No, you don't have to read this entire book to learn how to run The Contract.
This GameMaster's Manual is actually 6 separate guides: a How to Start GMing guide, a guide for experienced GM's on The Craft of GMing, instructions on how to write Scenarios, a piece on running Extended Downtimes, and finally some advice on Leading a Playgroup.
If you just want to start Playing, all you have to read is the How to Start GMing guide. You can read the rest of the guides at your leisure.
How to Start GMing
This guide explains the role of the GM and lays out the concrete steps you need to take to start GMing The Contract.
GM 101: What is a GM?
The Gamemaster is a storyteller who narrates inspiring establishing shots, mysterious characters, touching moments, and intense action scenes.
They are a coordinator who brings a group of people together to play a game, gets things started, helps new players learn the game, and ensures things are finished in a timely manner.
They are a referee, interested and impartial, who makes calls, settles disputes, and applies rules that turn playing out “what-if” scenarios into a challenging game.
Despite all this, GMing is easier than it sounds. Let's learn the basics.
GMing During the Game
If The Contract was a video game, the players would be holding the controllers, and the GM would be the game’s graphics, engine, and one of the game’s designers.
Instead of rendering graphics to a screen, you render them via narration, like a storyteller. You use concise, evocative descriptions, and you clarify details as they become relevant or as the Players ask for them.
Like a video game’s engine, you enforce the rules of what the Players can and cannot do. You resolve the outcomes of the actions the Contractors take. The Contract’s rules make this process easier for you and more consistent for the Players.
You also act as a game designer, creating some content in real time as the game progresses. You empower Players to think creatively, inventing tactics and getting into situations that weren’t pre-programmed into the game. Most GMs use pre-written Scenarios so they don’t have to come up with everything on the fly.
During gameplay, this takes the form of a back-and-forth between the Players and the GM: GM Rendering -> Player Action -> Resolution -> GM Rendering. This is the core conversation of the game.
The Core Conversation
Players converse with the GM to move the game's action forward. This is the game's core conversation: GM Rendering -> Player Action -> Resolution.
GM Rendering is narrating establishing shots, answering the Players’ questions about the scene, and describing what’s going on.
- As GM, you can establish anything you want, but whatever scene you set should feel like it was supposed to be there, not that you put it there because of your personal needs.
- Remember: you can't un-establish something. Once you spin it into existence, it's there.
Player Action happens when the Players direct their Contractors to actually do something. This can be as simple as entering a new room or as dramatic as tackling someone off a building.
- Players can choose to attempt any action they want. Oftentimes this phase involves a bit of discussion with the Player to clarify their intent and/or understanding of the situation.
Resolution is the out-of-game process of figuring out what happens. In the end, Resolution is up to the GM's discretion, but if can also involve using the game's rules (for example, calling for the Player to roll dice or recording an Injury on their character sheet).
- If the Player's action is innocuous and simple, like ordering food at a restaurant, the GM can simply decide what happens.
- Similarly, if the Player attempts something impossible, like catching hold of a jet as it passes by, the GM may declare the action a failure without calling for a roll or referencing the Contractor’s character sheet.
We then return to GM Rendering. You describe what happens and how the situation changes in response to the character’s action, then they act again, and so on.
That’s really all there is to it.
Sometimes the scope of the action is large: traveling to Paris or performing an investigation. Sometimes it’s small: pulling their scarf up to hide their face or stomping the fingers of the person clutching to the cliff. As the GM, you guide the scope of the conversation, summarizing the boring bits and moving things along to the good parts like a novelist.
Let's look at an example.
Here’s an example scene with one Player and a GM. GM Rendering is highlighted in blue, Player Action is highlighted in green, and Resolution is in salmon. Notice how natural and conversational each phase can be and how Resolution for most actions is performed silently by the GM using their discretion.
GM: You burst from the roadhouse into the dry, desert sun. The roar of a Harley motor splits your ears, and you see Jimmy peeling out of the parking lot.
Player: Do I see the amulet?
GM: Yes. You see him clutching a golden chain in his throttle hand.
Player: How far away is he? Can I catch him?
GM: He’s about 50 feet away and speeding up. Unless you have a Gift that’ll help, you need a car. But alas, you took a taxi to the Contract today, didn’t you?
Player: I shout “get back here you son of a bitch!”
GM: If he heard you, he makes no sign. He speeds down the highway on his chopper. The sound of the motor fades into the distance.
Player: Alright. What else is in the parking lot?
GM: You look around the sun-baked lot. It’s mostly empty, but there’s a few cars. You see a big semi-truck parked off to the side, alongside an old 1980s Ford truck, a Honda Civic, and a minivan. A couple of college-aged men are exiting a Dodge Challenger and heading toward the roadhouse.
Player: If I broke into one of these cars, could I hotwire it?
GM: What’s your Intellect + Technology?
Player: Two. I don’t have any points in Technology.
GM: What about Drive?
Player: I have two in Drive. So two in Intellect and two in Drive would be a total of four dice.
GM: You could try, but it would be at a higher Difficulty.
Player: Okay. Here’s what I’m going to do. I jog up to the guys heading into the roadhouse and get their attention. “Hey! Excuse me?”
GM: They’re both wearing polo shirts. The passenger has shades and the driver’s got a baseball cap that says “white girl wasted.” They stop as you run up. “Yeah? What’s up?”
Player: Okay. Once I’m up near them, I reach into my coat and pull out my Desert Eagle .45, point it right at the guy’s stupid hat and say, “Freeze right there. Don’t move a damn muscle.”
GM: They freeze.
Player: “Toss your keys over to me.”
GM: The guy with the hat reaches a trembling hand into his pocket, pulls out the keys, and tosses them onto the ground. “Yeah, man. Of course. Just chill.”
Player: “I’m chill. Are you chill?”
GM: “I’m chill,” they say, both clearly terrified.
Player: I reach down and pick up the keys, keeping my gun trained on the guy.
GM: Yup. They don’t try to stop you.
Player: Cool. I’m going to walk backwards to the Challenger, hop in, and start it up, keeping my gun on them.
GM: Sure. They’ve still got their hands up.
Player: Great. I start the car, and peel out the parking lot down the highway, heading the same direction that Jimmy did.
GM: Sounds good. Go ahead and roll Perception + Alertness.
Player: Difficulty 6?
Player: I got an Outcome of four. That's a complete success.
GM: As you drive away, you see one of them pull out their phone and make a call.
Player: Shit. That’s the cops. I probably should have taken those too.
This GM did a great job of administering the game. They kept the action moving, minimized discussions about mechanics, and maintained the Player's agency.
Keep the ball on the Player's side of the court
Instead of a minute-long description of the parking lot, the GM offered a concise description and filled in the details as the Player "looked around." They resolved most of the Player's actions silently and immediately. Finally, they involved mechanics only when necessary.
Every second spent on mechanics is a second lost. The story isn't moving forward, the Players aren't solving problems, and they aren't roleplaying their characters.
Waiting for the GM to resolve an action or describe a scene feels like input lag in a video game. Minimizing that delay engages Players by giving them agency.
Players need the freedom to act and make choices. Making decisions and dealing with the consequences IS the gameplay of The Contract.
The Players will chose to do things you haven't anticipated, and you should let them. The story may veer off in an entirely unexpected direction, and that's great! The Players aren't a passive audience. You must let the Players' choices guide the action.
In our example, the Player considered multiple tactics before chosing one. It was hardly the only way to get what they wanted. They could have bribed the kids, called another taxi, checked the cars to see if any of them had their keys hidden in the sun visor, or gone back into the roadhouse and pickpocked someone.
Not all strategies are created equal. Some are riskier or more effective than others. In this case, the tactic the Player chose (to steal a car) wasn’t that bad. Yes, they will be pursued by the police, but they wasted little time.
If the Player had taken the kids’ phones, they would have simply gone into the roadhouse and called the police, and the Player would be holding two tracking devices. To steal the car and prevent police involvement, they would have had to either steal the keys in secret, or kidnap the college kids.
Kidnapping would have been risky. For one, it is a more serious crime and demands a larger response if discovered. Furthermore, how could the Player restrain the kids without giving them a chance to break free? And even if they did succeed, it would take a long time, and there’s no guarantee someone in the roadhouse wouldn’t notice and call the police themselves.
Searching the cars in the parking lot or trying to hotwire a car might have worked, but a failure would have cost them a lot of time. Can they track Jimmy? Do they know exactly where they’re headed? Calling a taxi would be giving up the chase.
A big part of GMing is considering the impact of the Players’ tactics. As you can see, each choice can change the situation drastically.
Help the Players
Usually, the GM knows more about the rules than the Players. That’s okay. The gameplay of The Contract is the roleplay, the creativity, and the outside-the-box problem solving. None of this requires a Player to master the rules.
Allow new Players to learn as they play. If a Player is confused about a rule, you should take a moment to teach them. During Combat, you should help Players understand what mechanical options are available to them. At all other times, you should be generous when translating the Players’ intentions into rules.
Master of Ceremonies
As GM, you are the master of ceremonies for that Session. You organize the session, make the out-of-game rules, and have the power to resolve conflicts.
This means that you determine whether the group should start playing or wait for that Player who is running late. If the Contractors split up during the Contract, you determine which scene has focus. You determine when the Contract is over and when the session ends.
It is up to the GM to ensure that the Contract resolves in a single session. This is exremely important in The Contract, and you can read more about the why and how in the Craft of GMing guide.
If there is a conflict between Players, you have the power to ask someone to leave the table. Most of the time, interpersonal conflicts resolve themselves without GM involvement. However, if a Player is being distracting, acting inappropriate, or making people uncomfortable and no one else is addressing it, you should.
Remember, you are not obligated to GM for a Player you don’t want to GM for. There's no character lock-in in the Contract. If a Player stops getting invited to game night, all it means is that the Harbingers have stopped inviting that Contractor for some mysterious reason.
GMing for a New Group
Form a Playgroup
Before you run your group’s first Contract, you need to form a Playgroup.
Decide where to set your Playgroup's setting. We recommend centering your Playgroup’s setting around a particular city or town that is familiar to your group. All Contractors should live in that area and have some connection to it.
If you need Players, reach out to friends, distribute flyers in game stores, or make LFG posts online. Three to four Players is an ideal number for any Contract, and four Players is best for new groups (in case someone drops, you will still have three).
Finally, create a Playgroup on the website. Making a Playgroup set in the default setting of The Illumination is incredibly simple. Just fill out the form here.
Select a Scenario
First, you must select a Scenario to run. The Scenarios section in the Player’s Guide explains how to access the free Stock Scenarios that come with the game.
Select a Newbie-friendly Contract. Bobasaurus, Mushroom Hunt, and Passing the Hours are all good choices.
Next, read your Scenario top to bottom. Form clear mental images of the Scenario’s settings, set-pieces, events, and NPCs. Consider what it will be like for the Contractors, what choices they might make, and how the action could go delightfully off the rails.
This mental exercise is known as “prep.” Forming a complete mental picture of the Scenario ahead of time makes it much easier to run. Instead of trying to figure out what is happening at game time, you can focus on reacting to the Players' choices.
Ideally, you should do this the day before your session.
If your Playgroup is centered around a particular location, consider whether the Scenario can be adjusted to take place in that area. Some Scenarios depend on their setting, but others work just as well set in any city, any suburb, any forest, etc.
Even though Contracts normally resolve in a single Session, if all of your Players are new (and especially if you are also new), it is best to schedule a Session Zero to get everything set up beforehand.
During Session Zero, you will help the Players learn the basics of the game, create Contractors, and do initial Contractor introductions.
Specifically, you should:
- Help your Players register for the website.
- Invite your Players to join the Playgroup you created in Form a Playgroup.
- Describe the overall premise, setting, and structure of the game.
- Help your Players create their Contractors.
- Run each new Contractor’s initial introduction.
If you would rather not schedule a Session Zero, you can also just schedule a normal Session and complete all of these activities one-on-one with each Player beforehand. None of the Session Zero activities require any communication or collaboration between the Players, so you can simply reach out to each Player individually a day or two before the session and guide them through the steps at their own pace.
Run the Contract
Schedule a Session to run the Contract. Inform your Players that it will last about 4 hours, and make sure as many Players as possible have completed the Session Zero activities before the scheduled start time.
On the website, you can schedule an upcoming Contract via the Schedule Contract page. This allows you to send invitations to Players, and, in Playgroups with more private permissions, allows you to read RSVPed Character Sheets before the Contract begins. As you start GMing, press the “Start Contract” button at the top of the scheduled Contract to start the session, and be sure to hit the “Finish Contract” button at the end so you can specify which Contractors won, lost, or died.
You can also forgo the above process, simply play the Contract, and afterwards record it as a completed Contract. Either way will grant the proper rewards, mark the Scenario as spoiled for the Players, and give you credit for GMing it.
After GMing a couple times, you should read The Craft of GMing guide for advanced guidance.
