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Mastering Intrigue


Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 118
Movies, television series, and novels frequently depict the same scenario: a team of experts, each of its members able to contribute a specific and unique skill set, tries to pull off a complex heist. Whether it’s jewelry thieves breaking into the diamond exchange, a rescue team extracting a high-value target from a maximum-security prison, or even former convicts hired to find and report on vulnerabilities in a bank’s vault security, detailed and hair-raising tales of carefully planned heists (often gone awry with thrilling twists and turns) abound in popular storytelling. It only stands to reason, then, that GMs running a game based on intrigue and subterfuge might want to introduce the excitement and thrills of a complex heist scenario.

Running a successful heist requires the GM to understand of the strengths and weaknesses of the participants, and to grasp how to build challenges for them that play to their strengths.

An ideal heist allows every character in the party a chance to shine, making it fun for everyone involved.

What is Different?

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Adventuring is about overcoming obstacles to achieve a goal. Normally, PCs react to whatever impediments are set before them—kick in a door, disarm the traps, or slay the monsters. Heists flip this familiar script: the PCs carefully research everything that might stand between them and their goal, and construct plans to disrupt the status quo, while the GM must determine how the monsters and NPCs react to the PCs’ machinations. In essence, when planning a heist, the PCs write an adventure and the GM reacts.

Parties will often split up for a heist. The GM should treat each member of the party (or subgroups of two or three) as if she were an individual adventuring group, and provide opportunities for all characters to showcase their respective skills. Working backward, consider each hero’s strengths and each player’s interests, and then present an obstacle against which that hero is most likely to excel. In a well-planned heist, every character (and by extension, player) needs an opportunity to take center stage—PCs will naturally gravitate toward activities at which they excel, and will want to build their heist schemes around those skills. Making sure the pieces of the heist interconnect—that many goals can be achieved only by characters working on different tasks in tandem—ensures that each player has a stake in what the others are doing. This sense of teamwork is the driving force behind making a heist rewarding for everyone involved.

Building a Heist

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Build your heist encounters using the following four steps.

Other Factors

Limitations and betrayal aren’t part of every heist, but they are common enough to be addressed here. Use them with discretion—particularly betrayal.

Inhibitions and Limitations: Every heist should have consequences for both failure and success. On top of the consequences of succeeding or failing to complete the heist, work layers of consequences into the steps of the adventure, tying them to certain obstacles. If you suspect the PCs will be tempted to just bull their way through a heist (maiming or killing foes who get in their way or damaging property indiscriminately), those consequences should be severe, and can even cause them to lose or damage the goal.

For example, perhaps the female heir to a noble house wishes to discredit her foppish brother and prevent him from claiming rulership over the family, so she hires the characters to steal the family will. She does not wish to see any harm come to the family or its servants, nor does she want any damage done to the property. The heroes now have a motivation of restraint, so they must come up with a stealthy, nonviolent means of pulling off the heist.

Betrayal: Sometimes a heist is just a feint or a con game itself. Someone wants the characters out of the way, so she arranges for the group to get caught while trying to pull off a bogus heist. This kind of double-cross can typically be used only once (possibly twice, if the reasons are vastly varied). If used effectively, it can make for a real thrill of an adventure, as the characters are forced to adjust their plans and wing it, or talk their way out of the predicament. Leave a few loose ends in the betrayer’s plans so that an especially savvy group can figure out the scheme and turn the tables.

Small Encounters

In a heist, often only two characters work together, and single characters may work alone, independently of the rest of the party. In this case, the subgroup or individual functions as a separate adventuring party with its own Average Party Level (APL). GMs can judge how difficult to make an individual task by applying an appropriate Challenge Rating to it. In the Designing Encounters section of the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook recommends subtracting 1 from the APL for a group of three or fewer players. When considering how many guards a single character should be able to take out, or how difficult a trap a thief should be able to disarm, GMs should set the Challenge Rating according to this formula. Every character should be handling tasks that play to his or her strengths, so the challenge ought to be appropriate despite operating alone. Easy and average encounters should make up the bulk of heist obstacles, since a single character or a duo is already behind the curve for the expected power of a three-person party.

Step 1: Establish a Goal

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Objectives for a heist come in many shapes and sizes. Some heists might even have a combined goal or multiple goals.

Steal an Item: Such items could include a priceless work of art such as a statue or painting, a magic item such as a ring or sword, or a collection of gemstones, jewelry, or rare coins. Most often, pulling off a successful heist of this type relies more on stealth and misdirection than violence and destruction. An especially large item (like a safe, vault, or vehicle) adds a logistical complication—trying to move the larger item increases the heist’s difficulty.

Steal Information: This is similar to stealing an item, but involves swiping information, such as an ancient tome, legal documents, or scrolls. This goal might require memorizing or copying the information rather than absconding with a physical item.

Retrieve a Creature: Such a caper might involve stealing a rare or exotic animal or pet, kidnapping an unwilling victim, or rescuing an imprisoned target. Sometimes information possessed by the target is the true object of the heist, rather than the person himself. The heist proceeds far differently depending on whether the target is a willing accomplice or a kidnapping victim. Either way, dealing with an NPC who might not be as skilled as the PCs makes escaping the more difficult part of the heist, rather than reaching the prize in the first place.

