Designing Names

You know what’s really hard?

Naming things.

Oh, there’s the challenge in naming people, that stuff’s probably always there. Maybe if you’re the author of a book or you like naming OCs or the like, you’ve seen the difficulty involved in giving your characters names that work well for who they are, that maybe convey a bit of meaning, that don’t tend to recur in particular ways. I know DMing D&D gave me insight into the ways that I reuse certain name components; in one game, I had NPCs, in unrelated spaces, named Buto, Bruno, and Brutus, and what those NPCs did has long been lost to my players’ memories, but I am still periodically teased about choosing such similar names. Those were to me, useful workhorse names that stood apart from one another just enough to be easily grasped, but I didn’t consider that players were going to have conversations with them, in the same session. Players see patterns, and they saw the pattern in those names, assumed they were connected, and were deeply annoyed to find that they weren’t. In that, I messed up – there was a chance for a link and I wasted it.

People names are hard, even fake people names, of course. All the names in One Stone, for example, came after much agonising over different texts, trying to find things that could obliquely reference where they came from or had some linking purpose that made the story space of the world make sense, or stuff like that. I understand there’s some fuss right now about an asshole naming a baby, which I’m kind of not inclined to give any air to, because one, they’re an asshole, but two, it necessarily involves bringing up the baby, and look, that baby didn’t do anything to deserve being tweeted about. Twitter is a bad enough website, let’s leave babies out of it.

Naming places is also hard. I did a whole thing about how for ten years in my D&D setting, I had a kingdom called Kyngdom, and resisted every effort to deal with how obviously stupid that was. Many names were first drafts that I just never addressed because I was too embarrassed to admit they’d literally been pulled out of the air, and my worldbuilding was as much about grab-bagging things on the fly and pretending I had a plan than it was in any way about foresight and a meaningful narrative underpinning the world.

What else is hard is naming game mechanics. Game mechanics need to be named in a way that’s easy and coherent and referential. Words want to be long enough to convey what they do – ideally in a way that you never need to explain them beyond naming them – and short enough that players can talk about them twice in one sentence. They need to change tenses for clarity – imagine if you had a game mechanic named ‘sheep,’ the hassle in dealing with whether this sheep sheeps your sheeps or sheep. There’s also an urge to name some mechanics for the setting, like how Exalted tries to rename ‘player group’ for every different type of Exalt, as if bands and circles and leagues and coracles are all terms that people are going to use properly like the collective nouns for types of vole.

Then there’s the challenge in naming games at all. Our best game names seem to be things that we came up with as a pun, or where stand-in names that never got replaced. Fabricators was just a name for the file I was using to make the cards. Murder Most Fowl was made as a pun name while killing time at a convention. Good Cop, Bear Cop was mishearing someone. Many of our worst game names tend to be the ones that I spent some serious time on – like the Domains of Meh was iterated on multiple times. The Roads to Springdell is a name I like a lot because it conveys the idea that players are on the way to something but not there yet, but it has done absolutely nothing to move the game itself, in all of its tight and charming glory.

I think about this a lot as I try to name some game mechanics, as I look at work of other people asking for my input and I read rulebooks, trying hard to grapple with the difficulty we have in just giving the components we’re talking about names.

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