Friday, October 9, 2009

The "Secret" of Naming

Quite a few people have praised the names I use in my Dwimmermount campaign and I thank you all for the compliment. When it comes to names, though, the truth is that I'm a thief, albeit one who's (semi-)good at hiding my sources. The biggest influences over me in terms of how I build fantasy settings are an unlikely pair: Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien. As a kid, I read and re-read both Howard's "The Hyborian Age" essay and the appendices at the back of The Return of the King (and the Silmarillion, come to think of it). Together, they provided me with the basic tools I've used for the last 30 years when it comes to naming people, places, and things in my RPG campaigns.

What's intriguing is that, in both cases, the author looked to the real world for his models. Tolkien did so in a far more scholarly way than did Howard, but both avoided inventing purely nonsensical names without any basis in human history or culture, which is why I think both the worlds of the Hyborian and Third Ages both have a reality to them that's often lacking in many literary fantasy worlds. That is, they feel grounded in something other than pure whimsy and that makes them seem familiar even when they're completely unreal. The nations of the Hyborian Age, for example, recall plenty of nations from human history, but the correspondence isn't one-to-one, making it difficult to say that, for example, "Aquilonia = Rome," even if Aquilonia has a lot of clearly Roman cultural characteristics. Likewise, Tolkien's use of real world languages, such as Old English, as the basis for his fantasy languages gives them a similar air of reality that sets them above the faux languages of most fantasy.

So when I want to create new names for my fantasy campaigns, I always look to the real world and then start twisting it, preferably in several ways. This helps me to obscure the ultimate origins of my names and, sometimes anyway, gives them a bit more depth. The name Turms Termax is a good instance of what I'm talking about. Turms is the Etruscan name for the Greek god Hermes. It sounds similar enough to "Hermes" so as to bring it to mind without being obvious. "Termax" is derived from the phrase "ter maximus," which is the Latin epithet meaning "thrice great." Placed side by side Turms Termax just sounded right to my ears, with its alliteration and short syllables. That it sounded like a name Clark Ashton Smith might have come up with for one of his Hyperborean or Zothiquean tales only made me like all the more.

Most of the names I use in Dwimmermount were created in a similar fashion and, as I said, people seem to respond well to them. Much as I like very alien fantasies, experience has taught me that most people have an atavistic attachment to certain archetypes and those archetypes are often associated with names or parts of names (or even just sounds). I prefer, when possible, to harness those associations, because it's much more difficult to create new associations of that sort. That's not to say it can't be done, but it takes a lot of time and effort and, these days anyway, I'd much rather avoid getting bogged down by world building beyond what's immediately needed for the adventures I'm running. I know that's an unfashionable approach nowadays. What can I say? It works for me and my players and, in the end, they're the only audience that matters.


  1. They are great names, James. I use a similar method. Names like Graglsnyg just rub me wrong. One of my favorite recent NPC names: 'Herro Selasie'. A bit over the top, but memorable.

  2. Yep! I do pretty much the same thing. I tend to use historical name lists off the internet, as well as name generators based on historical name list data. In the past, when I've had fantasy settings, I've specifically said "OK, this culture gets their names from these lists, and this culture gets their names from those lists."

    I also use babelfish translator engines off the 'net to generate new names by loosely translating phrases or words.

    For example, my Burning Wheel adventures that I ran for a year had elves with names that were all taken from Polynesian culture name lists or phrases that I then ran through Hawaii'ian translator engines. (The adventures were set in a 'Baltic coast' kind of area where all the PCs came from a Danelaw sort of culture -- the Elves were all impervious to heat and cold in the environment, and they all looked like big, gorgeous Polynesians wandering around in various states of tropical dress, because they knew it made them look hot. Having non-Aryan-wet-dream Elves was rather interesting, I thought -- the various Hawaii'ian names were real sounding and exotic, and hard for the players to pronounce. Just the right touch.)

