This entry is part 5 in the series A Good Name Is Hard To Find

So, here it is: a day late, thanks to the Easter long weekend, but better late than never! Normal Service will be restored next week… in the meantime, enjoy.

We’re still working our way through what was originally intended to be Part 4 of this series, believe it or not! Part 1 concerned itself with setting the goals for the series, identifying the characteristics of a good name and considering the value that a good name could add – and the impairments that could result from a detrimental name. Part 2 explored Name seeds, a system for generating character names of passable-or-better quality that I have developed. In parts 3 & 4, I examined name structures, which are the framework within which a Name Seed can be employed can be employed, a subject that segued into telling a story with a name.

Logically, if I were not so focused on trying to make up for lost time, I would have left the last couple of sections of Part 4 for this segment of the Naming series for this part, it would have been a better fit. But hindsight is 20/20 by definition, and at the time I just wanted to get as much of it done as I could – I was so tired at the end of it, that i could barely put one word in front of another, let alone see the structural forest for the narrative trees!

Looking at the rather ambitious agenda I have laid out for this post, I’m not even sure that I’ll get all the way through it in one sitting. Assuming that I do, Part 6 (the originally-intended Part 4) will look at integrating name cores and name structures; and Part 7, to follow that, will look at various name-generation tools and aids – most of which may come as some surprise. But, in this part – and the last few sections of the previous one – we are taking a minor diversion. The subject is telling a story with a name…

Naming Places

Everything happens somewhere. If you are lucky enough to have your adventures take place on Earth, or some commercially-published game setting, a lot of the work of naming things is done for you – thank your lucky stars! If this is not the case, then you have a lot of work in front of you, because any map contains a lot of things that need naming: Mountains, Valleys, Forests, Plains, Deserts, Rivers, Lakes, Waterfalls, Seas & Oceans, Roads, Cities, Towns, Streets, Inns, Banks & Lawyers, Other Business Establishments, Towers, Keeps, & Castles, – even Planets, Stars, Nebulas, and Galaxies… and I’m sure I’ve missed something.

Place names always tell a story, whether it be of exploration, discovery, exploitation, nobility, greed, or whatever – they always have a tale to tell. Even a name like “New York” – the subtext being “Just like York was, only better”. Beyond this, there’s no one pattern – until we look at each type of Place in its own right…

Naming Mountains

Mountains are generally named for appearance (especially when a metaphor can be used to describe that appearance), for their climate, for the explorer who discovered the mountain or some family member, for its height (using a relative measure), for the political location, for the inhabitants, or for a famous person known to the discoverer. The combination of all these options is so broad that just about any name you can think of can be acceptable and justified later.

That’s a bad way to do business. Unless there is some obvious name (“Troll Mountain”) or something highly distinctive about the mountain’s appearance (“Dagger Point”), I prefer the name to reflect the historic activity of the region, or the type of action that I expect to hit the players with if they enter the vicinity, either symbolically or metaphorically.

These modes of assigning the name ensure that whatever name is chosen reflects the sort of things that the namer would have been thinking about. “Black Rock” (coal) – “Small Nugget Mountain” – “Long Pine” – “Bloodfreeze” – “Goat Back” – “Twisted Ally” … well, you get the idea.

I rarely explain the origins of the name, and certainly without a high-level skill check of some kind. The more evocative the name, the better – but once you have the PCs on the hook of curiosity, you have to reel them in gently, to use a fishing metaphor! This way, the PCs are never sure whether I’m dropping hints, describing history, describing prophecy, being cryptic, or trying to mislead them – a lot of potential interpretation when the real objective was simply to get a name that sounds cool.

The same technique works for Volcanoes, but the lexicon will usually involve anger, hostility, violence, smoke, or some other more specific reference to the nature of the mountain. These can be made quite subtle, however, if you are in the mood – “Glacier Slip” is a great name for a volcano with a frozen peak. After the eruption, the PCs will know why the Glacier Slipped – beforehand, they won’t have a clue.

One more example that they may not get even after the fact, giving you an inside joke with which to amuse yourself: “Jaggerfalls”. Don’t get it? “Jaggerfalls” = “Jagger + Falls” = “Rolling Stones” + “Falls” = “Landslides” – and what causes landslides? Earthquakes, i.e. Tectonic Activity, i.e. Volcanically active.

The tallest peak in a region should have a name that especially reeks of Majesty. Put a little extra effort into naming it.

