Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dungeoncraft #5: Campaign Naming conventions

Ray takes a bit of a break for day 5 and explores naming conventions. I should warn you up front; this article is extremely opinion-based, and my opinion doesn't necessarily coincide with Ray's in all cases; some things he feels strongly about I'm indifferent too. In addition, Ray seems to have missed (or maybe they weren't available at the time) a number of resources that I consider to be indispensible. Nevertheless, there's a lot of good advice, and at some point, campaign naming conventions probably need to be considered. With that, let's dive in and have a quick look at them.

First of all, you need to decide how important naming conventions are to your campaign. D&D, as most know, originated essentially more as a wargame than a roleplaying game, and roleplaying elements were relatively gradually added on until it more resembled a storytelling mechanism than a game per se in many regards. Many campaigns still keep fairly close to these old roots (although I doubt many campaigns of which the authors are interested in these articles.) If your campaign is more about popping underground to slay some monsters and level up, then there's nothing really wrong with having characters with names like "Evil D" or "Squeeky" or "Spongebob." If that's true, then little of the advice given here is likely to be of much importance to you, so you can probably skip this article entirely. However, in other games, in which highly dramatic story moments culminate in the campaigns dastardly villain making a speech to Spongebob, the atmosphere and feel of the campaign is ruined. For these kinds of games, having good names is important. Exactly what a good name is debatable - Ray makes several "bad" examples that are actually a good deal better than names that have survived for decades in D&D "canon." I couldn't take seriously a campaign that featured Blibdoolpoolp in any way shape or form, for example. Here's some specific advice:

Never append adjectives to your character names. This is generally good advice. Cuthbert the Brave as a character is just a bit silly. Cuthbert the All-Powerful is even worse. I have yet to see an adjective that I thought sounded "cool" in the least. In real life, an adjective should probably only be appended after the fact as the character's exploits enter into legend, if at all. Ray's advice to GMs who have players who do this; handle it in game. Have NPCs mock the character, or worse, challenge him to live up to his handle. Of course, you could just rule up front not to allow it. Another related syndrome, which I personally find just as bad, is the use of kennings as names. Kennings are similar to adjectives, but are combined from two words jammed together. Unfortunately, this process is very entrenched in D&D, including in official products and novels and the like. A character with the last name Battlehammer, for instance, or a city named Waterdeep; to me they sound absolutely silly (although they work better for locations than for people, at least.) It's just a slightly fancier way of applying an adjective to a name, or worse, using an adjective for a name. Some of these are downright bad; a rogue with the name Lucien Stickyfingers is just asking for the local authorities to clap him in irons.

Some better advice is to borrow an existing language. In past years, I long ago decided that picking up an Old English, Welsh, Gaelic, and Norse dictionary was a great way to get words handy that sounded authentic, yet appropriate for a fantasy campaign. In addition to using words from dictionaries, its relatively easy to find sources of actual names. Years ago, I discovered a site called http://www.kabalarians.com which I recommended at ENWorld. I've since seen it pop up relatively quickly anytime anyone asks for advice on names; it's truly a remarkable site with thousands of names sorted by culture. The advantage to using something like this is you get a "resonance" for your cultures. If one kingdom all has names picked from the Armenian category, for instance, while another has names picked from the Old Norse section, they will sound different and the obvious kinship of names from one area vs. the other will be apparent. Unfortunately, kabalarians has recently switched to a membership format, so it will cost you $15 a year to browse their list of names. However, a search for names by culture on Google will give you plenty of hits. There's also a book, The Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon which does the same thing, and is handier than web browsing during a play session. Sadly the book was out of print for many years and used copies seemed to go for a pretty steep amount if Amazon is any guide. This has very recently changed, though, and my latest search of Amazon suggest that it was recently revised and re-issued, and now is not hard to find at very cheap prices. This resource is highly recommended.

