Whats In A Name?

Whether it’s in fiction, marketing, D&D or those less important things like children the name you give something can be very important. A name is one of the first impressions that people get in many circumstances and whether you chalk it up to amazing coincidences or not there could be some important consequences to those names.

Who knew that the real problem with your kids was that you didn’t name them “Musician”, “First Baseman” or, “Responsible”? Ah well, Dave and Jennifer will have to make do with what they got.

I’ve thought often about one of my weird creative quirks which is that I can take anywhere from five minutes to several weeks in order to name anything ranging from streets all the way up to entire worlds. Its imperative to me that a name fit and feel right which is fantastic when you’re trying to explain your process to someone who was nice enough to ask. Waiting until something feels right in a creative sense is like telling someone to complete a puzzle while wearing a blindfold.

“I dunno, it’ll just feel right when you get it.”

I’d tell me to go fuck myself at that point or at least glare pointedly. Unfortunately a lot of the time its kind of the truth at least, I think, for the majority of us. I have heard people who can name things creatively and uniquely straight off the dome and its fascinating every single time. I want nothing more than to take a peek inside their brain so I can witness the process that formed their answer, not because it would reveal any secrets but because like watching an episode of “How It’s Made” I just want to see the machinery in motion. I remember vividly an episode of the Penny Arcade Podcast where Mike asked Jerry to come up with a cool alien insect name on the spot and without hesitation he spouted the name “Broodax” (Skip to ~28:30) which ended up spawning one of their all time funniest comics.

So how is it done?

I’ll tell you this much straight up, I don’t actually know. 

I can already hear the disgusted scoffs wondering why I even bothered to write this, which is fair, but that answer was not to say that I don’t at least have a couple basic ideas which I would love to share. The other thing I wanted to briefly say is why I think its important to write about things that I may not have definitive answers for, to let others who may struggle know that its not unusual to get stuck. Whats more is that its not bad to get hung up on things you think are important because you want them to be good, memorable or evoke a certain feel. The fact that we care enough to get stuck trying to really nail some particular aspect should not be a reason for frustration but rather an opportunity for some introspection. If for no other reason than because we’re passionate about it. We may not be able to adequately enunciate why that is but it might be worth exploring.

Not too long ago I was faced with something like this myself when my friend Nate, who plays in my D&D campaign, offhandedly told me following a description of a centaur’s hair-do, “You’re like the George R.R. Martin of hair.”. I didn’t dwell on the comment much in the moment but ever since then whenever I’m writing up a description I have to laugh because that seems to be the one characteristic I expound on the most.

Why? Even if I wanted to spend time in this article explaining it I honestly couldn’t if I tried. It’s not something I do on purpose but of all a characters mundane physical details I apparently like describing their hair. I don’t put in any particular effort or extra time to do it, it just sort of… happens. If you find something like that by accident or someone points it out to you, explore it. Embrace it and have fun with it, whatever it might be.

At any rate, back to the subject at hand… which was—Ah, right,

It may be because you’re a perfectionist or simply so that you can avoid situations like this one that Matt Mercer found himself in on Ep 44 of their Tal’Dorei campaign. Or Wil Wheaton’s somewhat legendary meltdown (~00:45) and ensuing running joke over Mike instantly ruining all of the work he put in to naming his character. Effort he hope would save him from a stupid nickname but only resulted in being called “Al” fifty seconds into his first session.

Either way what this is all meant to say is the time spent on finding the right name for whatever it is you’re doing is a worthwhile endeavor and something that I think most creators struggle with from time to time. I cant even imagine the stress you’d have to go through naming a newly discovered species of something, I mean that thing is real and that name will exist forever, at least for me the things I name generally stay confined to my Google Drive, a notebook or my kitchen table and a group of inebriated players.

So if we’re going to put in the effort to make good names then what are some tips about how to do that?

Read. I don’t mean that to sound like the whole “It’ll feel right” thing we discussed earlier but it really is true, read and read a lot. Part of creating regardless of your field is understanding what else already exists in the space within which you work. If you’re lucky enough to have such a unique idea that you pioneer an entirely new area then this shouldn’t really apply to you, you get to set all the rules going forward. For the rest of us it helps to see examples, patterns and discover naming conventions that we like. For instance I went through a period of my creative life where I really, really like having apostrophes in the middle of all my names. No joke, first name, last name, both, single or multiple apostrophes, it didn’t matter, I liked the way it looked but I wasn’t actually concerned with how it would sound. A lot of this came from reading and not really saying the words out loud to myself, it was a visual exercise that didn’t extend much beyond that.

