This guidebook contains all the information you need to start running The Contract for your playgroup.
How to Start as GM
Step 1: Select or Write a Scenario
Several stock scenarios are provided, and there is a guide on how to write your own.
Step 2: Invite your Players
Players will choose which Contractors they would like to bring based on Game's allowed Status.
If a player is new, consider sending them the Guide for New Players.
Step 3: Run the Game
- Introductions - The initial phase of the Game involves your Harbinger approaching each Contractor, inviting them to participate in the Game, and briefing them on the mission.
- The Action - This is the main meat of the Game. If you're doing it right, things are likely to go off the rails in a way you didn't expect. Embrace the chaos and have fun!
Step 4: Resolution
Choose the winners and losers at the end of the Game.
Recording Contracts on the Website
Recording Contracts on this website is the key to unlocking its recordkeeping capabilities. Rewards (Gifts and Experience) are granted to the Contractors based on each Contract's outcome and tracked automatically. It is highly, highly, HIGHLY recommended that you record the Contracts your group plays.
Playgroup Leaders and Judges may also record Games that have already Occurred using the "Declare a Completed Game" button at the top of their Playgroup's home page.
To schedule an upcoming Contract, or to make a record of a Contract which has already occured, click here.
The Craft of GMing
Acting as the Game Master (GM) is a craft and a skill, and it is honed through years of practice. This article is filled with wisdom gained from GMing hundreds of Games of The Contract in the past decade.
The GM's primary goal is to ensure that the Players have fun. This can be "type-2" fun filled with difficult problem solving, tense moments, brutal obstacles, and anguish at a Character's well-earned death, but it should leave the Players wanting to come back for more. Roleplaying tastes aside, if your Players are bored, frustrated, or feel cheated, you are not being a good GM.
The GM's responsibilities are:
- Establish each scene and situation and enable outside-the-box problem solving
- Breathe life into the world and NPCs
- Be an impartial referee and rules resource
- Manage the flow of the story so it is interesting and engaging
A large part of the moment-to-moment skills involved in being a GM are just general storytelling skills. Managing stakes, the perceptions of the players, describing settings and characters, and pacing are central skills. It's difficult to master these skills or write about them. Look for them in the narration of stories you read, and make a note when another storyteller says something dramatic.
A more concrete storytelling skill is keeping an awareness of all the details that can affect play. How does that character draw their gun when they were just wearing a poncho to get out of the rain? Are they used to driving on the side of the road where they currently are? etc.
These other tips / tricks can kick your GM game up to the next level. Seriously, try them out!
- Do the voices. Even if you perform them poorly, people love to hear the NPCs speaking. Worst-case scenario, all the players can have a laugh at your bad Irish accent (however, be very careful to avoid offensive stereotypes).
- If Players do not describe the manner in which they attack, describe what happens when the attack. Make Players feel like their Characters are bad-asses when they are successful.
The GM is God. Be a fair one.
Just as Players should strive to play their Characters true and not use out of character knowledge, so too should the GM strive to be an impartial Referee of the events that transpire during the game.
Even in the age of information with access to the internet, situations will still arise where there is a "correct" call to make about a way a situation would play out, but no one really knows what it is.
- What are the local laws regarding the transportation of firearms?
- Would this medicine work to cure a given symptom or disease?
- What is the proper military procedure given this situation?
- What sort of security systems do private companies or the government have in place?
Sometimes no one present knows the answer, and then it's time to make a call. Players can try to convince the GM one or or another, but unless someone has specific information that answers the given debate directly, the GM's call stands. Even if the call is later found to be non-factual, the call made at the time stands.
If there is a dispute over a GM's call, other players can raise their disputes for consideration, but in the end the GM's call stands. If a Player is still pissed after the Game ends, they can call a vote to Void the Game (which rarely happens).
Being a Rules Resource
Due to the fact that GMs often have the final say as to what happens during a game, they often act as the interpreter of the systems and rules in place. If you are ever in doubt, feel free to ask for opinions from your players, especially more experienced ones. Breaking system rules, especially major ones, and especially when character lives are on the line, can invite a void of your game. Generally, though, if people don't complain, they must forever hold their peace.
Harbingers and Introductions
Introductions are the phase of the game where the Harbinger approaches the Contractors and offers them the titular Contract: Would you risk your life for a chance to become something more? Briefing the Contractors and transporting them to the mission location is also considered part of the introductions.
Once the Contractor agrees to go on a Contract, they may or may not be briefed on their objective. Sometimes Contractors are briefed as a group, other times they are briefed separately or even given different objectives. They may be transported by the Harbinger or simply told a time and place and left to find their way themselves.
In general, GMs should strive to make introductions as quick as possible. They are usually done one-on-one and can leave the other Players waiting. To combat this, introductions can be done ahead of game time and/or started as the Players arrive.
Introductions for new Contractors
The first introduction for each Contractor is different from all the others. Their encounter with the Harbinger is a formative moment, their big chance to take their lives to the next level. Picture the first few conversations between Morpheus and Neo, Frodo and Gandalf, Mr. Wednesday and Shadow, Harry Potter and Hagrid, etc.
