Tag Archives: roleplaying

Heist! Notes

Heist_titleSometime around December of 2009, I jotted down some notes for a roleplaying game about heists and con games. It was called Heist!, and I sat on it, waiting for some time to flesh it out.

Recently I picked up the Leverage role-playing game, and it was… very familiar. I certainly can’t say that I “stole” the ideas from Leverage or vice-versa, but I suspect that since I know many of the people on the team that it was more a case of us thinking about similar things around a similar time.

So I decided to post my raw notes (warts and all) so show this interesting case of parallel development. Enjoy.

The Three Questions

What is your game about?

Heist! is about a group of professional thieves who decide to work together for one big score. The idea is to replicate the ups and downs of heist movies, as well as the tension that occurs within such teams of criminals.

What Heist! is not about is pitting the Gamemaster’s criminal designs against the intelligence of the players, nor is it about elaborate planning beforehand by the players. While the thief characters have already worked out a detailed plan, what that plan actually is comes from the organic play of the players and Gamemaster during the course of the game.

How is your game about that?

The focus of the game is on five different styles of crime – most everything else is either a modifier to those styles, or subsumed into those styles. Every thief will have a style they’re very good at, some things they’re okay at, and one style they’re bad at, to reinforce the idea that all of the thieves are specialists.

What behaviors does it reward or encourage?

Tactically, players will be given a bigger advantage (a chance to roll more dice) for trying to move a particular obstacle into their thief’s strongest style. Also, players will gain benefits for intentionally making certain obstacles more difficult for themselves and others. The balance between tactics (playing to the character’s strengths and making obstacles more difficult) reflects the rapid shifts in fortune that you find in heist movies.

Making a Thief


Each thief in Heist! has access to five Styles of crime – some of which the thief is better at than others. All meaningful actions in Heist! fall into one of these Styles.

The Brain: The Brain approaches theft by thinking tactically and pitting his mind against others. He is best at making plans, outsmarting people, and other mental Conflicts.

The Burglar: The Burglar is best at the physical act of theft. He is best at stealing, athletics, and other dexterous Conflicts.

The Con Artist: The Con Artist specializes in swindling people. He is best at lying, manipulation, and other social Conflicts.

The Hacker: The Hacker focuses on computers and other technical devices. He is best at breaking into computer systems, bypassing electronic locks, and other technical Conflicts.

The Heavy: The Heavy gets things done by shedding blood and physical intimidation. He is best at fighting, shrugging off damage, and other physical Conflicts.

Each player starts off with five numbers to allocate to the Styles – one 5, one 4, one 3, one 2, and one 1. A 5 means that the thief is best in that Style – it’s what he’s known for. A 1 means that the thief is terrible in that Style.


Each thief also has two Assets, some benefit that doesn’t relate to stealing or crime. An Asset can be a job, a trait, or some other specialty. Examples include “PhD in History,” “Expert Driver,” and “Good with Numbers.”

An Asset allows one free reroll of any dice use in a Conflict that the Asset is relevant in.


Nobody’s perfect. Along with Assets, each thief has one noteworthy Flaw – something that they will never be good at. Like Assets, the Flaw doesn’t relate to stealing or crime directly, but it should have the potential to come up during a heist. Examples include “Notorious Coward,” “Bad With Money,” and “Alcoholic.”

Any Conflict that relates to the Flaw automatically fails, but the player gains a point of The Plan if the failure is significant.

The Plan

No team of thieves goes after the big score without an elaborate plan. Creating the plan and going over and over it gives the team an edge during the heist. Every thief on the team starts with 1 point in The Plan. They can gain more points during the course of the heist, or they can spend them for various effects, after a brief description of how the effect is part of the overall plan.

Why I’m on the Team: The thief can refresh a Style back to full once per Conflict.

Just What I Needed: Some aspect of the heist turns out to be in the thief’s favor. The player can insert a minor detail into the heist (subject to Gamemaster override).

