"What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet."
(William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II)
More often than not, when a GM or a player assign a name to character, it is no more than a label used to identify it. GMs that wish to put a bit more effort into their NPCs will often construct some sort of a naming system, as described in the first part of this article. But name can be so much more than that. In the hands of a GM armed with a little ambition and a little talent names can turn into a literary reference, a clue for the players or even plot driving tool. In this article I will attempt to show some ways of using names in this fashion. Even though the examples refer to NPCs, the ideas in this article are directed at GMs and at players alike.
The name given to a character could be a prescience for its personality or even essence. For example, the surname Quendill (which means "The Friend of Elves", in their tongue), that was given as a sign of honor to one of the character's ancestors could show the character's affiliation with Elves and might grant her the help from Elves she will encounter in her journeys, even if she is not aware of its meaning.
In the middle ages, it was common that the last name of a character was her family's occupation. This convention can be used for two different references - the character's past and her future. For instance, a knight may be called William Thatcher, which would imply to his roots as a commoner. On the other hand, the name Victor given to a common shepherd could imply that he will one day lead the people of his village to a glorious victory over their oppressors.
Names can be a great way to imply some connection between different characters. For example, a group of spies employed by a secret organization called "The Iron Ring" could all choose name connected to metals (such as Ironsmith, Silverstone or even Goldberg) to easily identify their members. Such a reference could also me made by the GM as a way of hinting to the players that there is some connection between two characters that should be checked out, even if the characters themselves are not aware of that connection.
The name of a character can imply to a past she is trying to conceal. Her name can hold an identical or a similar meaning to her previous name, such as Mr. Archer changing his name to Mr. Fletcher. Another way of creating this reference is using the same name translated to different language, such a Mr. Knight renaming himself to be Mr. Chevalier (Knight, in French). Alternatively, the meaning of both names can be antonyms, symbolic of the change in the character's life which caused her to change her name.
So far, we have discussed "in-play" references. But if the hint we are trying to convey is intended for the players and not their characters, we can cheat a bit and use real-world references or cultural references that the players are sure to understand. For instance, most players will be suspicious towards characters called Arnold or Benedict, but won't hesitate joining the army led by General Wiggin. Obviously, it is possible to combine such cheating with any of the methods I've already mentioned - A doctor named Jeckle could imply that he is holding a terrible secret, or a group of names such as Van Nistelroi, Kantona and Best could imply some connection between three seemingly unrelated characters.
Two extra ideas that can be used with these methods are Foreign Languages and Irony.
With all due respect for these ideas, there is no need to hand these hints to the players on a silver plaque. A short look at the dictionary and the translation of some basic terms to a foreign language such as German or Spanish will relatively hide these implications, and make the players dig a little bit deeper until they find them. Of course, if the clue should be found by the players but is relatively well hid, it is sometimes a good idea to point their attention to the fact that there actually is a clue to be found...
Every techniques described here can easily turn into an ironic tool in the hand of the GM by giving a name to a character that is the complete opposite of what the name implies. For example, the name Gilgamesh (from the Babylonian mythology, originally) will create the association of an epic hero. But the Gilgamesh in our campaign world could be a dwarf with a slight tendency to alcoholism and a not so slight tendency to a dirty mouth and cowardly legs. Not exactly the traits you would expect to find in an epic hero...
As I conclude this article, I offer a word of caution - names can be an excellent plot driving tool if they are not over-done. If every shepherd called David would start slaying giants or every man who's name ends with the suffix berg would be part of a secret cult based in the mountains, this tool will quickly loose its effectiveness. Don't forget - even the freshest idea in the world stops being fresh when it crosses the thin line between "a lot" to "too much". But in the right place and in the right dosage, names can add an entire new layer of implications and references to your campaign.
This article first appeared in issue #2 of The Orc.