Naming Conventions & Background

The Perks of Being A Myth Junkie

In the Forgotten Realms, there is the kingdom of Cormyr, which is essentially Camelot with war wizards. This works well for FR. You can use names like King Azoun IV and Cormyr instead of Arthur Pendragon and Camelot, because ultimately the archetype of a kingdom built on the ideals chivalry and justice is a familiar one to fantasy readers.

The Forgotten Realms is a new coat of paint on a familiar canvas, and that's one of the things that makes it a great, classic fantasy setting. The intention of a Sundered World however, is to take these familiar archetypes, chuck them into the blender and spatter them on the wall.

I think that if we are going to go full-gonzo with the setting, then there needs to be a solid ground of recognizable mythology to work from. An ascetic society of warrior philosophers made up of bipedal, humanoid snails is cool enough, but if we call it “Tibet” then suddenly we make a deeper connection to it as an audience, because it is grounded in something familiar. Likewise, I think that as a GM if you lead players to a fallen palace filled with mad angels, it makes more of an impact if you call it Mount Olympus, than if you call it “Holandeus Sozz” or something.

Many epic fantasy stories end with the heroes preventing a giant, world-shaking catalysm of cosmic proportions. The thing I find cool about a Sundered World is that the story ultimately begins with someone's failure to save the world. I think that it's important for the world's background to be something familiar to many fans of fantasy and mythology, so that where the world is presently has more impact.

Furthermore, on a more practical level I wouldn't want to inadvertantly tread on anyone else's IP, so going with public domain concepts, like Netherworld instead of Shadowfell, or Apollo and Thor instead of Pelor and Kord, is wisest move. 

The other consideration, is that we fully expect readers who want to use our material will take the basic ideas and spin somethings off in wildly different directions,which is great. I think it is easier to replace concepts, if we use something more instantly recognizable. D&D settings have many analogs to real-world legendary kingdoms and heroes, as well as divine pantheons, so this way it becomes easier to plug a Sundered World into your Greyhawk or Nentir Vale games.


What Is In A Name

Quick: if I say Thor, who (or maybe what) do you envision? Chances are you are thinking of a big guy in a viking helmet wielding a big hammer. He might have a beard, too. What about Zeus? Probably a bearded guy in a robe packing a lightning bolt. How about the Stormcaller? While you might still envision Thor or Zeus, there are quite a few other thunder gods that might pop into your head.

Names carry a lot of weight beyond simple visuals. Mention a culture that worships Thor and people are likely to run with the whole viking concept; longships, runes, horned helmets that I hear tell they did not routinely wear into combat, etc. This is fine if your vision is exactly the same, or similar enough, but what if your vision of the culture only borrows a bit from it, if anything at all?

What if your Thor wields a wooden spear that calls down lightning wherever it strikes, or what if he just channels lightning? What if he is a level 30 stormsoul genasi fighter with a +6 thundering warhammer? What if he is a women, or a troll? Female troll? And this only addresses the physical appearance; what about the personality and history? At what point does using the name Thor become meaningless and/or misguiding?

I ran into this problem when running Epiro. I told players that it would be a kind of Greek-ish setting, by which I meant that I would use Greek names, weapons and armor would look Greek, and that there would be lots of Greek monsters like manticores and hydras. Unfortunately players started assuming that the king of the gods would be Zeus, and he would look human, and bone everything in sight.

(The players have yet to encounter a god, so all I will say is that most of these assumptions are false.)

This would have been fine if I was trying to push a fantasized Greek campaign, but this was not the case. I was trying to make it easier for the players to mentally visualize some things, but there were still wizards, druids, clerics that worship one god (and can constantly and reliably call in favors without repercussions), paladins, plate armor, a lack of unique monsters (like the minotaur, manticore, hydra, medusa, etc), and so on.

This is not to say that I am against drawing from real world languages, or even using real world names. If a fantasy culture is intended from the get-go to at least look reminiscent of a real-world one, then names (along with description and other images) can help reinforce that mental image. Sidon sounds kind of Greek, while Dorsen sounds kind of Celtic. Mes-Atbaru conveys the idea of an ancient place, before recorded history, but I do not get a clear picture of any particular culture.

Mount Olympus on the other hand conveys a very specific place, at a specific time, with a specific history and culture. If that is what you want, good, but if not then I see no issue coming up with your own evocative name that better fits your wants and needs. I think that A Sundered World could benefit from a strong mythology, ideally one that will get creative juices flowing and inspire both stories and characters. I even think that it is fine to draw inspiration from existing mythology. Where I disagree is by recycling stories and names with strong associations. 

For the most part, anyway.

Some names like Oberon and Titania I am actually pretty okay with. I still think they are not entirely necessary, but neither name paints a clear picture of an appearance and history or seems too firmly rooted in “our world”. At least nowhere near as much as Odin does. Same goes with Asmodeus and Autocthon. I think that by using evocative but not immediately identifiable names, you will be able to drag and drop them into whatever game you want without having to change much or deal with the baggage.

The short of it is that when it comes to names and mythology, avoid the obvious stuff. If you want to convey a culture, use names that do not heavily imply too much...unless of course that is your intended goal.


1 comment:

  1. It's an interesting debate, for sure, because even the core D&D setting utilizes names from established fictions from time to time. Many of the demigods of the underworlds (Asmodeus, Azazel, Baphomet, Demogorgon, and so forth) are all taken from established fiction, after all, and that is equally true with more powerful deities such as Bahamut, Tiamat, Saint Cuthbert, and so on. Even despite these characters being easily recognizable (everyone knows that Bahamut is a giant dragon, whether from mythology or from playing too much Final Fantasy as a kid), they still include them as is in the core game. And I'm pretty sure there were supplements that included deities from the Norse and Egyptian mythologies, amongst others, and it didn't strike me as very odd. (I find it actually creates an interesting element of conflict; like how the Order of the Stick webcomic has Norse and Chinese mythology warring in the heavens, which has an effect on the planes below.)

    It's a tough balancing act, for sure. Honestly, I'm not sure where to draw the line. I find saying a tribe of snail-monks come from Tibet, while evocative, is a bit over-the-top. But I wouldn't say that including Thor or Zeus would necessarily be a bad thing, as long as they were utilized in a proper way. At least in a general sense.

    If you're thinking specifically about Sundered World, however, I might shy away from using too many easily recognizable names. I like how the Dragonborn have inhabited the dead body of a deity but it would be a little weird if that god were Odin, spiraling through the cosmos. Similarly, a sundered Mount Olympus would probably play the same way that Mount Celestial would, but it gives it a much different flavour with an increased expectation (like David mentioned).

    I think erring on the side of caution is probably the best bet, but it's all in moderation, right?


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