6 Ways You Can Use Names To Enhance Your Campaign – Part I

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0072

  1. Keep Names Consistent
  2. Use Foreign Languages For Names
  3. Consider Surnames Carefully
  4. Reveal Your Campaign World Through Names
  5. Honour Your Players’ Names
  6. Introduce The Name Before The NPC

Readers’ Tips Summarized

  1. Use Binders With Clear Plastic Covers
  2. Thursday A Good Game Day?
  3. 5 Ways To Speed Up Combat
  4. Online Traps Resource
  5. Comments From A Young GM

A Brief Word From Johnn

Early Issue Next Week

Expect Issue #73, 5 Ways You Can Use Names To Enhance Your Campaign, Part II, in your Inbox on Friday this week. A weekend commitment (non-gaming, I’m afraid) will have me tied up, so I thought it would be best to send out the ezine ahead of schedule.

Warm regards,

Johnn Four
[email protected]

6 Ways You Can Use Names To Enhance Your Campaign – Part I

Keep Names Consistent

The number one tip I received from you is to keep names consistent for your world’s regions and cultures. This helps make the races and societies in your game distinct and your campaign immersive.It gives the characters helpful information too. Knowing where an NPC is from, or what society he belongs to, just by learning his name, is a powerful tool that you can use to plant clues, introduce plot hooks, roleplay better, and create a great gaming atmosphere with.

Here are a few tricks for creating a consistent naming convention for your regions and cultures:

  • Use name generation software and assign specific program settings, preferences and/or source files to specific areas of your world.
  • Draw names from the same reference books. For example:
    • Use horticulture/plant name books for elven names
    • Use engineering books for gnomes or hi-tech cultures
    • Use historical viking books for a specific culture
  • Assign foreign language dictionaries to specific areas. See Tip #2 for more information.
  • Create language rules from the outset for a particular culture and stick to them. For example, “3 syllables, lots of hard consonants and no r’s or l’s, not less than 10 letters”.
  • Create naming convention rules for a people or culture. For example, all last names end in ‘ius’.

Use Foreign Languages For Names

The second most popular naming tip I received was to use foreign words for names. This is an excellent idea for a number of reasons:

  • Helps you keep your names sounding consistent.
  • You can translate words to create specific names (great for use as clues or plot hooks).
  • Unlimited supply of pre-made words and easy access to them.

For example, in a game world I created for a recent Rolemaster campaign, I purchased three English translation dictionaries from a used bookstore for $5: Latin, German, and French.

I assigned each dictionary to one of the three main cultures in my world. Then I skimmed each dictionary and made a list of 50 names for each culture for use during games. When the players made their characters, I asked them to pick a culture and handed them the related dictionary for them to choose a PC name from. This worked quite well and I wouldn’t hesitate doing it again.

Here are a few ways to find foreign language reference materials:

  • Translation dictionaries in new or used bookstores.
  • Atlases
  • Library (might even have fully translated books; if so, you can just photocopy a couple of pages and cross words out during play as you use them)
  • Online translators, such as BabelFish: http://world.altavista.com

Consider Surnames Carefully

Last names can be a great tool for your games. You can use them to impart a lot, a little, or no information about your campaign world or NPCs, if you choose.First, ask what criteria last names are based on:

  • Attributes (Strongarm, Quickeye)
  • Skills, career, job (Smith, Cooper, Tailor)
  • Region of origin (O’Silverlake, Duke of Windsor)
  • Ancestors (Caesar)
  • Social class (Cornelius*, ‘the Untouchable’)
  • Reputation (nicknames, street names)
  • Religious beliefs

(* Note: In ancient Roman times, the surname Cornelius meant that the person’s ancestor was a freed slave, thus making them a citizen and a commoner by birth.)

Then, ask why? Why did that society choose to distinguish its individuals by the type of job they did, or who their ancestors were? You might find that the answers add a lot of great details and depth to your cultures.

As a final task, try to pick a different surname basis for each of your cultures. That will help you and your players easily distinguish the cultures of your world.

Feel free to combine methods too. For example, you might choose to name people after their most obvious attribute plus their region of origin. Or, you could have people be given their ancestor’s surname after a certain birthday or after proving their value to the family.

