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Names, Fantasy, and Witchburner [37]

Ighn’y Hormkvst smiled coldly as they surveyed the ruin of Ifth Takwarda. The last city state of the akhpaeen lay before them, tumbled by his cannon golems, the a’kopst-ravn’een, those who bring the fire of purification. Thousands. Hundreds of thousands called them the abomination, the scourge of civilization, the ti’vrekk-kopta. But there was nothing to do for it, the deathless eunuch thought. They had given their heart and half their soul to the Vraghkosonos’eei, the sickles of sentience and destiny, to see the unfolding of the Given World, I’atadamana, and seen that only with a great purging would they avoid the relentless horror of the Sky Judge, tha’matagutka.

—excerpt from the Book of Silken Dreams, 10:25, “The Birth of Reason”

This paragraph is absolutely atrocious. I wrote it, I should know.

I was poisoned at an early age by the Lord of the Rings. Where the hobbit was whimsical and short on the invented languages, by the Lord of the Rings Tolkien had dived deep into the poisoned chalice of invented languages and filled up the appendices with hundreds of pages and thousands of words of gibberish.

Oh, sure, elven has a grammar and a script and some folks might call that beautiful.

But it had a pernicious effect—it taught the world, the English-speaking world, that a proper fantasy has to be full of unpronounceable, odd, alien words. That creativity is enhanced by nonsense. That magic rests in inventing jargon and words that hide away the glorious truth of the tale.

Ok, gatekeeping with jargon is nothing new, of course.

But still, the aftereffects are still with us in the reams of atrocious fantasy literature, the moldering piles of half-playable rpg manuals, the cringe-worthy computer games.

It’s also why  Rushdie and Garcia Marquez and Murakami get away with the label magical realism rather than the more honest moniker: fantasy.

For the longest time I was convinced that fantasy and science fantasy and science fiction—speculative fiction, if you will—rested in realms of imaginary words, from Westerosi to Shannara, where the kwisatz eats the ilithids, lightly floured and deep fried. Mon calamari, mes amis.

It was sometime in the early zeroes, when I started translating dungeons and dragons games more casually into Slovenian that I realized the power of common words—since we played in Slovenian. Calling a troll an ajd imbues it with mystique and fairy tale power in a single syllable: giant, ancestor, strength, dim-wit. Calling Minas Ithil the Stolp vzhajajočega meseca invokes, without effort, dark dreads, melodramatic horror, wolves and spiders in the night, and the menace of the Turk.

When I started writing in English again I realized that this language is rather unique in that it is a pidgin child of romance and germanic, with the roots of words lost. In many other language the names of most people and places carry their meanings on their sleeves.

  • Namsan – South Mountain.
  • Maribor – Diligence and Battle.
  • Vladimir – Ruler of the World
  • Boniface – Sweet Cheeks
  • Huscarl – House Man
  • Ukrajina – On The Borderland
  • Novo mesto – New Town
  • Oxford – Ox Ford

And if they don’t advertise their meaning so openly, once you speak a few other languages, you can tell that all those languages are doing the same thing: the majority of names are thoroughly clearly descriptive.

The only reason you might think foreign names are quaint and exotic, or fantastical and mysterious, is if your own language were the language of empire and hegemony, the lingua franca of the world, the common of your campaign, and you never needed to even imagine learning Chinese or Dwarven or Elven or French.

But within each of those languages, names are descriptive—some might say boringly descriptive—for the simple reason: they are what they say they are. Cambridge is called the Bridge on the River Cam because, well, it kind of is, and if you’re walking or driving and want to cross the river Cam, it’s good to know that yes, this is the bridge across the river. A can of peeled tomatoes is called a can of peeled tomatoes because labelling it lattina di pomodori pelati wouldn’t make it sell all that well in an English-language supermarket.

Now, in an English fantasy novel, sure, you can get away with a few names in Italian or Russian to give it a hint of je-ne-sais-quoi, perhaps a slight frisson of exoticism, a patina of русский мир. I think it’s unnecessary and lazy at best, and stinks of applying eau-du-cologne to a Kölsch at worst.

But in a tabletop role-playing game? Oh, I have no tolerance for your fancy exotic made-up names there.

This struck me repeatedly as I was writing the Ultraviolet Grasslands and Witchburner. A small succubus murmur tempting me to throw in one more Sarud od’Thaibu or just one more Vistayreon that I had to quell at every step. I think I failed often, but not as often as I could have.