GMing for an Established Group
The sequence of running a Contract is often a little different for established groups.
Scheduling a Session and selecting a Scenario often occur in tandem. Because Players can’t play in Scenarios they are spoiled on, you may have to invite someone to play as an NPC Ringer or change which Scenario you are going to run. The website makes it clear to both Players and the GM who is spoiled on which Scenarios.
You do not need to run a Session Zero with an established group, but you should read all of their Character Sheets ahead of time to make sure you have a basic familiarity with the Contractors and their Gifts. While pre-reading character sheets, make sure that none of the Contractors have disruptive character concepts, mechanical issues, or broken Gifts.
Please note: it is EXTREMELY poor form to deny a Contractor’s attendance because they are too well-suited for the Scenario you are planning to run. Likewise, you should not change the Scenario if the Contractors are doomed to be eaten by zombies because their group is comprised entirely of blind folk singers and children. Remember: the Contracts are tests, and while all character concepts are possible, not all of them are viable.
Introductions should be kept as short as possible for experienced Contractors. If most of the Contractors have been in at least one Contract, you should have time to run initial introductions for any brand new Contractors.
Introductions are the phase of the game where the Harbinger approaches each Contractor and offers them the titular Contract: Will they risk their 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.
Unless you're running for a group of brand new Players, make it a goal to introduce, gather, and brief all Contractors within one real-life hour. Quicker is usually better.
Scenarios usually provide specific guidance on how to gather and brief the Contractors for that particular Contract.
Introductions For Brand New Contractors
While Introductions for experienced Contractors are quick and minimal, a Contractor’s first introduction should be more substantial.
This is a life-changing moment for the character, and it should have the appropriate gravitas. 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 Contractor to idea of the supernatural, they are 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 it is kinda tempting, isn't it?
If don't want to invent your own Harbinger, try using The Talent.
The Contract burns through one Scenario per session.
To continue playing after you’ve exhausted the Stock Scenarios, you have to either discover Scenarios playing online or come up with your own. If you’re properly rotating the role of the GM, you’ll only need to write one every 3-6 times you play.
You aren’t required to write up your Scenarios, but it’s a good idea. Writing up a Scenario frees the GM to focus on reacting to the Contractors’ choices, makes it easier to remember what happened on the Contract, and allows you and your Players to run the same Scenario for a different group in the future (which happens more often than you’d think!)
You can write a new Scenario by visiting your Scenario Collection and clicking the Write a New Scenario button. Once you've run your Scenario, you can choose to submit it to the Community Scenario Exchange so you can unlock other user-written Scenarios.
Scenario writeups don’t need to be marketable products with battle maps, reference photos, and pre-written narrative for the GM to read aloud. Sure, those things can help, but a decent GM might find it easier to run a clear, 1000 word outline than a sprawling 5000 word treatise that covers every possible path and nuance.
The value of a Scenario is the thought that went into it.
Scenarios are critical situations with clearly-defined entry points and carefully-worded objectives. They outline dangerous obstacles with open-ended solutions for the Contractors to navigate. And the whole thing is scoped to finish in 4 hours or less.
This guide explains how to turn your inspiration (whether you find it in The Illumination guidebook or somewhere else) into Scenarios that feel good to run and play.
Structure And Rules
In every Contract, a group of Contractors go to a location where something is happening and try to achieve some objective. The Scenario outlines the Contractors’ objective, the resources they receive at the briefing, the situation they’re entering, and some obstacles they’re likely to encounter along the way.
Infinite variations are possible within that structure. The Contractors could be sent into the desert to find a chupacabra. They could go to Vegas to kill the warlord staying in the penthouse of Ceasar’s Palace. Maybe the CIA hires them to do a false-flag operation in Russia, or they’re spirited into someone’s dreams to cure their nightmares.
Contracts are never initiated by Contractors. When Contractors take initiative to raid a tomb, hold a politician hostage, or get rich using their powers, it is a Downtime activity called a Move.
All Scenarios must fit that structure, and all Scenarios must follow these rules:
- Scenarios must be dangerous.
- There should be a possibility of Contractor death in every Contract.
- No Scenario can require a Contractor death for victory.
- Contracts must be completed in one session. Less is more.
- A Scenario’s obstacles never restrict which particular Contractors can attend (beyond any Newbie, any Novice, etc).
- Some Contractors will be completely unsuited for the task at hand, and some may have Gifts that allow them to side-step major obstacles.
- Contractors should be prepared to operate in any situation.
What Makes a Good Scenario?
If you follow the structure and rules in the previous section, you’ll end up with a valid, serviceable Scenario.
To do better than the bare minimum, ask yourself these questions:
- Do the Scenario’s obstacles encourage creative problem-solving?
- No obstacle has a single, pre-defined solution, nor is there one tactic, such as fighting, that will solve all obstacles.
- Is it easy to GM?
- Can anyone who picks up the Scenario run an awesome Contract for their group?
- Does it have that je ne sais quoi?
- Are the set-pieces exciting? Will the Players care about the NPCs? Are the ideas interesting?
That first bullet point is the most elusive. GMs who are new to The Contract tend to over-scope their obstacles, turning them into single-solution puzzles or unavoidable fights.
You must escape the design tendencies ingrained in us by video games, combat-as-sport RPGs, and “fighting for fun” media (like dragonball, power rangers, and marvel movies).
Don’t google riddles, look for fair fights in a monster manual, or spend your energy trying to close off all possible tactics but the one you want the Players to take. Think about obstacles, not solutions.
The situation is where the Scenario takes place and what’s happening there. The Contractors’ starting point (introduction) and ending point (objective) drives them through the situation in a way that presents obstacles they must overcome.
Scenarios can send Contractors anywhere. The Contract could take place in a village in Germany, a Billionaire’s Row skyscraper, the arctic tundra, or even another dimension.
Wherever the Contractors go, there’s something going on. They go to a Victorian mansion that’s haunted, or a science facility that’s doing supernatural experiments, or a death metal concert where the band accidentally summons demons.
Situations come in two forms, static and dynamic.
Static Situations are those where the location is in its status-quo. It’s a routine plane ride, an academic convention, or just another day in the death cult’s orichalcum mine.
In static situations, the Contractors’ objective puts them in conflict with the location’s status quo. For example, they must steal an artifact from the CEO’s office, capture a supernatural creature in its natural habitat, or destroy the illuminati’s parade float, killing all aboard. Guarded, public, or otherwise hazardous areas make the best status quos to disrupt.
The example Scenario Smell No Evil is based around a static situation. The Contractors must bring a monster through airport security and onto an airplane without disrupting the status quo so much that they are attacked or arrested.
Dynamic Situations are ones where the Contractors aren’t the only ones driving the action. For example, the Contract takes place at a museum that is going to be heisted that night, in a warehouse where a big drug deal is going to go down, or at the football game where the nerds enact their revenge plot.
In dynamic situations, the Scenario’s objective can put Contractors in conflict with the status quo and/or any of the other forces at work. Maybe the Contractors have the same objective as a B-team, or they have to maintain order at a play as the theater is attacked by zombies, or they have to perform the spellbook’s ritual in a particular bank vault, but robbers come and take everyone hostage.
Dynamic situations make great Contracts. There’s lots of relevant information for investigative Contractors to uncover, and the group will have to plan both proactively and reactively to succeed. Dynamic elements make it easier for GMs to move the action toward some kind of conclusion, regardless of what the Players choose to do.
Crafting the Objective
The Objective is what the Contractors have to do to achieve victory. This goal shapes how Contractors engage with the situation, and you can throw all sorts of additional requirements and complications in there to increase the difficulty.
For example, the objective “Kill the werewolf chief in Cheeba village” is far easier than “Capture the werewolf chief in Cheeba village” which is easier than “whap all the werewolves in Cheeba Village with a rolled up newspaper without injuring a single one.”
Complications can further adjust the challenge level of the Contract, and can often be added or to the objective to make the Scenario challenging for higher-level Contractors. Common objective complications include:
- A stealth requirement (e.g. “without leaving evidence of supernatural intervention” or “without being filmed” or “without disrupting the county fair’s pie-eating contest”)
- A finesse requirement (e.g. “capture” instead of “kill”, or “without damaging the environment”)
- An additional liability (e.g. escorting a useless/difficult NPC throughout the Contract, or “with one arm tied behind your back”)
- A rivalry (e.g. “a second group will be competing for the same objective”)
- A tight time limit
Objectives are also a great opportunity to forbid certain solutions. For example, if your Scenario could easily be solved by calling the cops, just add “without involving the police” to the objective.
Sometimes newer Scenario-writers try to stir the pot by offering certain Contractors different or conflicting objectives. While such objectives are allowed, they’re extremely difficult to pull off and are rarely as satisfying as you’d hope. Any inter-character conflicts that do arise from conflicting objectives tend to feel forced and unmotivated, and they leave Players with a bad taste in their mouths.
We recommend avoiding Conflicting Objectives until you are very experienced writing Scenarios and then only using them sparingly.
The introduction defines how the Contractors enter the situation. The introduction has a massive impact on how the Scenario plays, how long it lasts, and which challenges face the Contractors.
The introduction section of a typical Scenario writeup is short and simply-put, but they are carefully designed to shape the experience of the Contract.
At a bare minimum, the introduction must communicate the objective of the Scenario to the Contractors. They usually also describe how to gather the Contractors, and sometimes they provide useful information, tools, and/or transportation to the location of the Contract.
In most cases, Contractors learn the Contract’s objective through a letter or a briefing.
A “letter” is any self-contained, read-only message. For example, a physical letter, a text message, a recording that self-destructs, or a ghost that howls some words and then disappears. Letters are easy to GM, and they’re the most expedient way to brief Contractors because they can’t ask questions. They push the Contractors to get together, get on-site, and start working. This is a good thing.
Introductions with letters tend to take between 30 and 45 minutes to complete.
A “briefing” is when the Contractors get to discuss the situation and objective with an NPC. While a good briefing can breathe life into the Harbinger and the Contract, they are more difficult to GM and take longer than letters. Because they take so long, Contractors should always be briefed as a group, never individually.
Introductions with briefings tend to take between 45 and 80 minutes to complete.
Contractors can receive more than just the objective during the introduction. You can give them anything, from a cryptic folk tale to a specialized device that traps ghosts. Information, credentials, transportation, and equipment are the most common resources handed out.
Each resource you give the Contractors allows them to side-step some obstacle in the Scenario. If the Scenario takes place at a high school, it would be helpful to have access to visitor badges and school records. If you give them those credentials during the intro, the Contractors won’t have to solve that particular problem. You’ve changed the Scenario’s starting point.
Not that gaining access to a high school isn’t a good Contract-shaped challenge– especially for Novice Contractors who have a tendency to over-complicate. However, every obstacle takes time, and Contracts are always short on time. If there’s a big supernatural mystery at the school to dig into, you may not want your Players to spend an hour convincing the school they’re the film crew for a new “don’t drink and drive” PSA.
Find the two or three most interesting challenges in your Scenario and give your Contractors the resources they need to get to those challenges. Pay attention to the types of obstacles you’re bypassing. High-quality obstacles are key.
You want to select a starting point and an objective that places several obstacles between the two. An obstacle could be a towering cliff the Contractors have to pass, needing to get a favor from an NPC, obtaining critical information, having to secure vehicle-speed transportation in a pinch, hostile forces, or simply a door the Contractors are terrified to open.
Each significant obstacle takes about 35-55 minutes to solve.
You want the Contractors to encounter 2 or 3 significant obstacles on a Contract. More than that, and the session will run long. Fewer, and the Contract may feel like an easy win, but that’s okay. You should always err on the side of fewer obstacles.
You can never know which obstacles the Contractors will actually face. They may use Gifts to bypass one, encounter another you didn’t anticipate, and even bring some of their own (in-fighting, Gift Drawbacks, etc). If you write the Scenario with 2 or 3 obstacles, things will turn out fine.
Obstacles to Avoid
Puzzles, arenas, and gumshoes are all obstacles with a single, predetermined solution. Such obstacles preclude creative, outside-the-box problem solving, which is where the game shines.
Riddles, passwords, and arranging runes to open the door are classic examples of puzzles. An arena is any situation where the Contractors absolutely must fight an opponent to continue. An investigation turns into a gumshoe when the Contractors must find a particular clue to continue the Contract.
Obstacles can present as puzzles without being puzzles. For instance, if there is some sort of Legend of Zelda switch puzzle to open a door, but a Contractor could also turn into a swarm of rats, bypass the door, and open it from the other side. If you are open to other ways to bypass the obstacle besides solving the puzzle, Contractors still get to think creatively.
Let them cheat.
Similarly, setting hostile monsters or armed guards into a situation doesn’t make it an arena. The Contractors may instead sneak around, run away, convince them to let them by, or get them to fight each other. It only becomes an arena when the Contractors have to fight to continue.