Although Harbingers are not mentors and they are not introducing the character to the supernatural for the first time, they are a creature that is clearly something very special. It’s rarer than a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet such a being. And they are extending a hand. Come, you may join our ranks, if you are willing to risk your life.
And indeed, a great many Contractors end up losing more than that.
But they will accept because their characters were literally designed to accept that deal-- and I mean, it is kinda tempting, right?
Although agreeing is signing the titular “Contract,” it is often more of a verbal contract than anything formal.
Initial introductions are longer than normal and can eat into a session, especially if there are multiple. We highly recommend doing as many as you can before all the Players are assembled.
Using your own Harbinger
For many Scenarios, you can use your own Harbinger. Your Harbinger may have their own set of goals, backstory, and powers. You do not need to conform to any Character Creation or Powers System rules when creating a Harbinger, and they do not need to be formally statted out.
It's a good idea to let the nature of the Scenario influence your choice of Harbinger. If your Scenario has a very direct impact on the world (go get this object, destroy this monster), then a Harbinger that has a stake in the completion of that task is best. If the situation is very contrived (navigate this obstacle course in my pocket realm!) then a Harbinger motivated by entertainment is more appropriate.
Be aware of whether or not the Scenario you're running is telling a piece of the default Harbinger's story. It's fine to repurpose Scenarios, but you should know when you're changing them.
Keep conversations with your custom Harbinger short, and don't wax poetic. You're here for the Players, not to showcase a power fantasy. Besides, keeping things mysterious creates intrigue. It's just better storytelling.
Most GMs make up their own Harbingers, but you can use one of our Premade Stock Harbingers if you'd like.
Tips n Tricks
These are not hard and fast rules. They may not be appropriate for every Game, Harbinger, or Contractor.
Simply teleporting four Characters to a location leads to a very awkward start to the roleplaying. It helps to have a "waiting room" of sorts for the Contractors who have already had their introductions. Contractors appear one at a time and have a chance to introduce themselves, have a bit of a conversation, and speculate about the mission. Give them a minute or two before moving on to the next introduction.
In the interest of saving time, it is often preferable to separate the invitation itself from the mission brief. This means the Contractors agree to the mission, are transported together, and then briefed as a group.
Letters (as opposed to in-person explanations) serve to keep mission briefings short, as they do not provide any opportunities for followup questions.
Encourage your Players to consider what their Characters might be doing when they will be approached by the Harbinger and invited on their first Game. Ideally, this is a short vignette that shows us something interesting about the Character. Perhaps they're defending their dissertation on alternative metaphysics, counting the cash from their latest heist, or tossing a Molotov cocktail through the window of their dad's office building.
Keeping the Action Moving
We're all busy people, ya hear? Most Games have a real-world time limit of a single session. If your Game is still running at midnight on a weekday, has gone wildly off the rails to the point where it can't be finished, or just absolutely terrible and wasting everyone's time, split the Game into two sessions or call it a loss and let people move on with their lives.
Here are some tips for making sure your game doesn't drag on for your players.
- Don't run side-games before primary games. Schedule different meetings for downtime play.
- Don't have lengthy character introductions for each character. Try to get the group together as soon as possible and present them with the game as a group.
- Don't encourage Contractors to split up. While it's efficient with regards to in-game time, it doubles the real-world time required to get anything done and forces half the group (or more!) to twiddle their thumbs. Sometimes specific characters will monopolize the GM's time. Avoid it when possible, and don't encourage it.
- Secret ringers (characters that are NPCs masquerading as Contractors) should discretely communicate via text or chat instead of having one on one private meetings with the GM when they want to take secret actions.
- STAY FOCUSED. As the GM it is often your responsibility to keep the game rolling. When Players take an action, respond immediately.
- Don't call for excessive rolls. Remember, rolling dice is used to determine the result of an action when it is not obvious or high-stakes. You don't need to roll Perception + Alertness to hear a helicopter above you.
- Avoid multiple Combats per Game (Combat often takes a lot of time).
- Avoid Combats with more than eight participants.
- Make it a personal goal to resolve the actions of NPCs as quickly as possible, especially when in combat. No one likes to sit around waiting to hear what the minotaur does.
- Enforce the passage of in-game time when relevant. Players can't talk in-character for an hour in the span of 15 in-game minutes. This is especially relevant when things are time-sensitive in game. If you've got the mental bandwidth, enforce things like travel time and force conversations into the car to keep players on their toes.
High-value and Low-value Time
As the GM, you have a lot of control over how much time is spent in various parts of a Game. Most Scenarios will have some mechanism available to the GMs to move the action along. You often decide which conversations are summarized vs which ones are acted-out.
As such, you must always be aware of high-value and low-value ways that time is spent. Allow high-value times to breathe and use the tools at your disposal to move low-value time along. In general, time is high-value if everyone is having fun and low-value if not.
Examples of Low-value Time
- Some or all of the Players are frustrated, bored, or angry in an unfun way.
- Two NPCs talking to each other
- Time when only some of the Players' characters are present (split group)
- Pre-planning a ton (aka "heisting") for something that is not a major part of the Game or won't have payoff
- GM narration / description. Be concise. Return the ball to the Players as often as possible.