Escape: Rather than trying to gain entry to a forbidden locale, the PCs begin trapped somewhere, and must escape. If some PCs are detained and others are free, they can all still participate, though communicating plans back and forth presents its own challenge.

Replace an Item with a Forgery: This type of heist requires the PCs to steal something and put a forgery in its place. They will need to successfully create the forgery, steal the original, and plant the forgery, all without being detected. There are numerous reasons to perform this goal, rather than simply steal the item. For instance, the PCs might do this if there would be dire consequences were the item to go missing entirely, possibly leading to innocents facing punishment, and they might also do this to make the item easier to fence without the authorities searching for it. In many cases, the forgery is difficult to create because the forger doesn’t have access to the original. In rarer cases, the PCs might have a brief period after acquiring the item in which they can create the forgery before putting the fake in the original’s place.

Destroy Property: Incriminating evidence, a priceless artifact, or even an entire prison might need to be destroyed in order to further someone’s goals. Heists of this nature are less subtle than most, though sabotaging a piece of machinery or using timed explosives or spells might allow the PCs to avoid tipping their hand until they’ve had time for a clean escape.

Snatch and Return: Sometimes, it might be necessary to perform a heist twice: once to steal an object, and a second time to return it. This type of heist is similar to replacing an item with a forgery, and effectively involves two separate heists.

Test Security: This type of heist is really a trial or practice run designed to test existing security systems. The owners of the target hire the PCs to fake a heist in order to expose any weaknesses in the security. A security test can bring a big payout or earn valuable favors. Alternatively, the hiring party might not want the weaknesses of its security system known, and might turn to lethal tactics to keep the PCs silent. However, it might make a good single-session palate cleanser between adventures with higher stakes. In this type of heist, a valueless object typically serves as a stand-in for the goal.

Step 2: Determine Scope

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When figuring out how large and involved the heist will be, a GM should consider how much time she wants to invest in the encounter, both in preparation and at the table. The relative importance the heist plays in the group’s ongoing adventures also affects the scope, as does, in most cases, the value of their goal. A minor goal that should take only a day or less to achieve should be a simple heist, and one that’s vital to the campaign’s progress should be complex.

Simple: A simple heist usually requires one to two obstacles per person and can typically be planned and pulled off in a single day. Simple heists require little work in advance, and generally don’t derail the larger storyline for long. They are also quick and manageable as a first introduction to using heists in a campaign. Examples include breaking someone out of a town jail, a spur-ofthe- moment theft from a merchant’s shop, or stealing documents from a low-level government bureaucrat.

Moderate: A moderate heist typically includes three to four obstacles per person and is likely to require several days to complete. Moderate heists function well as a main feature of a single game session or two, and require at least a few hours to plan. They are most suitable for players already familiar with how to plan and execute a heist, who can handle more complexity. Some examples include replacing a signet ring with a forgery long enough to craft fake documents (and then returning the original), rescuing a prisoner from solitary confinement in a well-guarded prison, or stealing a valuable item from a keep.

Complex: A complex heist includes five or more obstacles per person and could take a week, a month, or even longer to complete. This is the centerpiece of a major campaign arc and requires planning over an extended period of time. The heist itself will likely dominate multiple gaming sessions and drive a central plot thread in the campaign. Examples of major heist arcs include stealing the crown jewels from a heavily guarded castle or smuggling a political prisoner and his family out of enemy territory. Large, complex heists require days or weeks of reconnaissance, placing people on the “inside” in trusted roles, side adventures to acquire detailed floor plans, timed practice runs, and intimate knowledge of traps, tricks, and spells. This is the kind of intricate thievery around which entire movies or thriller novels are built.

Step 3: Devise Obstacles

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Even the most complex heist can and should be broken down into smaller, more manageable chunks of work that eliminate obstacles standing between the crew and their goal. Most should be suitable for an individual or a team of two or three, using their skills and knowledge. They are usually dependent on a tight time frame or a particular sequence, giving each member a moment of glory. A GM should consider what sorts of challenges her players will enjoy playing out and the types of NPCs they love to thwart.

GMs should focus on challenges that test the skills and resources a party already possesses; alternate challenges may exist, but PCs are less likely to investigate leads they can’t accomplish. Each obstacle should challenge one or two characters, with roughly an equal number of challenges for each character. If some characters have similar abilities (such as two combat-focused characters with few skills), remember they’ll be competing for the same pool of obstacles and might want to work together on them.

Obstacles should have at least two solutions to prevent the game from grinding to a halt and to encourage group cooperation to overcome the challenges before them. Don’t just look at the group’s skill bonuses and give them challenges that only one character can meet. Rather, start by thinking of the types of challenges a character likes to take on and set the difficulty based on what makes sense for the circumstances. The level of difficulty—and even the skills used—can easily change while you’re running the heist.

For example, the party needs to swap the magical ring on a nobleman’s finger with a fake. The rogue in the group is good at impersonation and smuggling, so challenges that emphasize those talents may include posing as the nobleman’s manservant to convince a jeweler to craft a cheap replacement gem, then later sneaking a sleeping potion into the manor so another character (who has gained an audience with the nobleman, but only after being carefully searched) can slip it into his host’s food.

