Kathy's All-Purpose Blog

I guess some people have different blogs for different subjects, but this is it for me, baby. One blog to bring them all, or something.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The All-Important Name

One thing that comes up frequently when roleplaying is what to name your character. Ideally, of course, you have one character that you keep playing for years and years, but most gaming groups just don't work out that way. Groups split and re-form, new DMs take over, new campaign settings are used, and gamers find themselves with new characters needing new names.

The place I like to start when naming a new character is the naming conventions for the world I'll be playing in. I think it really helps the continuity and "world flavor" of a game if everybody names their character using the same rules. Unfortunately, too few settings (both published and home-brew) have anything close to a consistent system for names. Some have no rules at all, and others have adopted the maddening practice of listing a handful of names from a given culture, as if that was all anybody would need. It sets up the absurd scenario where all characters from that culture have the same five names, or it forces players to try to cobble together original names by randomly combining syllables. This is ridiculously unrealistic. Given the list Ann, Jane, Katherine, Mary, and Susan, there's no way a person could possibly come up with "Elizabeth"--yet it is also a common English woman's name.

The travails of naming a character don't end with the naming conventions, though. The next thing to be considered, in my opinion, is your fellow gamers. Your characters will spend many hours together, sitting around the campfire talking of this or that. They will stand by one another through thick and thin. They will become Stalwart Companions, who--among other things--will be able to remember each other's names. Even if they're really, really complicated. You and your fellow players, however, will not be spending days at a time in each others' company (and if you do, you will probably use real names and not character names). Meanwhile, your fellow gamers have jobs and school and mortgages and kids and bills and other activities they're doing with their time. Their mind space is limited, so if you name your character Aelthlindigar son of Erdordigar son of Frokolditheld, you really shouldn't be too surprised when nobody can remember it (or pronounce it). And when gamers can't remember or pronounce your character's name, they will gladly substitute a word they do know (which is how I've come to call one of the other characters in one of my games "Helvetica").

When naming a fantasy character, I like to use "real" names. There are a couple of reasons for this. First is the thing about giving your fellow gamers a break; they're more likey to know and remember a "real" name than a made-up one. The second reason is that, in general, we aren't very good at making up names. Tolkein did it really, really well, but most of us aren't Tolkein and quite frankly suck at it. Real names have to be chosen with care, of course, so they aren't too modern-sounding and don't clash with the flavor of the setting. "No Bobs" is one of the rules in the Hero Builder's Guidebook, and I agree to a point. There's no reason, though, that a fantasy character can't be named Vladimir, or Sebastian, or Frieda.

One last trick I have is to use a nickname. This works well when the setting does have naming conventions, but those conventions lead you to made-up names that are going to be hard to remember. "I'm Kerindri Esveleen Evengold," one of my characters always says in introductions, "but you can call me Skeeter; everybody does." Her real name uses the naming conventions; her nickname ensures that the others at the table will remember what to call her. Rina, whom I've already talked about, is also using a nickname; her full name is Elanorina Pagomel. Another good use for a nickname is as a "placeholder" when you're not sure what your character's real name is. I played a character called "Swiftblade" for years; I had to name her in a hurry and I didn't know what kind of name she'd have. So I went with an "everybody calls me" nickname until I figured it out.

As a summary, here are the characters I'm currently playing (or have played recently), broken down by type of name.

Real Names: Euphemia, Grace, Poppy, Rhonwen, Sigrid, Talullah
Nicknames: Rina, Skeeter, Swiftblade
Made-up Names (yes, I do this occasionally): Tamarinth, Tulehara, Vorelle

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Spring Fever

When I was an exchange student in Sweden, one of the things I learned is that nobody gets spring fever like the Swedes. It's a function, I'm told, of the long, dark winters they have. Sweden is pretty far north, so the sun sets pretty early in the wintertime. And there are a lot of overcast days where it never really gets light at all. So when the days get longer, and the sun comes out, Swedes go a little nutty. They sit our stand out on their teeny-tiny balconies, exposing pale Nordic skin to the warm rays of the spring sunshine (with predictable results). They have a hard time concentrating on work or school. Spring has come, the long winter is over, and it's time to be outside.

I mention all of this because we in the Northwest face similar wintertime conditions. We, too, see a lot of overcast, and days where it never really gets light out. In late December, it can be full-on dark by 4 p.m.--a fact that I have a hard time convincing Californians of. So when spring comes, I think we get similarly distracted. It's hard to focus when the sun is shining after so many months of gloom and darkness. And, although I think we're a little more sensible with our pale Northwest skin, I think our level of spring fever gives Sweden's a run for its money.

