Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #504
Heists and Haunted Houses
This Week's Tips Summarized
Heists and Haunted Houses
A Brief Word From Johnn
Keep It Simple - a 5 Minute Exercise
My favourite quote from this week's article about heists:
"GM intervention is often unnecessary to create a
In my experience this is bang on. Keep it simple, let the
We GMs tend to worry too much about planning, details and
having everything perfect for next game. Let's stop
worrying. Instead, we just need to take care of our end of
things and give players a chance to interact with it. And if
we keep our end simple, we make planning and preparation
much easier on us and our busy schedules.
Do you remember the 5 Room Dungeons series RPT ran a couple
years ago? That was simplicity at its best. Why plan a
massive crawl when you can create a bunch of little crawls
over time, and let the players create all the complications
that will spawn a whole bunch of great gameplay?
Here, try this next time you need to create an encounter and
have five minutes:
- Select a foe
- Give the foe a goal that opposes the PCs
- Give the foe a weaker friend
- Select a location
- Give the location a cool interactive feature
- Pick a reward
- Look on the internet for game stats for the foe, his
friend, the interactive feature and the reward (if needed)
- Clone the friend if you need to make the encounter more
difficult when it triggers
Next game, as soon as you have an opportunity to trigger
this encounter, do so.
Leave out all the details about when the encounter should
trigger, NPC backstory, NPC personality, detailed
motivations, complicated set-up, plot hooks, map and so on.
Add these details off the top of your head during the game
as needed or as they occur to you. Let players complicate
things for you so some details take care of themselves.
Certain encounters deserve more planning. But if you are
stuck, blocked, out of time or overwhelmed, use this simple
formula to hammer out a few potential encounters fast.
This is just an example of keeping things simple. As you GM,
look for ways to simplify all the tasks, to dos and
things you do to plan for and run a game.
Website Gets A Blog + New RSS
RoleplayingTips.com has a clean new look, and along with it
a blog that has its own RSS feed.
CampaignMastery.com is still my main blog for in-depth GMing
articles. The new blog at the RPT site contains reader tips,
short bits of advice, newsletter news and interesting links.
Visit the blog and let me know what you think:
Subscribe to the RSS.
Get some gaming in this week!
Return to Contents
Reader Tip Request: Managing Initiative
Reader Tip Request: Managing Initiative
I have an article coming up that highlights four methods of
figuring out initiative:
- The Gamemastery Combat Pad
- Index cards
- Playing cards
I am looking to complement that article with your tips:
- Tips on getting initiative sorted out in large groups
- How to gather initiative quickly for any size group
- Tips on monster and foe initiative
- How do you add drama to initiative?
- How to make initiative more interesting in general?
If any tips for these questions come to mind, send 'em on in
Return to Contents
Here There Be Dragons
Fantastic Maps brings you gorgeous, detailed maps for your
game by cartographer Jonathan Roberts. Explore the Lone
Island in the Sky, the Mire of Lost Souls, the Clockwork
Maze, the Ice Temple and more! Each full-color map (with and
without grids) also comes in printer-friendly grayscale, and
is Maptool compatible.
How cool will it be when, instead of graph paper, you break
out a full-color map at the table? Get Fantastic Maps today
at the Kobold Store:
Fantastic Maps today at the Kobold Store
Return to Contents
Heists and Haunted Houses
By Joel Fox ([email protected])
The heist is a classic scenario in fiction that, while
prevalent in film media, is rarely found in pen-and-paper
games. The reasons for this are many, but the most important
one to me is most people just don't know where to start.
Everyone knows what a heist is - most people have seen Heat,
Ocean's 11, Conan the Barbarian, Sneakers, and so forth -
but actually GMing for one? That's a different story.
This article will hopefully make GMing heists easier by
laying out the fundamental elements to any good heist.
While this is in response to a reader request about FATE 3,
it was somewhat coincidental that I was also considering the
elements of a heist, albeit for a different system. So, this
article is as system-neutral as possible to make its content
available for GMs of all games.
Step Zero: What is a Heist?
What exactly is a heist? For our purposes: "a planned and
prepared-for caper, targeting a predetermined site, with the
intention of removing objects of value and escaping
Heists don't have a specific script or style - many
different types of robberies and thefts fall under the
blanket of being a heist. Some heists are sneaky, where
being detected means failure; some are hectic, madcap
melees; and most heists are a mix of these two elements plus
a few more.
