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All Rules in Heists

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Building a Heist

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 118
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

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 118
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

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 119
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

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 120
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

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 122
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.