Tuesday, September 15, 2009

In Praise of "Silly" Names

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.

35 comments:

  1. In the best campaign I ever played (which was mostly serious) nearly all of the characters had jokey names. My character was a bard named Byron; my friend Allen played a dwarf named Stolid; and my friend Andrew played a paladin named Bismarck (leading to an unwritten rule that all paladins and anti-paladins be named after German battleships, thus his arch-enemy Tirpitz.)

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  2. A lot of funny names in my campaign come because of ME....when my players are having a conversation with an NPC, they've learned that asking "What's his name?" could result in any sort of made up on the spot concoction, as sometimes the character is such a throw away I don't care about wasting a good name on him/her. Of course this leads to disaster when sometimes the party in question adopts the NPC as a recurring source of information or makes a point of including them in their adventures. Thus, we have long running NPC characters named Niblet the goblin, Frenchy, Nugget, Chitlin, Chips, Cookie, Latour, Zepplin and Bluto.

    Have you ever consider the effect of B1 on some of the crazy names in D&D? Most of us old timers had that as our first exposure to gaming...surely the names of the NPCs in the back contributed to our tendency to go with a wacky name. Kracky the Hooded One, Grampal, Eggo, Nupo, Sporaggha, Shobaffin, and Laggamundo probably damaged our psyches so much we instinctively try to outmatch them ourselves in our character names...

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  3. I generally frown upon silly names in campaigns—but I don't frown too hard. Coming up with such names is kind of a contest between my friends and I, even if we don't use them. Still, I prefer the more subtle 'silly' names— like Adrienne Olin (or Adren Olin- Adrenoline) or Olliver Sutton or the Ranger named Miles Togeaux or the guy named Drew A. Blank. But some of the guys I know had campaigns with the entire cast composed of silliness: Bo Dacious, Tally Ho, Heidi Ho, Jurrasis Myne, Sir Prize, etc. etc. (wish I could remember more!). Then again, knowing the game master of that campaign, the names were fitting, as it was very free-wheeling and tongue-in-cheek.

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  4. Mike brings up a good point... the classic modules were villed with silly names...

    Fonkin Hoddypeak
    Beek Gwenders of Croodle
    Fnast Dringle
    Keak Breedbate of Nithe
    Darg Blonke
    Ycore Rixle
    Shab Heanling
    Fage the Kexy
    and, of course...

    Philotomy Jurament

    ... are just a few examples, these from the D series alone!

    Though I still generally use real-world cultures for many names in my Greyhawk campaign, I try to keep this obvious Greyhawk tradition alive. One of the ways I used to do this was to save my spam mail in a folder, rather than delete it right away, and every week or so I'd simply write down the names of the "sender" on a list of silly names... now, of course, most of my e-mail providors are much, much better at eliminating spam before it even gets to me. But for some, that might still be a good source of silly names...

    Another interesting thing, at least from a Greyhawk names perspective, is that all but two of those names are for elves or half-elves! Gives a bit of weight to the Rients argument that Gygaxian elves were not necessarily Tolkien elves...

    And, as I'm reminded once again as I'm about to send this reply, the Blogspot Word Verification system is an excellent source for silly names...

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  5. I gave an NPC in our last session of Mutant Future a silly name; Richard Tater, local commander of the Knights of Genetic Purity. This flew right over the players' heads until he said, "Please, just call me Dick."

    Dick Tater.

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  6. How about some Paranoia where
    1. the naming convention almost guaranteed some goofball-ery, and,
    2. you weren't really into the game until yur character had died at least 3 times!

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  7. My group has a fondness for silly names for halflings. We give them faux-British names, like something from Tolkein's nightmare. We had a Fuzzlebottom, a Fizzlehiggins, the Fartooth brothers: Livingston and Lovejoy, and I think we had a 'Fugglebuggle' at one point. Joke names are great, and they're even better when the character behind them is memorable,too.

    Word Verification: daminess: how much of a dame you are.

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  8. I can't imagine roleplaying without silly names. I tend towards the pulpy bombastic name - Rusty Blade, Flute Muldoon, James Mercy, Miguel Manticore, whereas the people I play with often like appalling puns for their names. Or 80s Games Workshop influenced ones that sound like parodies of heavy metal.

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  9. I just started up a new old-school sandbox/dungeon-crawl with some old buddies, most of who haven't role-played(or roll played) in probably 30 years (I haven't GM'd in 7-10 years) and it's been a blast.

