Storytelling One-Shot at a Time
Many experienced role-players are cautious about the Format of The Contract because they are afraid that it will lead to Characters that are flat, disposable, and disconnected. "How can I tell a compelling narrative in a series of disconnected vignettes?"
It is a very reasonable concern, but it is not difficult, to overcome once you learn how. This article presents tips and techniques for building strong Characters and telling compelling stories when the cast of Characters (and the mission's objective) changes every episode.
In The Contract, there are four "layers" of stories going on.
- The story of each Contractor (continuous over the Contractor's life)
- The story of the Contract (episodic and self-contained)
- The story of the Harbinger (often a mystery, told in pieces over a series of Contracts)
- The story of the Setting (The Setting is not static, and is itself a character. How do the events of the Contracts and the actions of the Contractors change it?)
Mixing episodic and continuous stories
There is a popular model for this style of Storytelling: TV shows. Episodic TV shows (like The Office or Star Trek TNG) are a good first hint on how to weave overarching stories through self-contained stories, but they are more restricted than stories in The Contract. They are designed to be viewed in any order, and games in The Contract happen serially. There is no need for things to "return to normal" after a Game of The Contract.
These are the stories of each Contractor, their experiences on Contracts, their relationships with other Contractors, the enemies they make, and how their lives and they themselves change over time. They are the most important stories in The Contract.
The key ingredient: Pressure
If you want to tell excellent Contractor stories in The Contract, Games cannot be relied upon as the sole source of conflict.
You will be able to rely on some Players and Characters to create their own conflicts (hopefully as they try to change the world), but in most cases, GMs must conspire to ruin the lives of the Contractors within their cells.
Characters must be under threat at all times. This, admittedly, may make The Contract a more stressful game to play, but it also pushes Contractors to seek out the help of others, take desperate deals, make bad decisions, and bend/change their morals in interesting ways. The Games themselves take on a new light. The Contractor may need this Gift to save themselves or their loved ones.
One great test to see how well you've raised the out-of-game stakes is to run the Scenario 'Consensus'. In it, Contractors of any level are confined to an area that most cannot escape from (say the top of a tall pillar) and given a simple goal: the Gift will go to whichever Contractor every present, living Contractor agrees it should go to. Finally, add a ticking time bomb (that affects some more than others) such as a decreasing temperature or rising water level.
This Scenario has led to more deaths and deals than almost any other, but it only works if several of the Contractors feel an outside pressure to succeed in the Games.
Downtimes and Side-Games
Downtimes and Side-Games are roleplay that occurs outside of Contracts themselves, and these are the primary tools at your disposal for building deeper characters. They offer no Experience or Gifts, but there are no restrictions on their contents.
But what interesting things can happen to Contractors outside of a Contract? Literally anything! An enemy may try to assassinate them. They may partner with an organization that they encountered on a Game and even go on missions for non-Gift rewards. They may attempt to assassinate other Contractors or form alliances. They may build a society in their image or face a threat to their community.
The problem is that the Format does not force Contractors to have interesting over-arching stories. Scenarios provide neat-prepackaged adventures, but Players that want more out of their Contractors must put in a little effort to get there. This is not as difficult as it might seem, and The Contract is built to facilitate these over-arching stories.
Contracts are Story Seeds
Even if Contracts cannot be used as the only component in a Character's story, they are an excellent ingredient. The stories of the Games themselves are greatly enriched by a Contractor that is well-developed and involved in their own overarching storyline, but they can also act as a starting point for stories.
Contractors should make enemies and friends during Games. They should make deals that will have ramifications down the line. They may gain media attention, or the attention of the authorities. They may become notorious or a local hero. There will be many, many opportunities to use Games as the starting points for side-game adventures for Characters. If you drop these opportunities on the ground, you are doing yourself and your Players a disservice.
