January 29, 2015

The Awesome Plan Montage

There are a lot of reasons for a GM to use a montage scene in an RPG: Training montages, hard work montages, character backstory montages, travel montages, and split party quick-cut montages (like the Battle of Naboo scene in Phantom Menace) are all popular techniques.  But today, I'm going to talk about the Awesome Plan Montage.

The Awesome Plan Montage replaces most of the planning and preparation for a mission, in a scenario where the PCs are assigned a difficult task that gives them the freedom to choose how they approach it.  It's a quick montage of what each character is doing in preparation for their risky raid.  Players take turns describing one activity they do in preparation, making one quick roll, and possibly earning bonuses for use later, when things get tough.

There are pretty much three kinds of "making a plan" scenes in the fiction our RPGs strive to emulate: If the reader or viewer hears the protagonists explain their plan, it always goes wrong (this goes for tabletop RPGs as well!).  But when the author writes "He explained his plan to them, and then they all got in the car..." or if the viewer hears "OK, here's what we do..." and the screen fades to black, the protagonists' plan is guaranteed to be awesome.  The Awesome Plan Montage simulates the third kind of plan exposition that only works in movies and TV:  The one where the viewer watches a montage of the protagonists doing the plan while someone narrates what the plan is in voice-over.  You've seen it before.  It usually goes like this:

"Cooper, I need you to knock out the power coupling on the second floor."

[Shot of Cooper waiting for a security vehicle to drive away, then taking out a BB gun and snapping on a hunting sight]

"Then Steve and I are going to get electrician's outfits and go in the front door."

[Shot of Steve and McLeader in overalls and a hard hat, cut to quick dialog, "Got a work order for the power coupling on 2."  ... "You guys sure came fast." ... "Yeah, slow day."]

"Maeve, you'll be working as a temp on 3.  I need you to take your break at exactly 1:30pm."

[Shot of Maeve dressed up at a job interview, "What would you say is your career objective?" ... (insert in-joke one-liner here)]

...And so on.  The montage usually covers all the stuff that needs to be rushed past to get to the exciting part.  It ends during the execution of the mission itself when things start to get tense.

Player Strategy Sessions

In the games I run, I like to plan out what the antagonists are up to, and the players either have to react to the antagonists' attacks or run their own missions against them.  When they're getting ready to take action against the bad guys, they tend to stop in order to come up with a plan, then determine what they need to do to prepare for the plan, and then start doing all the prep stuff.  That slows the pace of the game.  Sometimes it's good to let them get creative.  Sometimes it can be a drag.

When it comes to player initiative, you don't want to use aggressive scene framing to skip the planning altogether.  In the Heist Framework, I gave you a technique to make the planning itself a lot of fun.  The Awesome Plan Montage is different:  It does away with most of the planning without taking away the players' agency.  They still get to be creative and see the results of their planning, but they don't actually have to do all that much planning.

When to Use It

Use the Awesome Plan Montage as soon as the players have decided what they want to do in general, but before they decide how they plan to do it.

For instance, a Shadowrun GM might start the montage after the PCs have decided that they will take Mr. Johnson's money to steal a prototype chip from Renraku, but before they start debating different ways to break into the Arcology.  Using the Three Act Structure, this scene should start right as the second act begins.  It should launch the PCs deep into the second act, because it comprises a series of low-stakes "gathering resources" quick-cut scenes.  Immediately following the Awesome Plan Montage, you should introduce a threat scene that builds tension.  The idea is to build tension toward the second act twist immediately following the Awesome Plan Montage.  Regardless, the montage should end "inside the dungeon" so to speak -- just after the PCs have started their risky plan.

The Trade Off

The goal here is to get the players to see a mechanical benefit in the Awesome Plan Montage that outweighs the drawback of not taking the time to design a "perfect" plan in the first place. Let the players trade their strategy session for some mechanical bonuses they can use when they need them.

The process of the Awesome Plan Montage is explained below.  You'll have to do some system work, but I've provided some system for Fate, Pathfinder and D&D, since those tend to be popular.

1. Decide What the Rewards Are

When a character performs a smart, successful action during the Awesome Plan Montage, they should earn a fairly significant bonus that they can call on later in the story.  This should be in addition to the system's meta-game currency, since early in Act 2, the PCs probably won't be low on Willpower, Inspiration, Fate Points, etc.  If possible, make the award specific to the type of action the character does.

