Rethinking Naming Schemes
As we continue our Rethinking series, we're rethinking naming schemes and how to use them effectively in your games.
There are various schemes that I've used over the years, and I wanted to share some of them with you to serve as a catalyst for creativity as you prep for your session while also giving a structure for repeating success in the future. If you find it useful, yay! If you don't, that's fine: there is no one way to design names for your campaign.
I. How Do We Name Things?
Typically there are two systems that people use for naming things in roleplay games: they use existing languages to provide the basis of a culture's language, or they go by sound, picking the names of persons/places that "just sound right."
Neither of these are wrong, but they do get old over time, and both have flaws. For those of us who are not linguists who have deeply studied a given language, finding the right name (and then learning how to pronounce it correctly, and then teaching it to our players) can be hard and discouraging. More than that, what happens if you don't have a good store of names for a given culture (I don't know a lot of Zulu/African names, for example, though the tone and sound of African languages is unique and gripping and thus can fit some cultures really well).
Similarly the issue with "finding something that sounds right" is that it can lead to creative logjams. What if you can't find the right word? And what happens if your players have trouble remembering them because they don't have a familiarity with the sounds of that language?
The result is that you'll have creative spurts with naming new characters, places, etc. where your interest and energy at the moment dictates how much you can get done. Toward this end, I recommend a few additional naming schemes you can use to free up your mind by embracing style over syntax.
II. Naming Schemes for Your Games
Before presenting various systems we have used, a quick note on an assumption I am making that I'd be remiss if I did not say: it is a good idea to have a naming scheme. Part of what builds the immersive atmosphere of the game is if names in a given culture sound like they were created in a single culture. So know that this post assumes that 1) naming schemes for your cultures are good, and 2) you should use it for your cultures.
As we mentioned above, you can use these two schemes for naming: I still use those two methods for some of my cultures, landmarks, regions, etc. But if you're in a rut, I recommend the following approach: use the high concept of the character, town, etc. to guide its name creation. A few examples are helpful.
Let's say I'm building a clan of Vikings. Instead of looking up words in a Norwegian, Danish, or Icelandic dictionary (which I've done for Kyrie and Wild Men cultures), I can simply take the concept of the character and use that to assist in naming them by slowly changing letters in a word to form a name.
So for example, let's say that we have a raider who uses an axe and shield, and he's your everyday raider for this clan. I look at a few words that describe him: "axe" and "shield." So I start with the word "Axe" and decide that I'll use this to form the basis of his first name. So I work in order to sound out what I want this language to sound like. I decide I like the "A" and the "X" sounds together, so I keep those two, and then I go in order of the alphabet to change the "E." I land on "L" as it feels correct, and I have the first name: "Axl." I could also add additional letters if I wanted, but I won't here becaue I like the sound so far.
I then move on to the last name, which starts as "Shield." I decide that I like the "S" at the start, but I change out the "H" for a "K" (Skield). I then decide that I like the "O" sound more than the "IE" sound, and so I just cut out the "IE" and replace it with "O" (Skold). That looks about right, so I just change the sound of the "S" to "Sh" and we have our final result: "Axl Skold" (with the last word pronounced "Sh-cold"). And by merely looking at it I think, "Oh okay - he's my axe and shield guy."
The players are still in the dark: they just meet a cool Viking named Axl Skold. But to you it's a cue: you know immediately who this guy is, and helps you get in character. Now of course, if you know Scandinavian languages, they may also give you cues (the name "Jaeger" means "hunter," for example, so it might cue you in to who he is).
Another scheme is one I learned from the TV show Zoom when I was a kid (yes, I just dated myself): the Ubbie Dubbie language. It's very simple to speak: simply put "ub" in front of every vowel sound (so if two vowels are connected you only put the "ub" in front of the first vowel) and say the words. So "Hi friends" would become "Hubi frubiends."
This language tends to work best with languages that involve a lot of lip movement or where you are looking for a gutteral, throaty sound. So, as an example, let's say I'm building a troll clan (as trolls have large throats and thick lips), and I need a name for the leader. I look at the word, "King," and I say, "Hm, Kubing," and discover that it doesn't sound correct. So I look at the word, "Lord," and say aloud, "Hm, Lubord," and discover that also doesn't work. Same with the title, "Chief."
Then I come to the word, "Czar" and I say aloud, "Czubar," which I shorten to "Zubar," and suddenly I have a name. And by simply remembering my scheme, I remember who he is: he's the czar of this clan.
Do you see what this does? To the unknowing adventurer it's just a name, but to you it's a cue, making it easier to remember what they do, who they are, and/or what they are like. And that makes game mastering a lot easier.
Using names that are cues as to their high concepts rather than just a meaning in another languages has immense value for a game master. While yes, you can hide meanings in words from other languages (Jaeger for a hunter, for example), there's a greater value in quickly being able to recall names, remember what an NPC does, and how they would act in a given situation. So I have found this system for naming very useful for me in my games, and I hope it helps you as well.
Until next time,