The last week or so I’ve been building out options in my Sharn-based Eberron game. With many of the characters having intrigue-based backgrounds or connections to organizations, I’ve been continuously picking at how to make their “contacts” feel meaningful and have some mechanical advantage. When we were doing the game with 3.5 (to expose some new players to how things use to be) we had a contacts system based on ranks in a contacts skill, but in newer versions of D&D that wasn’t a perfect fit. I looked up various options, picked apart what other games did, and finally built what I feel is a very nice, simple system to develop permanent contacts in 5e.
What Exactly do you consider a “Contact”?
In 5e downtime options, the carousing path lets you gain nebulous favors from various people you have connected with. They are treated as a person or organization you could gain information or help from. That has been my model for contacts, but with much more of a Shadowrun style vibe. The contacts I am describing are permanent or semi-permanent NPCs who each character has a relationship with and can drop in for advice, information, or a favor as needed. A temporary contact or NPC would just function like an NPC, but a “Contact” is someone with a deep connection. They are almost always there and willing to help so long as the characters are connected to them or haven’t done something to piss them off.
Simple Contacts System for D&D 5e
- All characters have access to an additional skill called “Contacts” that is based on their charisma attribute.
- The character’s total rank in the Contacts skill is the maximum number of permanent contacts they can have.
- A character can have proficiency or expertise in contacts, giving them more contact slots.
- Characters can fill a contacts slot with a contact they develop or come across.
- A contact cannot just be switched out without some major in game event, i.e. you get burned by your organization and lose contacts with it, you can then find or create new contacts through the game.
- Each contact you have is assigned a Name / Description, Role, and a Likes… attribute.
- Roles are specific areas the contacts can help with and define the contact’s mechanical benefit. Likes… is an attribute that just describes what the contact appreciates in case you have to woo them to get info.
- Optional: The contacts skill can be rolled like a normal skill, representing a kind of Gather Information ability. (In my games I actually call it Contacts / Gather Info.
Here are a few contacts Roles that I’ve defined, but creating a new one is quite easy and merely needs to fit the paradigms of your game. Where there are parentheses, that means to define a specific area the contact is proficient in. Some roles may require multiple contact slots, or you can use multiple contact slots to give one contact multiple areas of proficiency.
- Moneybags – Can back an endeavor and provide funding for an expedition or heist, expects to be paid back. Must be wooed.
- Researcher ( ) – Grants expertise on related check to find information through research if you have proficiency, proficiency if you don’t. Can only be called on every so often.
- Knowledge ( ) – Has information about a certain area of knowledge/goings-on. (Crime, espionage, nobles, etc.) Grants advantage on investigating, gather info, or other fact-finding checks in the relevant area. Can be wooed for particular pieces of information related to their area of expertise.
- Mercantile – Can value rare goods, find buyers on or off the legal market. Wants profit from their connections.
- Caster (Low Level)* – Provide the casting of certain spells from time to time (under 3rd level).
- Caster (Mid Level)** – Provide the casting of certain spells from time to time (under 6th level).
- Authority ( ) – Holds some position of authority and can help smooth over small issues within their domain.
- Authority, High Places ( )* – Holds some position of authority and can help smooth over large issues within their domain.
- Local Guide ( ) – A person or entity familiar with a particular area or type of area that can provide information
- Adventurer (Low Level)* – Level 2 npc of some sort who can aid on an adventure sporadically.
- Adventurer (Mid Level)** – Level 6 npc of some sort who can aid on an adventure sporadically.
- Transport ( ) – Can help get from place to place within their area of proficiency.
*Higher level. Costs 2 points of contacts and may be limited to characters reaching certain levels.
** Much Higher Level. Costs 3 points of contacts.
Example Contacts and Format
- Name, Role (Specific area) – Description.
Likes (things that help woo them).
- Joel, Knowledge (Local Info) – Bartender who has lots of friends and can provide information on goings-on in the city.
Likes new and unique drinks from afar.
- The Butlers, Moneybags – Local espionage syndicate of changelings that will help fund ventures and provide temporary access to particular tools.
Likes information on various entities within Sharn so they can keep balance between other espionage groups.
- Kessler, Researcher (Arcana, History) – Professor at local college who has access to lots of information.
Likes carousing and getting drunk, but needs to have his reputation at college protected. (Used 2 contact slots for 2 areas of expertise.)
- Vanessa, Caster (Low Level) – A newly licensed mage who is still learning her trade. She can provide access to low-level scrolls from time to time.
Likes stories and trinkets from far off exotic places that she hasn’t been able to travel to yet. (Cost 2 slots because of greater mechanical benefit.)
Putting it All Together & Porting It
With this simple setup in place, defining contacts becomes easy throughout the game and provides a stronger connection for characters and players to the world. A player could take an authority contact and could call upon them when they are stopped by the local guards during a stealth-based mission. That authority may bail them out, but require a favor in return. The players may have to fulfill a mission for them or do something in line with their Likes... attribute to keep in favor with them. As characters level up or meet NPCs they want to “adopt” into their circles, one player can define them as a contact and be able to call upon them during their adventures.
All in all the simple contacts system here allows you to add a little mechanical definition and structure to some NPCs as well as linking them to specific characters. The whole party may know Kessler, but it’s Emil who takes them out to drink in order to keep the connection affirmed. With these small definitions and mechanical (or narratively structured) benefits, there is a hook for the Gamemaster to grab onto when someone says they want to research or investigate something. A contact may also call upon the characters to help with something. Need a good reason for them to have a hook into a particular adventure? Maybe The Butlers get wind of a new drug dealing operation and want the PCs to take it out. In return, they’ll be more indebted to the PCs when they want some help with a future mission.
One of the beautiful things about the simplicity of this system is that it is easy to port to multiple different systems. Find whatever charisma / social type score is available or determine a similar score that represents how connected a character may be. For point-buy systems you can easily add it as an option a character could purchase or a benefit all characters have. Tweak a few of the mechanical benefits (Knowledge role contacts don’t give advantage, they give +2 or reroll once, etc.) to fit the system and the rest can remain in place because it is primarily a narrative hook.
Often when you give just a little mechanical structure to a narrative element, it becomes easier to engage with and more relevant to the players and the game. Feel free to use this simple contacts system in your game and if you have any additional ideas or ways to use it / expand it, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.