5 Ideas on How to Run a Heist

A heist is a theft with a focus on planning, execution and the aftermath. Heists are a classic scenario that is common in movies, television and books, but they’re a scenario that’s rarely seen in tabletop RPG games. We all know what a heist is and have enjoyed movies such as Ocean’s 11, Fast Five, The Italian Job and National Treasure, but as GMs we might not know when and how to actually run a heist in our game. In this article, I’ll provide 5 ideas to help you run a heist in any setting from fantasy to sci-fi.

Your group of players might not be a criminals, but sometimes a heist scenario can be a new and exciting way to defeat the big bad evil guy. Even if you don’t want to run a full heist adventure, you can add in some heist like elements – which challenge players to look at alternatives like planning and stealth versus simply bashing in a door and killing stuff.

1) Provide Something to Steal

You can’t have a heist without a prize to steal. This prize can be a jewel, a pile of money, secret plans, a powerful weapon, an important magic relic, a map or even a McGuffin. You could modify the classic heist and even make the prize a key to escape from or free someone from prison. Whatever you are setting up as the prize should have a value to your players, their nemesis or both. This prize has to be valuable enough for your players to need to attain it and for their nemesis to need to protect it.

An important consideration here to consider is how do the players find out about the prize. This can be an important plot point when you are developing twists later in the heist scenario. Were they hired by a patron to retrieve the prize, has an old ally asked for help getting a stolen item back, did an old adversary come to them to join forces against a shared enemy or did they simply stumble onto the opportunity.

2) Provide an Exotic Location

Often the protected location of the prize is far more interesting and important than the prize itself. Nobody is going to get excited about a heist to break into some building in some town to get some gold coins. You need an exciting backdrop for the heist. You should think about placing the prize somewhere cool, somewhere hard to get to or both. The more exotic the better.

  • An evil temple located in the heart of enemy territory
  • a vault in the basement of a huge castle or casino
  • a control room located in a flying fortress
  • a famous art gallery hosting a gala with all the famous and powerful in attendence
  • a luxury train traveling through the mountains

3) Provide a Nemesis for your Players to Hate

Like any adventure, having a bad guy your players love to hate is critical. Does your heist involve a recurring villain or maybe you have introduced an entirely new enemy for them to face.

Your awesome prize and exotic location are great, but taking the prize from the bad guy should be a huge motivation for them too. If you can create a scenario where the players need to actually foil their nemesis and getting the prize is the only way, you are on the way to running a nice heist scenario. Some ways to create a nemesis for players to hate in a heist scenario:

  • she stole the prize from the players or their ally
  • he is a recurring villain and your players want to stop anything he is doing
  • she is going to destroy the world and they need to stop her by stealing the evil magic relic
  • he is an upstanding citizen and stealing the object will finally expose him (and prove innocence of players)
  • simple revenge

4) Provide Challenging Obstacles to Overcome with Planning

Now that you have something to steal and an exotic location to place it, its time to plan the heist. A heist is more than just a simple robbery. The need for a plan comes from the fact that the nemesis has set up really tough obstacles to protect the prize. The heist should be presented an impossible, until details emerge which makes stealing the prize a possibilty. This detail could be that there is a gap in security when the guards shift change, the diamonds will be on display in the open for the gala or that the an unhappy insider is willing to reveal the secrets of the vault for a price.

Now that a heist is possible, you can set up the obstacles protecting the prize on your own or get your players involved. Dedicate a portion or entire game session to learning about the prize, location and planning the heist. Give the players a hideout, a safe house if they are on the run or even let them build a replica of the vault in a warehouse to practice.

If you are creating the heist scenario make sure that you create obstacles that challenge each of your players and avoid having one player be the superstar.

  • climbing, traps and stealth scenarios for your sneaky characters
  • social, disguise or romantic scenarios for your charming characters
  • goons to take out for your fighters
  • magic/technology obstacles for your wizards, hackers, etc.
  • surveillance and sniping tasks for your ranged attackers
  • small places and spaces for your smaller characters

If you are working with your players to create the heist scenario together then take all their ideas for obstacles and ask them how they will overcome them.

You shouldn’t have players fail during the planning stage. If they tell you they are going to run surveillance for a week, then let them know about the weakness in the security they found. If they need to romance the duchess to get a key, then have the bard learn that she will be at an upcoming ball. If they want to see a map of the place, let them meet a contact at city hall or be given it by the patron. If they need to know information that is key to success which they missed, have an NPC provide information or via some other way in game. If there are skills they need that are outside of their proficiencies change the scenario to remove that obstacle or provide them with NPCs to fill in the gap.

5) Plot Twists

Once the players have their foolproof plan in place, it is time to run the heist. Running the heist should be fun for everyone as it goes off without a hitch, that is until things go bad.

In a heist, a number of unexpected events should occur that adjust the scenario at the last second or during the heist. You might even allow the full heist to go off without any issues, but then hammer your players with a huge plot twist. Some plot twists that will really throw things into chaos are:

  • the patron that hired them has turned against them
  • the old ally who asked them for help is actually an even bigger enemy
  • a detail emerges revealing one of the crew has betrayed them and taken the prize for themselves
  • one of the characters (hopefully an NPC) will have made secret arrangements with some outside party, who will interfere (police, order of wizards, government agents)
  • the characters are suddenly captured as they attain the prize, as their plan was allowed to proceed and was known all along
  • the characters end up having to leave without the loot, but get away
  • the prize was a diversion to occupy the players while their nemesis successfully completed another evil plot
  • the characters are forced to make a trade for the prize with someone to aid them in foiling their nemesis

You might want to let the players come up with their own secondary twist. If you tell them the patron has turned against them, give them a chance to get creative. Ask them if they took the time to create a replica of the prize. If so, maybe they actually handed the replica to their betrayer and they are all on an island laughing with the real prize drinking piña coladas.

Let us know about any heist you and your players have run in the comments below.

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Shawn Ellsworth

Shawn is an author and co-founder of Tribality.com. He first got into tabletop RPGs through ninjas and then by playing a Kender in Dragonlance. Years later, he can be found running games in the Nentir Vale and his own Seas of Vodari campaign setting.