It's Called What?
Creative Fantasy Naming Techniques
Although I am going to mostly talk about fantasy world names (since that's what I am into), several of these techniques can work fine for other genre of games too. Future games with aliens and space travel can easily use most of them without any trouble, but even modern gamers can use many of the basic techniques with some minor tweaking. Never fear adjusting them to fit the setting and feel of your game, even if you are running a fantasy setting.
Types of Names
Most of the time it is the name of a person that will be sought after. The first thing to do is figure out what kind of character it is going to be, what kind of culture they are from, what type of family they had, and what kind of names they are going to have. This last part is the most important to get a realistic feel for your character. Not everyone goes by their full birth name or even use a single name for everything. Nicknames are usually more connected to the character as they are now (as in what you created) than their past, so they are usually easier to come up with.
The perfect example of this is Aragorn, from The Lord of the Rings. Although he is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, he is also known by many names throughout the stories. Strider, The Ranger, The Dúnadan, Longshanks, Wingfoot, Envinyatar, Elessar Telcontar, Estel, Lord of the White Tree, Thorongil, and The King of Gondor are all nicknames or titles he was given or used at different times or by different people. Your character doesn't have to have just his given name either, so figure out what he is going to go by when and by who. This can help move you ahead by allowing you to come up with some common nickname right away (like Strider), so you can start playing, and then figure out the birth name or other names and titles later.
The culture (often based on the race in most RPGs) the character was raised in should also have a strong influence on their name, at least their birth and family names. These names should be based on the common structure and style for that culture (which most good RPG products will include some examples of at the very least). If they are a culture that has family names first and personal names second (as is common in several Asian countries), your character should follow this structure. If they are a culture that includes their mother's maiden name as their middle name, your character should do this too. If you don't know what kind of naming structure is used, perhaps your GM could give you some ideas. Just having an idea of what is used can really help narrow down the naming ideas.
Other types of names your character could have might be what they are known as among friends, by certain business associates, in certain towns or communities, to the public at large, or even titles they may hold. Not everyone will have this many names, but it is a good idea to come up a list of possible different types of names your character may have ahead of time so you can give them some thought (and it could help you round out your character's personality). The most common of these kind of nicknames would be the shortening of their normal birth name (like calling Doctor Robert Vanderlane "Dr. Bob").
Once you have a basic idea of the types of names your character is going to have (and that you need to create) and a general order of importance you need them in, you need to actually start choosing the name(s) you need. Or at least the common one(s) you need right away, so you can get started playing them. Most of this preparation can be done rather quickly, and often without even realizing you have done it as a lot of it comes out of the creation process for the character and their background.
Next comes the actual act of creating the names themselves. In the real world you have a long list of common names you can consider and think about, since you are surrounded by them every day, but in a fantasy game this isn't always possible. Many games will have a number of examples or even a general framework of how the naming structure works, but these can sometimes be limited or even completely absent, so you will have to think them up yourself.
If you are lucky the game will supply at least a basic feel for the language the character's culture speaks and all you have to do is find something that sound like it fits in that language. If you are really lucky the game will include a list of common names, with meanings, or even a basic dictionary for the language (as I have done with the Frenal in the Land of Karn, found Here). These can greatly reduce the amount of time it takes to come up with a good fitting name (or even increase it if you spend to much time reading the source material).
For example: A Frenal in Karn that is from a hunting/trapping family that lives mostly in the deep woods might have named the character Wisheanel Minasela Edcelpawan (Starlight of the family Night-Hunter). As a common shortened nickname he might go as "Wish", "Nel", or even "Star".
Without such in-depth resource material it is still possible to use the given examples of others within the culture as a baseline to get the feel of the language. You then create a name that at least feels or sounds like it belongs to the same culture as the sample names you do have (and most games will have a number of these throughout the descriptions or history sections covering the culture). Take some common starting sounds, ending sounds, or other repeating structures you find, mix parts around, and even add in some new letters to create a new name you can use. Don't fret if it sort of sounds like existing names, because this is common in most languages (like they have some root words in common).
For example: Perhaps the book has the following names mixed throughout the section on this culture: Ragnog, Kargag, Dropnuk, Kel, Sintak, Kalakok, Raknor, Hathnorad, and Nodlak. You can use the harsh guttural feel these names create to come up with a fitting name, such as "Kalnuk", "Dolak", "Gak", "Rentithel", "Nod", "Takor", or even "Bolak".
It is also possible to use a similar method to create a basic feel for a language without actually creating a whole language but selecting a set of common letters and phonemes that you think would be used by that culture or language. Then use those as the base for all names you are creating for people and things from there. You can really give them a strong feel by choosing the right kinds of sounds. Harsh and guttural sounds can give a more angry or strong feeling, while soft and flowing sounds can give a sense of serenity and peace. It can take a little while to find the right set of sounds and letters for what you want, but without another source to use as samples this can created a relatively fast sense of unity to a group of names.
