Having recently talked about mysteries in games and fiction, I will now expand on the related genre of spy missions, heists, capers, and con jobs. In Part 1, I’ll briefly look at some staples of the genre in books, television and movies, then examine a handful of game systems that attempt to bring the heist structure to role-playing.
In Part 2 and Part 3, I will draw elements from these sources to discuss more generally what game masters can do to run this kind of adventure in any system. I’ll round this up by providing links to some nifty online resources for the genre.
What I’m talking about here is the kind of fiction — book, movie, television show, or game — where a team of highly skilled pros take on a seemingly impossible job using criminal means (electronic surveillance, breaking-and-entry, theft, swindles, etc.) in full view of the audience or reader.
The genre is characterized by suspense, action, misdirection, the boldness of the plan, the high level of competence of the crew, the relationships and interplay of trust and betrayal between characters, and often a mix of humour and drama. The crew usually cover distinctive roles, each with their area of expertise such as mastermind, technical whiz, explosives expert, master of disguise, etc. In addition, the team is often working with limited resources, at least once the plan is under way.
The genre covers an array of gamer favourites. Surprisingly, it can be found in just about any era or fictional setting from fantasy to science fiction. There are several sub-genres (some even classify them as different but related genres):
Agents on the Lam: These professionals were framed for something they didn’t do and have lost the support of the Agency; now they live in the shadows and they must clear their name. They often also act as Bad Guys for a Good Cause (see below).
Examples: The A Team, Burn Notice, Haywire.
Bank Jobs and Other Big Heists: The crew is in it for profit, thrills or revenge, or occasionally because they are being blackmailed. Often this is “the last big job” that will allow the criminals to retire in wealth and comfort.
Examples: The Italian Job, Ocean’s Eleven and subsequent movies in that franchise, The Lies of Locke Lamora and other books in the Gentlemen Bastards series, Firefly, Reservoir Dogs (the job gone wrong), Shadowrun, Cyberpunk.
Bad Guys for a Good Cause: They may be thieves, but it’s in order to redress a wrong and fight for those who cannot fight back.
Examples: Leverage, Mistborn, Robin Hood, the Mariachi trilogy.
Deniable Operatives: They’re working for the Agency, but if they get caught they’re on their own.
Examples: Mission: Impossible (the original television series), Nikita, Alias, the later Scarlet Pimpernel novels.
The story is usually structured in three acts:
- Prep: Taking the job, assembling the team, gathering information, and planning the job.
- Mission: Executing the plan. Things start going wrong, and against all odds the crew salvages the job.
- Wrap-Up: The getaway and aftermath.
The pace is crucial to maintaining the suspense; in order to drive it, there is usually a “ticking clock” of some sort:
- The specifics of an anti-theft security system (e.g., time-lock vault) or of the law enforcement response.
- A finite window of opportunity (e.g., the precious exhibits are going to be moved to a different location at the end of the week).
- The actions of an opponent (e.g., the financial advisor who embezzled millions is planning to run away to the Cayman Islands).
- The welfare of a victim (e.g., the friend who is the victim of a blackmail threat plans to confront the blackmailer and will get herself in danger, a friend of the crew has been kidnapped and will be killed, or the kid who needs the experimental treatment is near death).
Reversals and complications are essential to maintaining our interest. They may be foreshadowed in the first act but often revealed later. They put pressure on the crew and require them to adjust their plans or even switch to one or more contingency plans.
Although the opposition is considerable, success is rarely on the line for individual actions. There is always the possibility of failure and the suspense is real, but the crew members are superbly competent in their area of expertise, and often above-average in some other areas as well. The complications happen because new factors arise, or because of tensions and disagreements between characters, not because the crew simply fail to accomplish the steps of their plan.
Because of this competence and of the difficulty of the missions, the genre is good for making players feel bad-ass; it’s a great wish-fulfilment fantasy.
Con Job Games
Here are a few games dedicated to heist, con, and mission jobs. While there are plenty of other games that centre around the genre (e.g., Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, Spycraft, Technothrillers, Serenity RPG), what is different about these five is that they offer tools to incorporate the structure of the heist into your own episodes.
Chalk Outlines (Vincent Baker, Lumpley Games, 2002). A barebones, conceptual and free game by Vincent Baker with player-driven narration that falls in the category of Bank Jobs and Other Big Heists. Its premise is a heist with every player character hoping to steal and keep the lion’s share of the loot. The game hinges on the number of complications (0 to 5) obtained with every roll — and a group of players who will throw themselves into the opportunity to role-play their characters’ flaws.
It provides a bit of light-handed structure guidance, but because of the requirement that all the team members compete for the biggest payoff, episodes are likely to end like Fiasco or Reservoir Dogs rather than Mission: Impossible. However, it would be perfectly feasible to ease the throttle on treachery and play the game in a different, more heroic register.
