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 drew elements from these sources to discuss more generally what game masters can do to prepare this kind of adventure in any system and provided links to online resources for the genre.
In Part 3, I talk about running the adventure per se, and trouble-shooting typical problems.
Running the Game
As discussed in the first two parts of this series, stories in this genre typically unfold in three acts: Planning the Job, Executing the Mission, and Wrap-Up.
The planning or preparation phase typically include getting the job or the mission, and meeting the client if there is one; investigating to get more information to work with; and planning the operation. Future complications may be foreshadowed.
Say Yes+. Let’s start with this before we get distracted: your best tools are to say “yes”, “yes and –“, “yes but –” or “no, but –” to your players’ ideas. You’ve probably read this somewhere else, especially if you are familiar with one or more of the games I examined in Part 1 of this discussion, and it’s a basic tenet of improvisational theatre as well.
In practical terms, it means that (1) the entire group, players and GM, should be roughly on the same page for the kind of story they want to play, (2) the GM should gleefully pillage her players’ ideas, and (3) the results of a roll should never be pass-or-fail but about what direction the story will move in.
As long as there isn’t gross disparity between what adventure people want to play that day, the GM’s life is in fact made easier by this approach: she doesn’t have to meticulously plan every detail of the scenario, and she will enjoy the same sort of surprise and delight as her players at the twists the story will take.
Think of the story as a little stream, flowing down a hill, with many pebbles in its way. With every roll required of a player, the GM should be thinking of branching paths for the current, but in the end it will all flow downhill along the gradient. When a player makes a roll and gets a “failure”, what this means is that the GM gets to throw a pebble in the character’s path.
In the planning phase, this often means giving incomplete or obsolete information, or alerting the opposition to the crew’s interest. Typically, this will lead to complications and plot twists later during the execution of the plan.
Clarity. What you, the GM, need in order to be able to answer the players’ questions and respond to the crew’s actions is clarity. First, you must make the essential situation — usually what brings the client to the team — clear for the players. Keep it simple; the players will do the job of making this into a complex story.
When answering the players’ questions and adjudicating die rolls, keep the problem, sets, and GM characters in your mind’s eye and use your bullet-point notes. This is what will allow you to answer the players’ questions without having to create a trail of bread crumbs in advance. Is the big boss nervous that his wife will find out about his affair? Vainglorious and eager to open up to a reporter? Fond of the arts despite being a greedy bastard? Play that up.
Finally, you may need to help your players clarify the roles. In Part 2 we talked about some roles you can use to provide every team member with a share of the spotlight; however, there always comes a time when we’re not sure who does what — for example, whether surveillance of the henchman’s house should fall to the thief, or the con artist, or the tech guy. Gently nudge things so that everyone will get something interesting to do.
Setting the pace. As discussed in Part 1, pacing is important to the genre; there is almost always a deadline looming to push the action forward. What starts the clock at the beginning of your episode? For example, why would the crew do this job right now? Is there a window of opportunity to steal a precious work of art, is someone’s life in danger, is the big boss about to disappear with the money he embezzled? Make sure the players understand that the clock has started ticking.
The players’ perfect plan. In the first act, the crew will hatch a plan to accomplish their objective. As experienced gamers know, it’s easy for a group to dissolve into minutia, indecision and bickering at this point, so it’s useful to have some guidelines to planning.
For example, you can adapt the scheme and plan of action sheets from Crafty Games’ Mistborn Adventure Game, or a similar questionnaire to help the group establish the steps of their plan. As GM, guide the players through answering the questions on the left-hand side (scheme worksheet) and the objectives on the right-hand side (plan of action). Then take the worksheet and add a few twists, allies and enemies to the plan of action.
See how much work the players did for me, creating the complications they’d like to see? Naturally, I added more elements, but their ideas were used up in the episode without me having to plan all this in advance. You can do the same for just about any game you want.
The mission phase is where the plans will be put into action. The team members execute their part of the plan, often separately, and the focus shifts from one character to the next. Things start going wrong or the situation changes, forcing the team to react and salvage or modify their plan.
