This is something I’ve always done, but I recently came across somebody explaining something similar as a “house rule” so I thought I’d write up a brief explanation in case anybody wants to use it in their own games. This rule/method is a way of involving your players in world-building after the campaign is underway, at least a little, and to encourage them to develop their backstories and entangle themselves in the world with PC-NPC-PC triangles to reduce the feeling that they are separate from the communities they save.
I know a guy for that…
So the rule is pretty simple:
When the players need NPC help - whether it be someone on the inside of an organisation, an expert in a particular field, or just a convenient place to stay - they can declare “I know a guy” and describe the NPC and their relationship in vague terms. If the GM approves, then this NPC now exists. When they meet this NPC the GM may have them roll an appropriate attribute (most likely a Social attribute) to determine how the NPC reacts to them, with advantage or disadvantage based on the circumstances of their arrival.
Most GMs will probably be familiar with the sort of situation where this might arise. Your players are in the town you’ve lovingly crafted every inch of, and populated with NPCs, then one of them says “I think we might need legal input for this, are there any lawyers around?”.
Suddenly you panic, you didn’t think about the legal system when designing this town and now you have to come up with a new NPC on the spot, but worry not! With this house rule you shift some of the work onto your players, and not only is there a lawyer but one (or more) of your party already knows them. If you find this scenario still coming up, then remember to prompt the players to use it.
As I said above, this really helps your party feel like much more of a part of the world rather than drifting entities. You get to collaborate with your player to make a new NPC (as GM you get veto powers, of course). The best way to handle this that I’ve found is to let them sketch out the outline and you fill in the gaps.
Your players will handle tying the NPC to themselves (though you should encourage them to have multiple PCs involved, if it makes sense) but it’s also important to tie them to you your world. Have other NPCs know them too, and make sure their role in society makes sense.
Keeping it under control
The main way you stop players from abusing this is by controlling how the NPC reacts to them. An NPC created in this way might not be friendly, or willing to help without payment, or might even betray them. As long as you make this clear you should rarely have problems. In fact, even if you leave this wide open to abuse your players may still be reluctant to use it. Make it clear you’re happy to allow them to try things, and prompt them to use it whenever you think it makes sense and want to shift some improv work onto them.
Some options for if you’re worried though:
- Make it cost a Legend point to use, but be more lenient on how the NPC reacts to them
- Only allow it once per session for the whole party
- Keep the player’s input vague, retain more control for yourself
The most obvious example of this comes from fiction: Han Solo and Lando Calrissian. Han needs a place to lay low for a while, so he comes up with his old gambling buddy Lando. He obviously fails his charisma check though, because the GM uses “success with a twist” and creates an ambush, where Lando sells him out to the Empire but then changes his mind.
From a post-apocalyptic game I ran (that you should all be very familiar with by now):
Vega needed warm clothes by the truckload, because the wolf-god Winter was approaching the city and she had to protect her settlement from the unseasonable cold. I asked her player “Where do you normally source cloth from? Would they be able to help you?” and she came up with Ponder, an elderly man who ran a factory outside the city that she had a trading relationship with. With this information I asked Phoenix, who was a courier, if he knew him as well and Phoenix told me about how he’d made a few deliveries for Ponder in the past and helped him collect a few debts. Both did well on their respective rolls (I think Persuasion and Presence), so I let this go with no complications (except for the source of the cloth being a carnivorous sheep-field that I’ve mentioned before).
Try it yourself!
Let me know if you’ve used this before, either consciously or by accident, and how it went. If you haven’t let me know what you think, and if you have any concerns or questions.