NPC Naming. Wow do I hate coming up with NPC names of the fly. A throwaway NPC suddenly becomes important and then bam! the player asks for a name . . . . . . .. . Great.

Moments like this often result in names like Pilo (pillow) or Pyul Que (Pool cue) because of things that happen to be in my line of sight, or they tend to be mish-mashed syllabic names that don’t sound very realistic, even for a fantasy setting. I’ve turned to name generators and name lists, but because of my gamer short attention span, I’ve forgotten to keep up with using them or I’ve left them behind when I get to the table. Then I saw the T.V. show supernatural and got inspired.

The general plot of supernatural is two guys go around hunting ghosts and monsters. As part of this they constantly use fake names that are blatanly ripped from a variety of sources. Sometimes their names com from rock bands (“Father Simmons” and “Father Frehley”, two members of Queen Kiss.) or the pinnacles of geekery (agents Hammil and ford, as in Mark Hammil and Harrison Ford) or a variety of movie references.

Thinking about this, it seems like an excellent way to generate on the fly names for NPCS. Having a Captain Bogart, head of the imperial guard or a Mischa Barton, girl who works at the coffee shop and saw the incident might seem a little silly, but the players are bound to associate the name more-so than if it were a generic or quickly generated. Here are a couple of tips/ideas on using this approach.

Make it a celebrity cameo
If you are going to use a well known name, then go for glory and use some of the celebrity’s personality or physical traits in the npc. Captain Bogart might have a broken nose or talk with a low rolling voice. Grab a picture of good old Humphrey and show it to your players.

Part of the name and last names first
If you don’t want to go so blatant with the NPC celebrity cameo, then just use part of the name. Cindy, the barmaid. Morgan, a spellcaster who holds the item the players need. Estella, the internal affairs agent for the space station. Use the last name for the full name of the NPC. Crawford, the town’s mayor. Freeman, a hardnosed detective. Warren, mild mannered alter alias of an international jewel thief. Using this route you will often get a name that sounds believable, but doesn’t make the players think of anyone in particular.

Merge two related names
Tyler Perry. Chris Stewey. Rogen Smith. Any of these names sound plausible and will work for an NPC. The benefit in a merged name is that the npc still seem familiar to the players. While the players may not know exactly who is being referenced, they will remember the name and the npc.

Non-Celebrity Cameo
A name doesn’t have to come from a celebrity. I’ve often run my head through a newspaper and picked some random person or author’s name to use. While there won’t be the subconscious recognition in the players, the name will still sound believable.

The major benefit of this approach is the fact that it instantly fleshes out npcs who were afterthoughts. Once a well known name is applied to an NPC it is incredibly difficult not to associate elements of the person with the NPC. Captain Bogart tends to flow more heavily towards the hard nosed take crap from nobody role once he has been so illustriously named. However, one thing to keep in mind with this tactic is that it requires a good understanding between the players and the GM. Introducing a celebrity named NPC will probably cause the players to interact with that NPC as the celebrity. While this might generate some good role-playing, it will also generate a few groans and a couple of run-away jokes. Given the opportunity, a character might be more likely to hit on the barmaid now that she is obviously a super-model. Her name is Rebecca Romijn, she has to be incredibly attractive. Characters might also be more apt to pick a fight with VinHelm Deisel just to say they took him down.

What do you think of this naming tactic? Any celebrity NPCs you’ve used? Any better strategies for finding names on the fly?

17 replies
  1. peter
    peter says:

    father simmons and father frehley are members of Kiss, not queen.

    I was already thinking about using this approach for a world of darkness zombie attack game. I was gonna give all my npc’s names of metalmusicians. you get real sounding english names and my players probably have no idea who these people really are.

  2. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    Heh I was going to say that, PETER.

    Celebrity names being mismatched works well for WoD or Cyberpunk games, but for D&D it’s best to just have a list printed out and read. Pick one at random and cross it off (or not). If it becomes important, note it.

  3. Walt Ciechanowski
    Walt Ciechanowski says:

    One method I use is a baby name generator (for first names) and an online translator for last names. In my fantasy games, I’ll often make a real world language the “base” for a region, so most names from that region will sound similar. Sometimes I’ll massage pronunciation or edit the names a bit for flavor.

    I often cast celebrities as my characters. If I tell my players “the Spanish pirate steps off the boat and smiles at you, hands on her hips. By the way, she’s being played by Catherine Zeta Jones” it instantly puts an image in my player’s minds that is far clearer than any physical description I might whip up.

    The big benefit of this method is that I can pull celebrities from any time or medium. I can have a young Richard Dawson playing cards with Axl Rose and Robert Downey, Jr.

  4. ekb
    ekb says:

    One of the conventions I use for pregen PCs in convention/tournament games is that they’re based around the Scooby gang. It works because the characters are all pretty distinct and perform pretty specific roles in the party. They’re also recognizable and easily understood roles.

    What helps this out was that in one era of the show, there was a series of “guest stars” of wildly varying type. Makes it easier to say that the fence the rogue is taking the ill-gotten gains to looks like Danny Devito in “Jewel of the Nile” but smoking a smellier cigar than usual…

    As to the previously mentioned idea of the mismatch: since I tend to run investigative scenarios, I’d think that the mismatches would be best used as a flag to lead the characters where I’d want them. If Fr. Frehely, Dr Simmons and Officer Criss direct them toward Judge Izzard, they might be onto something more than if they were even sent to Rabbi Stanley Eisen… even if the players didn’t quite get the joke.

  5. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Peter: Oops, wrote it down wrong. Thanks for correcting it.