Step One: Heist What and Why?
The 'what' and 'why' of a heist are tied together, for often
the risks and costs associated getting the loot match or
outweigh the reward. The risks associated with a bank
robbery, for example, are nearly too many to list: risk of
injury, death, imprisonment, betrayal, and so forth, not to
mention further pursuit by law enforcement, paranoia, and
having to leave the country. Therefore, the why of a heist
is often more important than the what, even though the what
is the goal of the players.
The what is generally easy enough, such as:
- A pile of diamonds
- Bearer bonds
- The Declaration of Independence
- It might not be intrinsically valuable like currency, but
rather something of a more personal value:
- Documents showing the heritage of party members (granting
them a crown at a later date)
- Blueprints to create an exotic device
- An imprisoned person the party cares about
You might come up with the what somewhere later in the heist
creation process, or leave the what a mystery: the party
knows something valuable is in a vault, but not exactly what
The why, however, is more of what makes a heist a heist, and
not just people stealing stuff. The why is what makes the
benefits outweigh the risks, so it has to be pretty big: a
party rarely says, "Hey let's steal the Hope Diamond today."
The why is:
* Some advantage or edge the party has over the loot's
* To protect themselves from an even more dire fate
* To prevent a disaster
* To keep the loot safe
Here are some specific examples:
- A party member helped design or install one of the more
potent security measures guarding a treasure; they know of a
- A friend, relative, ex-lover, etc. that guards the loot is
a friend of the party, and will supply the party with useful
information in exchange for a cut.
- The money gained from a heist will be used to pay off a
dangerous criminal organization that wants the party's
- The loot is a powerful item or will provide funds that
will aid the party considerably in their current quest,
whatever that might be.
- The loot is a cure or antidote for a rare and otherwise
incurable affliction that one or more party members suffer
from; without it, they'll die.
- Similarly, someone has afflicted the party and will
exchange the antidote for the loot.
- The loot's owner recently acquired the item themselves,
and don't have the full security system installed yet.
- The loot's owner has recently acquired the loot
themselves; an object of great power, it spells considerable
doom if the party doesn't recover it.
- The loot is dangerous or in danger, and the loot's owner
doesn't listen to the party's pleas; it must be stolen to
protect it or others.
Making the why a personal and specific element of the heist
helps tie elements together.
It also keeps party interest high. A party that decides one
day to rob a local complex might lose interest or get
discouraged during the planning stages, whereas a party that
knows a local complex has valuable items the party can use
and several exploitable security holes will stay on task
until the job is done.
Step Two: The Owner
The best place to start when planning a heist is the owner
of the loot. This owner is responsible for all security
measures guarding the loot, so their personality,
background, experience and skills play a large part in what
the party will encounter and have to overcome.
An owner with applicable experience or skills might have
installed some of the security measures themselves. A
martial-minded owner might personally guard the loot (or
Other owners are mere businessmen, nobles and whatnot and
have no real experience protecting loot, so they hire
security contractors to handle the details; which ones they
hire, however, depend on their personality, background and
so forth. Try to think from the perspective of the owner.
Here are a few examples.
- A seasoned owner might rely more on alert guards than on
passive defenses like alarm systems, or cycle guard shifts
- A technician/wizard owner might rely more on security
systems/defensive wards than on fallible guards.
- A criminal or ex-criminal owner might be more than
familiar with ways to steal loot, so he has systems in place
to negate likely tactics.
- A cunning owner might have fake loot behind strong
security, with the real loot hidden in plain sight or in an
- A cruel or unreasonable owner might be unfair to his
guards, making them more likely to betray him to the party.
- A cheap or inexperienced owner might not have state-of-
the-art security, or might not keep it in good shape.
At this point you should construct a security hierarchy
outlining what people have jurisdiction over other people.
The owner will be at the top, with his top security chief(s)
(if any) on the tier directly below him.
Constructing this security hierarchy will help later on when
the party is planning on how to infiltrate the site; if they
can see that vault guards have higher security clearance
than perimeter guards, they'll know their counterfeit
perimeter guard uniforms won't get them into certain high-
If starting at the owner doesn't seem like the best course
of action for you, just leave the hierarchy blank for now.
