It’s All About Who You Know

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 27, 2012

In Dungeons & Dragons, as in real life, there are two things that help people succeed where others fail: what you’ve done and who you know. In D&D we already make a big deal about “what you’ve done” and we call it XP, but there never seems to be much emphasis or importance placed on “who you know.”

Who you know can be interpreted in a few different ways, but when I think of this idea I think of all the people you can call on or a favour. This favour might be something as simple as a piece of local gossip or as significant as borrowing the King’s royal scepter. The point is that who you know is an important part of character development. During a PCs adventuring career he will meet many people and I’ll bet that many of them would be willing to help him down the road if the circumstances are right.

However so few players bother to track these potential allies and fewer still ever make an effort to call upon them when they need something. It’s impossible for an adventurer to do everything himself, that’s why he’s part of an adventuring party. But even his four or five closest buddies won’t always have what he needs. This is where contact can become exceptionally useful.

Building Up Your Contact List

Initially most PCs are inexperienced and haven’t really done much. At the beginning they’ll likely rely on “who they know” more than “what they’ve done.” I like to encourage players to include at least one important NPC that figures prominently in the PCs life before he was an adventurer. It can be a parent, sibling, employer, teacher or even a rival adventurer. The point is that this person can help the PCs or provide guidance early in their adventuring careers.

As the PCs earn XP and explore the world around them I introduce new NPCs that they can add to their contact list. I try to give all PCs the opportunity to add one solid contact to their list at every level. Some NPCs may end up being a contact for more than one PC and that’s fine. However, if the players like the idea of have a few unique contacts at their disposal then I encourage them to tell me what kind of NPCs the want to foster relationships with moving forward.

Often the contacts will be closely tied to a PC’s class or goals. A Rogue might want to reach out to the local thieves’ guild or fence, the Paladin may want to contact the local church of an affiliated deity or try to get in good with local law enforcement. In some cases the NPCs begin as just a part of the story and aren’t exceptional in any way. If a PC takes interest in the NPC then I’ll flesh them out a bit and see how they might be able to assist the PCs down the road.

Not all contacts will help the PCs for free. In some cases a price must be paid. It may be an exchange of information or it may be actual hard currency. It all depends on the NPC, the significance of the favour and the impact it will have on the adventure or ongoing story. In order to keep things balanced, I usually say that most contacts are merely good sources of information. It reminds the players that the contact provide a small bonus, not a free pass.

Location

In addition to recording the contact’s name it’s a good idea to record where they are usually found. If the campaign involves a lot of travelling then the PCs may end up with contacts all over the place. This means that they will have fewer contacts to turn to depending on where they are. In these kinds of games I like to have some of the contacts be fellow travelers. Examples include traveling merchants, wandering minstrels, swords for hire, and ship captains. This gives me as the DM a way to include some of the contacts without things seeming too far fetched or coincidental.

If the campaign if centralized, in a large city for example, then most of the contact will likely be available all the time. In these cases I try to upgrade contacts frequently. The rookie constable that they met at level 1 is replaced by a lieutenant who has access to better information. The thief disguised as a beggar might get thrown in prison and the PC makes a new contact while visiting his friend.

Earning a Favour

In our article Adding Favours to Treasure Bundles we suggested that not every reward needs to be tangible. As a DM I often award favours to the PCs and I think more DM should adopt this practice. It’s a good way to develop the larger story arc by making NPCs memorable. If a ship captain owes the party a favour you know that they’ll make a point of remember his name, his ship’s name, the names of his officers and their usual ports of call. It’s also likely that the PCs will make a point of looking for this captain whenever they reach a port city. They may not need to travel by ship, but if they know he’s around they suddenly have options that they wouldn’t otherwise have if things go badly.

A person who owes the PCs a favour will take a place on his contact list but once the favour’s repaid the PCs won’t be able to count on him to help them next time. The up side is that the favour is usually performed free of change since it did take the place of a treasure bundle so most players are ok with loosing that contact once the favour is provided.

Streetwise

Once contact and favours become a regular part of your game players may opt to train Streetwise. This is a good idea as it will make finding new contacts that much easier. However, players that aren’t trained in the social skills and have a low Charisma shouldn’t be penalized. I see Streetwise as a way to open doors that wouldn’t otherwise be available. A regular PC may be able to make contact with a prison guard, possibly even one with some pull; a PC with s decent Streetwise check may be able to make contact with the Warden. Both contacts are useful, but the Warden obviously has more pull than the head screw.

Tips When Using Contacts

Using contact can be a good way to encourage role-playing and character development, especially in a party that’s used to hack and slash. It’s not going to excite all players equally so be mindful of that when providing new contacts. Don’t let the one player who’s really into using his contact hog the spotlight too often. When the PCs do use their contacts make sure they realize that whatever they gain from doing so is a reward for their diligence. If they’d not fostered this relationship then this information or service might not have been available at all.

Do your players keep track of important NPCs that they might be able to call upon for favours or information? Do you ever award favours in place of treasure bundles? How do players react when they receive the promise of a favour?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 froth January 27, 2012 at 10:08 am

You should check out dangerous journeys, it makes good use of contacts

2 Sunyaku January 28, 2012 at 1:44 am

For my home campaign, I use a shared Google spreadsheet that contains a record of every NPC and villain the characters have ever interacted with. Since we only play once a month, it would be difficult to keep track of this kind of “contact history” without a resource like this.
Sunyaku´s last blog post ..DnD Needs More Boomstick!!!

3 Garrett Guillotte January 29, 2012 at 3:26 pm

I’ve always liked how Shadowrun handled this within the game system. Contacts were part of the starting resources at character generation and had their own space on the character sheet; major NPCs often had contacts of their own listed. Made things easy to track and new NPC friends (and enemies) easy to plot with/around, and provided some extra mechanics when needed to determine how much pull a contact really had.

Some example SR4 contacts:
http://www.shadowrun4.com/missions/seattle-season-4-contacts/

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