I’m writing a homebrew and having a hard time coming up with good names for locations, races, and people without feeling like every name I come up with silly or dumb. What are your tips for making names that are engaging or intriguing?
I heavily abuse sites like this one, that let me generate a bunch of names of a particular type (genre, real-world cultural connection, etc.) and pick out the ones I like (sometimes mixing and matching along the way).
I have really strong feelings about this! They may be entirely wrong, but I’m pretty resolute about them.
Name things DESCRIPTIVELY. That is rather then using fantasy words, especially ones that are odd and include lots of apostrophe or whatever, use phrases, compound words, puns, or descriptors in your own language (or one that’s pretty commonly known by speakers of it - e.g. educated English speakers tend to know a lot of simple French and Latin words). You don’t name the distant fog shrouded jungles “Chult” or “Dis’Umbbad’Shan” - you call them the “Midnight Morass”, “Heliotropics”, “The Foul”.
This serves three purposes. A) You are able to provide something more memorable to your players/readers B) You are offering further information about the weird thing C) You aren’t making up some fake foreign word like a racist child trying to emulate Chinese with meaningless garble - really you aren’t exotifying your weird things at all. Like if I name my Elves “Le Fey” I imply Frenchness and if I call them “Tsu Col” I imply some kind of Orientalism.
This is just my take. Don’t rely on the crutch of something foreign sounding or something like a made up language unless you’re an Oxford Don or Sci-Fi linguist who has actually made up a series of fake languages because that’s your thing.
I always try to be conscious of the fact that me writing a word does not translate into actual speech as well as I think it does. I make effort to actually speak the fantasy words I’m making up to ensure they feel natural to say. If they’re too complicated the players are going to start creating nicknames which will not only lower their ability to retain the actual name but damage any sense of seriousness you want to instill in the setting
I also steal liberally from the source material I’m aping. Think about what culture(s) you are drawing from and observe how their naming conventions work. For example, a lot of First People’s names are fairly straightforward (Inuit - “the people”) and their locations are focused on landmarks (Manadonock - “Mountain that stands alone”) while more imperialistic cultures frequently name things after their homeland or in dedication to prominent people (New England, Prince of Wales Island, etc.)
Finally, if you look into some historical context, almost all names are just basic descriptions of things as they are, for example, this excerpt from the Atlas of True Names. In cases where the name doesn’t just sound exotic because it’s in a language you don’t speak, they are a degradation of a normal name; Brighton <- Bright Town, Dragon <- Drakon (serpent in Greek)
Was gonna write more but as @Gus.L just snuck in, straightforward names are more evocative (and not taking advantage of racist exoticizing). Compare Richard the Lionheart (or how about Lyonhart if you want it to sound more medieval) to Ryola a’ Leeroh
There are all kinds of theories and systems for this, but here’s my quick-and-dirty method for place names.
I just go on Google Maps and look at a particular area I happen to know is full of odd, interesting, but real-sounding (because they are real!) names, zoom in, and scroll around until something stands out.
The trick is to pick a region of the world that fits, then find a relatively small area (mine is a cluster of… 4 counties, I think?) that you can zoom waaayyy into. You want little crossroads towns, small streams, side roads, county parks. Fewer people will have heard of them, and they’re less likely to have euphemistic, tourism-bureau-approved names. (Although, sometimes, they seem to have been named by a stoned teenager and your racist uncle trying to outdo each other.) Slice, mangle, and mix the words as needed.
It’s worth taking @Gus.L’s advice to heart. Especially for naming towns, regions, countries, etc. I think it’s a good idea to use descriptive names (another advantage is that your players are likely to have an easier time remembering them and keeping them straight).
One caveat to that advice is that we might end up using western/European names for people even when there’s nothing particularly western or European about them. Many games have started providing name tables for PCs and NPCs which are inspired by various real world cultures. So for example Stars Without Number has name generator tables for Arabic, Chinese, English, Greek, Indian, Japanese, Latin, Nigerian, Russian, and Spanish names. This helps avoid giving all characters in the game world western-sounding names (possibly implying that they’re all white western people) without requiring people to try inventing their own exotic-sounding names.
Another tip for character names is to try to ensure that they all start with different letters of the alphabet and/or different sounds (as much as possible anyway). This can be a big help for players who have trouble keeping track of lots of names.
An example of a game that does a relatively good job with naming is Ironsworn. Its region names and settlement name generators follow @Gus.L’s advice, producing names like “Ravenbridge” or “Frosthill”. It has a large table of suggested Ironlander names that feel relatively consistent with each other (although unlike Stars Without Number many of them appear to be made up). It also has distinct name tables for Elves, Giants, Varou, and Trolls to make those creatures feel culturally distinct from the human Ironlanders.
Towns are easy. Think of two prominent features nearby. Green Valley, Crossroad City, Rock hills, Swamp Creek or a famous person in your lore. I also try to use synonyms for names so their meaning is there but less obvious.
For example, I invent a high level rogue impersonating a rich, landed man to hire adventurers on a quest. Then, I decide he will not pay them after they defeat his enemies.