Now, its important to note that you’re not looking to simply take the things you like and use those or imitate them as closely as possible with the stuff you create but it can provide helpful starting boundaries for you to push beyond. The easiest way to explore into new territory is by taking a look at what has been discovered already. By no means do you have to to go looking for new territory to play around in as the styles, tropes and, conventions that have already been discovered are perfectly valid frameworks to use.

History. Read some history, especially cultural history and the important figures therein as well as geographical information to see how they named their cities and landmarks. Were they named for people, events, landscape or some myth born from the area? These can help you build your own lore and identify when a name or style feels right for what you’re designing. If you want to really get into it you can look into how naming conventions changed as populations began moving and mixing more, as well as how it lead to the consolidation and shortening of surnames.

Random Generators. I know it can feel a little like cheating to use these and I’m not saying you should use them as your own original ideas but they can certainly be a good resource when you’re stuck and need something to get the wheels turning again. Sometimes you get stuck on the rails of an idea and before you know it you finally disengage in the middle of nowhere with zero idea how to get back. Use these to get the idea train back on track. The same goes for rolling on dice tables for name generation. I rarely if ever use the actual result from it but it can sometimes spur an idea for a name I really do like. As much as we all love Bob the NPC there are only so many times you can get away with it and once you introduce Bobbina with a straight face its time to up your game.

Most importantly beyond all the reference materials and tools to help inspire you the biggest thing to remember is that you connect with it. That it feels right for your intention and evokes the feeling that you had in mind. It may sound funny to others or may not have the intended effect but like in every other endeavor a 100% success rate is little more than wishful thinking. It’s not an argument to keep you from aiming high but don’t be discouraged if you fall a bit short, everyone does now and then, it’s part of how we learn to improve.

Have fun with both your successes and failures, take inspiration from the discussion the names prompt and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself when something you come up with is unintentionally funny. Mark my words, it will happen.

If all else fails, the group doesn’t really have to survive their next encounter, do they?

As I said at the beginning for me this is a difficult process to put into words but what about you? What tips and tricks do you use to fill up your maps and lists of characters with interesting names?

Until next time, happy rolling!

  • Non-Washable

Skill Monkey Like Cheatos

I won’t defend the reference in the title, but it exists and I used it. So there.

A friend posted this tweet with what I thought was an interesting topic for discussion and it’s one we did cover in part on Fox’s Squaretable. Even still there is always a lot of debate about player behavior with regards to meta-gaming, min-maxing, power-gaming or any number of other table disrupting approaches.

The question we were asked on the Squaretable was how we felt about players multi-classing into abilities that “stepped on the toes” of other players at the table. Part of the way that characters feel unique and useful in the game is determined by their skills, of which there are 18 on the character sheet as well as their class abilities and archetype.

  • Acrobatics
  • Animal Handling
  • Arcana
  • Athletics
  • Deception
  • History
  • Insight
  • Intimidation
  • Investigation
  • Medicine
  • Nature
  • Perception
  • Performance
  • Persuasion
  • Religion
  • Sleight of Hand
  • Stealth
  • Survival

While there can, and has, been some debate over how useful or important any of these particular skills can be it is the job of the DM to allow players the opportunity to explore them within the game. Not every skill needs to be useful in every situation but ideally they should come into play at some appropriate juncture. Its also important to remember that as DMs we should be open to players attempting to use these skills in unorthodox ways in order to solve problems. That doesn’t mean that we need to completely ignore reasonable limitations on what the skills cover but players can often make compelling arguments for their out of the box thinking, which should be rewarded if it has merit.

At any rate!

Touching briefly on what we talked about during the Squaretable, the argument I made is that I have no problem with characters multi-classing even if it steps into a domain already covered by another character. The caveat however is that I prefer there to be a solid character reason for doing so other than just the player thinking, “I want to do that too.”. The reason can be as simple as your character emulating or learning from a party member that they look up to, something that is born out of an experience buried in their backstory or even brought about from a recent experience.  As with nearly everything that comes with giving advice on running and playing in TTRPGs this is very table and group dependent. If you’re running a group with five flavors of Barbarian then there probably wont be a great deal of ability diversity, which is more than fine if it works for that group and their DM. The same really goes for skills as oftentimes it is probably a boon to have more than one person in the group who is proficient in a skill. This also leads us into a brief detour when talking about these checks.

