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This system codifies a phenomenon commonplace in most long-term campaigns: the friendly bartender, gruff weaponsmith, or absentminded sage who points the PCs in the right direction, pases along important clues, or offers unusual skills and knowledge.
With this variant, the PCs have one or more unnamed contacts marked on their character sheet for later use. A player can define a contact for his character at any point during the game, giving the PC access to a friendly NPC. This variant is particularly appropriate in campaigns that feature mysteries, intrigue, and lots of character interactions. It's especially effective in the hands of a DM who doesn't mind improvising new NPCs on the spur of the moment.
For example, when a character needs and inscription translated from the Pranatese language, and invitation to the Lord's Pageant, or the services of a master in Craft (gemcutting), the player tells the DM that he wants to define one of his character's contacts for the purpose. Then the DM describes how the contact came about, from the character's point of view: "You buy your lute strings from Otto Garrelbench, who is the husband of a Pranatese woman, Ku'vatha. She remembers you as one of the musicians who performed at their wedding feats, and is happy to do you a favour." In game terms, Ku'vatha has a friendly attitude toward the PC that continues unless the character does something to change the relationship. She is willing to translate the inscription, and she may perform a similar service on other occasions as time goes on. The player notes on the character sheet that one of his character's contacts has been defined as Ku'vatha Garrelbench, a speaker and writer of the Pranatese language.
NPCs and Contacts
While all defined contacts are friendly NPCs, that doesn't mean that all friendly NPCs are defined contacts. The contact variant is intended to supplement, not replace, the social interaction with noncombat NPCs. It gives the player a chance to insert a minor character into the ongoing drama.
Defined contacts should be among the campaign's most stable characters. Unless the characters are completely obtuse or have remarkable misfortune, the minor characters they define as contacts aren't going anywhere. They're generally available wherever they happen to live, and the usually have the time and inclination to help their friend the PC. Major NPC characters - those defined entirely by the DM - are off limits as contacts. A player can't just say, "I want to define the queen as a contact."
A contact won't risk life or livelihood on the PC's say-so, but a contact will make some sacrifices for a friend. For example, a contact will burn the midnight oil translation an ancient text or sneak the key to the pantry out of the castle (as long as it's back by morning).
There's an inverse relationship between the contact's importance in the ongoing campaign and the amount of help she can provide. In other words, if you choose the mayor as your contact, he's sometimes too busy to see you at a moment's notice, but he's very helpful when you get an audience. Beppo the cobbler, on the other hand, practically lives in his shop on Water Street - making him available day or night - but the ways in which he can aid you are more limited.
Types of Contacts
Contacts come in three varieties: information contacts, influence contacts, and skill contacts.
Information contacts are useful for what they know. They're the ones who hear all the rumors - and they can discern which ones are true. Some just have an uncanny sense of what's going on in their neighbourhood or town, such as the grumpy bartender, the talkative fruit merchant, and the watch captain who has seen it all. Other information contacts have more focused interests, such as the army sergeant who knowns all about troop movements, the fence who is privy to every major theft in the city, or the scribe assigned to write down every utterance of the high cleric-prophets.
An information contact is generally a commoner or an expert with one-third the class levels of his PC friend. It's okay to give such a character a few levels in another class such as wizard, rogue, or fighter if it's reasonable for someone in the contact's position to have this experience. Most information contacts spend their skill points on interaction skills such as Diplomacy, Gather Information, and Sense Motive.
Influence contacts are useful because of who they know or who they are associated with. While a player can't define the queen as his character's contact, he can define one of her chambermaids as a contact. The maid doesn't have a broad store of information, and she doesn't have any skills the PCs might need. But she might be able to put in a good word with the queen, and she can certainly make introductions between the PC and the rest of the queen's domestic staff. The purpose of an influence contact is to enable and smooth talks with more important, but less friendly, NPCs.
An influence contact has one-quarter the class levels of his PC friend, almost always an NPC class (adept, aristocrat, commoner, expert, or warrior) unless the character is in an environment such as a wizard's academy, where almost everyone has specific class levels.
Skill contacts are useful for what they do. Some skills - especially categories of Craft, Profession, and Knowledge - are rarely possessed by PCs. Skill contacts have those skills in abundance, so they're useful when characters need a smith to repair a lance, an honest broker to appraise a giant pearl, or a herald who can identify the helmed knight displaying a two-headed wyvern on her standard. A special category of the skill contact is the linguist, who can tell you what "Bree-Yark!" means in Goblin.
A skill contact is generally an expert with half as many levels as his PC friend. He has maximum ranks in the skill he is best at, and his highest ability score is in the key ability for the skill in question. A skill contact always has the Skill Focus feat related to his field of specialty.
Player characters automatically gain contacts as they rise in level. When a PC obtains a new potential contact, he must select what type of contact it is (information, influence, or skill), but doesn't define it further until it's needed.
A multiclass character gains contacts according to his class level in each of his classes, regardless of what his character level is. For example, a 3rd-level bard/2nd-level barbarian gains a new contact when he reaches 6th level if he takes 4th level in bard, but not if he takes 3rd level in barbarian.