Journals and Character Building Exercises
Contractors can receive both Experience and extremely valuable Improvement points for writing in-character journals about what events have occurred during a Contract or during a Downtime. These Journals help immensely.
Other Character Building Exercises are similar, offering rewards for completing questionnaires about a Character, crafting a soundtrack for them, etc. These may be implemented in the future.
The story of the Setting
Contractors risk their lives for a chance to change the world and impact the Setting in a big way. Let them.
Each Playgroup has its own Setting. That allows each group of Players to have a real impact on the world around them, to wreak massive social and political change, to form factions, to destroy or restore the environment, or even to destroy the world completely.
Of course, they're likely to run into opposition. . .
The events during Contracts also affect that setting. World Events are a way for GMs to describe how the events of a Contract have affected the Setting. They may be small ripples that only a few people would notice, or groundbreaking news stories that may change the entire political landscape.
Proper use of World Events is crucial to connecting the standalone stories of the Games and transforming a boring, static Setting into a unique, living product of many creative minds.
The story of the Contracts
Contracts each tell their own self-contained story. This is the "episodic" component of The Contract that infrequent Players tune-in for.
Of course these stories incorporate threads from the Setting, the Contractors, and, often times, the Harbinger, but they should be mostly stand-alone and be defined entirely by the Scenario.
You can tell an incredible variety of stories through Contracts.
Contracts also need not be entirely self-contained. Harbingers are recurring Characters, and they may hire Contractors for multiple Contracts that follow situations that evolve over months and years. The biggest restriction here is that these Contracts, generally, may have any amount of time pass between them. However, this does not preclude any longer story from being told through Games. Even that restriction can be bent if your playgroup is open to the idea, though it is not common.
The Story of Harbingers
Harbingers have their own mysteries. The conversations they have with Contractors and the events of their Contracts can offer glimpses and clues. They have their own goals, and the Contracts they run almost always bring them closer to achieving those goals. Rival Harbingers may run Contracts with diametrically opposed goals. In some cases, Contractors may even come into direct conflict with Harbingers.
Finally, you can design a Harbinger that acts as a sort of "boss monster." Often, a conflict with a Harbinger occurs after a few Games of lead-up time or at the end of a Cycle. It's a great way to add some punctuation to a steady stream of one-off Games.
Player Vs Player
While Playgroup Leaders are allowed to make rules prohibiting PvP in their Playgroup, we reccomend against it. The Contract an ideal place to explore PvP, and the game is greatly enriched by the possibility.
The Contract is a great system for PvP
- Contractor death is endurable due to the game's format. The death of a Contractor will not halt the campaign, and they are easily replaced.
- Contractors often have opposing ambitions but must work together. This push-and-pull provides the perfect atmosphere for tense relationships and realpolitick that might lead to PvP but doesn't necessitate it.
- Contractors have tools at their disposal to discover Contractor murders and hold other Contractors accountable.
Good PvP makes for the best stories
- No NPC, no matter how featured or beloved, is a "main character." Only Contractors have the true investment of the Players. A death by the hand of a "main character" will always feel more meaningful and impactful than a death at the hands of an NPC.
- Sometimes not killing another Contractor is a major departure from a character's ambition or modus operandi. It must be a choice whether or not the Player wants to take their Contractor in that direction. Picture a vampire hunter is sent on a Contract with a vampire.
- You know how in real life if someone crosses lines with you, you can yell at them, defend yourself, or get the authorities involved? In The Contract, PvP fills that role.
- In a Playgroup where PvP is disallowed, certain Contractors will be able to "toe the line" more effectively than others. Is mind control PvP? Memory alteration? Emotional manipulation? Bodily transformation? Wherever you draw the line, you create a class of Contractor who have unchecked power.
- The possibility of PvP provides an important check on Contrator viability.
- Imagine I start playing a Contractor that kills and eats babies (or is in otherwise morally abhorrant) openly in front of other Contractors. If this is taking place in a Playgroup where PvP is disallowed, your good-guy superhero has no choice but to watch and scold me. That sucks.
