I’ve seen variations on this reply in indieland: we don’t really play games where recurring NPCs are a thing. But I do have one that jumps out at me, because he drew strong feelings from everyone who came in contact with him.
The game was Space Wurm vs Moonicorn. I can’t remember the guy’s name, but the NPC’s role was a sleazebag fixer, drug dealer, general bad apple. He had semi-enslaved (hooked on dope) a living ship on the outskirts of the big monolithic starfaring guild that ran all the other living ships. So basically if you’re a living ship, your choices are either to serve these hyper-pious religious assholes, or get hooked up with someone like my NPC.
Don’t know how exactly I did it, but I drew a really clear picture of a greasy hustler. I think everyone tried to kill him at least once in our campaign, and somehow he kept surviving, scuttling off, and returning like a bad penny. My heart soared every time the table groaned “oh god, not this guy again.” The best.
Oh, this got me thinking about another long-term campaign we played, The One Ring. I remember the depressing realization I had that this would be the first time I’d purposefully populated our make-believe with folks who are likeable and ready to help the players. That’s kind of baked into Middle Earth, at least during the TOR timeline. There may be some distrust of strangers, but folks can be won over and, I think, even want to be able to trust strangers. Kind of the opposite of the “win us over or we’ll cut you open” vibe in Circle of Hands, and honestly most fictional settings I dream up. By default. Like I said, depressing!
But what made it great was that when the players did fuck up in TOR and ended up alienating an NPC, it actually kind of hurt, I think. That’s so much better than living in a world where you already distrust everyone, everyone distrusts you, and it’s just a matter of time before someone gets screwed over. I need to do this more often, I think, start the world as fundamentally trusting and trustworthy.