Saturday, March 8, 2014

I know a guy: Leveraging a character's contacts

Who doesn't love some good espionage in their RPG? Whether you're playing Ninjas and Superspies or Call of Cthulu or even a classic fantasy setting such as Pathfinder, one of our most common gaming standbys is one of the players making use of a valued contact. Sometimes this is just old-fashioned role-playing, but often we even see "knowing a guy" as a mechanic. Whether a character has a set number of contacts to use, the ability to utilize a contact at a set frequency, or has some sort of percentage chance of finding a useful contact, the results are basically the same: a character uses his or her background or profession to gain an advantage in obtaining something needed for the campaign, usually information, money, or equipment.

A downside to this sort of element, whether it's just the GM and the players talking it out or a systematic part of the game, is that it can turn too routine. The last thing you want is to remove this chance for some good role-playing from the equation, so let's talk about a few ways to keep things fresh.

Types of contacts

Contacts, at least in the fictional worlds of entertainment, can be broadly classified three different ways: up, down, and sideways.


An "up" contact occurs when a character goes to one of his or her betters to obtain the requisite assistance. Obviously this doesn't usually mean a direct boss, supervisor, or superior, but someone who is higher up in the ranks of an organization, or just society. Assuming that a character is from the ranks of relatively average status (at least for a spy, hero, vigilante, etc.), this could be a powerful tech company CEO, an old boss from the character's time in the CIA, a political or royal figure, etc. This isn't the most common type of contact, which makes it even more useful to Game Masters when it comes to keeping things fresh.

The trade in this type of contact is usually some sort of mutual benefit. "What's in it for me?" is a common question asked by a big fish when a little fish comes looking for a favor.


A "down" contact is one that is beneath the status of the player characters. This is often the reason that this person is an asset in the first place, because these types of contacts live in the nitty-gritty of the world, which lends this relationship really to being that of an informant. These are the street toughs, barmaids, junior company men, and other individuals whose utility will be highly specific. After all, if these were extraordinary people, they would not be down in the dirt. Also, the value of such contacts has more to do with what they do and who they associate with rather than being particularly special, themselves.

More than any other contact relationship, the "down" contact likely involves coercion. The contact gives assistance in exchange for money, or under threat. Fear is often a big motivator for the little guy to give up the goods.

A great example of this type of relationship is shown in one of my favorite movies, Guy Ritchie's Snatch. When an agent of a criminal jeweler goes missing with an 86-carat diamond, the interested parties need to find him, and quickly. The New York broker and is local colleague are only underworld characters in a tangential sense, so they turn to all-around bad-ass Bullet Tooth Tony, who fortunately knows a guy in touch with the dirt going on in the London streets. Check out the video clip, below (content NSFW).


A "sideways" contact is a peer. This isn't another player character, or likely even someone with whom the character is in normal contact with. After all, we don't need a mechanic for a player character to ask his roommate for a favor. This sort of contact is typically a former colleague, an old Army buddy, a friend in the DA's office, or a cousin in the King's Guard.

Relationships tend to work on a personal level, where favors are likely the currency. The contact has some sort of obligation to help out the character, perhaps even just professional courtesy, but it's a well that has a limited amount of draw.

In Conclusion

So, here we have three different types of people that might act as a contact in that critical role-playing situation. Mix these up and it will keep things fresh in the game and allow for some varied interactions.

Next time we'll go into this topic a little bit more deeply, and talk about some of the limits you might reach when utilizing these contacts, and how a Game Master might utilize contacts to escalate action and keep characters guessing.


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