Naming Valleys

Valleys tend to be given optimistic names, because they will frequently be the closest thing to prime real estate in the region. Many are named for the first town to be located in the valley, or vice-versa. They may also be named for some other geographic feature in the region, such as “Three Falls Valley”. With those caveats, the same approach used for mountains usually works just fine for Valleys.

How many valleys can you think of that are named “Happy Valley”, “Pleasant Valley”, “Green Valley”, “Paradise Valley”, “Peaceful Valley”, or something similar?

This optimism can often be used to form a poignant counterpoint to whatever nastiness you have in mind for the location. The darker and more disturbing the events to take place, the more I tend to give the valley a sweetness-and-light name.

The final source of Valley names is the name of the tallest peak adjacent to the valley. When I don’t have anything especially nasty in mind for the inhabitants, I will often use this approach simply to save the more evocatively misleading names for the occasions when they will be most useful.

Of course, no pattern of this sort should be 100% consistent, or it will become predictable. Mix it up occasionally, just to keep the players on their toes.

Naming Forests

Forests are often named for the quality of light within them, or some metaphor describing that quality, though they will sometimes take their name from that of the underlying terrain. Avoid the temptation to name forests for a shape they might make on a map – not only do their perimeters change frequently (making that shape a relatively recent phenomenon), maps were usually not that accurate when it comes to forests.

The second popular source for a forest name is something related to the watercourse that feeds the forest. You HAVE figured out where all the water comes from and where it goes, right?

Finally, beware the temptation to use the actual word “Forest” too often within the names of this type of geographic feature. Pick some other descriptive quality or some metaphor for what lies within, most of the time. “The Silverdim” is a much more evocative name than “Dim Forest” – though “Dimwood” works for Tolkien.

Beyond these considerations, the same guidelines provided for Mountains work fairly well.

Naming Plains

Plains are incredibly dull places, lacking dramatic elements or geography to use in naming them. As a result, they are frequently named for the waterway into which they drain, for the color of the soil, for explorers and their families, in fact for just about anything the explorer can think of. As a result, most have very prosaic names.

An exception comes with one specific type of plain: Tundra. The climate tends to dominate the naming of such areas, often cloaked in metaphor once again.

Quite often, plains don’t receive any name at all – that’s how dull they are. The names are reserved for the towns that locate themselves on the plain.

Naming Deserts

If climate dominates the naming of Tundra’s, how much more common are such name derivations when it comes to Deserts? “Dry Well” works well. So does “Hazy Desert”. Naming a desert “Blue Water” after the mirages is a nasty trick.

Colour, especially of sand, is almost as common. “White Sands” is the obvious example, with the Painted Desert a close second.

Explorer names are also very common – the largest desert in Australia is named the “Simpson Desert.” Sometimes these are named for the first discoverers, sometimes for the first to successfully enter and return, and sometimes for a lost expedition.

Geography & Vegetation come fourth. Mesas, cacti, isolated mountains, all these may lend their names to the desert which surrounds them.

Naming Rivers

River names are almost as broad in derivation as mountains. Frequently, the best tool you have for naming geographic features is an Atlas, but when it comes to rivers, I’m afraid the US is mostly out of luck, because the names are those provided by the Native American inhabitants who preceded white settlers. If you can find a resource that provides literal translations of such names, however, treasure it, because these literal translations are the best bible to naming rivers and waterways that you can find. African rivers have the same problem, as do Australian, and the Pacific regions.

England & Europe are also out of luck, but for a different reason – the languages there have changed so much that the original meaning is frequently as obscure as for their North American counterparts.

Spanish speakers may have an advantage here, because the Spanish frequently renamed the rivers they discovered in places like South America – thought many may retain native names of obscure derivation, so not even this guide is completely infallible.

If you can’t tell where a river name comes from on a modern map, why should things be any different anywhere else? Use the “alien languages” techniques presented later in this post (or in the next, if I run out of time) to generate a language for the original natives and use it to name the rivers by translating names derived in the usual ways.

In fact, the only time that you really have to worry about naming rivers and waterways in general is when there are no “native speakers” to ‘solve’ the problem for you. When this occurs, take a step back and use some literally descriptive elements – Size, width, shape, depth, colour, speed.

If you don’t think those qualities, and the metaphors they engender, are going to be enough, consider the nature of rivers – sometimes willful, occasionally contrary, changing direction as they see fit – these are qualities that (rightly or wrongly) have been attributed to women by men for millennia. “It’s a female prerogative to change her mind” – is there anyone in western society who hasn’t heard that before? In modern times, it can be appreciated that this is probably the result of human biology – monthly hormonal changes, the changes and cravings of pregnancy, and so on. Nevertheless, I’ve found that giving rivers feminine names works very well.

