Role-playing and Onomastics: J.R.R. Tolkien's influence on the naming of fictional characters in role-playing games

An empirical study

Term Paper 2011 27 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics



1. Introduction

2. Role-playing and Onomastics

3. The survey

4. The process of name-creation and its characteristics

5. The evaluation ofthe collected names
5.1. Distribution ofletters
5.2. Comparison ofname-structure

6. Conclusion

7. Literature

8. Appendices
8.1. The survey
8.2. The results

1. Introduction

Fantasy-role-playing games resemble a part of culture dedicated to the play and shortwhile identification with fictional characters. First appearing in the 1960s, role­playing games secured a small spot in a society crowded by fans of Fantasy-, SciFi- or other fictional literature. One of the major works of fantasy-literature is 'The Lord Of The Rings', 'The Hobbit' or 'The Silmarillion' of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973). Tolkien, as a philologist of early medieval languages, created not only a range of new (and adapted) races to people his universe of Middle Earth, he also created for each race a specific language, with own grammar, vocabulary and: names. He spent great afford in creating so distinct languages that no one could misunderstand the words of the Elves as words by Dwarves, for example.

This linguistic effort is supposed to play an important role in the reception of his works, and regarded to play a certain role in the influence Tolkien's works have today on other works of fantastic- and non-fantastic literature.

Role-playing games resemble a part of creative and active literature, where the players tell and create stories while imaginatively acting in these worlds. For taking part in such an interactive story, one has to create an alter ego, an avatar, or just: a character. These characters are the means by which players interact in the fictional worlds, and as they are most of the time a part of their self-expression and self-conception, they are every time a sum of all the influences on the players mind and knowledge about culture and all its aspects.

This paper will investigate on the influence of Tolkien's works on one particular part of role-playing games: the creation of names for those characters used to interact in fictional worlds.

The assumption is that, as Tolkien is commonly regarded as a significant influence on literature and fantasy in special, his impact on the naming of fictional characters must be somehow traceable.

2. Role-playing and Onomastics

Before it comes to consider Onomastics as a part of role-playing-procedure, one has to distinguish why Onomastics should be regarded as a certain part of role­playing games (abbreviated RPG in the following) and role-playing as such. To answer this question, I will briefly begin with a definition of role-playing:

One of the earliest definitions of role-playing, from a time when even many role-playing games themselves did not address the question, is that of Lortz (1979), who defines a role-playing game as 'any game which allows a number of players to assume the roles of imaginary characters and operate with some degree of freedom in an imaginary environment'. (Drachen 2008: 5-6)

This early definition lays emphasis on the characters which the players assume. But it doesn't consider the fact that characters need to be created before they can be assumed to interact together in a fictional world. This gap in most of the definitions cited by Drachen, where the creation of the characters is left out, may come through the position, that fictional characters naturally have to be created before their creators can take them as alter egos. The creation and the assumption of such a character are inseparable connected to the fictional world those characters are planned to interact in.

When the players create a role-playing system themselves, the creation of the characters follows as the third step in the overall-process after the creation of the world. If they adapt a given role-playing system (with pre-defined rules, story and surroundings), what is the standard in these days, the creation of the characters resembles the first step. The definition of a character in role-playing games compared to other kinds of alter egos is clearly shown by Drachen himself:

These characters are the primary (in most cases the sole) means by which the players can interact with the game world. The methods by which the characters are defined vary, in some cases being purely quantitative, in others extensively qualitative and in others a mixture of the two, but in all cases the characters are regarded as individuals, with their own unique place in the game world (...). This contrasts, for example, with the use of characters in simulation based education and training exercises, where characters are more often described by their roles (teacher, medic, etc.) than by reference to their individuality. The players are able to effect, and influence, the development of the game world through actions expressed via their characters. (Drachen 2008: 12-13)

When it comes to create the character, you have plenty of opportunity to do so. In the classic Pen&Paper-role-playing-game you have the character sheet on which you note and gather all the basic information, i.e. the skills and attributes of your character. Computer-role-playing-games contain the digital equivalent of this character sheet, as the very popular Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing- Games (usually abbreviated through MMORPG) do with their public 'profiles'. It doesn't matter which system and what platform you are playing with, the first information you have to give about your own character, or you are able to read about the character of someone else, is: the name.

Giving your fictional character a name is the first step of creating a character in approximately every role-playing game published so far. This is a clear evidence for the importance names have for the creation of the character and what creative weight is connected to them. The name of a character resembles the second expression (after the visible one) a character gives to its counterpart. And its name is also a sign for its cultural and literal setting, as role-playing games and its universes are clearly set in the historical and cultural environment of their players. And this is the point where the field of Onomastics has to be considered to understand what criteria are established to let characters come to their names and why distinct influences are still visible.

