Consider the mountains that we’ve put between noon and five on our horizon. We must make these palatable before we can expect the players to digest any description we might give. With every effort of this kind, we must follow the gaze of the player. Picture yourself standing upon the tower and looking east. You may see the mountains first, but then you would automatically measure the distance between yourself and them. Your eye would follow upwards along the fields and the river Sorrow, into the thinly treed foothills. At the foot of those mountains the trees would thicken, turning from prairie trees like ash and aspen to highland trees like cedars and pine. This is how we want to describe the mountains to the party – like a camera panning upwards through the individual elements, the same as we would actually cover that distance on foot.
Then we want to differentiate the mountains – the same way we do with people and things, we want to assign characteristics to split the mountains into parts. Then, each part can be understood separately and given substance. We might say the street was full of houses, but this means more when we tell the viewer there were large houses, gabled houses, box houses or tenement houses. Thus, we divide the mountains into three parts: those on the left, at noon and one o’clock; those on the right, at four and five o’clock; and those in the middle.
Those on the left are the highest; those on the right, the lowest. The highest form a mountain ‘knot’ – a place where mountains collect in a jumble of interwoven ridges rather than as a ‘range.’ These high mountains have valleys choked with snow; their tops are surrounded by mist and crowned with glaciers. There is no human culture in their heights; every way into them is rocky and dangerous and full of hideous creatures.
We want to emphasize that last, for that is an adventure hook that will catch the party’s attention. Whenever possible we want to toss out some small phrase that suggests a possibility for mystery, gain or daring-do.
Let’s give these mountains a name. I’m going to call them the ‘Spitzenbarb’ – because it sounds Alpen and the letter ‘z’ helps suggest the sharpness of the rocks; the word ‘barb’ contributes to sharpness, the threat and the general sense of forbiddance. Though it’s a long word, spoken several times it won’t be mistaken for something else.
Turning to the mountains on the opposite end of the chain, ending at five o’clock, those on the south side of Fallow, the side covered in forest. We might see the forest spreading upwards and through these mountains of less elevation. If so, we want the forests to be ‘deep’ so we can fill the space between the low mountains with chasms and fill those chasms with fog. Then we can add that the foggy chasms ‘lead nowhere’ – another adventure hook. We can add that there are no clear roads, that many have gotten lost in the twisting valleys and died. Finally, we can describe the mountains as gaunt, lifeless towers of stone that thrust like teeth from green gums, made wet by winds from the Widden Main (remembering that this ocean begins at six o’clock and can be supposed to extend behind the mountains).
It’s a bit heavy handed but there’s no question those mountains scream for adventure. We should give them a name that reflects their nature. I find a hard ‘k’ will produce a disrupting sound, making it good for mountain names; here we will mix it with a word for lost and call these wild, lower mountains the Krankenwander. This distinctive name is also easy to remember.
Finally, we have the middle range, between three and four o’clock. This is a single range joining the other two. It is high, but not as high as the Spitzenbarb. The peaks are high enough for snow but as it is a narrow range there are no glaciers present. Viewed from the plain below, the peaks will rise across the sky like the points of an iron rake. With winds that blow either from the northwest across the Fleet Sea or the southwest from the Widden Main, the slopes are heavily forested, with much snow. Still, a single pass breaks through the range, allowing passage into the unseen domain of Tertium.
These are the friendliest mountains of the three, so let’s give them a friendly name. These are still mountains so I want a hard sounding consonant to begin with; a ‘g’ I think. Keeping with a policy of describing things – mountains, at least – with three syllables, I’ll call these the Geschlost.
Now the party sees three different adventures in the same mountains, each with its own characteristics – but rather than continuing to describe those places, let’s instead concentrate on the names we’ve used. Spitzenbarb. Krankenwander. Geschlost. I’ve stolen each from a German word. ‘Spitz’ translates as pointed. ‘Kranken’ is to suffer. Geschlost is a corruption of the German ‘geschlossen,’ meaning closed (in case the reader felt I was merely teasing the word out of ‘get lost’ – though there is an etymological relationship).
I’ve meshed each word with English in order to produce a unique compound word. Many really enjoy this sort of word-play but I only employ it for fictional geography. In this there are plenty of opportunities.