Step Three: Passive Defenses
The start of a security network that guards loot should be
passive defenses, such as systems that function without
needing direct supervision from a lackey.
Passive defenses have many advantages over active defenses
(e.g. guards): they work 24 hours a day, are hard to fool or
coerce, and they require limited upkeep.
They have their fair share of disadvantages too: they are
predictable, don't adapt to unique circumstances, often
require power, and have to have fail-safes or off switches
so they can be bypassed by the rightful owner.
There are many kinds of passive defenses, but they can be
broken down into four broad categories by their intended
- Deny egress. Heavy doors, deep pits, unscalable walls,
and other sorts of things that aren't easily bypassed
without specialized equipment or training.
- Active defenses (like guards) that raise the alarm an
intruder is present. Trip wires, motion sensors, security
cameras, heat or noise sensors, metal detectors, and other
sensory apparatus connected to bells, whistles, flashing
lights and the like.
- Kills intruders. Automated turrets, whirring saw blades,
poison gas, and what-have-you. Most legal-minded sites can't
use these due to legal issues. Some types can be bypassed
easily (e.g. gas with gas masks).
- Incapacitating defenses. Knock out, restrain, trap,
isolate, or otherwise non-lethally render an intruder unable
to proceed and make them easy to apprehend.
A prudent security chief will utilize more than one type of
passive defense and scatter them throughout a site. For
- A heavy door at the entrance
- Trip wires and motion sensors throughout a site which
alert armed guards
- Knockout gas at the door to the vault
- A sound detector linked to poison gas inside
- Layering defenses is important because each type of passive
defense has a serious vulnerability:
- Denying defenses can be penetrated by the well-prepared
- Alert defenses are useless if no one is around to hear the
alarm bells (and they're vulnerable to the ubiquitous looped
security tape trick)
- Kill traps always have ways to bypass them and multiple
safeguards so an owner isn't killed
- Incapacitation traps often leave a target awake and able
to escape their bonds.
In addition, most if not all passive defenses are easily
circumvented by properly impersonating a guard with
appropriate security clearance, or by knocking the power out
(or using an anti-magic field in a fantasy setting).
Step Four: Active Defenses
Active defenses are those that are sentient, mobile or
ambulatory, possess some degree of intelligence and problem
solving, and have some means of subduing, hindering, or
The most common type of active defense is a security guard:
uniform, security pass, and a basic armament that doesn't
require much training to use.
Elite guards with specialized training and advanced
equipment exist, as well as specialized response teams that
deal with specific threats (fire crews, SWAT teams, etc.).
More esoteric active defenses, like AI's with control over
remote drones or non-human creatures (monsters in fantasy
settings and aliens or bioengineered beings in sci-fi) are
possible as well, although there are deficits to these
defenses that balance their unique abilities.
Active defenses have several advantages over passive ones:
- They can react to changing circumstances
- They have experience and training which makes them well-
suited to respond to specific threats
- They can't be turned off with the push of a button
On the other hand, guards have to eat, sleep and use the
restroom, not to mention they get bored, have to be paid,
housed, entertained, fed, equipped, scheduled, and so forth.
Most active defenses have considerable upkeep. It costs a
lot more to have an armed guard watching a door 24/7 than it
does to lock it.
An active defense's benefit of being intelligent is
sometimes a hindrance, as well. They can be bought off,
coerced, tricked and confused. Additionally, many types of
guards aren't on-site 24/7. Many security companies, for
example, don't show up until an alarm is tripped.
Neither active nor passive defenses alone are enough to
protect valuable loot. A good balance of both is the best
way to keep intruders out, with several types of both as
well: snipers watching the perimeter, foot-soldiers walking
the halls, elite guards protecting the loot, and response
teams on stand-by to back up everyone else.
At this point in your planning, the security hierarchy
should be shaping up considerably, with security chiefs,
passive defenses, and active defenses making at least four
or five tiers total if not more.