And I mention all of that because this week I have spring fever really, really bad. I can't concentrate on work and I have way too much energy. And, since I work from home, I really have nobody but me to keep me in check. And this week I'm not doing such a good job of it.

I know that soon it will pass, and I'll fall into my summertime routine of grumbling because it's too hot out. For now, though, I'm just enjoying the spring.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Fashion Police

There really did used to be a Fashion Police. I get a kick out of that.

Back in the Middle Ages, they began passing these things called sumptuary laws. They were passed in response to the growth of the middle class, and especially the growing wealth of the middle class. Nobility and aristocracy back then tended to be land-rich but cash-poor. A typical noble family would own several acres, and the ancestral manse (likely in dire need of repair). They'd have lots of people working for them, but their cash flow would be minimal.

By contrast, middle-class tradesmen and professionals might not own the homes in which they lived, but they had actual money to spend on things like clothes, and furniture, and meals to entertain their friends. The upper-class folks, of course, began to think it just wasn't right that these jumped-up merchants were putting on airs and buying all the trappings of aristocracy--trappings the actual aristocracy could hardly ever afford.

Hence, sumptuary laws, which stated in astonishing detail what you could wear, how you could decorate, and what you could serve your guests, based on your social status. Once the laws were in place, they needed people to enforce them, and so...the Fashion Police.

They weren't called that, of course. But their job was to go through peoples' closets and root out the stuff they weren't supposed to be wearing. Sadly, taste had nothing to do with whether a garment was acceptable, it was a question of how much fabric, and what kind, and how it was decorated.

Still, I get a kick out of the fact that, once upon a time, you truly could get busted by the Fashion Police.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Let Me Tell You About My Character: Poppy

When I first began to play in the RPGA, there were several different campaigns to choose from, and I wanted to try all of them. One of the more imaginative was Living Arcanis, based on a setting created by Paradigm Concepts. Like Kingdoms of Kalamar, which I wrote about previously, the setting of Arcanis is based in history--in this case, in the declining Roman empire. Politics and intrigue are everywhere in Arcanis. Secret societies abound, and players who sit down at the table with you may be given a "secret mission" to fulfill that may or may not place them in direct opposition to the rest of you.

It's a setting that calls for complex characters (not to mention players mature enough not to take all the double-dealing personally), so I spent some time creating my character for this setting. I decided it would be interesting to create a household spy, somebody who had been trained by one wealthy and powerful family to spy on another. She would be skilled sneaking and spying, of course, but she would also have been trained to be an excellent servant. Then, for whatever reason, that job fell through and she had to take up adventuring for a living.

I decided to make this character a Rogue, and set about building a skill set I thought was appropriate. I thought about an appropriately servant-y sounding name for her, and hit upon the idea of naming her for a flower. I did not (yet) have access to the complete campaign setting, so I didn't know what the naming conventions might be like, but women named for flowers is usually a safe bet. Plus, it sounded so countrified and fresh-off-the-turnip-cart. For my own amusement, I decided to name her after the poppy, an innocuous-looking little flower that can knock you flat on your back if you aren't prepared. It seemed to fit.

Roleplaying Poppy is a fun challenge, because she always comports herself as the perfect servant. Everything is "yes, sir" and "no, Miss" and "just as you say, my lord." Even when she technically dosn't have to be "on," she tends to keep up the facade; she is very cautious. After all, you never know who might be listening.

I don't get to play Poppy very much, though, because the local RPGA group doesn't run Living Arcanis modules very often. It's too bad, because it's an interesting settting and I really like my character. It's hard to say, though, whether she's one of my more successful characters, because I find that her effectiveness kind of depends on being at a table with other players (and a judge) who get her, who understand what kind of character she is. Some players hear "Rogue" and think "aha! somebody who can tumble and backstab and disable traps," and that's really not what Poppy's about. I've had some depressing conversations about it.

Gamer: You don't have ranks in Tumble?

Me: No, see, the whole point of this character is she avoids conflict.

Gamer: But you're a Rogue; you should have ranks in Tumble.

Me: But that's not who this character is. She's a spy.

Gamer: But you could Tumble.

Me: *sigh*

On the other hand, I've had players call Poppy the "best character ever!" Admittedly, that was right after she was able to pull the group out of a particularly nasty situation by looking innocuous, but still it made me smile. I'd like to play Poppy some more, if only I had the time.