NPCs: Contacts vs. CharactersNovember 24, 2014
Many RPGs let you get contacts or allies as part of character generation – often this costs points to do so, but what many fail to do is clarify how the GM is supposed to handle these NPCs in terms of whether they’re more tertiary characters or actual characters in their own right. This is kind of a key difference that’s worth considering before you start playing.
A contact is a side character who shows up rarely, and mostly exists to pass along information, make small commentary and potentially give you supplies or items. In other media, the protagonist makes a few calls, maybe has a montage of these characters, or knows exactly who to buy guns from and so on. These characters have less to say and do about their own motivations than to appear and show you that the protagonist has connections and access.
The key point about these characters is that their helpfulness doesn’t involve having to do deep negotiation with them (the bargaining, if any, is for show), and you don’t really have to worry about them having their own angle or set of motivations on the side. They don’t really change as characters.
This also includes “utility characters” like a spaceship crew who you don’t have names for, who basically provide background help without much question.
Full fledged characters may or may not help you based on what they think is right or in their best interests. This means it’s a lot more work to get what you want from them, but if they really want to help you, they will go the extra length and potentially think for themselves to create methods to aid you. If the relationship is positive, you have to maintain it – if it is not, you have to work around it or deal with them in some way.
Full fledged characters are potential sources of conflict in and of themselves – even the allies trying to help you might be pressuring you to do things in a certain way or have conditions about how you treat them. What these characters think matters, because it informs how they will then act (or…not act).=
Confusion = Problems
Confusing the general nature of these two categories typically leads to bad play. “Wait, the guy who sells me swords has his own angle? Why would I even know to look for that?” “I thought my brother would actually, you know, give me some actual help, seeing how dire the situation is! What do you mean he’s gonna give me this clue then run off?” etc.
This is true in general, but also has an extra layer if the game has rules where you’ve spent points of some type to get contacts/allies – knowing what role they play and how you need to manage them is part of it too.
The Non Contact AKA “Trap NPCs”
An unfortunate amount of adventures, modules, etc. are built on the “mysterious guy at the tavern” who turns out to be a person sending people on a fool’s errand to betray them or some such. The core problem with these characters is that when you break down their motivations, it’s really “screw over the PCs”. (Players accustomed to too much Trap NPCs eventually fall into Abused Gamer Syndrome.)
It’s why these kinds of adventures tend not to work well with games that actually have reasonable social mechanics – the unreasonable nature of the Trap NPC doesn’t go well with negotiation that can happen.