We might, for instance, randomly choose a collection of consonants and vowels to create an entirely personal designation. The highest peak in the Spitzenbarb range might be called ‘Pluken’ or ‘Fforst.’ The deepest canyon in the Krankenwander might be called ‘Sowslun’ or perhaps ‘Owlunder.’ The combination of sounds is produced deep in the throat and therefore suggests depth. Since we are making up words for things, we can take time to consider how the metre or pronunciation of the word reflects the thing described. ‘Sinkling’ sounds more appropriate for a waterfall than to call it ‘Crulkler.’ The latter is difficult to say, at any rate. ‘Puttlespoot’ seems a friendlier and less threatening name for a pond than ‘Gregurt.’ How we name it – even when we use made-up words – will convey a certain emotion.
Each part of the land we’re describing will require an uncounted number of names for all sorts of entities: peoples, groups, tools, articles of clothing, beliefs, holidays, heroes, songs and so on. Each must be as distinctive as possible. These names comprise more than a list of labels by which each thing is addressed. Combined, they form a sort of ‘consciousness’ for the land, a personality, binding together the elements of geography, resources, culture, present events and even the future. To make this land believable, we want the players to approach its residents and the various elements of their lives thoughtfully, within the context of what has been named already. Even the first name we have given to the first thing the party has encountered in Fallow (technically, the name of the domain, since it is on the book cover) includes the context of something unfinished, undeveloped, dormant and virginal. It is a land begging for a plough.
We name things as a means of creating relationships with those things. Initially and most often, this relationship will be at a distance. Very often, through the media or hearsay, we hear the name of a thing long before we actually encounter that thing. In the course of things we hear we develop an emotional perspective first, even a physical perspective, when it is something that frightens us and makes our blood cold. When we actually meet with that thing, in the flesh, we have already helped define its identity independently.
The naming of things thus provides identity. If I climb a ridge for the first time in a place where no one has been, seeing a nameless mountain twenty miles in the distance, it will occur to me to give the mountain a name even if I do not approach any closer. The name is descriptive. As others come to this same place, they will use the same name because this is tradition. Steadily, the land around the mountain will be occupied and the people there will make it their home. In so doing they will transform the name from something identifying to something possessive – from the mountain to our mountain.
As time passes, the identity and possession of the object becomes sacred. We can then consider a second culture moving into the area, climbing the same ridge and seeing the same mountain, without any understanding or appreciation for the residents there. This second culture, in turn, establishes its own name for the mountain – and that name, too, becomes first identifying and later possessive. Even when the cultures meet, both will stubbornly cling to the name they have chosen. As time passes, the name that survives will depend upon the relative dominance of the two cultures as well as their distance from the mountain. So long as members of the old culture remain around the base of the mountain, they will use the original name – but if members of that old culture move away and become part of the new culture, they will come to think of the mountain by both of its names, the old and the new.
Imagine that the new culture conquers the old, takes residence around the mountain and fixes a policy that the mountain shall be called by the new name. Members of the old culture, still living there, will steadfastly cling to the old name, even when they are forced to call it something else. Naturally, their children will develop a relationship with the new name – and slowly, steadily, the old name will vanish. All that will remain will be some old records, some tombs, and an inscription here or there, to remind us that once upon a time this place was called this other name.
We experience this all the time without pause; yet these old names, too, carry with them a feeling of time, place, nostalgia, even adoration. The island of Great Britain is fondly called ‘Albion,’ even though no actual kingdom of Albion may ever have existed. We are not even certain that the name derived from the white cliffs in the south or even from ‘white.’ Yet the name persists throughout British culture.
As we consider how to name the various parts of Fallow, we should keep in mind that a variety of places will have a multitude of names, each name representing an historical or cultural conquest. Names are changed to celebrate moments in time or to esteem great persons. Sometimes names arise from a need to add description or in appreciation for a work of art. New York is also known as The Big Apple. Both are ‘names’ – the fact that one is considered correct does not make the other confusing. I call the largest city in Fallow both Augustus and ‘Grandfather of Gifts.’ I might also call it the ‘Grandfather of Fallow.’ The residents may cheerfully use one name affectionately, another in business – and perhaps another, not included here, in anger or despair. All of these are acceptable. I may even add another name: ‘The Servant of Argus.’ This produces a wholly different perspective, eliminating randomness from the city’s placement in relation to the tower . . . once again, creating an adventure hook. “It is an ancient name, recorded from before the Shattered Hill became shattered.”
And what name did the Shattered Hill have originally? That is up to us.
