Monday, February 11, 2013

True Names in D&D

I realized there's a through-line in all of the fantasy books I've been reading lately - they've all involved the importance of names and language.  I'm reading the Earthsea trilogy aloud to the oldest kiddo; those  books strongly feature the power of true names and language; the language of wizards is an older tongue (the language of dragons), and to name a thing in the old language is to have power over it.  The major arc in the first novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, is for the protagonist to learn the true name of a creature of darkness he released into the world, and thus defeat it.  There's an awesome showdown with a dragon, where the young wizard Ged rightly guesses a dragon's true name and avoids destruction - also underlining the importance of paying attention to history and study old books.

I recently finished The Chronicles of the Black Company, and am eagerly looking forward to continue the series.  Major plot elements involve recovering and guarding old records left from a fallen empire; only late in the story do the protagonists suspect the old documents contain the true names of the immortal antagonists facing the Black Company.  Ultimate success hinges on piecing together scattered lore and finding translators that read the dead languages before a final reckoning.  I greatly enjoyed the Black Company; the novels portray the pragmatism of an elite military faction weaponizing magic in a world of swords and sorcery.

It seems like I should be able to rattle off more fiction that features the power of names; I'm just not remembering… of course, the Dresden files are full of true names and the importance of little bits (blood, hair, fingernails) to target the magic; the Eragon young adult books had the theme as well.  I suppose we're all familiar with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.  Hellboy is bewitched when called by his true name, Anung Un Rama.  And no exorcist or demonic possession movie is complete until the priest names the demon as part of the dramatic ritual of removal.

For that matter, the power of names has a strong religious element to it in Western culture; it calls to mind the Greek "logos", and the hymn at the beginning of the gospel of John:  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...  The name of YHWH, the sacred Tetragrammaton, was forbidden to be spoken because of the power and sanctity of the name.  Off hand, though, I'm not placing the first literary instance of calling out the name of the devil and having him appear.  Perhaps it was Marlowe's Doctor Faustus?  Don't say Bloody Mary seven times in front of a mirror.

Our friends in the Cthulhu space have not overlooked the theme; in the dreaded twelfth volume of the Revelations of Glaaki, reading the name of Y'Golonac subjects the reader to the attention of the god, potentially turning the victim into an avatar of Y'Golonac and a channel for demonic manifestation.

In a moment of monkey brain, my thoughts even jump to TS Eliot, and Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.  The naming of cats is a difficult matter, after all - it isn't just one of your holiday games.  Now pardon me a moment while I go scrub my brain and get back on task.

The D&D game hasn't had a lot of interplay with the true name motif.  A few monster entries in the Monster Manual and Fiend Folio mention the value of true names - mostly involving demons and devils, and amulets or talismans that grant power of the entity.  I seem to remember Skeleton Warriors were the same way with their medallions

THE LOST CAVERNS OF TSOJCANTH* greatly expanded the portfolio of extra-planar spells, and many of them require the entity's true name; part of the power and allure of the Demonomicon of Iggwilv is that the master witch scribed various demonic true names in the book, giving the owner ready access to forbidden knowledge and the means to execute on it.

The spells from the Demonomicon are carried over into UNEARTHED ARCANA, and supplemented with some new ones, such as an actual True Name spell, which lets a caster run roughshod over a victim if he possesses the name - changing the creature's form, sending it far away, or making Suggestion-like demands.

The clones or sequel games haven't gone much further.  LOTFP has a high level spell named Demand, which functions akin to True Name, but requiring bodily bits of the target - straight out of Frazier and theories of sympathetic magic; I like the flavor.  Holy Word is a spell across the editions that calls to mind the forbidden Tetragrammaton.  ACKS didn't seem to have anything around true names, though it would be ideal as a high level ritual for either clerics or wizards.

The exciting thing about this motif - uncovering an opponent's true name as a means to power, whether as part of a spell, ritual, or simple plot device - is that it supports excellent quests beyond the dungeon; the characters might need to borrow a tactic from their Call of Cthulhu brethren and spend time in dusty libraries with restricted tomes, traveling to distant sages, or embarking on a bit of archaeology and tomb-raiding.  Sign me up for getting more of that into my D&D games.  As it is, I'm always this close (pinches fingers) between ditching adventure-style D&D and running my fantasy games like a Cthulhu game.

