Saturday, May 14, 2011

What's in a name?

Heron, the Iron Goat, has a knack for humorous character names.

It’s not that they’re patently ridiculous or stupid…that prize goes to my brother, I think, for names like “Lando Calrissean,” and “Clownman.” But there’s always something about Heron’s names…generally something slightly unsavory. Like really subtle (or high brow) double entendre or something.

I don’t know…it’s just the way his mind works. As he told me Thursday, he thinks ‘em up and saves them, treasuring them for the right character to christen with it. The name of “Neckbeard” (a dwarf) was originally intended for a Savage Worlds pirate game…until he ended up with a decidedly un-piratelike character (a small Blue Boy mystic or something…I don’t know, SW settings are a little weird).

Anyway, that’s Heron. Not my particular sense of humor (though I laughed and laughed at “Bobby Peru”), but I’m used to it, and I don’t give him grief over it.

Why not? Doesn’t it take away from the “serious tone” of the game to have characters with names like “Weasleteats” and “Choad?”

No, I don’t think so.

Does it take away from the gravity of a wartime platoon where soldiers have nicknames like “Tex” and “Slim” and “Tiny” and “Princess?”

People call each other weird things that aren’t always their given name. I’d imagine that Randy Johnson’s family probably calls him something other than “The Big Unit,” but that’s how he’s known to baseball fans.

When we were kids, we often thought up dumb names for D&D characters…things like “Silver Fox” and “Bladehawk” and “Sneakshadow.” It’s like they all came straight out of an ElfQuest book or something. Likewise, we’d rip off Tolkien (“Bombur” was a popular dwarf name) or B-Movies (“Conan” and “Dirty Harry” both put in appearances). MY long time character had a name that came straight out of a TSR Endless Quest book, though I didn’t realize that's where I’d first heard it till years later.

After TSR started publishing books, like Dragon Lance, we tried to create more “fantasy sounding” names, but the best ones were still based on real world names. “Orianna LaFayette” (what? Is she Norwegian or French?) comes to mind, though I have no idea if the name of her twin brother, “Jolith,” is based on an actual name as I’ve never heard it used.

These days? I don’t really care, though I’d hope you can come up with something better than “Master Chief” or “Cleric #2.” I figure that if your name sounds ludicrous to our ears, it’s either a nickname or a poor translation or both.

Neckbeard the Dwarf, for example. Sure he has a big beard, but it’s perfectly likely that “Neckbeard” is the nearest translation of his family name in the Common tongue. None of the other PCs speak dwarvish, so why should he not introduce himself as Neckbeard, rather than “Borshminden” or something?

This holds true for human names, too, by the way. There are plenty of examples of names that sound strange, silly, or funny, even in “perfectly normal” English. Doesn’t mean people with those names aren’t justifiably proud of those names. I can only imagine that somewhere out in this wonderful world of ours, a kid is being picked on for having the last name “Peabody.” And yet there are plenty of folks in the world of broadcast journalism that would love to win one of those awards named for George Foster Peabody and presented for excellence in their field.

As with most things in the RPG world, what you get out of the name has a lot to do with what you put into it. A name like “Wildfire” may sound like a silly name…but if that character is a magic-user with a penchant for fire magic, and an unseemly attraction to fire bordering on arson, well that becomes a memorable character. I certainly remember her, and she only appeared in two or three sessions back in 1985 or ’86. On the other hand, by buddy’s Drow chick with the “suitable fantasy name?” No recollection of her handle whatsoever.

Now, of course, name alone is (generally) not going to be enough to remember a character…”Brian the Halfling” isn’t anything memorable, and yet it is so engrained in my head from Matt’s antics in White Plume Mountain that I sometimes mistakenly refer to Matt as “Brian.” My POINT is that it’s not necessarily enough to torpedo a character either. My brother once chose the name “Alejandro” because he thought it was a “funny” name and he knew a rather ridiculous looking /acting real person by that name…and Al turned out to be his most badass character of all time.

Anyway, I understand that for several of my players, their choice of name DOES have something to do with how they feel about their character. They feel that if they take their character “less seriously” they’ll be less attached or less invested in it should something dreadful (i.e. “death”) happen. And, yes, some feel that coming up with a “cool” or “fitting” or “appropriate” name requires investment of energy…and why should they bother spending the time for a character that they dislike anyway.