- Players have no thread to follow, are stalled out, or getting frustrated.
- Determining the outcome of things that do not matter
- Low-stakes combat without much context. (e.g. another group of goblins attack).
Examples of High-value Time
- Everyone is having fun
- Two or more Contractors having a conversation with each other in-character
- Everyone is trying to come up with a solution to a problem that is interesting / relevant
- Moral dilemmas
- Interpersonal conflict
- Combat with proper context and stakes (e.g. a situation arises that they, at least in-part, created and must now figure out how to resolve).
When to roll?
Many new GMs make the mistake for calling for too many dice rolls. In general, you only want to make Players roll when there is some question as to whether or not their chosen Action would be successful. You do not need to make people roll Dexterity + Athletics to jog a couple blocks.
The GM may call for a dice roll when
- A Contractor attempts something difficult or dangerous.
- They want to determine if a Contractor notices something.
- An NPC or in-game event is testing a Character in some way.
- An Action or Reaction is attempted in Combat.
- They have invented a system for an effect in their Game that demands it.
- A Character attacks something.
Dice must be rolled if
- A Power's system demands it.
- A Limit is crossed.
- A Character is attempting to stabilize an Injury.
- A Contractor is attacking another Contractor.
Note well: similar to how easy, simple actions do not require rolls, impossible actions do not demand a roll. The GM may simply declare that your action is a failure without calling for a roll. For example, if your mundane human attempts to lasso a rocket-propelled grenade, the GM should not call for a roll. You should fail and feel silly.
GMs may roll on behalf of their Players when the outcome of a roll would give meta-game information to the player. This is most relevant when trying to gather information. If you are attempting to figure out if an NPC is lying, the GM may ask you to roll Charisma + Subterfuge. If your result is a Botch and the GM says, "yup, they're definitely telling the truth," then you, the Player, know that they were in fact lying, which is awkward and inappropriate. Private rolls can prevent this, but too many private rolls can make Players feel left out or reduce GM trust.
The Contract burns through Scenarios at an incredible rate (one every session or two), so learning how to write your own is an important skill.
At the same time, The Contract's design philosophy makes designing great scenarios a little tricky. A dungeon with monsters works every once in a while but gets boring quickly if that's all you're doing.
Who Should Write Scenarios?
All players can and should create Scenarios and run Games from time to time. Writing Scenarios is a skill, so the sooner you start at it, the longer you'll have to get better. Even brand new new Players should be ready to write their own Scenarios after playing in five to ten Games.
A little "throw them into the deep end" mentality is warranted and healthy. This isn't about being perfect, it's about practice.
Scenarios on the Website
The Website allows you to record and track the Scenarios you create. When you record a played Contract, you can record which Scenario was used.
The details of any Scenario you play are revealed to you in your Scenario Gallery. You may then run Games using those Scenarios. GMs who run a Scenario may leave comments about their experience running the Scenario, and a complete history of which Players have run or played in each Scenario is maintained.
This makes it much easier to determine which of your Players have already Played in a favorite Scenario of yours.
Hard and Fast Rules
These are the core restrictions of The Contract that define the format.
- There must be a minimum of two Players and one GM - except for Veteran Contractors (25+ victories), who can attempt Solo Games.
- Contractors are always given a choice whether or not they want to participate in a Game (although they need not be presented with any information about the Scenario prior to being offered that choice).
- After the Game, each surviving Contractor is determined a winner or a loser.
- Scenarios must be deadly, and there must be a real possibility of Contractor death in every Game.
- No Scenarios can REQUIRE a Contractor death as a prerequisite victory.
- No two Contractors owned by the same Player can ever meet each other or interact.
Soft and Slow Rules
These Rules are more like guidelines, really.
- Scenarios should be designed to conclude within four hours.
- Other than Status Constraints, Scenarios are written completely agnostic of the Contractors that may attend them. Specific Contractors cannot be required to attend.
- Novice Scenarios should be subtle. You should not find yourself facing Stormtroopers or transformed into a toon on your first Game. Think X-Files or Fringe. Early Games should gradually become supernatural, as Novice characters can't be expected to handle total mind-fuck Scenarios and not realistically fall apart. Save your weird games for the Seasoned group. This does depend somewhat on the nature of the Setting you are playing in; what qualifies as "subtle" in a modern mostly normal planet Earth is very different than a subtle game in a high fantasy Setting.
- Objectives, especially in Novice Scenarios, should be clear. If Players get frustrated because they are unable to figure a Game out, it does not make you an awesome criminal mastermind. Anyone can fool Novices. If they get frustrated and walk out on a Game, you are a poor Harbinger, and your peers will laugh at you.
All Scenarios in The Contract follow the same basic structure. A group of characters are rounded up and presented with a deadly task which they must then attempt to complete for a chance to awaken their Powers.
This is the part of the Scenario where the Harbinger or their agent approaches the Contractors, offers them a job, and gives them an objective.
