Friday, February 15, 2013

A Few True Name Rules

Secret identities; not just for super heroes any longer.

After mulling over the literary use of True Names in popular fantasy, I think the simplest, easiest way to make them useful in the game is to make it a large modifier to the Saving Throw mechanic.  A conservative approach is like this:
When a wizard casts a spell, the wizard can invoke a target's true name; the target takes a -4 penalty on the saving throw.  Likewise, when a victim is targeted by a spell, they can call out the wizard's true name, if they know it;  calling out the wizard's true name grants the targeted character a +4 saving throw against the caster's spells.
The paranoid folks in the literature that fret about their identities are invariably wizards.  I like the idea that penalties to their magic if they lose the secrecy of their true names encourages magic users to adopt a cover.  The evil megalomaniacs will go totally over the line, eliminating all witnesses, which is a great motivation for a villain.

True names can also be embedded into magical amulets, creating a domination or charm monster effect (like the demon amulets), and weaponry can be enchanted with a true name, creating a slaying effect - an arrow enchanted with a true name would become a +4 item of named character slaying, for instance.

Some of the literature goes further, with the use of the true name stripping the victim of all magical power, but there's no precedent in the game for that kind of disarming, and I can't see it yielding good results - either villains die without a fight, or PC's feel totally abused. I did consider alternatives - should the true name grant magic resistance, or prevent all magic use, or a simple protection from evil type effect; there are already a few gigantic spells out there (like True Name in Unearthed Arcana) that grant major benefits to very high level casters.  So I want a generic mechanic that can affect lower level play without becoming game breaking.  But is a +4 or -4 to saving throws enough of a bonus/penalty when the characters unmask the identity of the town mesmerist?

I don't see the true name mechanic making a big difference to ordinary games; it's just not going to come up in random encounters during regular adventuring, assuming both PC and NPC wizards are using monikers, use names, or secret identities.  In campaign play, where the party sets their sights on taking out a major target (like a certain lich in a certain lost tomb), there's now an incentive to go the extra mile and try to ferret out the true name to gain any advantage against an intimidating foe.  Likewise, if a player character wizard starts earning notoriety as they gain power and approach name level, they now need to be worried about NPC rivals trying to do the same to them.  A true name mechanic would be put in place to give a tangible benefit to research and investigation during campaign play, and highlight an activity that gets overlooked in lieu of the full frontal assault.


  1. I actually use a true-name component in the 10th Age, but its mostly for wizardly use against other wizards. A character's true name is a unique identifier based on the location of their birth, their forename, and their surname (if they have one, most non-noble humans don't have a "set" surname).

    The wizard may use this name to research a special version of any spell; the costs of research are the same as though they were creating a fresh spell from scratch. This spell is "attuned" to that one person and using it on them causes them to automatically fail their saving throw.

    Clearly, this is extremely expensive and insanely time-consuming for a one-time use spell, limiting its scope to those insane mages who simply MUST kill a rival.

  2. I like that definition of the components of a true name; it fits pretty well with how it was used in The Black Company (as opposed to it being unknown garble that's never voiced). The idea of creating a custom spell that incorporates a victim's true name, and can't be avoided, is really brilliant - I'm grabbing that, too.

  3. I think the specialized spell thing is brilliant too. It allows you to have 2 levels of effect, (or more if you include personal items etc.) A more minor effect, like +/- 2 to saving throws for knowing the name and maybe some big bonus to penetrate spell resistance for the special spell level. So you have an effect that only matters at higher levels, and a more mundane effect that allows true name to impact the game more often than once.

  4. For some reason this topic reminds me of the "thread" mechanic in Earthdawn. Beedo, you might look into that. Basically, the more you learn about an items history, the more powers become unlocked. Something similar (a table!) could be put together for a true name. Learn a birthplace --> bonus 1. Learn a mother's name --> bonus 2, etc. Something to think about.

  5. I just had an entertaining thought: Twin brothers, obviously born at the same time in the same place with the same parentage, are both given the same name. (John Corsican, if you like.) Now whenever one becomes the target of a spell utilizing his true name, the effects of the spell are instead delivered upon his brother regardless of how far apart they are. It's silly, but could be fun...

  6. This thread just gets better and better!

  7. Hear hear, great ideas, great thread.