((Whoops, this went up early. Ah well, you don't mind do you? Supposed to have gone up at 8:00am. Le sigh, off to bed, I am the tired.))
I can't think of very few statements I disagree with more than "A rose by any other name would smell as weet," and yet, when it comes to naming my NPCs I am often at a loss. Names are important things. They give power over someone. Owning someone's name means owning them. We often get our first impressions off of a name. People think differently of someone named 'Vlad' than they do of someone named 'Igor." Can you imagine how hard a time Batman would have if he called himself "Rose Scent?" So, with that in mind, let's talk about NPC names.
A Way To Denote Importance
I don't know about your games, but in mine the PCs tend to run into all sorts of people. Innkeepers, town guards, merchants, pages, scribes, etc, etc. Most of these people don't get a name. In fact, most of these people don't even get a personality. Sometimes one just leaps up and grabs me, sure, but for the most part these are cookie cutter characters. They're a role and serve a small bit of narrative purpose and nothing more. However, when an NPC gets a name, then you know they're important. When they have a name before a PC asks for it, the PCs pick up on it.
I mean, who do you think is more relevant to the story? "The Innkeeper" who sets you up with rooms, then sends servants to draw baths for the party. Or "Tom Landry" who does the same thing? Tom is probably the more important person. Why? Because he has a name that makes him stand out from the others. He isn't just a role, this guy has a name.
Even amongst the names, a full name can denote even more importance or even just something about the person. Jarvan Garamcy V is probably a noble or rich born of some sort. Tom Landry - no idea where I got this name from - is probably more simple folk. Mike is even probably simpler, and also less important, since he just gets a first name. He can vanish into the sea of Mikes if need be.
Write That $@*( Down
The biggest trick with names is to write them down. I don't care if you take notes or not, write down NPC names. Why? Because you're going to forget an NPC, and then a player is going to ask about them and you're going to be like "Who?" Worse, a new name can give an NPC a new identity (again, we think of someone named Vlad to be different than someone named Alfred.) So write down the NPC names, along with whatever other notes you need to keep them clear in your head.
This will also help add consistency to your game, and make the players feel the world is more cemented than malleable. Sure, good players can play a long, but there is still that bit of immersion breaking when someone goes "What was that guy's name again? Let's just call him Bob. Ok, so we go see Bob." Compare that to "What as the innkeeper's name?" "You mean Tom? Yeah, he's still back in Riverrun keeping an eye on the orphans like you asked." One is a world that stays consistent and exists without the players being present, the other is not.
What Tricks Do You Have?
Despite this topic, I'm pretty horrible when it comes to NPC names. So what tricks do you use to keep them straight in your head? What do you do to keep your world sane and consistent? Sound off in the comments.