Let them run.
Finally, people often fall into the trap of writing gumshoe investigations where one clue leads to the next ala Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie novels. Those sorts of planned “a then b then c” investigations do not work well in The Contract. The Contractors usually have a maximum of one lead (meaning they have to go somewhere specific and do something specific). And if they do miss something, they run out of leads entirely, and the Contract stalls out.
Instead, investigations should stem from the unknowns of the situation. What’s going on? Who are the major players in this situation? What are their motivations? What are their plans? What secrets are beneath the surface? What happened here before? How do we get leverage over that person? Who knows what, and how can we control what they learn as the situation progresses?
The stock Scenario Mushroom Hunt has a gumshoe investigation. It is designed to be linear in order to make it easier for brand new GMs and Players. Most Scenarios should not be like that.
Always have an abundance of leads.
Puzzles, Gumshoes, and Arenas should account for no more than 20% of all obstacles faced by Contractors. It’s the Contractors’ job to think of solutions, not yours. That goes double for Seasoned-level Scenarios or higher.
Demand Varied Tactics
It doesn’t matter if every obstacle in your Scenario has ten ways to deal with it; if the same tactic always works, you need to switch it up.
This happens most often with combat. Do not make fighting a solution to every obstacle in your Scenarios. Put fights in there that Contractors can’t win, and set up situations where simple violence makes things more difficult (like a well-populated public area with a police presence or a fancy dinner party). You can also put indestructible, slow-moving monsters in your Scenario and watch what happens.
Obstacles by Status
Newbie Contractors are regular people, and Professional Contractors are closing in on “super” status. They need different obstacles.
Newbie and Novice
- Mandatory obstacles in Newbie Scenarios should be solvable by a grab-bag group of motivated, competent, mundane humans.
- You can’t require them to break out of a maximum security prison, fight multiple police cruisers full of cops, or escape a crashing plane without parachutes.
- Mandatory obstacles in Novice Scenarios should be solvable by the perfect group of motivated, competent mundane humans.
- Fighting multiple cars of cops is back on the menu, but facing a fully-equipped swat team is still out. Classic heists are appropriate, as are specialized espionage tasks.
Low-level Gifts have their limits. Newbies and Novices cannot (generally): fly, cheat death, operate effectively at ranges over 300 feet, brainwash someone, pass through walls, impersonate specific people, blind or disable a large group, summon an army, or investigate something thoroughly without being physically present.
Seasoned and Professional
- Mandatory obstacles in Seasoned Scenarios do not need to be solvable by even the perfect group of mundane humans.
- You can lock the Contractors in a cage without any door, attack them with aliens who can only be pacified with diplomacy but don’t speak any human language, or start the Contract by putting them in a crashing plane with a single parachute.
- Professionals can handle additional complications in their objectives, more obstacles, and bigger obstacles.
Seasoned Contractors may have access to the Gift effects that are listed as unavailable to Newbies and Novices above. Professional Contractors will have several such capabilities.
At Seasoned Status and higher, the Scenario-writer doesn’t have to consider specific ways the obstacles could be solved. You can just throw crazy, difficult situations at the Contractors and see what they come up with.
To ensure fights aren’t too difficult, keep them open to multiple approaches. For example, ask them to find and destroy the enemy’s tanks, not face them in arena combat.
- Veterans are terrifying operatives of incredible power and resources. They can operate on superhero-scale events and obstacles, but don’t expect them to act like superheroes in the slightest.
Veterans are subtle, calculating, and decisive. Expect them to learn any enemy’s secrets, weaknesses, plans, desires, and history. They may transport themselves and use Gifts from great distances. They can call in powerful favors and take control of large groups. They are likely to create a well-informed plan and execute it with laser-like precision and incredible strength.
Hopefully if you’ve read this far, you’ve noticed that we think about Scenarios in terms of situations and obstacles, not dungeon rooms and encounters. That is to say, we aren’t looking to set up fair, evenly-matched fights for Contractors.
Instead, we assign stats based on what the being in question would have. This allows Contractors to judge most fights and adapt their tactics accordingly.
If the police get called on some Contractors– depending on where they were and what they were doing– somewhere between 0 and 15 cops might show up. For Newbie Contractors, a single cop may be an easy fight, but 15 cops is certain death. Newbies, being normal people, shouldn’t expect to get into a shootout with a dozen trained police officers and survive.
Similarly, if you put an animated bronze statue with a sword in front of the Contractors, GMs are well within their rights to slaughter any idiot that tries to go toe to toe with it in melee combat. You’d have to be a fool to expect a sword or a pistol or a can of gas to damage it at all.
Turn off the video game logic. Get real.
This doesn’t mean that all stats need to be obvious or intuitive. A possessed little girl might have superhuman strength. That roaring dragon could be a fragile illusion. Assign stats based on the truth of the situation, and leave it up to the Contractors to learn the truth of the situation.
Also be sure to check out the bestiary for inspiration and canned stats for a selection of creatures.
Stats for Humans
NPCs don’t need full character sheets. Character sheets are for Players. Don’t hand six NPC character sheets to a GM and say “good luck.” It’s too much.
Instead, you can leave it up to the GM to assign stats at game time or list out a basic stat block.
A basic stat block for an NPC MMA fighter might look like:
Initiative: 7 dice
Unarmed attack: 8 dice, -1 Damage
Penalties reduced by 2
If some other stats become relevant, the GM can assign them at game time.
It’s easy to assign stats to people. A rating of 2 is average for all Attributes, and 5 is world-class. If they have some experience or training, they may have points in a few Abilities.
Let’s put together a basic cop as an exercise.
The police have some physical training requirements, so their Dexterity, Perception and Brawn will probably average around 2-3 with a truly outstanding cop maybe having an Attribute at 4. For Abilities, they all probably have about 2-3 ranks in Firearms and 1-2 ranks in Drive. I’d assume some level of athleticism, and maybe a spattering of other abilities here and there, depending on the cop.
Then they’ve got a field pistol (+2 Damage), a bullet proof vest (2 Armor), hand-cuffs, and some other basic tools.
Done. You can just as easily build a surgeon, a gangster, an olympic athlete, a bouncer, or a government-trained assassin.
Stats for Animals
Mundane animals (and equivalent) have the following stats:
- Tiny (smaller than a mouse) Body 0 (dies if any damage is taken). Brawn 0. Dexterity 1. Cannot attack. Cannot die from falling damage. Almost impossible to notice.
- Small (mouse up to regular house cat) Body 1. Brawn 0. Dexterity 4. Cannot injure others with attacks. Cannot die from falling damage. +3 dice to Stealth rolls.
- Medium (large house cat up to human) Body 3. Brawn 1. Dexterity 3. Fall damage reduced by 1.
- Large (larger than human, smaller than elephant) Body: 8. Brawn 6. Dexterity 2. Fall damage increased by 2. Armor: 1
- Giant (elephant or larger) Body: 11. Brawn: 9. Dexterity 1. Fall damage increased by 4. Armor: 3
All creatures get +3 dice to any non-combat Action that they are naturally adapted for. All creatures Medium and larger may attack by rolling Body, dealing +0 Damage (+1 for “predators”). Gms and Playgroup leaders can apply other bonuses and effects to specific animals.
Animals that are quicker than humans (like dogs) have 50 feet of Free Movement. Animals that are very slow (like turtles) have 0 feet of Free Movement.
Stats for Other Beings
For most kinds of fleshy creatures (dinosaurs, rats with human faces, zombies), you can use the guidelines for humans and animals above. For alien beings, golems, kaiju, and similar, you have to consider whether or not a standard stat block would be relevant.
Ginormous creatures like Godzilla should be treated less like characters and more like environmental effects. They do not need Body ratings, and they sure as hell don’t suffer Injuries and Battle Scars the same as near-human-scale creatures. Similarly, their giant brains are likely resilient to mind-control effects.
For object-like beings, make them as difficult to destroy as a representative object. For extremely durable objects like floating steel cubes, don’t assign Body ratings and track Injuries. Instead, offer guidance on what a Contractor would have to do to destroy it (use a shaped charge, push it into a pool of molten lava, drop a stack of shipping containers on it, etc).
NPC Special Abilities
Scenario writers can give NPCs any sorts of supernatural abilities they want. They do not need to use the Gift system. They do not need to be gathered from any source book or list.
You can borrow systems from the Gift Builder, of course. But you are by no means limited to it. Gift costs and Status restrictions are not useful balance benchmarks for NPCs.
Sometimes Gift systems are unnecessarily complicated for NPCs. For example, the Effect Mark has all sorts of limits on mark quantities, discoverability, ranges, durations, etc. Instead of giving your bloodthirsty monster a Mark Power, just say, “The monster has an intuitive understanding of the direction and distance to any being it has injured.”
Isn’t that easy?
Stick to conventions and keep things feeling “fair.” Mental/emotional control effects should allow Mind resistance rolls. Poisons and metamorphism attacks should allow Body resistance rolls. Most Scenario writers are pretty good at this.
A pitfall some Scenario writers fall into is making systems too videogame-y. Don’t have “stacking bonuses” or highly-mechanical effects that grant conditional difficulty modifiers or health levels, or stat-based crap like that. The most interesting effects are the ones that DO things, not the ones that move numbers around.
This may not feel like enough guidance, but I assure you, it is. Don’t be afraid to come up with some custom powers for the unicorn in your Scenario. Give it a shot!
Equipment is a different story because clever Contractors might obtain it. For equipment guidance, refer to the Creating Trophies section of the rulebook.
Boss fights in The Contract feel different than they do in most video game RPGs and heroic TTRPGs. This is not the venue for a pool-noodle fight with some resource management thrown in.
The vast majority of Scenarios shouldn’t have “bosses.” But they fit in some situations, and lots of people love them.
Bosses in The Contract should be dangerous. They should roll between 8 and 14 dice to attack and deal +2 to +5 Damage. This is enough to kill most Contractors in one or two hits. Don’t get hit.
Bosses should not be big sacks of health points. Body ratings should be somewhere between 7 and 11. Higher Body ratings essentially equate to the number of Injuries required to take down the enemy, and only the Severity of the worst Injury actually matters. That doesn’t feel great in a long fight.
Use Armor, Barriers, and extra Reactions to increase the durability of your bosses. Give them holograms, minions, or a resurrection mechanic to make the fight more intense.
Consider using a boss that requires clever use of the environment to defeat.
At this point, you know everything you need to write Scenarios. Now let’s look at some classic Scenario elements you can draw on when creating your own.
Classic obstacles and situations
- Bug Hunt
- 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.
- 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 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.
- Organized Events
- The Contractors visit a tournament, a convention of wizards, or daily life at a mental institution for the criminally insane.
- Organized events place Contractors into highly-structured situations with a powerful status quo. Contractors must break the rules, and if they get caught, the shit hits the fan.
- The Stock Scenarios Smell No Evil and The Weirding Planes of Poldok feature organized events.
- Obstacle Course
- Simple and often brutal, obstacle courses send the Contractors through a series of traps, movement challenges, and physical barriers on their way to their goal.
- Obstacle courses shine when the Scenario writer avoids puzzles and adds additional complications. A classic Professional Scenario asks the Contractors to escort 100 stupid-yet-dangerous zombies through an obstacle course without more than 10 dying.
- Escort Mission
- Escort missions can be excellent if you keep it from becoming a series of pitched arena fights. Escort missions work best when the Contractors can proactively prepare and investigate the threats at hand.
- Note that any clever group will prevent whoever they’re escorting from going about their planned schedule. If you don’t want your Contractors to kidnap the subject for their safety, craft the objective so they can’t.
- Inventory Denial
- From a TSA scanner at the airport to being teleported into a critical situation completely naked, inventory denial can take many forms.
- Access to equipment is not guaranteed on Contracts, and most Contractors will develop some way to hide, smuggle, or create their critical equipment as needed.
- A friendly NPC is set to betray the Contractors, and if they do not anticipate it, they are caught in a deadly situation.
- 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.
- Cat and Mouse
- Not all enemies are simple mooks. A cat and mouse situation involves a dangerous, clever opponent who may discover what the Contractors are up to and try to stop them. These opponents investigate the Contractors, find ways to turn them against each other, mislead them, or sabotage their efforts.
- Cat and Mouse antagonists work well when they have abilities that allow them to kill isolated Contractors easily but would stand no chance facing more than one opponent at a time. Think multi-round contested attacks that disable their target but are interrupted if they take damage.
- There’s two types of Players: ones who only know how to walk up to NPCs and ask them what they know, and ones who know that sometimes you gotta go harder. Sometimes, you have to show your powers and pretend to be a fairy godmother, or blackmail someone, or torture someone to get the info you need. Those who limit themselves to “easy” info can be punished.
- Awesome set pieces
- A giant metal waste grinder, a room where some areas have inverted gravity, etc.
