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Intelligent Design, Evolution, and The Heist

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.

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?

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Intelligent Design, Evolution, and The Heist"

#1 Comment By Martin Ralya On December 17, 2009 @ 8:36 am

I don’t usually read articles while they’re in the queue, so I’ve spent some time wondering why you were writing about thinly veiled Creationism. I get it now. 😉

#2 Comment By deadlytoque On December 17, 2009 @ 11:40 am

The best way to run a heist is to make your players do all the work.

No, really.

Firstly, read [1]. Grok how that game makes the fun, movie-style elements of the heist front and centre, and puts the boring stuff in the background. At all times, play proceeds on the assumption of overall success, but with drama and failure along the way nonetheless.

Secondly, watch [2] and get some tips on how to reward players for good ideas. If you happen to have access to [3] you’ll note that WoM is basically a game built around the Dirty Dungeon concept with a spy paintjob.

Thirdly, remember that the best parts of heist movies are the bits where something totally impossible and unexpected happens, and then you flashback to reveal it. That “Event -> Flashback” structure is important. If we knew exactly how the event would unfold beforehand, it would lose its entertainment value. So, if you’re not comfortable with allowing full player control, consider allowing players to surprise you, so long as they can justify it with a crazy flashback. “No, wait, it wasn’t the SWAT team that left the vault… it was us!”

Fourthly, heist stories are usually rife with what we gamers call PvP action. Intra-party conflict is always a riot in these situations, because you never know when it might explode and bring down the whole plot. At the same time, intra-party conflict is often just a ruse for the benefit of the mark or another party member. Leave the room and let your players dream up their own in-character conflicts — and whether they are real or fronted — without your knowledge or interference. Reward players at the table for any conflict in which you don’t need to do anything: a scene where players are arguing amongst themselves is a good time for a GM to prep a sinister surprise for later.

#3 Comment By peter On December 17, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

one of the problems I as a player sometimes have with the evolution thing is that no matter what you plan you always have resistance. You can never find the hole in the security system.

an example: we were hired in shadowrun to get someone out of the city. we immediatly stepped in a normal car and drove off, but still the chinese mobsters had a plan and knew exactly where we were and what we were doing.

#4 Comment By Nojo On December 17, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

Could you give an example?

How do you get your players to feel good about letting you in on their plan if they know you are about to design something tailored to stopping that plan? Which is exactly what Peter is objecting to.

If they are planning on sneaking in, they are going to want to know what defenses they past, just so they can feel successful. So, when you do your session two planning, do you take that into account?

I think I’ve got the old school rivalry thing going in my group. I’d be shocked if they didn’t create a plan in session one, then rethink it 180 degrees over private (me excluded) emails up until session two.

#5 Comment By deadlytoque On December 17, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

[4] – What I’m saying is let the players design their OWN opposition. They will design challenges tailored to their own strengths and weaknesses. They might make it too easy for themselves, but one time through, and they won’t make that mistake again: they will want challenge, so they will give themselves challenge.

In my experience, when you let players design their own challenges, they will make things way more difficult, and way more fun than you could just on your own.

#6 Comment By DNAphil On December 17, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

In the Evolution method, the idea is that you are not trying to come up with a plan to utterly thwart the heroes, lets face it, unless the players really bungle the plan, they should complete the heist.

The GM’s job in the the Evolution method, and perhaps I should have include a few lines on this, is that you need to create encounters to sweat the player’s plan. No plan survives encounter with the enemy. So the GM’s job is to make things complicated.

For instance in the Italian Job, the plan for stealing the safe was about as perfect as it got. But when they captured the truck and opened it up, the wrong type of safe was inside. That is a complication, not a failure.

That said, the GM should pick the where the complications occur based on how exciting the complication will make the heist. The idea is to shake the players up and see if they can keep their cool, and think on their feet.

When I create opposition for my players in the Evolution method, I do not always put failure of the heist as a the negative outcome of the scene. The idea is to complicate, not crush.

So using a getaway as an example, the obvious failure condition to evading the bad guys is a combat encounter. An alternative is that players still evade the bad guys, but their safe house, where they were heading is now compromised, and now they have to find another place to lay low.

#7 Comment By DCBradshaw On December 23, 2009 @ 11:25 pm

I ran a heist game once (actually it was an intricate assassination setup), and tried to take it another direction: I wanted it to mimic the trope of the mastermind (in this case the main NPC) telling the audience and the characters the plans in a voice-over as the action is unfolding on-camera. So the players got the scene setup, as a short in-character monologue done by the NPC, had a minute or two to quickly plan their mode of attack, then were immersed in the encounter.

For example, the mastermind would say, “Our first step is to distract the guards so that Mr. Hacker can gain access to the wireless router rack unit and quickly disable the bank’s already lackluster security protocols.” I’d say, “The bank lobby looks like this, this, and this.”

They’d put together a quick plan (I’ll trip on the floor mat and knock into you, and we’ll feign an argument; if the guard doesn’t take the bait then you ask for a manager and we’ll etc., etc., etc.), then the scene was played out, with some pre-arranged encounter triggers, but also a fair amount of improv based around their actions, rolls and ideas.

I think the best parts of a good heist are the unsuspected things that pop up, both complications the characters didn’t foresee, and also the characters’ “aces in the hole” that aren’t revealed until they actually happen–having to set up those kind of switchbacks sort of ruins the delight when they’re pulled off.

#8 Comment By Kaiju23 On December 23, 2009 @ 11:57 pm

A similar method for playing out The Heist at the table is Robin Laws’ “[url=http://robin-d-laws.livejournal.com/219754.html]You Have Already Planned[/url]” idea. The group does some preliminary planning, then when challenges come up, you use your available resources (skills, contacts, luck points) to meet them — what the character might know beforehand, but not necessarily the player.

This is a great cinematic device, and it went really well in our group’s campaign. It lets the characters be prepared, and keeps the players surprised at the same time. You can read the recap of our session by our GM in the comments on Law’s LJ page under the subject “Trying this out”.

#9 Comment By Egiam On January 2, 2010 @ 12:02 am

I did something just like this a few sessions ago, with my own style.

I try as hard as possible to create the scene without keeping the characters in mind. I try to get inside the mind of the villain, and set up the location using his preferences:

“Okay, yep, I put a security guy with an MP5 submachine gun here. The guard changes every 4 hours. A new guy just got hired for the 3 pm to 7 pm shift. He doesn’t take his job very seriously. Here is a motion detector, but no guards. Security cameras are placed here, here, and here. The man in charge of the building looks like this, has lived in town for so many years, is married to such and such, he has a young daughter, and lives in an expansive house on the outskirts of town… He has had no security cameras placed in his private office, as he finds the the thought of people being able to watch him working distracting.”

Then I introduce the characters to the scene. They may do anything they please without threatening the flow of the adventure, because I DO NOT KNOW HOW IT IS GOING TO END. I have not planned the adventure to go in this way or that, but to just happen. The NPC’s should be reacting to the players, not the other way around.

My players love it.