How to GM Awesome Heists – Part 2

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0512

A Brief Word from Johnn

Stalagmite vs. Stalactite

I was going through old notes and found this silly tip. Thought it might be useful.

I used to get stalagmite and stalactite confused all the time. Which one is up, which is down?

When I first started GMing, I called stalagmites ropers and stalactites piercers to help me remember. But then I switched to this little trick:

StalaGmite = ground (g for ground, get it?)
StalaCtite = ceiling (c for ceiling)

Neither an earth-shattering nor through-the-roof tip, but I caved and included it here anyway.

Writing Underway for New Report

This week I began writing a new report that will help new GMs. It will cover some big tips to get game masters through the first few months of GMing.

Being a new GM can be terrifying. Especially if you have high expectations, seasoned players, a complicated game system or all three.

I recommend for your very first session:

  • Choose a game system you have played already and are familiar with.
  • Gather a small group together – you can call this a test run and add more players next time if you have a larger group planned.
  • Pick a published adventure, preferably a short one you can finish in one session. A 5 Room Dungeon might work well for you.
  • Study the adventure and make notes about it, especially transitions between different parts of the plot.
  • You might want to use pre-generated PCs, but I actually recommend players bring their own unless the module or game supplies them for you. This saves you the work of creating them. Call them test PCs in case you want to use new characters next game, or if a player creates a controversial PC. However, if you have time to spare, go ahead and create PCs to help you learn the game rules better.
  • Start the session letting everybody know you’re a newbie. Let them know you will not be afraid to make mistakes, and the players should feel the same.

Those are a few tips that should help session #1 run well. They might find their way into the report, but only as minor entries because I have some special, bigger tips in mind that’ll help you rock the table, even as a new GM.

Stay tuned for more news. In the meantime, if you have any tip requests concerning GMing for the first time, drop me an email and I’ll help you out.

Please get a game of something played this week. Play more often!

How to GM Awesome Heists – Part 2

In RPT#502 Karsten asks a great question about heists:

Hi, I was asked to run a heist in FATE 3. I was wondering if people can contribute some ideas on what to with that scenario. I am interested in a contemporary, no magic-allowed heist – much like Oceans 11.

Joel Fox submitted an awesome article, which ran in RPT#504:

I also received several cunning tips from other readers, and I present these to you this week to help you pull off great heists.

The “All Part of the Plan” Feat


The FATE Engine has some abilities that look like they might help Karsten out. I only took a quick look, but the Burglary stunts give some ideas about things the players can do interactively during the play to make things seem more planned.

I play Mutants & Masterminds, and I use it for non-super hero games. One of the games was based on a group of criminals led by a cop and they did all manner of capers. One of the mechanics I developed for that game, which could be ported over to any system, is the feat All Part of the Plan.

When the players get into a bit of hot water, or it seems the plan has come off the rails, one of them can use their HERO point (or other appropriate token) and announce, “All part of the plan.” Then they have to explain how this situation is all part of the plan. It allows them to retroactively change some things in play, and helps them stretch their story telling talents to weave the current situation into the plan.

Rule One about heists and capers though, is stay loose. The characters are supposed to be pros (or they probably shouldn’t be doing a heist) but the players are not as well versed. Let them take their expertise and ideas from TV, movies and books.

If you think they are about to do something stupid, let them know that, “In your experience, X is often a precaution in these types of safes.” You might be giving up a secret, but I have to assume you’re not a professional burglar either…. Well I can hope.

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Use Flashbacks and Soft Fails

From Mark of the Pixie

I would strongly recommend the trick of flashback planning.

Don’t lay out the whole plan at the start. Offer the first obstacle, plan how to overcome it, play through the plan. Then flashback to the planning table for the second obstacle, play through that. Repeat as needed.

If required, you might need one of the PCs to be carrying a suitcase or pack, which will have always held whatever they later decide they need for the obstacles in their flashback planning sessions.

This helps prevent wasting three hours planning, just to blow it all in one bad roll.

This trick gives the illusion of having planned brilliantly for many different contingencies without wasting hours and hours planning.

Then if you choose to follow the normal formula for such heists, there will then be something unforeseen, which they could not have planned for (or their information is wrong). At this point they need to think on their feet.

Another useful trick is to have a soft fail option. Most heists are fragile or brittle. Just one bad roll, just one mistake, and the whole thing fails, alarms go off, guards arrive, buildings lock down. All bad.

So try to add a soft fail that complicates without ruining everything. For example, the PCs fail a stealth roll and get spotted. Rather than having them seen by a guard or setting off an alarm, have them seen by another thief who is also breaking in. Both need to avoid the guards and alarms, but having competition makes it that much more complicated. The rival thief may even set off the alarms if the PCs look like they are going to win.

