robin_d_laws (robin_d_laws) wrote,

Reply To Bignose

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Last week, commenter responded with concern to my post describing a cool online tool to generate real-seeming names. This post seemingly contradicts the advice given in Robin’s Laws Of Good Gamemastering, which suggests that you prepare to be spontaneous by having a list of suitable names already at hand. Am I asking people to do what I say, not what I do? I promised him a response and here it is. In fact I have a couple of answers.

First of all, Robin’s Laws was written six years ago. If I haven’t changed anything about the way I run games in that time I’m a sorry excuse for a GM. Questioning existing techniques, including my own, is part of my job as a game designer. I’m always looking for new ways of doing things. If I find one that seems promising, the fear of contradicting something I’ve written in the past is not a big deterrent to my deciding to share it with you here. What would embarrass me is the thought that I once developed an approach to gaming, let it harden into concrete, and have been defending that same patch of intellectual turf ever since.

Bignose mentions the need to provide yourself with setting-appropriate names and there I agree completely. The page I pointed out gives you good results only for the contemporary US. Other places and times will still require well-pruned name lists created through careful prep. I wouldn’t use them for Trail Of Cthulhu’s 1930’s setting, for example. To get the distinctive flavor of period names—no one is called DeWitt Bodeen, Minna Gombell or Brooks Benedict anymore—I find a movie of the time on and mix and match sur- and given names.

Then there’s the issue of laptop use at the gaming table. This points out the importance of finding the techniques that work for you, whether they work for anyone else or not. I was a laptop skeptic but now find it more useful than a jumbled sheaf of loose papers. I find it time consuming and obtrusive to flip through my stack of notes in search of the name list, cross it off, and jot it down.

Ultimately it’s a matter of focusing on end result and not getting hung up on process. How quickly and seamlessly can you name an improvised character with method A versus method B? I’ve reached the point where I can hit a browser bookmark and type a note in a document file more smoothly than that. Other GMs will find it easier to stick to pen and paper. As in acting or writing or any other creative endeavor, the technique that works is the one that works for you.

To the extent that I’m giving anyone advice, I should be suggesting that people keep sharpening their game by keeping an eye out for better alternatives. Prep time is finite; if you can cut the amount of time you devote to one task, you can devote that time to some other area of your campaign.

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