Naming Lakes

Lakes, on the other hand, are more frequently given names of more recent derivation. That is because it takes a relatively high level of sophistication to recognize a lake for what it is, rather than any other type of large body of water.

The larger the lake, the more likely it is to have a name of ‘modern’ derivation. (“Lake Superior”, “Lake Victoria”). The smaller it is, the more likely it is to have a native-tongue-derived name. So for small lakes, use the same approach suggested for Rivers; for larger lakes, size and importance are obviously the dominant factors to consider in naming them.

Naming Waterfalls

The Waterfalls people think of are always spectacular geographic features, frequently very beautiful, and warrant naming accordingly. But there are innumerable small falls, especially in mountainous regions, and these frequently receive more prosaic names.

The road from Sydney to Katoomba, for example, is a distance of less than 48km (30 miles) but I have counted more than a dozen minor waterfalls – often little more than a trickle – in that span. Now, the cross-mountain passages around Sydney are a little unusual in that there is no access through the valleys, to get across the Blue Mountains – people found the hard way – you have to actually go across the top of the peaks, down into a valley, then up across the top of the next peak. So we get to see more of this phenomenon that citizens of most other country.

You can get a better idea of the scale of the situation with a quick squizz at this website – and remember that these photographs are just the larger ones, there are many smaller ones not featured!

With two scales of waterfall, there are two approaches to naming, and these tend to follow a similar pattern to that of lakes – the smaller ones have minor, relatively unimportant names (though some can be quite picturesque, as the link above shows), while the larger, more spectacular ones tend to be named for more important people. The more prosaic names are often named for the nearest township, or the waterway, or the peak.

Naming Seas & Oceans – and straights

The largest bodies have specific and unique names, derived from ancient Gods (“Atlantic Ocean”, from Atlas), from some relative characteristic (“Pacific Ocean”, from the word meaning peaceful, named for the contrast with the Atlantic), or from the dominant landmass (“Indian Ocean”, for India).

Intermediate bodies – Seas – are generally named for the local landmass, especially when there is a slightly-different archaic name for the landmass. Often, these need to be qualified with a geographic location to distinguish one from another – “South China Sea”, for example – but a quick glance over this list of seas will show that this general statement is honored almost as often in the breach as in the observance. “Red Sea”, “Cooperation Sea”, “Cosmonauts Sea”, “Black Sea”. Added to which are the bodies of water named for their explorers, also obvious on the list – “Mawson Sea”, “Drake Passage”, “Bass Straight”, even “Bismarck Sea”.

The smaller the body of water, the more likely it is to have been named either from a native source, for the discoverer (or a relative or sponsor), or for a famous explorer.

Naming Roads

It’s not uncommon for roads to have more than one name, because a road gets its significance from where it leads. Each town, then, will often have a different name for each road that leads from it.

There are very few exceptions to this general rule. Most of those are named for the explorers who mapped and surveyed the route followed by the road. The longer a region has been settled, the less likely this is. Navigational references are also reasonably common, as are roads that are named for a geographic feature that they pass – a road past “Washingoa Falls” (a waterfall, invented name) might be named Washingoa Road.

This phenomenon means that giving the geographic feature a good name is a two–and-a-half-for-one beneficial deal – not only does the feature become an iconic element of the landscape, but the road shares in that iconic status, and (this is the half), each name-checks and reminds the players of the other. (For the record, I don’t think “Washingoa Falls” is a very good name).

Naming Cities & Towns

So, if many roads get their names from population centers, the problem of naming the roads is merely deferred – and not for very long.

The names of population centers frequently follow a pattern that differs from one geographic and socio-political region to another. You can often hear the name of such a population centre and think “that sounds like a town in (region)”. Names from the US Northeast are different to names from the Midwestern US which are different to names from the Western US, which are different to names from Mexico, or Alaska, or Hawaii, or Southern England, and so on.

In part, these patterns are real, reflecting the history of settlement – Southern California names have a more Spanish flavor, for example – but in part, they are psychological.

The key to naming cities and towns is to employ generic names for places that don’t matter, and reserve the effort for the ones that do – then try to capture the iconic flavor that you wish to impart, so that hearing the name puts you into the correct mindset for the landscape.

Do this right, and a lot of other things that would be hard work become easy.

