My new book Exploring Eberron is available now on the DM’s Guild. You can find a FAQ about it here. I am currently working on a longer article about the Nobility of Khorvaire, but as time permits I like to answer interesting short questions from my Patreon supporters, so here’s one from Samantha:
How do you pick the names for the Overlords? They seem to all have a common thread or convention, and I’m dying to know what it is.
The answer is tied to a broader question of worldbuilding, which is how deep do you go in creating languages for a world? Exploring Eberron includes a Goblin glossary, compiled with help from Don Bassingthwaite and Jarrod Taylor. The bulk of that glossary was developed by Don when he was working on his Legacy of Dhakaan novels, but he built it on the foundation I’d established in previous sourcebooks. The answer is that I almost never go deep into creating a language; but my goal is to be distinctive and consistent. I don’t usually bother to create a full dictionary of hundreds of words. But I establish a simple set of rules and keep track of existing words, and use the existing words as a foundation going forward.
So for example, here’s a few we came up with developing the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting.
Elvish. The elves use a lot of diphthongs, especially ae and ai. Words often have a soft flow, and V and L are common letters: Vadallia, Valaestas, Valenar, Vol. We quickly established Shae as “City”, Taer as “Fortress”, and “Pylas” as “Port.” This is important for worldbuilding, because you want consistent naming conventions for places when you are creating maps—even if you don’t yet no the culture. Elvish words are usually multisyllabic, and L, S, and R are common end letters… Tairnadal, Aerenal, Valenar. However, you have a few short names, usually formed on -ol—Vol, Shol.
Goblin. An immediate goal was for Goblin to feel harsher than Elvish. Goblin also uses a lot of diphthongs, but generally with repeated vowels—duur, ghaal, guul. It blends sibilance with harsh k and kh sounds—Shaarat’khesh, Taarka’khesh, Kech Shaarat. As seen in two of those three examples, glottal stops are common. As with Elvish, we immediately settled on place names, so draal was “city”; Rhukaan Draal, Cazhaak Draal, again with the harsher sound, dipthongs, and hard k’s. We started with those few basic words: duur is “dirge“, shaarat is “sword”, taarka is “wolf”, volaar is “word”, ghaal is “mighty” and could be attached to a people (ghaal’dar) or thing (ghaal’duur). We had Shaarat’khesh, the “silent blades” and Kech Shaarat, the “Keepers of the Blade.” But the point is that at the time, we didn’t have too much more than that. Until Don came along, we DIDN’T create a extensive Goblin dictionary; it was simply the case that when you needed to make a new Goblin word, you wanted to look back over the words that already existed and to make a word that feels like it fits the same pattern. So again, for me, the vital element is consistency.
So with that in mind, how did we pick the names of the overlords? Well, even before picking their names, we established the idea that every overlord would have a common title. The overlord’s actually names would be ancient and people might be superstitious about using them. Beyond that, part of the issue of using alien languages is that players can have trouble remembering them. “Rak Tulkhesh” is a jumble of sounds; “The Rage of War” immediately says this is an angry warmonger. So for most of them, the TITLE came first: The Rage of War, the Voice in the Darkness, the Keeper of Secrets, the Shadow in the Flame. In then developing their actual names, it’s the same process as for Goblin or Elvish: establish basic principles and make sure you stick with them. So…
- Most overlords have a monosyllabic first article and a multisyllabic second article: Rak Tulkhesh, Sul Khatesh.
- Like Goblin, overlord names often combine harsh consonants with sibilants—Tulkhesh, Oreshka. However, overlords generally DON’T use diphthongs or glottal stops.
- Ul, kh, and sh are common; Sul Khatesh, Tul Oreshka, Rak Tulkhesh. Part of the concept is that while they’re usually broken into short-name long-name, to some degree each syllable has power… it’s actually Rak-Tul-Khesh and Tul-Or-Esh-Ka. This plays to the idea that on some level the name of an overlord is an incantation… which explains why you DON’T want to say their names!
There are exceptions to all things. Eldrantulku the Oathbreaker uses a single word in both name and title, but you can still imagine his name as El-Dran-Tul-Ku. Dral Khatuur has a diphthong in her name. She probably should have been Dral Khatur; I admit that this was just a case where *I* liked the look and feel of Khatuur… Dral-Kha-Tuuuuur.
Some older versions of D&D had Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic as languages, but didn’t fully expand on their role. How would you make them distinct from Infernal, Abysmal, and/or Celestial for Eberron?
PERSONALLY, how I’d make them distinct is by making them nonexistent. There’s a number of reasons why I wouldn’t use these in my campaigns.
First, I usually find that having too many languages tends to get in the way of a story instead of making it more fun. The last thing I want is for the adventurers to meet a crucial NPC but then find no one can speak to him. This CAN be fun if it’s a specific part of the story — they need to play charades to figure out the directions to the dragon’s lair, or they need to find the one sage in the region that can read ancient Orc. But I don’t want that to be a part of EVERY ADVENTURE. As a result, I tend to REDUCE the number of languages in the game, focusing on the idea of “common tongues” — Common as the common language of Galifar, Goblin as the common language of Galifar, Giant as the common language of Xen’drik, Riedran as the common language of Sarlona. Exotic languages are EXOTIC and may play an interesting story role — the gnolls will be impressed if you actually speak gnoll — but any Znir gnoll will understand Goblin.
But beyond that, ALIGNMENT languages are especially weird for Eberron, where we try to downplay the role of alignment and play up personal choice. It’s not like you are born lawful and go to lawful school where they teach you to speak Lawful. You could make it the language of Daanvi, and in the 3.5 ECS many planes have languages. But in my Eberron, any immortal that WANTS to be understood WILL be understood. When the couatl appeared to Tira Miron, it didn’t speak Common; it just SPOKE, and she UNDERSTOOD. When you finally make it to the Amaranthine City of Irian, I don’t WANT you to find that you don’t understand anything the crowds are saying. The planes aren’t just mundane alien worlds, they are UNIVERSAL SYMBOLS — and as such, I say that if an immortal wants to be understood, it WILL be understood. I don’t mind having planar languages as the MOST esoteric of the esoteric languages; if you find a SCROLL from Mabar, maybe it’s written in Mabaran. And to be clear, an immortal CAN speak a mundane language if that serves its purpose. But that’s a conscious choice.
So having said all that, it’s not what I would do, but on that principle of EVERYTHING HAS A PLACE, if I HAD to put alignment languages in Eberron, I would say that they are fundamentally magical languages; they are universal languages — the speech of immortals — but are only understood by people who share the outlook of the speaker. So perhaps a Shavaran angel of the Legion of Freedom DOES speak Chaotic, which means that any creature with a chaotic alignment understands it perfectly and no one else understands it at all. It is the language of FREEDOM, understood by any free spirit. But it’s not a language you can LEARN; it’s part of the I’m-an-embodiment-of-chaos aspect of the immortal. If a player character could speak it, it would be through some kind of magic item or supernatural gift.
As a fun side note: sometimes soldiers or emergency service personnel use a “pointy-talky” card to facilitate communication with people when they have no common language. When we were developing the RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command we created a pointy-talky for Phoenixes to use on their missions; I’m going to share that now on my Patreon!