Note to reader: This article was inspired by Dungeon Talk Episode 1 of The RPG Academy Podcast. You can listen to that full episode at : www.theRpgacademy.com/dungeon-talk-episode-1-the-beginning/
What’s in a name?
Less than you might think.
When I first started running games I was terrified that a player would ask me questions I couldn’t answer: What is the closest town from here? Uhhhh . . ., What holidays does this world celebrate? Uhhhh . . . , What is the name of the blacksmith? Oh, I know that – Dartev. And their last name? GAH!
Thankfully my experience at running games has allowed me to get much more comfortable with spending my time focusing on other aspects of game prepration because I’ve learned not knowing the name of the youngest child of the blacksmith is not nearly as important as creating a campaign world that appears to be alive, weaving the story you want to tell with the one the players want to be a part of and crafting scenes that draw the players in and increasing their investment in the shared story. But it’s more than that; not only is over prepping a waste of time, it may actually be a making things worse. Simply put, if you are spending time, effort and energy (all of which are limited resources) on areas of the game that do not matter in the next session, you have less time for areas of the game you will NEED for that session.
All the time you spend breaking down the village by its race composition, male/female, adult/child ratios as well as stating out the NPC’s the PC’s might fight or have social interactions with, and then naming all these PC’s – is time you will never get back. And while, yes, these MAY come up, they are not really important to the story. Now if they are important to the story (maybe there are no children here or only females) – then it is important, but that is easily remembered for most and a single note card for the rest of us.
The names you say.
What if they ask me about their names?
The right name for the right thing or place or NPC can really bring all the elements together, so I’m not saying names are unimportant. I’m saying the unimportant names are not important. And most of them are unimportant.
Watch any movie or TV show and pay attention to the closing credits: how many generic descriptors like, “Thug # 1” or ‘Girl at the counter’ do you see? LOTS. The writers of the script know that these characters are important for the scene dressing or maybe even to interact with our main characters but they are not important enough to be named. In your RPG session less than 10% of your NPC’s need a name or even a hint of background. If they visit the town watch they can easily meet ‘Guardsman # 1.’ Rather than a name, give them a quick descriptor. The Guard with shiny boots (this can be made up on the fly and can actually add a lot to the character but takes less time than deciding on the right name) – if a guard has well-kept gear – that tells us something about the character or about the unit they serve. A guard with dirty or worn equipment does the same. Even calling the blacksmith “the Blacksmith” is fine “The Blacksmith’s youngest son” works great as well.
If the PC’s seem to be interested in these NPC’s you can promote them from nameless background players to a named NPC easy enough. But, fine, what happens if you do need a name because this character IS important or your players have a habit of asking for people’s names all the time? Rather than taking a lot of time naming every NPC you think the PC’s might interact with, spend a little time and create a list of random names that you can use as needed. There are also lots of on-line resources to help facilitate this. You can create a list with male/female versions if that’s something you need. Names based on different Races the the area. You can also spend a little time culling out the ones that don’t fit so you won’t end up with Rathgar, E’tok, Arhamie and Frank. As you need a name, cross it off the list. Make separate lists for Geographic regions, towns, villages, and of course – Taverns. You don’t even need to have these made beforehand; use your phone or laptop to look them up during the game if necessary.
I’ve focused a lot on names, but the same theory applies for any detail that might be important, but likely wont be to the overall story: a list of items for sale in the local general store is a good one. If there comes a moment where you need to know if the local general good store sells a specific item a player wants, make a decision or let the dice decide. You can always set a DC and then have them roll for it. Or use 100%, or my favorite – the randomizer – whatever you’re comfortable with. If you think it would be awesome for that store to sell that item, then just say “yes,” and move on. There is (almost) never a need to write out a list of all the items for sale in a store.
Geographic details are the same as well. If part of the story I’m working on requires that the PC’s find something floating in the river- then this village/city/town has a river. I don’t need to know yet where it generates from, or figure out how rivers work to make sure that my world makes sense. If I want the PC’s to explore the ancient city ruins under their current city, I don’t need to know yet who built the first civilization, or how/why it fell. If that’s part of the reason I’m using it, then I’ll already have that info. If not, it doesn’t matter right now. Don’t spend valuable time coming up with a logical in-game answer to a question that may never be asked.
I hope this has been helpful.
And remember, if you’re having fun, you’re doing it right!