Naming Inns

Take, for example, the concept of an inn or hostel. There is a world of difference between an Irish Pub and the equivalent establishment in New York, London, or Las Vegas, or outback Australia. Not only will they have different names, but the appearance and flavor of the establishments will be very different.

If the town name already has the players (and yourself) in a receptive and geographically-appropriate mindset, simply referring to “an inn” conveys the right mental image right away. Reinforce this with an appropriate inn name, and the mind fills in any blanks in the details provided by the GM with an appropriate mental image.

This impression can be fragile, however, and easily disrupted if there are jarring discrepancies between the description you provide and what the impression generated by the name. It’s important to get the architecture and furnishings right, or you will undo all the good work.

The easiest way of making sure that all the details match up is to identify a real-world analogue for the region. Make sure that the neighboring regions also match up.

For example, let’s say that your game setting is somewhere very much like the central Irish countryside, the Galway County. Use the town names from the region as models and templates for your town names, get descriptions of the local architecture from tourist sites, and so on.

You can also work from the other direction – find a book which features an inn or establishment description, and use its location to lead you to regional maps and other information of use. It’s best to avoid fantasy novels for this purpose, for two reasons:

  • There is going to be a lot less reference material available concerning a small region of a fantasy world. You can’t exactly use Google Image Search to hunt for photos, or Google’s Street View to get a look at the local architecture.
  • You don’t know how accurately the author has done his research, and hence how consistent the architectural and narrative references are.

A far better source is generic non-fiction. Find an evocative narrative description and make it your own. Use it as a starting point for your own research – and be prepared to revise, replace, or abandon parts of the original description if your research contradicts it. You can even use a keyword internet search to find the right description. For example, “smoky cantina” pulls up a number of websites on a Google search, each of which contains part of a phrase – put them together, with a few bits in-between, and you get:

“Sad mariachi songs play until dawn over the moonlit beach behind the low fence. Men roll dice in the corner, wagering nonsensical sums on the outcome and puffing blue smoke from hand-rolled cigarettes. In a back room, two sweaty men in checked-red shirts and scarves were playing pool, while at the dingy bar, a surly bartender pours shots of tequila and lime for an out-of-place figure while a hot-blooded flamenco dancer crawls over him in search of a ticket to a better tomorrow.”

Notice how little of this passage actually describes the architecture or the people in the setting; and yet, how evocatively it conveys an impression of the place. Sight, sound, taste, smell, temperature – five of the six main senses are engaged. The reference to tequila makes it clear that the scene is in Mexico or the southwestern united states – so to really ground this location, fire up Google Maps, go to the right part of the world, look at the place names and use them as a template. Translate them if necessary – no need to name somewhere “La Cereza” if the language is inappropriate. Take the English translation – “The Cherry” – and do a search for similar names in the right part of the world. It won’t take too long to find “Cherrybrook”. Just change the iconic references – the dress style, the game, the music, and the drink (tossing in one or two more for good measure) and you get:

“Sadly-plucked lute strings waft music over the moors until dawn behind the low fence of the Cherrybrook Inn. Men roll dice in the corner, wagering nonsensical sums on the outcome and puffing blue smoke from a long-stemmed pipe. In a back room, two sweaty men in faded robes were play jacks, while at the mahogany bar, a surly bartender pours tankards of ale for an out-of-place figure while a hot-blooded barmaid crawls over him in search of a ticket to a better tomorrow.”

We’re clearly talking English Pub; the only dating references we have are to the “long-stemmed pipe” and the “faded robes”, and those place it anywhere from the early 18th century back to the dark ages – all prime fantasy eras. Even without describing boars’ heads mounted on the walls, or pennants and flags, or thickly-smoke-stained windows, a sense of the presence of such typical decorative features is created.

There’s also a subtext – mahogany isn’t cheap, so there is a hint that the present clientele is a step down the social ladder from the pub’s past.

Inns and pubs are frequently named for wildlife, for the owner, for the town or suburb in which they are located, for some local geographic feature, for famous figures, for famous battlefields or events – in fact, for just about anything you can think of. Unfortunately, it’s just as easy to get a non-evocative name as it is to create an evocative one. “Cherrybrook”, the example given above, is somewhere in between.

When naming an Inn, the best approach is to try and capture the tone of the place, and of the action you want. Whatever overtones the name projects will be added to your narrative description; the same narrative will have a slightly-different nuance if the Inn is named “The Surly Griffon” as compared to “The Bath-house Tavern”, as compared to “The Soldier’s Rest”.