Likewise, the monthly bill to support this security
network should be reaching steep levels as well. Make
sure to weigh the cost of protecting a treasure against
the value of the treasure itself. If it costs $50,000 a
month to keep a million dollars safe, is that cost
effective? Sometimes it's hard to put a price tag on
how much it costs to run a laser trip wire, or how much
to supply ammunition to 12 foot-soldiers for a month,
so estimate if you have to.
Step Five: Façade
A façade is a front or false face. In terms of a heist, the
façade is everything from the property line to the start of
secured areas. In a bank robbery, it's the area of the bank
where patrons are allowed; in a casino, it's where people
gamble, eat, and sleep; for a laboratory, it's the offices
and public areas.
Not all heist sites have façades, but most business-related
sites will have them, so they are an important
Now that your secured site is starting to take shape,
filling in the façade is the next natural step, since most
heists will involve navigating the façade and some heists
will bypass certain secured areas by manipulating the façade
(going through ducts, drilling through walls, etc.).
Façades are designed around utility, cost, ease of access
and legality. The easiest way to build a façade is to think
of how you would build a normal business. Try to consider
all the things that business would need. Then surround the
secured areas with that façade.
For example, in a casino, there should be:
- Gambling areas
- Food courts
- Information kiosks
- Stages for live shows
- Chip exchange areas
- Parking garages
- Hotel rooms and everything that goes with hotel rooms
(e.g. laundry rooms).
You should also consider portals between areas in the
façade, and portals between the façade and secured areas:
- Security doors
- Fire doors
- Secret doors
- Trap doors
- Dumb waiters
There should also be some light security in the façade, just
to keep an eye on things and prevent intruders from reaching
secured areas, even if the entrance is hidden. Maybe façade
security doesn't even know there is a secured site, or they
don't have security clearance to enter the site.
Non-security personnel, like cashiers, waiters, and so
forth, often have some involvement in the security system
(such as the ability to activate silent alarms, or access to
a few secured areas) so they should go on the security
hierarchy as well (maintenance men, for example, can
probably access many areas that cashiers can't).
Step Six: The Team
Now that your site is basically complete, it's time to move
to the 'heist-er' side of things. The team consists of the
players, of course, but sometimes NPCs will be involved as
For heists that require a lot of manpower, or ones that
require a specialized skill-set the party doesn't possess,
hiring an NPC lockpick, security expert, wheel-man, and so
forth might be necessary. Additionally, having NPCs involved
with the heist can help by introducing some chaos into the
carefully laid plans of the players (see Complications later
There are two ways to build an adventure: build the
challenge to match the players, or build the challenge
independent of the players so they have to adapt and plan to
Heists should generally be of the second type, with
something of the first type mixed in. Challenges that are
part of the heist should require a good deal of planning and
moxie, but should be within the limits of the players'
For example, in a fantasy setting, if you had a party of
nothing but fighters and rogues, it would hardly be fair to
have a site's defenses be nothing but magical traps that
only a wizard can disarm. In that circumstance, mundane
traps and plenty of armed guards would make a better site -
something the party can do with some planning and effort
because it matches their skill-set. At the same time, they
may have to buy a scroll of Dispel Magic or hire a wizard
NPC because they know there is a ward somewhere in the
complex they can't disarm.
The easiest way to balance this sort of problem is to make a
list of the skills the party has, and then draw the list of
skills required for the heist from those skills.
Next, add a few skills the party doesn't have to the skills
required. Adding more makes a heist more difficult and
require more planning. Here are some skills that could be
required in a heist, with modern / fantasy equivalents where
- Sleight of hand
- Driving, piloting, boating
- Explosives / sapping
- Scuba-diving / swimming
- Sky-diving, rappelling, skiing
- Security disarming / trap disarming
- Technical / artifice
- Marksmanship / swordsmanship
- Electronics, computers / magic
An epic heist will require a great number of these skills
and more, although your average heist will only require half
Party members should be able to fill out most of these, with
career criminal/rogue types making considerable
contributions to the party skill base.
Step Seven: Assets
Assets comprise elements external to the PCs that might
assist in a heist. They come at some cost to the party or
add additional planning considerations. For example:
* Buying or bartering for information from people who work
at the site or helped design it
* Specialized or uncommon equipment that might be unwieldy
- Associating with contacts that might have their own
Acquiring assets should require spending time or money. It
might also require certain social graces, specialized
skills, or pre-existing contacts to bring into line without
drawing unwanted attention.
