What’s their name?
I noticed something during our last game session: I’ve stopped asking for NPCs’ names. When I stopped to think about why, the answer was immediate and clear. I’ve had so many Storytellers get annoyed by that question. Most of them didn’t have a name ready to go, and either ended up using a generic name over and over, or they cribbed random names from a generator or objects around the room. (Ask our table about “Pepsi” sometime.) So after more than ten years of frustrated Storytellers, I just stopped asking.
But that wasn’t really the answer. I should have examined my feelings more carefully, but it wasn’t until I was on a walk with Aron that we began to examine the layers beneath my trepidation.
It’s not entirely my Storytellers’ fault that they couldn’t come up with the names fast enough. I used to ask everyone their name. No wonder they ran through any list of prepared names when I asked them to produce a dozen each session. So while there are some ways for Storytellers to prepare NPC names, I’m going to focus on what players can do.
So when and where should you ask for someone’s name in a TTRPG? When it’s important, more or less. If your characters are just popping into a bakery to pick up some pastries for the road, then “the baker” is probably sufficient, and it may be creating more work than it’s worth for your Storyteller. Unless mimic donuts or something else interesting rears its head, just buy your sweets and move on with the adventure. There’s so much to do, and your Storyteller is balancing a hundred things at once. If the NPC’s name doesn’t matter, maybe now’s not the time to ask for one.
But if this NPC is important to the plot — the guard captain who gives out plot hooks, or the monarch of the nation in peril by the Big Bad — then definitely ask for their name. That one seems obvious, but there are some other considerations. Will knowing that NPC’s name matter? Even if they’re not a major plot character, it might be some aristocrat whose name you need to invoke at the door to get invited to the royal ball. It would sound pretty silly if your characters marched up to the guards and said “What’s-their-name sent us.”
Similarly, even if an NPC doesn’t matter to the plot, if they mean something to your character — an NPC child they saved, a guard who died helping the party, a partner from a tryst — then getting a name there might be a good idea, too, if you plan to reference it down the road. The point is they have to mean something. If your character is going to send gifts to the child they saved, sit and brood about their failure to save the guard, or get hung up on the person back in that village, then the name is important. The name becomes part of a role-playing hook.
Some vendors might be worth a name, too. A single bakery stop in a town that the characters breeze through, never to be seen again, is one thing. But the proprietor of a blacksmith’s shop or magic vendor in the major hub town of the campaign is something else. If you’ll be returning to their shop time after time when the dragon chars your paladin’s armor to soot, then it’s worth your time to learn a name, and for your Storyteller to provide one.
Some players will sort of troll their Storyteller about this, asking everyone’s name, or the name of NPCs when they’re never even going to use it. Please don’t be that player. Storytelling RPGs is a challenging job, and you don’t want to lose your Storyteller to burnout just because you thought it would be funny to embarrass them.
I took it too far and stopped asking about anyone’s name out of fear of that, but you don’t need to do that either. Trust your Storyteller that they will have names or be able to create them when they matter, but don’t antagonize them.
Pick your battles and the ones you bring to your Storyteller. It’s not a big deal to ask for a name when they don’t have one prepared, or not to ask when the name is ready to go. But too much too often can burn out you or the Storyteller. And nobody wants that.