What’s in a name?

August 2, 2009

One thing I’ll be doing in the Tag’s Folly game is giving all the imported stuff new names.  This goes for NPCs, items, and all the way down to character races.  Why would I do this?

1.  Names draw players’ attention.

Compare the interactions with a nameless NPC with one that has a name.  If there’s “a blacksmith”, players sit down and say “what does he sell?” and the whole interaction becomes essentially an exercise in checking things off a shopping list.  If he’s “Ol’ Grott, the blacksmith” players are more likely to come into the scene in-character – saying “Hey Grott!  Whatcha got for us today?” or whatever is appropriate to their character.  They still get their shopping done, but there’s a character they’ve interacted with, and that matters.

Here’s another good example from roleplayingtips.com

2.  Names affect our ideas about the fiction.

Some people, when hearing the word “tiefling”, think “what’s a tiefling?” Other people think “cool, half-demons” and other people think “oh, man, I played a wicked Tiefling.  I hope this game has Bael Turath in it, because my last Tiefling was trying to figure out the secret history and I never got to finish that, and maybe in this campaign I can get the party interested in that stuff and we can go to the ruins of Bael Turath.”

See the problem?  It’s not that the first is “wrong” the second “right”, and the third “kind of nuts” – that’s not true at all, nor are any of those responses problematic in and of themselves.

The problem is that the three assumptions are very different, and more importantly, those assumptions are unlikely to be directly communicated by the players.  The table is a busy place!  We don’t have time to talk about the details we’ve internalized over the years – we are there to play.  So we don’t talk about these, and sometimes that means we’re not really imagining the same thing as the other players… THAT’s the problem.

3.  Names convey the setting.

In the real world, names and words convey cultural details, and for game worlds to seem real they need to have a parallel kind of continuity.  For example, you wouldn’t expect someone named Fatima Hussein to be the sister of a Jack Smith.  They have different last names (A great discussion of playing to or against type can be found in Play Unsafe).

Even more than that, words are crucial to how we see the world; in fact, when we think about ancient cultures as having different worldviews, we often look to the words we import from other languages, like pariah, harem, schadenfreud, skald, boomerang, and so on.

What does this mean for Ryan’s campaign?

Well, for one thing, it means that I’ll be introducing some partially familiar things with new names.  That might be a bit more work, but it makes the game experience much more enjoyable (especially for me, and a happy GM gets a lot more done than an unhappy one).

The importance of names also means character names will be chosen off a big-ol’ list (sorted by character background) instead of just made up out of the air.  Want to play Bob the sorcerer?  Sorry, chaps – that’s a name for another campaign.

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2 Responses to “What’s in a name?”

  1. filbolg Says:

    Just a thought about the ol’groat thing.

    If you dont actually plan on making or letting ol’ groat be more than a glorifed merchant/occassional quest giver, aren’t you essentially indulging in the illussion per say. If the PC’s talk or not to groat , unless your willing to make it matter, isn’t it just another intersection of 10 foot corridoors where it doesn’t really matter what you do.

    Not trying to get you down, but tips like most things need to be situated i think to be helpful. So give her hell, and let’s make the next random NPC that you name groat the campeign villain or something awesome like that.

  2. stoughton Says:

    I’m definitely not saying that you should bog down the players in random minutiae. If there’s no reason for the characters, making them talk to Grott the Blacksmith on the way to Tivus the Baker and Jako the old man who sits outside the trade shop is the same kind of mindless tedium as playing a whole game setting up camp in the wilderness. Bad idea.

    But as I imagined the situation the players are interacting with Grott because Grott has something they want. This time, that might just be Grott’s shop as a resource for players to use, but if that resource is really interactive, and can change over time, then giving Grott a name will matter.

    So I see this Grott character as a possible touchstone. If the players shrug and walk by, then whatever. But if the players are entertained by his frequent snorts and the way he talks about the pimply neighbourhood kids, it will mean that much more to them when they find the Anvil of Equine Cunning and can set Grott up as their first-class farrier.

    And then they’ll be REALLY mad when someone kidnaps the poor old guy.


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