When writing a Scenario, the key elements of the introduction are the mission objective and Contractor transportation. GMs often use their own Harbingers to invite Contractors on Games, so Scenarios are often written in a way where Harbingers can be hot-swapped as desired. If your Scenario [is intrinsically linked to a specific Harbinger, be sure to mention that in the Scenario writeup.
Contractors may be given no background information with the offer of a contract, or they may be given dossiers with detailed objectives. Occasionally they are pointed towards a situation and left to resolve it as they see fit. They may be transported to the site of the Game with a snap of the Harbinger's fingers, or they may be left to buy a bus ticket. Newbie and Novice Contractors are always delivered to their Games if needed (e.g. they are anachronistic), but Seasoned Contractors rarely receive such accommodations.
The core content of a Scenario. Ideally, this is 90% of the Game is spent. Other than the rules below, there are no strict restrictions on the content of the mission.
At the end of the Game, the GM announces the outcome for each surviving Contractor, and they are left to deal with the consequences of their actions.
When writing your Scenarios, you should establish clear guidelines for what is considered success and failure even if you don't share them with the Contractors.
Scenarios may indicate follow-up events or Side Games that might be appropriate for GMs to run, depending on the events of the Game. An example is a supernatural disease that the Contractors might contract and have to go on a Side-Game to cure.
The mission is the meat and potatoes of a Scenario. The choices of what to create are limitless, but this article will give you a place to start.
Designing for various Contractor Statuses
Certain Power effects are restricted to Seasoned or Veteran Contractors because they grant abilities that change the way Games must be designed.
Designing for Newbies and Novices
Scenarios designed for Newbies and Novices should have some sort of solutions built-in. The perfect set of mundane humans should be able to succeed any Novice game. The Powers that Novices bring to the table make up the gap between "the perfect set of mundane humans" and "the group of superpowered weirdos we happened to bring".
Occasionally a Novice will have a Power that directly solves a primary challenge of a Scenario. In such cases, allow the Contractor to circumvent the challenge with their Power. It is damaging to contrive a situation that specifically renders the rewards of the Games useless.
Designing for Seasoned Contractors
Seasoned Contractors have access to more game-breaking Powers such as teleportation, powerful mind control, revealing investigative Powers, and flight.
You do not need to plan solutions for every challenge posed in a Seasoned Game. There is no expectation that the "right" group of humans could succeed.
Designing for Veteran Contractors
Veteran Contractors should be able to handle an abstract problem from A to Z. Veteran Games do not generally have a script, and GMs must be prepared to improvise almost 100% of the Game's content.
For example, a fair Veteran Solo Game may be "Fetch me 30 vampire fangs in one week." The Veteran is in charge of finding the vampires and removing their teeth (without killing them, as vampires turn to dust when killed, including any teeth that have been removed).
Just what it sounds like: Find and neutralize the monster. This sort of Scenario strongly favors fighter types, but can be cast in numerous layers of subtlety. Investigation and preparation are often important parts of a Bug Hunt, and so, in a lot of ways, they often play like a Heist.
"Getting the gang back together. You in?"
A Heist is just what it sounds like. The Contractors are tasked with breaking into a secure location to achieve an objective, often stealing or destroying something. These Scenarios have a danger of running long, as Players will tend to over-prepare and over-research before they start the Heist. It's often a good idea to set a time limit of an hour or so for the stakeout/planning phase.
When in doubt about time, aim for the "Oceans 11 Ratio": 25% introductions and briefing, 25% preparing for the heist, 50% executing the heist.
The Contractors are required to protect an individual, location, or group for a specified period of time.
The reasons these types of missions suck in video games are the same reasons they're excellent in tabletop RPGs. Preparation and outside-the-box problem solving makes these missions pop.
These Scenarios involve a variety of riddles and complex problem solving, and are not for everyone. Investigative rolls and skills should generally provide clues, not answers. It's best to pair the failure of puzzles with something easier to get a grip on like a fight (statues come to life if you fail), an interesting setting (a sinking ship), or a secondary objective (prepare for an attack that will happen when the nerds solve the puzzle).
A tournament, a convention of wizards, or daily life at a mental institution for the criminally insane. These Scenarios place Contractors into highly-structured events and situations with clearly defined goals. It's best to set up these scenarios so that they will fail unless the Contractors do something devious and break the rules. The puzzles often involve Contractors hiding their capabilities, cheating, and subverting the organization.
Simple and often brutal, these Scenarios send the Contractors through a series of traps, tests, and challenges with the objective of surviving to reach the goal. They are best used sparingly, as a series of death traps and little in the way of flexibility can wear on players when used too often. On the other hand, they can be refreshingly straightforward after several more cerebral Games.
Try not to make these an Athletics-fest; let Players get creative with how they circumvent obstacles, let them use their Powers to skip some, and sprinkle some NPCs in there. **It's best to think of Obstacle Courses as a complication to an objective rather than the objective itself.**
Many Scenarios present the Contractors with an abstract goal that involves approaching, assessing, and gaining control over a situation. These Scenarios punish simplistic one-solution-fits-all Contractors, and give more flexible Contractors a time to shine.
