Every GM has had to come up with a name on the fly at one time or another, and if you’re not on the ball it can be pretty easy to name that fantasy blacksmith “Uh…Bob,” or that space marine captain “John…icus…var — Johnicusvar, that’s it!”
And if you’re me, you then a) forget the name you just used, or b) forget which NPC you gave it to.
Fortunately, this can be avoided if you come up with some NPC names in advance, and make a list to use during play.
This is a pretty basic topic, but even if you’ve been GMing for years (or decades!) you might find something you hadn’t thought of before in this post.
Coming Up With NPC Names
I’ve got a mental back burner devoted solely to coming up with character names, and I always keep a pad handy to write them down. The next time I’m in front of my computer, I add the name’s I’ve thought of to a big file full of names.
Mine is called “Domesday” (after the 11th century English census, the Domesday Book), and is just an alphabetical list of names with two other features: notes, and pronunciations. For me, the key is remembering why I liked the name — or what sort of NPC I had in mind — and how to pronounce it.
My “big list” won’t always turn up exactly what I need (a name that sounds “right”), though. When that happens, I try a different approach:
- For fantasy or sci-fi, I usually just make something up (or alter a name that’s on my list).
- I’m also a big fan of adding or removing letters from real names, or shuffling them around a little (“ser” instead of “sir” in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books, for example).
- For real-world games, I pick a nationality and Google “[nationality] names.” That hasn’t let me down yet!
- As Scott M. pointed out in the GMing Q&A Forum, you can skim a newspaper to come up with lots of real-world names in a hurry.
- Keep a baby name book on hand, and sift through it for inspiration.
- Silly as it sounds, look around the room you’re in and use the words you see. Sometimes cutting a word in half can produce a nifty name, as can combining bits of two words or spelling something backwards. You’ll often run through a bunch of silly names before you find the right one.
Other Places to Find NPC Names
Many of the commenters below offered their favorite sources for finding names, so I’ve compiled them into a list here — thanks, everyone!
- Baby Name Wizard (Jeff Dougan)
- Behind the Name (Drew)
- Bible (particularly the minor characters) (Jeff Rients)
- Chris Pound’s Language Machines (Fred Drake)
- Everchanging Book of Names (Pedro)
- Gary Gygax’s Extraordinary Book of Names (Frank Filz)
- Kate Monk’s Onomastikon (Zachary Houghton)
- Kleimo’s Random Name Generator (Ginger Stampley)
- Medieval Names Archive (Avlor)
- Mongabay (Brian Gibbons)
- NBOS Inspiration Pad (DNAphil)
- Phone book: Skim the white pages when you need a name (PW Vinciguerra and GilaMonster)
- Players: Let your players name minor NPCs for you (Crazy Jerome)
- Popular Baby Names from the Social Security Administration (Brian Gibbons)
- Roget’s Thesaurus (tweaked or unaltered) (Crazy Jerome and Dougla.s)
- Seventh Sanctum (Lilith)
- Spammers: Get much spam? Save the spammers’ pseudoynms in your name file (Jeff Rients)
- Squid.org (GilaMonster)
- Star Wars Random Name Generator (hellibrarian)
- Treasury of Names from Judges Guild (Frank Filz)
- 20,000-Names.com (Eternalknight)
It’s good to write down cool names as you come up with them (or find them), but the resulting list isn’t the one you should use during gaming sessions. That list should look a bit different, and be designed to help you find names as quickly as possible during play.
Making a List to Use During Play
What sort of game you’re running will be the primary factor in deciding what your “on the fly” list of names should look like. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to have your NPC names broken down into several categories. Here are a few examples:
- Women’s names
- Men’s names
- Racial names (elven, dwarven, etc.)
- Evil-sounding names
- Ancient names
- Modern names
That way, when you need to grab a name on the fly you’ll be able to zero in on the kind of name you need — and minimizing your search time keeps the game flowing smoothly.
You can also take this list a step further by including space for notes next to each name, like this:
- Name 1 __________
Name 2 __________
Name 3 __________
When you use a name, jot down which NPC you gave it to in the notes section. That way, you won’t forget who’s who — and when you scan the list again, looking for another name on the fly, you’ll know that one’s taken.
This is a pretty straightforward approach, and there are lots of ways to tweak it to fit your GMing style. What are some of the ways that you come up with NPC names? What does your “on the fly” list of names look like?