Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Ecology of the Fantasy Name

Names are obviously a pretty overwhelming obstacle to a believable world--particularly in a medieval setting where occupants of a region rarely travel beyond the familiar and every ridge, stream, and meadow has been named by the denizens and is used for giving directions more readily than are cardinal directions. It's particularly difficult if you need to cover multiple cultures, where each might have their own names for various landmarks, and even when not, each name needs to fit into the linguistic aesthetic of that culture.

One thing to remember about these names is that much of the exotic-sounding names we hear of foreign lands are considerably less exotic to those who live there. To the Slavic peoples who founded it, Berlin just means Swamp Town. Tenochtitlan in the language of the Aztecs was "Cactus Rock." Pyongyang in Korean is Flat Land. We can see then how English place names (Oxford, Kingston, Stow-on-the-Wold, etc) are actually pretty par-for-the-course. If your adventurers are locals, then the place names needn't sound any more exotic than "Greenville" or "South Home."

That said, a name can carry a certain pathos evocative of wonder or despair, and that can shoulder a lot of the weight in making your world seem exciting, alive, and rich with history and culture. Drawing from one's own well for these kinds of names can leave you dry pretty quick, but this is also one place where inspiration is easy to come by. Lately, I've been turning to singer-songwriters for poetic and descriptive names to steal, ahem, pay homage. For example, I've placed a lake in the high mountains that is known as "The Diamond in the Valley's Hand," per the Josh Ritter song "Thin Blue Flame." Townes Van Zandt's "Our Mother the Mountain" album title has become a god in my game.

The sad language of the Handsome Family is an excellent resource: Broken Road, The Silver Shore, The Door Across the Fire (a road linking oases in a vast desert?), Waving Trees. Gram Parsons gives us the Grievous Angel (whether a fallen seraph or a poet-haunted tavern is anyone's guess). The Mountain Goats are boundless for our purposes: Near North, Altar Keep, The Jungle of Martyrs (a vine-choked field of statuary?), History's Bruise (a famous battlefield where great wizards dueled, now uninhabitable from magical damage and psychic trauma?).

What about you? Where do you go to plunder names?


  1. Excellent post my friend! I get stuck on names, it is one of my greatest weaknesses. For years I've stuck to published games because stuff is already named. Now I'm more interested in world-building and studying DIY theories, and I find this article amazingly helpful. I am also incorporating more principles of wargaming into my designs, which means breaking things up on the map even smaller, thus more names.

    As to what I've come up with, I have a lot of Old Wild West influences in my game, so names tend to go along those lines. Many of my nations and big cities are simply named after counties. It is a mixed bag, since I don't know what the words actually mean and just think that they sound cool.

    1. I love using Wild West tropes in my games as well. Just in name terms, things like "Fox Ridge" and "Dead End Gulch" sound really cool.

      Speaking of, Westerns are a great source for adventure ideas that aren't immediately familiar when reskinned for fantasy. One of the plots I keep in my back pocket is the fur trappers plotline from the Willie Nelson western, Red Headed Stranger.

  2. Along this line of thought, I recently discovered the atlas of true names, which provides maps of different locations with all place names translated into English. All kinds of great inspiration for the kinds of things that become location names.

  3. My strategy is to plunder a real-world culture for names, both place names and also person names.

    Thus, elves all sound welsh, halflings are old french, dwarves are persian, gnomes are old high german, humans of various regions are old-english, anglo saxon, slavic; etc.

    Every culture has a distinct "sound", and there's a wealth of sources to draw upon.

    And the players with halfling PCs do RP with the most awful but entertaining accents.

    1. Nice! Reminds me of a British guy I know. Everybody in his group is multilingual, so they actually mapped real world languages to racial languages according to what they knew.

      One trick I use for locations is to hop on Google maps and look for small towns in other countries. Can't get away with stealing "Paris," but relatively few people recognize the "Puteaux" or "Courbevoie."