Examples could include: stopping a riot, saving a group of people, penetrating a small conspiracy, convincing an aristocrat to sell the business he just inherited, etc.
Imagine a story without Contractors in it, then add Contractors to it. Essentially, an Evolving Situation is a Scenario where something is going on already, events will occur, and the situation will play out in an interesting way with or without the Contractor's involvement. They are a complication rather than the driving conflict.
These Scenarios are surprisingly easy to write and lead to some of the most dynamic and exciting Games. If the Players stall out, there are easy ways to move the story toward a conclusion or re-up the energy.
An example: The Contract are tasked with helping a high-profile Princess escape the castle on the same night that her Father happens to be planning to pull a Red Wedding on the guests at dinner. Another example: Contractors are asked to kidnap a werewolf who is a student at a local high school, and a group of students happen to be planning to kill the werewolf that evening, and will do anything to make it happen. A third: The Contractors are asked to solve a "Night at the Museum" situation where the exhibits come to life, but a group of elite criminals happen to have planned an elaborate heist for that evening.
You can stir up a generic Scenario by adding other elements such as the following.
- Time Limit: Contractors only have a set time to achieve specific goals.
- Hostages: An NPC must be safely retrieved or brought along.
- Open Door: The Game takes place in a public setting; local Institutions may help or hinder.
- Rivalry: Individual characters have different, or even opposing goals. Alternately, a rival team may be after the same goal.
- Highlander: Only one Contractor can win.
- Inventory Denial: The Contractors do not have access to their normal suite of tools and weapons
- Capture: An NPC must be captured but not killed or, in some cases, harmed.
- Betrayal: A friendly NPC is set to betray the Contractors, and if they do not anticipate it, they are caught in a deadly situation.
- Traps: There are a series of improvised, ancient, or otherworldly traps between the Contractors and their objective. Traps are most rewarding when they reveal something about the person who set them, and when springing them leads to a deadly situation instead of directly causing death.
- Dramatic Set Piece: You should consider including an interesting set piece in your Scenario. This can raise the stakes and provide narrative assistance when running the game. Who doesn't like the idea of a chase that takes place on The Golden Gate Bridge?
Everyone wants to play a balanced game. This means different things in different Games, but in The Contract: a Game is balanced if it feels "fair".
Who is responsible for Balance?
The responsibility for balance is shared between The Contract's developers, those who write Scenarios, GMs who run Games, and Playgroup Leaders. Of those, the Contract Designers and Scenario writers hold the most power over balance.
The point of the Games is to produce some of the hardest, smartest, cunning, bad-asses ever seen in the Multiverse. It is NOT to kill players. If your games routinely wipe out characters who did not take foolish risks or turtle excessively, you are a poor Harbinger and your peers will laugh at you. Might do more than laugh, in fact. You are wasting good talent, which is hard to find. That makes you a wastrel, and most Harbingers did not get where they are today by being lax.
Non-goals of Balance in The Contract
[x] Contractors have a chance of winning any straight fight they get into [x]
Contractors must choose their fights and their tactics carefully. If they can win every fight they can possibly get into, your Players will stop coming up with outside-the-box strategies. The Games will devolve into a simple hack and slash affairs for which the system is not designed.
For this reason, you will not find encounter tables in this Guide.
[x] All character concepts and builds are viable [x]
We strive to make it possible to build a Contractor with almost any concept. However, not all concepts, stat builds, or Power selections are viable. Your absent-minded, blind, folk-singer Contractor will almost certainly be less useful than someone more suited to dealing with unexpected or violent situations.
That said, we do want to make sure a wide variety of Character concepts are viable. Scenario designers should strive to design challenges that are incredibly various. Games should take place in various settings, from the jungle to the inside of an airplane. They should involve investigations or social challenges, research, tracking, animals, science, and all sorts of other concepts.
How to Write Balanced Scenarios
Do not design your Scenarios for the specific Contractors that will play in them. Design them in spite of the Contractors that will play in them, and you will force Contractors to diversify in order to deal with all the challenges.
Your games should fall somewhere between never killing anyone and full party wipes. Games that end in full party wipes are generally unenjoyable and often voided. Remember: perception of danger is even more important than the reality of danger. Sprinkling a few NPC deaths or visceral descriptions of close calls can raise the stakes considerably.
There are very few hard and fast balance guidelines when it comes to game design.
- You are not required to follow character creation rules for NPCs and Henchmen
- You are not required to follow gift giving or power guidelines for your NPCs
- You can invent systems for supernatural phenomenon and items that player characters would never be able to obtain
- You can keep partial inventories and stat pages for your NPCs
That said, here are some good baseline rules
- At the very least, you should write down stats, relevant combat equipment, and supernatural powers for your NPCs before the game starts.
- If you are using mundane items, become familiar with the standard rules for equipment.
- Try to make supernatural items difficult to obtain. In the case when a character does obtain one they can use, there should generally be downsides (NPCs hunting them, a curse, etc). Player Characters can never take non-gift items as Signature (can't be lost, destroyed, or stolen), and GMs from other Playgroups are not required to let them enter their Playgroup.
