Seven sources for fantasy names

Few things will destroy a player’s suspension of disbelief during a Dungeons & Dragons game more quickly than a poorly-chosen name for a character or location in the fantasy setting. When Atok the Storm Tribesman, Eldrid the Fearless and Kelkryn the Blue Mage seek to question a town guard about kobold activity beyond the city gates and learn the guard’s name is Joe, the anachronism created detracts from the obvious work the players did to create interesting heroes. Of course, players can similarly detract from the setting by giving inappropriate names to their own characters; a grim fantasy campaign featuring Ogthor Trollcrusher, Malinya Celanil and Foofie the Mage has a certain level of silliness, even if Foofie really does mean “eternal woe” in the Elder Tongue, as Foofie’s player suggests.

Whether the dungeon master is trying to create atmosphere by using appropriate-sounding names in adventure design, or if the heroes decide to speak with a random non-player character (NPC) that the DM hasn’t fully detailed, having names that match the setting is an important part of creating a quality role-playing experience.

This post outlines seven resources for dungeon masters – apart from their own imaginations – that can provide suitable names for any fantasy setting.

They  include:

  1.  Computerized name generators. Computer applications that randomly assemble letters and groups of letters into names are very easy to find. The best this writer has yet discovered can be found at Chaotic Shiny, where an overworked DM can find generators for everything from character names to diseases. There are advantages and disadvantages to using generators; the randomized results are helpful for thinking outside one’s normal patterns and spark new creativity, but randomized results can also be useless gibberish.
  2. Atlases and Maps. Trying to create a convincing Oriental setting, and don’t know what to call a hero’s home town? Examining a map of the real-world region you’re trying to emulate and adopt some of the names printed there. Obviously, it is wise to avoid selecting names the players may know, such as Hong Kong or Peking, but other names can provide a sense of place without distracting players. An online atlas you can use can be found here; just click on regions you’d like to see in increasingly greater detail.
  3. History Texts. Related to maps of real-world regions are the respective histories of those regions. Reviewing the history of those regions provides two benefits: gaining a host of names for potential use and learning about the related culture’s customs, values and mythology.
  4. The Bible. The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is filled with archaic names, some of which may be suitable for role-playing games. There is a cautionary note associated with drawing names from Scripture, though: players familiar with the text may be offended by the dungeon master’s use of a given name for a given purpose, or the dungeon master may unknowingly wreck suspension of disbelief for a player who knows a Biblical story associated with a certain name. For example on one of the rare occasions that this writer was able to play instead of being DM, the party encountered an NPC priest named Onan. In the Book of Gensis, Onan was a fellow punished by God for disobedience and spilling his seed upon the ground; Onan’s story has been used as a basis for restrictions on coitus interruptus and masturbation in some Christian denominations, as well as inspiring a well-known Monty Python sketch about “wasting seed.” When I asked the DM where he got the name for Onan the cleric, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “it’s just some name I got from the Bible.” This writer, who was the only Christian at the table, had a difficult time suspending disbelief every time Onan the cleric spoke, particularly when he lectured the party’s barbarian about doing the will of the immortals.
  5. Foreign language texts. If players aren’t familiar with a certain language, the DM can draw names from texts written in other languages. Some sample worksheets in French and Spanish can be viewed here, or simple phrases can be approximately translated by using the babelfish translator.
  6. Telephone directories. While not the most technologically advanced method of locating names, scanning a telephone directory can identify numerous names of clear ethnicity, or surnames that could be used as given names for fantasy characters.
  7. Baby name books and sites. This writer purchased a paperback baby name book a few months before the birth of his son, and the book has since found a permanent place on this writer’s D&D shelf. The book has proven to be an almost inexhaustible list of names from a broad range of cultures, and the meanings presented for some of the names have been helpful tools in role-playing NPCs. These books can be found at virtually any bookstore, but there are dozens of baby name sites on the Internet, such as this BabyNames.com.
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4 comments on “Seven sources for fantasy names

  1. Aaron says:

    I’ve actually been using Google Translator to translate words that symbolize the location into another language. It works great! I’ve also learned that German names are great for Dwarven cities.

    Aaron

    • Alric says:

      Thanks for contributing the Google Translator to the discussion – I didn’t know that one existed. And dwarven/German names sound like they go together well.

  2. Philo Pharynx says:

    Movie credits and Wikipedia for the win.

    Movie credits are often boring. But they have a big list of names. When the movie is shot or produced in a foreign country, you have a lot of ethnic names. I’ve found that this provides more variety than a phone book would – a lot of movie people have very odd names!

    Wikipedia is another source of names from specific cultures. Look up “Japanese olympians” or “Swedish authors” or just about any other category and you’ll find a list of names from those cultures.

    When you’re dealing with a fantasy culture, mix syllables from names of different cultures and this sometimes comes up with an interesting sounding name.

    • Alric says:

      Very clever ideas, Philo. In the campaign I’m currently writing, some of the players actually named their characters by playing Frankenstein with names in the Players’ Handbook playtest credits. Never would have thought of something as original as “Swedish authors” in a month of Sundays, though. Well done.

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