This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.
If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT. The heroes have embarked on a quest to retrieve Fathomreaver, a cutlass with the power to unite the Sea Kings of Iomandra under one banner. However, time is of the essence, for the cutlass is also hunted by their arch-nemesis—a merciless, one-eyed dragonborn warlord named Vantajar.
This mythic weapon was last seen in the hands of Sea King Draeken Malios, whose ship was lost in the Battle of the Roiling Cauldron nearly a century ago. Somehow the cutlass found its way into the Elemental Chaos. In last week’s game, the heroes set sail for the Demonmaw Sargasso and were drawn down into a deadly vortex. They survived the descent, and their ship came to rest on an ocean of jagged ice in the Elemental Chaos near several other vessels trapped in the frigid wasteland, including a ship made of black glass and another made of stone.
Not long after their arrival, the heroes came face-to-face with the captains of these stranded vessels: a fire-haired azer named Captain Zarance; a stormsoul genasi named Captain Ferrik Spark; a stone-skinned half-giant named Shrador; a water archon called Worlus; and a frost-bearded dwarf named Parcilla Shatterbone.
“Oh, frabjous day!” my players cried. “Five new NPCs to add to the ever-growing cast of thousands!”
One of my frequent readers, Matthias Schäfer, sent an email to firstname.lastname@example.org asking why I give my NPCs weird names like “Draeken Malios” and “Vantajar” instead of more pronounceable ones taken from English, such as “Hammersmith” and “Clearwater.” He’s also curious how I make my players remember such odd names so that they don’t end up calling them “the dead Sea King” or “that dragonborn dude.”
First, you all need to know that I have a problem: I like concocting weird names. It’s a favorite exercise of mine, and one that drives me to create entire lists of names that I keep in binders for handy reference, so that if I ever need a name on the spot, I have scores of them to choose from. (And once I choose a name from the list, I strike it off so that I don’t end up reapplying it to another NPC down the road.) It’s one of the best DM tricks in the world, because it gives my players the impression that I’ve named every NPC in the campaign (which, I suppose, I have).
No John Smiths
There’s a reason why you’ll never encounter an NPC named “John Smith” in my campaign. I find that common English names rip players out of their fantasy world. Even “Jonah Hammersmith” treads a little too close to reality for my tastes. However, I have no problem with “Jaxar Hammersmith” as a dwarf name. In fact, I think I’ll add that one to my ever-growing list.
When I set out to build the cultures of my campaign world, I decided to apply certain naming conventions to each race. The tieflings in my campaign are refugees from a fallen empire, so I decided to derive their names from Roman and Greek cultures (e.g., Decimeth, Hacari, Prismeus, Syken). They also have names more akin to those presented in the Player’s Handbook tiefling race entry (e.g., Suffer, Sunshine, Thorn, Tyranny), although these names are usually self-chosen monikers.
Dragonborn names tend to come from Egyptian and Middle Eastern cultures (e.g., Araj, Fayal, Kaphira, Nazir) or sound like names one might ascribe to dragons (e.g., Drax, Nagarax, Rhesk).
I tend to give elves and eladrin lyrical, multisyllabic names, which is fairly stereotypical (e.g., Ariandar, Lorifir, Talonien).
Dwarves tend to have simple first names with hard or earthy consonants (e.g., Glint, Halzar, Korlag) or names culled from Polish and Hungarian name generators (e.g., Gyuri, Ferko, Szilard), and they usually have compound last names comprised of two common yet emblematic words smashed together (e.g., Ambershard, Ironvein, Stonecairn).
Halfling names are simple and playful (e.g., Corby, Happy, Rabbit, Ziza), and their last names tend to include some thematic tie to nature or water (e.g., Blackwater, Skiprock, Yellowcrane).
The gnomes in my campaign, though few in number, have cornered the market on silly first names or names tied thematically to magic (e.g., Donkeywheel, Dweomer, Smidgeon, Sparkle).
My human names are all over the map. I tend to go for names that sound like seldom used real-world names (e.g., Arando, Caven, Fenton, Mirabel, Remora) and last names with roots in western European cultures (e.g., Caskajaro, Moonridge, Ratley, Van Hyden), or names built around nautical terms (e.g., Coldshore, Keel, Sandershoal). The trick is coming up with names that sound human but seem grounded in a world of fantasy, not reality.