In Fate, this means that every cut in the montage is a "Create Advantage" action that (hopefully) produces a situation aspect with a free invoke.  Instead of these aspects expiring at the end of the scene, they expire at the end of the scenario.  There's a risk here:  You could wind up with ten index cards on the table for the whole scenario.  In order to avoid creating ten situation aspects, which could stretch your players' creativity to the limit and clutter your game up, encourage them to stack multiple free invokes on existing aspects that they know of or created during the montage.

You could use Fate-style aspects in other games for this purpose, if your players are familiar with that system.  Otherwise, try this:

In 3rd or 4th edition D&D or Pathfinder, you might award a one-use +4 to a particular skill check or attack roll, depending on the action.  In Pathfinder, if you're using Hero Points, you might want to award Hero Points to a group pool for this purpose.  (I have a houserule I might share later on how to bring Fate-style aspects into Pathfinder to interact with the Hero Point system - let me know on twitter @RunAGame if you're interested!).

In 5th edition D&D, the reward could be Advantage on a future roll with a particular attribute.  Have the player make a note.

If you're not running Fate, you can use tokens to represent the categories of advantages that the PCs can earn.  Either have three index cards or three colors of tokens.  One card or color is for Protection, the second is for Trickery, and the third is for Destruction.  When they complete an action, let the player determine which type of advantage they've earned the party, and place a token on the appropriate index card or put the appropriate colored token in the team pool.

  • Protection:  The bonus can be used for defense, perception, knowing about or noticing threats, and avoiding danger.
  • Trickery:  The bonus can be used for stealth, deception, burglary, concealment, and disguise.
  • Destruction:  The bonus can be used for combat attack or damage rolls (in 5th edition D&D, give +4 damage or Advantage on an attack), or rolls to break or destroy things.

These categories are fairly generic.  Customize them if you can, and feel free to use more or ferwer categories.  For example, preparing a town to repel an orc raid might have the four categories "Made the Militia Ready; Prepared for the Unexpected; Scouted the Enemy; and Fortified the Town."

2. Wait for them to Decide to Act

Don't let the players spend too much time planning.  Let them come to a tentative decision that yes, they will take action, then start the montage.  Tell them that this will give them more mechanical benefit than discussing a plan and then starting to act, give them more fun spotlight time, and help get to the action faster.

Then explain the process, and get started.  If they still want to plan more, tell them to think of two things each character can do as part the raid.  Then start the montage and have them run through those tasks.

3. Take Turns

Inevitably some player will have a great idea and want to start off the action.  Have them describe the action as if it were being narrated to the audience (if you like that sort of thing), and then set a medium difficulty (10 or 15 in 5th edition D&D, the Moderate DC in 4th edition DC, 10+Level for skill checks in Pathfinder, Average +1 in Fate) and call for a roll.  After the roll is resolved, narrate what that result means, and if they succeeded, let them choose their reward.

Is this splitting the party?  Not necessarily.  The player narrating his or her idea can nominate other characters to come along on the action.  They won't be making any rolls, but they can be there.  Why would you want to bring other PCs along on your action, if there's no mechanical benefit?  When the montage ends, the GM is going to drop the PCs into danger, and it might be better for them to be closer together.  Plus, some actions just take more manpower:  For instance, the wizard might narrate that the entire party goes into the burned down library to find scraps that survived the blaze to give him clues about what the cult is after.

Do these actions happen simultaneously, or in sequence, or what?  That is also up to the players.  After the wizard has narrated his idea, the fighter might describe how just before letting the wizard wander around the spooky ruin, he walked around to make sure there weren't any monsters waiting to ambush them and to find safe places to run to in the event that they got attacked during their search.  And maybe the rogue decided to look for secret passages while helping the wizard comb the rubble.  (Lo and behold, there's a secret staircase leading down into a dungeon!)

After resolving one action, move immediately to the next player.

It's easiest and most equitable to go clockwise around the table until everyone has had two chances to act.  But you can also let the acting player nominate who goes next, going around until everyone's gotten a chance to act.  Letting each player nominate who goes next is a good way to make the montage seem more like the ones in TV and movies, where each action seems to build on the last:

"I found the secret passage, so I'm passing off to the ranger to take point checking it out."

Or, more dramatically...

"After I found the secret stairway, I asked Blackbriar the Ranger to scout for danger down below."