  3. I've said this a number of times over at Dragonsfoot and in emails to other grogs, but the one secondary aspect of 1E materials - specifically of Gygax's - that I've never liked are the names GG used. Most are nigh unpronounceable, and all pretty much lack any kind of poetry or power. His love for anagramming the names of friends really detracted from some otherwise almost perfect materials.

    Also, as noted in the blog post, most of GG's names lack that verisimilitude of meaning and history. I'm sure lots of folks will disagree with me, but fantasy naming is very tough. There are few authors who can do it successfully - Tolkien, Williams, a few others.

    It might, in an odd way, be a secondary reason Greyhawk never really appealed to me; the map itself was cool, but most of the place names simply did not evoke anything for me.

  4. I go back and forth about Greyhawk's names. I don't think they're terrible and there's definitely a certain charm to them, but I agree that some of them do detract from my ability to immerse myself fully in the setting.

  5. I like both historically based names and goofy out of nowhere names- like Vance uses in some of the dying Earth.
    I like your method of World Building. I'm involved in my first attempt at a large scale (somewhat) cohearant world right now (it's what led me to 0e actually) and I will likely use very little of it during play. I'm far more likely to just shoot off the map, which makes it a game of discovery for me as well as the plaers.

  6. I'm far more likely to just shoot off the map, which makes it a game of discovery for me as well as the plaers.

    Absolutely. That's something I've discovered as well. I didn't set out to do it this way for this reason, but, as I've played over the last few months, I've found it's a good to ensure that I, even as the referee, remain a player in the game, discovering things as the campaign unfolds. There are already many elements in the game I never expected to become important that nevertheless have, some of them the result of throw-away comments or on-the-fly decisions. It's great.

  7. Names which have a link to our world's history and mythology, no matter how tenuous, create a resonance with the players that make them believe in its fiction more.

    This is part of the "off camera" background minutiae I was talking about earlier with Jeff Talanian at the K&K Alehouse: "Part of my DMing style is spontaneous. I come up with stuff on the spur of the moment, keep track of it all for consistency purposes, and roll with the unexpected just as much as I would with the expected. For spontaneity and improvisation to create the illusion of reality at the game table, I need to make all this background information my own, and "feel" the world as if it were a familiar place. Then, NPCs can come up with remarks that would not otherwise make any sense, or some interactions with the PCs might develop in ways that would not have been otherwise possible, and the whole thing progressively feels vibrant, and alive, to the players."

    "It's similar to the illusion of reality that comes from reading the Lord of the Rings. A character might come up with a song, or a tavern story, a monster might have an old folded flag in his hoard, and these things just hint at a much larger world outside of the PCs' field of vision that lives and breathes without them. The players certainly are unlikely to delve into such minutiae, but the simple fact it's there, in the background, reinforces the make-believe, and generally makes for a better game experience."

    Names with a link to our real world participate in this feeling of familiarity the players share with the game world around them. When done right, it doesn't feel like a pastiche of our world, but instead reinforces the players' capacity to immerse themselves in the make-believe, because it somehow feels more like home and makes sense on a subconscious level. You might not "get" the connection of Aquilonia with the real world, but the name alone evokes a feeling which helps believe in the existence of this fictitious nation.

  8. When it comes to naming conventions I think it's very hit and miss with most RPG's. Gygax was very hit and miss, same goes with Glorantha. I think Greenwood isn't to bad and ofcourse MAR Barker is the master at strange exotic ones. Surprisingly, Hargrave was pretty good himself as well as Stephen Sechi.

  9. I go back and forth about Greyhawk's names. I don't think they're terrible


    Yeah, they were pretty terrible. Not every single person or place name GG came up with was awful ("Mordenkainen" is pretty dang cool), but it strikes me as sickly funny that someone with the imagination to help build this amazing game was just awful at coming up with names.

  10. I agree that James' names are good, but when one accepts the Tolkein/Howard method, one is choosing to run the same risk as Tolkein and Howard vis-a-vis overidentification between a fantasy culture and a real-world historical culture. Thus we get Tolkein's thinly-veiled heroic Celts, Britons and Romans fighting the evil swarthy hordes of Arabs, Huns, and Africans; as for Howard's racial politics, don't get me started.

