Serious Play: The Ministry of Silly Names

After years of relatively serious D&D campaigns set in a well-developed milieu, it’s come as a splash of cold water to see just how wacky a gonzo old-school game can get. A recent session writeup at Carter’s Cartopia—home of such worthies as the PCs Uncle Junkal, Innominus and Barbarella, aided by NPCs like Porkins and Val Kilmer—reminds me of an ongoing peeve of mine: silly names.

There have been a lot of weird names in my Red Box game and in Tavis’ White Box game, and some of them are much more agreeable to me than others. I’m still trying to put my finger on why a fighter named Monterey Jack is fine by me while an elf named Broccoli Cabbage pushes all my buttons, or why I’m bothered more by a pulchritudinous magic-user named Sosexia than a politically correct druid named Obamabiden.

Intellectually, I’d expect to be more troubled by topical real-world references, but in practice they seem to blend into the background pretty easily. It’s the puns that actually get under my skin; they have a deliberately jokey quality that punctures my suspension of disbelief far more than call-outs to the modern world.

Some referees react to this sort of thing with draconian fervor, refusing to allow PCs with silly names in their games. Others take it in stride. Me, I’m looking for a middle way, one that lets me dial down the silliness without eliminating it altogether or making my players feel bad for goofing around. Like everything else, it’s a work in progress.

14 Responses to “Serious Play: The Ministry of Silly Names”

  1. 1 Chawunky
    February 18, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    I’ve been relatively lucky with my latest group–their only “questionable” habit is naming PCs after JRPG characters, most of which I’m unfamiliar with anyway.

    I am of two minds about naming conventions myself. I think I was much more lenient in high school, and we all got a good laugh out of PCs like “Sir Ryter the Fighter” or my own “Jacopo Dibrie Debonko, the Sailing Mage”. Really, my current players are much more conservative, with names such as “Garrick” or “Shale” being typical.

  2. February 18, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    Killing the offending PCs as early as possible is one way. ;)

    More seriously, I also don’t go for letting passive-aggressive players try and get a toe-hold in the game through such antics, and am generally of the more ‘draconian’ sort in that regard.

    Defining my alphabet and helping my players with their names is the actual method I am employing in my Urutsk playtest campaign.

  3. February 18, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    Most of the names I use in the White Sandbox are real names someone on Earth has, courtesy of the Behind the Names generator. They are, of course, ripped from their cultural context and mispronounced, but choosing different cultures as filters for that generator is a nice way to shoot for names with a certain feel.

    I think there are normative pressures on a name from both directions. Unusual names will get misremembered by the players and passed on in a degraded form, while a character with a gonzo name will tend to find ways to lend it dignity as time passes. Given that some of the things I’m interested in with the White Sandbox are eras of creation, time travel, and plane-hopping, I can see a name like “Val Kilmer” assuming the same kind of frisson as the sunken Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes: the fact that no one knows what a Val Kilmer is, and its uncanny persistence through time and space, becomes unsettling in its own right.

  4. February 18, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    @Chawunky: “Jacopo Dibrie Debonko, the Sailing Mage” has a certain charm, doesn’t it?

    @Timeshadows: I suspect that passive-aggressive attitude is the key to why some weird names are more annoying than others. Some players are just picking goofy names because they’re fun, while others are doing it to test their boundaries and tweak the referee’s nose. A draconian approach might well be best. Sadly, I dislike acting draconian. It would be easier if I took issue to a weird name right off the bat, but usually it takes me a couple of sessions to get annoyed by a name, by which time everyone’s used to it.

    @tavisallison: It’s fair to point out that gonzo settings like your White Box have far looser standards — if they have standards at all! — for what sort of names are suitable. It’s more useful to note that even a relatively serious and parochial old-school setting still has room for the gonzo and the weird. The important thing is that everyone find a way to be comfortable with such anomalies. (“My parents were time travelers” is certainly one way to go about it!)

  5. February 19, 2010 at 4:22 am

    Neither you nor the NPC’s are forced to use any name they find objectionable. Give them a nickname (preferably one they don’t like) and have it spread in world. Give them in game trouble cause of their stupid names. “No you can’t enter the city until you provide your *real* name.”

