This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Problem: Ridiculous PC Names
In a nutshell, my problem is that my players are about as serious as Weird Al. They make up silly names (what kind of name for an elf is Octagon?) and pay more attention to their jokes than to the rolls. Got any tips to nip this problem?
-- Kids Menart, from AskWizards.com
Umm, is this a problem?
That depends on your point of view. It sounds as if you and the players have different ideas of what the campaign is supposed to be. I get that. Years ago, I ran a campaign and felt that the players weren't taking it as seriously as I wanted them to. Especially bothersome was the one younger player who I allowed to play a minotaur (I had statted them out as a PC-playable 2nd Edition AD&D race) who was always eating things and chewing on bones and so on (the character, not the player). It was aggravating and frustrating, as I was trying to run a campaign with politics and cleverness and culture and blah blah blah …
We've all heard the story before, and many of us have lived it. It's a familiar song -- I made this great world, and my players just want to goof around. The only way to resolve this is to talk directly to the players, and find out what each other's motivation for gaming is. If most of the players around the table just want to hang out and joke and use the game as a touchstone for movie quotes and one-liners, then ask yourself whether this is the gaming group that fits you. If you have just one or two chuckleheads and most of the people want a serious game, talk about the issue of fit there.
Most likely, you have players who just like to play, and they aren't married to a single style of gaming. They joke around because it's fun for them and because they don't see your level of irritation about it. Sure, they should be more considerate, and they should take some responsibility for noticing your feelings and preferences and act accordingly, but relationships aren't always that easy. Sometimes you need to confront a problem directly. In this case, have a group meeting, talk about your vision of the world, and maybe provide lists of alternatives. If culture and naming is important to you, design lists of sample names from which players could either choose or at least draw their inspiration. The Player's Handbook already does this, and so does the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting. You can do the same for your campaign world.
Your players have taken liberty because you have given it to them. Since you provided no clear direction, they followed whatever path seemed amusing to them in naming their characters. Maybe they had their own reasons for doing it. Maybe they liked heavy metal musi,c so they named their bard Yngwie J. Malmsteen or Blackie Lawless. Maybe their PC is named after a favorite TV character or actor or athlete or world leader. A Babylon 5 fan might name his noble cavalier Londo Molari of the House Molari. Maybe your dwarven druid is named Boubacar Au just because you liked the name when you were watching a basketball game years ago.
A player can have all kinds of reasons behind a character's name, and you need to remember that key fact -- these are their characters, not yours. Naming the character is part of the process of identifying with it and developing an affinity and affection for it.
Just because it is ultimately the player's choice doesn't preclude you as DM from making suggestions and even encouraging players to follow a naming scheme that grounds them in the campaign world.
You may find that players are actually eager for such direction and inspiration, that they may really enjoy tying their characters more directly to the campaign world, much as they might really enjoy playing a Radiant Servant of Pelor in Greyhawk or a Purple Dragon Knight in Forgotten Realms as a prestige class, rather than a generic "Sun Priest" or "Noble Knight" character. If you want to make your world unique and integral and rich, then don't pussy-foot around with it. Be bold. Declare that in your campaign world, elvish names are structured this way -- if you're going to be an elf, use one of these or come up with something that has a similar sound or feel.
Ask characters to choose first names and family names, and show them how to connect them to their place of origin. Sure, your character might have a nickname of "Weird Al," and that might even be what the other PCs call him for short, but when he has to appear before the magistrate to explain why the party burned down some rich villain's house or try wooing the princess or signing a contract with the merchant who is paying the party to go on a mission, "Weird Al" suddenly becomes Shirin Alkindar of the Free City of Kurbanguli. Or he'd better, if he doesn't want to get laughed out of the room by every NPC in the joint. It also makes the player think about why his character is called "Weird Al." Do the locals think that everyone from Kurbanguli is weird? Do they have an unusual appearance, or religion, or accent, or style of dress? Or is "Weird Al" weird among the Kurbanguli? Is he an outcast or renegade against the ways of his people -- he's weird because he's not like other Kurbanguli, and he goes by Al because he despises the name that his parents cursed him with in the debauched Kurbanguli tongue. All of these are opportunities for a player to simultaneously tie a character to the campaign world and also explore a little more deeply who the character is. Even a seemingly glib, silly choice like Weird Al can take on a much more interesting layer of meaning.
If you'd like a bit more help in this area, check these online resources:
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About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.