Creating assets for PCs to use is an important part of
building a good heist. Assets are an essential part of
heists, because without the outside help that assets
provide, the party has everything they need on-hand to
perform a heist.
While this might seem like a positive, it only serves to
make a heist boring, with no twists or turns; everything
goes according to plan, tip-toe in, tip-toe out. Requiring
PCs to seek outside help means the scope of a heist is
grander and the loot more valuable. If any random guy off
the street could do a heist with no help, heists wouldn't be
nearly as exciting.
For each considerable obstacle in a site (generally, each
tier of a security hierarchy), there should be at least one
or two assets available (with a little digging on the
players' parts) that can partially or totally overcome it.
For example, say there is a state-of-the-art security door
that guards the loot. Sample assets could include:
- Hiring an expert to deal with it
- Buying a high-powered drill that can penetrate it
- Contacting a bomb-maker and buying an explosive that can
remove it without destroying the loot
- Acquiring the passcode from a security guard through some
means of subterfuge.
Some obstacles can have multiple available assets, some
obstacles can have no available assets; it's up to you.
Step Eight: Planning
Now that the site, security hierarchy, and assets are
starting to take shape, players can begin to actively plan
their approach to the heist. This step is where you actually
start playing. Everything up until this point should have
been prepared before the session.
GMing for this part of the heist takes a different strategy
than in most types of GMing. You should just sit back and,
for the most part, let the players do the work.
Step in when you are asked a specific question about the
site that the players could have access to information
about. Maybe they've befriended a butler who can give them a
limited floor plan or has some sort of insight into the
security infrastructure (a hack into the camera systems, or
in a fantasy setting, a crystal ball).
Don't tell players outright a plan won't work. If you feel
the need to intervene, have their information sources reveal
some detail that puts a burr in the plan. If the players
want to use explosives to penetrate a security door, and you
know the kind they plan to purchase won't even put a dent in
it, maybe have the butler mention that the security chief
often brags about how resilient the doors he's installed
This 'soft no' should specifically be used for major points,
such as doors that, if impenetrable, end the heist in a
failure. For lesser obstacles with flawed strategies,
failure can spice things up.
Much of what occurs at this point depends on your players.
Some groups will have a unified vision of their strategy.
Some will argue endlessly about what route to take. Some
groups naturally lean toward certain strategies (a group of
all fast-talking types might go for a confidence scheme).
Some groups are all over the place in terms of party
composition and have to come up with a similarly convoluted
Try to stay flexible and allow the party to attain assets
you hadn't considered if they come up with a good plan
(estimating costs for exotic equipment or services as best
as you can).
Step Nine: Preparation
Between planning and execution comes the time where the
party gathers up all the materials they need, hires the
specialists and takes care of their checklists.
This preparation stage is probably the largest in-game time
expenditure for a heist adventure. It often takes weeks or
even months to have illegal or exotic equipment imported,
and NPCs often have other jobs or the like they have to work
on. It might seem like tedium to some groups, but it can be
a good opportunity to introduce interesting characters and
do some role-playing.
Beyond these necessary steps to making the heist work, there
can sometimes be sub-adventures that are just as essential.
Perhaps a special piece of equipment is a sub-adventure - a
mini-heist if you will. One or more of the PCs must enter a
secured facility other than the primary site to acquire some
thing or piece of information. Maybe specialist NPC (or even
a PC) is in a secured location like prison or insane asylum
and the party must break him out for the job. An interesting
one is a player gets a part-time job at the site and has to
sneak around, gathering information and misplaced security
cards. There's a lot of room for sub-adventures, but they're
not necessary if your group doesn't seem particularly
Complications should start to appear during this stage.
Maybe the site security catches wind of the group's efforts
and ramps up security, or certain necessary equipment or
personnel simply aren't available.
Compromise and lateral thinking are important skills for
players during a heist, so having them start using those
skills before the actual heist starts is not only generous
on your part but also makes for a better heist in general.
If players are absolutely stumped when they run into a
complication during a heist, the heist is going to be short.
Step Ten: The Heist
The heist itself is hard to describe. There's an elevated
level of tension, but at the same time a general confidence
because of the amount of planning involved. Sometimes plans
are changed in light of the circumstances, or abandoned
entirely when things go wrong.