Every made-up word in a role-playing game is one more word that your players are going to forget and mangle. In a social activity that is so dependent on memory and shared cognitive space, adding mental load in the form of half-pronounceable made-up names is almost a sin—do you want your players to remember the wizard with the curly horns? Don’t call the wizard Zargothrax, call the wizard Tim and make him funny.

They’re going to call him “The Guy With The Curly Horns” anyway (I know I would if I was playing).

So, in light of that, I present my utterly pompous three name maxims.

  1. Make the name understandable. Mountain of the Purple Petal Dragon is better than Mount Porphyrolaminaedraconii.
  2. Make the name immediately evocative. Mount Doom is a lot better than Mount Greyrock for a place of, well, doom.
  3. Name characters for what they do. The Baker will be better remembered than Mister Ivan Breadbasket.
A view of the Bridge of Saint Cleareyes
A view of the Bridge of Saint Cleareyes

Now, I hope you’ll join me in making fantasy easier to read for all of us.

After all, you don’t want to be that one person who tells others about the proper way to pronounce proper Elven names in a fantasy game, do you?

If you want to see some of the things I’ve written and illustrated up close, do check them out at the WizardThiefFighter patreon: or on the upcoming release, What Ho! Frog Demons, from Hydra Cooperative:

8 replies on “Names, Fantasy, and Witchburner [37]”

I like your emphasis on simplicity in names and design, but I do think that Ivan Breadbasket is easy to remember and associate with a baker. And in fact, that gives me an idea for my own game, so thanks!

Thank you, Juan. I am not perfectly satisfied with my own works – in this post or in my other writing – but the goal is there. Glad you enjoyed that name, at least! 🙂

I think you’re on to something, but intuitively I feel like there’s more. Take Dark Souls I and III, there’s a city named New Londo and a city named Londor. I don’t know if you play dark souls at all, but I’d guess you assumed those cities where somehow linked. It’s no mistake Londor is just Londo with an ‘r’ at the end. The lore is obscured, but the linguistics hint at the depth.

Or, take the Kiki/Bouba experiment. One of those names fits on something spiky, the other something round, and we intuitively know which.

Gormenghast is my favorite book and he does a good job with names. How could a person named “Sepulchrave” not be grey and brooding and dark with a name so close to sepulchre. Then there’s Barquentine whose always barking at everyone.

Salazar Slytherin likes snakes and things that slither. In western culture snakes lie. Slytherins lie a lot.

There’s nothing less made up about Tim, or Matt, or Bob than any of those other names. Real names where all made up at sometime too, the difference is that Bob would tell us nothing about a crazed barbarian-wizard multi-classer trying to steal the good guys castle. “Skeletor” tells us everything we need to know.

Sometimes a good fantasy name can be used to start up expectations in a way more subtle than direct naming. A forest called greyrot is probably gloomy, but the players don’t consciously internalize that, they realize it’s dangerous and gloomy without being told too. “Gloom forest” is directly telling the players what to think.

Not all fantasy names have to be obtuse, “Sepulchrave” form gormenghast shares enough similarity with “Sepulchre” for the readers to assume the lord of the castle is likely a pretty sad and boring person to be around. Salazar Slytherin speaks to snakes and is deceitful (keeping with anglo-roman-american view of snakes as deceivers), his name has “slither” literally jammed into it.

Note importantly, names like this can be used to subvert expectations without players feeling cheated. A person named “charlata” (sounds an awful lot like charlatan) that turns out to be very truthful and another named “lumina” (light is almost universally associated with truth) who lies to the players can lead to subverting their expectations without making them feel cheated.

You make good points and add a level of nuance that I left out in my own post.

I agree with you whole-heartedly.

I’m so forgetful I complete forgot I responded to this and commented twice! Sorry about that.

It’s fine … I’m becoming more and more opposed to instant communications and often take weeks to even realize I have to approve a comment! Makes us pretty even 😉

Good points. In my own world building I try and use descriptive names as opposed to made up words and have found it works well. I may take some poetic license – the crashed mountain sized spaceship is known as Silver Mount – but it’s still plain English.

I abhor The Forgotten Realms as it’s a prime offender IMO with unpronounceable NPC names.

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