- In Playgroups where PvP is allowed, likable Contractors have the highest chance of long-term survival. That's a good thing.
- Contractor realpolitick, alliances, and manipulation cannot truely occur if PvP is disallowed. The paranoia of life-and-death stakes drives Contractors to compromise and provides an ultimate "line" that can be crossed.
- Certain Gifts and Artifacts are balanced under the pretense that they may be lost or stolen.
Murder on Downtimes: Honor in the Metagame
Specifically, the line is drawn at hunting down and killing other Contractors on Downtimes using low-risk, no-counterplay, insta-kill tactics. These include but are not limited to Car Bombs and Long-Range Snipers.
While an argument could be made that the challenge of locating the target Contractor provides an opprotunity for counterplay or that certain niche Gifts could reduce susceptibility to such tactics, the reality is that Contractors are beloved characters that should have a shot to defend themselves to some degree. That's right: you should meta-game a little honor into the situation. This is one of the only exceptions to The Contract's general policy of "no-holds-barred" gameplay.
Playgroup Leaders and neutral third-party GMs can and should help in situations where Contractors want to hunt down other Contractors on their Downtimes. They should:
- Set up a situation where the victim knows they may be hunted by someone and have a chance to set traps or bunker down.
- Encourage the hunting Player to make the kill during a Contract.
- Build a situation that involves more Contractors or alliances (which provides someone who can investigate and avenge the murder or double-cross the victim)
Killing Contractors on Contract is fine. There are more witnesses, and it adds an element of "do you trust your teammates" to the realpolitick, which is key.
How to be a Good Player
A Good Player helps everyone at the table have fun. They may not be clever. Their Contractors may not have optimal builds. They may not be great actors, writers, or inspired creatives. However, any experienced roleplayer will tell you that a truly Good Player is worth their weight in gold.
You want to be a Good Player, not a Bad Player. Here’s how.
They get afraid when their Contractor is in danger. They’re mystified by the mysteries they investigate. They’re charmed by the other Players’ Contractors, and when someone does something amazing, they’ll say: “that was fucking awesome.” So if you feel some of that genuine enthusiasm bubbling up, that’s gold in your throat. Don’t swallow it. Besides, if you were actually too cool for the game, you’d be off doing something else, wouldn’t you?
They get afraid when their Contractor is in danger. They’re mystified by the mysteries they investigate. They’re charmed by the other Players’ Contractors, and when someone does something amazing, they’ll say: “that was fucking awesome.”
So if you feel some of that genuine enthusiasm bubbling up, that’s gold in your throat. Don’t swallow it.
Besides, if you were actually too cool for the game, you’d be off doing something else, wouldn’t you?
Play with the right Group
If you want a serious, hardboiled experience that points a mirror at society and explores difficult themes in a grounded way, and the rest of the Playgroup are goldfish with robot bodies as Contractors, killing each other for no reason, and running Contracts about fighting Santa, you might be in the wrong group. And that goes both ways too. Some people want to believe there’s a “right way” to play a game, or there’s a “true way” or “the way the developers intended.” They’re wrong. All this to say there are many “correct” ways to play a game like The Contract, and sometimes those preferences are irreconcilably different. Always pay attention to whether or not the way you have fun is compatible with the ways other people want to have fun. If not, have a talk or find another group. Don’t try to stick it out.
If you want a serious, hardboiled experience that points a mirror at society and explores difficult themes in a grounded way, and the rest of the Playgroup are goldfish with robot bodies as Contractors, killing each other for no reason, and running Contracts about fighting Santa, you might be in the wrong group. And that goes both ways too.
Some people want to believe there’s a “right way” to play a game, or there’s a “true way” or “the way the developers intended.” They’re wrong.