Another soft fail might be getting logged by a sensor. It doesn’t set off an alarm, but if the PCs don’t deal with it, then it may lead back to them later.

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How I Ran a Heist

From Darryl Hodgson

I run the game Serenity for a convention (a four hour one- shot game). A rule I tell players is, if you think of something your character might do, ask me. If it makes sense, I’ll allow it. This lets the players run with creativity and challenges me to adapt if they go outside my game plan.

I like to run a story having made the heist plan from start to finish or knowing most everything possible.

In this case:

  • The location where the heist will occur
  • The security team there
  • What is happening around there
  • How the heist can occur
  • The escape plan

My story will be from 4-10 typed pages of information! Having a solid structure to work with guides me into what players can and can’t do. It lets me plan what information the team can learn through contacts and research, and what events will occur before the heist.

This is an example of how I ran a heist in Serenity I called Treasure Hunt. Mal earns information about a shipment of coins. The information reveals when the ship will dock at a space station and who will be on the ship (security team only, all others got 40 hours R&R). Players have a blueprint of the bottom level of the ship with rooms and cargo bay. The Treasure Company provides a secure safe the size of a room in the cargo bay with a security code system that is extremely difficult to crack. But someone with the Treasure Company is rumored to sell information.

I tell the crew they need to research or check with contacts for information to plan the heist. Anyone can roll to try and learn information.

The Treasure Company has three workers involved with the safe. Over time someone should be able to determine who they can buy a code from to open the safe.

The Security Team on the ship are an older and lazy group, but effective at their job. More research reveals one has a birthday coming up, and in the past they have had parties on this space station.

Regarding the space station, they can learn who is a popular catering service (that has been used by the Security Team previously) and that they provide entertainers for their parties. This caterer has an appointment with the Security Team several hours after the ship arrives at the Space Station; two caterers with food and alcohol carts, and one entertainer in costume. The ship blueprints reveal that a very carefully flown shuttle can enter the cargo bay doors.

So here is my heist plan. Replace the two caterers and entertainer. Get onto the ship and take control of the Security people. Open the cargo bay door and have Wash fly in with a shuttle (with everyone else). Close the cargo bay door and open the safe using the code. Take the money (heavy) and place it into the shuttle and all leave.

But how did the players play it? I’ve run this game three times. One group followed the plan closely, a second group was pretty close to the plan, and the third group threw me for a curve or two.

All three groups had a great time and lots of laughs over these memorable characters. In this game, when the safe is opened, the ship leaves the space station. Due to engine radiation the PCs can’t leave in the shuttle unless they stop the ship’s engine. And River has this feeling of being watched by people with “hands of blue.” In this game the Treasure is not the coins, it’s River!

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Better Gaming Through Planning, Rehearsing and Training

From Roger Willcocks

Looking at the Ocean’s 11 movie as a heist requiring extreme precision is not necessarily accurate. Consider it instead in the light of a special forces operation.

There are three key requirements.

  1. Everyone has to know their roles perfectly (precision)
  2. Everyone needs to be accomplished at those roles (skilled)
  3. Everyone needs to know how to deal with possible contingencies (flexibility)

PCs commonly have the last two. The first is often difficult to achieve, and the third often suffers from a lack of communication ahead of time.

So an option might be to get the players to spend in-game time and resources in planning, rehearsing and training. (This usually provides lots of ideas for the GM.)

Based on how well they do in that, allot them a total amount of time they can use during the heist for “side band” communication. GMs could also offer set number of opportunities to get disclosure from the GM about situations they did not specifically plan for. That addresses how to allow them to deal with the contingencies without having to plan everything to death ahead of time.

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Leverage RPG

From Laurence MacNaughton

For a heist game, I encourage a look at the new Leverage RPG, which was designed by some of the same people who did the Fate RPG.

This is a Cortex-based game specifically geared toward heists, and it does a great job of it. Here’s a link to my review of the quick start version: Unlink This Review from The Quickstart Job.

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Create A Set of Cards

From Robert Corrina

Karsten, what a cool idea for a session! I’m sure you know your group of players and the Fate 3 system better than anyone, so I can only tell you what I would do if I was running a heist for my players.

The primary storytelling device used in the narratives you are talking about is the characters have things in place that are unknown to both the audience and the villain. Thus, when it seems like the characters are going to lose, one of their assets is revealed and they actually win.