- Cool settings
- Obstacles are more fun if they’re happening on the Golden Gate Bridge or NYC’s Central Park, in the California redwoods, or at the top of the Las Vegas Stratosphere.
Trophies are noteworthy—usually supernatural—items that can be acquired by Contractors on Contracts and Moves. They can be anything from body parts of monsters to super-tech to magical tomes.
Like the systems for Scenarios, Conditions, and Circumstances, Trophy systems are not strictly regulated by the rules. Playgroup leaders and GMs may invent any systems appropriate to their setting and/or Scenarios. For this reason, when Contractors visit other Playgroups, Trophies usually don’t travel with them.
This guide is not the alpha and omega of Trophy creation. It is a starting point and a balance benchmark, with a little inspiration sprinkled in.
How Many Trophies?
The Contract is not a loot-gathering game. Trophies are not obligatory and are not an integral part of Contractor progression. They are not found in forgotten treasure chests or on the bodies of throwaway bad-guys. They should be rare, only appear where they make sense, and should never be handed out for free.
As a guideline, Scenario-writers should include a maximum of one noteworthy Trophy per Contractor per Contract.
Different Playgroup settings demand different trophies. For example, a fantasy setting where healing potions are available in the store could lead to an abundance of healing potion Trophies.
An abundance of certain types of Trophies has a minimal effect on overall game balance, as Contractors will naturally avoid spending their Gifts on Effects that are available elsewhere. Just be aware that said Contractors will feel those blind spots if they visit another Playgroup where Trophies with those Effects are less common.
Trophies are a great opportunity to introduce effects that aren’t generally achievable in the Gift System. Things like a rod that you can “anchor” to any particular point in space (relative to the planet), a portal gun, or a body-swap machine can make really fun additions.
For more generic Trophies, use these guidelines for each Contractor status.
Newbie or higher Contracts
- Source / Exertion battery (1-3 uses, not rechargeable)
- A 1-2 Gift Newbie Consumable
- Rare mundane items (restricted drugs, infantry explosives)
- +3 Damage weapon or ammo with 1-5 uses
- A healing potion (Reduces one Injury’s Severity by 2 and Properly Stabilizes)
- +1-2 dice for the Device’s intended use (+1-2 Damage for weapons)
- Cannot be destroyed
- 3 Armor protection that is not obvious
- Grants a passive bonus from the Augment Effect when worn
Novice or higher Contracts
- An Effect like a 1-2 Gift Seasoned Consumable
- +4-5 Damage weapon or ammo with 1-5 uses
- A healing potion (Reduces one Injury’s Severity by 2 and Properly Stabilizes)
- Reusable Source / Exertion battery with 1 capacity.
- +3 dice for the Device’s intended use (+3 Damage for weapons)
- 4 Armor protection
- Grants a reusable/passive Effect equivalent to 1-4 artifact crafting Gifts
- A rare vehicle (plane, military humvee, helicopter)
Seasoned or higher Contracts
- An Consumable that lets you travel to a predefined location at will (get out of jail free).
- Weapon of large-scale destruction (destroy a city block).
- Reusable Source / Exertion battery with 2-3 capacity.
- +4 dice for the device’s intended use (+4 Damage for weapons)
- 5 Armor protection.
Trophies should be more than shiny objects with better stats. They are rarely flawless and often come with odd drawbacks and unusual requirements. The lists below contain drawbacks you can add to your trophies, arranged by flavor.
- The Trophy fuses to your body. It counts as a Battle Scar, and removing it requires either a Heal Battle Scar Effect or surgical removal (the person treating you rolls Intellect + Medicine. Outcome 4+ removes it and grants a Severity-5 Injury. Outcome 3- additionally causes a Major Battle Scar).
- Grants a Trauma: “Unusual Addiction: You must succeed a Self-Control to lend, give away, or leave behind this Trophy”.
- Grants a Condition: Mutated: “each month you possess this Trophy, your physical body is changed in a new or worsening way.”
- Grants a Trauma: “Instinctual: You have a new instinct that compels you to act in a certain way. You must succeed a Self-Control roll to act counter to your new instinct.”
- Special Care Routine: “This Trophy requires some bizarre sustenance or care routine to continue working.”
Black Tech Trophies
- Unreliable: Roll 1d10 when you activate this Trophy. If you roll a 4 or less, the activation fails and the Trophy cannot be used again for one hour.
- Critical failure: Roll 1d10 when you activate this Trophy. If the result is a 1, something goes horribly wrong.
- Pursued: This Trophy gives off a signal that can be sensed by those with specialized equipment. Because of this, it is often targeted to be stolen.
- Recharge time: can only be used once per day.
- Supercharged: When you activate this Trophy, you may supercharge it for an extra +2 Outcome, but it breaks immediately afterwards.
Alien Technology Trophies
- Arcane: Requires time, equipment, and a successful Intellect + Science roll to learn how to use the Trophy or how to craft something useful with it. Trying to use the Trophy without the proper research steps breaks it and has an unintended (potentially dangerous) effect.
- Pursued: This Trophy gives off a signal that can be sensed by those with specialized equipment. Because of this, it is often targeted to be stolen.
Magical or Alchemical Trophies
- Arcane: Requires time, equipment, and a successful Intellect + Occult roll to learn how to use the Trophy or how to craft something useful with it. Trying to use the Trophy without the proper research steps breaks it and has an unintended (potentially dangerous) effect.
- Ritual: Requires a long cast and ritual to activate.
- Blood Price: You must sacrifice a life to activate the Trophy.
- Rare Components: Requires an additional, uncommon ingredient / component to make the Trophy useable.
- Haunted: This Trophy grants a haunt to anyone who uses it.
- Demonic puzzle box: Roll Intellect + Culture, Science, or Occult to solve. On an exceptional success, the box opens to reveal a useful trophy. On anything less, deals a Severity-4 Injury.
- True Faith: This Trophy can only be utilized by someone with true faith in the deity in question.
- Stigmata: Activating this Trophy requires you to take a Severity-1 Injury.
- Evangelist: you must convert someone to the Trophy’s faith once per usage, including an induction ceremony wherein they recognize the deity as a true deity that they worship.
- Reach Beyond Grasp: You must make a Trauma each month you are in possession of this Trophy.
Research: Roll Intellect + Science (or Occult). Outcome determines the quality of the overall product. Anything created with less than a complete success has multiple drawbacks. Difficulty -1 great facilities (a large occult library, an excellent laboratory), -2 with excellent facilities (a large occult library of rare/collectled books, a lab with a research team). No retrying.
Invested Players eventually grow bored of only playing their Contractors during Contracts. For Playgroups with these sorts of Players, The Contract offers structured Downtime elements called Moves and Loose Ends.
Running Moves demands a different style of GMing than running Contracts. Specifically:
- Moves do not have pre-written scenarios
- There are no strict limitations on how dangerous a Move must be.
- There are no strict limitations on how short or long a Move may take to run
- (We do encourage GMs to finish them in one session and split them into multiple Moves if needed).
- There are no strict guidelines on the structure of Moves, invitations, briefings, victory/failure results, etc.
Critically, the actual content of a Move depends entirely on the Contractor's objective, tactics, and how the GM believes those tactics might play out in the setting.
Given their freeform nature, writing Scenario-style content for Moves is almost impossible. It would demand either a Move with a very rigid objective and obstacles (such as a dungeon with treasures) or an extremely detailed flow-chart outlining how all sorts of tactics may play out.
And so GMs must change their style from The Contract's standard "run a Scenario in a single session" and assume a more free-form, reactive GMing approach.
Overall, the GM must judge the risks and rewards of a Move solely by the tactics used by the Contractor and their execution.
Case Study: Making cash with Gifts
The common Move of a Contractor using their Gifts to make money may play out in a wide variety of ways based on the Contractor's tactics. Here are three tactics that lead to Moves with very different content
A Contractor with an Investigate Individual Power that lets them diagnose any disease begins secretly using their Gift to excel in their traditional medical career.
This Move uses a safe, low-risk, low-reward tactic. It may not even require a Hustle, just a conversation with a GM. It would be difficult to justify giving a reward better than the financial Circumstances Comfortable or Wealthy (if the Gm is feeling generous).
On the flip side, it is unlikely to cause any trouble for the Contractor. If they get too flippant with their abilities, a colleague may suspect them of having a "secret weapon" of some sort and cause trouble for them (potentially leading to a Blackmail Loose End).
A Contractor with thievery Gifts steals priceless art from museums and attempts to sell them on the black market.
This Move certainly demands some sort of heist-style Hustle wherein the Contractor steals some art. The Contractor should case a target, come up with a strategy, make rolls, and potentially get caught if their plan stinks or goes sideways. After they steal the art, they can't just sell it on Ebay. They will need some sort of criminal / aristocratic contacts to properly sell the art, and once they do, they will need to launder the money they receive.
Each stage of this plan is filled with risk and demands clever planning and connection-making. Not only does the heist itself carry the risk of being caught, but the more people and organizations are involved, the more opprotunities there are for things to go wrong. Someone else may get caught and rat the Contractor out. An organization may try to screw the Contractor over and steal from them. The owner of the art (if it was on loan to the museum) may send hunters to reclaim it.
The rewards for this tactic are better. The Circumstance Wealthy is pretty much a given if the Contractor pulls it off. The Circumstance Rich would require a well-established criminal organization and regular heists, which would probably require their own set of Moves to establish.
A Contractor with combat-oriented Gifts holds a billionaire's family hostage and demands a massive cash payout.
Clearly this Move is far riskier than the other two. Billionaires are extremely powerful and, (in the Illumination) almost certainly have connections to supernatural entities and powerful organizations. A Hustle should be run for the kidnapping as well as for how the communication with the billionaire and the transfer of funds works out. Even if the Contractor pulls it off, they still have the issue of how to launder the money, and they have made a powerful enemy who will certainly hold a grudge. Truly "getting away with it" may not be possible.
The potential rewards are excellent here. Certainly Wealthy and even Rich if the ransom is in the hundreds of millions.
So is the extra reward worth the risk? Riskier tactics do not necessarily lead to greater rewards. In fact, a Contractor who has a Power that lets them cure cancer could achieve the same rewards as our kidnapper with far less risk by approaching a billionaire with cancer and making an offer they can't refuse.
Using your Gifts to make money
- Potential Rewards: Improving Circumstances relating to wealth.
- Risks or Consequences: Loose ends for exposure, trouble with the law, etc. The higher the Rewards, the larger the risks.
- Hustle: Not required unless the strategy is immediately risky.
Fake your own death and/or steal an identity
- Potential Rewards: Removing Loose Ends such as enemies, debts, or trouble with the law.
- Risks or Consequences: Losing access to current contacts / status / wealth is almost assured, and any link to the Contractor’s past life risks the rewards of this sort of Move.
- Hustle: Required so that the specific details of the identity transfer are established.
Run for office
- Potential Rewards: Fame, Devotees, Contacts, Wealth, or other various beneficial Circumstances
- Risks or Consequences: Making new Enemies, incurring debts and owing favors from shady campaign practices, becoming Illuminated, various other Loose Ends at GMs discretion
- Hustle: This Move cannot be accomplished in a single Hustle since it takes multiple months or even years of in-game time. Some aspects of running for office can be done without a Hustle, but multiple Hustles may be needed before the Move is complete.
Hunting for supernatural treasures or creatures
- Potential Rewards: New Trophies or Conditions relating to your find, or improvement of wealth-related Circumstances if the find is sold.
- Risks or Consequences: Adverse Conditions such as Curses, Loose Ends like enemies or trouble with the law, or immediate physical or mental harm.
- Hustle: Always required.
Participate in a Supernatural Gold Rush
- Potential Rewards: Find agents with connections to the rich and powerful, new Trophies or Conditions.
- Risks or Consequences: Being tracked or targeted by the rich/powerful, dangerous conflict with others at the Gold Rush.
- Hustle: Certainly required. There may or may not be a real supernatural entity/event at the root of the social phenomena.
Form connections with a public figure / aristocrat / org
- Potential Rewards: Circumstances such as Respected Expert, Point of Contact, or Arsenal.
- Risks or Consequences: Exposure and exploitation.
- Hustle: Forming a partnership with a powerful entity demands that the Contractor make themselves more useful alive and free than dead / captured. Remember, powerful individuals have connections to people who will pay well for certain supernatural creatures.
Form a hideout, safe house, or contractor alliance
- Potential Rewards: No specific Conditions or Circumstances. However, forming alliances makes it easier to receive favors or trade with other Contractors, which can be extremely valuable.
- Risks or Consequences: Unless you are running a Playgroup with a particularly hostile setting, most risks will stem from the actions of Contractors.
- Hustle: Not necessary.
Change the World
- Potential Rewards: Shift in the status quo or setting to better align with the Contractor’s ambition or preferred environment.
- Risks or Consequences: Depending on the scale of the change, the risk and requirements for such a move may be extreme. Consider who has a vested interest in the status quo that is being changed, and who those people serve.
