Killing Good Games with Bad Titles

How to write a bad RPG title. And how to do the opposite.

Killing Good Games with Bad Titles

Don’t make me do this.

I’m holding a magnet to your laptop. “I’ll do it!” I yell over the sound of sizzling bacon. Everyone in this Waffle House knows I mean business—it doesn’t bother them—but you’re a wreck. Why is this guy threatening to erase all my hard work?

Because you’re about to give it an awful title, and I’m going to kill it—to save it.

“Please,” I sputter. You’ve never seen a man in a suit, wearing Groucho Marx glasses cry this much. “Please,” I beg, “Don’t make me do this.”

How to write bad titles.

Bad titles kill good games. If your game is “bad,” you don’t have to worry. The worst thing a bad game can do is waste a good title.

Before we get started, let’s discuss subjectivity. Nothing in this article is objective, but it’s also not arbitrary. No scientist in the world can prove that your title, “The Legend of Xax’Baldurag,” stinks to high heaven. But if that title belongs to a game about tending sheep in Wisconsin, it’s bad.

The summary of all the below “bad” examples is this: Bad titles are arbitrary or irrelevant. Good titles are not.

Bad titles are just memes.

We’ve seen this title. On rare occasions, it’s funny and a perfect one-off for a one-and-done game. But if your game isn’t a meme, a joke, or commentary—why hitch it to something so temporary and unrelated?

Again, you can name your game after a meme, especially if the game is a meme. But occasionally, a serious game gets a meme title for the internet points. Sometimes, the meme is for the author, a self-sabotaging, “I don’t really care if you take this seriously because I don’t.” It’s okay to be earnest. Not everything has to be ironic.

Again, if the game’s contents are a meme—the meme name is good. If the meme is more of a joking homage—and your game’s tone is conducive to a joking homage—that name is good, too.

But if your game is something other than a meme. Don’t let that dream become a meme. Anyway, here’s my deeply personal lyrical game about extremism in religion; better call it Stilgar Thinks You're Rad.

Bad titles scream knock-offs.

Most creative work is sparked by other creative work. Hell, George Lucas read the book Dune and went off and made Star Wars. But here’s the catch—he used it as inspiration—and he didn’t call it Space Prophets and Desert Planets.

I think there are examples where the nod is perfect. The forged in the dark game, Scum & Villainy, is just the right amount of allusion without making you think it’s a cheap, fan-fiction retread.

Use your inspiration and share the lineage, but don’t make it live under your inspiration’s shadow. You can deliver on your inspiration’s feelings, but you cannot deliver the inspiration itself—so don’t let the title write checks you can’t cash.

Do not title your game Sand Gets Everywhere or Desert Mouse, Desert Planet.

Bad titles are boilerplate.

Fantasy does this the most. It’s okay when the pulp guys did it because they’re dead, and they sold their work for a dime—you couldn’t waste time back in the 1930s when the average meal was a can of beans. The rest of us are lucky. Our problem is that we live in a world of great titles, so our bad ones hurt.

If a fantasy title generator or Chat GPT can create your game’s name, you should reconsider it. The ____ of _____ is a popular formula. I know your title is unique because you added a name no one knows yet, but I promise you it doesn’t make a difference. The Silver Helm of Shandozer works for some games like Dungeon Crawl Classics, but unless you’re trying to channel pulp drek, I’d steer clear.

Oddly enough, Shandozer is a better name than The Silver Helm of Shandozer, and I’ll explain why…

Like where this is going? Just wait till you see the examples of good titles. You might want to show off to others.

How to write good titles.

Here’s the bad news: There is no secret formula. Names are subjective. Every system, toolbox, and generator follows the same advice: “Use your best judgment.” Sadly, best judgment is a muscle you have to build. If you want to give your stuff great names, you must become a carbo-loading glutton for names.

Good titles are sharp.

Some of the best names are short and sweet. They don’t pile on the conjunctions or play the word-combination game. These titles are often one word. Often a really cool word. The more fun it is to say, the better.

Counterpoint: If the word is plain to the point of being generic—it sucks. Sharp titles need to be short, sweet, and evocative. Grab the thesaurus if you have to.

