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All Rules in Heists

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Running a Heist

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 122
With the preparations complete, it’s time for the heist itself. There are two main parts to this process: planning and execution.


Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 122
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

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 123
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.


Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 124
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.