heard of parents giving a child such an awful name that we think, "they shouldn't be parents if they're willing to inflict that upon another person!" Sometimes even simple names take on extra meaning from living people: “Michael Jordan” for example, or “Cam Newton,” often from sports celebrities, or presidents, or kings and queens.

Why does a player in an RPG choose a particular name for their character? It can be an anagram, pun, or homage like the original characters created for early editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Or it may be a snap decision, because to many players, the name isn't important.

Some people agonize over names. A way to make character generation as quick and painless as possible is to provide tables of appropriate-sounding names. I’ve written my own random name generators and you can too, with some research into their origins. Many of these names have accompanying backstories, so I’ll give examples of how I used them in my games.

The Easy Names

There’s obviously the list of ordinary names, which you can get from any baby name list like “Eleanor” (which is at least a medieval-sounding name) or “Fred.” If you don’t have a name off the top of your head, you can create a nickname and flesh the character out later. As an example, I’ve created “The Man with no Name” (who wore a poncho - sometimes referred to as Clint), “Muscles” (later Eradan - 18 strength), and “Wiz the Elf” (later given a more appropriate name). They can also be rhymes, like “Smiter the Fighter” or “Billbash the Rash.” Billbash was the same character who, at second level, horse-charged an old D&D balrog … and survived.

Myths & Legends

Legends are a common source of names, some more popular than others. We’ve likely heard of “Galahad” (a paladin, of course, drawn from Arthurian legend) but there’s plenty of names to be mined from the Matter of Britain, the Matter of France, and the Matter of Rome. The Matter of Britain is the body of Medieval literature and legendary material associated with Great Britain and Brittany, and the legendary kings and heroes associated with it, particularly King Arthur. The Matter of France includes names like “Rinaldo” or “Rinaldo,” “Charlemagne” from the Carolingian Cycle and the chanson de geste (song of heroic deeds). The Matter of Rome which includes material derived from or inspired by classical mythology features “Alexander the Great,” and “Julius Caesar.” (And includes the Matter of Troy, such as The Iliad and The Aeneid). Given that the names have been often translated into English, there’s also the many variants to consider: “Arthur” is likely derived from “Artorius,” but there are many other root words it has in common like “Artri” and “Artgur.”

There are plenty of names from mythology and religion; some are now so common to be popular usage (“Thor”) while others are less well-known, like “Freya” and “Azrael” (the Angel of Death). Fiction is a common source; the less popular the fiction the more likely the name will not be recognized. Tolkien’s corpus is most commonly cited, like “Glorfindel” (a Tolkien hero) and “Elendil” (a Ranger), but there’s also “Donblas”, a god from Moorcock’s works, and the entirety of Dante’s Divine Comedy to choose from.

Other Inspiration

A little more obscure but no less interesting are asterisms and other astronomical words. You could name a character after a constellation, like “Ophiuchus” or “Orion” (Wiz the Elf’s later name), or after a star like “Sirius.” You can also use place names and geography, like “Bognor Regis,” from an English town, and “Barclodiad y Gawres.” It turns out the latter is a burial chamber on the southern coast of Anglesey in Wales; I didn't know it meant "a giantess' apronful" until writing this article!

Speaking of word roots, you can translate a word representing your character into another language using Google Translate. I used “Yilderim,” the Turkish word for “lightning,” for my 18 Dexterity dwarf.

When in Doubt…

Finally, you can just ask the Internet for help. Check out Fantasy name generators. Names for all your fantasy characters. for links to many names. Or simpler, Fantasy Name Generator and donjon; Fantasy Name Generator

When choosing a PC's name, it’s important to consider what you want to accomplish. You may not take the character very seriously because you suspect they’ll be dead soon, or don’t plan to play for very long, in which case a simple name is probably all you need. Or you may want a name that tells a backstory and work hard to fit it into the game’s lore.

Where problems arise is when the player’s choice doesn’t fit with the group’s overall; there’s always the one guy who doesn’t put much thought into a name that seems out of place--I'm thinking of YOU, "Fred”!

My questions to readers: Have you ever refused a PC's name because it clashes with your setting?
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

My first charachters ever, way back in 81 where Wandalf the wizard and Gojack the thief. I just took pop culture charachters and changed the first leter of thier names. I was 6 so i dont feel to bad about it.
 

Ulfgeir

Adventurer
Never stopped a character's name. I did groan a bit for the "name" of the character one player had in Daring Comics rpg. A militant radical feminist with superstrength and invulnerability who set out to literally crush the patriarchy (and anyone who stood in her way). She was called "Fist Girl" due to the fact she really enjoyed beating people up. Superhero/villain monikers do tend to be rather silly. It does come with the territory, so if it had been any other type of game then it would have been a hard no. And yes, that character took the stereotypes and ramped them up to 11.

