"Hah! You see? The contract's legal, binding, and completely unbreakable, even for you."
In fiction, particularly fantasy fiction, normal Leonine Contracts
just don't cut it. Part of the reason for this is because it's usually pretty vague what kind of government most fantasy cultures use, so nobody really knows how contracts would work anyway. Besides, we have contracts in Real Life
, and they're usually pretty boring. So one sure way to get some excitement is to have a character sign one that is magically binding.
Where a normal contract is bound by the rule of law, this contract is bound by the rule of magic. Rather than being enforced by threat of punishment by a lawful governing body, this contract is simply physically impossible to break. Sometimes it is implied that the magic punishment for breaking a clause is somehow contingent on the permission being given by the one who signed the contract.
Really, the easier
explanation most of the time is that A Wizard Did It
. The basic idea here is that magic is the law, and will punish anyone who tries to go back on a contract. In other cases, the question of punishment doesn't even arise - the magic compels signatories to abide by the terms whether they want to or not. Even if the person who receives the benefits may be unable to perform Releasing From The Promise
Any character who makes such a contract has no choice but to fulfil it somehow. Loopholes
are, as always, still permitted. Physically destroying a contract can also absolve the penalties. In some cases, magic apparently only works with the magicee's permission.
Most of the time this is how the Deal with the Devil
works. In all likelihood, this started out as a subtrope of Deal with the Devil
but branched out as writers found they could apply the same basic concept to any magically-empowered contract-maker, not just Satan.
Note that another sub-trope of Deal with the Devil
, the Faustian Rebellion
, is rarely if ever presented as viable countermand to a Magically-Binding Contract
. However, should the person accomplish whatever Impossible Task
was provided in the contract, then the The Devil has to follow his part too
. In this trope, you gotta beat 'em at their own game. Characters who break one of these
can become The Oath Breaker
. Compare Geas
, which is more of a spell or curse.
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Anime and Manga
- Puella Magi Madoka Magica's Kyubey makes contracts with girls to become Magical Girls. Notably, his contracts are entirely verbal, and are without any form of fine print mentioning the downsides and side-effects, meaning that they aren't actually legally binding under most systems of law, despite being magically binding. Contract?
- Mahou Sensei Negima! had a magical item that makes contracts magically bound so that they have to be followed through. Fate attempted to use it; he nearly got Negi to promise not to interfere with his plans. The girls later use it against Dynamis, making him promise to stop trying to interfere with their plans. Dynamis only agreed because he thought he'd already won anyway, and because while conductive to the Fatettes, it wasn't conductive to the Averrunci.
- Chihiro signs one with the witch Yubaba in Spirited Away. The contract is sealed with her name, so in the bathhouse, she must answer to "Sen" instead.
- In Black Butler Ciel has a contract with his demon butler, Sebastian, which basically means that when he has accomplished all of his endeavors his soul will be devoured by said demon. In the meantime, Ciel gets a multi-talented butler and bodyguard who will follow his every command.
- A requirement for Familiars on Lyrical Nanoha. The contents of Linith's contract, which stipulated for her to be erased after she had trained Fate as a first-class mage and completed Bardiche, was the reason why she was dead before the start of the series.
- In a reversal of the usual bindings, Fate's Contract with Arf is much more open ended. Arf is contracted with Fate to "live her life in any way that she pleases, for as long as they both live."
- One of these is exploited ruthlessly by Emiya Kiritsugu in Fate Zero. He holds the fiance of another master hostage and agrees to let her go if Kayneth signs a geas with the terms that he will use his command spell to force his Servant to commit suicide and withdraw from the Grail War, and in return, Kiritsugu will be unable to harm him. Kayneth signs the contract and makes Lancer kill himself- and then Kiritsugu's accomplice Maiya is the one who shoots Kayneth and his fiancée Sola-Ui.