    Now this is all well and good as long as we keep a sense of humour about the sometimes absurd racism so pervasive in pulp fantasy. But it can get distracting. Take the White Wolf games, for instance, who didn't even try to disguise their name-borrowing: I guess vampires named "Bruja" and "Toreador" sound pretty exotic and mysterious if you don't speak Spanish, but if you do, they sound absurd.

    Personally, I'm split: I've posted here before about how fond I am of whimsical Dickensian/Peakean names in medieval fantasy, but the Howard-style pulp racism thing is also pretty viscerally exciting. As long as you and your players can get behind some 1920s-style unapologetic colonial attitudes toward dark-skinned, spear-chucking cannibal savages and inscrutable, mystical, morally depraved Orientals without losing perspective on what's really going on, then I imagine it could be a lot of fun. Even better, of course, could be intentionally subverting these stereotypes.

  11. Yes, yes, I've been doing the historical-with-a-twist thing like everyone else. I also brainstorm on paper or outloud for "names that sound good".

    More recently, I've been capturing words from captcha and keeping them in a word document!

    My last post was: ellamigh
    This one is ovell

  12. I had thought that "Turms Termax" sounded like a pre-Roman Italic god's name; interesting that it basically is.

    A nitpick: Tolkien didn't base a language on Old English; he just used it straight. Theoden, Edoras, Meduseld: all perfectly good Old English, meaning "prince," "courts," and "meadhall" respectively.

  13. Just furthering John Harper Brinegar's thoughts (and thanks for that nitpick, I had almost forgotten!)--Theoden has lots of epithets, and when he is called "Theoden King," it's a bit of a pun, because he's really being called "King King." All of his ancestors' names also mean "king," with the exception of Eorl, which means, well, Earl. The "*Mark," meanwhile, is almost certainly a reverse formation from the Latin name "Mercia," one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Now, for good or for ill, my Old English is better these days than my Tolkien knowledge. I seem to recall, however, that the only two languages he truly fleshed out were the Elven tongues, one based more or less on Finnish and one based more or less on Welsh? Am I remembering this correctly? I know he mentioned Dwarvish and the Black tongue and things, but I seem to recall they were not much discussed. Anyway, great topic, and have a wonderful day all.

  14. I don't consciously base names on real-world antecedents, but I run any potential names through my mouth a dozen times or so to make sure they "feel" like a name. It's an intuition thing and may be so subjective I'm deluding myself, but it's worked for me. I let non-human (or vastly alien human cultures) name slide a bit towards the hard-to-pronounce sometimes, but I still want it to feel like it has the mouth-qualities (?!) of a proper noun, as it were.

    In addition, I see no problem with real names for human characters, especially archaic or alternative spellings or pronunciations. I find it much easier to believe the humans in a campaign are as human as I am if, at least once in awhile, I run into a "Jerome" or a "Willem" or a "Susannah." Peppering in more unusual names, of course, helps keep it all from sounding like you just cracked open your yearbook and went to copying.

    And, yes, the names you use are very double plus good. Especially "Terms Turmax," that name has stuck in my head since the first time I read a Dwimmermount report, and the more I learn about him to attach to the name, the more enthralled I am by the whole character. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about stealing the name for my own nefarious purposes.

  15. Your method is certainly good and tried, and I've used it as well, but you may be over-looking a very effective method others use- including Gygax. Drawing inspiration from your personal surroundings and experiences. If you can twist and turn names and words in youf every-day, you'd be amazed at what you can come up with. I once knew someone named Emilio which I made into the Arch-mage Enmalius. A girl named Leslie becomes a faeries of note-like Elseli and Lannlessleri. And so forth. And misunderstood song lyrics can also surprise you. Names should never be too forced...

  16. It is funny how Tolkien used names that resonate with the reader as somehow familiar, and in later times, D&D primarily used his work to resonate as familiar with current readers, kind of like one generation passing on its 'culture' onto the next. Tolkien I suspect was the source/inspiration for the name Dwimmermount if I'm not mistaken.
    Speaking of Tolkien, I also have a good theory about the dwarven women debate [bearded?] in Tolkien's work, but I stray from the post...