It’s All About Me: Sometimes the thief makes their own plans, which can screw another member of the team as a result. The player describes how their own plan screws another member of the team. The thief gets a free reroll in the Conflict for each point the target loses from their highest Style. In exchange, the target gets the point of The Plan spent by the thief.


A heist is comprised of various Scenes. A Scene can be comprised of one or more Conflicts. Conflicts are comprised of one or more Exchanges.


1) Determine who is involved.

2) Determine intent of each party.

3) Resolve an Exchange (see below).

4) Compare Style points. If any are zero, character no longer able to participate.

5) Determine if unresolved intentions. If so, back to 3.


1) Pick a relevant Style.

2) Roll one d6 per point in Style.

a. Each 4, 5, or 6 rolled is a success.

b. Reroll any non-success dice using reroll ability (asset, weapon, etc.)

3) If both fail, nothing happen. If one character succeeds and another fails, loser loses a point in Style he used. If both succeed, more 6s wins. If still tied, both lost a point from their Style.

4) Reassess the conflict.

Exchange Permutations

1) Asset allows one free reroll per Conflict.

2) Weapon and specialized equipment allows one free reroll per Conflict. (Powerful weapons do +1 Style damage)

Multiple Participants

All roll as normal, but defender only rolls once. If one character wins against defender, lose 1 Style as normal. If multiple characters win against defender, lose 2 Style. Does not stack.


Protects first loss from a particular Style (phantom box).

Exchange with environment

Style is Difficulty.

1 = Easy. 2 = Normal. 3 = Hard. 4 = Very Hard. 5 = Damn Near Impossible.

Zero Style

When character is driven to zero Style in an Exchange, due to anything but an injury, he is Bested and out of the conflict. Any injury moves to Fallen.

If character is driven to zero Style in an Exchange due to injury, he is Fallen. Any injury after that is Dead.

All characters return all zero Styles to 1 at the end of Conflict.

All Styles are replenished after a night’s sleep.

Caper Pacing

First phase contains easy obstacles where each specialist can shine – designed to wear them down a bit.

Second phase contains moderate obstacles that aren’t necessarily tied to specialties – the thief has to con, the hacker has to fight, and so on.

Each job has a number of Big Obstacles that equal the number of specialists. Its Style is related to the specialist and is ranked at 5 – this is the reason he/she was hired. Players can decide that a certain obstacle is now his Big Obstacle – it was always part of the plan. If he does, it now becomes a BO, and works appropriately.

Once all Big Obstacles have been overcome, they’ve got the Big Score. The rest of the game is now Getting Away With It.


· Get In (low-to-moderate obstacles)

· Overcome The Big Obstacles

· Get Out (moderate-to-high obstacles)

The Pagan Lands

PhaleratusA month ago, I posted a quasi-rant about the edition wars between various versions of Dungeons & Dragons. Nothing in that rant has really changed, but I did get to play a second session of the game which prompted that post: Justin’s Pagan Lands game.

Pagan Lands uses Swords & Wizardry Complete produced by Frog God Games, with a fair number of off-the-cuff rulings and house rules. Thus far, we’ve used “roll 3d6 and assign scores as desired” for character creation, allowing 1st level characters to take maximum hit points, allowing Clerics to bump up their spell acquisitions by one level (so they can actually have one at first level), and now we’re using a death save rule – once you hit 0 points, you’ll die next turn until you get healing or make a saving throw. All of these are geared to making the lower levels more survivable, with increasingly successful results.

It’s been interesting to compare and contrast Justin’s techniques in this game with not only the time we played Labyrinth Lord, but also my own experiences running Mutant Future, a sci-fi take using a similar system and game aesthetic. But Pagan Lands has been a much more satisfying experience for me than those previous games. I wasn’t sure why, until I chatted a bit with everyone during one of our breaks. I was playing with Ethan and Rich, so everyone at the table except me1 has played or run every edition of D&D.

