Thursday, December 10, 2009

there's friends, and then there's friends

Tonight on the way my daughter and I were engaged in some light conversation of the "how was your day?" variety. We wandered off track and ended up chitchatting about Dracula and vampires. (Incidentally, my daughter's first impression of Dracula came from The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, so she probably imagines the big D as a grumpy old blacula.) So Elizabeth asks me what would happen if I got turned into a vampire. Without hesitating I tell her that she would need to call my buddy Pat to come over and put a stake in my heart. Lizzy gets confused on the whole stake/steak thing, but I think she got that Pat would handle the situation.

This exchange got me thinking about Contact mechanics in RPGs. I'm pretty sure I first encountered Contacts in Champions/HERO System. It was pretty simple: you pay some character points for the privilege of writing "Contact: The Space Pope" on your charsheet. The at some point during the game when you needed the Space Pope's assistance you would throw some dice to see if the dude could help you out. The advanced version of the original Marvel game also had some contacts rule. As I recall contacts were rated High or Low. I think that meant that High contact with SHIELD indicated Nick Fury was your poker buddy, while a Low contact meant your schmuck cousin worked in the records department.

I like Contacts rules. It's a good way of establishing ligatures between the PCs and the larger milieu. Some players will use the opportunity to make up some people to add to the campaign world, others will be happy to be pals with the local Gandalf. The HERO System method of making people choose between more friends and bigger Energy Blasts seems self-defeating, but the basic concept is sound. Giving a couple freebies to players strikes me as a better option. For Labyrinth Lord and similar systems maybe 3 + Charisma bonus would be good number. An enterprising GM could have a bigass chart of NPCs for players who didn't want to invent all their contacts. Something like this:

1...Felmar, blacksmith of the Village of Omlet
2...Bumble Bristletoes, Mayor of West Shireton
3...Madame Xandaria, proprietor of the Golden Courtesan
4...Sir Graccus, the Selenium Duke's personal champion
5...Randolph the Red, a wandering wizard
6...Cross-eyed Sarah, a scribe and correspondent of the royal vizier
(etc., etc.)

A second chart would give the level of dedication felt by the contact or the type of dodgy activity they will perform on your behalf. That's where thinking about my buddy Pat comes in. Here's a first stab at such a chart:

1. Will let you and your filthy friends stay over for a few days.
2. Will lend you d100 gp with no real expectation of repayment
3. Will hide you in the root cellar and lie to the Witchfinder General
4. Will share useful or sensitive information
5. Will post bail for you
6. Will organize a jailbreak on your behalf
7. Will help you rob graves and not ask questions
8. Will sneak you in past the guards
9. Will hold a chest of dubious contents for you
10. Will find you an honest job if you'd just give up this stupid adventuring stuff
11. Will execute some side mission assigned by you
12. Will hunt you down and put you out of your misery should you be turned into an abomination against nature

Of course, any DM worth their salt will realize that Contact stuff works both ways. "We can't let some troll kidnap Felmar the Blacksmith, not after the time he tipped us off that bounty hunters were on our tail!"

This post is endorsed by the Space Pope.


  1. Mongoose Traveller ties in Contacts as part of character generation. They can come from benefit rolls, the mishaps table when you get kicked out of a career and the events table you roll on during each term of service. What is nice is that the player doesn't have to choose between a contact and a nifty power (though on the benefit roll they can seem like a consolation prize.)

  2. I think I dated cross-eyed Sarah back in college. Seriously though good post.

  3. I like the idea of using this mechanic in a fantasy setting (and having it be automatic) since communication is so much slower and more limited. Like, ok, Gandalf is my contact, but then the trick becomes how do I get a message to him while I'm in the middle of black pudding island?

  4. Space Pope, Witchfinder General, cross-eyed Sarah - all gold. Damn I wanna game with you.

  5. I am a big fan of contacts and use them frequently, but had never before considered using a handy chart for the "level of dedication" -- a real gem, thanks!

  6. Not related at all to the main content of your post, but the Dracula episode in Billy and Mandy was hilarious.

  7. I sense the genesis of another awesome Rientsian table in Fight On!...

    And I got yer Space Pope right here.

  8. This is a very cool idea. I may have to try this in my next LL game as well.

  9. Very coool and useful! I can say only one thing:

    NO one expects the space inquisition!

  10. Anonymous7:08 PM

    I like 'em in some games, don't need 'em in others.

    Fly From Evil, naturally, has them because a detective game without such rules would be way past broken (and FFE uses the same kind of two-axis approach you describe, though mine is chunkier, with just three levels of importance and three levels of friendship) ... but there are many kinds of games where I'd feel no strong need for them.

    - S. John Ross, currently shut out of signing in from Google for some reason :(

  11. I'm flattered (and ready), but it's been a while since I've had d100 to my name. So #6 is more likely than #5, as well...