- Pilots in Bokurano are normally contracted by them placing their hand on a metallic scanner-like pedestal and stating their names. The contract is unbreakable and unvoidable; once contracted, your only way out is either dying or getting killed. The fun part of this particular contract is that the only being that knows it fully and is able to enforce it is Dung Beetle; the game is actually booby-trapped so that the pilots automatically lose the whole game if anybody from their home world (including themselves) gets hold of any information contained within the contract outside of what little information Dung Beetle is allowed to (or is willing to) disclose. So far, the closest to a loophole the contract has is that people are not limited to one battle, so you can spare a pilot if you get chosen as the pilot twice in a row and win both battles. Good luck pulling that off with the current set of rules, though.
- In Undertaker Riddle, the main protagonist, Hayato had to do one with Riddle to save his life. Now, half of Riddle's soul is bond to Hayato's in change of Hayato becoming Riddle's assistant and fellow Undertaker. The trick is, Riddle needs to be close to him to be at the whole capacity of his power and if Riddle dies so does Hayato.
- This is how nen users are able to power themselves up beyond their normal capacities in Hunter × Hunter, usually by imposing some kind of handicap on their abilities. For example, Gon gets stronger by calling his attacks, while Kurapika gains the ability to conjure unbreakable chains that will kill him if he ever uses them on anyone other than a member of the Phantom Troupe.
- The background of the Magic: The Gathering plane of Ravnica includes probably the largest example on the list: the Guildpact, a magical contract between the ten Guilds that essentially governs the entirety of the plane. The main plot of the novels turns out to be a convoluted attempt to break the Guildpact. Which eventually works due to a loophole. Also they have advokists and lawmages. Yes, ''lawyer mages".
- "Law Magic" is basically used to do two things: make the witness tell the truth, and memorize the code of laws, no matter how convoluted.
- Geth, Lord of the Vault, specializes in making magical tablets into which contracts can be willed. If they break the contract, Geth controls them forever. These are actually very popular, and his agents take them all over so that two parties who don't trust each other can use one of Geth's tablets and be assured that neither of them would dare break the agreement.
- As mentioned below, these exist in the Harry Potter series and the Power Perversion Potential naturally occurred to Fan Fic writers.
- Several Triwizard Tournament fics involve Harry deliberately defying the "magically binding contract" enforced by the Goblet of Fire, despite the strong possibility of losing his magic. In The Power of the Press, the prophecy turned out to be stronger than the contract, making the Goblet explode, while in Banking on Her it was Barty Crouch Jr. who lost his magic.
- Presented to the protagonist of Fair Vote, a Dresden Files fic, by a literal Devil's Advocate.
Film — Animated
- This is the type of contract Ursula makes Ariel sign in The Little Mermaid. Even the power of Triton's trident has no effect upon it, implying that there must be some source of power in the ocean greater even than his.
- The second All Dogs Go to Heaven had a contractual handshake form a magical choke collar.
- These are Rumpelstiltskin's specialty in Shrek Forever After.
- We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story doubles as a Blood Oath then the two kids join Screweye's circus using their blood to sign the contract.
Film — Live-Action
- In the second Pirates of the Caribbean film, Davy Jones is under a Magically-Binding Contract to ferry souls to the afterlife. (He can also draft dead sailors using contracts of his own.) His neglect of this duty is the reason he and his crew look like fish-men.
- In the film version of Ghost Rider, the Devil presents Johnny with a contract for his soul in exchange for his Father's health. Where this moves beyond Deal with the Devil is that Johnny cuts himself on the contract while reading it, and the Devil takes his blood on the deal as agreement. But because he never actually agreed, Johnny eventually is able to resist Lucifer and keep the Rider's powers.
- Faust's contract with Mephistopheles has to be signed with blood, and can't be broken.
- In Tamora Pierce's Tortall books, breaking an oath signed in blood will result in one's blood boiling in one's veins.
