I've been toying with an idea in my head I want to try the next time I start a campaign - provided it works for the type of campaign said players want. The idea is a simple one. Better yet, it is work the players will do that will help bring their characters into the game while also helping them with problems they may face in game and the GM with ways to bring them into future adventures or quests. The idea is, like the title of the post suggests, for each player to make 3 "Friends."
The Anatomy of a "Friend."
For this, the anatomy of the "Friend" is simple. It is an NPC with a connection to one or more player characters. When making the NPC the Player will be responsible for naming the NPC, giving a brief indicator of what they are, an area they can help with, and then finally a hitch.
The hitch is the answer to one of two questions: Why does this NPC never want to see my character again? or Why does my character never want to see this NPC again, but will help them if they ask?
An Area of Help
The idea behind the area of help is it is a mechanical or in game reason the PCs will want to engage with this NPC at some point in time. It gives an area of interest for the NPC, but it also gives an area where they can help the player out. This could be something as simple as "involved in the criminal underworld of X city" to as broad as "Can help with Magical needs"
These topics also give you - the GM - an idea as to what the player is expecting (read: wants) to see in the campaign. At the same time, since the PC in question has a connection to NPCs tied to these areas, it also gives a hint of what the PC has already been dealing with.
The Point of the Hitch
The point of the hitch is not to have a cost, but rather to have some tension and roleplay associated with the character. It is one thing to "have a friend" who will help out with the area. However, we learn more about a character when there is tension in that relationship. And it makes the player think more about their character, this NPC, and how they work together.
One of these two characters has wronged - or is believed to have wronged - the other. Either the player is not welcome by the NPC, or the NPC is not welcome to the player. How that happened, and how it may or may not be resolved, means tension, conflict, and growth or change.
When the NPC is the unwelcome one, we make the PC go the extra mile to establish why they will help. This is to help keep things ultimately positive or functional. You can't leverage the PCs and tension if the player is just making an enemy who they want nothing to do with There needs to be something deeper there than the wound inflicted to make the PC engage and pull them in.
How It Works: The PCs Need Help
When the PCs need help this idea works by giving avenues of help. One of the players gets to have the "I know someone who can help us...but they're not going to be happy about it" moment. The players now have an avenue to move things forward and help them resolve whatever the current problem is. In addition, the table gets to learn more about the character pulling in their ally. They get to learn about a connection to the past. They get to learn about a wound left or a story unfinished. And in going for help, they may even get to see the resolution of that or see how things play out from there.
How It Works: The NPC Needs Help
The other way this works is the NPC needs help with something. They've gotten in trouble, and the PC is the only one who can help. Only the PC has conflicting compulsions built into them for this NPC. Afterall, they have a written down reason why they never want to see this NPC again. And they also have a written down reason why they will help the NPC anyhow.
Why 3 Friends?
I settled on 3 because it is a good number. Partly I like doing things in threes, but for this I feel it is important. On top of making 3 my only other rule for this would be that at least one NPC has to not want to see the PC again, and at least one has to have the PC not want to see them again. This way you get one of each tool provided by this as a GM - and the player gets a chance to show if they've wronged more of their one time allies or been on the receiving end of that wrong.
I feel like three also gives us a better look at the character than one or two NPCs would, while not going into being a lot of extra work. Especially since the NPCs don't have to be broadly fleshed out - but they can be if the player wants to explore the relationship more often.