Naming Streets

Streets are usually named for everything else in the country – towns, famous figures, you name it. The only time to really worry about street names is when you want to cast a general impression or tone over an entire district, a subtext similar to those of an Inn, but applying to many buildings.

The plebian approach is to take that subtext and apply it directly. “Diplomat Row”, “Merchant’s Way”… you get the idea.

A far more effective approach is to employ a metaphor for whatever quality you want the region to embody, or a synonym, or even for something you associate with that quality. “Envoy’s Row” and “Barter Way” both have a touch more nuance to them, a little more style. Compare “Temple Street” (okay but dull) with “Cloister Avenue”.

There are two parts to a street name, and that last example gives some notion of the importance of each. As a general rule of thumb, your important streets should never be named “street” – unless a bucolic humdrum is the mood you are trying to capture.

Remember, too, that a plebian name will often be replaced with something descriptive by the local population – “Potter’s Road” may become “The Avenue of Smells” if there are a lot of tanneries along it, or “Tinker’s Road” if that’s where all the blacksmiths are located.

Naming Banks & Lawyers

There are times when a particular institution will want to project a particular image. Banks and Lawyers are the two institutions that reflect this most clearly; each needs to project trustworthiness and, consequently, conservatism. To some extent, in modern times, we have stepped away from that ever so slightly; but in almost every setting you can point to, the names of this type of institution will be positively dripping with formality.

The best way of expressing that formality is to take the rules for naming upper-class individuals and generate one or more, then name the institutions for those individuals.

With Banks, it is most commonly a single individual, but names that reflect the national government are also popular (Bank Of Cyprus, Bank Of England, Commonwealth Bank, Bank Of New South Wales – just to name a few that come to mind right away).

In general, the difference is that the Banks named for individuals are private banks, founded to facilitate growth and/or trade in a particular region, while the more abstract names are ‘official’ banks established by the Government.

One name is rarely enough for a law firm, however – two, three, or five seem to be the most common (for some reason, I’ve never noticed many with only 4 names. Perhaps there is some compound growth relationship that means most firms can go from three partners to five almost every time – or not at all).

References

The best reference I can point to for information on the origin and functions of Banks is fictional: in one passage of Time Enough For Love by Robert Heinlein, the central character, Lazarus Long, is acting the part of a Banker in a burgeoning Colony. Warning: I would rate this book as MA15.

I don’t have any singular reference to offer on the formative aspects of Law Firms. My understanding is a mélange of episodes of L.A. Law, A Civil Action (both the movie starring John Travolta and the novel by Jonathon Harr), and many novels by John Grisham. And oh, yes – throw in some Boston Legal while you’re at it.

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Click the thumbnail to purchase the DVD from Amazon

Click the thumbnail to purchase the book from Amazon

Naming Other Business Establishments

Most other business establishments will reference the name of the owner, or the name of the settlement in which they are located, at least until the late 19th century or early 20th century. Only then do mass communications and a wide-ranging transport system permit business to start out national or international in scope.

There are exceptions, especially when it comes to trade consortia – the most famous example being the East India Trading Company, which featured prominently in the second and third Pirates Of the Caribbean movies.

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Click the thumbnail to purchase from Amazon. Now available as a 3-Disc BlueRay-DVD combo.

Naming Towers, Keeps, & Castles

There are two primary reasons for such structures to be erected. Firstly, they can exist to defend a region or a border; and second, to control and dominate the region around them. These can be characterized as defensive and offensive functions, respectively.

Naming conventions for these structures are often differentiated by the primary function. Defensive structures take their names from the population centers quite frequently, while offensive/control structures take their name from the surname of the family who control them – with further refinements to the name necessary only if there are several belonging to the one family.

One mistake that a lot of fantasy game writers and GMs make is in distinguishing between Keeps and Castles. A keep is a fortified tower, frequently built inside a castle; the two terms are not interchangeable. Often, this won’t matter, but as soon as someone corrects the basic terminology of your name, it’s credibility and all the beneficial effects that it might have had go out the window.

Until you are sure of what your doing, check Wikipedia – or some other appropriate reference source – anytime you give a class of building a title!

Naming Planets

There’s always a story behind the naming of a planet as soon as you get beyond our solar system. There are only so many mythological references to go around, which is where the names we use in our system come from.

Take a look at the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia listing of the planets discovered to date beyond our solar system and you will find that not one of them actually has a name. Instead you get things like “1RXS1609 b” and “CD-35 2722 b” – clearly not names intended for everyday usage. As of this writing, 611 planetary systems containing 763 planets have been detected – and that’s not counting 158 Unconfirmed, Controversial and Retracted planets (some of which might eventually make it onto the main list).