    How does this relate to silly names? Here is our band of intrepid adventurers:

    Skeee the Lawful Good Half-Orc Fighter (Decended from his father Skee and his Grandfather Ske)

    Weiser B(it was going to be Bud Weiser but he thought that might be too obvious) the Chaotic Good who was to Chaotic and not enough Good so he is now Chaotic Neutral Dwarven Cleric

    Winstensen the Chaotic Good Human Magic User

    Nimblus the Chaotic Neutral? Elven Thief.

    No deaths yet but some close calls ...

    Word Verif - "pygrem" - The name of my next NPC...;)

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  10. I remember a campaign from the early 80s.
    A couple of guys named their characters "Zenith" and "Quasar."
    So Tom (?, can't recall) named his dwarf "Magnavox".

    For those not born in the 60s/70s, those were all US-made television brands.

    For a 4e game I made an over-the-top snobby as can be eladrin named "Galadaraeren Arenethel." It became a nice joke at the table because often even I couldn't pronounce it; certainly not a few beers into the night.

    I'm quite fond of one of my current characters: Derringer Rollingrock, dwarf, priest of Dumathoin.

    verification: Wistilap. Not a bad choice either. Gnome? Something reptilian? hmmm.

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  11. The DM of my group's current campaign has a talent for creating silly names for his NPCs that lend a unique, Dickens sort of feel to the campaign. Dickens and D&D are an odd fit, to be sure, but names like Elbert Dulworth, Smutty Booth, and Dick Magotty somehow make it all work.

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  12. Sometimes the funny names come from a result of magic items as well. One of the most memorable "funny names" in my campaign came from an Oriental Adventures Campaign. The clan head had one of the unending rice bowls. My players, in their infinite wisdom, renamed the character Uncle Ben.

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  13. Sorry to be a naysayer and party pooper and I'm as up for comedy as the next guy but I really, REALLY, don't like "silly" names in otherwise serious games.

    Slightly humorous sounding names are ok, as even Bilbo Baggins and Data can generate a smile, but a name like Jo-Jo the Wizard takes me out of the atmosphere and setting and makes me want to run or play the game with a comical bent.

    If I'm going to put a lot of work into running a game, I'd kind of like it if my players put some work into naming their character. After all, I've got to name everyone else is the universe.

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  14. Haha,I would looove to know what PC inspired you to post this! I have a few suspects =D

    Word Verification: Cooke (Orcish Coca Cola?)

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  15. "James Mishler said...
    Mike brings up a good point... the classic modules were villed with silly names..."

    Don't forget the classic, "Gleep Wurp the Eyebiter". :)

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  16. Ye-es... very true, but I hope this post has not replaced getting out the start of the Dwimmermount PBP, James... >:)

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  17. A player in my HM:B campaign named his character "Whitemankiller".

    The most disturbing part about this is that it's the actual name of someone he knows. Granted, that person is of Native American descent, but disturbing nonetheless.

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  18. I love the silly names. I played a dwarf once named Dignard (I guess I was inspired by Bucknard's Everfull Purse) and decided that maybe it would be funny to have dwarves use the format for clan names. I'm playing a vaguely Scandinavian dwarf named Skorvild Picknard right now. Mainly I've been watching a lot of Metalocalypse and wanted to throw in some of the references (booze libraries).

    But ... Bricknard, Hacknard, Dignard, Picknard, Blognard, etc. It's become kind of a running gag when I DM.

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  19. We had the clan of Snotrags--honorable halfling thieves every one, except for the black sheep, Edward, who was a cleric. Norman K.P. Snotrags, Edward Quigley Snotrags, Homer Snotrags, and Esmeralda Snotrags. Good times and great memories. Thanks, James.

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  20. I remember a fellow I taught about roleplaying naming his first character "Metallica". I thought it was hilarious that he would do that.

    Then I remembered my own run long before that with the magic user "Fruitpie the Magician"

    I let it go; Metallica didn't live long, but his death was glorious!

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  21. Also saw a Justin Case in a Marvel Superheroes RPG I ran, for what it's worth.

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  22. Ironically, Gary Gygax wrote a book (I think published through Necromancer Games) that was several hundred pages of ... wait for it ... historical (i'm sure you want to read that as hysterical) names.

    My favorite character was named Cas Brandlestix. My friend had some brass candlesticks on his sideboard, and this was the inspiration for my thief's name. Sad.

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  23. Ah, how I miss thee, Grööt Hammerpëcs.

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  24. Nevilondus Froop, Chaotic Evil 3rd level halfling thief. I was a solo "adventurer" who would pose as a lost human child, then backstab/murder my rescuer(s). I was a different person then... well, maybe not so much.

