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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!


  1. Thanks for this. I was looking for ways to run a heist differently than what Night's Black Agents proposes with it's built in mechanics. Sound advice! I like the fact players are given agency in this. I'll have to use this soon and see how it works out.

  2. It worked well for mine. Let me know how it goes here or @RunaGame on twitter.