I might say they are invited to talk with Baron James Ouvrir (Unlock in French) aka Jimmy Unlock at the Nouveau Ouvrir House in an older wealthy nearby town of Olde Argente (Old Money).
In addition to @Gus.L’s great advice, I have a poorly kept secret for contemporary character names: film credits. They’re essentially giant name lists.
Just slowly scroll through the crew that worked on a random movie and either combine first name of Person A with last name of Person B or chop and remix names at the syllable level. Obviously be conscious of ethno-linguistic lines to avoid less sensible or insensitive names, but so many people work on films, especially bigger studio releases, that you won’t have much trouble coming up with believable fake people.
i use this english to old norse translator, then throw in a vowel to brake things up
then make sure I have sets of names that sound similar, like yurrigi and tarrigi
if I have some idea of migrations for species, then I can name a few places as species A (who use k not c or s in their place names) and a few places for species B (who us y not i or u).
I’ve faced a particular challenge in the last few years, since moving from the UK to Brussels. Brussels is the home of the EU, NATO and many surrounding institutions and organisations, which makes it an incredibly international city. My social scene used to be mostly Brits, and now routinely includes people from literally 30 different countries. (Of course, this isn’t unique to Brussels; many players have multicultural playing groups. But it is dramatically emphasised here, where the chances of any two people around the table having a common first language are very small.)
I GM in English and we play mostly in English, but since everyone has a different native language, inventing fictional names is incredibly hard. In particular:
- The tonal significance of invented words is a crapshoot. A name that sounds exotic and fantastical to me risks sounding mundane to my Finnish friend. A name that sounds earthy and dark to me risks sounding comical or awkward to my Hungarian or German friend. And so on.
- The old trick of just translating a mundane English name into another European language to add a certain je ne sais quoi is obviously ineffective.
- Inventing a totally random name from nothing, or using a name generator, is also risky because of the substantial chance that I unknowingly echo a word or fragment in a language I don’t know. What seems like exotic nonsense to me might have all kinds of random unintended connotations for speakers of other languages.
So, I agree 100% with @Gus.L and the others who have chimed in here. Descriptive names in my own language, or our shared language, are the only remaining option, and they are certainly much better than invented words that try to imitate other languages.
How eager are your players on contributing world building? It sounds like they’d be an excellent resource for coming up with names themselves.
Mine? Very much so. That’s almost always what we do. Of course, they all face the same problems as I do, but doing it collaboratively makes it more fun
One thing you might want to consider is:
The way things got their name depends a lot on history and culture.
Compare names in Japan vs Italy.
Japanese people names are mostly made of common use japanese words while Italian (and most european) names are evolutions of old words from some other language, often latin or greek.
This is of course an extreme generalization but it can help guide your process for giving names to different regions in your wold.
- A culture that remained relatively isolated for a long time will tend to have descriptive, common tongue names.
- A culture that was influenced by many others (having been invaded a lot for example) will tend to have names that have nothing to do with the current tongue and sound mostly made up.
For example: Tor Marancia is the name of an area of Rome. This name means nothing in italian, if anything “tor” sounds like “torre” (tower). The name comes from “the tower of amaranth” (turris amaranthus? I’m not too proficient in latin) and got warped over time to reflect the way italian sounds right now.
The cool thing is that you can simulate this on your own:
- Come up with a description for a place or person (strong arm)
- Translate to an existing language (silná paže in Czech by google translate)
- Warp to make it sound like the target language (Silnabajiir sounds vaguely elvish to me)
- Stick the made up work back into google translate to make sure you’re not directly insluting someone (looks like it means slot machine in Somali, I might want to change it if one of my players speaks Somali)
I didn’t come up with this by the way. I read it in a world building book years ago, maybe “the lazy gm”?
make sure you’re directly insluting someone => make sure you’re not directly insluting someone
Lots of good thoughts here already, one thing I will add ( though I might have missed it ) is that most place names start up as toponyms or eponyms ( named after the place or a person/religious figure ) and they tend to get worn through use and some of the less important syllables or consonants get lost so even if it is spelled “Leicester” don’t be surprised if everyone’s calling it “Lester” in their daily lives. It’s less to say.
…it’s Lester say.
(I suspect this only works in a British accent)
I wouldn’t say this is practical per se, but if you know anyone into conlanging, they can create a language for your world that you name things in.
I had a friend who was a PhD in linguistics and loved conlanging and wow he went to town on the languages of my world. This is very niche, but it was extremely awesome.
My tribal people’s invariably speak Welsh - I speak negligible Welsh and we play in English - but if I have a culturally important names, places or concepts, I re-write the Welsh word(s) without the complex letter combinations/sounds that monoglot English speakers struggle with. It gives a culturally distinct ‘feel’ to these peoples without having to invent a full language.
It’s akin to Leicester shifting to Lester, I suppose.
Absolutely deliberate because I literally cannot avoid any opportunity for wordplay no matter how dumb or contrived.
I usually visually glide over this page