Whew! If you're still with me after those last three installments, give yourself a little pat on the back. You're halfway to holding your first game session, and a nice big chunk of the hard work is behind you. You should now have a good idea of where your campaign is heading. This month's task, although it requires imagination, isn't as labor intensive as the earlier steps.
Believe it or not, one of the most difficult tasks you face as Dungeon Master is dreaming up cool names for all those places, gods, monsters, and NPCs you create. As superficial as this chore might seem, nothing kills interest in an AD&D game faster than goofy names. The minute your players are attacked by Gargathrank the Unclean, a great deal of the credibility you've carefully fostered flies straight out the window. Don't forget that the players' first impressions of your game world are based, in part, on the names you choose.
Here are a few simple techniques to help you choose the right names easily.
1. Never append adjectives to your character names.
I've listed this suggestion first for a reason. Garrok the Bold, Dobbin the Swift, and Peebold the Wise all sound silly and immediately call to mind "Knights of the Dinner Table" strips. Maybe, somewhere, someone once invented an adjective name that sounded as cool as it was supposed to sound, but-in twenty years of gaming-I've never heard it. The easiest way to avoid cluttering your game with silly adjective names is to rule out the adjectives altogether.
If a player chooses an otherwise okay name with an appended adjective, most of the people he meets in your game world should simply refuse to address him by his self-proclaimed title until the player finally takes the hint and drops the silly thing. It's likely that many NPCs will form a bad impression of such a character. After all, there's something presumptuous and downright arrogant about a young whippersnapper of an adventurer wandering around calling himself "the Strong," "the Brave," or (especially) the "All-Powerful." If the player persists, a little bit of mockery from NPCs or increasingly difficult challenges to prove his right to bear the title should put him in his place. ("So you're Gabel the Tough, eh? Well why don't you show me how tough you are!").
One workable alternative to appending an adjective to your names is appending a noun instead as a sort of surname. Thorvin Backbiter is not a bad name for a Thief, so long as Thorvin is one of those guys who doesn't mind walking around with a name that immediately says, "Hey! I'm a Thief!" If you go this route, aim for an interesting, non-standard noun-"backbiter" instead of "backstabber," "spellshaper" instead of "magic-user," etc.
2. Borrow an existing language.
Remember this number: 400. That's the Dewey Decimal classification number for language. If you go to your local public library and browse around the 430s through about the 490s, you'll find plenty of foreign-language dictionaries, each of which can be strip-mined for good names. Flipping open just about any foreign language dictionary to a random page should either provide you with a number of usable names or at least a nice collections of syllables that you can re-arrange to form usable names. The advantage of this approach is that the names it generates don't sound like a clunky collection of sounds, since words in most languages naturally evolve to please the ear. In fact, it's not a bad idea to fix on one particular language and use it to generate the names of all the places and NPCs in one particular region of your game world. That way, you'll establish a continuity and make your names sound like they were derived from a single, common tongue (because, in fact, they were). Later, you can select other real-world languages to use as the naming blueprints for other regions in your campaign, giving each locale its own individual "feel."
Note that this approach is particularly recommended if you selected a cultural hook for your game world (as described in Dragon Magazine issue #256). If you're building a Viking world, find a Norwegian dictionary. If your world is based on ancient Roman culture, find a Latin dictionary.
3. Don't be afraid to use English names.
For some reason, many people presume that AD&D character and place names should consist of random, nonsensical syllables. What's wrong with good, old-fashioned English names? What sounds better to you-The Knights of Gligathrax, or the Knights of the Blood Throne? Similarly, Jason, Elaine, and Thomas are all perfectly good character names.
You can also form interesting names by combining a couple of descriptive English words. Tanglewood is not a bad name for a dense, scary forest. A town that lies along a river and was once the site of an important battle might be known as Bloodwater. The local pixie king might be named Skitterfeet. The idea here is to select interesting words and avoid cliches. Orcsmasher, Bigtown, and Meatrender are not good names.
Remember that the names you choose tell your players a lot about your game world. Sticking to English names tends to reinforce a medieval (almost Arthurian) atmosphere. If that's what you're aiming for, then this is probably the naming strategy for you.