Who gets to do them and how often?

Like nearly everything else there are multiple schools of thought about how to handle skill and ability checks in games like D&D. There is technically no rule that places a time or chance limit on attempting skill or ability checks as it is up to the DM to impose those limits on a case by case basis.

For instance-someone you are trying to convince into a specific course of action will only listen to your arguments for a limited amount of time before becoming angry, walking away or outright hostile to the people badgering them.

Repeated attempts to pick a lock will eventually result in a broken lock, broken picks or simply being discovered by someone patrolling the area.

You can sit and puzzle over a piece of historical, religious or arcane knowledge until your pry it from your brain but a reasonable argument can be made that you simply don’t know the answer no matter how much you think about it. A lot of times the reason I hear given by DMs, including myself, is, “You simply can’t recall the answer.” when I think what they should say on a failed roll is, “You simply don’t know the answer.” Unless of course the bit of lore somehow intersects with a piece of their backstory or life that would make sense for them to know it then it could be a matter of forgetfulness.

I’ve heard, and honestly have to agree with, DMs which have stated that the only people they allow to make rolls for skill checks are characters who have proficiency in that skill in an effort to maintain a bit of unique utility for each player character. The reason that I don’t necessarily implement this at my table is that oftentimes it can lead to a group being stalled because of failed rolls so I tend to be a little more permissive about characters making checks they aren’t proficient in. Granted this should be solved largely by making sure there are always alternate solutions to a given barrier but even with that it still feels bad to fail as an individual or a group. A sort of middle ground I’ve toyed with implementing is the requirement that your character have some bonus in a given skill to be able to roll for the check, while a zero bonus disqualifies you completely. If that feels too permissive to DMs you can always set a disadvantage or a -5 penalty to the roll due to not being proficient in the skill. As always you should experiment or talk with your group to find something everyone can agree on.

So, back to the question that brought us here, how do I feel about players who try to do everything? Like I pointed out with the question we were asked on the Squaretable for me it boils down to a difference between player motivation for their character build vs the characters motivation for living their life that way. A player who builds specifically around the concept that their character should be the best at everything, all the time to me speaks to a player who will not deal with inevitable failure very well. It’s not to say this guarantees future problems but I feel the odds go up significantly in situations like this. Effectively it’s putting the mechanics before the narrative to an extreme level especially as this is something the game already does regardless of the character. The mechanics of the game are already built to nearly ensure that every character by default is good at a small variety of things. This “skill monkey” build to me is one that I would like to see a thoughtful explanation or backstory so as a DM I know what drove them to be this kind of person and that the player is doing it for, lacking a better phrase, the right reasons.

Why?

These sorts of atypical characters will draw a higher than average amount of roleplaying and story interactions, or the spotlight, just by virtue of their wider range of utility and exposure by simply being able to do more than everyone else.  For other people at the table who are limited to their specialties this can quickly diminish their feel of uniqueness in the group. I can see a lot of avenues for how a character like this could be roleplayed in a way that doesn’t overshadow other players but it is a tough needle to thread even for the experienced. Unfortunately for these types of characters hanging back and allowing for others to excel in their specialties has the reverse effect by diminishing their effective role in the group, so in the end, who is going to volunteer to lose out? The best answer is that no one should and the most likely answer is that in the end it will fall to the DM to try and fix this problem through narrative and combat design on top of already having to run the rest of the game. One way or another in this situation the burden of re-balancing the game falls somewhere instead of on the rules where it, for the most part, should stay.

It can’t be stated enough that nothing in these games should be ruled out unilaterally as not belonging, bad form or otherwise undesirable at a given table without some thorough discussion. That being said I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with stating that there are things in these games that are more or less difficult to pull off as a player or DM. In a co-operative environment like D&D what you bring to the table is almost as important for other peoples enjoyment as it is for yours so be cognizant of those you’re embarking on a journey with.

Then get down to business and roll some dice!

  • Non-Washable

Stealing the Show

“… That will be thirty-five gold.”

I place the gold in her hand, thank her and take my items back outside to the party.

“Got all the stuff, is everyone read— where is Brycel?”

“We thought he was with you?”

THIEF!

“Shit.”

