Toren's Dull & Obvious Tips on Naming Characters for Roleplaying Games (Fantasy or Otherwise)

In my many aeons of running and playing roleplaying games like D&D, Call of Cthulhu, Spaceship Zero and Ruin Nation, I’ve witnessed and experienced firsthand the trauma and heartbreak of coming up with a name for a character. As a GM and a player, it’s important for me to choose names that are (1) memorable, (2) easy to say, and (3) add to the enjoyment of the game. Having the name evoke a feeling or idea that supports what the character is or does is an added bonus.

Things to avoid

Antirule #1: Overly long, or complicated names (it’s okay to have a long full name for the character’s last will and a concise first name or nickname that the other players will use);

Antirule #2: Names that nobody but you are going to remember. Tolkein was infamous for this (Amandil, Adanel, Alatariel, Arvegil, and Anfauglir you say? Got it);

Antirule #3: Racism! Just don’t do it.

Antirule #4: Names that other players are going to twist in a way that infuriates you (unless you’re okay with that);

Antirule #5: Random name generators. These are SO DULL. Although, they could be a good starting point if you have absolutely no idea. In which case, just keep reading;

Remember, there are always exceptions. Sometimes you want a character’s name to rhyme with penis, because that character is a dick.

Put a twist on it!

One starting point is to take an average or well known name and put a twist on it to make it unique. This could be a mundane Western name and zazzing it up (Sarah becomes Sarahi, Christopher becomes Christopheles, Jack becomes Grimjack or Jackalak) or taking a famous character from fiction or mythology and tweaking it (Prometheus becomes Brometheus, Prothemeus or even Antimetheus – although this last one is breaking antirule #1). This can have the advantage of being easy-to-remember for other players (most people are familiar with Red Sonja, so they shouldn’t forget Gold Sonja’s name, especially if your gaming miniature is wearing gold armour).

“On the nose”
Name your character after her physical attributes (Scar; One-Eye; Slouchy, Meatface) or skills (Cookie, Bowyer, Cardsharper, Windjammer).

Translations

This is like the above, using a descriptor as a character name, but to make it a little more exotic you might plug the adjective into a translator and see what comes up. For example, if you want to have a fire wizard, plugging ‘fire’ into google translate comes up with fuego, incendio, zjarr (Albanian), fajro, masunog (Filipino) and Brandstelle (German).

Alliteration Adds Amemorability

Think about it: Peter Parker. Bilbo Baggins. Doctor Doom. J Jonah Jameson. ‘Nuff said!

Add an Epithet

Fortran the Black; Hogmeal Wundersniff the Elder; Richard the Duckhearted; Kilwich the Sunderer; Bob the Great. Udon Haddock the Third.

Here are some more jumping off points…

Place names.

Think Indiana Jones, Hanna Montana and Carmen Sandiego, but better. Load google maps, pick a spot on the planet, zoom in and look at some of the place names. I just zoomed into northern Pakistan and in less than 3 minutes found Mingora, Battagram and Sukai Sar, all of which I’m now going to use, so hands off!

Food, spices and drugs

Think about your favourite (or most hated) foodstuffs. It’s especially fun to name siblings or groups of characters after specific related consumables. For example, you could have in your favourite tavern three halfling serving wenches named Fennel, Anise and Caraway – these are all ingredients in a popular tea blend. A court of nobles could all be named after fancy cheeses (Lord Camembert; Earl Roquefort; Tyrolean Grey; Cherise Chevre; Casu Marzu; Sir Hedwig Havarti) or a trio of hirelings could be dishes you’d find in an Indian restaurant (Palak Paneer, Malai Kofta, Aloo Ghobi).

Gems & Precious Metals.

Amber, Sapphire, Ruby, and Jade are always popular, but there are many other less well known gemstones and minerals such as Alabaster, Beryl, Bismuth, Borax (sounds like a dwarf to me), Cadmium, Celestine, Corundum, Coltan…and I’ve only gone through A-C.

Plants & Animals (and parts thereof)

Got a druid, shaman or ranger? How about Talon, Fangfoot or Greywing to start with? Mammals and birds are a common go-to (Flynn Falconhelm, Nighthawk Emberblade, Tyr Bloodfox, Ursa Windsinger – notice how I dipped into the Latin name for bear) but let us not forget fish, reptiles, and our invertebrate friends! Marlin Smelt, Octus Snakeblade, Coral Greentooth, Snails McPhee, Dargh Brittlestar, and Tarantalus Rex come to mind. For a more feminine angle, flowers and plants work great: Greta Greenleaf, Forsythia Hollyhock, Ivy Monkshood, Lily Snapdragon, Belladonna Nightshade, Fern Azalea are all easy pulls.