Most authors don’t have a naming pattern to the planets with which they populate their science-fiction universes. Two of the exceptions are Larry Niven’s Known Space series, where each world has a name and a reason for that name – whether it be Down or WeMadeIt – and The Mote In God’s Eye (and it’s sequel) by Larry Niven, this time with Jerry Pournelle. Since the latter are set within Pournelle’s CoDominium universe, I think it fair to count these as separate examples, rather than being a recurring gesture of verisimilitude by one author.

And that’s the lesson here. So long as you have a plausible reason behind the name, you can be as inconsistent as you like, except that if multiple planets are named by the same source, they will almost certainly exhibit a consistent pattern or theme.

Naming Stars, Nebulas, and Galaxies

Again, in modern times, these objects are given a user-unfriendly catalog designation that would never make the grade in regular service. The practice in Star Wars is to name stars after the inhabited planet within that orbits them and append the word “System”, and that’s a definite step in the right direction.

Very few stars actually have names; the few that do received them in ancient times, because they were visible and distinctive to the naked eye. Places like Rigel, Regulus, Vega, Sirius, Polaris, and Mira. Most of these proper names derive from Arabic with Latin a distant second. Only a handful have proper English Names, such as Barnard’s Star. The problem with these names is that they are used inconsistently, often spelt in different ways with no standardization, and there are also a few cases where names have been duplicated – there is an Alnair in Grus and another in Centaurus, for example.

Another way of naming stars is by apparent brightness (as seen from earth) and constellation, using the Greek Alphabet – “Alpha Centauri”, “Epsilon Eridani”, and so on. Officially named the Bayer Designation, this system (created in 1603) quickly runs into problems because there are a LOT more stars than there are letters of the Greek Alphabet in a constellation – something not really appreciated until the later 19th century.

The Guide Star Catalog II contains 945 million stars of up to Magnitude 21 (the higher a magnitude number, the dimmer it appears to be).

That’s an awful lot of names needed. NO one system will be enough. Most will never receive a meaningful name – to do so, a star will have to be significant, and probably lacking in a name from any of the other sources. And that’s without counting Nebulas and Galaxies!

So the rule of thumb to use is the same one as for planets – but employ it sparingly.

A quad of Wikipedia links to end this section:

Naming Campaigns

GMs often don’t name their campaigns, simply referring to them as “My Campaign” or by the name of the game system. You don’t have to GM for very long before this becomes inadequate. Some GMs leave it to the players to come up with a name after it’s been running for a while but that often leads to unsatisfactory results. So it’s better for the GM to come up with his own name.

General Principles

A campaign title should tell the story of the campaign – and that gets tricky if you don’t intend to railroad the campaign. At the same time, you can’t give away too much about the campaign; the title has to entice and tease the players, without giving too much away. At the same time, the title has to accurately sum up the overall uniqueness of the campaign.

That’s more easily said than done. I think that the easiest way to explain how to achieve this in practice is to demonstrate with ten of my own campaigns, and a couple of Johnn’s, with which I’ll get started:

The Carnus Campaign

According to Johnn’s introduction to (“A Brief Word from Johnn”), Carnus the Campaign started with the players in the City of Carnus, which was actually Ptolus with a new name.

Naming a campaign for a central adventuring location isn’t new, but the problems come when setting a second campaign in the same location. How do you distinguish between them? How do you refer to one and exclude the other?

Further, such a naming approach makes the adventuring location the central fact of the campaign, rather than simply the place where the action takes place. It’s the difference between naming the trilogy by JRR Tolkien “Middle Earth: The Fellowship Of The Ring” (etc) and naming them “The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring”. Now, if your campaign is one that’s just a lot of unconnected stuff that happens, that may be fine – but if there is a larger theme or plotline involved, such a name can detract from it (I’ll offer a counterpoint to this arguement in a few paragraphs, so don’t get excited just yet).

The Riddleport Campaign

Johnn used the same approach when naming his Riddleport Campaign, but this was more appropriate since the city was/is central to the campaign premise and events, as his posts on the campaign here at Campaign Mastery, and at Roleplaying Tips make clear.

I have also seen a similar approach used in Pirate Genre and Sci-Fi campaigns where the name of a ship that is the PCs base of operations is the central hub of the Campaign, and hence the Campaign is named for the vessel.