Number of Obstacles: A heist’s scope determines the number of challenges each PC should face. For a moderate or complex heist, work in stages so that there are break points in the heist. There could be several obstacles the PCs can overcome during a noble’s banquet, several more to face in town using what they’ve gained during the banquet, and another set once they’re ready to go into the fortress using what they picked up in town. A heist might even become extended if one member of the party gets captured and the rest want to rescue him.

Not every task needs to be mandatory for the PCs. GMs should have some idea which tasks are essential and which provide advantages but aren’t strictly necessary. The scale listed in Step 3 provides a starting point, with the minimum number of tasks (three per person for a moderate heist, for example) as the necessary obstacles to overcome. Optional obstacles or multiple paths with varying obstacles help flesh out the rest of the heist. When the PCs overcome smaller obstacles, they’re steadily advancing toward their ultimate goal.

Flaws: Heists work because of flaws in defenses. For most of the obstacles described here, the rules have builtin weaknesses—spells specify ways to circumvent them or can be dispelled, locks can be overcome with tools and skill, and traps can be spotted and disarmed. For intelligent opposition, like guards or NPCs the characters will need to interact with, have some vulnerabilities and vices in mind, and allow the PCs to discover them. For instance, a group of guards might be vulnerable to flattery, be overzealous in their patrols and therefore prone to diversions, or just not be very bright.


The most effective security set-ups employ multiple, mixed elements of the following obstacle categories. The list is intended as a starting point. PCs will likely want to exploit strange abilities or focused skills, and may offer GMs inspiration for new obstacles. Each obstacle category’s entry offers tactics that are typically strongest against those types of obstacles. Details about those tactics appear in the Running a Heist section. Alarms and Divinations: Passive in nature, alarms and divinations do nothing to stop would-be thieves from executing the heist, but do help other forms of defense, like guardians, to stay aware, and might reveal the identity of the PCs, potentially adding a complication even after the heist is complete. Alarms can include mechanical devices like tripwires attached to ringing bells, barking dogs (see Guardians below), or magical effects such as alarm or any of a number of sensing and scrying spells. A key advantage of this kind of defense is ease of concealment—if would-be thieves don’t know an alarm is there, it might be too late by the time they figure it out. The disadvantage, of course, is that it is fairly easy to circumvent passive systems with a little preparation. If the party fails to overcome an alarm or divination, it typically makes the other obstacles (usually guardians) stronger rather than putting up a barrier to the PCs’ progress. Stealth and countermagic can foil alarms and divinations, as can disguises in some circumstances.

Barriers: Barred doors, castle moats, gates, locks, and thick stone walls are useful in preventing a heist. Some barriers are simple but take time to penetrate (like walls). Special tools might be required to get through good-quality locks, and magic might counter a hallway filled with poisonous gas. Barriers are cheap and not designed to function effectively on their own, because given enough time, any barrier can be overcome. Force and finesse work best against barriers, though observation can clue a PC into a secret bypass. Barriers that normally require force to overcome might be bypassed by spells like gaseous form, phase door, or stone shape, or by teleportation spells. Defeating some magical barriers requires dispelling or a specific type of countermagic.

Guardians: Some obstacles take the form of intelligent guards who patrol an area and keep watch, dangerous beasts that attack intruders (trained dogs, giant snakes, great cats, or even abominations or planar creatures with preternaturally keen senses), or magical beings and constructs (gargoyles, golems, or animated suits of armor). Guards are proactive and often skilled in spotting intruders or unusual activity. Diverse tactics work against guardians. They’re especially vulnerable to diversions and bribery, but can also be bypassed by stealth or disguise or defeated through force. Sometimes, guards can be dispatched quickly with spells like sleep or deep slumber instead of a battle. Smuggling can be used to make a PC appear as though she’s not a threat, allowing her to bypass guardians while still carrying hidden weapons or tools.

Hazards: Dangerous obstacles that directly harm intruders rather than warning guardians or preventing entry fall into the hazards category. Hazards include mundane dangers like mechanical traps, as well as abjuration magic such as glyphs and other triggered defensive spells. Spells like explosive runes can be used to trap documents, adding a hazard that can have an effect late in the heist—or even after it’s over. Their advantage is that they are usually less expensive to create and put into place, but they are also typically easier to overcome, provided the infiltrators are aware of them and can plan ahead. Finesse and observation are the best tools against hazards, and some require dispelling to bypass.

Misdirection and Hidden Items: A well-secured fortress might appear to hold a modest treasure, when in reality the true prize is somewhere else entirely. Magical invisibility or illusions can aid in concealing an item. Extradimensional magic can secure a valuable item far from reach. Misdirection can be overcome with bribery, observation, or divination spells, any of which might allow the PCs to find the goal’s true location.

Step 4: Diagram the Heist

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The last step before running a heist requires the GM to organize the obstacles into a cohesive set of defenses. Imagine the goal in the middle of a series of rings, each of which represents a layer of obstacles the PCs must overcome. The innermost ring is the last obstacle or set of obstacles that must be bypassed to reach the goal. The obstacles on the outside ring are the challenges most obvious to the PCs at the start. Overcoming these obstacles brings the PCs to the next ring, and so on. GMs may wish to diagram the obstacles in a heist by drawing dashed lines between elements to detail their connections, and flagging different items and pieces of information as belonging to certain obstacles.

