Mar 26, 2012

The Long Narrative: Better Notes Part 2

One of the most common problems referees have is coming up with names for NPCs on the fly. These days, many people use name generators to create names beforehand, but they typically only create a small number of names ahead of time, and then find themselves floundering in play, or coming up with some random agglomeration of syllables. 

My suggestion is that one ought to take a name generator or name list appropriate to the feel one wishes, and create a huge list of names, many more than one immediately needs, and then print this list off in single columns on two pages (I recommend both sides of a single sheet). Repetition is fine, so long as bynames, last names or nicknames can be used to distinguish individuals. I also recommend that one side be male names and one be female names. You can make more as you exhaust any given page.

The use of this list in play is that whenever one needs a name, one can simply glance at the list, and pick the next unused name off. I mark names that have already been used with a check mark and include a short description (only a few words), so that an entry that has been used will look something like "Tom Flatnose - Only priest in Norchester". I start at the top of the column and work my way down so that it's faster to reference, instead of hunting for names. I also make sure that I group people with the same last name, or who are otherwise related together, and I'll sometimes draw a bracket on the lefthand side of the column to make that clear. It also makes it easier to jump them if they're not appropriate for the scene going on.

What you may find this encourages you to do is fill out crowd scenes and other situations where there are large numbers of people with named individuals rather than a faceless horde of peasants, courtiers, etc. I find this is extremely effective at bringing crowd scenes to life. Saying "All the village folk have surrounded the tavern where the exciseman is staying. The crowd is waving pitchforks and torches. You can see Margaret of Cardin with Charles Vourner and James Vourner, the Vourner Brothers, in the front looking furious, and at the back screaming for blood are Tom Coxcomb and Lara Willwright," brings the scene to life in an effective way, even if the players don't actually know who any of these people are. It encourages PCs to ask questions, and seek out what knowledge they do possess about these people, which will give them and you ideas about how they can react to what is going on.


  1. I love random name generators. I try to take the iron man approach to them and just accept whatever bizarreness fate decrees when some strange combination comes up.

  2. My old D&D setting was inspired by the Byzantine Empire. Before the fist session i basically printed the wikipedia list of byzantine names (came to several pages). It was one of the most helpful aids in my campaign. When you dont have to think much about names, it frees you up. For other things.

    1. Yes, exactly. One of the things I want to emphasise over and over again in this series is that the smaller the amount of effort required to put together a session, the longer a campaign can run.

  3. For a modern-day campaign I took a long list of the most common names and surnames, and mixed them at random with Excel functions. Incredibly useful.

    A great source for names from countries all around the world is the IMDb.