Reveal Your Campaign World Through Names

Use the names of NPCs to reveal more information about your campaign world to the players and their characters. This is a great method because it’s subtle, doesn’t require boring GM monologue descriptions, and encourages roleplaying.For example, the PCs are on a quest to find the Crown of Brahm. On their journey, they meet an NPC whose name is Brahm.

The PCs become excited and start chatting with the NPC. After awhile, the NPC tells how his mother and father named him after the mighty king who saved the land from a great evil hundreds of years ago…The name, in that example, provided a story clue and taught the characters a little bit about the area’s culture at the same time (the fact that the culture names themselves after heroes and legends). The best thing was that it did this in- game, PC to NPC. It encouraged the PCs to talk with a stranger.

And it would make the players much more receptive to the information than if you had just told them about the Legend of Brahm at the beginning of the adventure by reading from a boring old piece of paper.Here are some ideas on revealing campaign world information through names:

  • Legends and lore (famous generals, leaders, heroes)
  • History (ancestors, a profession’s history)
  • Regions (people are named after their region of origin and thus help the PCs learn about the rest of the world)
  • A culture’s values, beliefs or politics (the name Bjorn Bloodaxe might indicate a primitive or militant culture while Elmin Fendar Marus III might indicate a culture that is aristocratic or more sophisticated)
  • Important places (a Garin Spideroak might be able to tell a few interesting tales about insects in his neck of the woods…)
  • Important NPCs (parents might name their children after a modern local hero or popular leader–that would give away some regional information)

One reader wrote this tip:

“I love making campaign worlds and one thing I have done with names of both cities and noble lines is evolve them. I start back in time from game time and figure out what the names were in the past, then I figure out how those names might change over time until I get to the present. This adds a richness to the history in the world. Ancient scraps of parchment with clues have almost familiar noble names, inner circles of old cities have the old names, and ancient forests’ names have hints as to the creatures that used to, and still might, live within them.”

Here’s another tip: have you just designed or detailed a new area in your game world? If so, then advertise it through NPC names. Have a few NPCs show up with something in their names that will spark a conversation or tell the PCs a bit of trivia about the new area.

Honour Your Players’ Names

Naming something in your campaign after a player is a great reward for good roleplaying or great service to your gaming group. It will be a great source of pride to the player every time the name is mentioned during games.The same thing goes for naming something in your game world after a well-played or heroic character.

Perhaps parents start naming their children after the PCs once they’ve saved the land from the evil wizard? Or, maybe a character’s reputation with a thread and needle grows and unscrupulous merchants start to claim their merchandise was made by “Glennan O’Shea, the greatest tailor in the land!”Having themselves or their characters immortalized in your world will be a great thrill for your players.If a player or character name doesn’t really fit into your world, but you want to reward the player somehow, then consider these options:

  • Spell their name backwards
  • Use an anagram of their name
  • Change the spelling of their name

I suppose, if you wanted to taunt a PC or player, you could name swamps, monsters, and game world diseases after them, but that wouldn’t be very sporting. (Just a lot of fun.

Introduce The Name Before The NPC

A good way to make names important in your campaign is to make it a secret rule of yours to always introduce an NPC’s name before meeting that NPC.While this might put a little pressure on you at first during games, it’s actually a great tool for enhancing your GMing. Have you ever played chess or another complex strategy game? A key skill in these games is the ability to think several moves in advance. And, each time your opponent makes a move, you need to recalculate and change plans accordingly.

This is true of GMing as well! If you can think ahead of the current action, you will be more composed, better prepared, and much more confident. And this will translate into a more enjoyable game. So, a great way to learn this skill is to force yourself to introduce an NPC’s name ahead of time.An added bonus to this technique is that, when names show up later as primary NPCs, the players will learn to listen, take notes and pay attention. Names could be important!How do you learn about people without actually meeting them in today’s world?

  • Friends chatting about their friends or acquaintances
  • Family members talking about other people
  • Overheard conversations
  • Read about people in books, newspapers and magazines
  • Hear about people on the radio and TV
  • Urban legends, gossip and rumours

Use these techniques, where applicable, in your campaigns to drop names whenever you can.

