Don’t listen to Wizards of the Coast. Name your next dragon Steve.
I say this after reading thumbing through one of Wizards of the Coast’s new Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game rulebooks, Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons. It is, you have probably correctly guessed by now, all about dragons –their lairs, their hordes, their minions, their personalities, and lots more. It’s neat, especially if you want to run a D&D campaign with a lot of dragons and dragon-adjacent creatures. Except that one section entitled “How to Name Your Dragon” got a little bit of basic psychology wrong and could lead you down a ruinous path.
Well, maybe not ruinous. Annoying. Slightly annoying. Allow me to explain.
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On page 34 of Fizban’s there is a table called “Dragon Name Elements.” It’s one of those tables where you can roll to randomly generate something. In this case, you can generate random dragon names by rolling two or three times to get a set of “draconic morphemes” that you can smush together into a name. Here, let me grab a d20 and let’s do it now:
Lham…Gaul…Saryx. Lhamgaulsaryx. Or maybe let’s sprinkle some apostrophes in there like fresh ground pepper and call it Lham’gaul’saryx. Other examples from the Fizban’s rulebook include “Ingeloakastimizilian, Imavernarhro, and K’rshinthintl.
Okay, those sound pretty impressive, but no. This is a bad approach to naming a dragon, your character, a fantastical location, or anything else. Because of something psychologists call the fluency effect.
One pervasive decision-making shortcut that our puny mortal minds really like to use is “if it’s easy to mentally process or recall from memory, it’s probably good or true, and if not it’s probably bad or untrue.” Often this little mental shortcut is correct, and so it persists despite not being always correct. Once you understand this, you can see it show up everywhere. Songs in advertisements nudge us towards favoring products because pairing information with a jingle or rhyme makes it easier to encode in memory and recall. Repetition makes something easier to remember, so we may eventually believe a lie when it’s repeated enough. And if things are easier for us to pronounce, we like them more and think better of them. This last effect is often referred to as “fluency.”
One pair of researchers, for example, did an experiment looking at company names listed on the New York Stock Exchange between 1990 and 2004.1 They hypothesized that since determining the value of a company is such a massively difficult task, the fluency of the company’s stock market ticker might exert some influence. Investors feel better about fluent symbols like “KAR” relative to others like “RDO,” and that feeling bleeds over, unconsciously, to their evaluation of the stock. Indeed, companies with more fluent names did better. The researchers point out that an investment in the ten most stocks with the most fluent names would earn an 11 percent return, while the ten most disfluently named stocks would only get you 4 percent.
Where I’m going with this is that if you name a dragon “Lham’gaul’saryx” people are probably going to forget about it and not think much of it because it triggers the “difficult to process = bad” mental shortcut. Same thing with your character names.2 And indeed, a close reading of the text surrounding that table in Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons the authors acknowledge this point. They say:
When naming a dragon, take whatever approach appeals to you. But bear in mind that dragons need memorable names, and if your players have trouble pronouncing a name, it’s likely to be quickly forgotten –or jokingly abbreviated.Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons, pg 33
Which is correct. So just name your dragon “Steve” and be done with it.