The Adventurer’s Club

The Adventurer’s Club is the Pulp Campaign that I co-referee. It is named for the club that has gathered the PCs together, and that serves as a hub for their adventures. At the same time, the club has taken on a life of its own, having its own plot arc which touches the lives of the PCs frequently, either tangentially, incidentally, or directly. A couple of years ago (real time) the Club was taken over by the FBI as a resource too dangerous to be left to its own devices, for example.

There are a couple of subtexts to the name. Putting “Adventure” up-front in the title describes the sort of scenario that we run – very much a “there and back again” with dramatic action in-between – a stylistic promise to the players. “Club” emphasizes that the collective is more important than the individual parts that make up the PCs, and also stresses that alliances and fellowship will be ongoing subthemes within the campaign. Lastly, the name has the right flavor for a Pulp campaign.

Fumanor: The Last Deity

The players adventured in this campaign for two years before I revealed more than the first part of the name. As a result, they still refer to the Campaign simply as “Fumanor”. I didn’t like withholding the name, but it gave away altogether too much; that said, it took the PCs a lot longer than I expected to reach a point where they could be told the name, by a good couple of years. Initially, the title referred to the quest to name the last Deity of the Pantheon (described in more detail in “The Absence Of Plot Direction” section of my article, A Potpourri Of Quick Solutions: Eight Lifeboats For GM Emergencies), but it had been designed to have a potential sequel campaign with the same characters and with exactly the same name. In this second phase of the campaign, the title referred to the last Deity not to have joined the Pantheon assembled by the PCs, or to the rise of Lolth from lesser being to a Demigod (or better), or both – and implied that it had done so throughout the campaign, since the seeds and clues to both developments had been carefully planted in the course of the first campaign.

It’s worth noting that the first part of the title is the name of the Kingdom in which most of the action takes place because the central plotline was the destiny of that Kingdom. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to my earlier comments that such a title was only useful when the campaign was undirected; this is an exception to that rule because the direction and theme of the campaign are provided by the subtitle.

Fumanor: Seeds Of Empire

This effect, in turn, permitted me to continue to use that Kingdom, and it’s fate, as the central connecting thread to sequel campaigns. The Seeds Of Empire campaign is about the difficult transition from Kingdom to larger political state; the Kingdom having now grown to the point where Kingdom-level administration is inadequate, and where the Kingdom is facing Imperial-scale problems – like rival contenders for control. Since that growth was a direct byproduct of PC actions in “The Last Deity” campaign, and the PCs were all from races whose political, social, theological, and personal statuses had all been radically altered by the events of that campaign, the connection was fairly obvious. One of the three contending societies that feature in this campaign WILL dictate the shape of the emerging Empire – its up to the PC’s to make sure it’s the one they want it to be.

Fumanor: One Faith

Originally, there was only going to be one three-part sequel campaign to the original Fumanor, but when one of the players temporarily relocated to Canberra for a year or so, but didn’t want to surrender his participation, I split them into two. The first part of the originally-intended campaign became the foundation for the One Faith campaign, the second and most of the third part became the basis of the Seeds Of Empire campaign, and I whipped up a new second half for the One Faith campaign. Although the events in the One Faith campaign thus far have preceded the entire Seeds Of Empire plotline, the two are gradually synchronizing; the whole shebang is intended to (eventually) climax in an epic finale featuring the PCs from both campaigns. At the moment, both campaigns are roughly half-complete.

Shards Of Divinity

When a player asks you to run a campaign so that he can learn how you do it, and how he can improve as a player, it’s hard to say no. Shannon was a player in the later stages of the “second half” of the original Fumanor campaign, but chose to drop out – the campaign was too big in scope, and he was too inexperienced, for him to get a handle on. Five years on, and he felt that he had learned a lot, and was now ready to dive into something bigger. The result was the Shards Of Divinity campaign – a world in which the source of all arcane power is the shattered remains of the original creator of the Universe, and it’s now running out, and in which one PC (Shannon’s) is – through a stroke of chance – in a position to undertake a quest to restore it – having become the sole witness to the original act of creation, and the highlights of human history since.

From that description, the source of the title seems fairly obvious, but the PCs are slowly coming to realize that there are layers of hidden meaning to the name as things that originally seemed quite unrelated begin to connect – everything from Gods in extreme depression who are a mere fraction of what they are purported to be, to the nature of divinity, to the source of divine power, to the nature of the fey, to mystic circles and rituals are starting to link to each other in unexpected ways, and everything they see around them is being revealed to be both more and less than they thought.