Colours

I wouldn’t even mention this, except for the following: Fuchsia, Azure, Cerulean, Sienna, Taupe, Teal, Mauve, Carmine, Celadon, Cerise, Chartreuse, Vermillion, Cinnabar, Magenta, Drab, Ecru, Glaucous, Tawny, Fulvous and of course Aurometalsaurus. See also epithets above.

Thanks to Jay H, Andrew B, and all the other nerds on Facebook for your help!

Why I Sold My DMG

A little while ago I blogged somewhat snarkily about how I sold my Dungeon Master’s Guide. I didn’t really have time to explain it at the time (and I dont’ really now but I’m going to anyway, while my art scans in).

There are a few things I should mention as a preamble:

  1. I was introduced to D&D in Grade 9. Not having a job or an allowance, I didn’t buy my own copy. Rather, I made up my own roleplaying game which was called “Super-Powers” and eventually “Power Enterprise.” I subsequently made up a number of other roleplaying games including Bounty Hunter, Trapland, Godrealms, Ardomworld, and others.
  2. In 2000 I co-designed the roleplaying game Spaceship Zero (the rules of which were partially based on Godrealms) which was published by Green Ronin and won a Silver ENnie Award.
  3. Last year I ran a 3.5 Edition D&D campaign using Green Ronin’s Freeport series of books.
  4. I moved several times last year and my new ethos is ‘less stuff.’
  5. I “laid myself off” from my current gaming group until I have more free time to play and, preferably, learn the rules.

I am 95% sure I won’t DM 4th Edition D&D. I have other gaming plans should I ever have the time to enact them, but even when I ran Freeport I used the D&D 3.5 rules pretty loosely. I doled out XP without consulting any books, just made up a lump sum per session based on how fast I wanted the group to advance. Monster & antagonist weapons always did a pre-calculated average amount of damage so I didn’t have to waste time rolling and doing math. We made use of Fate Points which were a mash of Mutants & Masterminds Hero Points and Spaceship Zero’s Zero Points. We used an insanity system, critical hit system and critical miss system all from either other sources or stuff we made up. Suffice to say, I almost never used the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

So I don’t anticipate missing it.

Further, I have to say I like the idea of not having a DMG. I feel, and this is probably a personal change rather than external, that some rule books are too calculated, too structured, too restrictive.

Sure, rules are important. Structure is important. They provide a level playing field for everyone – a fairness. Well-designed, balanced game mechanics are a beautiful thing and they’re something I have very much enjoyed picking apart and analyzing in the past. But I’ve always felt that D&D was written for cheaters. Don’t take that the wrong way, because the strength of D&D has always been that it’s the most popular, most well-known RPG. As a result, it is accessible to the broadest range of age groups and indeed gamers in general. Because of the game’s very nature the authors must write the rules for people who don’t understand RPGs or who exploit open-ended concepts or who are for lack of a better word “bad gamers.” I don’t think it’s written for me and the people I game with: mature people with creative and analytical minds but with little free time; people who like to experiment and test the limits of game design and the craft of roleplaying itself. This may be hubris but I don’t think we need an entire book of rules.

For me not having a DMG is freeing. (This despite the fact that I am neither running or even playing in a D&D game at the moment.) It reminds me of my friend Freddy’s “Tron” systemless RPG campaign: no dice, no numbers, no character sheets. Fred would tell us what was happening around us and we’d tell him what our characters did. How did he decide whether or not our punches landed on the opponent? Storytelling.

Without a doubt I love Dungeons and Dragons, but it’s never been about the rules (except for the ridiculous ones that became running jokes for all geekdom). It’s always been about the roleplaying and the atmosphere and the imagination and the anticipation of what’s behind that stout reinforced bronze door.

Just don’t ask me to give up my Monster Manuals I-IV because they’re just too cool.

Truncheons and Flagons 4E

In the past three days I’ve played 3.5 edition D&D (granted with tons of home rules), Savage Worlds and 4th edition D&D.

D&D has never been my favourite roleplaying game. When I first started playing D&D in 9th grade, I immediately started writing my own rules system (Power Enterprise). I don’t pretend my teenage d30 system is any better than D&D rules in any of it’s various incarnations, but it wasn’t the fact that someone else owned the rights to the D&D game rules that made me want to make my own.

I have played D&D more than any other game system for the following reasons:

It has decades of resources numbering in the thousands, more if you include miniatures (which I seem to collect).
It’s far and away easier to find people who know how to play and are interested in D&D than any other system.
I do enjoy the tolkeinesque genre and there’s something to be said for nostagia.