It's not bad form to adjust the quantities of certain bad guys before encounters in order to avoid party wipes.
Establish "controls" so that if a game proves overwhelming for Novices, they still have some chance. Be prepared to do this BEFORE the Player deaths start. I personally can't stand seeing a great Contractor who made all the right choices die on account of a bad roll.
Balancing based on feel
Character deaths feel justified only when they are the result of a character decision and/or a failed roll.
People are too safe. The GM shouldn't have a perfect idea on how safe their game is. If you mess up and make it too nice, people will feel good about getting easy Gifts. If someone dies, well that's the point. If many characters die, it will go down in the annals of history as a brutal game. If everyone dies, it will likely be Voided and feel bad for everyone.
Hierarchy of character death feels
Note that "decisions" referenced in this list refer to actual choices based on evidence, not random guesses.
0. Totally random
1. Results from a decision the character made, but no clues given that the decision may be dangerous
2. Results solely from a failed, obscure roll (e.g Charisma + meditation) with no character decision involved
3. Results solely from a failed, common roll (e.g. Mind, Dexterity + Athletics) with no Character decision involved
4. Weakly motivated player-kill (borderline Griefing)
5. Losing a fair fight
6. Results solely from a decision the character made, with clues that it may be dangerous.
7. Results from a bad, risky decision and a failed roll
8. Results from a highly character-driven decision, self-sacrifice, hubris, etc.
9. Player kill with strong motivation
10. Player kill with strong motivation and fair fight
Character deaths witnessed or participated-in by other Characters are more "valuable". Deaths that take multiple rounds or give Players the ability to make multiple decisions are more "valuable."
Items 1-4 are likely to earn you the ire of your players and may even lead to your Game being declared Void by the Playgroup Leader.
The exact stats you should give your baddies depends a lot on the culture of your Playgroup and the situation of the fight.
Use Contractor Stats as a guideline
The one benchmark for a "fair" fight is: enemies with the same exact stats as your Contractors will make for a "fair" fight. In these cases, the group that does better on Initiative will almost certainly win.
This is a good starting point for balance because it means the situation makes the difference. Get into a straight fight, and it's a crapshoot. Your Players will have to come up with some strategy to find an additional advantage or suffer the consequences.
Strive to make your enemies more interesting than giant rats.
Give your foes cool powers or bizarre advantages. Get creative and inspired! Don't just think of enemies as bags of stats to be overcome. They are real creatures who can strategize, plot, and hunt your Contractors down. Play them like intelligent adversaries, when appropriate.
Bad Guys can sometimes one-shot Contractors, but shouldn't always.
At a maximum, your enemies should probably roll around 7-10 dice to attack with a maximum damage bonus of +3. This gives a healthy chance of one-shotting Contractors, but it keeps things tense.
Exceptions can be made for enemies that should not be fought or whose attacks could have been mitigated with better investigation / planning.
Beware of numbers
The Contract's Combat system greatly favors those with the numbers advantage.
If a group of Contractors split up, they can quickly turn a fight you balanced for the full party into a disaster. Good. Splitting up must carry risks. It makes Games drag on, so it's important that Players use the tactic sparingly.
Health in The Contract is designed to model mundane creatures and humanoids and is not appropriate for large monsters or creatures that should feel like “bosses.” If you are tempted to give a creature a Body score higher than 12, consider using this alternative health system.
You can also change the way damage works for Boss monsters in other ways. For some monsters, Brawn may act as Armor against all damage unless it is of a certain type (say fire or silver). Amorphous creatures might only takes 1 damage per attack no matter what the Players roll or be immune to all damage that doesn't specifically target their weak spot.
Health and Stats
Instead of the standard Body depletion system, “boss” creatures may use a more traditional pool of health. Injuries deplete their health pool on a one-to-one basis with Severity. (Boss health = Maximum health - sum of all Injury Severities)
A reasonable health pool depends on each Playgroup's culture and each Game’s Contractors.
Add up your Contractors’ “threat rating”
- Newbie / Novice non-fighter: 1
- Newbie fighter: 2
- Novice fighter: 3
- 10-20 Victory non-fighter: 3
- 10-20 Victory fighter: 4
- 20+ Victory: 6
Set the boss’s health equal to your party’s “threat level” x 6.
This does not guarantee your party will be able to defeat the boss or that the boss will have a shot against your party.
When making Body rolls, use a number of dice equal to remaining health / 3 (rounded up).
Penalty is equal to missing health / 4 (rounded up)
The boss’s rating in Wits is considered 7 for the purposes of calculating Stuns.
Common Pitfall: Party Wipes
Full-party wipes are never desirable, and since there is a lot of variation in The Contract, it's possible you may accidentally create a monster that would just completely destroy the Contractors.
To avoid this:
- Describe the boss’s status in a way that allows Players to make a guess about how they’re doing. (Do not mention health or postulate on how many attacks it may take to destroy the monster.)
- Allow surviving Contractors to run away. The boss will not pull punches, but does not have to pursue those who flee after one or two Contractors are killed.
- Do not trap Contractors in a “boss fight,” even if they deserve it.
