Magical Mondays: Magical Contracts   Leave a comment

Little Mermaid Contract

It may not be fitting with a Halloween theme per se… who thinks of legalese when thinking of spooky ghosts and goblins, after all?… but there’s something decidedly sinister about a magically binding contract.  A deal with the devil, whether literal or metaphorical, is one of the most terrible things to have hanging over the heads of a player.  Some of the terror of such a contract may come from it being a little “too close for comfort” for some people… in real life, there are many people who have contractual obligations that seem to haunt them forever… and as such, the issues involved with these kinds of things might not always be fun for players.  So, I’d advise caution here before unleashing it on players.

However, if you know your audience… or if you’re just interested in giving some new options to legally minded PCs… feel free to use some magical contracts in your game.  I’ll begin with a talk about the form that these contract stories take, and conclude with a few d20 appropriate rules and suggestions for using them in your own game.

Let's Make A Deal

1) Making the Offer

The first step is, of course, someone offering a deal.  A magical contract doesn’t have to be nefarious, but the suggestion is that it usually is.  If you’re looking for a good story hook, remember that old business standard: you have to give something to get something.  And it can’t be something unrealistic.  Asking a player to be a traitor to their party won’t work (well… unless you’ve got one of those players…), and you’re less likely to get a paladin or cleric to turn from their deity (doing so is good for showmanship’s sake, but generally that’s going to be a different kind of story where the focus is on perseverance rather than on temptation).  It also doesn’t have to be a literal devil… a nefarious wizard or even a shrewd merchant with access to the supplies required to make a magical contract can play the part quite well.  (The latter option is great if you want to make player’s wonder if someone might be supernatural without ever confirming it.)

Here’s a story pattern for how to present a contact in this fashion: first, have the offer made.  Definitely make it be a rewarding thing to accept, even if you know that the player won’t sign it (and if they will, that’s great.)  Have the deal offerer depart, and offer the deal perhaps once more, again expecting it to be denied.  Finally, have a completely unrelated disaster or threat arrive.  Make doom absolutely certain… and then have the deal maker appear again to save the day, in exchange for acceptance of the agreement as written.  It may be tempting to pull a Darth Vader here and let them know that the agreement has been modified, but I don’t recommend it most of the time; the players will already feel hedged in enough.  For a fantastic example of this, I recommend watching the third season of Community.  The trope is a bit cliched, but Community managed to execute it flawlessly.

Discworld Eric

2) The Terms

Next, the terms of the agreement can come into play.  This is the part where the character can reap the benefits (and likely experience the downsides) of the deal.  Not much to say here, except I recommend that as a GM you have whoever offered the deal be reasonable about the interpretation of the terms of the contract.  For starters, you don’t want to get into a semantics debate with a PC, it’ll eventually break character.  Second, it’ll remove this figure’s credibility if you ever need a scenario like this to play out again.

The simplest way to do this involves a magical compulsion effect.  Something like the Lesser Geas spell if you’re playing D&D or Pathfinder might work, but it doesn’t need to be limited to that.  Players might find themselves carrying out actions as specified without much idea about why if they didn’t read the contract carefully enough.  If you wish to treat this like a spell effect and the question of saves comes up, point out that a saving throw is something that a player can always choose to fail.  If the players still ask about it, smile like the shrewd manipulator you are and ask them what they thought was happening when they signed the contract.  Effectively, they chose to fail this particular save when the contract was signed.

Escape Clause

3) The Escape Clause and/or Unfortunate Ramifications

Generally, don’t make this situation last more than a few sessions.  Have terms of contract completion or an escape clause that the players can remember, discover, or encounter.  Alternatively, very powerful magic might be able to break the contract, but… in the words of Ursula, the contract should be “legal, binding, and completely unbreakable.”

There’s no in-rules reason for why a Lesser Wish or Miracle couldn’t dispel this… so if the players dedicate a good amount of energy to acquiring such means let ’em have it… but that kind of thing can go outside the spirit of the story.  Whatever you do, though, don’t keep the player in an uncomfortable situation for too long.  They’re playing a game, after all, and shouldn’t have to stress over things like that.

