+Fred Brackin shoots and scores, I think, in this comment in a very, very, very, uselessly very long thread over on the SJG Forums:

The core problem outside comparative expense of Allies who could the same thing and more is the comparative expense of just buying the Skill yourself.

Buying that Contact with History-15 with Usually Reliable and Available 15 or less is going to cost 12 pts. For 12 pts you could learn History at IQ+2 yourself and never mind the Contact.

I think this gets at the core of it quickly. While there’s quite a bit more text, the core of what Contacts are supposed to represent are in the first paragraph on p. B44:

 You have an associate who provides you with useful information, or who does small (pick any two of  “quick,” “nonhazardous,” and “inexpensive”) favors for you. The point value of a Contact is based on the skill he uses to assist you, the frequency with which he provides information or favors, and his reliability as a  person.

Basically, you’re buying a skill.  Frequency of appearance and reliability should basically modify that skill down.

Reprice it

Seems straight-forward. You buy the skill as normal. You’re an IQ 12 Private Eye with a contact that gives Forensics. His effective skill is to be 18 – between his own skill and his resources, he’s darn good at what he does. Fine. Base cost is that for Forensics at IQ+6. That’s 28 points (!).

Then you pick a frequency of availability, and we represent the upper limit of that as a 16-. Multiply the cost of the skill yourself with the percentage success value given on p. B171. My forensics buddy, on any given day, can be reached and he has the time to talk to me about half the time. So his availability score is 10, which drops the cost of Forensics-18 from 28 down to 14 points.

Reliability is also a mark-down. Completely reliable is 100%. Usually Reliable is x2/3, Somewhat reliable is .1/3, and Unreliable is x1/6.

I want my forensics guy to be completely reliable, but the GM notes that he won’t always be able to give the information, and since his output depends on his inputs, he may well be wrong or under political pressure. We decide that he’s usually reliable, which takes the cost for Forensics at IQ+6 from its current cost of 14 points down to 9.33 points, rounded UP to 10.

Contact Group

To me, the description of Contact Group reads like “instead of Forensics, you have Detective!” and I’d price it accordingly: x3 cost. If you have a Contact Group that effectively has more than one wildcard skill, buy it like that. If that group can also occasionally give you stuff, add Patron.

Doing things I cant

The only way that the ability to consult an outsider can be more valuable than the ability to do it yourself comes in the realm of opportunity cost. And that’s a real thing:

  • You have the ability to focus on something else while your Contact is doing legwork for you. While you’re in the hospital, or pursuing some nameless horror deep into the underbelly of Chicago, your trusty pal Waldo Butters, Medical Examiner and fellow occult traveller, is doing things you can’t do with time you don’t have (shout out to Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files).
  • The Contact has access to stuff you don’t. That’s probably best reflected as a higher skill. If you are a compentent Forensics guy with IQ 11, Forensics-12 (you’re a pro), but you can consult with (shout-out to Bones) the Jeffersonian Medico-Sciences Lab, and Dr. Brennan has an effective skill of Forensics-22, but is hard to get a hold of (Availability-6) but Completely Reliable (IQ+11) for 48 points, you’ll pay 5 points for the ability to consult with that person on the average about once a month (10% success rate but it might take 1d days to get an answer). 

High Skill, 

I’d absolutely say that if the GM’s roll is made by 10+, that counts as “instantly available,” and Dr. Brennan just rattles off the answer from the top of her head. Probably condescendingly, if you’re in earlier seasons of the show.

I can do that too!

Would it ever make sense to have (say) Forensics-12 and a Contact or Contact Group with Forensics-18? Or even Forensics-14?

It might. For one, there’s that opportunity cost thing. You can effectively outsource a question, or you can take the time to do it yourself. Also, the effective skill level of the Contact assumes all the gear required to get that skill. While Minnesota Smith might have Archeology-16, he might be caught in the field without whatever equipment he usually uses, and his effective skill is Archeology-12. In that case, even Archeology-14 (his University, complete with Library and research staff) might be worth having, doubly so because he can tell them to parallel process it.