Common Pitfall: Boss that dies too easily
It's a bit anti-climactic when a boss dies too easily, but it's generally preferable to a boss that might wipe the party. To avoid fights that are too easy, add some Armor to your boss, or give them a stun resistance Power.
Do not change your Boss's stats at game-time. If a Contract finds a clever way to completely destroy or avoid your boss, that is awesome and you should reward it.
Introducing Supernatural Objects and Spells that Contractors may Obtain
You may system out any supernatural elements for your Scenarios, including spells and magical items, however you'd like. You don't need to use The Contract's Powers System. However, if a Playgroup Leader later decides that the item is unduly powerful (or maybe harms the story of the Setting), they can strip it or declare the Game void.
Also, Contractors are never guaranteed to have any setting-granted items or abilities when they play Games in other Playgroups. They only bring their own Powers granted by the Gifts as rewards for completing Games.
Let's start this section with a motivating question. Which of the following elements are acceptable to put in a Scenario?
- Someone's character is cursed and grows bunny ears permanently
- The players must kill a child to succeed the game
- The gang fights Santa Claus
- A pop-culture character makes a guest appearance
- There's an erotic or leading scene that must be roleplayed
The answer? It depends. All of these things have occurred in Scenarios that have been run in various Playgroups.
These are somewhat extreme examples, but the lesson is that what's acceptable in one group is not always acceptable in other groups. Things are rarely black and white, and the handling of a subject matter can make a huge difference in whether or not it seems okay. Try to get a grasp on what a particular set of players will balk at or embrace. Always consider your audience, and don't force your preferred tone down their throats.
See the Content Warning at the very start of the Guide.
Leading a Playgroup
Playgroups exist for three primary reasons:
- To organize groups of Players with similar interests, tastes, and schedules.
- To provide a consistent setting for Contracts and Contractors.
- To create long-term relationships and conflicts between Contractors by encouraging consistent casts.
Playgroups are the key to The Contract transcending a series of disconnected one-shots. Players can be members of several Playgroups, but Contractors must call a single Playgroup “home.”
But building a healthy playgroup comes with its own set of challengs. This guide will help you understand how you can use your role as Playgroup Leader to create a vibrant, lively playgroup that won't disappear when you start to get busy.
A healthy Playgroup has:
- Between 4 and 40 members. Usually, this consists of a few consistent “core” Players and a larger collection of occasional Players.
- Multiple people who run Contracts and Side Games in the Playgroup. Ideally, the most prolific GM will run no more than half of the Contracts that take place in the Playgroup. Playgroups with only a single GM are less reliable and prone to going defunct.
- A well-defined Setting that Contractors interact with. The actions of Contractors should have consequences and rewards. Contractors should be able to make an impact on the setting by taking initiative and making moves.
- Consistency. No event that leaves a mark on the setting occurs multiple times. Locations, NPCs, and organizations continue to exist after they are introduced and can be found and re-visited.
- A common understanding and respect of the culture of the playgroup. The Players agree on the level of danger, preferences for PvP, and tone (Anton Chigur is not going on Contracts with Howard the Duck. . .unless that’s what you’re going for).
Playgroup Leaders act as head GM for their Playgroup. They define the Playgroup's setting as well as it's culture and organization. They also settle disputes between Playgroup members about Contractors, Powers, and Contracts.
Defining the setting
Defining the setting
Most roleplayers are used to games where a single GM owns the entire Setting. However, The Contract has rotating game-masters and works best when all GMs have some ownership over the setting. Collaborative world-building allows your GMs to run Contracts that drive engagement with your Playgroup's setting, which creates a more fulfilling and exciting gameplay experience.
Sharing ownership of a setting can be intimidating, especially when you and the other GMs also act as Players. Luckily, it is easier than it appears.
Ways to Share the Setting
- Partitioned Ownership gives each GM control over a different piece of the setting. This can be an area, an organization, a species, a type of enemy, and/or a collection of NPCs.
- How you divvy up the setting is up to you, but you will quickly find that there is plenty of room for many GMs in any given Playgroup.
- This approach gives each GM a lot of creative freedom, which is good!
- Sometimes GMs will need to discuss how an event in the realm of one GM’s ownership affects the others’, and that’s okay. In general, partitioned ownership makes it easy to avoid obtaining too much out-of-character knowledge. You want the Setting to be mysterious and intriguing!
- GMs can also create and own self-contained sub-settings that are relatively separate from the main setting. Examples include a dream world, a mirror dimension, or another planet. While these sub-settings are less rewarding than more direct setting-sharing, they provide safe spaces for GMs to own and be creative while limiting “contamination potential” to the main setting.
- When a Setting is extremely detailed and well-understood (for example, when ported from another game, show, or movie), it is possible to simply share the setting directly, such that any GM can run any of the various factions, NPCs, or elements.
- While it seems simpler than partitioning the setting, this approach can create conflict. You must align the GMs on just how big of an impact their Contracts and sub-plots can have on the setting.
- Another downside to this approach is that there is less mystique around the setting, and many Players will have significant out-of-character knowledge about what is happening behind the scenes.
- A Monarchy is when a single GM owns, understands, and determines the Playgroup's Setting.