A clear chain of cause and effect makes a heist feel right in play, and the players should see all the pieces moving as they make their way through the obstacles. GMs should include more than one way to overcome the same obstacle, or be receptive to player input during play. This could mean creating a diversion to redirect guards or silently dispatching them with stealth attacks. It could mean climbing over a wall or bypassing it with a hidden tunnel. The best obstacles can be overcome by multiple skill sets or clever schemes.

Don’t Overplan: A heist should be fairly loose and forgiving for the PCs. GMs should make some obstacles optional and provide flexibility in finding solutions. No GM can anticipate for every possible approach players may attempt, and GMs should try to leave room for the players to bring their own ideas to the table. No defense is forever or totally impregnable—and no NPC is perfect in their power or position. Allow the players to discover gaps in the defenses and exploit them in new and inventive ways rather than creating a rigid structure they must tackle exactly as planned. The heist diagram serves as a good tool, but as with a dungeon map, GMs should always be prepared to revise it or throw the whole thing out as unexpected events crop up.

Running a Heist

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With the preparations complete, it’s time for the heist itself. There are two main parts to this process: planning and execution.


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Running a heist involves players becoming more proactive about the adventure, and just as a GM needs time to plan the game, the members of the party need time to figure out how they want to execute the heist. A team typically spends as much time—or more—scouting, reviewing, and refining the different facets of the heist plan as it does actually pulling it off. The teammates sort out and account for every point of the plan, to the best of their ability, well before the moment of execution.

Every heist starts with a goal. Perhaps an NPC hires the characters to do the job and leaves how to proceed up to them. Perhaps a veteran thief needs a few extra members for his crew for a one-time gig. Maybe the characters conceive of the heist on their own, because it’s the only way to further their aims.

Once they decide upon a goal, properly planning a heist takes reconnaissance and research. The characters must learn everything they can about the location and defenses of the object or person they have chosen to acquire. They could watch and observe the patterns of guards. They might find NPCs who know important information about the goal’s location, such as its layout, or special guardians or magical protection. Only once they have assembled all the information can the true heist planning begin.

A GM’s primary role in this planning stage is to be the PCs’ eyes and ears, answering questions, introducing plot twists, and describing the details of their target’s status quo, so the players can best plan to disrupt it. A GM should avoid the temptation to lead her players as she might with a more traditional adventure, instead taking notes and planning to adapt any obstacles she prepared ahead of time to the PCs’ scheme. Much of the fun in a heist lies in problem-solving and taking control, and while some GMs and players love the heist’s planning stages, others will find them dull. A GM should strive to keep all her players engaged, and if one or two players seem distracted, pulling them aside to run a short reconnaissance encounter while the rest of the party continues planning can help them contribute in ways they will enjoy.

GMs may wish to include an NPC as the initiator of the heist or a knowledgeable ally who can help the PCs develop their plan. This allows the GM to provide the players with information about the defenses they’ll be going up against and potentially steer them away from obsessing over truly trivial details or ambitious plans they could never pull off. Such NPCs should serve as advisors rather than leaders, and never railroad the characters directly, especially if they show the confidence to handle things on their own. The NPC’s role is to nudge the PCs in the right direction if they seem unsure of themselves.

Planning at the Table: The process of planning out the heist might take up the majority of a game session. GMs should let the players do most of the talking, while answering questions and roleplaying NPCs. The players should be fully invested in this phase and refining ideas as they go, but if player interest begins to lag, the GM can prod the PCs forward with suggestions and deadlines or convince them they’re ready. In the end, though, it’s up to the players how involved they want their planning to be and how many contingencies they want to cover. If they choose to go in with limited information or a loose plan, there could naturally be consequences, but a GM should never unduly punish her players just because she thinks they could have planned better or because they didn’t consider everything she thought of. Because of the nature of the GM’s very personal oversight of the game world, it can be easy for her to get the false idea that certain parts of the situation she has erected are obvious to the players.

Simple heists involve shorter planning sessions, with most of the information the PCs require available immediately. For a moderate or complex heist, the planning stage might involve some small scenes, including interacting with NPCs, gathering information from a community, or scouting out the location where the heist will take place.

Executing the Heist

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Once the planning is finished, it’s time to actually play out the heist. For a complex heist (or if the players have come up with an excessively convoluted plan), GMs might consider splitting this portion off as another game session. This allows time to sit down with the PCs’ plan and sort through how to respond to it, how security and defenses will react, and so on. Even if the GM doesn’t want to separate the planning and the execution segments into two different game sessions, she should take a moment (perhaps a 15-minute break) to review notes and decide how things will develop, given the most likely actions and outcomes.

Step by Step: A game session featuring a heist can be tricky. The GM must run several encounters simultaneously and should take the time to track each round if necessary, take notes, and map out characters’ and NPCs’ movements. Being diligent helps maintain the big picture.

