The sample name list has been a staple of fantasy rpgs since at least the 90s, often each culture and/or race in a setting has its own list of typical names. These lists can be very helpful in selecting a PC name that places your character firmly in the milieu. But every awesome PC name I've ever encountered ignores the setting rules and does its own thing instead. I've found that the best PC names follow a narrative logic all their own. Rather than being a string of culturally-approved consonants and vowels, a PC name can tell you something about the internal nature of the character or somehow signal the intentions of the player. Let me run down some examples selected from my favorite PC names past and present.
Dix Falcon - Looks weak on paper, but when you combine the way the first name sounds with the fact that the character really is a dick, suddenly you have comedy gold. Then add to the equation that Dix is an ill-tempered wizard who would not hesitate to fry you for making fun of his name. I think Johnny Cash once wrote a song about this PC.
Forgelock X-51 - Forgelock seemed the obvious answer when the question of what to call a Warforged Warlock came up, but appending the X-51 really makes this name sing. A crazy alphanumeric designation is pitch perfect for my new Eberron campaign, where Warforged aren't just kinda like robots, they're exactly like crazy comic book robots built by mad scientists. And as someone who has been reading Nextwave: Agents of HATE the X-51 designation even provides personality info. Marvel comics nerds will recognize X-51 as the model number of Aaron Stack a.k.a. Machine Man. In his recent Nextwave appearances ol' X-51 has been one of those "we robots are superior to you fleshy ones" types. I can't wait to see how that plays out.
Osric the Slayer - On the surface this is nothing to write home about. But if you're a huge fan of the greatest film of all time, Conan the Barbarian, then surely you get that this name was swiped from Osric the Usurper, the old king Max Von Sydow played. Since my guy was meant to be Osric prior to becoming a king, I dropped the Usurper part. 'The Slayer' seemed like a good alternate title, as the black lotus dealer in the film refers to Conan and Subotai as slayers. 'Osric the Slayer' sounds like the title of a bad sword & sorcery comic or paperback series, which is exactly the effect I was shooting for. Osric is a cheap Conan rip-off and the name communicates that fact on several levels. When Doug heard this dude's name he immediately understood the whole character. It should also be noted that Osric follows Ron Edwards' suggestion (from Sorcerer & Sword, one of the best genre guides in the hobby) for creating authentic sword & sorcery protagonists: use a real name that someone in history actually used and not a random jumble of renfaire-sounding crap.
Gleep Wurp the Eyebiter - The pre-gen PCs in Against the Giants all have great names but this one takes the cake. Seriously, this is the greatest character name Gary Gygax ever came up with. I have no idea what it is supposed to mean, and maybe that's the secret. I have to acknowledge the sheer undiluted coolness of Gleep Wurp the Eyebiter. And Gleep Wurp is fun to say out loud. Try it.
Bart Bolt - I stole this name and do not regret it. In fact, I stole the name from two different places. Bartholomew Bolt was the name given to a Citadel figure, a mounted crossbowman, that was released round about the same time 2nd edition AD&D rolled out. I was working on a crossbow-shooting ranger and there he was. But Bart Bolt was also inspired by Black Bart, the munchkin PC of Roger Moore. The editorial page of Dragon #161 (September 1990) was devoted to Mr. Moore waxing nostalgic about Black Bart and his beloved, the barbarian Ursula. Black Bart went on the kind of crazy dimension-hopping, high-octane escapades that were out of style in 1990, but Bart's adventuring career sounded like the bee knee's to me. Getting back to the matter of names, Bart Bolt's name worked even better in conjunction with his partner-in-crime, Sir Ian Wulfric Belvidere the Third. The two of them were a rolling buddy movie. Sir Ian played the nobleman swashbuckler who slopped his way through adventures and Bart was the Felix Unger, a ranger raised by dirt farmers who liked his adventuring overplanned and overcautious.
Kane Bloodtiger - I would call this an absolutely perfect example of the Morgan Ironwolf School of PC Naming. (Don't hesitate to ask who Morgan Ironwolf is. I will explain at length if it's requested.) For the first name you unabashedly reference someone cool. Here I don't know for sure if the reference is to the Karl Wagner sword & sorcery character or the Biblical father of all killers. Either option is badass to the nth degree. The last name is constructed by smashing together two English words. The more macho the individual words, the better.
Jayne Silverhand - Another great Morgan Ironwolf name. Do I even need to tell you who the first name references? Silverhand looks a little less macho than Ironwolf or Bloodtiger, until you realize that Nuada, the Celtic wargod, has a hand of silver that detaches from his wrist and flies around choking the shit out of his foes. I read that in the Deities & Demigods, so it must be true.
Endrin Greencloak - A wimpier Morgan Ironwolf style name for a wimpier character. The first name came out of the PC generator software that came bundled with the 3E Players Handbook. I tacked on Greencloak because that sounded somewhat Druidish and mysterious, but also a bit hackneyed. Which fits this character. Endrin is a total poser who thinks of himself as a Kane Bloodtiger, but in reality is more a Papertiger.
Razzak Gristlyguts - This one was meant to parody the Morgan Ironwolf style badasses of the world. Razzak was a shifty little xvart witchdoctor who grew up in a world where convincing bigger monsters you tasted bad was so critical to survival he used it as the basis of his last name.
Chester o' the Pointy Hat - A somewhat unorthodox and silly name for a somewhat unorthodox and silly wizard. As you probably already figured out, I don't buy into the immersive gamer's idea that naming a character is Deadly Serious Business. Which leads me to...
Bob the Fighter - I'm not talking about a particular character here, but rather the subset of PCs with boring, generic names. This is territory I've covered before, but it bears repeating. Sometime's Bob's player is stuck and can't come up with a good name. I'm all for helping that player out. Other times Bob's player is perfectly satisfued with a bland name. I urge GMs not to punish this impulse. This player is sending you a very important message about what they want from your game: Bob the Fighter isn't meant as a vehicle for deep setting exploration or immersive psychological play. This sort of Bob-player is at your table to roll some dice, hang with his buds, and eat cheetos. I say rock on, Bob!
Unrelated: It occurred to me this morning that my Wednesday night group maps onto the mid-90s incarnation of the greatest pro wrestling stable in history, the Four Horsemen. Pat's wizard is Ric Flair. He's got mountains of charisma and sets the house on fire the moment he walks in the door. Doug's ranger is "The Crippler" Chris Benoit: fearless, professional, and utterly badass. He will wreck your shit. Jason's druid is Steve "Mongo" McMichael. Most of the time no one is sure how he got in the group or why the others keep him around, but every once in a while he does something completely awesome, usually involving the laying out of some sucka. And my barbarian is Arn Anderson. He may not bring anything new to the table, but in the lucrative field of brutal beating administration originality is often a secondary consideration.
A Far, Far Better Character
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