Having recently talked about mysteries in games and fiction, I now expand on the related genre of spy missions, heists, capers, and con jobs. In Part 1, I briefly looked at some staples of the genre in books, television and movies, then I examined a handful of game systems that attempt to bring the heist structure to role-playing.
In Part 2, I draw elements from these sources to discuss more generally what game masters can do to prepare this kind of adventure in any system. I’ll round this up by providing links to some nifty online resources for the genre.
In Part 3, I will talk about running the adventure per se, and trouble-shooting typical problems.
The Game Master’s Toolbox
Although in Part 1 we looked at five heist-specific games, what if you don’t want to switch to a different system but you want to run a caper or con job to your game? Here are some tools for the GM, which I gathered from the sources discussed in Part 1 and many more.
Creating a Series
Setting: Contrary to what you may first think, you are not limited to contemporary settings; you can have a con job game in a historical, fantasy, or science fiction world. If you think about it, Robin Hood stories were all about the heist or con job: stealing the sheriff of Nottingham’s treasure, freeing an outlaw in broad daylight, discrediting a greedy baron, etc. Similarly, most Cyberpunk or Shadowrun missions fit right in.
Morality and Mortality: You need to have group agreement on sub-genre (see discussion in Part 1): are the crew Bad Guys or Good Guys? Are they in it for profit, revenge, patriotic duty, or to help a friend in trouble? A rule of thumb of the genre is that the more selfish or darker the protagonists’ motive is, the more lethal the complications and aftermath tend to be. It’s important to discuss assumptions on motives, grittiness and assumed immunity with the entire group so that you don’t have part of the group expecting The A-Team and part expecting Desperado.
Well-Defined Roles: A hallmark of the genre is that all team members are selected for their ability and are extremely competent in at least one area. This approach is common in role-playing games (think of the fighter, cleric, mage, and thief of classic fantasy RPGs), but exaggerated in the heist genre, so you want to think about adding or defining roles on the team. Here some examples:
- Mastermind, con-man, wheelman/pilot, strong man/mechanic (The A-Team)
- Mastermind, hitter, grifter, hacker, thief (Leverage)
- Street samurai, mage or shaman, decker, face, rigger (Shadowrun)
- Mastermind, face, strong man, techie, master of disguise (Mission: Impossible)
See also Part 1 for examples from heist, mission or con job games.
For an excellent discussion of role overlap and niche immunity in superhero games as a sports analogy which is entirely portable to the heist genre, see the essay The Starting Five by David Caffee. In Caffee’s classification, for example, the cast from Leverage could be Nate Ford as Big Man/Center, Parker as Power Forward, Sophie Devereaux as Small Forward, Eliot Spencer as Point Guard, and Alec Hardison as Shooting Guard. But depending on which episode you watch, these roles are shuffled.
The changeover, where one team member has to cover for another in an area not of his or her expertise, is a classic complication of the genre. In addition, crew members are often well-rounded in other areas as well as their speciality and may intentionally switch roles from time to time for reasons of tactics, training, or interest.
Preparing an Episode
As you gather your notes to run a heist game, resign yourself to open-ended resolution. Forget about plotting for the end of an adventure; all you should plan is a really good beginning. Make plenty of bullet-point notes; your players will do the rest. A good beginning includes a Problem, a Cast, and Sets.
Set up is a situation with an adversary in a position of strength which your crew will want to disrupt for some reason. For example, the adversary (a.k.a. mark or target) is, in increasing order of difficulty for the crew:
- In possession of something somebody else wants (e.g., diamonds, stolen plans, compromising photos, nuclear detonator.)
- About to do something that someone else wants to stop (e.g., ruin a competitor, escape to a country without an extradition treaty, win a rigged election.)
- Refusing to do something that someone else wants done (e.g., sign a diplomatic treaty, authorize an expensive medical procedure, implement safety measures in a factory.)
Note that Cases B and C can often be reduced to Case A by collapsing the problem to a critical piece of information that must be stolen in order to stop the adversary or force him to act (e.g., proof of embezzlement, list of accomplices).
There are usually two reasons the crew will get involved with the Problem, one overt and rational, and one emotional. The overt reason is easy and depends on what sub-genre your group decided to play.
- Bank Jobs and Other Big Heists: A chance for a really big payoff.
- Bad Guys for a Good Cause: Someone needs help!
- Agents on the Lam: A chance to figure out who framed them and why.
- Deniable Agents: The call of duty.
But that’s only the surface of things. The story becomes much better when you add an emotional reason for one or more characters. There can be a different reason for different crew members, for example:
- Revenge on a foe.
- Helping a friend.
- Sympathy for a cause.
- Rivalry with another team interested in the same job.
- Thrill of accomplishing what no one else has.
- Guilt, or making up for a past wrong.
- Personal experience with the same kind of problem that brought in the client.