To me, that’s a little weird…but maybe I haven’t played enough (and died enough) to get fed up or jaded or whatever. I’ve rolled up characters I didn’t think much of, but I try to find something I like or that stokes my imagination about it. Plus, I just like making characters and naming is one of the fun parts of character creation. And my M.O. hasn’t changed much…I still steal names from books and movies (and Shakespeare…I like his names a lot). Or I make up weird “fantasy sounding” names spliced with some descriptive, like Shoon Grinblade or Hark the Huntress.

But I certainly don’t fault terrible names (except when AB deliberately attempts to get my goat…it’s been 35 years that I’m still learning to ignore his poking). Look at some of the character names from some of the Oldest School players:

Fred 9802 (Dave Cook), Knock Grafton (Helen Cook), Harry Furryfoot (Jeff Leason), Elron Hubbard (Lawrence Schick), Bigby/Rigby/Digby (Gary Gygax), Ceatitle Trodar Northman (Jean Wells), Arrarat (Tim Jiardini), “Erac’s Cousin” (Ernie Gygax), Valerius (Erol Otus).

At least those are some of the various names found in the old Rogues Gallery and DMs Adventure Log.

Really, what’s in a name?


  1. My current character is a tengu monk called Wu Ya, which translates to "Raven". I have something of a weakness for puns, I'm afraid.

  2. There's a god in Dragonlance called Kiri-Jolith. I'd guess that's where the name came from.

  3. @ Bliz: Doubtful. Jolith Lafayette preceded the first DL novel by about a year.

  4. I had a goblin named Odd Littlefellow-because that's what the Bard that found him hiding in a bush called him. He had never had a name before (being a slave to the orcs), so he figured that must be his name. And that the Bard must be a goddess because she knew his name before he did.

    Later, when he had proven himself as a warrior (so to speak), he became known as The Mighty Odd...

  5. my case, naming my character something ridiculous has nothing to do with my seriousness with the game. It's just a reflection of my love/hate relationship with fantasy and gaming culture.

    As a kid, I used to use "serious", dramatic sounding names, and when I write adventure material I'm certainly not naming people things like Merkin (unless it's a goblin or a nickname or something). For myself, though, I just can't stomach running around with some douchey, Realmsian character named "L'trodivar Daleswalker" or "Shadderus Bladedark" or whatever. It just makes me feel like even more of an idiot.

    Anyway, as JB points out, stupid names are as old-school as it comes. I mean "Elrond Hubbard"? Genius.

  6. @ IG: I'll take "Weasleteats" over "Drizzt" any day of the week.
    ; )

  7. Dude, Neckbeard is the best character name I've ever heard in my entire roleplaying career, hands down!

  8. I like a mix of both fantasy sounding names and ones that aren't so serious. I don't think having a funny name necessarily detracts from the game, and having an impressive name doesn’t necessarily add to it. An over the top serious name can set up a character for mockery or ridicule. In the end it breaks even. Luka, Jayana, Pandora, Rubella, Re, Kelvin and Tedzen are the current characters, not bad for the first time playing an RPG for this crew.

  9. I've got a character named Testostero in the campaign I'm running right now. Somehow, it's worked out and makes perfect sense within the context of the game/characterization.

  10. Luka, Jayana, Pandora, Rubella, Re, Kelvin and Tedzen

    I particularly approve of the sixth member of your party.

  11. The coolness of my character's name is inversely proportional to it's lifespan.

  12. I suppose I do have a friend named Liquorish... Names are a strange thing.

  13. I have a tendency to pick names that have a meaning, usually related to the personality or some trait of said character. I do the same in my novels too. Funniest name I think I ever had though was a Gully Dwarf called Togglet Bliblob, who was truly pathetic but great fun to play.

  14. I shall forever remember Bono of the North.

  15. @ Gatz: Me, too. I was sorry to see him go down so fast...I may need to tweak the bard class a bit.
    ; )

  16. I still maintain that Bono of the North's third incarnation (after Edge of the North) should be "Larry Mullin, Jr. of the North"...