Making and Using True Names in Your Campaign

Last summer, I started and finished A Wizard of Earthsea in a single night. It was very good.

It recalls my favorite fantasy novels from childhood and young adulthood, such as the Skullduggery Pleasant books, which I now recognize were inspired in large part by LeGuin. I was especially taken with how she depicted True Names. So, of course, I took it upon myself to work true names into my game. This isn’t quite going to be Earthsea rules, as creating a really faithful depiction would require lots of special rules and wouldn’t translate well outside the setting, but here’s a quick gloss.

Everything has a True Name, and knowing it gives you power over that thing. Learning the names of common and notable things, such as a certain species of flower, or a particular bay, are part and parcel of a spellcaster’s studies. But the true names of specific individuals, whether humans, spirits or others, are obscure and hidden, even to themselves.

Learning your own true name is difficult and dangerous, but very rewarding. If another person learns it, either from you or on their own, they hold great power over you, to help and to heal. Be careful who you give it out to.

Illustration on the "Earthsea Quartet" cover - Science Fiction ...

I wanted to work true names into my own games, but wasn’t quite sure how until I read an old post by Rick Stump, Names, True Names and Magic. In Stump’s old campaigns, characters had both a True Name, bestowed at birth and known only by those very close to them, and a Day Name or Friend Name used by everyone else. Further, the Day Name might be changed at certain points in one’s life, such as becoming master of a craft.

This not only opens the door to all sorts of weird names, but it expands our options.

Broadly, Stump and LeGuin offer two views of True Names:

The Arcane Name

True Names are unknown to their bearer unless bestowed by a powerful magical authority or discovered through great effort. They are entrusted only with extreme caution, and can be used to help or harm the bearer through invoking them alone.

Learning the Arcane Name

Making a journey to the land of the dead and speaking to the ghost of a sage there. Make sure to pick out a thoughtful gift, and take care to not lose it along the way.

Asking for one’s true name as a divine boon. If the party has just completed a quest of note for a god, a character would be within their bounds to refuse other reward in exchange for knowledge of their true name. Any real god would be able to provide such knowledge.

A Magic-User or Cleric of 12th level or greater may have access to the True Naming spell, which has the following properties.

True Naming

Spell Level: Cleric, Magic-User, 6th level
Range: See below
Duration: Permanent

By casting this spell through an hour-long ceremony, the caster may learn the true name of the target. If this is done with the consent and presence of the target, it works automatically, and both the caster and target learn the name. Otherwise, it may be performed remotely with a piece of the target, such as a lock of hair, and the target both receives a Save and is immediately aware of a magical attack upon them. It further requires 100gp in sacrificial components particular to the caster, such as a dozen prize goats, rare spices from distant lands, dust of precious gems, etc. This works on undead and magical creatures, but not on the peaceful dead.

Some might protest that an Arcane Name should not be bought like this. I would reply, how many 12th level clerics and magic users are floating around your campaign world? Hopefully not too many. If the players get it in their heads to go on pilgrimage to a powerful wizard or holy ma in order to learn their true names, they will have to deal with that figure’s eccentricities, raise the money for the sacrifical materials, and may be sent on some quests to be proven worthy of the boon. That’s a kickass quest hook.

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That’s really nice! I’ve wanted to bring a bit of Earthsea in my games for years, so I really plan to steal it.

I loved those books, but I could never find them after the first three. This post is probably going to throw me in a reading spree… Again.

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