- Hustle: Such a move is often the culmination of a large multi-step plot or the result of high-level gifts. A Hustle should be run in any case, if only as a victory lap or a chance to deliver an awesome speech.
- Potential Rewards: Emotional satisfaction
- Risks or Consequences: Beyond the risk inherent to any conflict, exacting revenge is an escalation of a situation. It may reopen old wounds or anger the allies of the individual the Contractor is taking revenge on. New Loose Ends are a real risk.
- Hustle: A hustle should be run wherein the Contractor exacts their revenge. The target may mount some resistance.
Use influence / resources to pressure an organization or individual
- Potential Rewards: Tying up Loose Ends such as enemies, debts, etc.
- Risks or Consequences: if the target does not bow to the pressure, they may apply their own pressure in response. Even a successful Move may strain the Contractor’s status with the institutions they are using.
- Hustle: The response to the Contractor’s order should be run as Hustle.
Securing a database / source of info
- Potential Rewards: Access to a wealth of personal / restricted information.
- Risks or Consequences: Trouble with the law or organization holding the data. Loose ends of being hunted.
- Hustle: A Hustle should always be run. Most truly critical/private information is not accessible via the internet and must be obtained directly at a secure facility.
Running a smear campaign or framing a fellow contractor
- Potential Rewards: Creating Loose Ends or negative Circumstances for the target.
- Risks or Consequences: Retaliation.
- Hustle: Not necessary, but the other Contractors’ Player should be notified and a World Event should be posted.
Getting a special vehicle, explosives, drugs, etc
- Potential Rewards: Trophies and/or rare equipment.
- Risks or Consequences: Trouble with the law, danger with the heist.
- Hustle: A Hustle should always be run. Even if it goes off without a hitch, the same tactics rarely work multiple times; after all, missing items are missed.
Establish a new identity
- Potential Rewards: The Alias Circumstance, potentially other minor related Circumstances like Citizenship or Polyglot.
- Risks or Consequences: You will likely gain new Loose Ends based on how you obtain your new identity. This is generally a less than legal endeavor, so you may run into trouble with law enforcement, or incur some debts to some shady characters. On the other hand, if your identity came through a witness protection style program, you might now have a Dark Secret that needs protecting.
- Hustle: Not always necessary, GMs discretion depending on how risky it would be to obtain the new identity.
Developing a community of supporters
- Potential Rewards: Circumstances such as Devotees, power and influence.
- Risks or Consequences: Exposure and becoming a public figure is almost always required. Furthermore, the Contractor may become a target depending on the nature of their organization.
- Hustle: Not always required, though the Player should have some very specific messaging and also post a World Event.
Example Loose Ends
In debt to the mob
- Cutoff: 3
- Threat Level: Dangerous
- Threat: A Hustle where three buff goons will break into the Contractor’s house, tie them up, torture them, demand repayment, and break their knees if they fail to pay up immediately. If they fail to pay, this Loose End’s Cutoff is reset to 2.
- How to tie up: Pay off the mob, wipe them out completely, or cut ties and change your identity.
Filmed using super-strength
- Cutoff: 2
- Threat Level: Dangerous
- Threat: gain “Gangstalked” Circumstance (stalked by an army of internet Sleuths)
- How to tie up: Address the media and convince them the video is fake or take control of the narrative.
- Cutoff: 1
- Threat Level: Dangerous
- Threat: a Hustle wherein a lone activist or gang will attempt to assassinate the Contractor. The Cutoff resets to 1.
- How to tie up: Cut ties and change your identity, go off-grid and hide, or improve your public perception.
Angered a Witch
- Cutoff: 3
- Threat Level: Deadly
- Threat: The Contractor will gain a curse that causes their living loved ones to appear as horrible, hostile monsters until killed.
- How to tie up: hunt and kill the witch
Known Golden Goose
- Cutoff: 2
- Threat Level: Deadly
- Threat: A hustle wherein the Contractor will be ambushed and kidnapped by a powerful organization that will hold them hostage and force them to produce whatever valuable thing it is they produce.
- How to tie up: convince the world you are a sham, change identity, make an example of those who try to take control of you.
- Cutoff: 5
- Threat Level: Fateful
- Threat: The Contractor succumbs to radiation poisoning.
- How to Tie up: Cure the radiation poisoning using Gifts.
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!
Catch Flies with Honey
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.
Gathering Players and GMs
- 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.
Settling conduct disputes
- 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
Rule discovered after-the-fact
- 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.
A Contract undermines the setting
- 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. . .
The Craft of the GameMaster
This is an advanced guide on GMing for experienced GMs. If you're brand new or you want to learn how to start running The Contract, read the How to Start GMing guide instead.
GMs are the x-factor of tabletop roleplaying games. A great GM can unlock some of the most thrilling and fulfilling experiences possible in any sort of game, but a bad one can turn a session into an intolerable slog.
I have run hundreds of Contracts for hundreds of different Players. I have played and watched hundreds of Contracts run by scores of GMs. After every single one of these sessions, I solicited feedback and chatted with the group to learn what worked and what didn’t.
Now, I've compiled that hard-won wisdom into this guide.
The craft of the GM transcends The Contract. Experienced GMs have already formed their own philosophies and personal styles. The Contract demands a specific style of GMing, and this guide is about that style. Some of its advice will be applicable to other games, some won't.
The goal of this guide is to make you a better GM, but never forget: the best way to get better at GMing is to do it!
Faith and Fidelity
When you GM, you weave an elaborate lie.
Like a storyteller, you present a world that don’t exist. Despite the fact that it's all make-believe, you want the Players to care about the world, the characters that live in it, and the events that transpire there.
This is the start of the lie.
Like a video game designer, you place the Players into this world and allow them to interact with it. However, where video games are limited by their programming and assets, your only limitations are your ability and imagination.
Playing a roleplaying game is like wearing a virtual reality headset. Virtual reality blurs the line between fantasy and truth. You know you’re wearing a headset, but sometimes you might forget and try to lean against a table that doesn’t really exist.
In the same way, your Players may trick themselves into believing that you are a window into this world instead of the one weaving it into existence. They may forget that you have an agenda.
This is the heart of the lie.
Unlike virtual reality, you can’t rely on graphics and sensory tricks to tell your lie. Instead you build faith in the world you create with its fidelity.
If the Players’ characters are running away from a giant slug monster, and they turn a corner to find a kitchen cart with a big container of salt, do the Players think “ah, the GM is throwing us a bone” or do they think, “holy fuck, how lucky!”
Faith hides the god in the machine.
Whether or not you can build that faith depends on the way you present the world to the Players. Namely, does it have fidelity?
Fidelity is consistency and agency. Does the world follow its own rules? Do the Players understand the picture you’re painting? Do they have the capacity to reach out and touch it? If the villain is giving their epic monologue, and a Player’s character interrupts them by making fart sounds, are they going to watch the villain react, or are you going to tell the Player to stop ruining the moment?
When you GM, you’re not telling a story. You are offering an experience. When you break the consistency of the world or undermine Player agency, their faith falters, and the illusion that you are a portal to another world shatters.
Of course it really is a lie. You are opinionated. Every GM has a hidden goal they use to guide the game.
The GM's Goal
When a group of people get together to play a game, everyone has the same goal: have a good time.
In this sort of game, most Players focus on trying to have a good time for themselves, while being cognizant not to ruin the fun of the others. This is totally normal and acceptable.
Meanwhile, the GM is paying attention to the big picture. Their position makes them uniquely suited for ensuring everyone is having a good time. In fact, this is the goal that guides every single decision that the GM makes.
The goal of the GM is to maximize everyone’s enjoyment of the session.
People with poor personal boundaries might interpret the sentence above to mean that the GM should place the Players’ enjoyment over their own. It doesn’t. Your enjoyment as the GM is equally important. You shouldn’t GM if you don’t enjoy it, and you shouldn’t play games with people you don’t like being around.
If everyone is excited, happy, and fulfilled at the end of the Contract, you have succeeded as GM. However, if some of the Players are upset, sad, or anxious, you haven’t necessarily failed. Sometimes those emotions unlock the best experiences. Consider your frustration when you fail in a challenging video game, or your despair when a beloved character dies in your favorite story.
Different Players enjoy roleplaying games in different ways. Most new Players have no idea what part of the roleplaying experience they’ll find compelling, and some Players crave such different experiences that there is simply no reconciling their preferences in a way that pleases everyone.
A good GM is attuned to their Players. They pay attention when their faces light up, when their muscles tense, when they are touched by the experience of the game. They learn what their Players want and know how to give it to them.
At the end of the day, being GM is a performance art. I don’t say that because GMs occasionally act and do character voices, spin electrifying narrative, or employ production effects like music and visual aids. I say it because GMs must read, understand, and influence their Players’ emotions.
That is performance art.
To understand what your Players want and how to give it to them, you must understand the elements of the roleplaying experience.
The Elements of Experience
People have fun playing roleplaying games, but there are many types of fun, and fun is not the only experience roleplaying games offer.
As GM, you need to understand the experience you're providing and learn which elements of that experience resonate with each of your Players.
Story, Challenge, and Cultivation are the primary experiences Players stand to gain from playing a roleplaying game.
They aren't the only elements of the roleplaying experience. There is a simple joy in engaging with a fantasy world, doing things you wouldn't do in real life, and socializing with a group of friends.
Story, Challenge, and Cultivation stand out because different Players engage with them in different ways, and, as GM, you have a hand in delivering them.
Story drives the most profound experiences available in roleplaying games, but it's also the most misunderstod element of experience.
Stories are not their plots. Plot is what happens. In The Contract, you set the situation, NPCs, and set pieces, and the Players drive the action with their choices. Plot emerges naturally. If you try to force a plot, you violate Player agency, which is a big no-no.
Stories aren't engaging because of their plots.
Every story you’ve ever loved has one thing in common: they all have characters you care about facing believable, significant stakes.
Caring about Characters
The hardest part of writing a novel or screenplay is making the audience care about a character. You get that for free in The Contract.
Players always care about their Contractors. Each Contractor is grown from a piece of their Player and nurtured with their time and creative energy. As the GM, you further superimpose the Player into their Contractor by limiting their knowledge and agency to that of the character. You’ll never have to worry about a Player being under-invested in their character.
If the GM can also introduce NPCs the Players care about, you've got yourself a potent story stew a-brewin'.
Setting the Stakes
Stakes don’t have to be life-and-death to be significant. Sometimes the stakes are “will the main character get a date to the prom?” In The Contract, the stakes are usually more extreme. This game lends itself to stakes like “will I be maimed, traumatized, or killed?” or “In my pursuit of power, will I change so much that I’ll forget who I am?”
The challenges of the game naturally create stakes. Some story-minded Players also provide their own character-driven stakes, which is great.
It’s surprisingly easy to make an intense story experience. The more the Player cares about their character and the more believable and significant the stakes, the more intense the experience. In fact, you have to be careful not to make the experience too intense.
If a Player is extremely invested in a character, if the stakes are life or death, and if you regularly demonstrate a willingness to kill characters, that player will feel like you’re holding a gun to the head of a family member. That’s too intense.
The gap between the stakes you sell and the stakes you demonstrate provides a wiggle room for Players to “opt in” to a more intense experience. Some Players can trick themselves into believing the stakes are as high as you present, but, if the experience gets too intense, they will deflate the stakes to a minimum of the stakes you regularly demonstrate.
In contrast, most Players do not have as much control over their emotional investment in their characters.
Unfortunately, the intensity of a story experience also defines its potential upside. Conquering the stakes only matters if the stakes were there to begin with. Technically, I conquer death every day on the toilet, but I don’t feel like I face death every day on the toilet, so I don’t get much gratification from it.
I encourage you to push the stakes high enough to make the Players a little uncomfortable. That is how every story that's gripped you has done it.
The GM's Role
As GM, you need to read how connected your Players are with their Contractors and set the stakes appropriately for the intensity of the story you want to tell. You should also strive to introduce NPCs the Players care about. I talk more about how to do that later on.
This element is the experience of “game.” It is the fufillment of overcoming obstacles, avoiding failure, and improving a skill.
For a game to be challenging, it needs two things: it needs to define success and failure, and Players need to feel like their skill determines whether they succeed or fail.
Some games don’t offer significant challenge, and that’s fine. Some games offer challenge via a strict structure (in roleplaying games, usually resource management and optimization of combat). The Contract aspires to offer unstructured challenge via creative problem-solving.
The Contract’s breed of challenge is the challenge of solving problems without planned solutions. It’s the challenge of breaking out of a jail cell or stopping a lynch mob. The Contractors’ stats, equipment, and powers are their set of tools, not a power rating.
The challenge level of the Contract can range from nonexistent to extreme. Each Player has a different appetite for challenge and a different skill level. As GM, you need to learn this about your Players and select the ones whose preferences match your own.