Splitting the Group: One of the trickiest parts of running a heist is overcoming the reluctance of players to split the party. As mentioned before, giving the characters reasons to split up is vital. Much of this comes down to timing, and impressing on the players how important it is that their characters keep to a tight schedule as they execute their plans. Multiple parts of the plan need to happen at the same time, so everybody staying together is rarely an option. Though keeping the group together usually helps in a task, sometimes having a crowd is detrimental. This is easiest to see with Stealth, where the lowest roll can expose the party, but social interaction can also be fraught since a group can appear more suspicious, some party members may be poor at Bluff and give the others away, and disguising an entire group is far more difficult than just disguising one person. Combats pose the greatest challenge, since few characters want to go into a fight without backup. Fortunately, in most heists combat is better used as a diversion. Heists may run slowly at the table when the PCs split up, and the GM may wish to let players not participating in the scene to control friendly NPCs to keep them involved.

Once a heist begins, PCs realistically have little knowledge of how their teammates are doing. Using an in-game means of communication can help reduce the temptation to act on knowledge a character wouldn’t have. These can include communication spells like message and sending, sending secret messages using Bluff (though this usually requires a close range), and magic items like bird feather tokens. It’s also helpful to create a set of common signals for the group before they go in. Bird calls, graffiti, and other relatively subtle signals can help communicate a PC’s success or failure to other members of the party. In extreme cases, some players might need to step outside when it’s not their characters’ turns. If this becomes necessary, GMs should keep the action moving so no one stays out of the game too long.

Complications and Contingencies: Inevitably, some aspect of a heist goes wrong, adding interest and tension without immediately ending the heist. In a game setting, the GM should specifically plan for fun twists by examining every phase and step of a heist that a group puts together, and figure out what might go wrong and how NPCs would react. In many instances in which a single die roll might make or break a task, consider treating a failure as a lesser degree of success, a time delay, or a success that comes at a heavy cost. As always, GMs should reward smart thinking and good roleplaying by the characters over punishing them for bad die rolls.

For example, if a task requires a character with a high Diplomacy skill to lure a guard away to a game of cards so that his confederates can sneak into the vault, a failed check may mean the guard wants to get other guards in on the game, too, forcing the character to really pour on the charm to the whole lot of them, rather than having the guard adamantly refuse and detect the effort.

The players might come up with their own contingency plans during the planning stage. Because heists in fiction tend to have twists and turns that require the crew to be cleverer than their opposition, be forgiving with the details when contingencies come up. Assume that the characters did have some ideas in their back pockets, and play a little loose with the rules if necessary. GMs might allow each player one contingency they have set up for the heist (typically for a moderate or complex heist). When the plan hits a snag, the characters involved can call in their contingency—turns out they had planned for just such a situation, and had the proper tools, documents, or knowledge at hand to meet the challenge. This doesn’t let them overcome an obstacle automatically, but might let them try again after a failure or attempt a check they wouldn’t have been able to even try without the advantage they revealed with their contingency.


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These are the most common tactics PCs will likely employ when executing heists. Each one has a general description, but also lists the skills commonly used as a part of that tactic. Not every attempt at one of these tactics will use those skills, and in many cases, you can simply adjudicate success or failure without a roll if a character does exactly the right thing or exactly the wrong one.

Bribery: Sometimes it’s easier to appeal to an opponent’s greed than it is to trick or overpower him. The two key elements of this kind of task are persuasion and the currency to back it up. A team planning a heist might bribe a guard to look the other way during a break-in, a master architect to reveal where the secret sally port is, a powerful wizard to craft a scroll of nondetection with no questions asked, or even a random stranger who happens upon a heist mid-execution to keep quiet. Bribing semi-intelligent creatures (such as a dog with fresh meat, or some kind of guardian creature with a few flashy but cheap objects) counts as the bribery tactic as well. To determine the value that will make an effective bribe for an intelligent creature, use that creature’s CR (or the group’s total CR) as the Heroic Level value on Table 14–9: NPC Gear. Use the total gp value as a basis. An appropriate bribe can range from 5% for a minor favor (like taking the briber to the guard captain) to 10% for a larger one (like revealing a secret) to 25% or more for simply letting the PCs pass and looking the other way, risking their jobs and reputations if their employer discovers this treachery. A PC usually determines an appropriate bribe using Appraise or Sense Motive, and might need to use Diplomacy (or, rarely, Intimidate) to convince the target to take the bribe.

Disguise and Impersonation: When a PC needs to make an obstacle think she’s someone else, it falls under the category of disguise and impersonation. Some team members use makeup, prosthetics, and guile, while others rely on magic. Disguise and Bluff are the crucial elements of disguise and impersonation, though Linguistics might help imitate speech patterns and Knowledge or Profession skills might be required to simulate a specific person’s abilities. Disguise self, polymorph, and seeming spells can improve a PC’s disguise. Spells like mind blank, nondetection, and undetectable alignment offer partial protection against some divination spells, but can tip off a nearby caster that a disguised PC isn’t who she seems.

Dispelling and Countermagic: This very specific task requires a spellcaster or someone with the ability to use certain magical devices. Any sort of defense that includes divinations, passive alarms, and protective spells might require a magical solution. Knowledge (arcana) and Spellcraft are important for the process of dispelling or using countermagic, as they help to ascertain what sorts of spells are active and what the appropriate countermeasures might be.