4. Always End with a Bang

Remember how the montage represents the first (lower tension) half of the rising action?  The rising action is called that because the tension and danger is supposed to rise during act 2.  So get started raising the tension right away!  While the players are taking their quick cut actions during the montage, take note of some opportunities for a threat scene.  For instance, if a player fails their roll, maybe when the montage ends, that failure will explode into a big problem.

In D&D, this is where you ambush one or more of the PCs with agents of the villain, or spring a trap, or both at once.  For a setting, pick up where one of the players left off.

"Blackbriar, you scout the stairs, which lead a whopping fifty feed underground, to a twenty foot wide room with a vaulted twenty foot ceiling, angelic statues in all four corners, and iron-bound wooden doors on the east and west walls.  In the middle of that room, you find and mark a spiked pit trap that would have killed a less perceptive elf."

"Great!  I'll take a token for protection, then, since I know what to look for now."

"OK, now that the montage scene is over, let's get everyone back together," the GM says, ending the  montage.  "You may be on the lookout for traps, but as the rest of the party reaches the bottom landing, you could still be surprised when the statues come alive, their angelic faces twisting into the hideous maws of gargoyles.  Everyone roll Perception to see if you can act in the surprise round!"

In Fate, you might use a Compel against one or more PCs at this point, introducing a high-stakes threat they have to deal with.

"The cloaked figures watching the town square stealthily tail the party to the mausoleum.  Unfortunately, none of you realize you're being followed until you've already used the pass-phrase you learned from the Tome of Chains to open the hidden portal to Carceri.  Go ahead and take a Fate point.  'Stop them before they free the archons!' hisses the first, assuming his true form..."

5. Make them Sweat those Rewards Away

Now that the party has collected a bunch of bonuses to be used at a later date, it's time to push them to use them.  As the second act ratchets up in tension, feel free to throw some extra-hard threats at them, so that they will feel glad they stocked up on bonuses during the Awesome Plan Montage.  This will make them feel glad they had an Awesome Plan.

In Fate, this means using slightly harder Overcome difficulties and slightly tougher opponents where the PCs have built up situation aspects with free invokes.  In Pathfinder and D&D 3rd edition, it means using one higher challenge rating encounters and introducing conditions that cause circumstance penalties to skill checks.  In 4th and 5th edition D&D it means giving yourself more XP budget for encounters and using harder skill DCs (higher level skill DCs for 4e and circumstance penalties or Disadvantage to skill checks for 5e).

When a player calls in one of his or her rewards, make sure they explain how it relates to one or more of the prep scenes.

"I charge in and power attack the golem!  Oh crap, I rolled a 2.  That's a 16."
"Missed him by a hair."
"I'll use my +4 'Destruction' token."
"OK, but you have to explain how your party's preparations help you."
"Sure, I'll say the work Vitus the mage did researching in the Mad Enchanter's library taught us how to fight these things."
"Cool.  You remember they have have limited peripheral vision, so your charge seems to come out of nowhere and catch it off guard."

"I hack the motion sensors.  That's a Fair +2 result."
"Unfortunately, the security here is Fair, too, so you succeed... but with a complication."
"We can't have things start to go bad this early.  I'll use a free invoke from 'Learned All About their Security System,' which we got when we were doing our prep.  That's takes me to Great +4, so two shifts of success."

System Note

The Awesome Plan Montage isn't a brand new idea (even though I tagged it in the labels with that category).  4e D&D and the Dresden Files RPG have systems similar to the Awesome Plan Montage already.  The skill challenge rules in 4e D&D let you do a skill scene montage, and Dresden Files has a working together skill rule where each character's roll carries a bonus or (more often) penalty forward to the next character's roll.  Other systems I'm forgetting or unaware of might have similar mechanics, too.  Let me know if you know of a game that uses something like this mechanic, so I can read up on it!

January 16, 2015

Heist Framework

So you want to run a heist adventure...

A heist adventure is a daring burglary or other clandestine enterprise where the heist itself is the story, rather than a part of the story.  A typical Hollywood heist story fits into the Three Act Structure for obvious reasons, and the pattern of what happens and how it fits into the three act structure is almost always the same.

Act 1: Introduction, Call to Adventure

Put the Team Together
If this is a new campaign, putting the team together is the series of scenes where the leader contacts each of the PCs on the team and wins them over to The Job.  If it's part of an existing campaign, the GM creates a plot hook that brings the job to the group. This plot hook motivates the group to take on heist.  Usually this means that they learn about something they want in the hands of the opposition (the person the PCs will steal from).  This can be an important villain in the campaign, or an enemy in one or more characters' back story.  Use this first scene to draw the players into the idea of a heist.