If challenge is something you want to deliver as a GM, you need the Players to feel like their skill is the determining factor in their success or failure. That means when you use your GM’s discretion to make calls, they need to be fair and consistent.
Cultivation is the joy that comes from creating something and showing it off. Think Minecraft, Legos, and writing.
Most of the cultivation experience in The Contract occurs between the game’s systems and the Players themselves. Players create their Contractors, write their journals, build their Gifts, etc. Playing the game also cultivates stories of epic moments which are shared amongst Players long after the game has concluded. Much like the joy of socialization, these stories come for free as you run the game.
The way the GM assists in cultivation is to understand what the Players have built and help them showcase it.
For example, let’s say one of your Players has created a weeaboo ninja Contractor. If they make a successful attack you could say “you stab them with your katana and deal 10 Damage” or you could say, “you flip over your opponent, and— with a flash of a thousand-times-folded nippon steel— slice them vertically. You adjust your fedora and smirk as their body collapses into two pieces behind you.”
The second bit of narration was more successful not because it was more elaborate but because it showcased what the Player was going for.
When the Players want to show off their Contractors with specific descriptions, get out of their way. Just make sure you draw boundaries when they establish details that impact the game's challenge or your world's fidelity.
The GM's Tools
We have established that the GM needs to create a world with high fidelity in order to hide the way they guide the experience. But how can you guide the action in a consistent world without undermining Player agency?
Enter the GM's three tools: Establishment, Discretion, and Misdirection. Proper use of these three tools allows the GM to guide the game without damaging fidelity.
Establishment is setting the scene, and it's the most powerful tool in the GM's arsenal. When the Players look around a corner, the GM decides what’s there. Is it a pile of cash? A zombie? A hundred zombies? When the Players ask how far away the monster is, the GM decides whether if it’s a hundred feet away or breathing down their neck.
Think of establishment as the rough sketch of each situation. You don’t need to establish a perfectly balanced challenge right from the get-go. In fact, doing so is almost impossible. Have you considered that a hundred zombies are often less dangerous than five? The Contractors will find a way to avoid the hundred zombies, but they may actually try to fight the five.
The game’s systems, the agency of the Players, and your other tools insulate you from dooming your game with a bit of bad establishment. It’s more important that you’re bold, quick, and consistent with what you spin into existence. Just remember to keep the things you establish consistent with what you've established previously.
When it's obvious you're using establishment to direct the game, it degrades fidelity. When Players ask about specific details with a large gameplay impact, GMs often flip a coin to maintain their impartiality.
Discretion is the GM’s power to control resolution. You decide how the NPCs react to the Contractors. You decide when the Players need to roll. When you do call for a roll, most Outcomes give the GM discretion in interpreting the results.
If Establishment is taking a leap of faith, Discretion is your ability to flop around mid-air and try to stick the landing.
Whenever you use your Discretion, you run the risk of breaking the illusion of fidelity. However, the game’s rules protect you. It surprises me to this day how well the simple act of rolling dice maintains the illusion of an unbiased GM.
Let's say a Contractor is trying to convince a bouncer to let them into the club. You call for a Charisma + Influence roll, and the Contractor rolls an Outcome of 3: Partial Success. How you determine the result is informed mostly by the state of the game.
If it’s getting late and you need to move the story forward, you might let them in with an “I’ll be watching you.” If the game has felt too easy, you might let them in on the condition that they’re searched for weapons. Letting only some of the group enter is a reasonable interpretation of a Partial Success, but you know you should avoid avoid splitting the party, so you should choose something else.
Just remember the flip-side of utilizing rolls and the game's rules: every second spent on mechanics is a second wasted.
You have to strike a balance between risk and expediency. The more your Players trust your discretion, the more you can utilize it.
Misdirection is the ability for a GM to influence the Players and the choices they make. This is a subtle power that takes many forms, from narrating with specific words and emphasis to fudging rolls, to asking outright, “are you sure you want to do that?”
Players aren’t allowed to use out-of-character (OOC) information or tactics to achieve an in-game result, but the GM is.
- Putting specific emphasis on a particular detail, or reminding Players about it.
- Asking for confirmation of a Player’s action if it's likely to have an unintended outcome.
- Calling for unnecessary rolls to mask the in-game reality (e.g. calling for alertness checks when there isn’t anything to spot).
- Editorializing (e.g. “I’ll be surprised if you make it out of this one alive.”).
- Fudging the outcome of rolls that are made in private.
- Changing the stats of enemies.
At the end of the day, OOC information spreads, and it affects Player chocies. That’s a fact of life. Part of Misdirection is your ability to harness that fact to direct the game.
Because most misdirection happens outside the game, it actually doesn't run much risk of damaging the game's fidelity. However, it does risk damaging the challenge of the game, deflating the stakes, and harming agency by making the Players feel like you're encouraging a specific course of action.
Fudging rolls is a lot riskier than changing stats. The Contract doesn’t have a “monster manual” filled with canonical stats, and Scenarios aren’t scripture. When it comes to stats, Players can’t tell the difference between establishment and misdirection.
The Three Deadly Sins
All crafts have their deadly sins. Pop singers don’t hit the wrong notes; top chefs don’t serve food that fell on the floor; and Broadway actors don’t forget their lines.
When a GM commits a deadly sin, they poison the experience. These are the reasons people check out, leave Playgroups, or stop playing altogether. Luckily, they're easy to avoid if you know what they are.
Sin 1: Violating Player Agency
Players have free will. They will bypass challenges in ways you didn’t expect, and they will struggle with things you hadn’t considered. They will take the story you were planning on telling and scribble all over the pages. And you, as a good GM, will let them.
In The Contract, Player agency is sacred.
It's the lynchpin of the game, the keystone, the secret sauce. Violating Player agency is the cardinal sin. There is no quicker way to ruin fidelity for the Players. Suddenly, they realize the game world is nothing but cardboard cut-outs and animatronic actors. They aren’t in WestWorld; they’re in It’s a Small World. It takes a long, long time to build that trust again.
Gifts are powerful. Gifts allow Contractors to do crazy unexpected things. They make Scenarios more difficult to design, and they force GMs to react and think on their feet.
Gifts are supposed to work like that. That’s what makes them fun.
Gifts are the whole reason anyone is here. Contractors are risking their lives for Gifts. Players are spending their time playing your Contract for Gifts. Nullifying a Gift when it becomes relevant devalues all Gifts.
I don’t care if you can justify the Gift not working because of the fiction. If you fill the room with sleeping gas, and then you learn that one of the Contractors is sleepless and immune to drugs, toxins, and poisons, that Contractor isn’t going to fall asleep. If you say “oh well, it’s a magic sleeping gas so you still fall asleep,” then that sucks. Full stop.
When a Player uses a Gift to overcome an obstacle in a way you didn’t expect, don’t hand them the world. Take a moment to validate that the Gift can be used at that time in the way the Player intends, and consider whether using that Gift will cause any other complications or obstacles. The Gift may work but not work out. Proceed impartially.
Finally, Gifts which have specific limitations as a part of their construction should be limited in those ways. For example, all equipment-based Gifts are useless if the Contractors get stripped completely naked at the start of the Contract (which is something that can happen). Similarly, Gifts that are conditional are not usable when they do not satisfy their conditions.
It Isn't Your Story
You spent weeks designing a Scenario that takes place in an old Victorian mansion. You got so excited about that one encounter, the villain’s monologue, and the big moral dilemma at the end.
Then a Player says something like, “let’s turn around, go to the gas station, buy 50 gallons of gas, and burn this place to the ground.”
You have to let them do it, even if it ruins the plot you intended. Give them the win and fix up the Scenario so it works the next time you run it.
This happens all the time. One time I was watching a Contract where the objective was “get the cat down from the top of the tree.” A Contractor immediately pulled out a rifle, shot the cat, picked it up off the ground, and handed it to the Harbinger. That’s a win. Should have specified “alive.”
The Contract’s gameplay is all about thinking outside the box. Players are encouraged to push boundaries, test limits, and circumvent obstacles in clever ways. The Contract is not a venue for you to tell a story to a passive audience. If that’s the experience you’re after, I recommend writing a novel instead.
Sin 2: Deus-Ex-Machina
Deus-ex-machina is when you clumsily apply your tools to save a Contractor.
Of course clumsily applying the tools to ruin a Contractor's day is also bad, but everyone already knows that saying "rocks fall, everybody dies" is shit GMing. In fact, in the hundreds of games I've played, GMed, and watched, I've never seen that happen.
What happens far more often is pulling punches: the deus-ex-machina. Remember how you build Player faith to hide the god in the machine? This cardinal sin is when you display it blatently.
Deus-Ex Creates Interpersonal Conflicts
When you ignore the results of a roll, take pity on a character you love, or have the floor give out under the enemy's feet, you insert yourself into the game.
When you place the GM inside the game, you put the GM in conflict with the Players.
Now if you do decide to kill a Contractor, it's because you the GM chose to do it. It's no longer a result of the choices of the Player.
For more information, you can read this article on conflicts in gameplay. Suffice to say, you don't want to create interpersonal conflicts, and you don't want to be inside the game standing in the way of the Contractors. Contractors are scary.
Deus-Ex Ruins Story and Challenge
If your Players believe you are the reason why good or bad things happen, you immediately ruin two of the three core experiences of roleplaying games.
Challenge is out the window straight away. Players need to believe their skill as a Player impacts their ability to succed. If they don't, there's no challenge. Or, more likely, the challenge transforms into playing the GM (see interpersonal conflicts above).
As for story. . .
Frankly, if Contractors never die in your Playgroup's Contracts, you're missing out. Groups with demonstrated life-or-death stakes operate on a different level than groups that don't. I can't explain how characters come alive after they've seen another Contractor die, how it engages the Players, or how the stories become real. You just have to experience it.
Sin 3: Running Long
The Contract offers an exceptionally high-quality experience, but it does so at a cost:
All Contracts must resolve in a single session.
This constraint is more important than it seems. Not only does it empower the game’s flexible scheduling and Contractor portability, it also lowers the cost of character death, balances the game’s rate of reward, and improves pacing.
If your Contracts don’t resolve in a single session, you’re not playing The Contract.
A GM’s ability to move the action along is key. Fully passive, reactive GMing styles may work in some games, but they do not work in The Contract.
If a Scenario would take 6 hours for a given group to complete in a single session, it will take the same group 10 hours to complete in two sessions.
This is because the more energy the Players have, the more slowly the action progresses.
Players have lots of energy at the start of a session. They’re happy to roleplay and chat in-character. They put more thought and effort into their strategies, preparations, and investigations. They embellish their descriptions and take time to indulge in flavorful moments. These are valuable, fun activities, and GMs are right to be hesitant to cut them short.
At the end of a session, Players start running out of energy. They start skipping the fluff and drive the Contract towards a conclusion. Low-energy Players take more risks, but risks taken because you want the game to end are supremely unsatisfying.
Although Player energy inextricably marches from high to low over the course of a session, the events of the game do influence it. Players gain energy when exciting or intriguing things happen and lose it when the action stalls, the game becomes tedious, or they don’t feel like they have any realistic paths forward.
The most interesting part of a Contract is usually a climactic moment near the end. You want your Players to reach that moment when their energy is high enough to enjoy it and the risks they’re taking aren’t tainted by impatience.
Thankfully, there are ways to do this without rushing the Players.
How to keep things moving
As a GM, make sure you do the following:
- Stay focused
- Not only does a distracted GM cause the action to drag, they undermine the investment of all the Players. Don’t text or surf the web. Don’t tune out so you have to ask Players to repeat themselves.
- Resolve Player and NPC actions as quickly as possible
- In an ideal world, Players get immediate feedback on the outcomes of their actions and never spend time waiting for NPCs to decide what they do. Delays add up and feel like input lag in a video game.
- Don’t spend too long on introductions
- Introductions inherently exclude all but one Player. Strive to finish them quickly. Don’t wait until everyone is ready to start introductions; handle them as the Players arrive and get settled. Only brand new contractors demand in-depth introductions. Experienced Contractors can receive a letter, a text, or a phone call.
- Don’t run Hustles before the session
- Resolve Loose Ends and Hustles after the Contract has concluded or between sessions.
- Enforce the passage of time
- The relationship between in-game and out-of-game time is flexible, but they move in lockstep when Players roleplay in-character conversations. Time does not freeze and wait for them to decide what to do next. If they’re at a school, periods will end, and kids will go home. If they’re on a sinking ship, water will rise to their ankles, then waists, then necks.
- Call for a break
- Give Players a 10-15 minute break partway through the Contract to go to the restroom, stretch their legs, have a snack, and think about their situation. Do not GM at all during this time.
- Remind the Players that they need to move things along
- Players are also sensitive to the fact that the Contract needs to conclude in one session. Sometimes, all you need to do is remind them. Just avoid doing it more than once or twice per session.
