Lessons I’ve Learned about Naming NPCs

Names are hard.  You want to make sure that the people and places you’re creating sound believable, and you don’t want to keep repeating the same things over and over (unless there’s a name like Michael in your game world, in which case you should probably just name everyone that since that’s how it works in real life).  I’ve made and seen some pretty funny mistakes with naming things, so here are a few of the things I’ve learned…

First off, deciding who to name beforehand is tricky.  In my experience, you either want to have everyone named or no one named.  Players (myself included) will pay attention to what the storyteller is paying attention to, and I once ran a game of Dogs in the Vineyard in which my players realized they were looking at the wrong people because I didn’t already have a name on the tip of my tongue.  It went something like,

Jason: “Who’s that over there?”

Me: “The miller’s wife?  That’s Annabelle.”

Mattias: “And who’s this?  She looks suspicious.”

Me: “That’s, errr, umm… Mabel.”

Them: “… Right, let’s check out the miller’s wife.”

I’m fortunate that this was in a game of Dogs, where you’re supposed to get the PCs digging along the appropriate line of investigation.  Or at least bring the troubles of the town to their attention through judicious hinting and fun character interactions.  But if I had been running a full-on mystery game, I would have just given my players a BIG FRICKIN’ CLUE without meaning to.  That would have been a problem.

It all happened because I picked names for various people as I was creating them, and the first people I created were the ones most tightly linked to the troubles of the town.  After a bit of prep, I was ready to go and ran the game, never realizing that the moment I started scrabbling for names would be the moment my players would know they’d gone in the wrong direction.  It’s a bit like those immersion breaking invisible walls in so many video games.  You know, like “Warning!  You’re leaving the battlefield!  Turn around or you’ll be shot!”  (Who the hell is going to shoot you in that circumstance anyways?  Weird.)

So these days I might name a few people, but I do my best not to make the ones that I name have too much in common.  They won’t be the central characters of any given plot or sub-plot.  Instead, they’re probably just the first people I expect the players to meet.  Or maybe I have a name prepped for them, but I act like I made it up on the spot.  Then, when I get to the next person or thing that needs to be named, I ask my players.  It’s really simple, just something like “What’s this lady’s name?”  Maybe I say something like, “It should sound badass,” or “Nobody would want his name,” but then I use what they give me (while exercising my veto as I see fit in order to maintain the fiction).  After a while, your players will get used to jumping forward with names, and they’ll meet the expectations of the fiction you’re creating too, letting you as the storyteller worry about more important things and giving your players more say in how the world sounds and feels.

I should also add that there’s no way to know beforehand which NPCs your players will find most interesting.  You might think they’d go in the front door of the bar, so you gave the bouncer a name, but instead they go and have a lengthy conversation with the bum in the back alley nearby.  And maybe they get an introduction to some of the bum’s friends and associates, all of whom also need names.

So I suggest that you save yourself some effort, and train your players to help you name things.  You can also gather a list of random names that fit the fiction, and pick from those when you need to.  If you’re playing something like Apocalypse World, where your players have lists of unused names on their character sheets, you can scavenge from those as well.

Mattias just reminded me: don’t forget to say the name out loud.  Otherwise you could end up with people like Mayor Hamer (yes, those both sound the same), or places like the Red Bull Inn (famous for its lack of energy drinks).

If you have any other suggestions for naming, post them in the comments!


2 responses to “Lessons I’ve Learned about Naming NPCs

  1. Pingback: Somebody like my friend Mattias | Fistful of Wits

  2. Pingback: Fleshing out the Details | Fistful of Wits

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