Friday, September 6, 2013

Tips for Generating Location Names for Fantasy Settings

Map of the United States of the Home Ruler from the Atlas of True Names.

Coming up with location names is something most fantasy authors, gamemasters and world-builders must do from time to time. Making those names compelling in a way that adds to your world rather than detracting from it can be daunting, and justifiably so. If you fudge a place name, you may very well be stuck with a blight on your world. A dark spot cursed with a name that is some combination of silly, burdensome to pronounce, or otherwise detrimental to your audience's sense of immersion.

I face this problem whenever I look to send my D&D players off to explore a new part of my world. Fortunately, I have developed a set of guidelines that I use when crafting new location names that have served me well.

Obvious names are not necessarily bad. Places are typically named after something and that something is often rather obvious. Some quick real world examples I can think of include:
  • Washington (a guy's last name)
  • Bath (named for a prominent recreation spot)
  • Salt Lake City (prominent natural feature)
  • Capetown (the city's location plus a word that means city)
  • Fort Collins (named for the town's original function)

If you go this route, you can come up with some pretty decent place names, especially if you use less common synonyms or slightly change certain words. Some examples from my game world include:
  • Stillford (a town on a stream with a distillery)
  • Fenwatch (an outpost by a swamp)
  • Thunder vale (a valley with a roaring waterfall)
  • Lastholt (named for a stronghold that served as a last stand. Last+hold change the "d" to a "t")

Keep the names short! Even well established fantasy writers get a little carried away and occasionally come up with names that become mental and verbal stumbling blocks for those who encounter them. The Drow city of Menzoberranzan from the Forgotten Realms is a classic example of this problem. At five syllables, it's a pain in the butt to say!

Think about it! It's tough to find a real world city with that many syllables! After some consideration, I came up with Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Alexandria, as real world equivalents and all of those cities have at least one pair of syllables that can be blended together to effectively shorten the pronounciation. In fact, if a place DOES have an exceptionally long name, you can bet someone will try to find a way to shorten it! Philly, L.A., Frisco, etc. Maybe that's why the Drow are so cranky! They live in an obnoxious to pronounce city with no decent nickname!

I know, I know… We're talking fantasy, not reality and the elves and ponytaurs are supposed to have exotic and elegant sounding place names. That's great! You can do that without lots of syllables! Believe me.

When you simply must get exotic, translators are your friend! Remember how in part one up there, I said places mean something? Well, one of my favorite tricks is to run common descriptive words or phrases through Google Translate or sometimes elven or other fantasy translators to come up with place and character names. With Google Translate, I pick a real world culture to serve as an analog of the fantasy culture that named the spot, and play around until I get something that sounds good. For example, "Wood City" in Welsh is "Dinas Pren"… not a bad name for an elven town. Incidentally, "Salt Lake" in Welsh is "Llyn Halen", which is not to be confused with its inferior successor "Llyn Hagar". 

Anyway, the system is not perfect, but if you stick with the cultural analog method, you can come up with groups of exotic sounding place names that sound like they have a consistent linguistic history in your game world… because, in reality, they do!

Those are just a couple quick guidelines that I like to apply when coming up with place names for my world. They have served me well so far, and if you give them a try, I hope they work for you as well.


  1. Great minds think alike :) I use Google Translate in the exact same way.

    Do you find giving places non-translated, "obvious" names makes them flat? I guess as a the builder I over-think it because I know I may have fudged a bit because I simply needed a name. A reader/player might never think twice about the town named Oakhill or the forest named Winewood.

    And thanks for Llyn Halen - that's a great jumping off point for this RPGBA challenge:

    1. I think it depends on the name chosen as to whether something falls flat. The ordinary names are great for small, human towns especially, but if you put just a little twist in, like a less-used synonym, or something that is not as literal, but evocative of some characteristic of the site, even ordinary names can be used to good effect. Heck, arguably the greatest city in the Forgotten Realms is called Waterdeep. You don't get much more ordinary than that for a name.


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