Avoid these situations. Scenario designers are aware of these pitfalls when writing scenarios and usually provide ways for the GM to avoid them, if the GM knows what they’re looking for.
- Split party
- When the party is split, you can only GM for one group at a time. This slows the game to a crawl and leaves some Players twiddling their thumbs. If the group decides to split, you have to let them. Thankfully, splitting is incredibly dangerous so it doesn’t happen often.
- Heisting / turtling
- Contractors are strategic and don’t like taking unnecessary risks, especially in Playgroups where there is a lot of Contractor death. If given the opportunity, Contractors will spend an incredible amount of time over-preparing for scary obstacles (heisting), or wait long periods of time for the danger to pass (turtling).
- Scenarios are designed to prevent this and usually give the GM tools to force the Contractors to act. Don’t give the Contractors access to resources the Scenario explicitly states they shouldn’t (e.g. cell reception or a WalMart).
- No leads
- Contracts stall out if the Contractors feel like they have no reasonable paths forward or if they are worried that moving forward will close opportunities behind them.
- Don’t lock the only path toward a conclusion behind a roll. Ideally, Contracts are always moving towards a conclusion, and successful investigations help Contractors avoid bad situations.
- Multiple Combats / combats with many participants
- Combat moves pretty quickly in The Contract, but it’s still slower than standard roleplay. Don’t roll Initiative for characters that aren’t active participants in the conflict, and use the Mob Rules when dealing with groups of similar enemies.
- Action that doesn’t move the game toward a conclusion.
- Sometimes Contractors will go off and chase a red herring, heist a non-obstacle, or get wildly distracted. Unless the action is still moving towards a conclusion, you should gently guide them back to a course that will.
- Avoid indulging in lengthy scenes with irrelevant NPCs.
And always remember the golden rule: No one has ever complained that a Contract was too short.
Accounting for Preferences
Everyone has their own gameplay preferences. Most of the time, each Player can find their own brand of fun without ruining the enjoyment of others. The more skilled the GM, the more easily they can provide that common ground.
However, sometimes preferences are impossible to reconcile. For example, some players want high stakes and others want low stakes. An impartial GM cannot simultaneously offer both.
Here are two more examples. Older Players might want gameplay challenges that involve properly managing personal finances to avoid scrutiny, but younger players who have never even applied for a credit card simply can’t engage with the game in that way. Similarly, a Player that craves a story with goofy characters and inappropriate humor will be at odds with someone who wants a serious and gritty story. The Player who showed up expecting Silence of the Lambs is not going to be happy if the session turns into Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Preference conflicts can smolder for several sessions before coming to a head. Ideally, Players will recognize them and bring them up between sessions. Sometimes the best solution is to find a new Playgroup that is more aligned with the Player’s preferences.
The Voice of The Rules
Any game designed with purpose lends itself better to some gameplay experiences than others. The Contract is no exception.
That said, nothing frustrates me more than listening to Players squabble over whose preferences are “correct,” or which way of running a game is the “intended” way. The rules of any TTRPG, even ones with a strong identity, leave space for a vast range of experiences.
If you find yourself fighting the rules on your quest to enjoy the game, by all means switch games. If you like the rules and your only issue is that your Playgroup wants a different experience, that is a preferences issue, and you should find another Playgroup. If you and your Playgroup are enjoying the game and an outsider tells you that you’re “doing it wrong,” tell them to fuck off and carry on having a great time.
Now that that’s out of the way. . .
The Contract works best with a gritty tone, telling stories about the pursuit of power and how it changes and corrupts people. Saving the world isn’t as simple as revealing the conspiracy or blowing up the death star. To have a seat at the table, you need to make compromises and push yourself out of your comfort zone. Think Scarface, Watchmen, No Country for Old Men, Mad Max, etc.
In practice, you’ll probably find that your table feels a lot more like it’s writing episodes of Archer than a hardboiled melodrama. That’s fine. All that joke-cracking and tomfoolery is how Players have fun and form relationships with the characters. As long as you set the stage with the proper stakes, the character-defining moments of horror, tenderness, and sacrifice will come, and they’ll have your Players pacing the room, wringing their hands, and begging each other for their lives.
As an aside: there is no roleplaying moment more intense than when a Contractor ends up on the wrong end of another’s gun and has to beg for their life. Is it the Contractor begging, or the Player?
The Joy of Petty Inconveniences
Contractors are not superheroes. Newbie Contractors get mugged, arrested, and kidnapped. They get in trouble for running their mouths. They lose track of their gear. They wear the wrong shoes.
When running The Contract, don’t give your Players anything they didn’t earn. What are they doing with their luggage as they climb from one speeding car to another? How are they drawing their gun when they’re wearing a rain poncho? You know those Desert Eagles can deafen you if you don’t wear ear protection.
Every petty inconvenience creates an opportunity for foresight and creative problem solving. They underline the mundanity of Contractors and raise the stakes. They give Gifts an opportunity to shine and feel extraordinary. And when a Contractor is a complete badass, that badassery feels truly impressive.
Never underestimate the ol’ razzle-dazzle!
GMing is a performance art. On top of being a referee, GMs are storytellers, improvisers, actors, and entertainers. If you want your Players to be excited and engaged, you gotta perform.
If you consider yourself shy or otherwise lacking in performance skills, don’t worry! There are plenty of ways to up the showmanship of your sessions that don’t involve voice acting or improv.
At the end of the day, everyone loves it when people do character voices.
Voices help with immersion. Even if you’re bad at it, making an attempt to give each character a unique voice will lead by example and create a safe, accepting atmosphere that will relax socially-anxious Players.
Never bully your Players into doing voices if they don’t want to. Shy Players are like hermit crabs; if you try to force them out of their shells you’ll damage them. Just leave the door open and lower the bar. We’re here to have fun, okay?
In traditional improv, everyone can establish anything, and everyone goes along with it. In GMing, you can allow your players to establish things, but you can and should correct them if they establish something that isn’t reasonable, accurate, or has enough strategic importance to warrant a coin flip.
Allow them to get creative and help move the action along, but don’t let them run away with the game.
Narrative is the primary way that GMs render the game for the Players. Here are a few tips and tricks to punch up your descriptions and immerse your Players.
- Use the imperative tense in third or second person POV. In other words, instead of saying “you are going to see a clown,” say “you see a clown.” Instead of “your character picked up a sandwich and swallowed it in one bite,” say “Ryan consumes the sandwich in a single bite.”
- Keep things eye-level for the Contractors. Narrate from their perspective. Instead of saying “there is a cloud of smoke rising over the horizon,” say “You smell smoke, and you look to see a dark cloud rising over the horizon.” How do their senses tell them what is happening?
- When you detect confusion, clarify. If a Contractor made a decision based on a misunderstanding of something you’ve established, clarify what’s going on as their Contractor would understand it, and let them reconsider their decision.
- Use narrative to increase the stakes. For example, if an enemy attacks a Contractor and misses, make sure they hit SOMETHING, blowing chunks out of a concrete pillar, visiting untold destruction on a chair, etc.
- Lead the narrative before you call for a roll. Rather than having a Player roll because they're in a chase, set up the dramatic situation. “There’s a fruit cart in the sidewalk, and you’ve got to dodge it! Roll Dexterity + Drive.”
- Keep your narrative concise and evocative. Don’t drone on and on going over every detail. Let the Contractors discover as they move about and ask for more information. Keep the ball on your Players’ side of the court.
- Bring combat to life! This isn’t a JRPG where people stand idly waiting for their turn. Describe how their Contractor slides under the monster, slicing its belly open so its guts spill everywhere. Let the Player describe how their sword locks against their opponent’s, and things look grim before they spit in their eyes and take the upper hand.
- An attack that does no damage could be narrated as a tense standoff, a glancing blow, or even a less-serious cut.
- Let the Contractors shine. Make them feel like badasses facing impossible odds, not klutzes stumbling over themselves to take on some basic bad guys.
- Read books. Reading or listening to high-quality books will increase your narrative skills immensely. If you’re a storyteller who doesn’t read, you’re like a chef that doesn’t eat or a musician that never listens to music.
- Show, don’t tell. This means instead of drawing a conclusion for the characters like, “the valet is sad,” narrate the observation that lets them draw that conclusion: “The valet sniffles, and when he responds, his voice wavers.”
- Note that you want the Players to understand at least what their characters do. For example, if you’re dealing with a high-charisma Contractor in the above situation, make sure the Player understands that the valet is sad.
- Narrate based on the skills and attributes of the Contractors. A Contractor with high Intellect sees the world very differently than one with high Charisma. A Contractor who spent the past 40 years in the backwoods will see a situation differently than a successful businessperson. You can help your Players characterize their Contractors with the way you describe their perspective.
Production includes things like photos, drawings, maps, music, sound effects, props, and lighting. Production informs Players, immerses them, and sets a tone.
Everyone loves production, and GMs who struggle with other aspects of showmanship can always lean on a few visual aids and atmospheric sound effects to immerse their players. All it takes is a little preparation ahead of time.
Just make sure your production doesn’t disrupt the game. If you turn the lights so low that people can’t read their sheets, or Players have to shout over your rain sound effects, you may be doing more harm than good.
Breathing Life Into NPCs
Oh no, it’s happening again. The Contractors are singling someone out in a crowd, kidnapping a taxi driver, or seducing an office worker whose badge opens the building they’re heisting. The character isn’t even mentioned in the Scenario, but now they’re a big part of the story.
This is one hell of an opportunity.
Two-dimensional NPCs are totally serviceable in most cases, but you would be amazed how transformative it is to be able to whip up an NPC that the Players care about. Suddenly they’re a character whose life has value. Their experiences act as the “straight man” to all the insanity the Contractors are up to, making everything that much more hilarious and exciting. Are they going to show up on the next Contract too? Absolutely.
Coming up with compelling NPCs is easier than you might think. Here are some simple pointers:
- Give them a goal. Think small; they are not contractors, but that makes them more relatable. They want financial stability, social acceptance, to find love, or to have a greater purpose.
- Give them a challenge. They just lost their job. They have a disability. They’re an addict, an immigrant, or a conservative whose support for their gay son caused their community to reject them.
- Pull from an archetype (Are they a demeaning Karen? A tourist? A tired parent? A rebellious teen?)
- Draw inspiration from people you’ve met or characters on TV. Just choose someone noone at the table has ever met, and keep those similarities our little secret.
- Finally, cover the basics. Make them up as they become relevant, but don't hesitate to make them up. Your NPC has:
- A name
- A nationality
- An accent
- A passion
- A job
All it takes is one or two extra touches. Make your NPCs more than a generic cop, starbucks drone, or panicking bystander. It pays insane dividends.
Every Contractor is grown from a piece of their Player. A strong sentimental attachment forms during the days Players spend building, advancing, and playing their Contractors. Even if you don't form such connections with your characters, you must understand that most Players do.
GMs who appreciate the emotional investment of their Players are often rightfully hesitant to kill Contractors. However, GMs who are too soft risk missing out on some of the most powerful roleplaying experiences.
Contractor death is the best fertilizer for compelling stories and challenging games.
The story of The Contract is about people risking their lives for supernatural powers, and that risk is not felt until someone dies. As much as I hate to say it, only those Contractors who have watched their fellow Contractors die, who have stepped over their bodies in pursuit of their goals, and who still say “yes” each time a Harbinger invites them on a job are real Contractors.
These experiences fundamentally change Contractors and the story of the game. There is no substitute.
The Contract is well-suited for killing Contractors. The nature of the broad, outside-the-box challenges make deaths feel fair and avoidable. The self-contained sessions mean a Player whose Contractor dies only misses out on the remainder of the session instead of a chunk of the campaign, and Players usually have other Contractors already created, waiting in the wings.
Charon Coins and the Golden Ratio are designed to encourage tentative GMs to make the kills they should instead of pulling punches.
The Ideal Death
The ideal Contractor death is fair and witnessed.
Any Contractor death must be fair. Ideally, it is due to a combination of Player mistakes and bad rolls.
The mistakes may be innocuous: they split off from the group, went with a plan they knew was risky, failed to follow up on something suspicious, trusted the wrong person, got into a fight they should have avoided, or chose a character concept that simply isn’t viable (like a blind folk singer). Players need to be able to look back and know they could have made choices that would have prevented their death.
Half the value of a death is its effect on those Contractors who witnessed it. If a Contractor dies “off-screen,” it is far less valuable than if their death was witnessed by (or even directly involved) other Contractors. Make an effort to connect the Contractors to the deaths of their comrades, even if it’s just hearing a single gunshot echo through the forest.
Striking a Balance
At the end of the day, each Playgroup and Player has their own appetite for PC death.
Depending on your Playgroup’s preferences, a rate of one death per 14 Newbie/Novice Contracts may be totally sufficient. Less than that is too low. Most Players tolerate a rate up to one death every 5 Contracts or so. After that, only the “tryhard” Players who are extremely cunning and resourceful stick around.
