Pull a heist in 4 easy steps

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How to run a heist adventure

Heist movies are the essence of cool. Cool characters, intriguing situations, mind-boggling puzzles. A D&D heist adventure has tremendous potential since the campaign already has cool characters and a unique and rich setting – especially if you read the Instant World Builder and Instant Campaign Builder.

Tim, a Dungeon Mastering reader, recently e-mailed me:

I want to design a part of a campaign where the group will need to pull off a heist, similar to say an Ocean’s Eleven or The Sting. […] I was curious as to your thoughts about its feasibility, and whether or not it could be worked out based on DnD restrictions.

I decided I would share my thoughts here and hopefully you can all add your comments and ideas too and make this heist project work.

1 – Determine why it’s impossible for the PCs to pull off the heist.

I would start by deciding how the target is guarded and protected and making sure it is completely utterly definitely impossible to pull off the heist. The target must be well guarded by multiple layers of protection. It must be beyond anyone’s reach. That’s what makes the heist special – it cannot, should not be achieved.

2 – Add cracks in the protection

Once it is clear that the target is perfectly unattainable I’d add some cracks in the protection. Not big cracks though. The challenge has to be daunting.

  • Information. Is there available information that would allow the PCs to bypass one of the layers of protection of the target?
  • Allies. Does anyone have an agenda similar to the PCs’ who could help with the heist?
  • Traitors. Would anyone with inside access or information be ready to help the PCs?
  • Magic. Is there a magic item or spell that could breach the magical protection of the target?

3 – Plant information

Once I know of some ways the PCs could pull of the heist I’d start planting the information over time. If you plant the information over a long period of time the heist becomes harder to pull off because it’s harder for the PCs to meta-game and figure out which clues are relevant.

4 – The Exposé

Now the fun part! Who’s briefing the PCs on the heist? That character will tell the PCs how impossible the heist is. He knows all the reasons why it’s unrealistic to try the heist. That speech should make for a great scene.

Any ideas?

Share your thoughts and experience on heist-style scenes!

10 thoughts on “Pull a heist in 4 easy steps”

  1. The more I think about it, the more I think I was wrong about the “It’s impossible” expose. It would indeed be important to make sure the PCs are fearless and overconfident before building up “impossible hype” about the heist.

  2. One heist I’m planning for my group is:

    A nobleman is going out of town. During that time, his seneschal will take over.

    The PCs are employed to steal a painting from his house. There’s an optional subplot they can do if they want where they’re asked to get a rubbing of his locks for key forgery later on.

    The way in: the seneschal is having some furniture delivered to the house. The furniture maker has been bribed by an organization who doesn’t like the noble. The organization will smuggle the PCs into the grounds by sewing them physically into the sofas.

    Once inside, the PCs can get the painting by evading the guards, and they are asked to take a set of dummy wax keys in and put it into the locks, thus providing the organization with working copies of the locking mechanisms for their locksmiths to crack.

  3. Something I’d worry about, is the impossible bit. I know that when one of my NPC’s that is even somewhat respectable, says “it’s impossible”, the PC’s will beleive him. I might “break the fourth wall” a little, and mention ahead of time that the players are expected to try, and that while it will be a difficult task, it is technically possible.

  4. @DNAphil:

    I love the way you had the players plan between games. I’m sure they had fun doing it too.


    Forget DeNiro. He said he doesn’t want to play with you.

    @everyone else:

    Great suggestions and ideas.

  5. Heist adventures do not need to be on rails, depending on how you run them. I ran a d20 Modern game, called Heist for over a year, and it was never a railroad. Here are some tips on how to run one and give the players control of the game.

    1. As the GM, create the object to be stolen and come up with a reason for why the PC’s want it. If all you can come up with, is that the NPC will pay them, thats ok, but if you can find another reason it will make the opening of the session better.

    2. As the GM, create where the object is, without too many concerns about how the players are going to get it. Create the security, the vault, the guard rotation, etc.

    3. In play, allow the players to do some recon. Some Gather Info, Search, Spot, scrying, etc. Reveal to them the elements of the security through their recon.

    Then stop the game. Let the players mill about and have from the end of this session to the next session to plan their heist. Having players plan a heist during a break in the middle of the session is the worst thing you can do. The only plan they will create will be simple and not well thought out.

    Send them home and let them plan by email or while sitting around a friends house. Let them debate their plan and refine it.

    When they have the plan, have them tell it to you before the session. Then review your existing plans for your object and its security. Write a few notes for anything you may not have covered. But do not change anything about the object or its location. If your players totally figured out how to defeat all your security, then good for you, your players planned well and should be rewarded.

    The in your second session, let them execute their plan and play through the effects of their plan and the aftermath.

    By allowing your players to the time to plan you do not have to create a railroad solution in how to get the object, they will find the best solution for them. In addition, the players have the satisfaction of coming up with the plan.

  6. Perhaps I was a bit harsh but the article pushed one of my buttons. I’ve found that whenever I start thinking Wow this adventure is so cool it’s a pretty good sign that I’ve written an extremely linear railroading adventure.

    Phil’s example sounded great – the way a heist should go in an RPG as opposed to a movie.

    Perhaps there are 2 necessities that are most important in order to have a great heist scenario in an RPG.

    1. Players who are very inventive and capable of making a multi-part plan in advance.
    2. A GM who’s good at improvising and can deal with anything his players throw at him.

    In addition:
    3. Multi part and varied protection for item in question.
    4. A way for the PCs to discover sufficient information about the protection to enable planning.
    5. Player recognition of the need to make a full plan in advance.

  7. One of our very best D&D scenario was a Heist pulled by my friends Yan and Franky. I had this Vault in a Lawful Good cathedral. It contained everything that was most sacred to this religion.

    Yan and Franky needed to get their hands on a sacred text to elucidate the mystery of a Fallen Angel they met a few sessions ago.

    I did the exact things you said about cracks in the system. But I never bothered with the Impossible part, these two were crazy enough to try anything.

    Yan planned the whole caper by buying custom magical items like ‘Stones of Silence’, lens of searching, potions of Invisibility and what not.

    I had designed the vault as what I thought a Lawful Good dungeon would be. The Entrance had a Suggestion trap that asked the characters, very politely, to give themselves in. All interior vault doors were locked and had ‘symbols of’ spells of increasing intensity on them(From Stun up to Death by the end of the Vault).

    The guardians were Iron Golems, penitent Warforged Paladins and Guardian Celestials.

    It was filled with Evil Artifact (a Sun slaying Lance, The Book of Vile Darkness, Several Talsimans of Pure Evil) some Uber Lawful Good items and the Sacred Text.

    Then we played the whole scenario round by round. The stealthy entrance, the peaceful taking out of the guards outside the vault, Sneaking past the Golems , fighting the Paladin and Angel. It was nerve Wracking … and they both succeeded in getting to the text…

    Good times!

  8. Heist movies may be cool but they’re also the essence of tightly-scripted. Can you say railroading? It sounds as though you’re going to work out the ‘one true way’ to succeed and then push your players into discovering your plan and carrying it out.

    An NPC making a long complex speech is rarely (I’d say never) a great scene for the players. It sounds like a clue that you want to write a novel or short story not an RP scenario.

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