Very competent characters. The key point to remember is that the crew are experts in their own domain and the job should not fail casually but because of unforeseen complications (see Part 1). You should ask for a die roll only when it is dramatically interesting, and you have something exciting planned for any roll result.
For example, a skilled thief who fails a roll when trying to get into the highly secure vault should not simply be unable to open the lock. Instead, she may realise that there is also a retinal scanner and she needs her partners to find a way to spoof the scan; or she may hear someone unexpected coming towards the vault. A bad roll should just be a chance to spin the action in a new direction and give the crew another way to be cool and clever.
In the words of Vincent Baker: “Be a fan of the players’ characters.”
Pacing. There are two factors driving the pacing when the mission is under way: first, the clock you wound up and started at the beginning of the adventure is still ticking; second, to be faithful to the genre you need to work a couple of strategic twists and reversals into the story (see the discussion of plot structure in Part 2.) These twists usually happen in the first and second thirds of the Mission Phase. Give the players just enough time to overcome the first complication and just at the moment they feel like this job is going to work out after all, introduce the second, larger twist.
You already have some tools in hand to do this. You can use the complications created by bad die rolls to bring in complication, even if you have to wait a bit. “Remember that roll when Slick was distracting the guards? Turns out there was another guard who wasn’t at the front desk — he was patrolling the museum. He hasn’t seen you yet, but you can hear his footsteps just around the corner and see the beam of his flashlight on the far wall. What do you do?”
Of course, the dice don’t always cooperate. If the players have had an uncanny streak of dice luck and it’s really getting time to bring in a plot twist, just do it — but make it clear you’re not “punishing” the players for their success, you’re offering them another chance to be awesome. Maybe you can also up the stakes as you throw an unexpected obstacle in their path: for example, the painting was switched for a fake, but this may be the chance to get back at a foe by proving that he has committed insurance fraud.
To maintain the sense of a clock ticking, switch the spotlight around. Whenever one of the crew comes up on a new complication, leave them on this little cliffhanger and switch to another player character. This gives each of them time to think, and helps create a sense of every team member’s task as a part of one big coordinated effort, a gear in their Rube Goldberg machine.
In the same spirit, don’t stint on using cut scenes and flashbacks to explain what is going on and provide transitions between main scenes. If you want to take a leaf from the Leverage RPG, you can even introduce a game mechanic to use them.
In the Leverage RPG, there are three ways an “Establishment Flashback” can be triggered to help a player character get out of a tricky situation.
- A GM character can trigger it by inviting the player to fill in the blank (“How do you plan to get out of this one?”), in which case the player can describe the flashback and pay a Plot Point to the GM.
- Another player character can trigger it in the same way (“I sure hope you did that thing earlier,”) in which case the first player can give this person the Plot Point instead and narrates the flashback.
- The player can request the flashback and pay a Plot Point, but then has to roll against the GM and the narration will depend on the roll result.
Parker’s in a desperate standoff and the Mark (the major opponent) is holding the Client at gunpoint, threatening to kill him. Parker’s player spends a Plot Point to flashback to Parker’s earlier break-in to his office where she finds his gun in the drawer, removes the bullets and puts it back. Parker’s player rolls against the GM. If she rolls less than or equal to the GM’s result, the GM describes a flashback to the Mark checking his gun, frowning, and reloading it. If she rolls higher, the Mark’s gun isn’t loaded.
You can use this sort of mechanic if you are looking for more support from the rules to enforce the genre or if you are concerned about over-use by the players, but you might want to try using the technique in a free-form way, just encouraging your players to create their own flashbacks, and see if that works for your group.
The wrap-up phase is usually much shorter than the first two and comprises the getaway (or blow-off) and the aftermath or a short epilogue. We may get foreshadowing of dangling plot threads which will lead to a future episode.
The Getaway. This is usually a very short scene where we see the crew escaping, and possibly gloating in full view of their opponents. It’s OK to allow the players to be smug — and a humiliated opponent might make an excellent recurring enemy, bent on revenge.
