Words have Meaning, Names have Power

Proper names are poetry in the raw.  Like all poetry they are untranslatable.  ~W.H. Auden

Our names are labels, plainly printed on the bottled essence of our past behavior. ~Logan Pearsall Smith

People’s fates are simplified by their names.  ~Elias Canetti

Names are a powerful way to elicit narrative immersion, and my game feels hollow when I forget that.

This may not be news to you, but I often fall into a habit of avoiding naming characters that I create off-the cuff. Crafting good characters takes forethought, simply coming up with good names takes skill, and nothing ruins the potential for a strong player connection with an NPC than a ridiculous name. Lately I’ve been running most of our game via improvisation, which means I am less likely to have a good name on the tip of my tongue, let alone one or two distinguishing characteristics, so I’ve resorted to just not giving them. This is a terrible habit.

(Now 13 seconds of Community used without permission from NBC)

My players recently moved beyond a story arc in which they had developed extensive networks of relationships with various NPCs, and I couldn’t understand why I was suddenly less thrilled about the story. I couldn’t muster up the will to prepare or think about it, whereas I normally wrestle not to think about it. I wondered a little guiltily if my disinterest was caused by explorations of all the other fascinating systems that I can’t help but think could better fit our style of play. But today, after our session, I realized it’s probably in large part because I have failed to name enough characters.

What’s the Big Deal with Names?

I’ve noticed that my players remember characters with names infinitely better (whether pleasantly or unpleasantly) while semi-consciously filtering out non-named characters. Players are able to emotionally attach to a named character, even if their name is the only individual detail they have. Given a name, a character is imbued by the GM with an implied expectation that they may be significant, that they may even be more important than they first appear.

On the other hand, a nameless character can only elicit the attachment or emotion we share with people ‘in general,’ which is to say, vague stereotype-driven feelings and no attachment. It’s just too hard to care about the problems or suffering of people in general. It’s much easier, in comparison, to have feelings one way or another about Felgren, the goblin tinker and junk collector.

To my shame, at the precise moment my players are most deeply entwined and invested in nearing the climax of plots I’ve been weaving together for over two years, I have allowed them to land in a situation where they know only two NPCs with names. They’re hoping to ‘save the plane’ and all that, but it’s all for the sake of faceless rank and file of generic ‘plane-dwellers.’ Even if they win, the victory will feel hollow, and if they lose at all, that loss will feel hollow. “Ok it’s nice that the Sun is back and all that, but I’d really rather have Morgar alive and well, in place of all these nameless thousands.”

I don’t want to cheapen their emotional investment. Furthermore, as Rob Donoghue has explained, I know my my job will be easier and more exciting if I develop a lively stable of supporting actors ever ready to push the action in one direction or another. Naming is the first step in that direction.

Using More Names

Vignettes

Next session, I think I’ll finally try out a vignette flashback (as suggested in DMG2) where the players play a few named NPCs in events leading up to the entrance of their own characters. This will help justify the proper tone of the situation, but also hopefully add some personhood to the faceless masses.

NPC Pregenerated Name List

What’s more, I’ll finally print that NPC name list I have on my computer and keep it handy for naming passing rookie soldiers, let alone the four totally awesome, yet wastefully unnamed, ninja dwarves that my PCs met in a Zen garden last session.

This list of pregenerated names started as the list Chris Perkins posted and uses in his Io’mandra games to create a cast of hundreds of storied characters. I’ve since added names and races as fits the needs of our story (adding Vampires, Shifters, Half-orcs, Genasi, etc and bolstering the other categories and addign some pirate captain names mentioned on Twitter).

Please enjoy and add to my current version of Chris’ list here: NPC Names List

What tricks do you use for giving NPCs good names? Which names have your players most butchered? Most enjoyed? Do you tend to give minor characters names or only important ones? I’d like to hear from you.

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About Adam

I'm a husband, father, explorer of the inexhaustible, and synergy cultivator. Starting with D&D, my explorations into role-playing and game design have brought me to savor mining diverse systems, initially Cortex Plus, then PbtA, ORE, Forged in the Dark, and now anything I can get my hands on.