    @Rafe: Depends on how you run your D&D/fantasy game. I try to shy away from fantasy sounding names for general NPCs. It depends on the role that the character is supposed to fill. If they really are generic townspeople I’ll use regular names. If they are supposed to be something more important, or should have some impact on the player’s minds, then I’ll aim for a memorable sounding name.

    @Walt: That’s what I like best about this approach. I think I might have even snagged the idea from one of Martin’s TT posts from way back in the day. I prefer to cast actor’s as opposed to characters. You don’t want to have a pirate who looks like Inigo Matoya, but a pirate who looks like Mandy Patinkin.

    @EKB: I’ve used the actual scooby gang in a modern game. I’ve also had them star in a Ninja Burger session I ran. Players tend to look at you like WTF and then proceed to beat up every janitor or old man caruthers they find.

  6. Martin Ralya
    Martin Ralya says:

    I could see this backfiring, but used sparingly I could also see it being totally awesome. I love the idea that a celeb mashup NPC will take on some of the characteristics of her namesakes — that’s a great roleplaying handle for you, the GM.

  7. drow
    drow says:

    i’ll either steal a name from anime (anime cameo!), a past campaign (meta cameo!), or use a random name generator.

  8. Walt Ciechanowski
    Walt Ciechanowski says:

    In my campaigns, we also go a step further. The PCs usually select a celebrity to play them, lol.

    My current Witchcraft 1983 group includes three PCs, played by Alicia Minshew (All My Children), Jason Castro (American Idol 7), and Richard Biggs (Babylon 5).

    We’ve only had about four sessions so far, but NPC celebrities have included Dabney Coleman, Ally Sheedy, Billy Zabka, Vanessa Williams, Michael Jeter, Phoebe Cates, Lee Horsley, Sarah Sutton, Rick Astley, and Paxton Whitehead.

    Hmm, I think I’m losing my Gnomie street cred here.

  9. GeeksDreamGirl
    GeeksDreamGirl says:

    This reminds me of the episode of Family Guy when Peter is trying to come up with a fake name…

    PEA…. uh…uh…. TEAR….uh….uhhh…. (rawr!)… GRIFFIN! Peter Griffin!

  10. thelesuit
    thelesuit says:

    This can also be a tools/prep issue. I rarely game without my laptop anymore and I rely on the EBON application for creating names for fantasy settings. I like to use the phonebook for more modern games.


  11. Snargash Moonclaw
    Snargash Moonclaw says:

    Well, those I can think of off the top of my head: In Panisadore the dwarven god of truth is Ri(chard)mil(house)nix(on), working off his karma. (He and his priests are incapable of telling a lie.) The god of bards is Hendriszt, “Undoubtedly the greatest bard to ever live, Hendriszt is said to play his lute better with his teeth than anyone else can with their hands. He is also credited (probably correctly) with the invention of the harpsichord and developing from it later (probably incorrectly) the posthumous invention of the Hundred Harmonic Horizontal Hammered Harp (or the Five Hand, which is how many you need to play it like he does. . .) The latter was most likely invented by a Rimenoshan priest of his, Kristoforix Stonepath, who, after inventing music wire actually constructed and played the first instruments to make use of it, casting the iron frame himself in order to handle the unbelievable tension (times 275 strings) which the wire could sustain. . .” (The piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco.) The two minor gods, commonly referred to as The Friends are named Durmahd and Jehlhakh. (Okay that’s actually an STTNG reference rather than an actual cameo.) The god of soldiers is Nuhveen (who likes to yell and shoot- I can’t recall the name of the cheesy 80’s sci-fi series he appeared in). Those who have read of Crowley will recognize the goddess of Karma, Thelema, while the goddess of insanity’s name is Bedlam scrambled as Behldamh. One of the major GM Alterego NPCs is Duke Lono “The Hunter” R. Boche of the House of Thomas; D.R.,C.; C.,S.L.V.X. (Doctor of Rumour, The Collegium; Curate, Sacred Library of Varrul Expositor); Political Anthropology Staff Writer, “Mossless Journal of Contemporary Culture” (Church of Hendriszt); Head of Entheogenic Research, “Poets’, Fools’ and Madmen’s Really All-manac, Daily Meditation/Prayerbook/Hymnal and Garderobe Utility.” (The library, commonly called The Burrows, is contained in catacombs below Mt. Williams. . .) Finally, (Peter will probably appreciate this one,) while not really a cameo, any absurdly large axe is commonly referred to as a Hatchet, while the proper term is a mah’li.

  12. Lee Hanna
    Lee Hanna says:

    When I’m running Martians on Space:1889, their names are often mash-ups. My favorite was when driving home and thinking about an NPC to appear, the car radio was playing “Champagne Supernova.” Ah, ha! Shamisovaar the archivist was born.
    Looking at terrain names also works, too. I once saw a map of a mountain range in Turkey named Goneydoglu Toroslar. Sounds like a barbarian or his tribe, no?

  13. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    For fantasy games, I have a list of archaic (or archaic-sounding) names, like Lucas, Quentin, Tomas, and Genevieve.

    I also have a list of names culled from spam. A selection:
    Tiff Lash
    Edwin Rowe
    Vilma (just Vilma, apparently)
    Bertram Zrus
    Mercy Hsasr
    Elsie Lok
    Calculus A. Censer

  14. The Stray7
    The Stray7 says:

    One of the most useful resources I’ve ever found was Gary Gygax’s Extraordinary Book of Names, done as part of the Lejendary Adventures line but useful for damn near anything.

  15. Citizen Keen
    Citizen Keen says:

    I keep a list of names prefabbed when I GM. About 20 for the prominent culture for that adventure, and about another 10 for each other culture that might show up. Half ‘n’ half for boys ‘n’ girls. Takes about twenty minutes of prep, just once. From there on in, when you use one, you cross it off, and after the adventure add another one. Ta da!

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