Deal Or No Deal

Ultimately, this kind of story’ll be a lot of work.  Remember, though, that the players should either have a way out of the contract to work toward, or a way of fulfilling the contract.  And, of course, the other party of the contract should have to keep their end of the agreement as well…

Now then, there are three ways to present a magical contract like this: a spell, a magical parchment, or magical ink.  I don’t recommend letting players have a Magical Contract spell, but for the purposes of players dispelling a casting of it you can treat it as if it’s a third level spell.  Also, the spell only really works with the willing consent of the target, and probably requires a handshake (or at least participation from the one agreeing to the contract.)  Basically, you can’t trick someone into a magical contract (though they needn’t know that it’s magical.)

If you’re using Magical Parchment or Magical Ink for the purposes of a Magical Contract, I recommend using an Alchemical Secret.  And this is something that a player can use (as opposed to spells, which can be cast frequently.)  Here are the stats I’d use:

Indenture Sanguineous
Price 3000 gp
This Alchemical Secret allows for the creation of Magical Contracts.  By infusing ink with your own blood, you can either create vials of ink or contracts that are magically binding.  A standard Indenture Sanguineous bears a market cost of two third level potions with a twenty percent discount (2 X 3rd level spell X CL 5 X 50 = 1500 gp, 1500 – 300 =1200 gp).  Generally, there is little difference between creating a contract or having a vial for the sake of making a contract.  However, a vial allows you to sign a regular contract and turn it into an Indenture Sanguineous (using up one tenth of the vial’s contents and preventing the vial from being used to draft an entire contract.)  If you create an Indenture Sanguineous as a vial of ink, you need the Brew Potion feat.  If you create an Indenture Sanguineous as a contract, you require the Scribe Scroll feat.  If either party violates the terms of the contract, they will either receive the effect of a Lesser Geas spell (no save) until they work to complete it, or must immediately fulfill the terms of the contract (as if under the effect of a Dominate Monster effect (no save)).  If the effect cannot be completed, the effect resolves itself over a number of days as with a Lesser Geas spell (CL equal to that of the contract.)  Whether in Ink or Contract form, an Indenture Sanguineous may either generate an Enchantment or Necromancy aura, depending on the methods used by the caster (worked out by the Player and GM.)
Construction Requirements Brew Potion, Craft (Alchemy) 5 ranks, Spellcraft 5 ranks, and either Profession (Scribe) or Profession (Barrister) 5 ranks.  Crafter must succeed at a DC 28 Craft (Alchemy) check to learn this secret, using the standard rules for item crafting.
Cost 1000 gp for raw materials; replaces 3rd level spell known
Failure Chance 5%

Alternate Lore: As always, I suggest that a GM consider lesser known applications of Alchemical Secrets.  For instance, I might allow a more powerful version of this to act like a 5th level spell with a caster level of 9 to replace the Lesser Geas spell with a Dominate effect (no save).  A GM should carefully weigh the potential issues of this (or other) new use for the Secret.  (And remember, using a 5th level spell would require another Alchemical Secret to allow brewing 5th level (Epsilon Tier) potions.)


I recommend going back to the Alchemical Secrets article to remind yourself about how they work, but for a quick refresher: these are things that you can craft to learn.  Wizards add them to their spellbooks, while spontaneous arcane casters have the secrets replace a known spell (which is why the secrets have spell levels, representing the level of “effective spell” they take up in terms of spells known or book space.).  I don’t have a good rule for divine casters who use them yet, but lately I’ve been leaning toward having divine casters with access to their entire list at a time as requiring extra spell slots to cast them (I’ll get back to you on that.) Basically, a result of successfully crafting the secret is gained knowledge rather than gaining an item.  Wizard’s get the secret added to their spell books, making them most convenient for that class.  However, once a person has completed crafting, they must roll a percentile die.  If they don’t roll higher than the percentile, then their attempt to learn the secret has failed and the materials are wasted (but no spells are lost to spontaneous casters if this happens.)

Also?  I just want to say that I’ve never used this Alchemical Secret with any Gnomes of House Sivis in Eberron, but man that’d be awesome.

Anyway, that’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays.  Come back next week when I’ll conclude our Month of Creepy Topics with (unless I lose track of the time) a few suggestions for a magical, Halloween capable adventure.


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