za3k > archive > rich burlew's articles > the new world, part 7: names and cultures

The New World, Part 7: Names and Cultures of the Civilized Nations

by Rich Burlew - originally from

I’m going to kill two birds with one stone here, discussing both the cultures of the world as well as its naming conventions. This is partly because they are tightly intertwined in my mind, and partly because I haven’t done one of these articles in a few weeks and need to do a double-sized one to get myself back on track.

First, culture. As seems to be the case in a lot of these articles, I should define what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a mixture of ethnicity (as opposed to the way “race” is used in D&D;) and defining lifestyle. And that lifestyle includes art, clothing, weapons and other equipment, traditions, and personal religious beliefs. To relate it to the real world, think of everything that separates the Aztecs from the British, both of which had monarchies; that’s what I mean by “culture.”

I’ve already gotten a jumpstart on this by deciding on a Dark Ages time period and level of technology. But I am definitely not going to limit myself to the kinds of cultures that existed in Europe at the time of the Dark Ages. My idea is to fuse that time with cultures from other times and locations to create civilizations that feel realistic but are unique to the world. Some will be close knock-offs of real world European groups, but I hope to give them some twists too.

But what does this have to do with naming things? Everything, really. One of the biggest flaws I see in fantasy settings and even fantasy novels is to create names for people, places, and things in a vacuum, without regard for the cultures that coined those names. If the nation is called Eagleclaw, the capital should not be called X’ithcal, and the river upon whose shore it sits should not be named the Chijcothu’ru River. Names of related places should relate linguistically, generally speaking. If they don’t, it should be on purpose, as a way of indicating that the region was named by another civilization or species. This is why the United States has such a hodge-podge of names, given as they were by settlers from many nations or swiped from what the indigenous people used. Thus, you can have Manhattan island (an Iroquois name) in the Hudson River (a Dutch name), which is part of New York City (an English name), and looks out onto the Atlantic Ocean (a Latin name). But if you look at other nations, all of their names come from their own language and culture.

For our world, we want a little of each. The Three Kingdoms were organized and conquered by one group, but consist of the ancestral lands of several different nations. Thus, there will be clumps of related names, interspersed with places more recently named in the tongue of the empire. The wild lands, though, will be named solely by the tribes that live there, to further separate them.

When choosing names, remember that people play roleplaying games by speaking out loud. Names that look good on paper are no good if the players or DM cannot pronounce them. Xzymrotchit might strike you as a cool name for the elven capital, but I can guarantee you in an actual session, the people sitting around the table will call it, “that big elf city.” And that takes them out of the mood for that fraction of a second every time they say it.

And here’s a pet peeve: I don’t use apostrophes in the middle of words. It drives me nuts, and yet it’s all over fantasy literature and gems as the poor man’s method to make something sound exotic. Well, forget it, no apostrophes.

The first group we need to consider are the conquerors themselves. These are the people who, under the leadership of the first emperor, went out and seized control of other lands and nations. Since we know that we want the world’s general civilization to reflect the Carolingian period of the Dark Ages, it’s clear that these people need to personify that ideal. Before the formation of the empire, they already had a culture very much like what we see now: nobles, castles, chainmail, etc. In fact, when choosing names for the people and places they founded, I’ve decided I’m going to use plain English (or a very slight corruption thereof) to emphasize their central place in the culture. When they name a town, it will be something like “Blackriver” rather than an invented word. People will have real-life (if medieval) names: Charles, Leon, William, etc. However, rather than having surnames, people will have titles, such as “the Great” or “the Hammer” or even “the Bald.”

The People: Like the Franks that gave rise to Charlemagne, I need a name for the culture that birthed the empire. It needs to be simple and to the point, as well as able to be easily turned into adjective form easily. In this case, it doesn’t need to have a meaning, as long as it sounds vaguely Anglo-Saxon. I have two ideas: The Carns (adj: Carnish) or the Thrans (adj: Thrannish). Upon further reflection, Carn can be too easily misused as “carnal” (as in carnal knowledge) or “cornish” (as in Cornish game hens). I think I’ll go with the Thrans. This would make the now-defunct empire the Thrannish Empire.

The Conquering Emperor: This name has to be important, as his tales will be the backdrop for the entire civilization. Obviously, Charles is out, as is William; too close to the real thing. I also want to make sure that the name, while having a real European origin, is not one that modern readers will associate as wimpy. I was strongly considering Edward the Conqueror, but decided it would probably not be taken seriously. Instead, I think I’m going with Garrick the Forger, or simply King Garrick. It kind of feels medieval, and as an extra bonus, Garrick means “powerful with a spear.” Which reminds me; when looking for names for peoples, don’t underestimate the value of a book of baby names. I used this baby name website (dead) when looking for names, for example.

The Second Emperor: Now this guy needs a wimpy name. After all, we already know that he let Kingdom D break away and was foolish enough to divide his kingdom up on his deathbed rather than maintain the empire. I come up with Royce the Quiet, which also implies the kind of guy who never stood up to his more powerful father.