  17. Interesting article. I was pleasantly surprised to see you include Tolkien and Howard in the same category. In many discussions Grognards seem to want to distance themselves from Tolkien (and perhaps other non-American authors), which always annoyed me since Tolkien was my introduction to Fantasy.

    In the case of Greyhawk, I have to join in and say that the use of names is probably the main reason why I havent made much use of that setting yet. I am considering making an alternate Greyhawk and modifying the names, but keeping the rest though. :)


  18. Naming people, places and things is a tricky endeavor. I use a variety of angles to come up with names, some I want to be Clark Ashton Smith-ian, some I use Glen Cook's Black Company as an example, some are a little bit of foreshadowing (we all know that there are nests of spiders in our valances) and sometimes I go for a Tolkien or Dunsany-esque ring. Then again, there is just taking a name and swirling the letters around to see what the result is.

  19. For the most part, I love Cook's naming style; he takes short, simple words and manages to evoke dread or wonder or grittiness with them, despite their being "mundane." They don't all work, but most do, and they manage to perfectly perpetuate the anachronistically modern feel to a medieval fantasy story.

  20. I always thought Aquilonia was the Aquitaine equivalent. But I haven't read all the Conan stories, by a long chalk.

    Re: Tolkien, the major problem is that readers think crazy things about him. You stick in one back-extrapolated Saxon culture and a few exotics to go against the all-Aryan all-the-time fantasies of your time, and all of a sudden everybody's going all racial politics on you. Similarly, you make a few comments about where your world's religion and worldbuilding fit into your Catholic beliefs, and all of a sudden people are writing whole books about the theological symbolism of a flower you just stuck in because you always rather liked it. You can't win.

  21. Maureen, nah, it's not just the flower, it's the whole world-view and the notion of (D&D) humanoid races being a suitable cannon-fodder for the players. Why not just own up to it and let the kid play a historically accurate plate-mail armored knight slaughtering unarmed and gambeson-wearing screaming peasants trying to swing pitchforks and axes at you? That would be more accurately. Or how about killing fellow humans and elves to advance in rank? Something that GG and JRR couldn't stomach?

    I have not read Ron Howard, but I agree with the encrypted string of numbers dude - JRR was a product of British colonial mindset and he infused it into his writing. It wsn't because Tolkien was British, of course, compare his LTR with the historic novels of Arthur Conan Doyle or Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, it was because JRR was very conservative in his religious and political belief, and had Wagnerian notions about European culture hich were also idealized by Nazis. It doesn't mean that Wagnerian art is necessarily bad or evil only when combined with racist and or colonial ideology. This is not intended as a criticsm of Tolkien either, only that if you aren't aware of it, you keep perpetuating stereotypes. In the final analysis, it is the reflection of the DMs world view on the game that has a greater influence on WHAT is played at the table more so than the game mechanics or Gygax's vision and the stereotypes it may have pepetuated, and anything else in the rules.

    With regards to names. I am bad, I am slow, especially when I have to draw a map and come up with a lot of names in a hurry. I use Gary Gygax's extraordinary book of names to roll up random names for NPCs. With regards to place names, if I hold a map long enough, and mull iover the setting long enough, names tend to imrpove, become more unique and memorable.

    You can do things with living language. Currently I am playing a pit grizzled pit fighter named Tiburon (all ye speaker of Spanish, you got to admit, it's not a bad name for pit fighting dude ;-)). One day Tiburon sat down with the aforementioned vampire named Torreador and drank some Bull's Blood upon some red wine aficionadoes, and had the vampire falling off his chair laughing because he had the hots for a real Bruja.

  22. I'm surprised to see no mention of Hermes Trismegistus (re: Termax)

    Sticking to just language and leaving cultural baggage out of it, I think we've come a long way since JRR and company.

    We now have many nods to Asian, Meso American and Near-Eastern language conventions in our world building.