All this to say there are many “correct” ways to play a game like The Contract, and sometimes those preferences are irreconcilably different. Always pay attention to whether or not the way you have fun is compatible with the ways other people want to have fun. If not, have a talk or find another group. Don’t try to stick it out.
Respect the Investment of Others
A Good Player makes the jobs of the GM and Playgroup Leader as easy as possible. Good Players Every Contract is four-plus hours of white-knuckle life-or-death gameplay. If you are playing with three other Players and each of their Contractors has been in 5 Contracts, you are dealing with a minimum of twenty hours of investment per Contractor. That’s nearly a day of creative and mental energy, not counting filling out the character sheet, building their powers, writing their journals, and brainstorming ideas. You have to respect that. You may not like that Contractor. You may be glad they died. But you HAVE TO respect that that person sunk a day of their life and a sliver of their soul into that character. And their lives are in your hands, especially if you’re the GM. Good Players
Respect the GM and Playgroup Leader
Respect the Other Players
A Good Player makes the jobs of the GM and Playgroup Leader as easy as possible.
Every Contract is four-plus hours of white-knuckle life-or-death gameplay. If you are playing with three other Players and each of their Contractors has been in 5 Contracts, you are dealing with a minimum of twenty hours of investment per Contractor. That’s nearly a day of creative and mental energy, not counting filling out the character sheet, building their powers, writing their journals, and brainstorming ideas.
You have to respect that.
You may not like that Contractor. You may be glad they died. But you HAVE TO respect that that person sunk a day of their life and a sliver of their soul into that character. And their lives are in your hands, especially if you’re the GM.
Don’t be an Asshole
“Well shit,” you might be saying to yourself, “that’s not me. The last time a telemarketer called me, they were the ones who hung up.” Take heart! Even those without the gift of gab can be Good Players, and the fact that you've read this guide is a great sign. If you enjoyed that tidbit and want to level up your social skills further, consider reading Dale Carnigie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People. A better title would probably be “How to be honest and not alienate people.” The anecdotes may be dated, but people never change.
“Well shit,” you might be saying to yourself, “that’s not me. The last time a telemarketer called me, they were the ones who hung up.” Take heart! Even those without the gift of gab can be Good Players, and the fact that you've read this guide is a great sign.
If you enjoyed that tidbit and want to level up your social skills further, consider reading Dale Carnigie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People. A better title would probably be “How to be honest and not alienate people.” The anecdotes may be dated, but people never change.
The Contract is a TTRPG that capitalizes on the extraordinary freedom of choice offered by a GM while minimizing numerical, mathy gameplay better suited for computers. It does this not by eschewing rigorous systems altogether, but by offering advancement in the form of increased utility rather than numerical bonuses. Instead of a Character improving in terms of how much damage they can deal, how well they can take a hit, or how big of a monster they can slay, they grow in their ability to break the rules.
What is "Fair?"
In The Contract, you can easily create a Contractor that starts as the world’s best marksman. They will be able to pop the head of a twenty-victory Contractor in a single attack. How is that fair? Well it isn’t if you contrive a situation with a fair fight.
But there are no fights without context. How did our Contractors meet? Why did one decide to kill the other? This is where the seasoned Contractor thrives. They are worth more alive than dead. They know what might drive the novice to violence, how to avoid it, and when to act first. Hell, at a twenty-victory difference, your marksman will be working for the senior Contractor, and they may not even know it.
You see, a Contractor is forged into steel through Contracts, and Contracts are not fair. Contractors are charged with winning a footrace against someone they cannot beat. They cannot roll to win. They must use their creativity, and the incredible freedom empowered by the GM, to blaze their own path to victory. Contractors drug their competitors, blackmail the judges, and doctor the finishing-line video.
Powers are not numerical bonuses. They are tools for learning about and controlling situations.
Play the Situation, not the System
In some RPGs, there is an unwritten rule that the straightforward approach is sufficient. This happens because the system supports it. Encounter tables clearly define expected outcomes of fights. Get into a fair fight and you will walk away with a few scrapes that’ll heal with a good night’s rest.