3. The survey

The survey I have conducted via the online-tool Google Spreadsheets was intended to collect information about three major questions related to the field of Onomastics and role-playing games:

1. the importance of a characters name for players of RPG and the process of giving a character a name
2. the general influences on names of characters
3. the reception of certain influences on (fantasy) role-playing

The first question was created to gather information about the participants' awareness of the influences on their process of name-creation. The second question was supposed to collect data to verify how influences on the process of name-creation manifested. The third question was supposed to collect data about the relationship of the attributes of the given names to the pieces of literature regarded to be the most influential. The particular races were chosen because the Elves, Humans, Dwarves and Orcs are commonly seen as the major races in Fantasy-RPG. One significant difference to Tolkien's most popular works 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord Of The Rings' is that the race of Hobbits is not that popular among players of RPG, although they play the role of main-characters in the particular works. Another reason for choosing these four examples is that the specific names for individuals of a particular race differ in significant ways from the names of another race. This assumption is not yet empirically supported, what will be given later on in this paper.

The survey was created in German and published to different German-speaking online-communities of role-players. The survey was public for three weeks and gathered the answers of more than seventy participants.

The structure of this survey was set as simple as possible. Information about the age, profession, gender or further background on the preferences of playing RPGs were regarded as going beyond the scope ofthis paper.

4. The process of name-creation and its characteristics

To conclude to what extend the participants are aware of certain influences on the names they are giving their characters, the first question was designed to ask about the process of name-creation. This question is supposed to make it possible to draw a connection between the process of naming and Tolkien's works.

The results are summarized in the following table:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

As one can see, most ofthe participants note that they use references of literature (and connected media as movies/films/TV) as a help when it comes to name their RPG-characters. Surprisingly, fantasy-literature was not mentioned as the major source for inspiration for names. Only eight of 65 participants noted that they use predominantly fantasy-literature for inspiration. 21 referred to (historic) anthroponyms as a major source for inspiration. This will be of importance when connecting these answers to the name proposals they gave when answering the second question. 19 noted that they use both influences, and so a mix of fantasy- literature (including myths and fairytales) and names which actually have been real names for existing (historic) persons. It is particularly interesting that of these 48 participants who submitted to use references as a help, only five of them actually mentioned a particular piece of literature or definite source. This can be seen as a hint that particular references are hard to name in a general way, and that most of the participants appear to have plural sources of inspiration for naming their characters.

17 of the participants committed to create the names on their own, or just didn't mention the use of influences and sources of any kind. These 17 particular answer will be of interest later on when it comes to determine whether a distinct influence is apparent or not.

Six participants' answers were unusable due to the lack of information or corrupted input, and not counted in the table.

The first impression of these results leads towards the conclusion that naming in RPG is constantly connected to given references, examples and archetypes. Only 26 percent of the contributors claimed to create their names without help or references. And according to the information these 26 percent have given, one must assume that some references just might have not been mentioned. 74 percent committed to adopt or adapt names with reference to fictional or non- fictional sources. This can be interpreted for seeing the community of role-players set in a dense cultural environment not only providing the material for creating worlds, rules and the background for the particular characters, but also providing tradition and habitat for the naming of RPG-characters. The fact that only seven percent of the participants committed to use examples and archetypes, provides a hint on the variety players try to include in the names for their characters. As several participants noted every system and world of RPG has its own cultural background, and so the particular names intended to fit in these different settings have to be evaluated every time a new character is created in a different RPG- setting. The aspect of forced variety when it comes to name a character is clearly connected to the variety of aspects within the RPG-universe as such. This assumption is not based on the data provided by the survey, but on personal experience with plural RPG-settings.

A character set in a medieval European-like world usually wouldn't have the same name as a character set in a post-apocalyptic American-like setting. A character supposed to 'survive' in a SciFi-Space-setting wouldn't be named as a character who 'lives' at the court of a king in a fictional Renaissance-like setting.

What the data did provide was additional information about certain considerations of the participants about their character's names, with or without connection to a certain RPG-setting:

For the evaluation of preferences in the process of naming, I searched the results for hints of further similarities. 44 answers contained additional information about preferences and considerations in the process of naming a RPG-character.

Additional considerations in giving a character a name:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

A major surprise would be that only 6 of 44 contributors of additional information put major attendance on the social background of the character. These contributors saw a significant need of fitting the name to the fictional background and origin of the character. A king won't have the same name as a peasant, an Asian-influenced character wouldn't have a European name. This is surprising because players of Pen&Paper, Tabletop and LARP (Live Action Role Play) usually are forced to create a social background for their characters, as this background is used to explain a complex ofabilities and features.



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University of Cologne – Englisches Seminar
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Title: Role-playing and Onomastics: J.R.R. Tolkien's influence on the naming of fictional characters in role-playing games