Diversion: A diversion can draw someone or something away from another critical feature of the defenses. A diversion might be needed to distract a single individual, a small group of people, or an entire community, and becomes more difficult the greater the scale. Diversions might consist of actual skirmishes between opposing groups (a rival group of thieves and the local watch patrol), brilliant displays of magic, or outrageous flirting (this is particularly valuable at court). Though Bluff is the most common skill used in diversions, Perform and Intimidate can also help draw attention, and many diversions require little skill at all. Spells useful for creating diversions include dancing lights, flashy attack evocations, illusions (especially figments and patterns), and summoning spells.

Finesse: Activities that require physical skill (and typically high Dexterity) fall under finesse. This includes acrobatic stunts, picking locks, and so forth. Acrobatics and Disable Device help with finesse. A spellcaster who’s weak at finesse can still attempt to overcome locks with the knock spell.

Force: This kind of task is the easiest to complete, because most characters are very good at overcoming enemies with violence. This obviously focuses on combat, but other elements of force can include carrying a large piece of equipment, hoisting the gate blocking ingress to the castle, or smashing in a door.

Observation: In most heists, there is usually a call for at least one member to hang back and keep a watch on things for the rest of the group. This might include looking out for approaching guards, using scrying magic to observe where a specific individual is or whether a room is truly empty, or simply keeping different teams on task and their actions coordinated. The observer might also take on the role of a backup to other tasks or a means of rescue if things go off track. Perception is the most commonly used skill for observation, though assessing the necessary information acquired through observation requires Sense Motive, an appropriate Knowledge skill, Spellcraft, or a Profession skill related to the people being observed.

Persuasion: Attempting to use social skills such as Diplomacy or Intimidate can be an uphill battle against suspicious guards, as the guards’ job depends on keeping the wrong people out. Enchantment spells and spells like innocence or glibness can help a PC overcome this natural wariness.

Smuggling: The complexity of smuggling can have an enormous range. It could be as simple as slipping a weapon inside a well-guarded parlay chamber or as complex as getting an entire team of acrobats past the duke’s throne room unnoticed and unharmed. Smuggling falls under Sleight of Hand, but Bluff or Disguise might be useful to maintain a facade while smuggling something or someone valuable.

Stealth and Subterfuge: Though sneaking past enemies and wards is a major part of stealth and subterfuge, this category also includes other tasks that require discretion. Example tasks include scaling a wall and slipping through a window, surreptitiously adding a sleeping potion to a courtier’s drink, lifting the prison key off the captain of the guard, and sneaking through the sleeping quarters of the guards. Stealth and Sleight of Hand are the main skills used in such situations. Spells like invisibility, silence, polymorph spells, and darkness (if used carefully) make a PC much stealthier.


Diversions are well suited to characters who aren’t stealthy themselves and are attempting to aid their sneakier allies. Here are a few specific types of diversions.

Double Bluff: This ploy is useful when multiple subgroups of the party attempt to sneak into a place. Less stealthy members go in together, so that if they get caught they can instead create a diversion to help their stealthier allies. This trick can backfire if the guards react by raising the alarm.

Harrying: If the enemy has a defensive position or superior numbers, some of the PCs can attack them anyway, not to defeat them, but to draw their attention. The skirmish must be credible enough to draw attention, but not so much that the enemy retaliates en masse.

Puppet Brawl: In an urban setting, some of the PCs can start a brawl with random locals or each other in order to draw guards away from their post.

Razzle-Dazzle: The most common way to use social skills for a diversion, the razzle-dazzle entices guards to engage in an interesting conversation or engaging performance and shirk their duties. Group Stealth and Disguise Sneaking around and using disguises can be difficult when operating as a group. Though one person might be highly skilled and specialized, it’s often the party member with the worst Stealth or weakest disguise who causes the whole group to get caught. Though the most effective tactic is to assign those characters to different tasks, that’s not always possible. Here are a few ways to help mitigate this risk.

Unseen Numbers

More people require more or larger places to conceal themselves, and even then the group is only as stealthy as its clumsiest member. Using aid another on an ally’s Stealth check is often infeasible. It’s useful when attempting to sneak as a group to have the stealthier or more perceptive characters move ahead of the rest of the party. The job of the forward characters is to spot guards or traps before the rest of the party can stumble into them. Once warned of the danger, other party members can either change their route or use their own talents to handle the situation. Characters farther back are harder to perceive because of distance and possibly doors or walls.

Characters with the teamwork feat Stealth Synergy can use the highest Stealth check roll among them (though they still use their own skill modifiers). A few archetypes have abilities to boost their allies’ Stealth checks, including the daring infiltrator swashbuckler, the guide ranger, and the warden ranger.

Armored Subterfuge

Medium and heavy armor are vital to the survival of many characters, yet often counterproductive when sneaking past guards or disguising oneself. Though lighter armor is always an option, there are a number of ways to reduce the penalties associated with heavier armor. Masterwork armor and those made from special materials such as mithral have lower armor check penalties. A number of magic armor special abilities improve skills normally penalized by armor, including creeping (Ultimate Equipment 116), shadow, and slick. The glamered armor special ability allows even a heavily armored character to blend into a crowd. Any armor’s penalty can be reduced with the Armor Expert trait or the fighter’s armor training ability. Applying armor ointment or casting effortless armor also reduces armor check penalty.