I would say the best way to accomplish this mechanically is with a set of cards you can create. While everyone should be allowed to know what cards are in the set, knowledge of cards in-hand would be private and known only to the player or GM controlling that hand. There should be enough cards that not all of them get distributed. If needed you could even use blanks (for bluffing).

Cards for the players might include One of the Good Guys, where a minion or neutral is revealed to be working for the player.

(As a side note here: I allow players characters to have ally characters serving under them. I don’t know if you do this. The idea is not for the ally to be a piñata of a GM, but to increase the choices. So, for the purpose of the heist, who the optimal minion is might be different than who the optimal ally is in the long term campaign.)

I would not include more than two of these cards per hundred scenario population in the PC card pool.

Another card for the players might be Switcheroo, where the players are suddenly in a different location than they planned to be in (see below for more on locations). You should decide ahead of time if this card allows the players to suddenly be in one of the secure locations they are trying to gain access to.

Still another might be Resourcefulness: draw two cards.

I would suggest limiting the number and type of cards a player could play per turn and in one session.

Instead of just drawing these cards, it might be good to run some sort of mini-game (which represents planning) where the players gather cards somehow.

Still more cards should be given, not randomly but to specific players, based on NPC contacts, items, stats, skills and powers from previous sessions. Now these can be given a new or different utility, thus potentially increasing in value in the eyes of the player.

The GM should have a hand of cards from a different set. These must represent worldly obstacles and also the resources of whoever does not want to be robbed. As you know, in these heist narratives the heroes pick a target that is personal to them (even while claiming that picking personal targets is against their code).

So please consider, what does the other side want? It may be as simple as wanting all the players to go to jail. But it may be something more vindictive. Of course, the GM is not the one against the players, but it is the duty of the GM to represent NPCs. The GM’s set could have things like Extra Guards, Call the Police, Identities Discovered, and Newly Installed Security System.

But, just a card versus card game would go by too quickly. So I would recommend having Locations on the table and a series of intertwined goals that the players would have to pull off in a certain amount of turns. As I said, you know your campaign, so I am sure you know what kind of locations and goals you want to set up.

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Reader Tip Request

How to GM Great Droids?

While I was GMing a Star Wars campaign, I always avoided dealing with droid NPCs. The books always say that droids could (and should) be used for comic relief, and they give some examples here and there.

However, I never really got enamored with the idea and never branched out with any situations where a droid could have influenced the outcome of an encounter or storyline.

With the prospect of a new SW campaign in the future, I hoped to assemble some examples of how other Star Wars GMs have used droid NPCs in different or creative ways in their campaigns, as adversaries or just interesting NPCs and story elements.

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Fun with Traps

Books, Boxes and Baubles

From Len Henderson

We all know the trepidation of opening a door that might be trapped, especially if you hear the infamous, “You don’t find any traps…”

However, after a while, a sort of generalized paranoia sets in and players may well become jaded, no longer reacting with cries of horror and shock when something more horrific and shocking than can be reasonably described happens to their beloved character as the door squeaks open.

So, we move onto other things that might be trapped. Generally, you will find that scything blades, falling blocks and spear traps require a fair bit of room in which to operate effectively. Objects smaller than a five-foot square need a little more finesse when designing and integrating truly effective and vicious traps.

Presented here are some of my own thoughts on the matter of tiny mundane traps.

Book Traps

The book of a particularly devious wizard may well include mundane traps as well as magical ones.

a. Blades can be concealed along the edges of paper or the cover, to slice and deliver poison to anyone running a finger down the edge.

b. A spring loaded bolt can be concealed in the spine of the book, firing out when the book is opened fully, in the manner of a crossbow bolt, hitting the reader in the stomach. A tiny pin needs to be inserted in the spine to prevent the spring loaded bolt from firing.

c. Ingested poison might be put in the top corner of each of the pages, so as a person reads the book and licks his finger to turn the next page they poison themselves

d. A spring loaded scything blade might be concealed in the cover of the book that slices off the fingers of anyone opening it without inserting the locking pin.

e. A glass capsule filled with gas cracks and spews forth poisonous vapors if it is not removed correctly before the book is opened.

f. A particular book might be the trigger for a larger trap, with a piece of twine connecting it to the main trigger.