There is also often a retroactive explanation of how the crew got out of trouble and managed the escape in the form of flashbacks. It can be a lot of fun to roll for actions and fit the escape to the results; the players know the crew got away, but they still have to show how much of the plan they salvaged and how successful the job itself was.
Aftermath. The job will have repercussions; in the words of Elizabeth Sampat, author of Blowback: “Show them what they did.” If they are Bad Guys for a Good Cause, show them how they helped the Client; if they are Deniable Agents, give them some praise from the Agency, etc.
They may also have acquired enemies and allies. Enemies may be best shown through cut scenes, plotting revenge, but a threatening phone call or an ominous clipping from a newspaper about one of the crew’s contacts being put in the hospital by a gas leak explosion work well too.
Push and tug on the relationships they have with civilians and supporting characters. Did they cash in any favours? Did they use and manipulate friends to get to their end on the job? You can use the Push Pyramid from Blowback:
The GM starts the game with the bottom level options all available or “unlocked”. When a relationship changes between important characters (e.g., the crew and their supporting cast, contacts, allies, and even enemies), the GM can use one of the available Push Pyramid options against either character in the changed relationship. Once a move is used, it’s crossed out from the list, but it unlocks new moves above on the pyramid.
Any time the Push Pyramid says “character,” it means “player character or GM character.” Note that Blowback uses a game mechanic to rate the strength of relationships and how stressed they are, but it’s still possible to use it with systems that do not attach mechanical stats to relationships, based on consensus between the two players or the player and GM.
This approach provides tension and drive in the over-arching narrative. If you prefer your games to be episodic, skip this; or you can create your own pyramid to suit the flavour of your game by rearranging or altering elements.
Here are a few common problems and how to deal with them. (If you think of other ones, leave a comment and I’ll add them to the list.)
Are the PCs untouchable? Is it too easy? This is often a complaint from GMs who come from a more traditional style of play. They are concerned that they will be just handing everything to the crew if they don’t make things “harder.”
The answer is to displace the risk from the PCs’ hit points to more emotional stakes. Playing for keeps doesn’t mean inflicting wounds or refusing to open the safe door. It means ratcheting up the suspense by endangering their friends, threatening to expose their secrets, shortening the fuse, rebooting the server, or encountering an old enemy.
By all means, throw opposition in their path, but always in a way that makes the story more exciting and give the team a chance to be amazing. Look at their character sheets, listen to the players, and threaten them where they care to force them to react.
2. The Grinder
The flip side of the cake-walk: is the game grinding down to the minutia of skill roll after skill roll instead of being a fast-paced tale of daring and hijinks? Don’t ask for rolls unless a failure makes the story interesting. If you can’t think of something cool to do with the plot on a bad roll, then there should not be a roll.
If you have trouble thinking of options, enlist your player’s help. “What would happen if Kaminski was unable to find the location of the files?” “What would Lisa do if she was unable to spot the sniper?” They will often have great ideas for “fun” failures and they will claim a personal stake in helping the story rebound.
3. Analysis Paralysis
Are the players stalled? Do they have trouble figuring out the next step? That’s when having a written plan, no matter how sketchy, is very useful. If they are running out of ideas and falling silent, unable to think what to do next, help them look back at their objectives and the obstacles they have identified.
Ask lots of questions. “Whose faces on the crew does the Bad Guy know?” “What’s his weak spot?” “Who else could get to the elevator?” “Can anyone else help you?” Remind them of their friends, contacts, allies; after all, owing someone a favour can lead to another adventure down the line.
4. The Browbeater
Every once in a while, a group includes a player who will simply need to argue about every part of a plan until everyone, exhausted, agrees with him or the group falls apart. Dealing with the holdout player can be very difficult, especially in a genre that requires the group to come up with a plan in the first phase and to work together as a smooth-running machine.
If appeals to courtesy, common sense, and pacing don’t work, you may need to play something different with that player and not invite him for games that focus so much on planning, player cooperation, and intra-party relationships. I wish I had a better answer, but it’s not for everybody.