In preparing my online Dwimmermount campaign, I was reminded of something I missed about so many of my campaigns of old: "silly" names. Now, by "silly," I don't necessarily mean absurd or ludicrous names, like Groucho or Sneezy, although names like that are among those I seek to praise in this post. Perhaps a better word is "inappropriate," although even that isn't quite right.
You see, I have this strange notion that a character's name is important. All characters should have names, even in old school games with a high mortality rate. Naming one's character is one of the things that separates even combat-intensive RPGs from wargames, which is why I'm insistent on every character's having one. I also feel a character's one is one of the few things a player can freely give to his character without having to take into account dice rolls, game mechanics, or any other external factors. Like parents naming their child, a player's choice of name for his character is a statement and I think it's almost always better if that statement can be made without any strings attached.
That's why I don't hand out a list of "acceptable" names to my players or vet their choice of name, even if I don't really like it or consider it somehow peculiar. I do this, first, for the reasons I stated in the previous paragraph and, second, because experience has taught me that "silly" names generally resolve themselves over time. Characters with purely joke names don't last long, because their players tend not to care even minimally about them. They make foolish mistakes and engage in self-destructive actions and, before long, Zippo the Fire Mage is no more.
Of course, that doesn't always happen, especially a character with a silly name somehow manages to survive in spite of it all. In such cases, the player starts to treat them as something more than a random collection of stats and, once in that state of mind, they start to think differently about the character. That's one of the parts of gaming that really intrigues me: the moment when a character is "born" from a collection of random game statistics. Many characters never truly come alive, but enough do that I enjoy watching it happen.
What I have noticed is that, once it does happen, the player of such a character starts to attempt to rationalize everything about his character, so that it "makes sense." If the character has a genuinely silly name, the player will try to rationalize that too, claiming it's a nickname or nom de guerre or creating a backstory to explain it. I never insist on such things to start, since there are no guarantees in my games and characters might well not live long enough to justify such effort, but neither do I discourage them. My feeling is that characters are made in many different ways and some of the best ones I've ever encountered came into being weeks or months after their first appearance, once they'd had a chance to get a few adventures under their belts and become more than just Fighting Man #6 or The Thief.
Rationalizing silly names is made easier if the referee keeps his campaign setting only as detailed as it needs to be for play. Too much detail means that players must conform their characters to the world from the start and, except in very specific circumstances, that's not something that interests me anymore. I'd much rather give a wide berth to my players and then worry about fitting their characters into a grand scheme later, if ever. Besides, one of the joys of old school refereeing is rolling with the punches and making things up on the fly. Finding ways to incorporate silly names into a campaign setting is pretty small beans, when you think about it, and, much like rolling randomly for many things, silly names can sometimes be a good way to shake a referee out of a rut, encouraging him to think differently, even whimsically, about his game. That's always a good thing.
I may be biased, of course, since several characters from my old campaigns had silly names that, over time, ceased to be silly as the character survived and developed beyond being a collection of numbers on a sheet of paper. Likewise, I know all too well my predisposition toward stolid seriousness. Silly names are good medicine for my soul and help remind me that I'm just playing a game. The point is to have fun, after all, and if one of my players has fun by calling his character's henchman Justin Case, who am I to argue? Indeed, why would I even want to argue? Looking at the earliest RPG campaigns like Blackmoor and Greyhawk, silly names were pretty much par for the course. Silly names don't necessarily imply silly campaigns and, even then, so what? I think we could all use a lot more silliness in our lives.
And so I salute the memories of Morgan Just(ice), Hercles, Ogla O'Dell, Ichabod Duck, Theinberger the Thief and his brother Weinberger, Dalastie Dave, and countless others I have forgotten. My gaming was all the better for the existence of these characters.