I've got some ideas of (modest) house rules or additions to make true names universally important if they can ever be discovered; what have you seen out there, either in other games or later editions, as mechanical ideas for making true names important?

*Gygaxian titles require all caps.


  1. I tried to add true names to a campaign some time back. Most people don't have (or perhaps have but don't know) a true name. So the question becomes how important can it be if most of the population doesn't even have one? I decided to address it thusly: If you want true power in the world, you need to obtain a true name for yourself. Without it, you'll never have that source of power to draw upon. (So you'll remain a commoner, or a fighter, or a barbarian, or whatever, for your whole life.) But if you want to draw on eldritch powers and become a cleric or mage (or wizard, sorceror, what-have-you) then the first step is to discover your name. This was a vision quest kind of thing borrowing heavily from American Indian vision quest stories. Once you knew your name, you had it as a link to cosmic powers. If you knew somebody else's name, your spells against them became more powerful. (But, since most people don't have names, it was rare to get this bonus.)

    All in all, it was well received by my players at first, but either I executed it poorly (totally possible) or the idea wasn't as workable as I'd hoped, and we eventually abandoned it.

  2. As a small application I often tie different summoning spells to the use of true names; a wizard may discover a true name of a creature and thus be able to summon something in a much more predictable and safe way.

    This has a couple of benefits; first, it adds value to the name and makes it a kind of treasure. Secondly, it means the wizard will value this unique creature and will interact with it in a very different way - if the demon "Xthuglatoth" is a reliable source of information and useful in a scrap, you really don't want him to die; there might be an infinite amount of other demons out there to summon, but you don't know their true names...

    How to deal with players also having true names, however - there, I have no idea. It sort of feels like it has to be an intrinsic part of the system from the start.

  3. Cultures which believe in true names don't think of them as something theoretical or unknown. They have an actual secret name given to them at birth, which they tell to no one but their closest loved ones and never use in conversation. (Presumably, the only way anyone in real life can learn your secret name is if one of your confidants betrays you.) If you want true names to be universally important I think you should emulate that - it doesn't make sense for people not to know their own name.

  4. 3E has a magic system based on true names. I don't know if it's any good though. It looks like it was detailed in the 3E Tome of Magic:

  5. In Earthsea, the true name was very much a heavily guarded secret; in Chronicles of the Black Company, and Dresden, it's just the character's regular name; the issue is keeping it secret once the character is powerful enough for it to matter.

    For instance, a pair of the big-hitters in the Black Company book are known to history as The Dominator, or The Lady; as powerful sorcerers, they eradicated their birth places, destroyed records, and otherwise took care of anyone who knew their real name before they ascended to power (centuries ago).

    In the case of Dresden, everyone knows he's Harry Dresden, but no one knows the two middle names.

    In this way, a character's adventuring name could be a partial true name as well, without overhauling the campaign cultures.

    Still mulling some benefits of learning a thing's true name.

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  7. I don't think Lucilyn is actually using her True Name...

  8. Being a linguist, the notion of Word as Power or Truth or what have you is a theme that I tend to incorporate as a GM. In my campaigns, Magic is possible because the caster knows True Words and through their use, is able to change the nature of Reality. Summons are also handled by knowing the summoned being's True Name, which makes for situations where casters summon the same beings repeatedly, which makes for an interesting ongoing relationship, especially when the creatures get more powerful and less trustworthy.

  9. The fundamental problem is that if you have a True Name, the best thing to do is never utter it to a single soul. If it grants power over you, then your loved ones would never want you to tell it to them because of the risk of them ever accidentally letting it slip. So anybody who tells you they should know it is somebody you definitely shouldn't tell it to. But if nobody ever tells it to anybody, then it's useless from a narrative point of view.

    So you need to build in a reason to share it. Perhaps clerical magic (including healing) only works if the cleric intones your Name. Now you have a reason to give it out, if straits are dire enough, and whatever church the cleric belongs to has plenty of motivation for cataloging the Names of everybody it helps. Now there are records that can be stolen by adversaries.

