Welcome to the Witcher III: Wild Hunt! I know you're probably already digging into the game, but if you've never played a Witcher titles before, you might be in the dark here. What follows is a helpful guide aimed at not only getting you up to speed, but also helping you with a few questions that will be posed to you at the end of the game's introductory section. If you just want help with those questions, go to Page 2.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, like the two CD Projekt Red games that preceded it are based on the novels and short stories of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. If you're an English-speaker, five of the books are available to you. In narrative chronological order, they are: The Last Wish, Sword of Destiny, Blood of Elves, The Time of Contempt, and Baptism of Fire. There's actually two more major books in the series (The Swallow's Tower and The Lady of the Lake), but you can't read them so they might as well not exist. 'Murica!
The thing is, the books take place prior to the games. In fact, The Witcher and Witcher II: Assassins of Kings feature an amnesiac version of Geralt and can be played with little knowledge of the books themselves. Wild Hunt on the other hand, will give you some information, but otherwise expects that you've done your homework.
I'm your teacher. Let's begin!
Where does the game take place?
The Witcher stories take place on The Continent. Way back in the day, the Continent experienced an event called The Conjunction of the Spheres, in which beings from various dimensions were shunted into a single place. That's where monsters and others things came from in the Witcher's narrative. It's also where humans came from. Unfortunately, humans vs. monsters isn't a fair fight, so humanity created the Witchers.
What's a Witcher?
Witchers are young men, taken from their families, mutated, and trained to hunt monsters. They're faster and tougher than the average human and the training gives them an extra leg up on the inhuman. Like Star Wars' Jedi, the Witchers train potentials from a young age before finally having them go through with a ritual called The Trial of the Grasses. The ritual tends to kill more than half of the potentials, which is a sad way to end years spent training like Batman. The mutation gives every Witcher yellow, cat-like eyes, increased speed and strength, immunity to many poisons, and improved healing. They gain the ability to use limited magic in the form of Signs. It also makes them sterile, which is why there's all the child-stealing in the first place.
There's four Witcher schools: Wolf, Cat, Griffon, and the game-only Viper. Our hero Geralt is of the Wolf school. As such, he gets a nifty Wolf medallion that vibrates when magic is near.
Why is Geralt always talking about payment?
Witchers don't work for free. They exist outside of the politics, because having a monster hunter who might not save someone over a political disagreement is a bad idea. Neutrality is the ideal, despite how many times Geralt and others screw that up. Part of that neutrality means that a Witcher doesn't kill monsters without getting paid for it. That's what Witchers call The Path, the life of a wandering ronin: moving from place-to-place, killing monsters, drinking, getting laid, and getting paid.
The pay requirement and the inhuman nature of the Witchers means that many people simply hate them. Oh, they'll come crawling on bent knee when a werewolf appears, but otherwise, some people absolutely hate Geralt and other Witchers.
With semi-good reason! Remember the child-taking thing? That's the result of a Witcher custom called The Law of Surprise. A Witcher, after saving a man's life will request either "The first thing that comes to greet you" or "What you find at home, yet don't expect." There's a couple of different permutations of the Law in the books and games, but overall, it's proven super-effective at letting Witchers take ownership on children born in their father's absence. Bad form, but it works.
What other groups do I need to know about?
There's actual magic users in the world. They're known by a few different names - sorcerers, sorceresses, mages, witches - but it's all the same deal. Magic users, like Witchers, are sterile, hence all the sex in the Witcher games.
Then there's the non-humans, the other races that populate the Continent that aren't human or monster. These races include the elves, dwarves, gnomes, halfings, and dryads. They are generally hated by humans; racism is the norm in the Witcher.
There's a war going on in Wild Hunt, between the Nilfgaardian Empire in the South and the Northern Kingdoms. The Nilfgaardians are well-trained armored conquerors, currently led by Emperor Emhyr var Emreis. They're kind of like Rome. Their primary foe in the third game is Redania, a northern realm led by King Radovid V the Stern. He's got issues. You'll see. Over off to the West, all on their lonesome, is the isle of Skellige. They're pretty much Vikings and tend to keep to themselves.
The eponymous Wild Hunt is a group of armored spectres that ride ghostly steeds. They appear at random in the skies and where they tread, death and chaos follow. They are not good and in The Witcher III, they're hunting one of Geralt's relatives.
Who's our main cast?
Geralt of Rivia
Who's got two swords, white hair, and yellow cat eyes? This guy! Our hero is Geralt of Rivia, who's not actually from Rivia, he just picked the place on a whim. He actually calls Kaer Morhen home, but that's only for Witchers to know. Thanks to the fact that he's a Witcher, Geralt is somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 years old. The white hair is a unique side effect of his mutation and alongside his Wolf school medallion, it earns him his nickname: "The White Wolf". He's also known as "the Butcher of Blaviken" for a particularly heinous Witcher contract.
The part of Geralt's life that factors heavily into the Witcher III involves events that happened at the end of the final book, The Lady of the Lake. Geralt died at the end of that book, killed by a peasant with pitchfork. His lover Yennefer, died trying to bring him back, but Geralt's ward Ciri used her powerful magical abilities to save them both. The Wild Hunt is looking for Ciri for its own purposes, so it took Yennefer (close enough?). Geralt tracked the Hunt and exchanged his life for Yennefer's. He rode with the Hunt for some time, but somehow escaped and in the process, lost his memories. That brings us up to the first Witcher game, featuring an amnesiac Geralt. Shenanigans!
By the time Witcher III rolls around, Geralt has regained his memory and the game begins with Geralt attempting to track down Yennefer again.
Yennefer of Vengenberg
This is Geralt's lover from the novels and she makes her first major appearance after existing only in flashbacks in previous Witcher games. Yennefer is a powerful sorceress. She's looking for Ciri, in the employ of Ciri's father, Emperor Emhyr var Emreis. Remember him from an explanation above?
Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon is our magical MacGuffin. She is Geralt's adopted daughter and ward (via the Law of Surprise), having been trained in the ways of the Witcher without going through the The Trial of the Grasses. She's the only daughter of Nilfgaardian Emperor Emhyr var Emreis and rightful heir to his throne. She's also got Elder Blood in her vein, meaning she has access to super-powerful ancient magic and can travel to other dimensions. That dimension hopping power is important to the Wild Hunt. Geralt wants her, Yennefer wants her, the Emperor wants her, and the Wild Hunt wants her. That's why she's on the run in the Witcher III.
Another sorceress and Geralt's love interest in The Witcher and The Witcher II. Of course, once he regained his memory, he couldn't keep being in a relationship with Triss could he? Triss and Yennefer are friends! Geralt's love life is complicated.
Witcher trainer and master of Kaer Morhen. He's the oldest Witcher you'll meet.
A spoony bard who's also Geralt's best friend. Oddly enough, Dandelion never really factors into Gerald's adventures, even though he's frequently present.
A dwarven merc who's frequently found in Dandelion's company.