Great examples
  • Necronautilus by Adam Vass. Just a cool-sounding name with rhythm.
  • Mothership by Sean McCoy. Simple but visual. How was this name not taken?
  • FIST by Claymore. It’s an acronym, but also a feeling it doesn’t hold back.
  • World Wide Wrestling by Nathan D. Paoletta. I can see the suplex already.
  • Witchburner by Luka Rejec. A whole new word that goes really hard.

Good titles set the scene.

Pulpy as hell, poetic, or dramatic, titles that set the scene waste no time getting you into the game. They immediately create an image and leave you wanting more. If you need inspiration for these, dig through old movies and short stories.

Counterpoint: The scene has to be interesting—and that’s hard when so many scenes have been described ad naseum. Make sure it paints a picture and creates tension.

Great examples
  • Bucket of Bolts by Jack Harrison. A nod to genre with a funny, raw visual image.
  • The Quiet Year by Avery Alder. Poetic stillness with a lingering tension. Perfect.
  • Moonlight on Roseville Beach by R. Rook. This title screams pulp romance.
  • Hull Breach by Assorted. An anthology named after a worst-case scenario.
  • Deathmatch Island by Old Dog Games. You know the place, stakes, and climax.

Good titles are fun to say.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes, the secret to a good title is how it feels in the mouth. Cadence, rhyme, and alliteration convey feelings many titles can’t do any other way.

Counterpoint: We associate certain feelings with certain genres. Some titles are fun and youthful, while others are deep and plodding. Mismatches happen. Make sure it doesn’t happen to you.

Great examples
  • Picket Line Tango by Anodyne Printware. Jazzy and messy. Just like its mystery.
  • Honey Heist by Grant Howitt. Fast, simple, and fun to say. Alliteration rocks.
  • Troika! by Melsonia Arts Council. Pure energy and chaos right from the start.
  • Mörk Borg by Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr. Incorrect (but fun) pronunciation.
  • TORQ by Will Jobst. Your mouth needs to have torq to say it. “toh-rKK!”

Good titles feel original.

We know what to expect. That’s why titles that surprise us have so much power. They don’t play by the rules and win the battle for our attention. Titles that subvert our expectations are usually adding a twist to genre or industry norms.

Counterpoint: This applies to everything, but especially to these kinds of titles. The name still has to relate to the contents. Surprise without a payoff is cheap.

Great examples
  • The Moldy Unicorn by Highland Paranormal Society. “Moldy” says it all.
  • Barkeep on the Borderlands by W.F. Smith. A riff on the famous D&D module.
  • Wet Grandpa by Evey Lockhart. Who, what, and why? So many questions.
  • Deep Carbon Observatory by Patrick Stuart. Not your typical fantasy locale.
  • Bakto’s Terrifying Cuisine by Giuliano Roverato. These culinary delights…

Good titles have a voice.

Art is creative work with something to say. Titles with attitude, points of view, and strong personalities say more than most games can in six-hundred pages. They speak directly to their audience and don’t waste time with anyone else.

Counterpoint: My biggest pet peeve is when the voice doesn’t carry over into the actual content. What’s the point of having a title that screams punk if the game’s rules sound like they were written by Wizards of the Coast?

Great examples
  • Crapland by Sean Richer. The definition of irreverent, burnout culture.

  • You’re in Space and Everything’s Fucked by Nevyn Holmes. Sets the scene sharply.

  • My Body is a Cage by Snow. This title, like the song, bleeds pain and angst.

  • My Life with Master by Paul Czege. This title immediately puts us in-character.

  • Anyone Can Wear the Mask by Jeff Stormer. This title leads with a theme.

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Final thoughts on titles.

I realized while writing this post that most people want to give their games good titles. Bad titles are unintentional. The real cause for bad titles is not talking.

Discourse can actually make things better. In this Waffle House, anything is possible.

What are your favorite game titles? What do you like about them? Drop a comment, share your thoughts on Discord, or—better yet—share your favorites on social with a link to this post. Spread the mind virus of title sharing.

Until next time, never stop exploring.