Box Traps

From chests through to jewelry boxes, owners often add traps to protect the contents. Obviously the smaller the box, the fewer and smaller the traps must be.

a. Blades can spring out from just about anywhere when the box is opened. Depending on where the blade comes from, the PC may have to save or lose fingers, feet or head. Blades on smaller boxes may still take off a finger if the spring is strong enough, and can certainly hold a poison.

b. Spring loaded bolts or needles can fire from any number of hidden recesses on a box. Needles are generally only good for delivering poison, unless they are fired directly into the eye or ear of the PC. Bolts necessitate a larger box, but can also deliver poison.

c. Assuming the box is in semi-regular use, there is no reason the owner could not keep a snake, scorpion or spider in a panel that normally swings open when the box is opened, unless a special pin in placed to hold it closed. I once used a wasp hive in the same manner.

d. Spring loaded lid. The lid opens and then slams closed again, possibly breaking the arm or hand of the person reaching into it.

e. Box filled with gas. The box has a noxious gas compressed within it that billows forth when opened.

f. The box is part of a larger trap, and lifting it from its resting place or opening it might mean a pit trap opens underneath the person instigating the action, or some other large trap activates.

Bauble Traps

For the tiny item, such as amulets, rings, earrings and gemstones, the cunning trap maker can find themselves in some difficulty. Nonetheless, there are some traps that can be placed on such things.

a. Poison is an obvious choice for any item that must be worn, especially earrings and rings of all types. Generally, this is only done by wearers who are immune to such things. Poison can also be put in fine apparel, often as a dust that turns into a cloud when the clothing is disturbed.

b. Spring loaded blades. If you can find a trap maker with the skill, tiny spring loaded blades can be placed in virtually any object. Clasps for pendants are particularly known for this type of blade. The blade is almost always poisoned, as the blade itself is incapable of doing damage. Most items of this type will have a way to disable the spring loaded blade so the item can be safely worn by its rightful possessor.

c. Undead sometimes have a strange gem in their possession. The gem, when heated to body temperature, sublimates into a poisonous gas. This type of gem can be set in a piece of jewelry that the undead creature wears. As undead don’t generally have a body temperature, they are in no danger of activating the gem themselves.

d. Coins can have a sharpened, poisoned edge.

e. Small items might sit on a device that is carefully counterweighted so that if the weight changes (positive or negative) some larger trap is activated.

f. A telescope might have a bolt trap inside it that activates when pressed to the eye. (Nasty!)

g. An ornate belt buckle might have a tiny scything blade trap to discourage looters, who lose a finger when attempting to unbuckle it.

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

How Do You Make Swarms Interesting?

A reader sent me this tip a while ago that needed a quick reply. I put his request here, plus my response, in case you are about GM swarms, or if you have additional tips for Clive in case he GMs swarms again.

“My campaign has been going great, but the next phase of it is troubling me. The undead that plague the city only come out at night and there is the classic swarm of zombies, skeletons and the occasionally wight or two.

How do I play this swarm so it is actually something to fear and not just another XP boosting encounter to rack up some kills and some loot?”

Yours in gaming,

Clive M. Lindsay

Some ideas:

  • Run a swarm of standard critters, but with special critters mixed in to surprise the PCs.
  • Pick your swarm tactics carefully. For example, try to divide and conquer – get the PCs separated and then swarm them.
  • Consider a meta-swarm feature. Some special power the swarm itself has, such as deafening noise, nauseating smell or some other effect that puts a negative condition on the PCs.
  • Have friendlies trapped in the swarm, needing rescue.
  • Have the swarm advancing to some key location, so the PCs must either contain it or kill it before it gets there.
  • Use description. Irrelevant details can add flavor and scare players.
  • Have the swarm potentially infect those who get close to it with disease.
  • Make the swarm destructive. For example, the swarm attacks the PCs in their camp. Some of the swarm attacks the PCs, but another part of the swarm attacks their horses, hirelings and equipment.
  • Use a controlling creature that imbues the swarm with extra buffs or powers from a distance. Do the PCs keep hacking the swarm or attack the controller? Once the swarm has just a couple rounds left, the controller escapes.
  • If the swarm has traveled a bit before reaching the PCs, then monsters and animals will be flushed out by it, like in a forest fire, giving the PCs panicked critters to tangle with as well.


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Random Monsters Via Two Monster Combos

From Mark of the Pixie

I don’t use wandering monsters much, but when I do I tend to roll 2, and present a hybrid. This means the PCs can’t use knowledge of the monster manual, and I get a lot more variety out of my monsters.

For example, a dire wolf and basilisk might give me a huge wolf that has a poisonous bite that turns victims to stone.

In general, I just use the stats of one, and one or two special abilities of the other.

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A Few Quick Campaign Tips

From Jerry in Bayside

What constitutes a good game – a good campaign? What brings a campaign to life so the players become the PCs, honestly caring about their paper creations as living, sometimes breathing, mostly sentient beings?

