Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Guide To Kickass Monster Names

Like so many of my posts do, this post had its genesis in a G+ hangout conversation between members of one of my gaming groups. I'm not sure what my Tuesday night DCC group was discussing, but the conversation quickly turned from its old topic to that of names for monsters and humanoid races in RPGs. Apparently, my very strong feelings on the matter were not (at least initially) shared by the group, but seemed welcome. Also apparently, my chagrin at reading yet another crappy monster name isn't experienced by other people.

Core Concept: Descriptive Names Are Best

As in many other articles here on Dispatches, I'd like to give a core rubric, an example of the best possible sort of monster name that will serve as a guide as we move forward for what to do when naming your monsters. I can think of no single better monster name in the history of D&D than the carrion crawler; this name is completely chock-full of description. We know what it eats, we know what it does, from knowing what it eats and does, we might even begin to figure out a bit what it looks like and why we might not want to meet it in a dark dungeon. Classic D&D doesn't stop there, either. The rust monster. The hook horror. Hell, even the stair stalker is a prime exampe of an awesome, descriptive name. The best name for a monster is one that describes what it is, what it does or what it looks like. Pure and simple. This concept assumes (I believe rightly) that monsters should not be of a common, dime-a-dozen sort but rather unique, interesting encounters that challenge the players mentally as well as from a game standpoint.

Is that to say that monsters can't or shouldn't have names that are unique to them? A species name? Is that to say that the venerable gorgon or chimera has a crappy name? Perhaps those are bad examples since they're drawn from real-world mythology. What about the ankheg and otyugh? Here's the deal: giving a monster a specific species name assumes a great deal of familiarity with it. Sometimes this can be okay. Perhaps the term "otyugh" comes from the tribe of sewer halflings that routinely encounter the filthy things in their sub-urban delvings. That makes sense. However, a more descriptive name for a creature that most adventurers aren't likely to encounter frequently would almost always be better in a case like this. Imagine if the otyugh was a filth beast or something of the sort. Much better. And no one has to talk to dirty sewer halflings to find out the name.

I'll admit that one of the reasons that I'll readily claim that descriptive names are better is the power we ascribe to names. A description isn't really a name, right? It's just a string of adjectives and probably a noun or two that allows us to organize and make sense of sensory data. A name, however, is a place holder for all sort of other information. A descriptive name you can let slip in the middle of describing the action of a combat encounter and it wouldn't feel like as much of a reveal as if you name-drop a named monster. It is my firm belief that we as a species use names as placeholders for more information, much like computer file names. When you use an exact species name ("otyugh"), your brain can go to its "otyugh" file and bring up what it knows about "otyughs." When you describe a "filth beast," how does your brain "look that up?" Only by an examination of the description, which draws the players in to how the thing is being described more closely; rather than look under "filth beast" or "beast, filth," the brain struggles to make sense out of the sensory data its being given. In my mind, describing what a thing is like will always be far better than telling me what it is.

Core Concept: He's Not An "Avarian"

When dealing with humanoid species, we're left with a tricky situation: humanoids, being a people, should have a name that refers to them as a group that is unique. Well, maybe not "should." More like "can, and would have with good reason." That works better. What's most important when naming a humanoid species is that the name makes sense for them. But what does "makes sense" mean?

Consider that we have a species to provide a name for. They're a race of bird people who live in the mountains. Out of the gate, we know we could call them "bird men" or even "eagle men" if we were feeling daring (we will avoid the terrible "bird folk," for reasons demonstrated below). One temptation that I see a lot of writers fall to is give the bird-men a name that, in effect, means "bird-men," often in a language where the writer is aware of some common root words. How many of such bird-men have we seen whose name have their root in the Latin "aves?"

If we're applying a name to a race of bird-men, then one of two things should be true of the name: either (a) it should be what the bird-men call themselves (or related to it) or (b) it should be what most folks call them. In the "Avarian" case, if we assume either of these things is true than either (a) the "Avarians" speak Latin and, for some reason identified themselves with birds (you know, exactly the way that we don't identify ourselves with apes and haven't done for the entirety of our history and call ourselves "homo simians") or (b) everybody else speaks Latin in your fantasy world that has nothing to do with Rome, the Roman Empire or any sort of Romance linguistic derivation. Clearly, they don't get to be Avarians because both of these options are really very stupid. Latin and Greek root words are the most commonly abused in this manner, but it's possible to abuse others, too. If your fantasy millieu has a decidedly Indian flair, you'd be throwing off either of the qualifications for a good species name if, say, the name used German roots unless the species had some sort of claim to a German or German-like culture. An Ermoerdervoegel wouldn't quite fit into an intrigue involving the avatars of Krishna and Vishnu, you dig? The dissonance there is pretty grating and often makes watching anime difficult for me. It can be made to work, however, if the Ermoerdervoegeln have their own specific call out German culture and a reason to call themselves "murder birds" like no one would ever do to themselves.

What would be a valid name for our bird-men? Well, if we use our qualifiers we mentioned last paragraph, the name should be either something the common folk call them or something similar to what they call themselves. Other than bird-men or eagle-men, what sort of name would common folk have for our race of mountain-dwelling avians? Maybe they would name them after where they live or what they sound like or what they do; take that, shorten it as best you can (because, again, we're talking about common exposure to the thing being named), and you've got a name. Maybe humans call our bird-men "caws" or "skrees" (related to the sounds they make), "the White Mountain tribe"(where they live) or "lambthieves" (because they steal cattle). What might this race call themselves? Think about what sorts of sounds they themselves might make. You don't need to develop a rich linguistic tapestry for them to have enough breadth that this makes sense, remembering that nearly every culture's name for themselves translates into "the people" in their own language. Thus, we might assume that our bird-men, in their language of bird-like sounds, might have a name that sounds like, I don't know, maybe "Aarakocra?" Yeah, that's it.

Of course, they can always be just bird-men.

At first, I thought I could wrap this whole topic up in one post. I must have forgotten how verbose I am. I'll come back to this when I've had time to reflect on some noteworthy exception to these guidelines and other details. And maybe I'll respond to your heckles.

In the meantime, remember: It's always better to describe what a thing is than to tell your players what it is. Thus, descriptive names trump other names.