What did you do?!

A halfling with an arm full of goods comes rushing out of the store behind you –

“Time to go!”

I yell an apology into the shop and then run after everyone, do we see guards anywhere?” 

There do seem to be a few sets of halberds advancing up the street.”

“God dammit Brycel!”

Dungeon Master or player I think we’ve all been here before. Rogue is an extremely popular archetype for role-playing games for reasons that are readily apparent. Regardless of whether you like the idea of playing a fantasy version of Hitman, fancy yourself the next Daniel Ocean or have always dreamed of being this guy the Rogue class can give you that chance. They’re one of the most flexible classes in all of Dungeons & Dragons even including a path called Arcane Trickster if life just isn’t interesting enough without a little spell-casting on the side.

Clearly based on the example at the top I’m here to talk about one particular class of Rogue, the Thief. Our friendly neighborhood pickpocket, confidence man and, all around angle seeker in any given situation. Negotiating for the release of hostages? They might see if they can finagle a few extras for themselves in the process. Investigating a mysterious death in the Royal Palace? What silverware? Going shopping for supplies? No, I don’t believe I have seen any Potions of Giant Strength.

The thief is often a class chosen by those who want to role-play the “fun” side of sinister, the kind of evil that pricks but doesn’t kill, the kind that still allows you to sleep at night, the lovable miscreant. I imagine many rogue players envision themselves to be something akin to Aladdin if he was deep into a goth phase. It’s all fun and games while you escape the guards in a jaunty run across town that ends with a good laugh in some dingy alley with your party while they give you shit for being an incorrigible sticky-fingered thief.

Unfortunately in my experience the reality can be a bit more complicated. I stumbled upon this thread while browsing around before bed and it touched on something that I’ve thought about off and on over the years. We often talk about how important it is for the DM of a table to have a conversation with their players about the type of game they’re expecting. Everyone should more or less be on the same page about the direction of the campaign, the style of play and the general attitude and goals of the party. A chaotic evil character running around amidst a group of lawful good is just asking for trouble outside of a very experienced group who enjoys an odd roleplaying challenge. It’s not that situations like this can’t ever work but there are conversations that need to be had prior to going live to ensure the health and longevity of the group.

To tie in another conversation I had today with another DM and some players we briefly spoke about red flags that we look for when talking to prospective players. I mentioned one of mine which was players whose backgrounds start with or include references to their characters being former gods, disgraced gods, temporarily “de-powered” or overthrown in any fashion. I like grandeur and imagination in backstories as much as anyone but every player and DM develops a sense for people that they will not mesh with for a variety of reasons. Another one of the red-flags that I keep an eye out for in character backgrounds is the word “Kleptomaniac”.

nounPsychology.

  1. an irresistible impulse to steal, stemming from emotional disturbance rather than economic need.

This word in a backstory reads to me as an excuse for the player to steal as much as they want whenever they want with little regard for any justification beyond, “I have to because I’m a klepto.” I will offer the clarification that I have in the past had a player who while using that word to describe their character they also provided me with a specific list of items that would trigger their kleptomania and that it was limited to those. This is the kind of care and detail that in my opinion must be included with a character who suffers from any kind of manic disorder. In the example I posted above from the Reddit thread you might be able to see why this kind of thing aggravates me so much. The player who describes themselves as a kleptomaniac is not stealing because of their mania but because, as they pointed out, their need for some extra gold. This is the reasoning that your everyday pickpocket or confidence man uses to justify lifting a wallet or breaking in to steal an expensive pipe. This is simple greed or opportunistic theft, not theft driven by an irresistible compulsion to do it regardless of danger or circumstance.

Kleptomania and other quirks like it are character flaws and shouldn’t be treated as pseudo-feats that you can take as a player to excuse extreme and sometimes downright stupid behavior.

This leads me to the wider problem that is also evident in the post. Players who use traits like kleptomania have a tendency to warp the play at the table to disproportionately revolve around their actions. This isn’t always intentional but it can easily come about naturally from just embracing their characters core flaw. In a game that strongly promotes the idea of co-operative storytelling these types of characters can disrupt that fundamental pillar. The argument can certainly be made that in a game like D&D where freedom of choice and the accompanying consequences are “part of the fun”, which I certainly agree with. The caveat which must be stressed however is that at the end of the day it is still at its core, a game, where the ultimate goal is a good time for everyone involved. If we accept the presence of a kleptomaniac then lets expand our view for a moment to potential other manias or neuroses we could see crop up.

