Communicating Setting Details Via Names

A discussion came up the other day on social media, which evolved into a discussion of the use of names in roleplaying games. This triggered all kinds of ideas in me about how names are used in the context of stories, and the purpose that names serve.
I’ve got a lot of thoughts, but all of this is tilted towards using names in RPGs. I hope I don’t do a disservice to the overall much more interesting and nuanced concept of names and their cultural importance, which is way outside the scope of what I could even begin to touch on.
Communication About An NPC
Even more so than in a novel or a movie, when you give a name to an NPC, it will often communicate something about the utility and purpose of that NPC. One advantage that long-form storytelling has versus short term storytelling is that you have time to play against type–if a name doesn’t suit a character, part of their character arc can be displaying that truth. Unfortunately, when you don’t control the entire narrative (such as how the PCs react to the NPC), you have a much more limited range of reactions when assigning a name to an NPC.
An NPCs name is a quick, symbolic “tag” that you give to that character. It’s not entirely unlike the costume a superhero or villain wears in a comic book.
Using comedic names define the character as comedic first and foremost. Most NPCs are not going to be enough of a fixture of a campaign to play against type long enough to eventually be taken seriously. I think it’s also worth noting that an NPC with a serious name that the PCs give a mocking nickname to isn’t the same as the GM assigning a comedic name, and if the GM wants the NPCs to eventually be taken seriously, it’s important not to adopt the player’s nickname when referring to the NPC.
On the other end of the spectrum, giving a character that “acts” comedic a “serious” name, and having that character eventually show a more faceted personality can work better than fighting against a comedic name paired with a comedic introduction.
When the “box” says “comedy inside,” it’s hard to go back later and say, “comedy and other stuff inside.”
Comedic Caveats
If you plan on playing a name for laughs, make sure you check for any cultural significance to that name. It may “sound funny” to you because you haven’t encountered it before, but the last thing you want to do is to end up ridiculing a culture because you aren’t familiar with it. It’s easy enough to Google a word and see if it comes up in the vernacular of another culture.
Names as World Building
Some naming conventions that are present in established settings help to convey a story about that setting. Using Dungeons and Dragons as an example, we have the following:
  • Dwarves (in 2e Dwarves Deep, and rarely followed up on by other designers) name themselves as “X, child of Y, child of Z, of house A,” but only if they trust or want to impress the person they are talking to, otherwise introducing themselves as “X, of the dwarves” as an insult
  • Dragons in the Forgotten Realms take on longer and more complex names as they age and become more important–until they get to be really ancient, at which point, their names often become very short due to their fame speaking for itself (for example, Klauth)
  • Kender in the Dragonlance setting often have “deed-names” not unlike dwarves in many fantasy settings, but the deeds, in general, tend to me more light-hearted or exploratory in nature
  • Gnomes in Dragonlance have long, complicated names that are generally condensed from one particular syllable within the longer name

Naming NPCs versus PCs
In general, I don’t put too much pressure on players to name their characters “the right way” for a setting. Player characters are the purview of the player, and unless a name is wildly out of place, I would rather not assert any control over the creative process. That having been said, what happens if a player adopts a comedic naming convention, but doesn’t want to be saddled with that as their only character concept.
Unlike NPCs, PCs are the protagonists. They get more screen time. Their name may say something about them, but the impetus to “code” an NPCs with what purpose they serve in the campaign is much stronger than the same drive for a PC. PCs will be driving the campaign the entire time, so, in theory, it should be easier for a PC to play against type, even when starting with a name that signifies something different than the evidence of their actions.
That said, always keep an eye on the group and the potential for other players to start defining characters that aren’t their own. I have definitely been in games where I attempted to make a well-rounded character, that was defined by other players quickly, which made it much harder for me to do what I wanted to do with the character.
Monoculture Monition
It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on the line between a cultural tradition or trend in a fantasy game, and portraying an entire culture as a singular, non-varying monoculture. While it makes for quick, identifiable storytelling, it’s really easy to drift from “all members of this fictional species act this way” to “this fictional species seems like this real-world culture, and I’m presenting them as all having the same traits.” Don’t fall into that trap.

What Has A Home In the Setting

Using “real world” names that have a recurring theme may start to say something about a setting, which you may want to be aware of in case you don’t mean to communicate what you think you are communicating. For example, if you start using German names for everyone in a region, you might be conveying that cultural elements of Germany from a specific point in time are true, even if you don’t actually mean to do so.
In general, the more obscure the name, the more you are implying that the origin of that obscure word is an intentional statement. Victor is less of a statement than Sigmund, which is less of a statement than Ludgera.
Titles can also fall into this territory. Broader terms for royalty or nobility are often used because of unexamined Eurocentric bias, but digging really deep into a particular style of noble forms of address, like using Ritter instead of knight, say a very specific thing about the setting.
Zooming Out and Zooming Forward
In a setting like Star Trek, it makes sense to have a wide range of names for the humans on board a starship or at a star base. In the Expanse, there is diversity in naming conventions, but it is along a constrained band related to the history of the setting—what cultures have moved where in the solar system is part of the story conveyed by the names.
It may be even more important to keep in mind what names are saying when you start using names in science fiction settings, because if you aren’t careful, you may end up stating that some people aren’t present in the future you are portraying.

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