As Fallow accumulates names it accumulates dimension. Each name gives depth and value to the place described, making it meaningful and giving the player’s mind (and ours too!) the power to manage that location where decision making is needed. Once I firmly connect a name to a place, I am able to use that name more easily in my gaming, transferring the entity’s personality from my mind to the players’. Together, as we discuss the various elements of the Krankenwander mountains (remember, that is the name where there are many places for the players to wander), our minds articulate the lost, forested landscape, mentally filling it with the canyons and fog that were first added in our description. Soon, we need no longer think consciously to remember which mountains we mean; the identity becomes inherent as soon as we hear the name.
We have been naming things for more than ten thousand years, so we have a wide resource for how to name things readily available for us as dungeon masters. We do best when we use this template to create names of our own.
Names may be physically descriptive. ‘Mont Blanc’ simply means white mountain. ‘Springfield’ is a well-watered plain. ‘Bei Jing’ translates as northern capital. Within the culture of their origin, these names seem less exotic – but often the simplest names are the most common. Kentucky, for instance, has the ‘Pine Mountains,’ the ‘Laurel River’ and the town of ‘Magnolia.’ Similar names are found everywhere in the world, differentiated only by language. Endless examples can be proposed to describe a location’s colour, fauna, flora, physical shape, hydrography, geology or even climate.
Names may reflect or describe persons. Often the first founder is honoured, but occasionally the person the name describes is completely forgotten. Names may be duplicates of original places back home. My birth city, ‘Calgary,’ was founded by Scotsmen and named after the fort commander’s Scottish home. Names are also given prefixes that describe the time of naming or its relationship to other places. There are various towns called ‘Neustadt’ in Germany (new city) or the whole region of Australia called ‘New South Wales.’ Names may also describe random objects and things that are done or found in that place (‘Moose Jaw’), manufactured (‘Hammersmith’) or mined there (‘Eisenerz’ in Austria translates as iron ore).
Take out an atlas and look closely at the names there; consider their origin and how that may have changed for the inhabitants, not only in terms of the name itself but for the inhabitants (why do the people of ‘Cairo’ Illinois pronounce it kay-roe?) There are dozens of reasons why a particular place develops a particular name; before setting to the task of making names, take time to consider how others have done it since the beginning of history.
I would be amiss if I did not take the time, now, to identify what there is to be named. Most of us know to name the obvious natural features, but let’s be certain about this. For the role-player, we can divide the natural features into three areas:
- orographic – the physical topography and shape of the land surface
- hydrographic – water features
- phytographic – vegetation
Some names will combine these elements, describing a dry desert, a mountain forest or an underwater ridge. Each contains many more potential features than just the obvious. We do not merely describe rivers but also their bends, their rapids, their sources and their mouths.
Beyond the natural features we are left with the prospect of giving names to every part of the culture, also: to tribes, nations, political divisions, settlements, roads, gardens, buildings, plazas, religions, habits, occupations, ideologies . . . the list is endless. It is far more than we should expect from a single DM. As such, many are averse to taking the matter farther than naming the most obvious features. This is understandable. Even a slim gazetteer of Fallow’s relative place names would include hundreds, even thousands of labels. The line must be drawn somewhere – else we will find ourselves naming individual farms, meadowlands, creeks, mines or isolated cairns. Some of these we may want to name – but there certainly isn’t time or the player’s interest to justify naming everything.
We should apply ourselves to naming things that will be relevant to the campaign, as required. A mountain gap where armies have marched for centuries will have a host of names describing minutia such as battlefields, graveyards, scenic views or depots. A large city will accumulate names for its neighbourhoods, intellectual academies, satellites, defences or nearby royal estates and hunting grounds. Seaports will suggest names for dangerous capes, underwater ‘roads,’ banks, cays, riptides and many other hydrographical oddities that would affect shipping. Greater threats, diversity or population movements produce a greater density of names.
Where you choose to give a place more than one name, make clear what the ‘official’ name is. If the variation is important enough, include the other name in parentheses. Consciously ascribe a reason for the chosen name or be prepared to invent one in the future if that becomes useful. Establish a linguistic consistency for names (such as Fallow being principally Germanic with a hint of Anglo-Saxon). Be aware of inconsistencies that will stand out for the players as ‘strange’ and ‘compelling.’
If your collection of names rises into the realm of four-digits, keeping a record of what names you’ve used can be helpful. Take note, however, that there are many Springfields and Neustadts in the world. Place names are freely repeated by inhabitants of every country in every region, without concern.
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