In The Contract, you are charged with killing the monster in the penthouse suite. You have guns, but so do they. Kicking in the door and opening fire may very well work, but if you avoid taking a bullet to the shoulder, the wrist, or the eye, it’ll be by blind luck. Do you pursue a plan that risks a permanent, debilitating injury? Rappelling from the roof and opening fire straight into the baddie’s bedroom is better. Impersonating a valuable client and luring them into an ambush on your own turf? Now we’re talking.
And why not? Powers in The Contract may empower you to scale a glass wall, disguise yourself as a loved one, hack the IRS, and more. Powers add tools to your tool belt.
Balance is maintained despite the fact that Contractors may play in Games with Characters that have as many as 10 Victories more than them because player ingenuity makes up the difference. The senior Contractors may have more tools, but watch the newbie players run inside the mob’s hideaway to fight their way to the kingpin. Watch the veteran Player without a single Gift board the exits shut and light the place on fire.
Why urban fantasy?
The Contract is tuned for urban fantasy settings because the real world is a box that everyone is familiar with. If a situation goes off the rails in a starship or a demonic dimension, the only things you have to work with are what the GM has established. If you are attacked by a monster in a convenience store, you know that there may be a gun behind counter, the ceiling is made of those flimsy tiles that can be pushed away, there's a walk-in refrigerator, a back door, security cameras, etc.
Having the common frame of reference gives Players more tools to form creative solutions.
And you can still take a starship to the demonic realms from time to time.
This philosophy empowers Contractors to be truly unique, not just in their flavor but in their capabilities. A format that provides a justification for getting these Contractors together (Contracts and the promise of Power) further unshackles character design, allowing Contractors to adopt unique and conflicting goals. They may have little in common. They may fight with each other.
The combination of these two design elements opens the door for dynamic inter-character interactions. You do not have to meta-game to make a group of super-friends. If one Contractor is a vampire and another is a priest sworn to destroy vampires, well . . .
Contracts are deadly. People die.
But I don't want to die
Don't worry. Living is not as guaranteed in The Contract as it is in some systems, but it is still largely up to each Player group to decide how much death they want in their games.
That said, the real possibility of death empowers the stories of Characters in a way that is difficult to reproduce. Even throwaway Contractors will earn your respect by facing real danger and succeeding against all odds. They make enemies. They lose friends. Not NPCs, but real Characters who breathe with the life of other Players.
Contractors will more easily tell a vibrant, engaging, and human story than characters that sit glistening but inert in a safe harbor.
The Contract has been purpose-built for this sort of gameplay, battle tested, and tweaked for decades. It has a unique power. It will take you on one hell of a ride.
Don’t believe me? Try it out.
History of The Contract
Decades ago in a sleepy town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, a group of young roleplayers experimented with a homebrew system that featured mortal Characters participating in deadly Games for a chance to obtain extraordinary Powers.
The system's one-shot-orientation, deadly combat, and support for unique Characters proved to be a winning combination. Even after the original group had grown up, moved away, and started families, the system lived on and saw continuous play. Small player groups started in various cities across the United States, and, back at home, a new generation of Players were learning the ropes.
The system changed and evolved as the years wore on, growing unrecognizable from its humble beginnings. Over decades of play, the core design philosophies of the Game were likewise tested and matured.
Along the way, several Players created other Roleplaying Games inspired by the original homebrew system. The Contract is one such spin-off: a new creation that borrows heavily from a long legacy. Its goal is to deliver a polished, free-to-play Game that can be learned and played by anyone and does not rely on word-of-mouth.
Its particular innovations include refinements to the classic D10 dice system, a custom Powers system, and a Website that publishes the Game as well as a host of useful tools that make it easy to learn and play.
Who are we?
The Contract was created primarily by one person. He wrote the guide, developed the website, and pulled all the strings needed to make this game happen.