The Rulers of the Three Kingdoms: How about Royce’s progeny? (Wow, it’s so refreshing to finally be able to refer to someone by name.) First, we have the young and idealistic son, the noble and fair king who thinks of his people first. How about Alden the Dark? So named because he has dark hair, but it would also serve as an ironic comment, as fantasy books tend to make the word dark synonymous with evil (and Alden is anything but).

The eldest son, on the other hand, is greedy and self-involved. He demands a more sinister name; I first want to go back to Edward, but now that is too close to Alden phonetically. I decide on the spot that this guy has to not be the warrior-type, despite having the blood of the mighty Garrick in his veins. So what would cause the eldest son of the emperor to never master the art of war? A permanent injury of some kind; he was born with a clubfoot. While not really that crippling, it is noticeable enough to give the character a distinct visual appearance. I think Bryce the Game will work as a name. Game is an obscure synonym for lame, as in having a crippled leg, and Bryce echoes his father’s name, Royce. And, like Alden’s title, game has a second meaning that speaks to his personality.

Let’s hold off on the daughter for now; I have an idea percolating that will come up later in the article.

The Three Kingdoms: We have to name the nations themselves, of course. Knowing that Alden’s kingdom is based around its rich and fertile farmland, I’ve decided to name it Vertland (vert is a synonym for green, particularly a forest green). Bryce’s nation is rocky and rich in metals, but also militarily aggressive (possibly to compensate for Bryce’s shortcomings). I decide to name it after a weapon of some kind, but I don’t want to make it one of the weapons still part of the core game. I settle on Fauchard, a type of hooked spear.

While I haven’t named its ruler yet, the daughter’s kingdom needs a name as well. It is a land of major rivers, with a long shoreline; it also relies on commerce with the enigmatic Traders from across the sea. I think a water-based name might be appropriate. In fact, Aquitaine was the name of a portion of Charlemagne’s empire; I come this close to directly ripping that off, but in the end decide on Redwater. As soon as I come up with the name, I decide that there should be some kind of red clay deposits along regions of the shoreline to explain the name. Conveniently, I now know one of the nation’s primary export goods: pottery.

Playing on these names and identities, it’s easy to come up with names for the three seats of government. Redwater’s capital, the largest center of trade from oversea, will be named Riversend (literally at the end of the river). Fauchard’s heavily defended mountain castle will be called Greycliff. Finally, Vertland’s capital is still under construction if you remember, so we’ll call it Latecastle.

But wait! We’ve only discussed the names and culture of the dominant civilization. Even within the Three Kingdoms, though, there are still connections to the nations that existed before the Thranish conquest. These groups need some for form cultural separate from that of the Thrans, so I’ll brainstorm some ideas.

First, I think a pseudo-Celtic tribe would be interesting. They’ll be a group that is definitely only half-assimilated into the Thran’s culture of nobles and kings while still having a Dark Ages feel. But they won’t be an exact replica of real Celtic culture; in fact, I think they will have dark skin and be almost a Celtic-African fusion culture. One of my other personal issues is that I think it’s important for anyone who picks up the book to be able to relate to the people in the world, and thus there should be a variety of skin tones in the characters depicted.

I need a name for these people, naturally, and I want to immediately convey their “celtic-ness.” That means y’s, g’s, double n’s, and hard k’s, among other sounds. And I want to drop the reliance on English words with identifiable meanings. How about Kylnnet (pronounced KILN-et)? It sounds Celtic but is utterly made up. They will have lived in the western part of the empire, in forests and plains that are now northern Redwater and western Vertland. (Man, I can’t tell you how much more convenient it is to finally have names!)

Now, here’s why I held off on naming the queen of Redwater: in my mind, I’ve determined that I needed a way to explain why certain groups have not revolted against the Thrannish monarchs. As I picture them, the Kylnnet would be the most likely to lead such a revolt, so why hasn’t it happened? Easy: Royce the Quiet married a Kylnnic princess as his second wife, thus binding them into the empire. In fact, all the Kylnnet who were related to this princess instantly became landed nobles within the empire, and have subsequently passed those holdings to their children. Redwater’s queen, therefore, is half-Thrannish, half-Kylnnic, and I want her to have a Kylnnic name (that is, a Celtic name) to reflect this. Persuing a list of Celtic and Gaelic names, I pick Katrionna; I don’t think I need to give her an official title.

As a side note, I think I just determined that Royce had at least three successive wives, one for each of his offspring. That works fine, as it makes it more likely that they have no familial emotional ties to one another.

Now, I have a large mountainous region, mostly within the kingdom of Fauchard’s borders, that would have been inhabited by non-centralized tribes of miners and such. Since this world has no dwarves to steal this niche, we have a place for a culture of hardy mountain men. I’m thinking heavily Germanic for the names; Wilhelm, Reichard, that kind of thing. I’ll call them the Stahlmen; they didn’t have enough of a unified culture to survive the assimilation by the Thrans, but they still have traditions and language connections that survive.

Let’s end there temporarily; I still have the culture of the gnomes and the various “barbaric” nations to deal with, as well as any additional cultural groups subsumed by the Thrans. But this article is long enough, and I’d like the decisions I made here to simmer in the back of my mind for a bit before going forward.