by Mike Shea on 31 August 2020
For a video on this topic, take a look at the Most Important Lazy D&D DM Tool: A Good List of Names on Youtube.
Names are hard. It's hard to come up with them. It's hard to remember them. Throughout our game we'll often find ourselves improvising an NPC and while most of the characteristics of our NPCs can be easily improvised, it's hard to improvise names. In a twitter poll on the topic, hundreds of DMs mentioned a good list of names as their number one improvisational aid.
There are many sources for good names. The Player's Handbook has suggested names for all of the races in the book and we DMs can use those names just as easily as the players can. Xanathar's Guide to Everything has piles of names we can use. If you have Xanathar's Guide at the table, stick a 3x5 card in that section of the book and keep it on hand when you're playing.
When it comes to lists of names, keep the list short. We don't need ten thousand names for any given session. A handful of names will do. Print out a single page or write out a dozen or so names on a 3x5 card and they'll serve you for a while. Our goal is to grab a name quickly and we can't do that if we have too many to sift through.
Second, write that name down when you use it. The minute we assign a name to an NPC we've plucked it out of the ether and made it into something real. That NPC exists now, along with that name. Write the name down in your notes and keep track of it from then on. You never know when a throwaway NPC is going to become someone important.
As lazy dungeon masters, our goal is to find the most effective tools to help us improvise during the game. We want tools that keep us flexible and able to move and shift as the story builds out at the table. A good list of names is one such tool, probably the most popular such tool. Find a good list of names, keep them on hand during the game, and write those names down when they become real.