Anarchy Primer: The Contract Brief
In this Surprise Threat! we will talk about The Contract Brief.
The Narration is all about Setting and Conflict. The Scene is all about Engagement, Challenge, and Consequence. The Contract Brief is going to focus on Objectives, Complications, and Story Arc. There are lots of ways to build a Contract Brief, but in one way or another, you will likely need to grapple with these.
By Objective, I mean the required goal that completes the Run, like “Steal the thing” or “Kidnap the person.” I do not mean the smaller, intermediate objectives, what I call Tactical Objectives, like “Avoid the drones” or “Get to the choppa!”
By Complication, I mean the major twist in the story that is going to take this simple job and turn it into a right proper shadowrun. I do not mean the smaller obstacles that pose a challenge, like “The door is locked” or “She has bodyguards.”
By Story Arc, I mean the shape of the story from beginning to end. If you have read the post on The Scene, you have seen this before. Many types of arcs exist but most move from Discovery to Conflict to Climax to Denouement. Discovery is where players learn, Conflict is where they are opposed, Climax is where they might fail, Denouement is where the story resolves.
These components are so interwoven that we cannot break them down like before. Instead we will talk about the steps of creation: Building the Run, Building the Contract Brief, Running the Contract Brief, and Rewarding the Contract Brief:
Broadly speaking, a Run is any attempt by the player characters to complete any objective that an employer has contracted. Building the Run is a separate exercise than building the Contract Brief that frames it. Putting the Run together in a way that makes some logical sense usually involves answering the following questions:
Why Run? What does Mr. Johnson want done and why? Like most NPCs, Mr. Johnson has Objectives and Motivations. These are especially important because they inform the central conflict of the entire Contract Brief. There are lots of random run generators online or in the backs of SR core books. Common Objectives include Assassination or Destruction, Investigation or Datasteal, Enforcement or Persuasion, Extraction of Insertion, Protection or Security, Misdirection or Sabotage. Common Targets include People, Information, Technology, Biological or Magical targets, or a Location. Mix and match; variety is key here.
Why Runners? When designing a Run (which are not all sponsored by the megacorps, by the way) try to keep in mind why the employer is not going to the police, or a legitimate private detective, or using their own resources to get the job done. Usually, it is because the job is illegal, but it might be because your players are their only contacts, or they need to keep it secret from the media or from their superiors, etc. Then again, maybe your players ARE the legitimate private detectives or maybe your players ARE the resources of the employer. Any arrangement is possible and just because you start one way, doesn't mean you have to stay that way.
Why These Runners? Mr. Johnson uses Fixers to find runners that can do the job, thus Runs should be designed for the characters. Here is why: Let's say the Mr. Johnson wants the group to break into a building and steal some paydata on their Matrix Host. Let's say your players do not have a decker because none of your players thought deckers were cool. Guess what? Your players do not get hired to do that job and they never hear about it. They get the job that they CAN do, because the Mr. Johnson/Fixer thought they would be up to the task. If this run has obstacles that will be insurmountable for your mix of player archetypes, redesign the Run or figure out why this group of runners is the best fit. Mr. Johnson knows there are always more runners...
THE CONTRACT BRIEF
Once you have the premise of the Run and the reason these runners are hired, it is time to pace it out and frame it within the Contract Brief in a way that can complete a satisfying Story Arc. The Contract Brief is simply a series of Scenes that bring the runners from Discovery all the way to Denouement. It is also where you take that ideal Run, that easy payday with no hitches and no surprises, and complicate the drek out of it.
Complicate the Objective: Aside from the normal obstacles of completing a Run (like locked doors, security guards, or missing intel), and aside from Plot Point shenanigans, a Contract Brief should have at least one major Complication. The Complication is what is going to make the Climax climactic. The Complication is what takes a boring job and turns it into something memorable and worthy of retelling. Afterall, a heist without a hitch or a caper without a twist would not make a movie worth watching.
The Complication should not be sprung on the players at the last minute though. Doing that will make your players feel cheated, especially if they fail the Run because of it. The Complication should be paced out. Hint at it in the first Scenes, reveal it in the middle Scenes, and execute it in the final Scenes. Hint, Reveal, Execute. It gives clever players a chance to prepare for it, and un-clever players a reason to stop whining about it.
Complications can be anything, but a few common ones are complications with security, third-parties, misinformation, special requirements, scheduling issues, and double-crosses. That last one, the double-cross, needs to be used ever so rarely and only after careful consideration. One double-cross per Campaign Arc is plenty because it changes the players forever.
Build the Climax, then the Discovery: You know the Objective and you know the Complication, and you know that the Climax is where the Objective and the Complication clash, so you have Hard Point control of the final Scene. Building the Contract Brief from the final Scene backwards, allows you to pace out the Complication and allows you to make sure that the last conflict is the most intense. Even if you don’t know where the middle Scenes are going (see below), you know that you are going to press the Climax, so you know how hard you can push the encounters that precede it.