    But, man it’s a game, fun! Personally, don’t think seriousness has a place at the game table. And if it does/you want it to then you seriously need to find you some players that think same way cause O’ Cabbage head over there is playing a Fun! game not a serious one.

  6. 7 James
    February 19, 2010 at 4:58 am

    @Norman –
    I assume that first paragraph is tongue in cheek? In my experience, that sort of passive-aggressive thing is nearly always very bad news. The player did something “wrong” through ignorance, and the GM decides to inflict punishment in-fiction rather than gently correcting him at the table.

    If the player thinks he has the right to name his character whatever he likes, inflicting punishments on him is a bad idea. He should be told that his rights are limited. (Or, if that’s too authoritarian, the GM should just roll with silliness.)

    I think it’s better to communicate what’s proper from the beginning. Or, if someone ends up crossing a line (or a player’s action reveals to everyone that a line exists after all) then the thing to do is to talk it through really quick.

    If I understand Eric’s post, he’d like to do that, but is acknowledging that his standards for what’s appropriate are kind of mushy. On the one hand: culture and verisimilitude! On the other hand: hey, players want to have fun with silliness!

    As a player, this kind of mixed signal (Broccoli Cabbage is bad, but “Cabbage Head” is okay so long as it’s in French) can be troublesome too, because it’s not clear what to expect. It might be better to just come up with a hard-line policy and stick with it.

  7. February 19, 2010 at 5:27 am

    I had many characters, in the day, who started out with silly names. Over time, the character became more complicated, and the silly name was sanitized.

  8. 9 Scott
    February 19, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    I still cry thinking of how Eric shot down my suggestions for party names when we played together in James’ campaign. Tomb Patrol was pure awesomesauce!

  9. February 19, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    James & Norman: Sometimes I think a player does want to have a name that causes trouble for them in-game! I think Lotur the Scurrilous Cur is an example; it’s humorous but the humor comes from the character, makes sense in his world, and is a signpost to the GM saying “Hey, I want to be in situations where people look down on me because of my pathetic epithet and I can play off of that.”

    Explicit communication about what players and GMs want is never a bad idea, and I agree that player-level issues (like antisocial behavior) should be addressed in real life instead of in-game consequences. But I think it’s usually not too far wrong to assume that a player with a silly name is an instigator, who wants to get in trouble with town guards, be a sore thumb in scenes of diplomacy, etc.

  10. February 19, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    @Norman, James: You’re both half-right and half-wrong. It’s perfectly appropriate to have the world respond to weird names in-game, but it’s inappropriate to use in-game methods to “punish” a character for out-of-game issues. If a guard harrasses a character for his name, this should be acknowledged as an instance of an NPC being a jerk, not of the referee using the NPC as a tool for administering righteous justice out-of-game.

    @Norman: It’s fine to say that seriousness has no place in your fun. It’s not fine to say that seriousness has no place in anybody’s fun, or that when “fun” and “serious” collide, that “fun” must always take precedence. That’s a classic example of the “badwrongfun” fallacy, where your way of having fun is the Right Way and everyone else’s is the Wrong Way. Compromise is good; telling me that I should leave the game so that Ol’ Cabbage Head can have Good Fun is bad. Especially since I’m the DM!

    @James: Yes, it’s best to communicate one’s terms at the beginning. Unfortunately, we often fail to do so for lots of reasons, from “I was in too much of a hurry to start playing to remember to discuss it” to “I didn’t realize other people had different expectations” to “I thought I was fine with it at first, and it took a couple of weeks for my discomfort to grow and fester.” These things happen! So sometimes you have to work it out after the fact.

    @Scott: Your tears are like candy.

    @Tavis: You’re probably right that silly names are a signpost. I’m not sure if I’m entirely comfortable basing my behavior on that without out-of-game communication, though.

  11. 12 Chris Newman
    February 20, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    Although I haven’t been playing DnD for anywhere near as long as anyone else here I’ve come to notice that names have a very small impact on the actual seriousness and or funnyness of the game. I feel the GM decides how humorous the name is by incorporating into the game. In serious situations after someone has put in ample amounts of time surviving countless tumultous events with the character there name takes a back seat to the players actual “Characteristics and tendencies”. In the end i believe that the GM has to bare with the funny names till the players have pent time and become attached t there characters.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2010

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