Image: Gaunter O’Dimm from the Witcher 3:Wild Hunt and the expansion Hearts of Stone
Making a memorable NPC is one thing but an ambiguous one tends to be the most fun while being the most difficult at the same time. Let’s dive in.
So what is an ambiguous NPC at its core? To me, it’s someone that’s a little difficult to tell if they are friend or foe. Sometimes they’re helpful, other times they can be rather adversarial. The second bit is a little difficult to do because if you have a group of murder hobos, anybody who stands in their way is likely to be up on their chopping block. This reflex is present in my Saturday group. So what I did for my one, big-time ambiguous NPC is that I made it clear that he’s immensely more powerful than the player characters. I didn’t have to roll a die or a single point of damage to show that off, and fortunately for me, it worked rather well.
Without question, showing the players a character more powerful than them will do one of two things: Make them want to surpass them or make them feel like you’re railroading them into sparing a character. Both can be pretty unhealthy to have in a campaign, the latter for sure, but maybe giving the PCs a superior can be a good thing.
The first thought that pops into mind is, ooh! They’ll want to deal with the NPC more because they want to find their weakness! What a fantastic way to keep this NPC a thorn in the side of your players. This sounds a lot like a villain more than an ambiguous NPC, so let’s back pedal and talk about how to make them just that: ambiguous!
It’s rather easy for a GM to be adversarial with their NPCs, it’s almost an instinct handed down from generations of RPG players. Perhaps I’m overstating it a bit, but you get the point. Making the character a vital piece of the goal’s success could be part of the solution to adding balance to the personality. Not vital as in the players have to keep them safe from the town guard that wants to imprison them perhaps, but maybe they have a vital piece of information. Or a wealth of vital information! That makes them a well of story details that could help the players progress from a different angle. What makes this fun to do is that every time they decide to tap that well, they have this sense of dread and disdain for the character they’re seeking help from. This keeps them from exploiting it because it’ll often tack on more obligations to their quest than they’ll feel comfortable juggling.
My favorite ambiguous NPC to date is Gaunter O’Dimm from The Witcher series. He makes an easily forgettable appearance in the main story at the very beginning and then becomes a focal point for the Hearts of Stone expansion. Gaunter O’Dimm calls himself the Man of Mirrors, for reasons that aren’t clearly explained but it does add this sort of creepy persona to him. He saves Geralt from being in a tight spot but then holds him to an obligation. Ta-da! We have an ambiguous NPC! Most things in The Witcher 3 tend to be not-so black and white to begin with, which is part of what makes the game brilliant. The tale that you piece together between him and the other main NPC, Olgierd von Everec, really makes both of them grey characters almost indistinguishable from good or evil. I won’t spoil the end, but it is rather polarizing as to which direction either of the NPCs lie. It’s also a little creepy that Gaunter’s initials come out to be G.O.D. Freaking weirdo.
And then there’s my favorite creation from my Saturday campaign: Thynexius, the tiefling wizard/sorcerer that’s supposedly in the service of the Archmage (it’s hard to tell). This guy is probably the most complex character I’ve introduced to date. He’s immensely powerful, snarky, creepy and can be rather authoritative from time to time. When he was first seen, they met him as an arms and armor dealer on the streets of Ald Sotha. A PC that no longer is with us bought and used a sword only to find it was cursed, rather than beneficially magical. When you’re not directly doing the Archmage’s bidding and you have a shred of immunity towards most things legal, why not do this in your spare time, right? During an investigation quest, he gave the players a mysterious key, saying no more besides, “When you find him, he has a chest. Bring me the contents, it’s rather important”. With that he implies he already knows what’s going on and won’t help, and not only that but he’s using the PCs as fetchers to get something for him. Boy, that generated a lot of disdain for this guy. To get a better taste for Thynexius, you can check out one of my Ald Sotha adventure logs to see how this fellow can be even more of a pain yet helpful at the same time!
Stay Metal \m/