Neil Gaiman did this first of course with his excellent Neverwhere, and its imaginative reinterpretations of London Underground station names. London Underground stations are in reality completely unromantic despite their names, and the same applies to Osaka, whose residents don’t think much about the romantic and inventive meanings of the station names all around them – to them, they’re just names. The meanings derive from the Japanese characters (Kanji) of which the names are composed, of course, and on my recent trip to Osaka I was struck by how romantic a role-playing world would sound if its regions and place names were built from English translations of Osaka (or Tokyo) place names. For example:
- Nanba, Wave of Hardship
- Shinimamiya, New Palace of Now
- Shinsaibashi, Bridge of Heartful Worship (thanks Noisms!)
- Tennoji, Heavenly King’s Temple
- Kujo, Nine Clauses
- Tsuruhashi, Crane Bridge
Fukuoka, in fact, has a street in the drinking and night-life district whose name literally translates as “Disrespecting parents street.” The challenge here is to think of something interesting about the area which justifies its name – is the area called Nine Clauses a town in the juncture of 9 competing kingdoms? Is it a series of 9 standing stones with ineffable powers? What is the New Palace of Now, and does it ever change? Is the Heavenly King a lost God whose temple is falling to ruins, or does the cult of the Heavenly King wish to violently overthrow the parliament and restore the King as a God? If so their temple must be remote, and very well defended.
It doesn’t take many of these names to construct a world with a romantic feeling (too many would, of course, be very tacky). One could even do it sandbox style, lay down the names to start with and have the players decide what they mean when they arrive at the location. Creating a world based on names, and filling in the adventures later… could be fun!