I’m reasonably intimate with the rules of 3.0/3.5 D&D not because I’ve studied them intensively, but because I’ve been playing it for 8 years. Fourth edition has many changed/altered/streamlined/new rules from the previous version but it is still very much Dungeons and Dragons. If you don’t like the previous D&D rules, then this is bad news. If you like the previous D&D rules – any of them really – then this is good news. They are still convoluted, require lots of math, are made for cheaters, and are legion. Fourth edition D&D doesn’t seem to have any less bookkeeping than previous versions. I only played one game, and since I was a player I can’t comment on the claims that it’s much easier to DM. From my perspective, combat isn’t any quicker. The character who is attacking an orc will still take 5 minutes and the character who is lighting the lantern will still take 5 seconds.

Enter the World of Dungeons & Dragons, Toren Style

I’ve played lots of different D&D games. By different, I mean different styles, rules sets and…sub-genres if you will. You may not know that there are subgenres but indeed there are. You can play high magic or low magic. You can play Forgotten Realms or Dark Sun campaign settings. Etcetera. The game I’m running now I am getting a lot of enjoyment out of as a DUNGEON MASTER and I’ll tell you why.

In detail.

Point by point.

Right now.

LOCATION

We’re playing the Green Ronin setting “Freeport: The City of Adventure.” Pirates are as huge as greys were ten years ago, and though I am not a pirate fanatic, it makes a good setting for D&D (minus the gunpowder). Freeport is a city founded by pirates and it’s a backdrop that everyone understands and has fun with.

DANGER

Apart from the pirate theme of Freeport, the setting is steeped in certain aspects of the Cthulhu Mythos, which appeal to me for obvious reasons. If anything I find the normal D&D rules and approach of monsters and secret knowledge pretty tame, so I inject a little more deadly danger into these aspects.

MAGIC

Magic is a bit of a paradox in my setting. Arcane magic, which is that used by wizards, is rare. I think that realistically if there was magic, the people with control of the magic would rule the world, and I didn’t want that so I decided to go the medieval route where witches are persecuted. In my setting, much like in R.E. Howard’s Conan series, all arcane magic is dark magic – the Black Arts – and people in Freeport caught using it have their hands and tongue cut off so they can’t use their spells to summon demons, set buildings on fire and take over the minds of city officials. (And yet, it is not unheard of that kings and other powerful people in the world may employ such wizards as can gaze into crystal balls and eliminate their enemies subtly and from afar)

The other side of the coin is Divine magic, which is the kind used by priests and holy men. In my campaign almost everyone believes in the gods in the same way that the characters in the TV series ROME do, and the people who represent those gods are given the greatest respect. In the D&D rules divine magic is all about defense and healing, so this works out handily.

MONSTERS

Do orcs even exist? Pirates have tales, but none of the player characters have ever seen one. Sure everyone believes in the supernatural – if you believe in gods then you gotta believe in ghosts and demons, right? But surely bugbears and manticores are just fancies made up to keep children in line! That said, most pirates have accounts of sea monsters, and more than a few animals of unusual size have been spotted by those frontiersmen who cull lumber from the tropical island jungles north of the town. It took until the fifth session for the PCs to go up against any adversaries who weren’t human!

RACES

In the official Freeport setting, the city is a haven for all sorts of peoples – dwarves and elves and halflings and even orcs and other monstrous humanoids walk the streets freely and in numbers. That’s a cool setting to play in, but it’s not mine. In my setting, non-humans are unusual. So far we haven’t seen any dwarves or halflings. One of the player characters wanted to play an elf, so I let her, on the understanding that this choice would be a handicap. In my Freeport, elves are valued as slaves and persecuted as sub-human by 80% of the population. Others may think that elves are magical kin to the faeries, perhaps revering and superstitiously fearing elves, but these people are rare and don’t announce their feelings.

NOT A PC WORLD

No, in my Freeport, I play the race card in the traditional non-fantasy sense. I’ve divided the citizens of the city into the Northmen (white), the Orientals, the Persians (dusky skin) and the Nubians (blacks), with equally broad languages to match. The group came across a bar that only catered to Orientals (the nerds among you will know the Kara-Tur setting), for example. There is plenty of prejudice and racial stereotyping in my version of Freeport, and I am not afraid to play it up to add in some interesting historical accuracy and character stereotyping (read: overt racism) – but it’s a game and I’m okay with that, in the same way that I can watch a Western movie and not get outraged that the women are doing the dishes.

