GM Improv: Coming Up with Names on the Fly

The great secret about improvisation is that it isn’t just an in-the-moment burst of creativity. Improvisation often has its roots in preparation and practice. Just as an improvising musician knows the proper key and chord structure, an improvising GM should have a sense of the narrative and setting. That’s where our GM Improv series comes in.


Fantasy Name Generators

A list of elf names from Fantasy Name Generators.

There you are, running a game for your friends, and they go off-script (according to your genius plans). Now they’re wandering around the tavern, talking to every nameless NPC—except they can’t be nameless anymore! What do you do?

While someone working in a science fiction or modern setting could just keep a standard baby book handy (or a baby-naming database, for that matter), that’s harder when you’re running a fantasy game—whether D&D or another system—where even the humans have names you’re unlikely to hear out on the street. One way to work around this is to simply keep a list of fantasy names near you, but you’ll still have to spend time creating that before one of your sessions—don’t you already have enough to do?

Keeping a name generator at your fingertips is a great way to quickly and easily solve this dilemma. My favorite online name generator is probably Fantasy Name Generators, because it’s pretty robust. You can find almost anything you’re looking for—not only can you generate fantasy names for just about any fantasy race you can think of, but you can also generate real names from nearly any place around the globe. Not looking for a character name at all? You can generate potion names, continent names, river names, and even company names. You’ll get a list to choose from, and if you don’t like any of them, just ask for a new list. It’s really easy.

If you’re looking for a specific cultural slant, Dave often recommends Kate Monk’s Onomastikon. While Fantasy Name Generators uses a concatenation style to generate names, Kate Monk’s Onomastikon pulls authentic (if perhaps obscure) names. It all comes down to what you’re looking for in a generator—and, frankly, in a name.

When I use a name generator, what I really prefer to do is use the generator itself as inspiration. I go through a few different generated lists, and eventually sort of mix and match words, switch up letters, and generally create a kind of word stew until I come up with something I like. That’s fun if you have a little extra time, but if you’re sitting there at the table under pressure of the clock, there’s nothing at all wrong with just picking a name straight off the generator. That’s really what it’s there for.

How do you like to deal with the sudden need for names? Do you prefer to keep a pre-developed list on hand or use a name generator? Do you have a favorite name generator that you depend on? Let us know in the comments!

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