Learning about NPCs
The Witcher has a huge cast of characters drawn from the original books, the previous games, and a vast quantity of new people filling its wide world. In a game where decisions are supposed to be impactful and the grim often tragic state of the world should make you feel bad characterizing and introducing a player to these NPCs is very important. And the game doesn’t slouch, using a wide range of techniques.
At the beginning of the game Geralt is on the trail of his long time lover Yennefer, a sorceress. To introduce you the game first puts you in a flash back, infamously beginning with Geralt naked in a bath tub. Geralt is bathing in a chamber with Yennefer nearby letting you browse through her belongings, noting her distinctive perfume of lilac and gooseberries. Soon thereafter waking from the flash back Geralt shows a letter from Yennefer to his companion who comments on the scent. Her cold nature and black and silver clothing style are all mentioned by Geralt and others throughout the game giving an impression of a cool, haughty, and controlled woman.
Like its monster tracking much of the game is spent trying to find NPCs important to Geralt and in the process the player can learn who the character is and why they are important. One quest in Novigrad leads Geralt to the homes of several women that the bard Dandelion had wooed. In the process not only do we learn about Dandelion’s less than faithful ways we uncover his care for Geralt’s daughter Ciri, and part of his plans for a heist revealed later in the game.
Likewise much of the game features Geralt back tracking Ciri’s escape from the Wild Hunt and through flash backs and the clues left behind by her flight you learn about her problems and her nature before Geralt and Ciri reunite. The game earns a touching moment though Ciri doesn’t feature as a main character until two thirds of the way through the game.
Use in RPGs
Getting players to care about NPCs in games can be tough. If I had a dollar for every time the players coined a nickname or jumped to conclusions about an NPC before they’ve even opened their mouths… It can be hard sometimes to remember that NPCs will leave as many traces in the world as the players do.
If NPCs have opinions about each other as well as relationships to each other the players will get an impression about them well before they meet. A shopkeeper who has an annoying younger brother will stand out when the players meet the child outside his shop.
Their home, work, and places they visit will also color how the players think about them. While playing Masks of Nyarlathotep I found that players quickly were bored of the NPCs who almost all seemed to be importer/exporters. Each NPC sat neatly in their offices or warehouses and had no personal details in the world.
Having to track down an important NPC can also teach the player plenty about them before they meet them. Of course you also have to make sure its not so much of a wild goose chase that they get annoyed with them. But giving the players a path through the NPCs favorite haunts, or in an area where the NPC had a task to complete can lead to interesting facts about the NPC. Facts like how the NPC deals with problems, where they relax, or what sort of people they interact with are all great details to add to an NPC.