The more personal the motives are, the more involved with the story the team will be, so tug hard on those heart strings when you pick a problem and create the cast. And if they are on board for different motives, you can get interesting tension between characters.
First, create an adversary that will be sufficiently impressive to make the heist a bold operation (e.g., a business mogul, a mob boss, a cult leader, a casino owner.) Give him a goal, some strengths, and an Achilles heel.
If the heist is simply about acquiring wealth (e.g., robbing a bank, stealing a priceless diamond, switching the Mona Lisa for a copy) then you may not think you need much of a villain to face. However, the heist is always better if the team measure themselves against someone rather than just a security system, so consider using a doggedly determined police detective or insurance investigator as the adversary.
In addition, the adversary is often assisted by a henchman and some minions. The henchman is a middleman who usually works for the adversary — voluntarily, unknowingly, or through coercion — and represents a moderate threat (e.g., chief of security, mob enforcer, FBI agent.) Give the henchman a reason to work for the opposition, something about which he is overconfident, and something that gets him distracted from the plan.
The minions are the faceless hordes who accomplish the adversary’s goals and oppose the crew (e.g., security guards, gang members, mobsters.)
There is often a client; if the crew are motivated by greed, revenge, or even duty, the client may not need be more than a business contact and not even a particularly trustworthy one — the classic “Mr. Johnson” of Shadowrun. If the crew members are Bad Guys for a Good Cause, the client is usually the adversary’s victim as well. The client has a problem, a plan to solve this problem if the crew does not help (usually a very bad plan), a means of being helpful to the team to get them started on their scheme, and a possibly means of being trouble for them too.
As an option, to flesh out your driving characters — the adversary, the client and the henchman — consider using the passions from Unknown Armies (rage, fear and noble stimuli). If you are not familiar with this idea, check out Ryan Macklin’s discussion.
The sets include at the very least the adversary’s stronghold, the place where getting to the team’s objective is most difficult (e.g., casino, bank, corporate headquarters, mansion, even the Capitol Building.) Inside that stronghold should zones of progressively more difficult access, at the very least:
- a cool or green zone that is relatively easy to get into with modest effort (e.g., lobby, foyer, terrace, indoor parking, landscaped grounds);
- a warm or yellow zone that takes more effort (e.g., employees’ break room, mid-level offices, dining room, gym locker room);
- a hot or red zone that is very difficult to break into and only the best can reach (e.g., vault, CEO’s office, top-secret laboratory, private library).
You will have at least one other important set: the crew’s headquarters, even if they are just temporary. Resist the temptation to create it yourself; allow them nearly complete control over their own sanctum. I say “nearly” because every once in a while, it’s OK to threaten it but unless it’s a very rare threat coming after a long period of complete safety there, it will merely annoy the players, make them feel cheated and drive their characters to paranoia. It is great fun to push the story there as the result of an escalation, but not as the starting point of your series.
The crew HQ can also be a temporary location which needs to be secured first. In that case, provide some challenge but let the crew get settled fairly rapidly so they can get to the next planning stage.
In addition there may be less important sets that you can make up on the fly; all you need in order to be ready to improvise is a few location ideas and a bullet-point list for each of features and things that can happen there. To get some ideas, look at the list of fight locations from Fortress of Shadow; although it was intended for Feng Shui, you can use the idea and make your own for shady meetings, investigation, etc.
Basic Plot Structure: Your basic heist or con story includes three acts — Preparation, Mission, and Wrap-up (see Part 1). However, you can refine this to more steps by introducing a few classic twists, for example:
- The client approaches the crew.
- The team researches the opposition; this is often the point for information download from the GM in condensed form.
- The team investigates the obstacles and prepares a plan.
- The plan is put in action, but runs into a significant complication.
- The crew overcomes the initial complication and moves on the revised plan, but encounters a second, larger complication when it’s too late to pull out.
- The crew overcomes the second complication and salvages partial or complete success.
- The getaway.
- Epilogue: we briefly see the aftermath of the job on both adversaries and allies.
You don’t need to plan these steps in any detail when preparing your adventure, just make yourself a short list on a piece of paper so you can cross out the steps as they unfold. They will almost certainly look very different from what you imagined; just get comfortable with the rhythm of the genre.
Next: Running the Game and Trouble-Shooting
Heist and Spy Games
- The Best Heist Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen
- Heists and Haunted Houses — by Joel Fox on RolePlayingTips.com
- How to GM Awesome Heists, Part 2 — on RolePlayingTips.com
- Free Heists Deck Helps You Run Awesome Heists — on RoleplayingTips.com
- Modus Operandi — the unofficial source for espionage role-playing games, providing adventures, rules, character sheets, reviews, and fan fiction.
Cited in this Post
- The Starting Five — Role overlap and niche immunity.
- Using UA Passions to Develop Depth — by Ryan Macklin
- List of Feng Shui fight locations — on Fortress of Shadow