“Butcher Hollow? That’s GOT to be a bad place…”
Except Butcher Hollow (or “Holler”, if you’re spelling it like the locals say it) is the home town of Loretta Lynn. It’s mentioned in her famous song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”. I happened the hear the song, and it got me thinking, the way these things do.
I remember one time, way back in high school — possibly junior high — when I was working up a map of a fantastic continent. I was giving things names like “The Cliffs Of Insanity” and “The Pit Of Despair”. (Not those names, of course. If you don’t recognize them, there’s this movie you really need to watch…) A friend objected to such hokey names, saying real places don’t get named like that. As it turns out, though, there’s some pretty odd names in the real world…
Later on, I ran a Werewolf: The Apocalypse game. This was the first edition, the one with the ill-considered cut-outs of claws marks on the cover that couldn’t stand up to the wear and tear of actual use; the one where, if you followed the guidance in the book and the rules as written, your first session would end with the PCs performing a near-total party kill on themselves. The PCs started out scattered across the world. One was from Ireland, raised by a traditionalist Celtic pack. When he came of age, his clan’s wise man came to him and laid a geas on him: he must travel to a far-away country, across the ocean, and seek “The Land Of Ashes”. After a certain amount of research and questing, he ended up joining the rest of the group a little ways outside… Ashland, Kentucky. Which he insisted on pronouncing “Ash Land”, with a pause, for the rest of the game.
(Full disclosure: I’m originally from Kentucky, which is both why the Werewolf game started off there, and why I’m going to use it for my example, later on.)
The thought is this: The real world has names a-plenty for filling your fantasy world. You just have to find them.
One example is the representative of civilization in my current Dungeon Fantasy game, the town of Tembladera. There’s a real town by that name. If you zoom out a bit to see both that town and the ocean, you’ll be looking at the basis of the map I’m using for the campaign. I flipped it around horizontally, so the ocean is on the east, and reduced the scale by a factor of about five. If you transform the map like that, my fictional town of Tembladera sits roughly where the real-world Limoncarro is. The real-world Tembladera sits approximately where I placed the entrance to the dwarven ruins.
What happened was, I was playing around with Google Maps, looking for a location I could morph into my hex map for the game. I found that area and stumbled across the town. I was so taken with the name, I decided to swipe it, but I had already decided to have my town at the point where the flat land turns into mountains.
So, it’s easy to find a name that’ll sound exotic to your players. Just spin the globe to someplace far away and zoom in close. People may have heard of big cities from around the world, but nobody’s going to recognize the names of smaller towns. And if you’re looking for something less exotic and more evocative, along the lines of “The Cliffs of Insanity”, try looking nearby, but look for really small towns and geographical features.
Here’s that example I threatened earlier. I went to Wikipedia, found a list of unincorporated towns in Kentucky, and went trolling for names that might be good to recycle into a fantasy world. As it turns out, I might even get some use out of them for the dungeon crawl.
What I found:
- Bear Wallow – A place where an otherwise impassable river becomes shallow, and therefore good for both travelers looking for a ford and for the local bears looking for a cool bath. Could be underground, if they’re cave bears. Random encounters here really shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
- Big Bone – The story goes, it got the name due to the many mammoth bones found in the area. In a fantasy world, those bones can get a lot bigger. I’m envisioning something similar to the town of Pym Falls, from Old Man Logan. The skeleton of a giant who fell in battle long ago, recycled into a village.
- Big Windy – I’m seeing a smooth-walled, rounded, straight tunnel, at a somewhat steep angle, with one end opening at the peak of a mountain, such that there’s almost always a fierce, bitterly cold wind. The generously-named steps would be slick and icy. At certain times of day, sunlight might make its way into the tunnel, which eliminates the darkness penalties but also starts melting the ice, making it that much more slippery. I would use it as a path between two or more levels, but not the only path. Better to have a longer way around that avoids the challenges of the Big Windy, but increases the chances of encounters.
- Black Bottom – When I saw this one, I laughed, because I had finally discovered the translation of the Goblinistani name of the dark pit that the orc tribe has been “farming”.
- Bone Cave – Plainly, a cave full of bones. Maybe it was the site of a terrible battle and is now littered with the bones of the losers. Maybe it’s full of skeletal undead. Probably both.
- Brightshade – Clearly an elven ghetto.
- Brows Defeat – Has an epic ring to it, doesn’t it? You just have to figure out who (or what?) the defeated “Brow” is, or was, and you’re in business.
- Carbon Glow – Honestly, I’m not sure what to do with this’n, but it sure sounds good, doesn’t it? Maybe some sort of smokey volcanic area, lit by the glow of molten lava?
- Chicken Bristle – A community of dirt-poor goblins, kobolds, and humans, living in the shadow (and to some extents, the sewers) of a more prosperous town.
- Coldiron – Brings to mind a stern (if not outright dwarven) community with a feud against the next place…
- Devil Fork – I couldn’t tell you why the real place has that name, but it surely sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Could be a fork in a road, or in a stream, or in an underground tunnel. The “devil” probably comes from the locals…
- Drowning Creek – Sounds like a good name for a cursed body of water. Or maybe not cursed, so much as haunted by the ghosts of those who’ve drowned there before, looking to add to their number.
- Fearsville – If it’s not a bustling town in the land of Ravenloft, it’s just plain trying too hard. I would be tempted to turn it into some sort of twisted, Scooby-Doo nightmare, like a happy little town where everybody just happens to be some kind of monster, behind the facade. Little old lady werewolves. Vampire street-sweepers. All the cute urchins are cannibals.
- Gold City – What the town near the dungeon re-names itself, after the adventurers start causing inflation from all the ancient coins they’re pulling out of the ground.
- Lettered Oak – An excellent name for an unusually well-read tree. Could be a treant wizard, but I’d be more inclined to have an animated (but still rooted) oak tree who has dedicated itself to academic study. It’ll answers questions like a sage, but demands payment in books.
- Lost Creek – The question being, how did it get lost? I’m betting the faerie stole it.
- Natures Bathing Pool – A fantastic place to meet a nymph.
- Sulphur Well – Easier to place this one in a dungeon than anywhere else, I’d say. A natural sulfur deposit makes sense. Perhaps it’s bad enough to make the atmosphere nearby hostile to humans, which makes it an excellent nesting ground for… something that has no sense of smell, or doesn’t breathe at all. Elemental creatures of the earth persuasion would work. If the region is volcanic, so would fire elementals or Flame Lords.