- Used in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. When the Goblet says Harry has to compete, well, Harry has to compete. Even though he didn't enter himself for consideration as a contestant. Still, it's mentioned that the one who set Harry up to this had to put a spell on the Goblet itself, altering how it works, or it wouldn't have picked a fourth Champion.The consequences of breaking the contract, however, are not explained.
- Introduced in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the "Unbreakable Vow", which kills you if you attempt to break it.
- In the fifth book, Hermione turns the "member's list" of the DA into one. The result being that when one of the members rats them out, she ends up with the word "SNEAK" written across her face in pimples. Although in this case it was probably meant to single out the perpetrator rather than to punish them, as the curse was temporary.
- Wills can apparently also work this way at least as far as house-elves are concerned. After Sirius dies, he officially leaves Harry everything, but there's still concern that control of his house and property (including Kreacher) might magically pass to his next living relative, Bellatrix. Dumbledore and Harry field-test this by giving Kreacher an order - when he has to recognize Harry as his new master, it confirms Sirius knew what he was doing when he made his will.
- In The Wheel of Time, any oath taken by a mage while passing her magic through a tool called "the Oath Rod" is magically binding, though it can be removed by the same object. When created in the Age of Legends the rod was simply called a "binder", and was only used against intractably criminal mages (understandably, given the side effects - also now forgotten) to seal their powers.
- The modern Aes Sedai use it in their Initiation Ceremony by taking three oaths: to speak no word that is not true; to make no magic weapons; and not to kill with magic except against Shadowspawn, or when she, another Aes Sedai, or her Warder is in danger.
- The second has been adhered to, but the third is typically circumvented by running directly onto a battlefield to put themselves in danger so they can start blowing things up, and as for the first... well, they've gotten so good at working around their "not lying" oath that they have a reputation as literal genies, able to twist words and use ambiguous phrasing that distorts meaning without technically being falsehood. Thus, an oath meant to ensure that Aes Sedai were always trustworthy has resulted in every sane person in Randland not believing a single word they say. And among themselves, they take pride in their skill with words. They tend to completely miss the point of taking magical oaths not to do this stuff.
- The Young Wizards series has the "Binding Oath", which if broken permanently strips you of all supernatural energy. This version of the Magically-Binding Contract is interestingly different in that:
- The person extracting the Oath can only do it once in their lifetime.
- The person extracting the Oath will eventually suffer a backlash from the Oath, with the backlash being worse the more powerful the Oath is.
- The Wizards Oath itself is one in that if you break the oath, you will invariably lose your wizardry. Many spells also effectively end up like contracts where a wizard promises to pay later for an effect now, and spells are transacted in a Language of Magic which is also a Language Of Truth.
- Lee and Taro sign one when they sign on with the troupe in Heroes Adrift, though they don't seem to really "get" that things would rebound on them badly if they ran away.
- Warrior And Witch series has these where a witch forms a pact with somebody. The ritual involves making a lethal cut on the wrist, and then magically sealing it up. If the person does not meet their end of the deal, then the cut will reopen, letting the person bleed to death. Once the deal is over, the wound permanently heals over, and can become a badge of pride. The ritual is intended for deals that are met, such as discovering the culprit in a murder, or hunting a bounty. One witch in the sequel uses it to hold others to secrecy, a deal that never ends, and thus never permanently seals, and thus they will be in danger of it reopening for as long as they live. This is considered a gross perversion of the ritual by the witch's peers.
- In The Dresden Files, it's frequently mentioned by Harry that a wizard who swears an oath "by their power" must hold to it. If it's broken, the wizard loses a portion of their power, to the point that a serial oathbreaker may lose the ability to work magic entirely.
- Oaths and bonds issued by the Sidhe are also binding, and if they break a promise it causes them intense physical pain. However, they are only bound to the exact wording of a contract, and they subsequently abuse the hell out that.
