After the Dungeon Crawl, the Heist is the second greatest of all RPG tropes. From stealing the scepter of Arkurs, to a stealing an AI out of a cyber fortress, the Heist transcends all settings. There is something about the planning, the sneaking, and eventually laying your hands on the object that strikes a chord with nearly all gamers.

The Heist is a tricky type of scenario to run.  When written well, the heist is an incredibly exciting adventure that is exciting, tense, and rewarding.  When written improperly, the heist can be frustrating to the GM, the PC’s or both.  Today’s article looks at two ways to write a heist adventure, and discusses the merits and flaws of both.  But, before we get into the writing of a Heist, let’s establish some terminology.

Anatomy of a Heist

..for example any guy here more than sex if they had the choice of sex or this one other thing any guy here would rather be part of a heist! — Dane Cook

Every Heist has some common elements.

  • The Object–you can’t have a Heist without something to steal.  This object can be a defined object, like a jewel, or just a McGuffin, like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.
  • The Location–the object is located somewhere, in a temple, in a high-rise building, on a moving train. The more exotic the better.
  • The Opposition–it’s not stealing, unless someone else has your Object.  The opposition are those things that keep the Object out of the hands of others.  They are the guards, the security system, etc.
  • The Plan–what makes a Heist from a different from a simple robbery is the plan. The plan is created by the thieves, and the best ones are clever, creative, and just plain cool.

It’s About The Plan

Off the top of my head, I’d say you’re looking at a Boeski, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever. —Rusty Ryan (Ocean’s Eleven)

Often for the GM the location and the opposition become the most interesting part of the design of the heist scenario; coming up with exotic locations and insane security systems. Beware though, because players will never find the location and the opposition as interesting as you do, and if too much emphasis is placed on the location and opposition, you run the risk of boring your players.

Of all the parts of the heist the plan is the one that is under the player’s control. The GM will define the object, place it in a location, and surround it with opposition.  It is then up to the players to come up the plan that will sneak them onto the location, neutralize the opposition, and get their hands on the object.

The players will gather together, and begin to brainstorm ideas.  It is often not a pretty process, with side discussions and arguments springing up.  As the GM your role at this point should be moderator.  Keep the players planning, and keep the table calm.  In the end, the players will have their plan in place and be ready to set it in motion.

There are two general methods for how a GM can address the player’s plan.  Stealing a few terms from the field of Evolution (no worries, in a past life I was a scientist), I am going to detail two ways you can prepare a Heist scenario.

Intelligent Design

In the Intelligent Design method, the GM writes up a fully detailed location and opposition. With everything fully detailed, the GM then presents it to the players during the session. The players then construct their plan.

When the players are ready they execute their plan and the GM compares it to his pre-written notes. Where the players plan intersects the GM’s opposition, encounters then occur.  Where there are gaps there are no planned encounters.

In the Intelligent Design, the opposition and the location are in competition with the plan. Intelligent Design pits the GM’s design against the players plan, and it requires the GM to predict the player’s actions, and design accordingly. When the GM predicts correctly, the execution of the plan becomes exciting as all the elements of the opposition are encountered by the players.

When the GM does not predict the players well, then the session GM either allows the players to skate through the heist, which is anti-climatic to the players or the GM will be forced to make some on-the-fly adjustments to the opposition, which often comes off a bit forced, or arbitrary. Both can lead to frustration for the players.


In the Evolution method, the GM creates the location, and only sketches out the opposition at a high level. The GM avoids any thinking about the plan. The GM then runs a session where the players work to discover information about the location and the opposition. Then the GM sits back and allows the players to plan.

After the players have devised a plan, the GM then refines the opposition in response to the players plan, creating challenges and encounters based on the player’s plan. This can be done, either in the current session or more often between sessions. At the next session the players then execute their plan, and the GM delivers the encounters that he created in response to the plan.

In the Evolution method, the GM defines the opposition and to some extent the location in cooperation with the players plan. The plan becomes the focus of the session with the GM planning his encounters based on the interesting parts of the plan. When the plan is executed, the GM is fully prepared and through the encounters that he created, draws the players into an engaging session, with minimal on-the-fly adjustments.

How They Stack Up

In my years of GMing, I have run a lot of heists, across a number of different systems and settings, including a yearlong d20 Modern campaign about a crew of Las Vegas thieves, called Heist.  In my time, I have designed a number heists using both methods. Neither method is superior to another, rather each have their uses.

Intelligent Design: The ID method works well when a GM really knows his players, and the need for radical changes of the written plot are not necessary.  Heists using this method are labor intensive, as the GM has to plan everything before the session starts. It is also risky if the GM does not do a good job of anticipating the actions of the players. This method works well in campaigns where the players and the GM enjoy a friendly competition as is often displayed in Old School play.

Evolution: This method works with any group of players, as the final design of the opposition becomes dependant on player’s plan, and does not rely on any knowledge of how the players think. Heists using this method are best run in two separate sessions. The first session, you allow the players to do the recon and do their planning. After the session, you then create the opposition and prep it for the next session. This method works well with groups where the GM and the players have a strong cooperative relationship.

I will say that in the games I have run, the Evolution method has a consistently higher player satisfaction rate. I think this has a lot to do with the player’s plan being the focus of the plot. As I said above the plan is the only part of the heist that is under the control of the players. By putting the plan at the center of the heist, you put the players in the spotlight.  If the heist succeeds, the players bask in the satisfaction of a job well done.

What’s Your Master Plan?

The heist is a great type of adventure, and can be a lot of fun for your players. Whether you employ an Intelligent Design or Evolve your session, a well run heist can make a memorable adventure.

How do you design your heist sessions?  What heists have you been the most proud of, and which ones have gone down in flames?