A pyromaniac wizard? How rapidly frustrating would a game become with a player who is obsessed with fire and has such easy access to it that they are constantly in danger of burning anywhere they go to the ground?

Severe obsessive compulsive disorder? How long would a party wait around while their Cleric counts each and every stone tile as they traverse a dungeon?

Ablutomania, where the druid in the party obsessively washes themselves, constantly using up any available water supply even their drinking water. As a result the party must resupply frequently and stop at any water supply along the way so they can wash.

If you find any of the above examples ridiculous or believe that they would be disruptive to a game remember that kleptomania falls into this list as well. We tolerate it because when used appropriately it can be an almost endearing quality in a party member or even a form of comic relief. As the thread I posted will show however it can very quickly morph into a problem when the DM feels the player is out of line or the player feels they are being punished for playing their character. This also doesn’t mean that the above examples can’t or shouldn’t ever be used but that these types of characteristics are hard to role-play in an appropriate manner.

I do want to take just a moment to address the fact that in spite of what I have written here I also do think that the DM was not wholly in the right with enforcing an alignment change on the lawful neutral character. The debate over alignments and how they should affect the game is still hotly debated in the community but I do have to side with the players on this. It seemed a bit punitive and an attempt to discourage other people at the table from engaging in the thief’s shenanigans. Unfortunately without knowing the entire history of the group its tough to make a definitive judgement because alignment changes often should happen when a pattern of behavior is established, not on a singular incident. Furthermore I would state that I do have a small issue with the fact that a lawful neutral cleric was the abetting character as to me that seems to be two layers of plausible reasoning for them to not take part. Either way, a discussion for another time.

So not to bore you for much longer let just conclude with a point that the player made at the bottom of the post –

…But once the DM knew that we were trying to steal the pipe, he then said that magically(without good reason, no spell was casted) a glass case and bodyguard appeared in the store, the glass case over the pipe and the bodyguard which is in the store (so because we wanted to steal something, the DM tries to make it harder for us than it should have been just so he can fuck us over)…

I want to clarify something here that as a DM I do not describe rooms and environments with 100% of the available detail. I try to judge what the myriad characters at my table may or may not notice when they are just going about their day. To describe everything in excruciating detail means that getting anywhere with any speed would be nearly impossible. Its another reason why DMs don’t, or shouldn’t, allow constant Perception checks by players because it slows the game until its nearly unplayable. Players must communicate their intentions and make intelligent decisions from moment to moment based on their suspicions or goals. If you think there might be a trap then by all means check for it but I will not allow you to stand there and roll checks until you get one that makes you confident it is safe to proceed. I can explain any number of reasonable mechanical reasons as to why this is but let me just simply the issue: It isn’t fun. Not for me as the DM and not for anyone else at the table.

Again, it’s hard to make concrete judgments as I don’t know the history of the table, it’s players or the DM but it’s fairly clear that the relationship between the klepto and the DM has shifted to be somewhat adversarial. There are good reasons why players shouldn’t withhold information from their DMs because it can lead to situations like this. If a thief at my table walks into a building I don’t describe things like security or potential theft targets unless they specifically ask. If the thief tells me that they want to enter a shop because they want to case it then I know what information that character is looking to glean from their visit. If all they tell me is that they’re going into the shop with no further context then I won’t bother to expand on a description I already gave. Once they’ve revealed their plans to steal an item, like the pipe, then it’s time to discuss relevant details for that particular goal.

Very rarely do DMs do anything specifically to screw over their players as most of the time what you do is a total surprise to us. We may inadvertently gloss over details you wanted to know but we also can’t always know what specific information you want unless you ask. There are few if any reasons players should feel a need to keep information from their DM and just about all of them are bad news for the table as a whole. If you as a player find yourself in that position or know of another player who does then its time to have a discussion before it leads to bigger problems. It’s hard to stress enough just how important communication is.

Like most topics when it comes to D&D nothing is universal and your mileage will vary with any given advice but it is important to be cognizant of the people you are playing with. I am by no means saying that you must create characters devoid of quirks or challenging flaws but reasonably those things can be something to work up to while you gain experience as a player.

Now, grab your dice and go have some fun! I’ll be back soon.

Happy gaming, folks!

– Non-Washable