The more a Contractor has been played, the lower their chance of dying. Seasoned Contractors (10+ victories) simply have too much emotional investment to make their deaths worth the price. This is why they have access to Gifts that allow them to cheat death. Of course, there’s still the possibility of death, but it’s almost always due to hubris.
GMs tend to overestimate the emotional cost of a Newbie death. Brand new Players who try The Contract online return for a second session about 70% of the time. Brand new Players who lose their Contractor on their first Contract come back Every. Single. Time.
Why? Because they’ve found a game with real challenges, and a story with real stakes. They feel its power.
Calling for Rolls
Rolling dice is the most iconic part of playing a TTRPG. Everyone holds their breath and gathers round to learn the fate of their characters. Jubilation! Anguish! They turn to the GM to hear what happens next.
That’s how you want dice rolling to feel. Dice rolling can also become a chore that stalls the game and turns controlling your characters into a tedious slog.
As the GM, calling for rolls is your way to make critical, impactful decisions about the actions of characters in a fair way. When a player rolls dice, they feel like they are in control. They feel responsible for the outcome of the roll-- good or bad-- in a way that they wouldn’t if they hadn’t rolled dice.
When a Contractor attempts an action and you call for a roll, you are entering an agreement with that Player: “if you roll well, your character will succeed. Roll poorly, and they will fail.”
Do not make that agreement unless you are ready to uphold it.
When to Call for Rolls
The rulebook puts it best: “When a Contractor attempts an action where the outcome is risky or unsure, the GM calls for a roll to determine what happens.”
Rolling dice is only exciting if the outcome matters.
Sometimes Contracts last hours before you have to call for a roll. That’s fine. If you call for too many rolls, you slow the game down and sap your Players’ energy. You also increase your risk of accidentally entering into an agreement you don’t want to uphold.
Beyond that guideline, there are a couple of other situations where you can avoid rolls:
- When there is no reasonable chance of success.
- Contractors don’t always get rolls. You can also just say they fail to catch the rocket mid-flight, or that they fire their gun blindly into the dark forest, hitting who knows what.
- When success is all but assured.
- If a Contractor is an expert at something (4-5 in an Ability), you can assume they know all common knowledge in that field. An expert driver knows the difference between a truck and a coupe, and they can drive manual. Don’t make them roll along with the rest of the riff raff. They’re special!
- Similarly, if a person is tied to a chair, and a Contractor with a knife and ample time wants to kill them, just let them. No rolling required.
The one time you should never skip rolling dice is when a Contractor’s life hangs in the balance. Even if they’re rolling two dice against twelve, let them have those last couple rolls. It does a lot to make the death feel fair.
If a Player rolls the wrong number of dice, maintain a consistent policy: Always nullify the outcome of the wrong roll and force them to re-roll with the correct number of dice.
Sometimes when I am GMing for brand new Players, I will call for an unnecessary roll or two to teach them the dice rolling mechanic. Even on those rolls, you should be sure to respect the outcome.
A lot of newer GMs aren't quite sure when to ask for social rolls. It's actually quite simple:
- When the Contractor is trying to influence an NPC's discretion.
- When the Player's "social stats" are greatly mismatched with their Contractor's.
- When the Players need hints on how to get leverage over an NPC.
- When Contractors are trying to lie or convince each other, and the Players have OOC information that makes it hard to play true to their character.
Players don't need to roll if they have overwhelming leverage. For example, they don't need to roll to fighten someone with a gun. I mean, who isn't afraid of having an M-16 jabbed in their ribs? Similarly, if they're offering an NPC a genuinely compelling deal and have demonstrated their ability to pay, the NPC may just believe them.
Selecting Stats and Modifiers
All rolls use one Attribute and one Ability and have a Difficulty rating. As GM, you specify all three.
Selecting stats and modifiers is an art, not a science, and it often involves some back-and-forth with the Players. Above all, if a Contractor should be good at something, you want their roll to reflect it.
Sometimes it’s obvious which roll to use. Someone’s sneaking up behind them? That’s Perception + Alertness. Trying to get backstage by pretending to be a cop? That’s Charisma + Performance.
When multiple rolls could work, you can also offer a choice to your Players. For example, if the Contractors are examining some bullet casings at a crime scene, you might say “Roll Intellect + Investigation or Firearms” and let the Players choose.
Sometimes when you offer a roll, a Player might make a counteroffer. “What about Perception + Survival?” You are free to accept or reject their offer. Just try to be fair. Once you make your call, it’s poor form for the Player to continue arguing or making offers, and you should stand firm. Don’t let the gameplay cross into out-of-character bartering.
Difficulty is easy enough. Default to Difficulty 6. Increase it by one or two if the situation has complications that makes the action more difficult, and decrease it by one or two if the Contractor has some specific Equipment or setup that will make it easier.
The exact probability of rolls is of no concern to you or your Players. Follow the guidelines above and the game will play as it should. Outright failures and botches are uncommon; Contractors are likely to get some sort of success.
Once the Player has made the roll, it’s time for you to interpret the outcome.
There are five degrees of success possible based on the roll’s Outcome (Botch, Failure, Partial Success, Complete Success, Exceptional Success). Three of these Outcomes give the GM a lot of power to determine exactly what happens.
Use this discretion in accordance with all the guidance I’ve already given. Move the action forward, turn the situation more interesting, make it fun, keep it fair.
Botches result from any Outcome less than 0. Some GMs like to make extreme botches more severe, others treat them all the same. Any Botch lower than -2 is exceedingly rare (1/1000 odds at best), so it can be fun to recognize that a bit in the fiction. Just don’t be cruel or ridiculous. The stakes of any Botch should be proportional to the risk of the original Action.
Failures happen on an Outcome of 0. They are just what they say on the tin: a failure, nothing more, nothing less. What would it look like if someone failed to do that thing? That’s what happens.
Partial Success happens on any Outcome from 1-3. This is the most common degree of success, and it gives the GM a lot of leeway to determine just what “partial” means. The magic of dice rolling lets you get away with almost anything.
Complete Success comes from an Outcome of 4 or 5. Similar to a flat Failure, this degree of success does not leave much room for GM interpretation.
Exceptional Success results from any Outcome higher than 6. It’s best to think of an Exceptional Success as a Complete Success plus a bonus. Oftentimes it’s enough to narrate the Contractor performing their Action with exceptional grace and badassery, or to allow the Player to describe their Contractor kicking ass. Sometimes it’s nice to offer extra information, or to give the Contractor a stroke of great luck or something they’d given up hope on.
Contested Actions do not have degrees of success. They either go one way or the other.
Players often ask for details about the situation their Contractors are in. Normally you just establish one thing or another based on your mental picture of the scene or what you believe to be reasonable.
Sometimes you hadn’t considered the detail, your answer will have a large impact on the game, and it could reasonably go either way. Does this American home have guns in it? Does the taxi arrive within five minutes? Does this high rise have a fire axe behind a pane of glass?
To remain impartial during these situations, some GMs like to flip a coin.
There are no rules that call for flipping a coin. It’s just a GM technique for you to use much or as little as you’d like. Sometimes it’s fun to have the Player flip the coin.
If you don’t like coins, you can roll high/low on a d10 (1-5 is low, 6-10 is high).
How to Use Scenarios
Contractors are bastards. The point of the game is explicitly to break rules, sidestep challenges, and win by whatever means necessary. On top of that, Contracts have to have an explicit goal, and they need to begin and resolve in a single session. It’s extremely difficult to improvise tightly-scoped content for characters that are out to break free of all constraints at every turn.
Most GMs need more than a vague notion and a few hastily-scribed notes to pull off a quality Contract. Luckily, we have Scenarios.
Scenarios are like recipes for Contracts. They’ve already thought of everything: the objective, the details of the challenges, the names for all the characters, the enemies, many of the shenanigans Contractors might get up to, and how to deal with them.
Running from Scenarios allows the GM to kicking ass running the game instead of scrambling to lay tracks in front of a moving train. You’ll still have to improvise and adapt, but at least you’ll have something to hang onto.
The best part about Scenarios is that they’re reusable. Once you play in a Contract, its Scenario is revealed to you, and you can use it to GM Contracts for other groups. You also get to read notes from other GMs who ran it in the past, as well as Journals from the Contractors who played in it.
Prep with Scenarios
Writing a Scenario is sufficient prep on its own.
If you’re planning on running a Scenario someone else wrote, you should read it top to bottom, ideally the day before the Contract. Imagine Contractors running through it and how they might react to its various situations. Read some of the GM notes and Journals from previous runs to give yourself an idea about what might go down.
Scenarios aren’t scripture, and you don’t have to follow them exactly. You can change the stats of enemies, the setting, or anything else you’d like. Every detail of every element is just an idea until you establish it at game-time via narration. After that, it’s set in stone.
Just be aware that details that seem innocuous are sometimes important to making the Scenario work. Always take a moment to consider how a change you’re making might affect the options available to Contractors. Otherwise they’re going to end up calling the cops, burning something down, visiting a department store, or starting a riot when the Scenario wasn’t built for it.
The GM is the alpha and omega of the session, the master of ceremonies. It’s up to you to decide when the game starts, how long to wait for the Player who’s arriving late, when to call a break, and when the session ends.
When you are GM, you are the boss. Sometimes you need to exercise that power to maximize everyone’s enjoyment.
You control the spotlight, not the Players. Don’t allow one Player to hog your attention. Don’t let one Player interrupt the others over and over. If the group splits up, bounce back and forth between the two groups so everyone gets to play.
If one Contractor starts derailing the game or getting distracted while the rest of the party wants to complete the job, stick with the party and then resolve the other Player’s high-speed chase with the cops after the rest of the group has completed the objective.
Don’t let Players diminish your power. You are in charge. When a Player explains how they expect the action they’re attempting to play out, treat it as them communicating their intent, and do not let them take control of interpreting the outcome.
Don’t let Players, even Players who are more experienced GMs than you, start calling for rolls and acting as the GM. Do not allow Players who argue and disrespect your calls to bully you into changing your decisions. Be fair, but stand strong.
Don’t suffer bullies. No one at your table is “too cool” to be there. Don’t let your Players make fun of each other, even if their character voices are less than perfect.
And above all, never, ever, EVER let one of your Players get away with gross misconduct. Sexual harassment, abuse, and cruelty should never be allowed at your table. You have the responsibility to ask problem Players to leave. Never give more than one warning.
You aren’t just choosing between the abusive Player and the Player they’re abusing. If you welcome abusers at your table, you’re choosing to include them instead of any Players with integrity and self-respect.
If you do not act, you are complicit in their abuse. Refuse to continue the game until the problem Player is gone.
Highlanders and Rivalries
Rivalry Scenarios pit Contractors against each other so only part of the group can win. In highlander Contracts, only a single Contractor can claim victory (though all may survive).
These sorts of Scenarios are difficult to get right, and they can be very frustrating for Players. You shouldn’t run them very often, and when you do, you need to set the stage just right.
- Make sure all of the attending Contractors are from the same Playgroup; they need to be able to find each other in the Downtime after the Contract.
- Highlanders work best when the Contractors involved have Loose Ends or Circumstances that make a loss unacceptable.
- All attending Contractors should have a similar number of Victories. Do not put the 3-win into a highlander with the 9-win.
- Try to invite Contractors with ongoing drama or opposing moralities. Stir the pot a little.
What you want in these Contracts is drama. You want inter-character conflict that sizzles and pops. When highlanders are at their best, they change the course of the Contractors’ lives and relationships.
A highlander or rivalry that surprises most Contractors with a loss at the end is not a good experience. A highlander that immediately devolves into a last-man-standing PvP deathmatch is not a good experience. A highlander where the win is simply auctioned to the highest bidder is not an excellent experience but is acceptable.
Don’t run a highlander Contract until the conditions are just right.
Contractors vs Players
It’s easy to create a Contractor with world-class Charisma or Intellect, but it’s difficult to play them so they feel that way. Furthermore, skills that help Players with the game’s challenges (problem-solving, lateral thinking, etc) are available to Contractors.
As the GM, you’re in charge of drawing the line between the Players’ capabilities and their characters’.
What you want to avoid is a situation where a Contractor who is, say, a beautiful life-of-the-party-type can’t get into a gathering because the Player controlling them is less capable. The best way to do this is to allow them to roll. If they succeed, you can reveal the angles they should work to persuade their target, or how to get leverage over them, or what sorts of things the NPC is likely to say yes or no to. Often this sort of information is something you’d let the Player intuit.
The same goes for problem-solving and Intellect, but you have to be careful not to let a character with high Intellect undermine the game’s gameplay. I usually limit hints to one or two per session, max.
On the flip side, when a charismatic or clever Player plays an uncharismatic or unintelligent Contractor, you may need to limit the strategies and actions they attempt, or gate them behind rolls you wouldn’t normally call for.