How the heist goes has a lot to do with what plans the party
has made. Some areas of a site and defenses will be skipped
entirely, and areas you hadn't planned on them visiting
might be the primary location of a heist.
One of the largest issues during a heist is that party
members are often in different locations performing actions
simultaneously. The timing of these maneuvers is crucial,
but it's hard to gauge exactly how long it takes to perform
many actions. Additionally, the question of who goes first
is also an issue.
One way to resolve both problems is to break time segments
into five minute intervals, and have each player describe
what they'll be doing in those five minutes. Estimate how
long a task takes based on its complexity (easy tasks 1
minute, medium tasks 5 minutes, hard 10 minutes).
Calculate travel times based on speed (remember that while
incognito, moving at top speed is generally a poor idea in
most circumstances). When time-sensitive occasions like
combat occur, switch back to round-by-round for a minute or
This method of five minute turns help players synchronize
actions during the planning stages for a more harmonized
plan. With each player having written down a list of actions
based on a common time frame, the action will go more
smoothly and it'll be easier to keep everything in sync.
Even if this method isn't used, some sort of organized time-
based mode seems almost necessary to make the heist more
closely resemble a planned sortie, rather than a group of
guys haphazardly performing tasks.
Step Eleven: Complications
It may not seem obvious at first, but in reality,
complications make the heist. Without complications, there's
no conflict; without conflict, there's no danger; without
danger, there's no challenge; without challenge, there's no
Complications are what turn the best laid plans into a
slapdash scramble to get out alive. Consider a heist where
every plan and preparation comes to full fruition. No guards
are alerted, no security measures tripped, no team member
caught, the loot recovered in full, and the getaway
unchallenged and complete. Where's the fun in that? You
might as well be telling a story about how they got away
with the treasure, rather than having them play at all.
GM intervention is often unnecessary to create a
complication. A player will roll a fumble, act based on
flawed information, or change plans mid-stream without other
team members knowing. However, the GM may need to step in
and put a little chaos in the mix.
Either way, the best preparation to create complications is
to make a list of every type of defense measure located in
the site (with the help of your security hierarchy) and
consequences for when it is tested. Then add a few specific
instances where something can go wrong for even the best
plan. Creating these 'murphy complications' might seem
difficult, but just think of a few from some heist movies
and then go from there.
- An NPC betrays the party. Maybe the site owner made them a
better offer, or they want all of the loot for themselves.
- An NPC ally acts irrationally. Maybe they have a prejudice
toward the guard's ethnicity or attitude, or a hidden mental
- Equipment that worked perfectly during testing suddenly
malfunctions. A quick check reveals the batteries need
- An unscheduled inspection, celebration, or other event
alters security measures (generally, making them tighter).
- The bribed security guard is arrested for outstanding
parking tickets, so there's a different, non-bribed guard at
- There's a power outage due to inclement weather, which
resets the entire security system before the backup
generators turn on.
- Traffic is unusually heavy, which makes specific elements
arrive late and getting away all the harder.
- Another team planned a heist for the same day and has a
team in the building at the same time as the party.
It's possibly nicer to keep these murphy complications in
reserve and not use them if the party screws up enough on
their own, but at least one should occur during every heist
to keep the players off-guard and make them deal with
unexpected events. You don't want the players to fail, just
to have to work for it and do some critical thinking.
Step Twelve: The Getaway
The getaway is probably the most important part of the heist
for the players, for obvious reasons (if you don't get away
with the loot, it doesn't matter).
Physically getting away is only one part of a successful
getaway. You also have to plan for future pursuit and
prosecution for a heist to be truly successful.
Planning for both types is essential for players, but
sometimes it's hard for a GM to adequately speculate as to
the effectiveness of a planned measure in a dynamic
environment. Say a team plans to get away by using dirt
bikes to navigate traffic, then fake their deaths in a boat
accident with fake money in the boat? Who's to say it works?
