Have you been watching Burn Notice? If not, you should. That is good TV! That’s not the point of this blog. The point is Barry, the money launderer. Barry is one of Michael’s contacts. Barry is not a nameless, faceless contact who simply supplies everything that Michael needs. He is an NPC that often needs to be convinced to help. In fact recently, they have pretty much had to bribe him every time, but he is willing to take a bribe (not always money) in order to commit crimes and put himself at risk. That is what a contact should do. Any other felon (non-contact) would not be willing to commit crimes for a bribe, at least not a reasonable one.
As I remember, Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch was the same. (S&H was BAD TV!) He never really wanted to help them, but with a couple off threats or a bribe of some kind, he coughed up the information they needed. Of course, if the bad guy was an enemy of his, then it came easier. (I haven’t seen S&H in decades, so forgive my memory.)
A lot of games have contacts as part of the game rules “Every character starts with two contacts”, but few of them ever really describe what these contacts are supposed to do. Are contacts willing to come with on missions? Are contacts willing to give the characters loans? I think Barry and Huggy are perfect examples. They are willing to put themselves in some danger for people they know and trust for some sort of reward. Example: I trust you well enough to tell you where the drug dealer lives if you give me $50. I would not tell someone I didn’t trust even for $50 because the drug dealer would find out and come shoot me.
But are they stagnant? They shouldn’t be. If your contact is an officer of the law, and the player character hands over an important criminal to the contact, maybe he gets a promotion. If the contact is a fence for stolen goods, and the player character kills the other fence in town, then the contact is going to have a really good year. The opposite is true too. If the fence tells the player where to find a thief, and the player kills the thief, the fence is likely going to have fewer people he can buy from.
These changes can be good and bad. A promotion gets a beat cop off the streets, and tougher to get street info from, but it will help him get other info, assuming he still deems it a good idea to deal with the player. These contact examples I’m using may seem like modern examples, but it works in fantasy too. City guards act remarkably like modern police. In many campaigns, enchanters are not willing to deal with characters who are not their contacts. Who would be dumb enough to sell a magical sword to a barbarian who is trained in using it to kill? Why would the barbarian not kill him and take the stuff from him? Some spells might be dangerous to cast or illegal. It would be nice to have a long range teleporter as a contact if the city guards are chasing you.
The reason I want you to care is that contacts greatly enhance the role-playing aspects of the game. They bring the city settings to life. Don’t let them be sycophants and don’t let them be meaningless. Let them become minor recurring characters that can really add life to the campaign. Once you do, they can often become mission givers as well!