Group Disguises

Disguise has an advantage over stealth, as sometimes not everyone in the party needs to be disguised for a plan to work. For instance, one or more characters might disguise themselves as bounty hunters or guards bringing in the others in chains. Breakaway chains and false manacles allow PCs to appear chained while able to easily free themselves. Even a good disguise fails, however, if the character can’t play the assumed persona convincingly. The best disguises are often as people unlikely to be questioned or engaged in conversation—servants, laborers, and guards. A brazen infiltrator might pretend to be someone in authority, such as a foreign noble or a military officer, relying on aloofness or brusqueness to avoid questions. For a group, one character can be disguised as an authority figure while the rest play her servants. This provides a built-in excuse for party members to defer to the PC with the best social skills.

Example Heist

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The following example illustrates the step-by-step process of building a heist, and how a group might tackle the heist during a game session.

The GM decides she wants the next big encounter in her campaign to be a heist, in order to add some new intrigue elements to the table. The PCs have been enjoying their ongoing struggles against a rival merchant lord who has been making life difficult for them. The GM plans out a quick encounter with an NPC who suggests that the best way to get leverage on the merchant lord is to steal the records of his illicit dealings with the local thieves’ guild that he keeps in a locked safe in his workshop.

The goal is “Steal an Item,” and the GM decides she wants a heist of moderate scope, so each character should have three mandatory obstacles to overcome in order to pull it off. She begins to compile a list of each character’s strengths. The four characters are Valeros the fighter, Ezren the wizard, Merisiel the rogue, and Kyra the cleric.

Valeros is, of course, very good at fighting and breaking things, but also happens to be good at carousing. Ezren likes to fling powerful magic around every chance he gets. Merisiel is great at skulking about, and she makes a good flanking partner for Valeros. Finally, Kyra is wise and observant and somewhat skilled at interpersonal tasks. The GM chooses a variety of obstacles that she thinks will be fun for these characters to overcome by using their strong suits.

The GM decides to include several guardians that block the path and will likely need to be defeated by force, including front-gate guards and a guardian gargoyle that Valeros and Merisiel might be able to fight together. Figuring the party will gather information before the heist, she seeds information on the tavern where the guards like to carouse, expecting Valeros might join them for a drink and try something there before the main heist, potentially asking to join as a new guard. She also includes information about an old priest who used to serve the merchant lord for many years and knows the full layout of the manor house, unlike most guards who don’t have access to the inner areas; the GM thinks Kyra might want to use her status as a fellow cleric to convince the priest to help the PCs in some way.

Anticipating that Ezren might enjoy doing something flashy, she decides that the final obstacle of escaping with their prize will involve a rival gang of thieves disguised as manor house servants, giving Ezren a chance to make a distraction so the others can slip away. She continues setting these obstacles and opportunities for the PCs, filled with chances for the PCs to use abilities, character personalities, and background tidbits the players would likely enjoy.

When the group decides in the course of the game that they want to break into the merchant’s manor and steal his ledgers, they begin gathering information just as the GM planned. However, there’s a slight alteration to the GM’s plans because, instead of having Valeros join the guards, they decide that a careful application of magic could take out the guards quietly. Also, playing slightly differently from normal, the group decides to use Ezren as an observer, drawing on his little-used scrying magic to assist in penetrating the grounds with little notice, leaving Kyra to put on a light show with her sun magic and make the final distraction to aid the escape.

And so it goes, as the Game Master reveals the manor’s defenses and the players figure out their way of dealing with them. The heist that the group plans and executes is different from what the GM guessed it might be. However, the whole group still has a good time pulling off the heist and the players all get a chance for their characters to shine.


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An infiltration requires stealth and discretion to win the day. Unlike a heist, infiltration is typically limited to a smaller set of skills, and suited for one or two PCs rather than utilizing the whole group.

Infiltration covers both a direct infiltration with a single, set goal (similar to a heist) and long-term espionage that requires living a double life and has a less specific goal. Infiltration ranges from breaking and entering to using social skills to get inside a location. Infiltration usually requires the Stealth and Disguise skills, and often social skills and Sleight of Hand as well.

Alternate Goals

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An infiltration might have one of the same goals as a normal heist, or it could aim at one of the following goals instead. Because it is less complicated than a heist, an infiltration is typically suited to smaller and more immediate goals rather than campaign-changing ones.

Assassinate or Kidnap a Creature: The object of this infiltration is to kill or capture one or a small number of targets. It’s natural for a creature to let its guard down in the safety of its home or base, allowing you to catch it at its weakest. In many cases, striking at the leader will cause followers to flee or fall into infighting, thus removing the threat they present without direct conflict.

Spreading Propaganda: In this infiltration, the PC blends in with a population in order to spread misinformation. This sort of infiltration is particularly dangerous because, although the PC is in disguise, she needs to actively engage with people, often in public places. Usually this is done on behalf of a rival nation or organization in order to reduce morale and turn the populace against their leaders in preparation for a political or military takeover. Alternatively, the PC might act as an agent provocateur, urging the populace to rise up against their leaders, or inciting the leaders to attack another group. Spreading propaganda could involve placing posters, making graffiti, or otherwise conveying the propagandist’s message through art rather than interaction. This requires applying an appropriate Craft skill. To be truly effective, artistic propaganda still requires the infiltrator to interact with other people—though creating a massive work of propagandist art that requires multiple people to carry out could do the trick.