Parting Shot

I think Fred’s question was well put: why spend more points on a skill than you’d spend to buy it yourself.

The answer is basically opportunity cost and gear – maybe you can’t afford a lab with $20M in the appropriate gear, but that’s all swept under the rug when it comes to Contact effective skill. The other is the ability to not use your own time to get something done. The last is a second try, of course: I failed my local skill roll, but perhaps it’s worth 1d days for your Contact to try and trace down some information. Maybe they’ll get lucky.

Wait, given those advantages, shouldn’t there be an increase in cost?

Probably not, though the parallel process thing is interesting. The effective skill bit is the most useful, but the “it happens out of my control” isn’t really something gamers like to spend points on. Usually it’s “I spend points to increase my character’s personal agency,” rather than the outsource model. It can also be “you wait 1-6 days and you’re out of luck,” which is not something that will feel particularly value-added. The second chance probably isn’t worth that much. I’d overall call it a wash.

Ultimately, I’d just treat buying a Contact as buying a skill, or even a Wildcard skill at x3 cost, and modify the price downward from there.


One last comment on availability. Very high availability numbers are probably not terribly realistic. If you’ve got a good friend on the police force and he or she works 10-hour shifts, 5 days per week, that’s 50 hours of availability when he’s in the office per 168-hour week, or about 30%. Thats something like Availability-9. Tossing in an extra half-time “I love supporting my local adventurers!” fixation to make it 70 hours per week is still only between Avail-9 and Avail-10. Even if you were generous and said that your contact is available from 7am to 7pm every single day, that’s still Availability-10, and if he’s good five or six days a week for all waking hours (say 6am through 10pm) that would be highly unusual, but still only equivalent to Availability-11.  That is to say even a supremely available contact is going to have a significant, about 1/3, price discount on the cost of a skill.

Is and Is Not

This version of Contacts is one thing: access to a skill at a discount using others as proxy. No more, no less. If as a GM you imbue such associations with other things, they’ll have to be modeled as additions. Patronage (Provides Equipment) is a good one. A borrowed Reputation or increased reaction roll would be another “goodies by proxy” game-mechanical result.

It also might not synch well with Allies yet. We’ll see.

5 thoughts on “Contact Right

  1. I think I'd prefer Contacts as an Ally with a (hefty) limitation of some sort. Contacts have never felt like a "clean" advantage to me. They've been an unfortunate bit of a kludge since they showed up mid 3rd Edition.

    1. Heh. When Contacts originated as a house rule with the group I was gaming with at the time, that's basically what they were. The rule was to price a suitable Ally and pay half. The more things change…

  2. I'd actually be tempted by treating Contacts as a limited Talent — probably 1/5 cost for an availability of 9, and gives the normal bonuses to skill and reaction, just with the flaws that it doesn't always work and you need to be able to actually get in touch with your contact. My problem with the Ally rules is that a skill-monkey ally is actually quite abusively powerful.

  3. Good Post.

    Re availability, if the police contacts duties are to be a liason then high avaiability may make perfect sense. Its their job to be available for the local hero, movie star etc.

    There was a further discussion of what contacts can do in GURPS supers

  4. I very much like this, but wonder about Contacts who don't necessarily give skills, but access. If my contact is the butler of H. Gordon Moneybags, who has no appreciable skills himself but can introduce me to Mr. Moneybags and his various friends, how would one handle that?

    Or, if the Contact is multitalented. What if I met Batman at a superhero party once, and we hit it off? Not so well that he'd be an Ally (or even a Patron), but enough that I can bug him for a favor once in a while, whether that is a forensic analysis, getting a message to someone in his web of Contacts, or punching someone out.

    Just musing, really. Contacts have always seemed almost more trouble than they're worth to buy in GURPS (Allies and Patrons always seem more useful), and I like to see ways to make them more useful, simpler, and more clearly defined.

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