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  25. Having looked at that Gygax "Book of Names" project (although that was mostly Malcom's work on expansions), he did have a 1 or 2 page list of "goofy names" that fit.

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  26. One of the sweeter depictions of D&D in movies/TV comes in the final episode of NBC's Freaks & Geeks, in which James Franco's stoner-dreamboat character joins the geeks for a gaming session playing the daftly (and hilariously) named Carlos the Dwarf.

    This reminded me of so many games from the early 80s: the weird intersection of adolescent nerddom and stoner-metalheads; the ridiculous names (as someone rightly pointed out, those pre-gens from B1 will never be topped); the epiphany of a first-time player realizing how much pure, pulpy fun the game offers. (IIRC, Franco's immersion into D&D was going to be developed more fully in the season 2 of F&G that never was; I may be misremembering though).

    At any rate, I'd rather a hundred absurdly, offhandedly named Carlos the Dwarves than a single belabored and deadly earnest Drizz't Do'uchebag. YMMV.

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  27. I'm not really convinced that these names are all that "silly" compared to the alternatives. I suppose non-"silly" names would be faux-Gaelic Tolkein ripoffs or some other vowel-heavy concoction of nonsense syllables?

    What does one name characters in a magical pseudo-medieval pseudo-England? It seems to me kthat, per Aeschere above, Dickens is a pretty good starting point: his names are sort of English-y, sort of Old World-y, sort of fantastical, and they are probably the best-known example of a universe of names for a large cast of distinct characters in an ongoing, serialized story. His naming style owes a lot to Shakespeare, of course, whose Gobbo and Hotspur and Shylock and Falstaff are pretty clear precursors to Dickens' Chuzzlewit and The Artful Dodger. And his naems aren't really so silly if you've been exposed to old-school English blue-bloods, who have actual real-life names like Pennypacker and Wigglesworth.

    Continuing in this Dickensian tradition and homing in now on fantasy worlds, Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast" books present us with a pseudo-medieval fantasy world peopled by Doctor Prunesquallor, Steerpike, Mr. Flay, Abiatha Swelter, and Nannie Slagg.

    So while I agree that the names are whimsical (in a game, let us remember, about magical elves fighting owl-bears), I actually find the Tolkein-style faux-Gaelic or faux-Germanic or faux-Sanskrit or faux-Gothic names to be in many ways more "silly" than the grand English literary tradition of whimsical Dickensian/Shakespearean/Peakean names.

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  28. "At any rate, I'd rather a hundred absurdly, offhandedly named Carlos the Dwarves than a single belabored and deadly earnest Drizz't Do'uchebag."

    Wow, I see some enormously well-crafted comments here sometimes. I love that one.

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  29. "At any rate, I'd rather a hundred absurdly, offhandedly named Carlos the Dwarves than a single belabored and deadly earnest Drizz't Do'uchebag."

    Wow, I see some enormously well-crafted comments here sometimes. I love that one.

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  30. I find myself in agreement, with one exception. Certain names are not appropriate in a superhero game, for example a name like "Vindication" or "Bloodrazor" in a late silver age/early bronze age campaign.

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  31. Surely I can't be the only one who thinks that 'Zippo the Fire Mage' is an awesome name for a character?

    Word verification: Antsting (the name given to a +1 dagger)

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  32. Ah, where would one of my old AD&D campaigns have been without Horkknob Oglethorp Ballblaster IV.

    Them were the days!

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  33. There's a couple of silly names in my current campaign on the player's side... Terder Caji, Boris Blood and Bridgette (who is a male) all spring to mind! lol

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  34. A few more (from Games I Have Known) for good luck:

    -Fiaz Elbat
    -Greldorn Ceilingbane
    -Bindaer Dundatt, 67th prince in line to the throne of Rogulandalala
    -His father (the bumbling Sultan), Vishahaddana Dundatt
    -His tattletale sister, Yashuddena Dundatt
    -Kronan the Doorbarian (Named after a jailbreak where he ripped his cell door off its hinges and beat six people to death with it)
    -Wizzbang Fizzletom
    -Sparctavius (Call me Sparky!)
    -Kalim Kashtabibi
    -Darby O'Dwarf
    -Lord Driswold Archimedes Rotatingflangecusp deMagratheonimus, the Incredible, Amazing, and Perpetually Astounding! (The exclamation point was part of the spelling. Although technically speaking, he was a pack animal, not a character)

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  35. And of course there is the famous character from Greg Stafford's Sartar campaign that got enshrined in Runequest lore: Naimless

    (Because the player could never decide on a name and the other characters had to call him something).

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