- While this approach drastically limits out-of-character knowledge and creates camaraderie between Players, it is difficult to sustain.
- For one, it makes it impossible for GMs to run meaningful Contracts in your setting, meaning you probably be the only person running Contracts in your Playgroup.
- It also means you will be running all of the side games on top of all of the Contracts.
- Oh, and you still have all the other responsibilities of a Playgroup Leader.
- Finally, if you disappear or need to take a break, the Playgroup will disband or lose momentum. It’s really nice to not have everything you worked to create disappear in a cloud of smoke when you decide you need to take a break.
Building a Compelling Setting
Contracts in the Setting
Removed, isolated, repeatable Contracts are great from time to time, but the most fulfilling Contracts are those that take place in, and change the setting.
- Ideally, most Contracts are events that happen a single time in a given Playgroup. Other Contractors in the Playgroup can hear about the events of the Contract, and the events change the world around them.
- Contracts also work best when they tell a story, or when they reveal a Harbinger’s MO or backstory.
Tips for Engaging Players
After a Contractor earns a few victories, get together with the other GMs and figure out a way to create a conflict for them. This could be an enemy finally showing up, a loose end from a Contract coming back to haunt them, or even just an entirely unrelated and new issue.
Your goal is not to outright kill the Contractor, just create a conflict that hooks them into the Setting in some way. Kidnap their family, introduce a doppelganger that surplants them in their career, frame them for a horrendous crime and imprison them, have a monstrous politician take over their city and impose martial rule. Get creative!
The yang to Contractor Conflicts’ yin is offering rewards. Use Artifacts, Conditions, and Circumstances to lure Contractors to engage with the Setting. Drop a hint that an awesome Artifact is being held in a particular scientific lab. If a Contractor steals it, give them something genuinely useful.
Leading a Playgroup also means leading a group of Players, which comes with its own set of challenges.
- At least initially, you will also need to find Players to play in your Playgroup. If you run a lot of Contracts or have an existing gaming group this will be easy.
- You want to find Players who are engaged, motivated, and positive. You want people whose play preferences match your own and the culture you want to build.
- You must avoid Players with a negative attitude or conduct issues.
Settling rules disputes
- A Player’s character dies. After the game, they discover that one of their Powers should have saved their Contractor. The GM rules that the death stands, and the Player wants their Contractor to be alive again. The stakes are high: the Player has spent over 50 hours playing their Contractor. The GM is new and timid but hasn’t made any mistakes and has, in fact, shown a lot of courage in killing the Contractor and making a definitive judgement. Emotions are high, and things are getting heated. They come to you for an official judgement.
- If the prospect of being in this situation freaks you out, you are either not cut out to be a Playgroup Leader or you need to deputize a GM to help you settle this kind of dispute.
- The key to settling rules disputes is consistency. While you should be sensitive to how your Players feel, your Players will-- and you must-- follow the precedent your decision sets. Inconsistent or preferential judgements will degrade trust, cause interpersonal conflict, and undermine the unspoken social contract of fair gameplay that is foundational to the experience.
- See the section on Common Conflicts and resolutions for specific examples and advice.
- While conduct disputes are more serious than rules disputes, they are much easier to settle.
- Always remember: 1. As Playgroup Leader, you alone determine who is allowed to play in your Playgroup's games. 2. You are under no obligation to provide a Playgroup or gaming service to any particular Player. 3. A Player that is abusive, has a bad attitude, or creates a hostile environment is always a negative influence on the play group, no matter how much work they put in or how invested they are in the Playgroup. You must remove such Players from your group if their conduct does not improve after a single warning.
- Certain conduct breaches do not warrant even a single warning. Harassment of any kind-- especially sexual harassment-- demands immediate expulsion.
- As Playgroup leader, you have absolute final say in all matters, and you should exercise that power aggressively when there are conduct issues. You can expel a Player or GM from the Playgroup in the middle of a Contract if you feel it is appropriate. They are in your house.
- When you see conduct issues, speak up. Pull problem Players aside and have private discussions with them. Do not remain passive or silent when one of your players is being bullied or harassed. If you have anxiety issues that prevent you from fulfilling this role, deputize a trustworthy GM and give them full executive power to handle these disputes.
Common Conflicts and Resolutions
- GMs have a LOT to keep track of. Players are responsible for understanding their Powers and the Game’s rules. Any challenge to the GM’s rulings must happen immediately. If a Player discovers a mechanic or waits until after a Contract to bring up an issue, their issue has passed its statute of limitations. The GM’s ruling stands.
- For example: A GM runs a Contract where the Contractors assassinate the president of the United States, but in your setting, the president should have god-like powers or protections. Another example: a GM runs a Contract where Santa Claus doles out powerful Artifacts to the Contractors, but you are running a serious, oppressive, hardboiled setting where that is wholly inappropriate.
- Avoid Voiding completed Contracts, if possible. It’s easy to rule that the events of a Contract took place in a parallel dimension. The other option is to levee consequences for the Contractors that participated. Perhaps the Artifacts Santa handed out are more sinister than they originally appeared. . .