GM Oracle pointed out a nice site that gave some English village and place names, but it could be used for so much more. The site actually gives terms (such as ‘aber’), its meaning (mouth of a river), its position in a word (prefix) and examples of the term in use in an English place name (Aberdeen). Altogether this is an excellent resource for naming places while you are world-building. Doing something like this adds a wonderful under-layer of meaning. If you stick to the conventions as they are listed, the names of your locations will have an internal consistency that will bleed out into the minds of your players. This level of uniformity will give your world a healthy dose of realism and thus make it come alive for your players.
The intent of GM Oracle’s article was to highlight a good resource for snagging place names on the fly (or even for world building though it wasn’t explicitly mentioned) and it will do that for you. However, I think we can take it one step further. Let’s say you are designing the UnderDark and need names. You can apply these English templates onto Drow names.
A website (linked here) has an excellent list of Drow names, basically taking common English words and giving their Drow equivalent. We can then take those Drow versions and set them into the English templates as seen from the English Place Names site.
Here are some examples of what I am talking about…
According to the website cited the Drow word for water is niar. We can take the easy way and name an underground lake as Niardeen, simply replacing aber in Aberdeen. If the majority of waterways all start with Niar- then on some level the players will automatically known Niar means the location they are heading to has something to do with water.
Or we can combine a prefix and suffix for something else. If the location is an underground lake we can combine Niar (water) and Har’ol (cavern) for Niarhar’ol. Perhaps the lake runs red from minerals found in the water. For this Niarvlos would be an appropriate name (vlos is Drow for blood). Instead of just naming it Red River, Niarvlos sounds so much cooler and appropriate for the setting the characters/players find themselves in.
We can do much the same with dwarven. Here is a website that gives some dwarven versions of some common words. Using this, mouth of the river becomes Maawnaal. Blood River becomes Barathnaal.
There are numerous languages that could be used. Here are a few links…
Elf - http://rayvenwing.netfirms.com/eng2elf.htm
Orc - http://www.angelfire.com/ia/orcishnations/englishorcish.html
Gnome - http://www.whymedia.ca/dungeonsanddragons/resources/languages/gnomish.html
Various (Abyssal, Celestial, Draconic, Drow, Dwarf, Elf, Fey, Gnome, Goblin, Halfling, Infernal, Lizardspeak, Orc, Reptilian) - http://www.tilansia.com/langconvert.php
Another trick is to use a real world language but one that the players are not familiar with. Swahili is probably a language no one at your table knows. There does exist an English to Swahili translator online for it.
If you are consistent with the naming conventions the players will soon catch on and your world will become more real. Eventually you can start slipping in clues and expect the players to catch them. If the name of a ruin is Barathzahar (dwarven for blood building) the players may pick up on it being a dwarven ruin, which they may find odd if there are no stories of dwarves in the area. In addition, using simple substitution will make naming locations much easier.