For the immediate escape, plan out a typical response system
in advance, with multiple stages for the amount of heat the
Guards in outer layers of the hard site or in the façade
might be able to pursue the team on foot, though specialized
response teams and law enforcement (given that the site is a
legal one) will comprise the majority of resistance to the
Just checking the speeds of the players' getaway car vs.
that of the pursuing forces isn't sufficient; have both
parties make some appropriate attribute checks (driving,
athletics, etc.) to ensure their escape, with bonuses for
quick thinking, planning ahead and reaction to the
As for the latter, 'getting away with it', part of the
answer is to go back to the owner. Having the owner or his
security chiefs make appropriate attribute checks (testing
their gullibility, perception, and related skills), as well
as appropriate law enforcement agencies (the FBI being the
major one for domestic crimes in the US) making checks as
well, is a good start.
If no one detects anything awry with the evidence, then for
the most part the team is off the hook for the time being.
There's always a catch, however; new evidence is found, a
particularly tenacious investigator makes the heist his pet
case, and so forth.
The best way to deal with the party being 'found out' in the
long term is to just have another adventure at a later
point. They might have to placate the party that found them
out by performing another heist, or by going on some other
sort of quest.
* * *
Comment from Johnn: Awesome tips, Joel! Thanks very much.
Readers, stay tuned for more heist tips in an upcoming
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4 Ways To Make Haunted Houses Great
By Andrew "BlueNinja" Tripp
Johnn, I'm working on building a campaign based on a popular
video game. While considering how the various locations
would have changed in the several centuries since the game,
one of the buildings seemed to be the perfect location to
have a haunting. I don't recall seeing a topic like this in
the archives, so I wrote up an article. Hopefully it sparks
some good suggestions from other gamers!
1. Pick An Interesting Location
Location is important. The castle or mansion at the top of
the hill is an obvious choice, especially if it comes with
timed backlit lightning strikes. But think of other places -
an office building, a dark alleyway, a theater or guild-
If you have a haunted house in the middle of a neighborhood,
what kind of effect does that have on the people who live in
the house or their neighbors?
If you have a public library with a ghost, how do the
employees react and what do they tell patrons?
If the haunting is deep underground, does the ghost make the
cave or basement wetter, drier, colder?
If the haunting is on the top floor of a skyscraper, does
the view outside reflect the city as it is, or the city the
way it was when the ghost was alive? Or, possibly, consider
the building might itself be a ghost, appearing only to the
right person, item or time - and what happens to the
luckless people inside when that condition disappears.
Such buildings could be used to travel into the past, the
future, or alternate dimensions.
2. Why Is It Haunted?
Most ghost stories revolve around death, but never peaceful
deaths. The haunted are often unfortunate victims, suicides,
or vicious killers. Either their spirits are trapped, or the
powerful emotions involved leave a psychic recording.
If a building itself is the ghost, it could be due to acts
of great evil, or perhaps it was built on a ley line nexus.
How often the ghosts appear could be completely random, or
there could be circumstances the PCs can create to make
specific ghosts more likely to appear.
Think about what situations are required to make the ghost
disappear and the haunting cease. This could be as simple as
casting an Exorcism spell, or as complicated as tracking
down the descendant of a killer and enacting retribution for
a centuries-old crime.
If you're playing a modern-day campaign, maybe the PCs could
buy or rent some proton packs and play a branch of the Ghost
Busters, while futuristic campaigns can talk about psychic
residue and echoes of sentient beings.
3. Interactive Versus Expository Ghosts
There are normally two kinds of ghosts: those you can
interact with, and those who ignore the presence of the
The second category tends to be the 'psychic recordings'
type and are good for putting out information and clues to
the players. Perhaps the images reflect something similar to
what the PCs have seen, only decades or centuries earlier.
Such ghostly scenes should be short, no more than a few
minutes. While the PCs might be able to cause the sequence
to start, nothing else they do will cause any change in the
replay of events.
The first category is fun because the ghosts are aware and
can interact with the PCs. A poltergeist can move items,
either leading on or trying to drive away the party. A
silent ghost can mime or lead the party. Then there's the
all-out ghost, which can talk, move things around and even
use magic or special abilities they possessed in life.
For more fun, combine the two kinds of ghosts. Have a scene
that replays, but have one ghost be fully aware, playing her
part until she can take the party by surprise.
Put out ghosts who will embarrass or humble the party. Or
just run a haunted house full of undead - Halloween is
coming up soon!
As inspiration, here are some of the more memorable ghost
stories I remember.