Perform Reconnaissance: The infiltrator is attempting to gather information about a location and its inhabitants. Details of the location’s defenses and defenders, as well as its strategic targets, allow her and her allies to be prepared for subsequent assaults, heists, or investigations against that location. Eavesdropping on a suspected criminal could allow the PC to catch him red-handed at his next crime or reveal the identities of others involved in the criminal operation. A less scrupulous character might use reconnaissance to blackmail a target by threatening to exploit or expose the secrets she discovers.


Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 128
An infiltration has a scope just like a heist, though it functions a little differently. The GM is typically dealing with a smaller number of characters at a time and doesn’t need to provide as many obstacles. In addition, an infiltration always has a specific scope. There are two possible scopes for infiltration: fast or long-term.

Fast: The PC or PCs need to get in quickly and take care of their task. The infiltration usually takes no more than a few hours in game time and 10–15 minutes or so at the game table. This requires one to three obstacles for a single PC or one obstacle per PC if multiple PCs are involved. If you find yourself needing more than three obstacles, use a heist instead so all the characters get involved.

Long-Term: This covers long-term espionage, and requires the PC to create a cover story or alternate identity. It plays out over the course of several sessions, but usually takes up 10 minutes or less per session. Rather than having a set number of obstacles to obtain a single goal, put two obstacles in front of the PC as she tries to infiltrate the organization or befriend the target. Then provide a single obstacle or two each session in which the PC attempts to get something out of the infiltration. Provide a minor piece of useful information for each obstacle overcome, or a more important piece at certain intervals (typically after the PC has overcome four or five obstacles). Structure the secrets of the organization in layers from the least secret to the most secret, so the PC gets closer and closer to the innermost levels of the organization. People from the organization the PC is infiltrating might encounter the PC elsewhere, in which case she might need to quickly adopt her cover or avoid being noticed. Long-term espionage can go on indefinitely, but each time the PC fails to overcome an obstacle, the organization or target becomes more suspicious of her true agenda. After three failures (or one egregious failure), the interloping character’s motivation is revealed unless she takes extraordinary steps to repair her reputation.

Covers and Personas

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During a heist, and especially in an infiltration, a character might need to assume a cover: a false identity. This identity needs only a few details, like the person’s name, profession, and recent history. The most important aspect of a cover is consistency—the PC needs to keep any details straight so she doesn’t contradict herself later. A cover identity might involve an accent, mannerisms, a style of dress, and other quirks.

Much more involved than a cover, a persona is a fully fleshed-out identity crafted over months or years. The infiltrator needs to know every single detail about the persona, and might live as that persona for weeks at a time in order to keep up the charade. A long-term infiltration might require a persona rather than a cover.

A persona is thematically similar to a vigilante’s multiple identities, and the player of an infiltrator attempting long-term espionage should put as much effort into the details of the persona as she does into the backstory of her actual character. Though a character adopting a cover identity likely uses Bluff to fake any areas of expertise her cover identity is supposed to know, a character living as a persona picks up actual skills related to that persona over time, and might spend skill ranks in Craft, Knowledge, and Profession skills appropriate to her persona.

Quick Covers: The following list gives some examples of covers that characters might adopt and pretenses for why they’re entering the location they’re infiltrating. If a player is having trouble coming up with a cover identity on short notice, you can use the following suggestions directly or as inspiration. They are broken out by their social role, but many cover identities apply to multiple roles.

Average Person: Beggar, looking for a place to find shelter; chambermaid, coming to sweep the halls; rat catcher, hired after someone heard squeaking; shopkeeper, delivering an urgent order; herbalist, selling poultices and tinctures door to door.

Entertainer: Bard-for-hire, come to perform a song at the bidding of a secret admirer; jester, looking for a noble in need of her antics; painter, in need of a patron and a location to create beautiful murals; big-city theatrical producer, searching for the next big star.

Holy Visitor: Traveling priest, spreading the good word; soothsayer, come to deliver a dire warning; religious scholar, arriving to do research in the library.

Important Noble: Child of a prominent duchess, in town to attend a falconry competition; veteran knight, visiting the countryside after a hard-won victory in a jousting competition; advisor to a desert prince, traveling to find new trading partners; herald, bringing news of the imminent arrival of his lord.

Officer of the Law: Constable, coming to search for an escaped prisoner; barrister, investigating one of the property owner’s business rivals; tax collector, assessing the value of the establishment.

Wealthy Visitor: Self-made merchant, seeking employees to buy and sell goods for her; hedonistic socialite, looking to hire locals to throw a big party; vacuous heir, looking for property to buy; gambler, trying to find players for a high-stakes game.

Maintaining the Charade

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When carrying out a long-term infiltration, characters should strive to keep their personas as easy to maintain as possible, and shouldn’t rely on disguises or magic to alter their appearance, instead using relative anonymity to avoid recognition. An infamous face might eliminate this option, however, and necessitate a long-term disguise. Adjusting mannerisms, modes of dress, and speech are all easier than maintaining physical disguises. Using spells to maintain a persona is particularly risky—longlasting spells are generally needed, and the longer the charade goes on, the more likely a spy is to encounter someone who can see through an illusion or detect the magical effect.