Champions

This is the oldest campaign of mine that I’m going to mention here. It was named for the superhero team that was the focus of the campaign, which in turn was named for the rules system. That team name was chosen by the players – but I now deeply regret not having pushed them to be a little more creative, as the fact that it is a trademarked name limits what I can do with my vast stockpile of notes and adventures. I’ve written 2 and three-half novels telling the adventures of the group, with a lot more material to work from – and none of it can be published without a complete rewrite.

Zenith-3

Over a decade ago, the Champions Campaign – which had been put on hold for a few years while I ran TORG – was rebooted into a sequel campaign. The original was heading toward Ragnerok, an epic climax; in the new campaign, that event was five years in the past. A team of novices recruited into a trainee program by the original, parent team, and sent to an alternate dimension, D-Halo, because the Earth-Prime was too dangerous for novices, the PCs eventually discovered that they were in fact the focus of a conspiracy by a 5th agent within the ranks of the parent team and had been sent somewhere almost as dangerous as Earth-Prime would have been. Eventually – at the end of the original Zenith-3 campaign – they overcame that threat.

The name of this campaign obviously derives from the code-name of the superhero team – even though, to the inhabitants of Dimension-Halo, they were simply known as The Champions – because this is the story of the team’s evolution and coming-of-age.

But the name carried a hidden sub-context: the team were forced to climb to the very summit of their chosen profession in order to succeed.

Warcry

I’ve described the origins of the Warcry campaign before, so I won’t go into it again. Created in a hurry as a spinoff to contain a PC that was too powerful for the main team, a minimum of effort went into looking beyond its self-evident title.

Zenith-3: The Regency Campaign

As the Zenith-3 campaign neared its climax, a miscommunication between my players and I was discovered. It had been my intent for them to return to Earth-Prime and deal with all the ongoing problems that I had seeded into the background; but they had the impression that they were to engage in a rotation programme, exchanging places with another of the Zenith teams, and that they were quite looking forward to it. After some thought and discussion, a plan emerged which would see a split campaign – some adventures would take place on Earth-Prime and some on the new world to which they were assigned, Earth-Regency – whose history I have been publishing in these pages each Monday for the last few of months.

I can’t give too much away at this point, but I have told the players – and so can tell you – that over time, their presence in Dimension-Regency will make that dimension a focal point for something BIG, which I have code-named Armageddon. I wrote extensively about the process that I employed in designing the campaign architecture in the series of articles on campaign and adventure structures (November-December 2011).

What I can say is that there are, once again, a couple of meanings to both the main campaign title, and to the campaign sub-title. There is the obvious reference to the team itself; but, once again, the team will have to climb to the peak of their profession – and beyond – in order to win at the end. The plot arcs and circumstances will give the characters the chance to do so, but seizing the opportunities will be up to the players; I can (and have) warned them that subtlety, cleverness, and control will be more important than raw power to the outcome. In terms of the sub-title, it is a metaphoric reference to the Dimension in which the adventures will predominantly take place; but there are at least 3 other layers of meaning as well, that I can’t reveal. Let’s just say that the campaign title is relevant for all sorts of reasons and leave it at that!

The Tree Of Life

Nor can I tell you a whole lot about this campaign yet. The basic premise, from which the campaign appears to draw it’s name, is that the cosmology of the prime material plane is shaped like a vast tree, with it’s branches running through two of the elemental planes to the outer planes, and the roots running through the other two to reach the abyss; and that, for reasons they don’t understand yet, heaven is full; and that a demon prince has successfully wiped out every cleric (and virtually all the non-clerical support staff) of all the churches in the world in a simultaneous strike; only four PCs survived, the de-jure spokesmen to their faiths, and one of those has since fallen.

Once again, there are layers within layers in the campaign title.

Summing Up

Some of these campaign titles work well, for various reasons, mostly relating to a depth of meaning within the title. The rest range from acceptable to the poor; these have only a straightforward meaning, of various degrees of nuance and relevance. A great name gives a reference point and a context to the entire campaign, a poor one can detract from a campaign – or from later usefulness of the work involved in creating and setting up the campaign.

If I get the opportunity, I put a lot of effort into coming up with a campaign title; it serves as a touchstone to the identity of that campaign and is instrumental in shaping not only my thinking as the campaign proceeds but that of the players. In every case where I haven’t had that time (or the expertise, in the case of “The Champions”), I’ve regretted it to at least some extent.

Whew! Almost 8000 words and I am seriously out of time on this post. There’s still a lot to come; in the next part of this series, I will focus on the fine art of naming adventures, with dozens of examples. A Dozen Dozens is not out of the question…

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