There may be a lot of Shadowrun inspired content coming from me for the next couple days/weeks. After all, my Tuesday group has decided to switch to being a Wednesday group - still every other week - and we are transitioning into something a bit more old school and party centric for our game of choice. Namely, Shadowrun. Still, when it comes to NPCs, particularly NPCs who can do things for a character, Shadowrun was something of a pioneer and its rules for Contacts are things that I think almost every game could benefit from in some shape or form. Let's talk about that for today.
People You Meet Not Resources You Buy
Right off the bat Shadowrun does this a bit different. Past character creation, by default, you do not buy contacts. No, instead you have to meet the contact and go through the efforts of making them one of your contacts. The loyalty rating they have? You earn every point of it with how you treat them.
This works out great for two reasons. One is that it means that players don't have to spend precious XP on contacts once the game has started. This lets the players spend XP on their character and improving the character in other ways. The second thing this does is it cements right from the beginning that the contact is a person; a person who can do favors for you and is useful to have around, sure. However, they are still a person and should be treated as such.
Social Relationships Require Maintenance
This may not be in 4th edition, I haven't fully checked yet, but in previous editions you had to maintain your contacts or they would downgrade or even hang you out to dry. Sure, that buddy you have in the mafia is a good friend who you've done a lot with, but suddenly you're only calling when you need something. You're not available at other times. You don't hang out. What is he going to think? Well, he's probably going to think you're using him for his contacts, and that means he will be less likely to help you out - or help you out as much- the next time you come calling.
How do you avoid this? It is simple. You maintain the relationship. You hang out with your contact on occasion. Meet them, talk to them, funnel business their way. You do them favors when they have problems and you keep things friendly with them. Relationships are two way streets, and Shadowrun expects this to be the way things work. It's also worth mentioning that this isn't necessarily something you can get away with when the player has spent hard earned XP on the contact.
Sometimes They Need Something
Going off of the maintenance, look at one of the things you can do for them. In Shadowrun it is essentially in the rules that contacts have their own lives and do their own things. There will come times when they need something. When something goes wrong in their life and they need help with what is happening to them. At this point in time they will likely reach out to help. Who better to help get them out of some of those tough jams then the friend with the super hacker, walking arsenal, and top class private eye as close friends?
More to the point though, the big deal here is the specific inclusion of the NPCs having a life of their own. When the player calls the contact they are interrupting the contact's life with their own needs. But the contact stll has that life to lead. They still have their wife, husband, kids, dog, mortgage, and deadlines they have to handle, and this can impact the players in other ways too. Maybe a contact that has been used a lot suddenly can't free up more time because their boss is riding their ass. Maybe their significant other wants to know who keeps calling at strange hours and where the briefcases full of cash are coming from. These are all things that make the world come alive. Why? Because just like in the really real world, everyone has a life and things happen when the PCs aren't around to observe it.