Monday, September 24, 2012

What's in a Name?

Recently I was asked about how I come up with names for the many non-player characters in Le Ballet de l'Acier, my Flashing Blades campaign. It's an interesting question - to me, at any rate - with a somewhat involved answer.

First, in order to emulate many of the great cape-and-sword stories in which the protagonists are involved in the machinations of historical figures, I use a large number of real-life people in the campaign. Some, such as Cardinal Richelieu, the prince de Condé, and the duchesse de Chevreuse are well-known to history with extensive biographies, while others are lesser lights, such as the seigneur de Racan, a soldier, courtier, and playwright, or the comte de Souches, a minor Huguenot leader. A number of characters were developed from combing period genealogies, built up in some cases from just one or two lines - Pierre de Barral was an attorney for the Parlement de Dauphiné, but beyond his name and occupation, and the names of his family, I've found little more by way of biography.

In one case, I took a historical figure, the seigneur de Bléneau, and gave him a fictional title, making him the chevalier de Courtenay. The Courtenay family were the counts of Edessa in Outremer, and they lobbied the kings of France for generations afterward to be recognized as foreign princes by the French crown. Aside from knowing his name and lineage, I found nothing about Gaspard de Bléneau's life directly, but the Courtenay story interests me so much that I wanted him to be a significant non-player character, so I added a layer of fiction over the slim historical pickings.

(And how did I happen on the story of the Courtenays? From playing Avalon Hill's Kingmaker decades ago.)

Second, I pulled scores of names from the many cape-and-sword tales and other fiction which inspire Flashing Blades and my campaign. The campaign blends history and fiction, and to that end I've added numerous characters from books and movies to the campaign. For example, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are members of the King's Musketeers, and they've befriended a young Gascon swordsman recently arrived in Paris; in fact, with only a couple of exceptions, all of the minor characters mentioned in passing by M. Dumas in The Three Musketeers appear in Le Ballet, such as La Coste, Ferusac, and Busigny. Characters from novels not set in the period are included as fictional ancestors or descendants; Achille de Châteaupers is a descendant of Phœbus de Châteaupers from Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, while the marquise de Merteuil and comte de Gercourt are ancestors to the characters from Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons dangereuses.

I also borrowed most of the characters from the adventures published for Flashing Blades during its short run, embellishing them from their descriptions in the FB 'canon.' The vicomte de Praz-de-Lys, from, "The Great Marksmanship Tourney," became a Sabaudian nobleman, while the chevalier de Didonne, from, "Monsieur Le Dorit's Secret," is a courtier to the historical chevalier de Vendôme, Grand Prior of the French langue of the Knights of Malta. These names can also be used for family members of the characters, such as the conte de Valbrandi, who resulted from combining the name of a character, Nicolo Brandi, from, "The Man Behind the Mask," with the historical Valbrandi family of Nice.

While history and fiction provide a cornucopia of names, neither is particularly generous with respect to common people of the period, so it's necessary to invent many names as well. For given names appropriate to the period, I comb through indices in history books and lists of saints, but my most useful source is the ever-helpful Academy of Saint Gabriel, which is affiliated with Society for Creative Anachronism. For family names, I borrow from the names of towns on period maps or borrow words from the appropriate language, courtesy of WordReference.

I enjoy inventing names, but I admit that I am prone to choosing whimsical names. This is something which seems to drive some gamers a little nuts, but I like characters with what some call 'silly' names. Fortunately for me, Flashing Blades includes many characters with whimsical or punning names, such as the duchess del Nozze and the baron de Gras - in Le Ballet, the latter is part of the house of Foix, of course. The campaign includes a character named for the 1975 National League Rookie of the Year, and my own character for solo play was named after thg 'urban forest.' Most of the names I choose with WordReference are, if not outright puns, self-referential, like the prostitute named for the swallow and her boyfriend, named for a tarot card.

Clearly I think about this way too much.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you - it was a fun question to answer.

  2. Much more thought than I have given names until now. I find that I'm stealing names like there's no tomorrow from a collection of Russian short stories I'm reading at the moment for my Endland campaign because I just like how they sound. Indian names are also very cool.

    1. Last time I ran a fantasy campaign, I used Welsh, Arabic, Scythian, and Bantu.

  3. Jörg Jenatsch-killed by an axe, wielded by a man in a bear costume.örg_Jenatsch#Death

    Might not be the most correct place to bring this to your attention, but I read 17th century & assassinated by a man in a bear costume, and I thought of you.

  4. I just want to know how you came up with the name "conte di Grognardo"? ;-))

    Allegedly, Pérez-Reverte's publisher was named Alatriste.

    Whimsical names are often easier to remember (as long as they're not too silly) -- speaking of which, how do your players manage to keep track of all of the names in your campaign's "social megadungeon"? Do they make relationship maps? Do they use nicknames? (e.g. "Alba" instead of "Don Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3rd Duke of Alba.")

    1. You're going to love this: conte di Grognardo is an ACTUAL TITLE!

      Pretty much everyone is referred to by either their last name or their title. The most difficult for me was when both Courtivron and Courtenay were involved in the action at the same time - I kept fumbling over the two.