- In "Cold Days", Harry finds he is now bound by Winter Law himself, so when he tries to break it (something the Fae cannot even conceive of doing), there are immediate, serious consequences his Winter Knight Mantle vanishes, leaving him paralyzed as he was in Changes
- These contracts are so binding that not even Michael, who wields a holy sword and serves God Himself, can do anything against a valid contract as such an act would be dishonest and break his power if he tried.
- In The Guardians, this is how bargains and wagers are enforced. If they are broken, that person or demon is damned to the field of frozen faces when they die.
- The heroine of The Assassins Of Tamurin learns towards the end that a character has been bound by this all along.
- Madam Morrible does this to Nessarose, Elphaba and Glinda in Wicked.
- In The Hexslinger Series, it transpires that the "hexes", or magicians, of the series can get around their otherwise-irresistible urge to parasitically devour each other's magic (and ultimately life) in a variety of different ways by swearing a binding oath with their magic — although depending on what you swear to and who, this can have a variety of much nastier consequences as well.
- The Twilight Zone TOS episode "Escape Clause". A hypochondriac signs a Deal with the Devil to live forever. Then he kills his wife, is not afraid of the death penalty obviously so mocks the proceedings, but his smart lawyer manages to get a life sentence. The man is horrified by the prospect of an eternity (literally) in prison, and uses the "escape clause" from the contract, dying of a heart attack in his cell. He should have known The Devil has ways of subverting contracts.
- In the Charmed episode Soul Survivor (episode 7 of Season 6) A demon makes Faustian deals using magical contracts, they have a special clause that says the souls are to burn forever if he himself is killed, this is to discourage people from trying to break the contract by killing him. The main characters manage to deal with him by locating the vault and burning all the contracts, then killing the demon!
- In Angel, contracts with Wolfram and Hart are often magically enforced. High level employees sign away their lives and afterlives to work for the firm. After being killed by Darla, Holland Manners continues to serve the Senior Partners, and the same happens to Lilah Morgan after being killed by Jasmine. Wesley attempts to free Lilah from her contract by retrieving it and burning it. It simply reappears back where he found it.
- Supernatural is positively drowning in these.
- In The 10th Kingdom, Wolf binds himself to do the queen's biddings, in return for his release from prison. He first accepts the contract eagerly, only later getting second thoughts, after it's too late to renege.
- Rumplestiltskin's deals in Once Upon a Time are the definition of this. Magic will severely punish anyone who breaks one of his contracts, which is made even more dangerous by the fact that he's a master of exact words and his victims often fail to read the fine print.
- Dungeons & Dragons. The 2nd Edition Tome of Magic sourcebook had the Contracts of Nepthas. Anyone who breaks such a contract is struck deaf, dumb and blind. Ambiguities in the contract's language can be exploited.
- Sareshan Oaths in the Living Arcanis third party setting for 3/3.5 are another D&D example.
- And geas / quest and mark of justice can be construed to be a type of contract without paper, as well. Also, people don't have to agree to it, so you can just use it to force people to do your bidding. Though it has a ten minute cast time, so unless they're restrained you'll be long dead before you finish casting it.
- In Exalted, Eclipse Caste Solars can sanctify any sort of agreement to be magically enforced by Heaven.
- Moonshadow Caste Abyssals and Fiend Caste Infernals can do similar things - for the Moonshadows, it's enforced by the Neverborn, while for the Fiends it's enforced by the Yozis. This isn't entirely surprising, as both Moonshadows and Fiends are corrupted Eclipse Exaltations.
- The Perfect of Paragon can make these contracts as well. In fact, he requires them of anyone who wants to live in his city.
- The raksha, thanks to a quirk in their nature, must abide by their sworn word, or be cursed. They know this full well, and are very, /very/ good at exploiting loopholes. The raksha can also make adjurations, oaths that empower a raksha who swears to them, so long as the raksha fulfills their conditions.