In my campaign, a name is used to evoke a certain mood or fortify the image I have in mind when I envision the NPC. It’s trite, but evil NPCs tend to have evil-sounding names unless I’m deliberately playing against type or trying to mislead the players. “Lhorzo Zalagmar” and “Azrol Tharn” are two dwarf villains in my campaign. The combination of certain letters and sounds (in these specific examples, the letter “z” coupled with the “ar” sound) gives these names an indescribable harshness or sleaziness. “Talia Winterleaf,” “Alathar Balefrost,” and “Arromar Sunshadow” are elf villains; here I use specific words such as “winter,” “balefrost,” and “shadow” to help reinforce their sinister role in the campaign. Sometimes it’s a combination of words that really sells the name: Case in point, the Wednesday night group recently ran afoul of a warforged villain named “Ironsmile.” And on occasion, I’ll surprise my players with a lighter name and apply it to a villainous character, as happened with a minor gnome villain and bard named “Clef Wimbly.”
I don’t go out of my way to burn the names of NPCs into the minds of my players. They will remember the ones that are memorable, and they’ll forget the ones that are forgettable. If the NPC appears frequently or has a decidedly memorable quirk or manner of speaking, my players have a much easier time remembering the name. However, I don’t sweat it. My campaign includes thousands of NPCs. There’s no way my players can remember them all. If “Azrol Tharn” is remembered as “the dwarf vampire who turns into a puddle of oil,” I’m cool with that. If all else fails, the players can usually count on Curt Gould (the group’s record-keeper) to surf his campaign notes and remind them if and when it becomes important.
I try not to shove names down my players’ throats, because it usually comes across as forced and too often leads to mockery. For example, I would never have my villain announce, “Kneel before me, for I am the pirate warlord Vantajar, scourge of the Dragon Sea!” That’s a little too much camp for my tastes. Better to have an NPC’s name remain a mystery until the players express an interest in learning it, for they’ll be more inclined to remember it afterward. (Would “Voldemort” have been half as memorable, unless it should not be said?)
I must admit, my players have created a private game around trying to guess how I spell the names of my NPCs. The first time a name is mentioned, they take cracks at trying to spell it, anticipating the presence of a silent “h” or the use of “zh” instead of a “j”. How many different ways do my players spell and pronounce the names “Zaibon Krinvazh” or “Zaidi Arychosa”? More than one, let me tell you, and that’s okay. As far as I’m concerned, such names add realism to the world by virtue of the fact that they are strangely built and difficult to pronounce. I know plenty of real-world people whose names are equally challenging (try pronouncing “Jon Schindehette” or “Bill Slavicsek” correctly, I dare you). Fortunately, my players have the benefit of hearing me say the names, so they’re not just reading letters off a page.
The first several pages of my campaign binder contain lists of random names, organized by race. Down the right-hand side of the page are blank spaces where I can either add new names or record notes concerning the names I’ve used. For example:
Human First Names
Human Last Names
||Arando Corynnar – Knight of Ardyn
||Cale Blackstrand – Warden Drax’s spy
Where do I get my names, you ask? I’ve trained my wee brain to devise new names on a whim, but when I’m stuck or looking to flesh out my list, I turn to several readily available sources.
The Internet. Need some good names to populate the inhabitants of your dwarf stronghold? Try doing a Google search on “Hungarian names.” Need names for that rampaging clan of goliaths lairing in the mountains? Try searching for “Hawaiian names” or “Native American names.” The Internet is full of baby name lists, pet name lists, and other lists. If you can’t find the perfect name on such a list, take two names and smash them together to create something new.
Movies. Every movie in the past 20 years has a scrolling list of end credits filled with great names. Plop yourself down in front of your laptop or bigscreen TV with a notebook, skip to the credits at the end of your DVD copy of Hellboy or The Return of the King, and make note of some of the cool fantasy-sounding names that appear. You’ll be surprised how many good ones you’ll find, particularly if the movie was filmed on different continents.
RPG supplements. Campaign-focused books such as the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide and the Eberron Campaign Guide are strewn with names that can be repurposed for home campaigns. I can flip to any page in either of these two books and find an invented word that would make a great NPC name.
Real names. Take a real name and tweak a few letters to create something new. “Chris Perkins” becomes “Carysto Perek.” “John Smith” becomes “Joran Snythe.” You get the idea.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Poll 07/07/2011 Results:
What is your favorite time-traveling movie?
Back to the Future: 28.5%
- Terminator: 14.0%
- Twelve Monkeys: 13.1%
- Time Bandits: 11.2%
- Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: 11.2%
- Star Trek (2009 film): 7.1%
- Donnie Darko: 5.8%
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: 4.0%
- Primer: 2.8%
- Hot Tub Time Machine: 2.4%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 07/14/2011
Speaking of names -- how do you pronounce "Drizzt"?
And speaking of Drizzt -- how do you pronounce "drow"?
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.