4. Mercilessly rip off good names.
This is the age of the super-sized bookstore. Just about every community in America boasts at least one Barnes and Noble, Borders, SuperCrown, or other mammoth bookseller. Typically, these bookstores feature two or three enormous shelves stuffed with science fiction and fantasy paperbacks. Every book on those shelves is likely to contain at least a handful of usable names. A bit of idle flipping through these books is bound to turn up some workable concepts. Similarly, a quick glance through a detailed world atlas or two is likely to conjure a few usable place names. Get in the habit of bringing a notebook along when you go shopping and jot down anything that strikes your fancy. When swiping names, though, never use the names of well-known characters no matter how cool they sound. Naming shopkeepers and town guardsmen Conan or Gandalf not only confuses your players, it usually sounds just as silly as a "random syllable" or "appended adjective" name.
One of the very best secret resources for Dungeon Masters is your local bookseller's children's section. Not only are the children's books stuffed full of great names, they often contain useful, imaginative ideas for entire adventures. In the past, children's books have inspired me to design adventures that take place in giant trees, in the belly of enormous sea creatures, and other unusual and imaginative locales.
One last point to make about swiping names from other sources: If you need a great name for an elf, dwarf, halfling, or other demihuman, consider going directly to J.R.R. Tolkien, unless you have a compelling reason not to do so. Not only did the good Professor derive his names for these creatures from complex invented languages he derived from real ones (thus lending the names that same sense of continuity mentioned in rule number two), just about every Dungeon Master who has preceded you ripped off his elf and dwarf names from Tolkien. Thus, Tolkienesque elf and dwarf names sound "correct" to many AD&D players.
This isn't to say that you should take your names directly from Tolkien's works-often, your best bet is to pull a few syllables from a collection of three or four names and rearrange them to form a new name.
5. When all else fails, turn to the local phone book.
If you don't have immediate access to a foreign language dictionary or a Barnes and Noble, you can often glean useful names from your local phone book. Open to a random page and take a look at the surnames. To illustrate, I've just opened the Seattle Metro White Pages to page 401. Glancing through the columns, I can see a couple of usable character names (Finzer, Fiori, Fiscus) and a couple of decent place names (Firnburg and Firth). Obviously, those in large cities can employ this tactic to greater effect than rural-dwellers.
6. Work with the players to name their characters.
All the hard work that you put into keeping silly names out of your game world can be destroyed by a couple of unimaginative players. It seems that every group has at least one or two jokers who want to name their characters Soupy, or Bullwinkle, or even ... (shudder) ... Kramer. Usually, these folks are just trying to be funny, but sometimes they're just terribly unimaginative. In any case, you should be aware that as minor as this issue sounds, such names can wreak havoc on your campaign. The first time a particularly fun and dramatic moment arises and you must address one of your players as Bullwinkle, you'll see what I mean. Don't be afraid to rule out any names that have the potential to trample the tone of your campaign. If your players are having difficulty inventing usable names, try suggesting some of the techniques outlined in this column. You might even suggest some names yourself. In any case, you don't want to go overboard. In the end, the players should have the right to select their own names, just so long as they don't select something unworkable.
With these strategies in mind, I've attached a few names to some of the places and concepts in my own campaign. Since I want to reinforce a sort of "Robin Hood" atmosphere (to go along with the general concept of a "forest world"), I'm going to try to stick to English names as much as possible.
From Issue #256:
Stronghold, base of operations: Ironoak.
Woods surrounding the stronghold, secretly dominated by treants: Tanglewood.
Woods dominated by orc tribes that lie beyond the border protected by Ironoak: The Black Wood. (This is where the warden's title comes from.)
Warden of the Black Wood: Richard (For characters, I'd like to go with a combination of appropriate real world names and more traditional fantasy names-the same approach George Lucas chose in Star Wars.)
Feudal monarchy that maintains the stronghold: Umbria (The name of an actual geographical location in Great Britain.)
From Issue #257:
Nature goddess, also doubles as the name of the planet: Aris. (A homonym of Eris, the ancient Greek goddess of discord; I merely liked the way the name sounded and reworked it for my own purposes.) The moon: Selene. (The name of the ancient Greek goddess of the moon; I'm hoping this name will resonate with the players and remind them of the moon every time they hear it.)
The evil religious order: simply, the Legion.
The good order: the Children of Aris, or simply "the Children." Priests of the order often place the title "Childe" before their names.
The druidic order: Why not call them "Druids"?
Now that you've attached names to some of the most important people, places,
and concepts in your campaign world, it's time to perform an important task
that will prepare you for some of the work ahead. If you've been following the
Second Rule of Dungeoncraft, each time you invented a significant detail about
your world, you created a secret related to that detail. It's now time to write
each of those secrets on a three-by-five index card for future reference. Later
we will use this "deck of secrets" to help us flesh out the campaign
area and design adventures. That should do it for now. Join me next month, when
I'll look at designing the campaign's base of operations