Play in The Contract is split into two main phases: Games and Downtimes.
Games are the Harbingers' deadly missions. They act as the primary unit of play in The Contract. In order to play a Game, you need one GM and at least two Players.
The GM declares whether the Game is intended for Contractors that are Novice (0-10 Game) or Seasoned (11+ Games), and the Players select which of their Contractors to bring.
The GM runs a Scenario where the Players' chosen Contractors are approached by a Harbinger (or one of their messengers), invited to participate in a Game, briefed on their objective, and set loose to accomplish their task. At the end of the Game, the GM declares which of the surviving Contractors succeeded and which ones failed. All participants, including the GM, are rewarded in some way.
Ideally, Games are concluded in one play session, but they may be split into multiple sessions if needed. While a Game is active, Players cannot change their Contractors, and the GM cannot rotate with another GM.
Participation in a Game is always voluntary for both Players and Contractors. However, once a Contractor accepts the Harbinger's invite, they may be locked in.
Scenarios are resources GMs use to run Games. They outline the details of the Harbingers' missions. If Games were musical performances, Scenarios would be the sheet music.
Scenarios are extremely varied, ranging from simple suburban monster hunts to artifact heists to open-ended mysteries. They may involve naturally-occurring events or situations contrived by the Harbinger. The only things they must have in common are:
- All Scenarios must be dangerous.
- All Scenarios can be won or lost.
- A Scenario cannot make the death of a Contractor a requirement for victory.
How do I get Scenarios?
The Contract currently offers several free stock Scenarios to get new GMs started. The Getting Started guide explains how to access them.
Every time you play a Game of The Contract, the Scenario is revealed to you and added to your Scenario Gallery. Not only can you view the Scenario's full write-up, you also gain access to any notes from GMs who have previously run it, as well as Journals written by the Contractors who participated.
Write your own
The Contract provides an extensive guide to writing your own Scenarios.
Gifts, Improvements, and Charon Coins
Gifts are the greatest prize of the Games. Gifts awaken a Contractor's Powers, either by granting a new Power or improving an existing one. They can only be obtained by claiming victory in one of the Harbingers' Games.
Improvements are like Gifts, but they can only be used to improve existing Powers. They are awarded to Contractors for Writing in their Journals.
To prevent risk-free Advancement, Contractors are limited to a number of Improvements equal to half their number of Gifts.
Incentives for dying
No one likes to lose a Contractor, and The Contract provides several features that make it easy to find play groups that match your personal preferences for how deadly you'd like your Games to be.
That said, there are several incentives in place designed to ensure that when a Contractor's mistakes earn them a death, GMs will follow through and make the kill.
When a GM runs a Game that achieves the Golden Ratio (at least one Contractor died and at least one claimed Victory), they are awarded with an Improvement to spend on any of their Contractors.
If a Contractor dies on a Game, their Player is granted a Charon Coin. This Coin can be spent to create a new Character that starts with a single Gift.
When a Contractor accepts their first invitation to participate in a Game, they are Imbued by the sponsoring Harbinger. Imbuing alters how Contractors learn, allowing them to develop their abilities at an incredible rate, but only after participating in a Game. If they do not participate in Games, they will stagnate, regardless of their efforts.
This Game-empowered learning is represented by Experience Points that are rewarded at the end of a Game: 2 for failure and 4 for victory. The GM always earns 4 Experience, which they can grant to one of their Contractors.
Imbuing also grants Contractors a peculiar resilience to the often horrific events of the Games. They are highly receptive to therapy of all sorts, and can "cure" any of their Traumas by spending 3 Experience.
Later sections of the Guide go into more detail about how Experience and Gifts can be spent.
One month of in-game time passes between Games. This is called Downtime.
During a downtime, Contractors engage in many activities that do not require roleplay such as tending their wounds or honing their skills (by training and spending Experience).
They are also free to take initiative and do anything they'd like. This includes but is not limited to: pursuing their goals, dealing with law enforcement, doubling back to the scene of a Game to take care of unfinished business, and tracking down other Contractors to trade with (or murder).
Any roleplay that occurs outside of a Game is called a Side Game.
Unlike the Harbingers' Games, Side Games do not have any predefined structure. No Experience, Gifts, or Improvements can be awarded to any of the participants. They do not need to be recorded or tracked. Simple conversations between Contractors may not even require a GM, but any time Dice are to be rolled, a GM should be present. Some Downtime actions, such as assaulting a government agency or running for President, may require substantial GM prep and/or many Side Games to resolve.
Newer Contractors see most of their play in Games, but Side Games become extremely important for Seasoned Contractors as they make moves and fend off the enemies they've made on their rise to power.
Occasionally, a Contractor will finish a Game in a position that requires a Side Game to resolve. Being arrested is a common example. In these cases, the GM may declare that the Character in question is "locked" and cannot perform other Downtime activities until a Side Game is completed.