    I think my failure to tie something in like that is what made it fail in my game. The only way to get one was to torture it out of somebody (but they'd rather die than give it to you since giving it to you enslaves them to some degree).

    There just really needs to be a reason that anybody other than yourself would know your name, and a reason that the information would be vulnerable to those who would do you harm. Otherwise, it's just a weakness without a believable exploitation vector.

  10. It's interesting how the two literary examples I discussed handle whether True Names are secret and mystical, or mundane.

    In Earthsea, the True Name is a secret that most people don't know; wizards learn it as part of their magical training, and it's closely guarded. Using it against a wizard completely nerfs them. They adopt a use name for everyday usage. (Consider this a type A, secret true name).

    In the Black Chronicles, wizards use nick names and monikers, since their real name actually is their True Name; serious casters get real serious about covering their tracks and masking their identity or eliminating loose lips. (Consider this type B, a real true name).

    I agree type A isn't terribly interesting for gaming unless the benefits of having the true name are really large, and discoverable.

    In Type B, most of the time the player's names are not going to matter - as in one-off encounters in dungeon and wilderness play. But when players set their sights on taking down major (magical) NPCs, or when they get big bulls-eye targets on themselves over their career arcs, suddenly the true identity matters. Now it might make sense to do the footwork and the quests and see what can be uncovered.

    In such a setting, you could assume from the start that all wizards above a certain level have changed their name or adopted a title or descriptor to obfuscate their identities. Kind of like the internet, before Google+.

    Depends on the benefits of owning someone's True Name, too.

  11. As a fan of the Black Company books, working my way through Soldiers Live, I find there method the best for True Names. Now granted knowing the name doesn't give absolute power; but just enough wiggle room to work something.

    So if I was to translate it into mechanics I would have it so the individual would take a penalty on saving throws against magic when the attacker knows their True Name.

  12. I seem to remember a True Name power from the Principalities of Glantri Gazetteer supplement for BECMI D&D. If I recall correctly, it was the fifth and final power gained by practioners of the secret craft of Runes. I can't recall exactly what effect it had or what the caster could do to the creature whose True Name he discovered, though.

  13. Dragon Magazine #238 also has an interesting use of True Names, in the description of the Mother NPC class is the power, Power Word, Middle Name...which seems to be still in common usage today, at least in that you always know when some mom is actually mad at her she uses that middle name when harshly speaking that offspring's whole name...

  14. Within the setting of the game/setting I am developing there is such a thing as True Names, but it has a very particular purpose and is not necessarily a "name" in the sense that my name is "Dane," but my True Name is "Nedah Trok" (or whatever).

    A True Name is used by Speakers (telepaths, basically) to communicate with each other over long distances / out of line-of-sight. When two Speakers meet in-person, they can communicate using the Secret Language (telepathy) within sight, but can also exchange their True Names (which can only be understood and communicate by way of this Secret Language). From then on, the two Speakers can communicate with one another no matter the physical proximity or lack of it.

    So, I've taken the notion, but applied it in a very specific way for my setting. There are some more wrinkles to this. For example, when a Speaker dies -- they can still be contacted by those who know their True Name. . .

    1. I love the idea of making the True Name something like a universal magical identifier - an arcane social security # - to put it prosaically. It's one of those things that makes a ton of sense after you read it, "of course there's a way to uniquely identify some kind of sentient being, living or dead..."

    2. Thanks, Beedo! I haven't blogged in detail about True Names and the Speakers on my site yet, but I will go into more detail there in the future!

  15. Speaking in D&D terms, I'd go for name level and make the True Name something that becomes evident with time. Maybe it's not only a disadvantage, but a benefit, too. Like standing in front of a Big Bad and saying "May name is ... and I will slay you!", granting a bonus while doing so. Using Rules Cyclopedia, this could work very well with becoming immortal. Something along the lines of, the more powerful you are, the more dangerous it is to hold a True Name, but in ascending into godhood, you get controll over your True Name to a certain amount.

    But there are already some very good ideas and alternatives above!


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