- In Nomine has the Lilim, demons with the ability to read people's Needs (which really means wants most often) by looking in their eyes; if the Lilim can fullfil a target's Need she (Lilim are almost always female) gets a "hook" which she can later use to place a Geas on that person, forcing them to do a return favour or else suffer dissonance (for celestials) or physical harm (for humans). It is possible for a strong willed person to resist the Geas at the time when the Lilim tries to call in the return favour. They can also place a Geas on a willing target (including on themselves). Their Mother, Lilith, has the same abilities but her Geases cannot be resisted.
- In Nomine Satanis Magna Veritas had Marc, archangel of trade, whose angels could sign a binding contract. Breaching the contract caused direct damage to the breacher. This is also present in the American version.
- In one notable published scenario, Lilith and Marc make a deal with one another!
- Changeling The Lost has a borderline case with Pledges, supernaturally-enforced deals Changelings (and the True Fae) can strike with others. While the Pledge doesn't supernaturally force others to obey, most Pledges offer significant penalties, called Sanctions, which afflict an oathbreaker. These Sanctions can range from a -1 to all rolls, to owing the other party a favor, to death.
- This is also how Arcadia, land of the True Fae, functions. If you're lost there, and you're cold, and you start a fire, the fire won't warm you. You don't have a contract for that. Water won't quench your thirst, because it doesn't know what it'll get in return. True Fae can use these contracts- and more importantly, the loopholes therein- to make things normal-ish for themselves.
- There's also the so-called Goblin Pledges, which allow a changeling to make an impromptu deal with some aspect of the mundane world in exchange for a favour. Like asking the moonless night to hide your from your enemies, in exchange for you busting every streetlight you find for a month.
- The Old World of Darkness' predecessor game, Changeling: The Dreaming, had a similar mechanic. Characters could willingly swear Oaths to each other. An Oathbreaker not only was a pariah, but suffered serious game-mechanic based penalties as well. The Oaths functioned as magically binding verbal contracts.
- In Mage The Awakening, Mages can use Fate magic to bind a person to their word. Such Oaths are permanant unless their terms are fulfilled or fairly powerful magic is used to break them. The Oath does have the advantage that it confers the benefit of giving the person so bound a potential boost of will to overcome anything that might prevent them from fulfilling it. However, if they break the Oath, they are permanantly blighted with a curse whose power is proportional to that of the mage who cast it. At higher levels, mages can bind people to Oaths that they didn't actually make.
- In GURPS, if you manage to summon a demon (fairly easy) and control it (not so easy), you can order it to do one task lasting up to one hour. The demon is bound to obey, but it will use any loopholes it is smart enough to think of, and get into as much trouble as possible along the way. Remember how we said Evil Is Not a Toy.
- The infamous Blood Pact in Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn is a contract between a ruler and another party. The ruler can do whatever they please, but the other party can invoke the pact at any time, killing one person under the ruler's, um, rule on the first day, two on the second, and so on until they decide to stop. It can be broken, though. Rip up the contract and kill one of the people who made it.
- In Thage's path in Eternal Poison, she forces a magical contract upon adventurer-hunter Retica, preventing him from disobeying her wishes as she searches for the game's namesake MacGuffin.
- In Disgaea 2 Cursed Memories, demon summoning rituals are magically binding contracts that require an equivalent price to pay. This is how after the attempt to summoning Overlord Zenon supposedly goes bad, Adell is stuck with Rozalin as a party member.
- Devils do this by the letter in Grim Grimoire, Lillet Blan actually manages to get out of two; the first by using Mental Time Travel to before signing the contract and the second by binding the Demon Lord to do something he would never, ever do; embrace God.
- A plot element in Magical Diary - Apparently the promise of a witch is always binding - break your word and you lose your magic. Naturally nobody bothers to warn the PC of this until it's too late!
- While Baldur's Gate doesn't have the standard Dungeons & Dragons geas as a usable spell, the echantment shows up a few times as a plot point.