Another tip, feel free to hand out a name or names any time the opportunity presents itself. You can always match up a name with an NPC later on.

Tips Request For Issue #75: “Plot Twists”

In issue #69, Max B. treated us to some great plot twist tips. He discussed how GMs could take standard old stories and twist them around to surprise the players and keep stories interesting.

I think that this topic deserves its very own issue. So, do you have any tips, tricks or techniques for twisting plots and for making “old stories” new again?

Send your tips to: [email protected]


(I’m asking for tips for issue #75 because issue #73 will be Part II to the names tips, and #74 will be Part II to the “making travel interesting” tips series that started in issue #71.)

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Use Binders With Clear Plastic Covers

From John T.

I had a minor comment on your DM binder story. I don’t think you mentioned that the 3 ring binders should have clear plastic fronts! That really helps as I use them for speed charts and vital PC info.

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Thursday A Good Game Day?

From Greg S.

I just wanted to tell you how utterly impressed I am with your mailings. I’m a GM with 20+ years of experience and I still get a lot from each issue.Tip for parent players: If you are a parent with small kids and have trouble finding time to play–try 8:00 on Thursday nights. The kids are on their way to bed (or close to it) meaning you avoid “wife wrath”. And if the game runs late, then you still only have to make it through one workday before the weekend. This schedule has held our very busy group together for six months with no sessions cancelled because of conflicts.

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5 Ways To Speed Up Combat

From Jason L.

Here are five tips to speed up combat that have really increased the quality of our gaming sessions:

What the players can do:

  1. During combat, limit conversations to what your character is going to do or use his actions for… The heat of combat is not the time to discuss strategies and battle plans. Beforehand or afterward is fine. Stick closely to the conversation/words per action limit if needed.
  2. When someone’s turn comes up during combat, resist the temptation to offer suggestions or a course of action unless it is critical (even if your comments are out of character). If necessary, the suggestion may come at the cost of their action. Often people have their plans sketched out beforehand and are just waiting for their turn — adding more options will slow things down.

What the GM can do:

  1. Use index cards, a folder or whatever else you need to summarize encounter stats. You should never have to flip through a book to check on this stat or that ability. If you don’t know, or can’t recall an ability, make a spot judgment and keep things going.
  2. Remember that your say is final. If arguments over an ability, skill or spell comes up, make a quick, immediate ruling. After the fact, (preferably after the session), research the issue to see if the rules would have handled things differently. Summarize the differences or rulings in your next session for the players.
  3. Don’t forget about morale or other combat ending events! The characters don’t necessarily have to defeat each and every creature they encounter — sometimes a good beating or impressive martial display warrants a morale check, or instils fear in your opponent. For me, if the combat lasts more than six rounds, and the creatures are getting the short end of the stick, it’s time to consider retreat (or other ways to speed the resolution along).
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Online Traps Resource

From D.J. Lower

Fellow Readers: I myself greatly love the concept of traps. While I hardly ever use traps myself, I think you should see this. It’s a trap page that lets you add traps, rate the traps there, etc. If you want, check out the one my friend Mike and I put up as “Not What You Think” which is currently unrated. http://www.ddream.com/traps/index.html is the URL. Also, ddream.com hosts a few adventure sketches and pre-written plots.


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Comments From A Young GM

From Abdel

I just wanted to mention a few things:I am a fairly young GM and new to the hobby. I have found that we newbies generally can’t “wing-it” very good. It is important that when you just start out that you write as much stuff about your campaign as you can before hand. Also, get some random encounters from Irony.com. I know that some of you have been playing for years and can wing it no problem, but those who are new to the game can’t.

I just wanted all the other newbies to know that they shouldn’t get discouraged when they can’t make up a scenario off the top of their head.Also, do you ever get tired of being GM? Make sure that you give others in your group a chance. If they only play with you and usually play as players, not GM, they will probably act a little like you. This is a chance for you to see how others GM (and take some notes ^_^) and to see what mistakes YOU make. Hope this helps!