Freeport is also full of some of my favourite aspects of history that are largely ignored by Dungeons and Dragons: drugs, prostitution, and slavery. I made a point of telling all my players that I play a very non-politically correct game world before we started. The world of pirates is about raping, pillaging and general heresy, after all.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN

INJURY
I like my D&D a little more gritty and realistic than typical D&D. I don’t do critical hits the rulebook way. Crits do normal damage, but they come with a bonus. I mean come on, do you think that pirates START their career with eye patches, hooks and peg legs? The fun part about the critical hit chart is that all the players make it up collectively as we play, in this manner:
a) Someone confirms a critical hit
b) That person rolls a d20 and consults the chart
c) If the number they rolled doesn’t have an entry, they make it up.
Of course “hit in the junk” was among the first to be added to the chart. The hilariously ironical thing is that the players’ choices for critical hits are way meaner and permanent than my additions. They also chose ‘put eye out’ while a couple of my entries are ‘knocked down’ and ‘gut injury – pain.’

MADNESS IN FREEPORT
Also in the gritty category, let’s revisit what I said about the Cthulhu mythos. I have incorporated Rob Shwalb’s “Insanity Points” system into the game, but we are still tailoring it to our satisfaction. Basically this introduces insanity into the rules, similar to what’s done in the Call of Cthulhu RPG, but hopefully a little simpler. This means that every time a character sees a real monster or reads a book of forbidden lore or even has his mind affected by arcane magic, his mental health takes a blow. I joyfully got to put this into effect when the PCs saw skeletons animate and attack them! I MEAN THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE ISN’T IT?!?

BUTTERFINGERS
I’ve always used a Fumbles/Critical Failure chart of some sort when I GM, generally only for combat. If you roll a 1, roll a d20 again and if it’s 10 or less, something bad happens, such as:
You damage an ally or innocent bystander (not making any friends here); You drop something important – all your potions or valuables spill out onto the ground; Your weapon, armor or gear breaks; An old wound acts up painfully; Low flying seagull!; You stumble or fall, provoking an A.O.O and/or becoming prone; Lose your weapon – it becomes stuck/tangled up into your opponents shield or armor; or you lose your grip on it and it flies away; You hit yourself.

SMART LUCK
Recently I made up another stat for the characters: a POSITIONING score. This is almost a saving throw – it’s kind of like a cross between luck and streetwise. When everyone’s bunched up in a group, who does the assassin attack? When everyone’s going through a trapped tunnel, who steps on the wrong stone? This is determined by making a Positioning check. Positioning at the very least is equal to your Wisdom bonus (or penalty). If your Survival score is better, use that. If your Knowledge: Dungeoneering score is better, use that. And so forth. A Positioning roll is 1d20 plus your Positioning score. The person with the highest roll chooses where he stands in the group, though the DM may coax him away from a danger zone. The person with the lowest roll is positioned by the DM in the worst possible place.
This came into effect most recently when the group was ambushed by enemies who rushed them through a secret door.

CHEATING, BY-THE-BOOK
Now that I’ve screwed over my players in a myriad of ways, here’s where they get something to undo all my plans: FATE POINTS. These are much like Hero Points from Mutants & Masterminds or Zero Dice in Spaceship Zero. These can be used to reroll crappy dice results or act outside of initiative or generally bend the rules in your favour. If the players have done well during a session I’ll reward a Fate Point to each player, which are cumulative. The bad guys generally don’t have Fate Points but if I decide I need to break the rules to bend the story in the opponents‘ favour, I’ll hand out more Fate Points to the players as compensation.

So that’s where we’re at and from a DM perspective, this is one of my more successful D&D grooves. I hope the players are finding it as rewarding.
Comments, feedback, critiques welcome.

Dungeons and Masterminds

The D&D campaign I’ve been playing in recently is now over! It was a short campaign run by Paul and it was a lot of fun. I played Zabsurast Hoohoo the Barbarian/fighter/ranger with a rogue cohort named Hives (pronounced HEE-vays like you would pronounce Chaves, but Zaburast always pronounced it like the skin condition). In a nutshell, we were sent on a ship to an island where a modern stoner from California had been imprisoned by wizards because his ‘inventionÂ’ of gunpowder would tip the balance of power.

This last session could well have been a total party kill (TPK) as Paul had no compunction about sending numerous deadly foes at us since we all knew it would be the last night for the campaign, but we pulled through with flying colours (though it was harrowing for a couple of us for a while there).

The Mutants & Masterminds game I’m in should wrap up next week, right after H.P. Lovecraft’s Birthday Party, which gives me no regular gaming outlets until Caleb starts up his Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign. I’ve been waiting to play that for years.

In the meantime I’m desperately trying to figure out what I’m going to do for Spaceship Zero at HPL’s Birthday Party!

Did I mention that I played World Wildlife Federation of Justice last week and it went really well? I’m looking forward to running it again on the weekend.