Another good point Ray makes is not to be afraid of English names! Especially if you want a "Medieval" feel, a lot of names that are still in circulation were very popular during the English Middle Ages. Obviously, you don't want names like Blane or something that's a trendy name, but something like William, John, Robert; those names are scattered throughout stories like Robin Hood, Ivanhoe and the like. Also, a lot of names sound good as just English descriptive names. The Black Sea, for example, or the White Mountains, sound just as good as anything exotic, and the descriptions inherent in the names could be used as adventure hooks. Keep in mind, that if you throw constant exotic names at the players, they will likely get them confused and muddled. Exotic names are great for building that exotic fantasy feel, but they need to be used in moderation.

Ray goes on to name several other sources of names, but I can summarize the rest of them a little more quickly. Basically, he makes the very good point that you can rip names off from fiction or history or what have you when you find them. Just be careful not to use names that are too familiar; if you have inkeepers named Frodo or Gandalf or Darth Vader, you'll find it difficult to get your players to take the campaign seriously. The phonebook is a good source of names as well, and features more "exotic" and useful (for our purposes) names than you might initially think. Another resource that Ray missed is the collection of name generator tools available. Some of them even allow you to create custom language paramaters, that generate names that sound like they come from the same language, but are different than anything you'll have heard before. Others focus on more traditional-like names. Keep in mind, you may have to generate quite a few to find the real gems in such a process, but I've found these to be very useful tools. I've got at least three such programs on my hard drive, and I use all three from time to time.

Another method I've read (in the book mentioned up above) is to create a chart with syllables in it and numbers on the top and side edges. If you have a chart 12x12 in size, you can roll 2d12 and pull up a random syllable. Combine these together to create names that also tend to have a "family resemblance." The last method I've used from time to time is even more straightforward: pick about a dozen or so letters from the alphabet (works better if you use relatively common letters -- r,s,t,a,e, etc. are much better than using x,q, or z) and create a simple chart that converts these letters into another letter or cluster of two or three letters. Then, take existing names and plug them into the formula. As an example; say I use the following chart:

* a => ei
* d => r
* h => '
* s => z

as an ultrasimplified example, would change my own name Joshua Dyal into Joz'uei Ryeil. Not half bad. Run a few more names through the same process, and you'll probably find a few that look pretty good. You may need to clean some of them up a little bit, but in general, I've had good results with this as well.

An important point is that you need to work with your characters to develop their names. I personally am a big fan of having the first session, or part of the first session, be a character generation session, where everyone sits down together and plans and generates their characters. This is the time to specify any guidelines for names, or veto any characters named "Batman" or "Debbie Dallasdoer" or whatever other bad names you may end up getting. In my experience, bad names rarely come from players who are just trying to be funny (although that does occasionally happen) they come from characters who consider making up names very difficult and don't get any guidance from the GM on how to do it and make names be appropriate. If you don't want the "chargen" session, you can accomplish the same thing by prescribing character creation guidelines via e-mail to your group (you'll probably do that anyway) and include naming guidelines in there as well.

Now, I've already gone through the naming process of most of the details of my campaign setting I've come up with so far, including naming the homebase area, the kingdom in which it resides, the ruler of the area, and several other things in my campaign. The main cultural influence over much of my campaign is the Terassan Empire, for which I use Catalan and Occitan and other more obscure Romance languages for my names. These sound vaguely Spanish or Italian, but not quite (which makes sense because Catalan and Occitan are related to Spanish and Italian) so they're just a little exotic, but not so much that they're difficult.

For the northern, or Balshatoi cultures, I use slavic and norse namelists: Russian and Viking, in particular. Baal Ngirsi tribesman and urbanites both speak Infernal, and for that I'm using namelists from extinct Middle eastern languages Elamite and Hurrian to represent. The Qizmiri have an Arabian Nights feel to them, so Persian or Arabic names are important.

I've got a few other languages and names here and there scattered throughout Dark•Heritage, but there's no reason to get into too much detail now. Remember Dungeoncraft rule #1!

Next time, we'll take a look at detailing our homebase area and preparing to drawing our first map!

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