I will let others discuss how building the Climax first is different from railroading.
At the beginning of the Contract Brief, Mr. Johnson knows the most about his or her Objective, so they should give the players a push in the right direction or at least suggest a jumping-off point. That means you have a fair amount of Hard Point control of the first Scene too. The first Scene should include all the Engagement, Challenge, and Consequence of any other Scene, but it should be primarily about Discovery. Let the players in on something that will give them Motivation, or insight into the Complication, or at least a path to the final Scene. Preferably all three.
Leave the Middle Scene(s) Open: Aside from the few Hard Points that you need to place in the middle and beginning Scenes (i.e. the Hard Points placed for proper Engagement and Challenge), try to leave the middle Scenes as open as possible. Sometimes the Objective will have a natural or even inevitable progression, but your players may not see it and will likely subvert that progression. Allow them. Use your GM Narrations and Plot Points to guide the players occasionally but follow where the Narrations take you.
The Alexandrian says it best: Don’t prep plots, prep situations. Having resources to improvise can be very helpful here. Might I suggest these?
THE CONTRACT BRIEF
Most of running the Contract Brief is about running each Scene effectively, keeping the players engaged and challenged whilst managing consequences. Most of that is covered in The Scene. Each Contract Brief will be unique and running Shadowrun: Anarchy properly means giving up some narrative control to the players, but here are some extra points to consider, regardless of the Contract Brief details:
Prologue Narrations: Before you start the first actual Scene, I recommend using the Prologue House Rules, even if you don’t tie them to Plot Points. Running the players through a recap and having players recount cool events from previous sessions can get the players focused and into a cinematic mindset. Having the players describe “off screen” events can round out characters and add seeds for upcoming Contract Briefs in the Campaign Arc (discussed later).
Scene Zero in Progress: The Scene where the players meet their prospective employer is called The Meet. Think of it as Scene Zero. Start The Meet with Mr. Johnson already in progress. The Meet is just like any other Scene, so skip the trivial engagements like getting the call from a Fixer, arriving at the location, scoping the grounds, getting frisked, finding Mr. Johnson in the crowded bar, etc. Recap those steps in your first GM Narration. Here is your chance to show the players how the shadows normally work. If you don’t do this, your players will spend an hour and a half just preparing to get to the beginning of the Contract Brief.
That being said, treat The Meet just like any other Scene. The NPCs have Objectives (this is a Run after all) and they have Motivations (a fraction of which they might disclose). There will be conflict, usually around compensation and information. Try your best to engage all the players, not just the Face. It is a job interview, so Mr. Johnson will have questions about the other runners’ capabilities. It is also a perfect Scene to showcase the Consequences of certain Tags, Cues, Dispositions, or Qualities during roleplay.
PCs have Contacts: Remind the players that they are not alone, that they have Contacts that are useful to them. Use the player's Contacts as extensively as you can. The players' starting Contacts create the first web of characters that surround the players, so it is the world that the players live in. Make the Contacts real and useful, not just people on the other line of a commcall. Give them Objectives and Motivations too, which can come into play later.
THE CONTRACT BRIEF
Once the Contract Brief is complete, it is time to reap the rewards of the Run. Here are some ideas:
Karma/Street Cred: Most Runs are going to pay about 1-2 Karma per Scene and most Contract Briefs are around three Scenes, so most Contract Briefs will usually pay between 4-6 Karma. Consider granting more Karma if a Scene is particularly challenging or the Contract Brief is particularly grueling.
Consider supplementing Karma rewards with Street Cred. It is a good way to reward players without letting character advancement run away.
Gear/Weapons/Contacts: Gear and Weapons can act like rewards. Be aware of the value of these rewards however. Allowing a player to pick up free Gear (or loot the dead) is like giving free Karma. This could allow that player to out-pace their less ghoulish teammates.
New Contacts, likewise. Consider making the player still pay the 2 Karma to properly establish a newly met Contact. Consider deepening the relationship of an existing Contact before you grant new ones; that’s free.
Discovery/Paydata: Information is power; power is a reward. Giving your players valuable intel, trade secrets, or even blackmail material can act like a reward. It might be information that your players could sell (for Karma or Street Cred) or it might lead to lucrative opportunities in the future. These kinds of rewards are a great way to allow some player agency on choosing the next Run or on designing a Non-Sponsored Run.
When you start building a full Campaign Arc. Discovery can be more valuable than Karma.
Those are the steps I take to build a Contract Brief. First, design a Run (which includes an Objective, a Target, and a logical reason your players are needed). Second, pick a Complication to pace out within the Scenes, Third, design a last Scene Climax, then a first Scene Discovery, and let the players take you from one to the other. Finally, wind the Story Arc up shortly after the Climax and reward the players for their deeds (or misdeeds).
Next we will discuss tips on pulling all of these storytelling building blocks together into a roughly satisfying Campaign Arc.
The Narration | The Scene | The Contract Brief | The Campaign Arc