The First Team Meeting
In this scene, the PCs have a meeting where they discuss everything they know about the opposition and the location that they're going to be assaulting.  Usually there's a leader PC who takes charge.

This scene is unusual for a tabletop RPG.  It should be a little scripted.  The GM should instruct the group to identify one big problem for each PC.  The players should propose different problems and explain, in character, in the meeting, why each big problem is such a major impediment to their success that it has to be dealt with beforehand, or the job will be a disaster.  Every job has challenges, but the groups decide which ones are going to form the structure of the heist. Write them down.

The leader should detail a different team member to take the lead to solve each big problem, so that each PC has a big problem they have to take the lead on solving.  Generally this works out OK, since the team members helped generate the big problems list themselves, likely suggesting the sorts of problems that their characters are good at solving.

The detailed PC immediately names an outlandish solution as the "ideal" solution to the big problem she's been assigned.  By doing so, that PC guarantees herself an awesome scene coming up.  The GM should reassure the players that whatever outlandish solution they propose, it will be effective and within their reach; so they should choose something straight out of a Hollywood heist movie.

Outlandish Solutions (the First Act Twist):
  • An outlandishly troublesome NPC.  This NPC will be reluctant to help for some reason, but also has a super rare skill so only this NPC will do.  Maybe he's just really hard to find.  Maybe she doesn't work for guys like us, so we have to trick her.  Maybe he's crooked and we have to blackmail him into helping.  Maybe she hates my guts and I'm going to have to eat crow to get her to help.  
  • A piece of outlandishly rare equipment.  This equipment can't just be bought or sourced.  Getting it will be almost as hard as the heist itself!  Maybe it's experimental military hardware.  Maybe it's a modification on a piece of software developed by a mysterious hacker you're going to have to track down.  Maybe it's a specific silver 1968 Shelby GT Cobra and there are only three in the bay area. 
  • An outlandish move that establishes a cover or disguise.  The only way he'll accept that I'm not there to kill him under these circumstances is if I take a bullet for him.  If I'm going to pass as a Formula One driver, I need to practice the short track at Monaco so I can look like I know what I'm doing in the quals.  He hasn't seen his nephew for five years - so I just have to learn everything I can about Omar, grow a mustache, and pray I didn't miss something important.

GM Tip!
Write the Big Problems and their Outlandish Solutions on index cards.  Use one card per problem, with the problem at the top and the lead PC name and outlandish solution listed below.  That way, when the Second Act Twist comes (see below) you can choose randomly which one falls apart at the last minute.

Example:  The GM is running a Shadowrun heist game.  The PCs are discussing some possible big problems, and Cat comes up with a cool one.

Cat:  I don't think we can steal the chip without first getting past the guard basilisks.  I've heard about this crazy mage that made a magic mirror that you can use to fascinate basilisks.  They'll just start at it for hours, even starve to death staring at it.

Ripper:  Like some kind of basilisk BTL!

Hank:  OK, Cat, since you're the team mage, you take the lead getting the basilisk BTL mirror.  See if you can track down that crazy mage and get him to loan you his magic mirror or whatever.  Otherwise there's no way we'll get past the basilisks.

Ripper:  Speaking of crazy, I know how we can get past the motion sensors.  This plan says they're Mitsu 551s - top of the line and capable of watching in VR, AR, Astral, and RL.  Well there's this drunk decker by the name of Miles I know.  He told me a story once about this AR exploit he used to fool a Mitsu 551.  If I can get him to pull that 'sploit for us, it's smooth sailing.

Act II: Rising Action

The Big Problems listed above will be explored in play.  Any remaining impediments to success are not Big Problems and will be hand-waved during the heist.

During Act II, the PCs will need to win the solution to each Big Problem they listed by pursuing each Outlandish Solution they proposed.  The GM improvises or designs a scene or short series of scenes where the PCs (led by the one detailed to take charge) take on each outlandish solution.  Even though a different PC takes the lead on each, all the PCs should participate in some way.

No matter how outlandish, the solutions are all within the PCs' reach.  That's why the players should feel free to get really outlandish.

Second Act Twist:  Murphy's Calling
Right before the heist is about to go down, one of the Outlandish Solutions turns out to fail.  Unless one jumps out as the obvious thing that goes wrong, roll randomly to select which Big Problem gets un-solved by some disaster.  