I have once had a character whose name did clash a bit with the setting. In Pathfinder 1e (the Kingmaker campaign), the rest of the group (at least the humans) had names that were semi-slavic in nature if I recall correctly. I played a Sylph gunslinger (who had an elven mother), and thus a bit more elven name. But that her name stood out was
 

jasper

Rotten DM
No I have reject a name due to setting. But I have butchered many a name. You are showing off that you took 4 years of Arabic and currently a translator. FIne. You name is still going to Rami I BE IZod. And don't get me started on people who write out their pc name in a foreign language. I have trouble just with the monsters name.
 

I have a player who dithers forever on coming up with a name. In one campaign, it took him something like six sessions before he finally named his elven wizard; the rest of us had started calling him "Wizard-Pants" as a placeholder and sure enough the nickname stuck pretty hard - he was called that much more often than his real name, throughout the rest of the entire cmapaign.

I've never rejected a name but instead I tend to lean into the ridiculousness. In the first 3.5 campaign I ever ran with my current group, I had a player decide his human cleric of Kord was going to be named "Cal Trop," so I gave him a brother, Trip Trop (a goat herder) and a sister Von Trop (a bard, well-versed in the sound of music). Then I stuck his Photoshopped head onto the images I'd created for his siblings.

Johnathan
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
Have any name you want. I do have a friend couple who always base there characters on movie and tv characters and even use the name. I feel like that lacks imagination but that's personal and if that is the character they want, then that is fine. I pull out the pun names rarely but one of my favorite was my Starfinder android Colonel Pan!c. Because the table is all IT people like me, we had a little chortle.
 

Ulfgeir

Adventurer
I pull out the pun names rarely but one of my favorite was my Starfinder android Colonel Pan!c. Because the table is all IT people like me, we had a little chortle.

Did he have a commanding officer named General Failure who tried to read his disks? :)
 


For me, there are really two things that gel a character for me - the way they speak and their name. As a DM, I've never told a player that they can't use a name. If they want to make it a joke, or not fit in with the world, my game is generally flexible enough to handle that. If A Song of Ice and Fire can become a cultural landmark with Daenerys, Arya, Tormund, Ned, and Robert, my little campaign will be okay.
 

aco175

Hero
Probably like most people early on I used simple names like Orf the Dwarf- after the plastic figure Melf the Elf. I later came up with more normal names modeled after old names like mentioned above. I went through another stage where I tried to make names have meaning tied to the player, again like above. Now I mostly use them with BBEGs like Morlok and Balbane. I never went and used common names for PCs, like Bob the Fighter, but NPC they are fine. Lately I have been using nicknames since I started going to conventions again with my son. Something like Stabby Daggers for the urchin thief. I do not even have a formal name if it ever came up.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
When I see something that sounds like a good name I write it down. A few examples, with sources:

Cantelow of Funthill – Jacobean wizard
Grongar the Barbarian – C18 poem Grongar Hill
Lurdan – lazy stupid person. Middle English
Nab the Stifler – to be hanged C19. Dictionary of Slang
Peregrinus Proteus – C2 philosopher
Roaring Meg – several C17 cannons
Rollipoke – coarse hempen cloth. Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic Words
Sammodithu – a greeting. Halliwell
Thrum - waste thread, temper. Scots dialect
Verminous Trismegistus – mythical magician Hermes Trismegistus
 

BOB is the forever HAHAHAHAH funny name or when you just cant think of a character name. But I had a player in a Star Wars game when he was trying to come up with a name for his Wookie that wasn't Chewbaca he says "I dont know, Bob...Bobbaca"!
 




MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
The only character I can remember from Junior High/High School OD&D/1e AD&D was "Ped", for my gray elvan druid. Stupid name but my favorite character. Not sure where I got the name, I think because it was the latin root for "foot", which just makes is seem dumber now... Thanks to Tolkien uber-fans, I never have an issue coming up with good names for elves and dwarves in my games.

Beside Dwarves and Elves, I'll use campaign-specific name lists if they exist. E.g., for humans, I use the name lists from the Lost Lands: The Borderlands" book for my Lost Lands: Rappan Athuk game. For Orcs I use the Orsimer naming system from the Elder Scrolls games (e.g. Skyrim). For goblinoid I use Klingon, except that goblins who are in thrall to Hobgoblins use Klingon translations of disparaging descriptions or insults, usually simple and often used generally without much thought given to a goblin's individual identity. For independent goblins, the chieftans and soldiers have self-important names whereas those lower in goblin society are given insulting names. For For other human and humanoid groups I use various human languages that capture my sense of the fantasy culture (to my American, English-speaking ears). For Dragons I use Dovahzul from Skyrim.
 


Stormdale

Explorer
One of my players always uses musicians and band names mixed together or swapped round. They have always ended up being fun pcs. Stand outs for me have been Mancini the 90 year old absent minded wizard, and my favourite a paladin called Brother Righteous who definitely grew into his name.

My players always choose interesting, appropriate names. Been years since I've seen Bob the fighter (who when died would be quickly replaced via the simple expedient of changing Bob to Bob II)

I always loved the pc names in old adventures, eg Fonkin in G1 and X the Mystic (in I1?) and for a long time early module pc names were an inspiration.

Stormdale
 


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