The defining element of a Shadowrun sandbox is the NPCs who inhabit the game world. I’m not referring to the nameless wageslaves and corporate guards that stand between the group and the macguffin. They could be called anything and still fulfill their purpose. I’m referring to the real NPCs – the Whiskey Joes, the Alices, and the Montys who make the world come alive because without them the world would be a sterile, boring place. Unfortunately, as a GM you can never predicate when you will need an NPC who can drive the story forward.
One of the methods I use to create NPCs for my sandbox game is assigning them 4 core traits – Name, Archetype, Lifestyle, and Agenda. The NPC will need a name to distinguish him from all the other NPCs and doing this should be second nature to any GM. I also assign an archetype to the NPC which will decide what role he plays in the world and how he perceives it. The archetype needn’t be one from the core rulebook but should identify what the NPC is good at. A lifestyle to decide where the NPC will be found and what trappings he would have on him. An NPC with a street lifestyle will act differently to the PCs than one with a high lifestyle. Finally, every named NPC needs to have an agenda – from getting home safely after every shift to gaining control of Seattle’s drug network. The NPC’s agenda is their story and the PCs will build a relationship with the NPCs who have the most engaging ones. This is especially true if the NPCs agenda runs counter to the PCs and the PCs need to subvert the NPCs to succeed. Of course this can work both ways, NPCs will leverage a character’s goals to fulfill theirs.
It’s important to remember that Shadowrun is about building and leveraging relationships with NPCs so your characters can avoid having to do the dirty work. So the next time you decide to not take any contacts or leave them as a nameless “Fixer #3” remember that you’re doing yourself and the rest of the group a disservice. Shadowrun is about relationships and without them you’re not playing Shadowrun.