Character-building and Storytelling in a One-shot world

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.

Overview

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 Game (episodic and self-contained)
  • The story of the Harbinger (often a mystery, told in pieces over a series of Games)
  • The story of the world (The world not static, and is itself a character. How do the events of the Games 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.

Contractor Stories

These are the stories of each Contractor, their experience in the Games, 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 the Games 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 Characters outside of Games? 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 Characters to have interesting over-arching stories. Scenarios provide neat-prepackaged adventures, but Players that want more out of their Characters 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.

Games are Story Seeds

Even if Games 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

These are all coming soon. Experience and Gift rewards will be offered for writing in-character journals about what events have occurred during a Game or during a Downtime. These Journals help immensely.

Character Building Exercises are similar, offering rewards for completing questionnaires about a Character, crafting a soundtrack for them, etc.

They are a high priority to implement.

The story of the World

Contractors risk their lives for a chance to change the world. Let them.

Each Cell has its own setting. That allows each group of Players to have a real impact on the world, 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 of the Games also affect that setting. World Events (coming soon) are a way for GMs to describe how the events of a Game have affected the world. 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 world into a unique, living product of many creative minds.

The story of the Games

Games 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 world, 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 in Games.

Games also need not be entirely self-contained. Harbingers are recurring Characters, and they may invite Contractors on multiple Games that follow situations that evolve over months and years. The biggest restriction here is that these Games, generally, may have any amount of time pass between them. However, this does not preclude any longer story from being told through Games. See also the More On Games article's section on Cycles and Mini Campaigns for ways to bend even that restriction.

The Story of Harbingers

Harbingers have their own mysteries. The conversations they have with Contractors and the events of their Games can offer glimpses and clues. They have their own goals, and the Games they run almost always bring them closer to achieving those goals. Rival Harbingers may run Games 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.