The job has to go forward with one big problem unsolved, or else the team has to split up and some of them have to re-solve the problem while the others start the heist!

Example:  The outlandishly troublesome NPC, Miles the drunk decker, got arrested right before the big heist!  Now the PCs have to go get Miles out of prison while the heist is going on.  They've got exactly 30 minutes to do it!  If they're quick, they can have Miles in place just in time!

Alternative Example:  As you hold the mirror up to the basilisks, they glance at it and then back at you, hissing.  Turns out the crazy mage was crazier than you thought.  The mirror - it does nothing!  Roll initiative!

If none of the problems the players invented make sense to get un-solved, you'll have to invent a brand new big problem.  The new big problem, whatever it is, has to make the job much harder, but not impossible.  If all else fails, make a last minute revelation that there is a rival group of thieves about to pull the same job.

Darkest Hour
There are really two options for the darkest hour in the heist setup.  The classic darkest hour is when the PCs discover that their outlandish solution is blown right before the big heist.  They have a meeting, express some panic, and modify the plan a little.  But they can't take forever to re-plan the heist because their window of opportunity starts right now.  They should leave with a "we'll just have to wing it" sort of feeling.

The other option is to reveal that their outlandish solution has got un-stuck during the heist itself, like in the basilisk mirror example, above.  Instead of a group meeting, there's a moment of "oh $#!%" as things fall apart all of a sudden.  In my experience, in most heist adventures, the GM does this instinctively, picking something to go wrong at the last moment during the heist.  This is why Shadowrun adventures are almost always "sneak in, shoot your way out" heists.  But if you use the big problems / outlandish solutions technique here, you give yourself a lot more options.

Act III: Climax

The Heist
The heist starts!  If some PCs are re-solving the big problem, you'll need to split the party. Otherwise, at some point, make the newly un-solved big problem rear its head.  The PCs should still be able to pull off the heist through pluck and ingenuity, by the seat of their pants.

The heist itself has to be built out of one scene for each Big Problem that the PCs identified.  Each of those scenes should be resolved with the outlandish solution, except for the one that got itself un-solved (see Second Act Twist, above).

Also feel free to add in some scenes for other problems that the Job might present.  These scenes shouldn't be designed to cause the PCs to fail.  They should be the sorts of everyday challenge scenes that you use in other episodes of your game.  They should be winnable challenges that let the players test their skills and maybe expend a small amount of their resources (spells, willpower, fate points, etc.).

After the heist, you have to let the PCs revel in their score.  Let them feel awesome about pulling off the job, despite all odds.

Things to Consider

The Job:  What is to be stolen?  From where?  By when?  Why?  And what stands in the way?

The Opposition:  Is there a bad guy here?  Who is being stolen from?  In most heist movies, the victim of the heist deserves to have his riches stolen.

Big Problem:  A problem that the group decides has to be solved in order to pull off The Job.

Outlandish Solutions:  The players will have an opportunity to propose something outlandish that their character can take the lead on accomplishing to solve one of the big problems.

What's New Here?

The new trick here is the big problems / outlandish solutions meeting that the PCs have at the start of the heist, and the rising action prep scenes that follow.  The meeting gives the players and GM some great tools.  First, it lets the players decide what big problems they want to focus on, and because the players have a hand in authoring these, they have a lot of story buy in when one of the big problems rears up on them later.  It doesn't seem so arbitrary when the mission goes pear shaped, because the players acknowledged and worked out details about the big problem themselves to begin with.

Second, it lets the players invent awesome outlandish solutions to the big problems, and the GM runs them through cool scenes where they achieve their outlandish solutions.  It's hard getting players to take big risks outside their comfort zone, but knowing that they get carte blanche to come up with cool NPCs, neat gear, etc. should empower them to do just that.  These preliminary scenes make the scenario run a lot more like a Hollywood heist movie than the standard "make a plan, break in, shoot your way out" heist structure that most RPG scenarios default to.

Third, when the plan goes pear shaped, it does so in a way that was foreshadowed by the story.  The thing that goes wrong at the last minute is one of the outlandish solutions that the PCs pulled off during the Act 2 prep phase, not some surprise that they didn't know anything about.  Really, all of the outlandish solutions should fall apart, because they're all so outlandish they should never work anywhere but in a movie (or, of course, a tabletop RPG).  So when one falls apart, it seems almost realistic!