Wilderness of Mirrors (John Wick, Wicked Dead Brewing Company, 2006). The game for playing James Bond- and Jason Bourne-style super-spies, but as a team, closer to the original Mission: Impossible television show as befits the Deniable Operatives category. Light enough mechanics to be superimposed onto a crunchier game system as a game-within-a-game. Each player character takes on a primary role (leader, hitman, face, fixer, shade); all of them are at least competent at every role, but they pick one area of expertise.
The first phase of the game is the Mission Briefing, with the GM proposing a premise for the agents, for example, “Get our ambassador out of Latveria.” The second phase, Planning, consists of the entire group creating not only the plan, but really the entire context of the mission; as they add elements, they earn Mission Points that will be distributed to team members by the Leader in the short third phase, Allocation, and used to add to rolls in the fourth phase, Mission. Roll outcomes determine narrative control; the better the roll, the more narrative control goes to the player who rolled.
Finally, a mechanic allows agents to get additional dice in exchange for betraying their teammates, thus fostering tension and paranoia. There is at least one scapegoat agent who will be betrayed by the leader. This is fine for a one-off, but again it can be adjusted for a more cooperative, longer-running series where you want the bonds between characters to be tested, but not constantly broken.
Blowback (Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat, Two Scooter Press, 2010). A game of Agents on the Lam/Bad Guys for a Good Cause, strongly inspired by the television show Burn Notice. This game adds two elements that are hallmarks of the heist or con job, compared to classic spy missions: reliance on relationships to drive the drama, and enforced scarcity of resources.
As burned spies, the Professionals are disavowed by their original agency; this severely limits the gear, money, and influence they can wield in order to solve problems. Civilians are the friends, family and contacts which the pros must turn to for help when push comes to shove. Every player controls two characters, one Professional and one Civilian. The game divides spy abilities into four areas of expertise: Pavement, Diversion, Commando and Provocateur (see my earlier notes on creating groups of characters for Blowback.)
The game is divided in the Planning phase (to earn mission or prep dice), the Operation phase (to use them in executing the plan), and the Blowback phase (the aftermath of the job and the impact on the characters’ relationships.)
Although like in Wilderness of Mirrors the system still depends on the players’ creativity for coming up with a plan, the opposition is created by the game master in a more traditional way. The GM presents the team with a more fully-fleshed problem to solve as the start of each episode, and prepares key non-player characters such as the Client, the Mook (henchman), and the Boss.
Blowback also features some tools that can be adapted to other systems: one is the Push Pyramid, a series of connected and escalating actions the GM can take, from one game to the next, to inject tension; another is an extensive glossary of spy lingo.
Leverage RPG (Cam Banks, Rob Donoghue, Fred Hicks, Ryan Macklin and Clark Valentine, Margaret Weis Productions, 2010). Based on the television show of the same name, the epitome of Bad Guys for a Good Cause. Like in Wilderness of Mirrors, every team member is capable in all five roles (mastermind, hitter, grifter, hacker, and thief) but has an area of expertise where he or she excels.
This game is yet a little more traditional in its narrative structure: strong GM powers, some creative editing powers for the players. The GM is expected to have more of a scheme ready and nudge players towards it if need be, but is also encouraged to improvise and say ‘yes’ to the players as much as she can. The system tries to offer scaffolding to move from traditional play to more improvisational play.
The book offers excellent advice for game masters, and a solid discussion of various types of confidence jobs and of the structure of a typical heist job. Game mechanics offer a number of ways for players and GM to control the story and pace, including Assets, Complications, Twists, and Flashbacks.
Mistborn Adventure Game (Brandon Sanderson, Alex Flagg, Patrick Kapera and John Snead, Crafty Games, 2012). Based on the Mistborn fantasy series and intended to be played as Bad Guys for a Good Cause or even as a classic Bank Job or Other Big Heist, it’s the only game among the five to be explicitly set in a fantasy world that includes magic.
This game also has the lightest approach of the lot to introducing structure; it uses no mechanics to drive the story toward the plan of action which the players create in the planning phase. The plan is created by answering a series of questions and filling the scheme and plan of action sheets. The crew then tries to execute this plan, while the GM throws twists and opposition in their way.
The only use of the planning forms is to serve as a road map for the players, and help them get back on course during the game; there is no mechanical enforcement like the allocation of Mission Points in Wilderness of Mirrors or of Prep Dice in Blowback. However, the difference on a roll between the number of successes obtained and the difficulty level creates Complications in the case of a negative outcome, used much in the same way as the Concessions in Chalk Outline.
I confess that I originally thought this would not be sufficient, but every game I have run or played turned out well, and even very uncoordinated, fractious groups did markedly better with their plan to go back to when they started stalling.
Next: The Game Master’s Toolbox