Here a couple of my ideas:

  • Know thy players. Do this and you will always be a good GM. Ignore this and you will fall prey to all the ills of a writer that refuses to edit, because they have fallen too much in love with their own words – doomed to failure from the get-go.
  • Some might say that a good GM can run any game, in any system, with any genre, but I don’t care. If I can’t feel comfortable with the content of the material, then I can’t be comfortable running the game.
  • I like to use modules. I like to use them as-is, string them together, and tweak them to fit my story.
  • With the game I am currently running, I asked for some buy-in from the group. I asked them be an adventuring group, from this city, and to accept the job I offered, without question.

This was to simplify getting the game started, although we did do some role playing to help introduce the players to game, the city, and its history and backstory. I encouraged them to create characters that would rely more on city survival skills, instead of the usual wilderness survival skills.

  • Most of my campaign materials and ideas come from pre- existing modules and supplements. I have always liked the Forgotten Realms world and all the materials that have been released to support it. I also buy other supplements that are system generic and then make campaigns from ideas or items I have read about.

If I find a monster I like, I research it and let the creative juices flow. A GM could get a couple of years of gaming just from wererats – your players might get a little tired of this approach, but wererats are always good for any fantasy campaign, in any setting. Think about it – where haven’t you ever seen a rat?

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Egyptian Campaign or Culture Tip

From manfred from Strolen’s Citadel

The Book of the Dead is a great inspiration, and a crash course into the moral world of the ancient Egyptians.

These ancient mortuary spells were written on sheets of papyrus, placed into the grave with the dead in order to help them pass through the dangers of the underworld and attain an afterlife of bliss. Some of the texts and vignettes are also found on the walls of tombs and on coffins, or written on linen or vellum rather than on papyrus. (It was often the individual’s personal choice which parts were emphasized.)

The texts are divided into individual spells or chapters, nearly two hundred in total.

The most often cited and emphasized part is Spell 125, “The declaration of innocence,” where the deceased was to be judged by Osiris and the lesser gods who aid him. Their number, 42, represents the nomes (districts) of Egypt, so the deceased is in effect judged by the whole country.

Their metaphoric names often stand for the terrible punishment they can inflict on a soul. After entering the Hall of Maati (Truth/Law), the deceased would advance along the Hall, and address each of the lesser deities with their name, declaring that he has not committed a certain sin.

Note all the various sins, crimes, transgressions and activities the gods detest, how some repeat themselves (do not steal in several variants), what they command (serving the king and the gods) and what they forbid. Explicit mentions of bread (besides other food) and water also show what is truly important for this society. Some sound just strange (“I have not babbled”) and can be interpreted in numerous ways. 🙂

About the book: Book of the Dead
Tour Egypt: Book of the Dead – The Declaration of Innocence

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Noble Resource

From Loz Newman

Gold dust for DMs looking for authenticity-enhancers for their campaigns: Nobility.

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Diceless Tip

From David Goodwin

I once played a diceless game that I very much enjoyed, so I thought I’d point out a few of our solutions.

First off, those involved were all good friends who had an interest in good story and were mature enough to give and take bad news. In an environment where you can’t blame dice, this is pretty crucial.

Second, the characters had well-developed skills, strengths, and physical and emotional shortcomings. They were detailed in every regard, so everyone had a good idea of exactly how skillful or inept they were in various ways. They started life as traditional D&D dice-rolled characters, but they had been played in a few campaigns and we all had a good feel for what they were.

The way the meat of the campaign went was like this. We would describe our strategy for a situation, including any prep work, along with how we anticipated things playing out. The DM would compare this to the pre-made plans of the NPCs, and begin describing how well things were going, stopping frequently to ask us our response to various events.

Because he knew our characters, he was able to highlight our various brands of awesome so that we felt well represented, while still being honest and direct about failures and unexpected turns. As long as we felt a failure was due to the ability of our opponent, rather than the stupidity of our characters, we were okay with it.

In events where a lot was at stake, or a neutral decision was hard to make, the DM would come up with a percentage chance of success and roll percentiles, but that was rare and the only time we used dice.

The success was due to the DM giving characters’ chances to show off their merits, good story telling skills, and most importantly, knowing his PCs and NPCs. He knew what everyone could do, and why they would. Everyone came prepared with their intended plans, and because of that there were times we got stomped for being caught blind, and there were times where we completely preempted obstacles.

This was an epic campaign, so combat was a minor feature. It was all about who was doing what, or how you dealt with influential figures, or your strategy for finding this or that. Die rolls are only essential in combat, and if you get above combat you can really have a lot more fun without all the math.