- Thief: Deadly Shadows video game. Specifically, the
Robbing the Cradle mission -a haunted orphanage/asylum,
still roamed by the hostile spirits of the patients and
staff. Good if your PCs can't fight them or have another
reason not to disturb the dead.
- System Shock 2 video game. Filled with sudden replays of
other crew members, usually shortly before they died.
Excellent atmosphere for a group of PCs being chased or who
- The Hawk and Fisher books by Simon R. Green. One of the
books has a palace built atop the ruins of a slaughterhouse,
and the villain brings the ghosts of the butchered animals
to life. Another has the protective ghost of a family return
to help destroy a foe. Many of Green's writings are good for
finding bizarre entities.
- The Dark Tower, book 3. The haunted house Jake uses to
travel between worlds is a good example.
- Monster House movie. The ghost isn't seen until near the
end of the film. Instead, it animates the house like a
living being. The movie also shows some great traps.
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Readers Respond: Halloween Westerns
Subscriber Angela made this request in RPT#504:
I volunteered to run a Halloween one-shot. On top of
that, I agreed to make it an old west setting.
Is there anything special you would do to help create
the feel of the Old West?
Anything new or cool you would do for a Halloween
Here's how you responded:
Cardboard or plastic Stetson hats should be widely
available. Add to that a rubber Halloween mask for the GM to
wear, plus spares.
Why spares? Because if you're a player, you can wear both
hat AND mask.
I would also check out the Kenzer and Company website for
freebies relating to Aces & Eights, their wild west game,
and would look at running a modified Call Of Cthulhu
scenario set in the wild west (to get the combination of
From Jeremy B.
Expeditious Retreat Press has two very nice western
adventure seeds packs for, I believe, $2 each.
[Johnn: yup. Available at my store for $1.75 right now:
Seeds: Western I , Seeds: Western II. ]
The horror rules at the end of Victorian Monstrosities by
Adamant Entertainment are an excellent adaptation of fear
horror and madness checks to d20 gaming.
[Johnn: The Imperial Age: Victorian Monstrosities PDF version]
As to evoking Westerns, go for cinematic. It's dusty, hot
and tiring. You just wanna get into town and leave the
tumble weeds behind you. You walk through the swinging doors
of the saloon and take your place at the rail.
From Jim Springer
Here's one I ran once for my yearly Halloween game:
"A filthy child sneaks into what appears to be a burnt out
church. She scurries up to the bullet-riddled alter and
effigy. 'Oh lord, we have lost so many to the scourge, this
El Diablo!" Tears stream down her cheeks and the words are
wracked with sobs.
"Please, oh lord, protect us. Since my mamasita and the
Sheriff are dead it has been hard to keep love and hope in
our hearts under their rule. Please save us, oh lord!"
At the same time a stranger walks up to Boot Hill, dressed
like a mortician. He leans heavily on a shepherd's crook and
whispers muted words. Then an eerie green mist rises from
Boot Hill, flickering in the night breeze.
The earth begins to move a few grains of dirt, then
more...until wooden coffins rise from the ground. As the
mist penetrates the aged wood it has an odd effect: the
clothes and bodies seem to mend; decomposed flesh turns pink
and leather belts and boots seem fresh and soft.
Then their eyes open - not the white eyes of the dead, but
eyes with the energy and vitality of a sleeper awakening
from a long sleep.
As the mists finish their work they retreat, taking with
them the strange man in black. The only one to witness this
Laughingcrow, the town drunk and only witness to this unholy
event, mutters to the wind, "Spirits of vengeance have
awoken, big trouble coming tonight."
Meanwhile, a woman carrying something limp in her arms
shuffles down the street. "I found tha' little girl! Intje
ol' church. Help me get'er to the saloon, ok? She was
runnin' to boot hill."
The group rolls up characters, as normal. Only once they
finish, let them know they're dead! For this one time (just
on Halloween), the veil weakens and the PCs, who happen to
have all been slain by the same vile group of western scum,
can rise from the afterlife and seek revenge (and hopefully
leave their loved ones better off).
The story lead to an easy encounter with three goons to save
a little girl, great motivation for any group, and she can
fill in the story gaps. Then just insert any old western
Hope this helps inspire!
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