- In the first game, there is a special quest where an assassin called Lothander shows up and informs you that if you help him get rid of the geas by which he is bound to serve the Iron Throne, he'll tell you how to heal the poison he and his partner have given your whole party that was meant to kill you in a few days to get you out of the Throne's way. The geas prevents him from looking for the way to opt out of it himself, but not asking his "enemies" to get it for him.
- In Shadows of Amn, it turns out Yoshimo is under a geas that obliges him to betray you to the Big Bad, having agreed to the contract earlier when he didn't know what he was getting into.
- In Throne of Bhaal, Sarevok tells you that, in exchange for getting to join you, he can swear a special oath to stay loyal, which done in the Demiplane would due to the nature of the place act like a geas.
- Used in the third route of Fate/stay night, although agreeing to it leads to a bad end a while down the road.
- In Avas Demon The pacts are a mix of this and deal with the devil. This is why the pacts cannot be defied, because they have a built in deterrent for anyone looking to break the rules although they can be exact-worded a little.
- Spoofed in the Torg Potter parody in Sluggy Freelance. Anything the Goblet says is magically binding. Even when the commands are completely irrational and have nothing to do with the Tournament. Once Torg figures out how to manipulate the Goblet with Muggle methods, he's able to get it to make a contract saying that Gandledorf has to sit on a cactus for the tournament's entire duration.
- Worse yet, a wizard's name in itself is a magical binding contract, compelling the wizard in question to do whatever their name implies, which is why many wizards tend to change their name. Gandeldorf's name was allegedly Grad-fondle.
- In Wake the Sleepers, the Assassin Madoc enters into a contract to assassinate Locke, which when bound by a Blood Oath binds him to complete the task.
- 'Sorcerer's contracts' in the Whateley Universe are this trope played dead straight. They're even, apparently, considered legitimately and perfectly binding when the agreement is extracted from an unaware party through trickery or coercion, and even some of the students aren't above using such tactics against others. Overall, it so far seems that these contracts exist in-universe mainly to help give magic-users a bad name. Thus, the perfect use of this stuff.
- Conversely, Carmilla wriggles out of another student's attempt to hold her to a similar contract via the loophole that what she put underneath the document wasn't her actual signature, and was in fact a disguised 'Hell No' and she fully intended to screw the other party over to begin with.
- Note that Carmilla's was actually the related 'Deal with the Devil' trope, and it's repeatedly pointed out that Jobe should have gotten someone else to look over the contract. It's stated he got LUCKY dealing with a demon. Why the school lets a demon who is still a student do this, and why Carmilla is allowed to stay a protagonist, make this one of the bigger controversies of Whateley fandom.
- Sorcerer's contracts can be formed by literally just shaking hands, and can be verbal. This has the same problem as the Aes Sedai above.
- The problem with 'Sorcer's contracts' in the Whateley Universe is that the other party doesn't even have to know what they're agreeing to. "Do you agree to do this of your own free will?" is a blank cheque, literally giving your soul to a demon with a "yes". Just because you are wrong about what you are agreeing to, or were never told, doesn't mean you didn't agree to it. There is also the Fool's Circle: a magical circle which traps you inside it if you willingly enter. You do not have to agree to what is going to happen to you: you might do so because the magician is lying about the spell they will cast, or you might enter with a friend held at gunpoint. It doesn't matter. You voluntarily entered, case closed.
- Fairly OddParents: Timmy made Norm the Genie sign one so he'd grant his last wish without any loopholes.
- Flappy Bob signed a contract with the Pixies to restore the Learn-a-torium and make the world dull and boring while the Pixies took over Fairy World. When Flappy learned the Pixies were manipulating him all that time, he exploited a loophole in the contract to make everything back to normal. The contract stated Earth should be safe and happy "as defined by Flappy Bob": Flappy changed his definition to "everything being the way it's supposed to be". The Pixies then had no choice but to remove the boredom from everywhere in Dimmsdale (except the school) and return Fairy World to fairy control.