Along the way, countless others contributed their talents in various ways, including editing, art, content generation, community development, and extensive playtesting.
How does The Contract Make Money?
The Game and website are 100% free. It has no ads. We don't sell (or even really ask for) our users' personal information beyond their email address. There is no additional content available for purchase.
The Contract has a Patreon where you can support us.
Eventually, The Contract may offer some premium features with a subscription or sell additional premade stock Scenarios.
What Website? This one. The one you're on.
www.TheContractRPG.com is far more than a mere Player's Guide. It has a wide array of features to help you play The Contract including a Character Creator; an interactive Character Sheet that tracks and calculates everything from Experience to Injuries; a Gift Creation tool and premade Stock Powers; Player groups with configurable roles and permissions in the form of Playgroups; and more.
The website is designed to be convenient. We do not require a 100% buy-in to The Contract's suggested rules and format, nor do we require flawless record-keeping. For those reasons, Players are free to take actions that are generally disallowed in the Format, such as taking Powers they have not earned enough Gifts to purchase.
We try to make it obvious to players when the Format's rules are being broken, but we do not explicitly disallow those actions.
The Contract's website (this website) is [Open Source](https://github.com/shadytradesman/The-Contract-Website). Please feel free to contribute!
- A Character Creator with helpful mouseover text and point calculation.
- An Interactive Character Sheet that offers
- Experience and Advancement history and tracking
- Record of Games played
- Powers and Gifts
- Injury calculation and tracking
- Battle Scar and Trauma tracking
- Helpful buttons for Exertion
- Equipment tracking
- Players can declare their Characters dead and edit their obituaries.
- Dead Characters appear in the Graveyard
- Characters can be made private, so they can only be seen by the creator, their Cell Leaders, and GMs who are actively GMing a Game for them.
- Characters can be deleted
- A Power Creation tool for creating Powers in The Contract.
- Premade Stock Powers are available as examples, or as starting places for easy customization.
- Powers can be assigned to Contractors and will appear on their Character Sheets.
- Powers can be edited or deleted
- Like something you see? Any Power you can view can be used as a template to create a new Power by clicking the "copy and edit new" button.
- Players may create Playgroups and invite other Players via a DM, open invite link, or secret invite link.
- Playgroups provide a centralized way to see all your Players, their Characters, and the Games people in your group have been running.
- Playgroups have their own Setting, which may be edited.
- Playgroup Leaders can manage the Character Sheets of the Contractors within their Playgroup, allowing them to shoulder extra record-keeping work.
- Playgroups have configurable roles and (soon) permissions.
Contracts and Scenarios
- Players may create their own Scenarios and edit them.
- Players can Schedule a Contract, invite Players who may RSVP and declare which Contractors they are bringing, and declare the outcome of Contracts.
- Completed Contracts are recorded and grant Gifts and Experience to the Contractors that participated as well as to the GM as appropriate.
- Players may declare completed (already occurred) Contracts without going through the trouble of the scheduling / invitation process.
- After running a Scenario, GMs can leave comments and feedback on how their running of the Scenario went.
- Players can view the details of any Scenario they've participated in or created in their Scenario Gallery
- Several premade stock Scenarios can be unlocked by creating a Playgroup, meaning you don't have to do any game design work to start playing The Contract.
- A comprehensive Players Guide
- Account creation and management.
- Direct Messaging
- Editable Profiles
Things the Website doesn't do
- Matchmaking. You will have to form your own Playgroup and find other Players
- Community stuff. Please visit our Subreddit and Discord Server!
- Game-time features such as dice rolling, maps, chat, etc. We recommend Roll20.
Things the Website doesn't do. . . YET!
See the Github Issues for a complete list of features and bugfixes we are tracking.
Most of the art used on this website was created by Gwynn Tavares. She is a longtime player of The Contract, an awesome artist, and a dear friend.
You can find more of her art on her Artstation.