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What Goes Into a Good Name List?

A topic by RourkeBywater created 83 days ago Views: 212 Replies: 7
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I wasn't sure where to put this; it came up since I am working on a Belonging Outside Belonging game, which has explicit name lists, but other games have lists of suggested names as well. DnD certainly has names for different 'races,' which comes with its own set of baggage.

What would drive you to include name lists in your games, or to not? If you do decide on name lists, what should go into them? Specifically, how do you go about making those lists for different types of characters, if they are differentiated like that? Do you order names alphabetically, or some other way?

This seems like an aspect of design that could become invisible, but has a lot of implications for a game. Many names imply certain genders, races, and cultural backgrounds, which implies who is envision as belonging in a certain game. I don't have any answers here, but I would be interested in hearing more people's thoughts and design processes.

i've never considered a name list in 'under heaven, underworld'. i think i should. 

Names are an item of world building for me.

So in one of my D&D worlds, cultures have name lists and how the names work (such as the fact that Halflings have Given - Mother's Given - Family, and a bunch of other familial stuff with names). 

But where culture elements aren't so heavily resting on names, then I don't bother.

Name lists can help the audience get a feel for the language: what sounds are common for the language, what are absent, how many syllables the name has, etc. Varying the linguistic characteristics of a name list can help make the names less generic fantasy.

Name lists can provide a mixture of names that are common and predictable and ones that are more unexpected but still fit in.

Names lists can help tell you what a culture or people value. Matronymics and patronymics tell you that family is important to that group. Bynames suggest that individual personal achievement is important. Names based on occupation tell you about their culture, while names based in nature tell you something else. Puritans named their children little (or sometimes long) sermons about God, to tell you what they thought about the importance of religion. Names can suggest social status and role in society.

Names lists can  help indicate tone: whether a group is fancy, or down-to-earth, or silly or harsh. (A lot of that can come from linguistic properties and word choices.)

Names can inspire the player, and make them think about their characters and the world as vivid and real.

That's a lot you can accomplish, with just a list of names. (There's probably a lot more, too.) The tricky thing is making a list that does those things. 


During playtesting I heard two different GMs comment that they wished they had a name list to pull from for quick and easy NPC generation. Ever since then, I've included one in my more polished games (i.e. not a game jam, because that's too much time for a quick project).

I think name lists are helpful for worldbuilding and ease of play, but also open to unconscious bias. So I usually get an idea of what I want the list to include, put something together, then consult with a friend from that culture to make sure I haven't done anything offensive without intending.

With my cyberpunk game, I quickly learned that NPC names had a big effect on how players related to them and which ones they became invested in. I think "Bizface" is still one of the most popular across game groups, and it's always fun to see if a group decides to like or hate Bizface, but they all seem to develop strong feelings about them.

Is it "Bizz-face" or "Bits-fa-che"??


Name lists generally serve a couple of functions. In less mundane settings they help give a sense of the sort of naming conventions and sounds that are common in a culture. They're also used to provide name suggestions for players who struggle to invent their own (some people really struggle to pick names).

As you've noted, creating the list is also an opportunity to imply things about that group. If you add more names from a certain culture or gender, you're implying (intentionally or not) a bias within that group. Unless I have a reason not to, I try to make my name list contain equal amount of Gender Neutral, Female and Male names, ordered first by how they fall into those 3 sets, and then alphabetically within those sets.

One weird problem I've encountered with Powered by the Apocalypse system is name lists not ending in a line like "or create  your own", since they tend to be prefaced with "Choose One:" this means that new players sometimes think they must use one of the names listed, which I'm personally not fan of.

I also do my best to use names from many different cultures unless there's a pressing reason not to. You don't have to worry about getting every major culture, once you've got enough diversity it becomes clear to the readers that people from anywhere could be a part of that group, and it's essentially indirect permission to use names from whichever culture suits them.

However, I frequently try to imply things in my name lists, in cyberpunk the name list will suggest the kinds of slang and nicknames people use. In fantasy settings it might be the kind of phonemes used by that culture, or rarely an implied gender bias (I avoid doing this unless it feels very correct/necessary, as the last thing I want to do is wind up signalling to someone of a specific gender that a playbook or class isn't for them).

I'm also personally very prone to looking up the meaning of names, and using names that relate to whatever the playbook/class/culture is or cares about. None of my players has ever noticed that, and its a thing I do mostly for my own satisfaction of having a symbolic theme.


Some of my most successful name lists were where I gave the players a short list that had a strong, clear rule for making their own names and then let the player invent within a clear framework. These were usually names for aliens or nonhumans of some sort. So when playing murderous exiled faerie creatures, everyone had an elaborate, poetic and sociopathic sounding title, like "The Final Empress who Sent the Whisperer" and "She Who Sleeps Soundly After the Slaughter" and "The Blood Poet".

In another game, we were all aliens studying the earth, and the rule was that we would pick a shared glossary of obscure terminology for some technical field and then take a term from it for out name. Players loved looking up glossaries online until we settled on one and divvied out names from it.

So, the idea would be telling players enough to get their imaginations going and make up their own things that seem to fit a pattern. Which... I guess that's exactly like every other part of RPG design, then.