Name Your NPCs Like You'd Name a Baby
Every DM knows this story: The players walk into a tavern full of patrons. “I want to talk to her. What’s her name?” Or they unexpectedly capture a goblin during combat. “And what’s your name?” They walk into a town. “Who’s the townmaster here?” And you’re caught scrambling for a name.
Nobody wants to fight a lich named Joe. (In fact, I believe liches are banned by the dark laws of necromancy from using ordinary nicknames.) But in the heat of the moment, it can be frustrating to come up with a name that feels appropriate for your setting.
Some people are great at inventing fantasy-sounding names on the fly. I’m not that person. My off-the-cuff names all sound like a bad mashup of Lord of the Rings and The Simpsons: “His name is Moe Mirkwood”.
Then I found inspiration. No, I am not talking about an online fantasy name generator (though those can be great). I’m talking about baby naming websites.
When running an adventure that took place in a snowy environment with some heavy nordic themes, I decided to make a quick list of names that I could keep in my notes. And having recently been to Iceland, I wanted names that evoked that same feel. That’s what led me to Mom Junction’s list of Icelandic baby names.
Not every name you see on these lists will feel right for you. I would not pick Jon as an NPC name. It sounds too commonplace, which can distract the players with out-of-game associations. But for sure there are many names on baby name lists that catch the imagination.
The discovery of baby naming sites led me to a second practice. I started noting names I liked in my DM journal. And I started categorizing them according to things I felt were important. When I needed a short break from DM prep, or when I was stuck in a waiting room with nothing to do, I’d visit one of those baby naming sites and jot down the names I liked.
Keeping a list of names is pretty simple. At minimum, you only need the name and whether you’ve used it. Even if Adalheidis is the most awesome name ever (which I think it just may be), you don’t want your party to keep running across tavern-goers, goblins, and liches all named Adalheidis.
I categorize my names by origin. In the image above, you can see L for Latin, W for Welsh, and G for Gaelic. And those are only a few of the origins I’ve drawn inspiration from. With this information, I can create towns or regions where the names sound related.
During a session, when I have to quickly throw down a name, I make a note of it immediately. “The guard on the Upstream Span was named Firas.” That way, when the players go back to the location later (and they seem to do this even when I don’t want them to), they can say, “Hey, I want to talk to Firas again.”
Baby naming sites are not the only place to find inspiration. There are other sources that are good as well. When I read a book and like a person’s name, I jot it down. And I don’t just mean Ed Greenwood and R.A. Salvatore novels. Books on ancient history are a rich source of inspiration for me. I once read an article on Middle-English naming that had some amusing ones. (I’m still looking for that perfect NPC to name Wigberht.) You no doubt have sources of inspiration around you as well.
With just a few minutes of time, you can put together a list of names ready at hand. And this will help you whether you’re writing the adventure’s storyline or improvising at the tabletop.