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Wind in the Flowers: Re-inventing a Game

Naming Conventions

R. Sean Borgstrom
March 6, 2002  
The principal characters of Nobilis come from all over the world. A fair number of the secondary characters come from outside the world entirely. The first edition had an unfortunate bias towards American and made-up names, which didn't properly reflect the setting's cosmopolitanism. Fortunately, the new edition has roughly twice the wordcount, which gave me plenty of space to redress this error.

My primary resource for most of this was the Onomastikon; secondary resources included Gustav Davidson's excellent A Dictionary of Angels and the even more amazing Saul M. Olyan's A Thousand Thousands Served Him: Exegesis and the Naming of Angels in Ancient Judaism. I didn't get to actually use that last book much, but that will change. It was very pleasant to sort through thousands of angel descriptions with traditional names when adding new angels or fallen angels to the game.

In addition, I associate a sense of awe with the names and descriptions of classical angelology; I also drew on M. Davidson's book when I wished to discuss celestial phenomena, such as the things the Creator bound to make Creation. (For reference, these were Azbogah, the Radiance that Destroys the Unrighteous, in whose heart the Creator planted the tree of worlds; N'mosnikttiel, the Fire that Swallows Worlds, raw material for the creation of the angels; and Narsinha, the Lightning that Dances on the Surface of the Abyss, reshaped to create the wall around Creation.)

Some specific setting features required careful thought as to their names. Ananda, discussed in a previous column, appeared as a concept long before he had a name. We needed something that would properly express the idea of "hope for the world". Bruce and I wrestled with this for some time before finding something properly suited to a conceptually key bright spot in the setting.

Ultimately, we raided Madeline L'Engle, who probably raided Hindu names, for "that joy in existence without which the universe would fall apart and collapse". Alternatives---naming him in ways that reflected simpler joy, or beauty, or the darker side of his nature---didn't suffice to capture what that name can: that beauty is vital in this world.

Similarly, the name of the divine entity embodying the Third Age (the current Age of the World) needed to say something fundamental about the setting. Here, I had more room for subtlety, as the Imperatrix of the Third Age is not a major character in the setting; I named her Attaris Ebrôt Appêka, in part for Attaris, the angel of winter. These are the closing days of the Nobilis world; either it will end entirely, or a new Spring will rise.

Nobilis has vast numbers of sample characters, which gave me a fairly free hand doing some basic diversification. Augusta Valentina, Bran Gainor, Cornelia Jansdr, Dyemma Insakovs, Fayola Osiagobare, Halland Geirr and Ienari Namika-in are some of the new sample characters; Nephele Nikolaidhis and Helissent de Reymes appear in the sample campaign; Jori Hullis, Kip Narekatski, and Rannen Yedidyah are quoted as "authors" of various related fictional texts. A large number of Indian names (including a few Hindu gods and demons) appear in a frame story running through the book.

Looking this over in retrospect, Chinese and Islamic names and probably a few others are underrepresented in the text; I should work on balancing that in the supplements. In any event, the basic design principle was very straightforward: try to scatter the new characters over a variety of nationalities, so that the game doesn't feel landlocked in America (or even England!)

The most thoroughly foreign characters in Nobilis are the Excrucians, who rode into our reality from the Lands Beyond Creation. To name them properly, I needed a strong, regular naming convention with a distinctly alien flavor. Simply foreign names would not suffice. Establishing foreign names as alien, regardless of which nationality I chose, would undermine the basic concept that the Nobilis come from all over the world; that, in their context, European, African, Asian, and all other modern names are pretty much "local".

If I were Tolkien, of course, the solution would be simple: invent a logically coherent language without direct derivation from any human tongue, and name the Excrucians in that. Failing to mysteriously turn into Tolkien when I twisted my power ring, I instead turned to history.

The ancient world has some extremely cool names, some of which I have swiped for other uses---Idri-mi, Texcoyo, and Nabushezibanni among them---but the best-fitting names came primarily from medieval times. I'm not 100% certain why, but my theory is that the really ancient names have their own baggage. Even though I wouldn't recognize Nabushezibanni as a Hittite name offhand, it has associations of that whole Babylonian-region ancient world thing going on. Similarly, even if you don't guess that Texcoyo's an Aztec name, it probably evokes some ancient American tribal associations.

Maybe that's just me.

In any event, medieval Europe actually has some very interesting names that don't fall into the typical fantasy mold. The very first name to come out of this search was Genseric---a Vandal name, technically. I'm not that fond of characters without surnames; it feels incomplete to me, and somewhat like the characters are trying to be media stars. So I stole a last name from another barbarian tribe, the Dacii; thus, Genseric Dace.

I rather liked the result, but soon enough I had to make more Excrucian names. Here, I ran into a problem: I had nine more Vandal names, all male, most of which sounded more or less like Genseric, and only a handful of other barbarian tribes from the right era. (Sueves, Avars, Alans, and Rugians.) I was not immediately thrilled with the names Gailamir Sueve, Gunderic Avar, Gaiseric Alan, and Hilderic Rugian.

This forced a branching out into other names from medieval Europe: Orderic, a Frankish name; Raginhart, Germanic; Euphrasia and Marozia, Byzantine; Teja, Gothic; Scelto, Italian; and so forth. A few were atypical, if they sounded right; Phasael mery-Harumaph, for example, is assembled from a Palestinian first name, an Egyptian name-element, and the game term Harumaph, originally found in a web angelological reference.

Finding last names was generally difficult at this stage of history. I had originally hoped to branch out from the basic concept used for Genseric Dace---whose surname was historically tribal rather than personal---and build most last names out of appropriate regions or social groups. Thus, Orderic Neustry, name drawn from Neustria. Ultimately, for lack of appropriately cool region names, I was forced to scrounge, using other first names from the period as surnames in order to build functional antagonist names such as Teja Heimerich, Euphrasia Savinot, and Raginhart Tribunas.

All this, of course, reflects ultimately back on the setting. It subtly influenced me, writing new material on the Excrucians, to know that they take their bynames from Creation. It also affected my writing to know that they disdain modern appellations and sift history for names instead. I'm not wholly certain of the implications, but it changes the way I feel about them in my head; and such effects spread throughout the game.

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