For example: You could chose letters such as "S, H, Y, R, M, and A" and keep the sounds soft and flowing. This might lead to names like "Sasha", "Yarama", "Hahseya", or "Marhya".
If you don't have the game related resources, you can still come up with names with creative meanings by using simple tools like Dictionaries and Thesauruses. The first step would be to look up a word that means something you want connected to your character or their family. Look at similar words, ancient roots of the word, and other related words and you might find something you can tweak slightly to come up with a good sounding name for your character. Perhaps all you need to do is drop out the first part, last part, or even middle of the word. Try changing a couple letters around, simply replacing a letter or two in the word, or even reversing the order of the letters to create something that sounds fitting.
For example: You want a character that is from a family of wizards. So you look up wizard and find connections to other words: Sorcerer, Mage, Warlock, Enchanter, Magician, Theurgist, and more. This could lead to interesting names like "Arlok", "Naici", "Thistur", "Recsor", "Gicain", or "Agem".
Nicknames, titles, and other names don't require any connection to the culture or race of the character at all. They could have be given out by anyone at any time, so they don't have any rules surrounding them (unless you want them to). This makes them much easier to create (in most cases) and gives you far more creative freedom. Simply look at who your character is, where the name or title came from, and what is the reason for keeping or using it. There will often be a number of possible options that quickly leap to mind.
For example: Your character is going to be a psychic who works for a local Duke as an advisor, but has a mysterious air about them. His title might be Vizier or Lord Mystic or Seer of the Court. Some may call him "Spooky" or "Brainkiller" or "The Dark Master" or "Shadow", depending on closeness or level of respect they show. Many of these could also be in the language of the culture where they are located.
The naming of places and things might require a little more structure or work, but since these are usually done by the GM ahead of time (or the player while they are writing a back story) there is usually more time to put into them. Items might be named culturally or simply descriptively, and places are usually named using some local language or cultural format. Unlike naming people there is usually a lot more freedom and leeway when it comes to the names of places and items.
Items of some importance or power might have a proper name or nickname given to them, other than the normal descriptive name given to the general form of the item (like sword or shoes). The creator or owner of the item are usually the ones who give such items their names (although some are named by adventurers or historians who learn of them), so the names should reflect the style and feel of these people. Descriptive names are most common with magic items, giving some idea of what they do (like a sword that has electrical powers might be called the Sword of Storms), but this is not a rule by a long shot. Most other items are given a proper name that signifies their importance (Staff of Serpent God) or simply giving them a name to call them by (I call her Erma).
The naming of places usually has something to do with the place itself. This can be related to the geography, local trade, political usage, history, or even legends. What surrounds something, goes on within it, is said to have created it, or even discovered it in the first place could all be used as part (or all) of a name for some geographic location. This is most common with natural formation, towns, and even roads. Some places might be named in another form, not using a common structure or given a formal proper name, but this less common (in most cultures) than the more general way of naming things. Just remember, you don't always have to explain the legends or history to give them these names, because they could be lost to the ages and only the name lives on.
For example: Geography could lead to names like Blue Lake, Shadow Mountain River, or a town named Gray Bluff. Politics or common trade could lead to names like King's Road, Potterston (Potter's Town), or West Guard Keep. Historically named things could include founders or discoverers as names, like Sir John's Forest, River of Alendar, or Galvan City. Finally, legends and stories surrounding the area could lead to names like Spirit Wood, Angel's Landing (town), or Lord Ok's River.
The culture of the people who live in the area (or at least those who gave it the name) will often choose the structure of such names. Common terms for things like "River", "Lake", "Forest", and the like will often appear on many similar places within a certain region or even world (if the culture spreads that far). These could even be in the language of the locals, ancient inhabitants (just the names stuck around), or some "high" or "noble" language used only for certain things, so it might not be instantly recognizable to the players or characters. Those who pay attention can even start to pick up patterns and learn the meaning of certain words because of this repetitive nature of naming.
For example: It wouldn't be unusual to see several wooded areas in a region to be called forest, like "Campton Forest", "Clear Lake Forest", "Forest of Shadow", and "Redgrove Forest". If the local term for river is "Taree" then you would expect to see many rivers named Taree-something or something-Taree, like "Dorac Taree", "Edwan Taree", "Tine Taree", and "Wesa Tic Taree".
This is by no means a complete and comprehensive discussion about how to come up with and create names for your characters, items, and places, but I hope it gives you a number of ideas and sparks some creative juices. I am sure there are far more ways to come up with creative and interesting names, but these are some of the main methods I have used over the years and they have worked well for me.
You may have noticed that I mentioned the Frenal language I created as a resource for The Land of Karn FRPG. This started out as a set of common sounds and terms I created to give a uniform feel to the names of geographic locations on my map (using a couple methods I mentioned above). From there it grew to the point where I started to add a real structure and form to the language. So who knows what your naming of characters and things may lead to.
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