The best way I can articulate the difference in experience is that the randomness is there to help inject world flavor, not as a substitute world builder. Just walking through a dungeon and randomly throwing things at the players is only entertaining for a short period of time; when you’re relying on such a simple system to provide context and flavor, it fails you because everything will start to feel the same. However, when the players and Game Master are working with the dice to toss out as many emergent and dynamic details as possible, then the game system feels right. This contrasts well with D&D4e, in which the game can fall back on just entertaining systems play, but is still designed to move back to that feeling of everything being about the same for an entirely different reason. The middle editions all attempt some level of firming up world detail and providing increasingly complex options, which take away from that.

There are more profound thoughts, but I’m having trouble getting to them, as I’m fighting a nasty cold or allergies or something. Something about equality in systems allowing for world and player dynamism more than simplicity or complexity of system. Something. Anyhow, Justin’s written up some great actual play breakdowns of both sessions, if you’re interested.

Pagan Lands: Session 1

Pagan Lands: Session 2

  1. I started on the 1981 Red Box of D&D, so I missed the versions prior to that.

A Bunch of Shit

Alpha six
Image via Wikipedia

For those new to my blog, I occasionally do review of shit on my hard drive — weird files or programs that have made their way onto one of my computers that I’m currently messing around with. It’s been a while since I’ve done one, so I’ll do a bunch of mini-reviews.


I have been skeptical of the so-called “distraction-free” word processors for some time. It seemed to me to be a gimmick, yet another piece of software that tries to “trick” people into writing. But I kept seeing recommendations for Writemonkey on my Twitter feed, so I decided to give it a try. And for first drafts that are nothing but prose (like my episodes of Whitechapel), it’s really not bad. The export to MS Word is a bit wonky for me (at least, it looks wonky in OpenOffice), but that’s a minor quibble — for something like this, I expect to do rewriting and reformatting anyway. It really is that middle ground between Notepad and OpenOffice that I was looking for. Plus, it doesn’t install on your computer, so I can drop the folder into Dropbox and use it on any computer I have Dropbox on. (I could even drop it onto a USB if I needed to.) Oh, and instead of a bunch of “features” that are pointless, this one actually has features that are useful and contribute to my process. (Well, and a few that I don’t use.) Continue reading A Bunch of Shit

Revenge of the Cyborg Barbarians

Nethack 3.4.

Image via Wikipedia

Things have been pretty busy ’round here lately. A couple of weeks ago I took on some new job responsibilities[1] which have involved a lot of learning new things. It also involved moving from an office with a Mac computer to a cube with a Vista computer. It’s really exciting, and I’m enjoying the challenge, but man, shit be crazy trying to stay on top of things right around now. As an example, something that I thought would only take me a few hours over the weekend pretty much took up most of it. I’m still managing to keep a lot of balls in the air (like Whitechapel), but some other things have had to be put on hold for a bit while I settle into a new routine (like the White Wolf Blogcast).

When I’ve had a moment to reflect here and there, I’ve been poking around with more old-school gaming. NetHack and AngBand have been an entertaining distraction, and the sheer unrepentantly wacky fantasy has been surprisingly refreshing. Elf ninjas mixing it up with cyborg barbarians is just so unabashedly and unrepentantly fun. Sure, I still prefer games with strong narratives and deep immersion, but memories of Final Fantasy VII[2]and Thundarr the Barbarian[3] remind me of a time when I thought wearing sunglasses and a trenchcoat while wielding a katana actually was cool, and not just a stereotype.

So I’ve been flipping through everything from retroclone games like Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy to loving parodies like Encounter Critical to actual classic game experiences like Rifts and red box D&D. Playing in a D&D 4e game at work has been helping to scratch that itch a bit, but I admit I’m not entirely sure if I really want to break out a new game to recapture the fun of wahoo fantasy, or if the idea of such a game is more interesting than actually playing one. Nostalgia is a fickle mistress.

I’ve also recently (and somewhat coincidentally) been watching a lot of comedic sci-fi: Red Dwarf, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (TV show), and Red Vs. Blue, which have been leading me to some ideas for a new fiction project… but that’s later. Probably after Whitechapel is done.

Speaking of nostalgia, I’ve been slowly reconnecting with some of my old elementary and high school friends on Facebook. I mean, most people talk about using Facebook to find old classmates, but I didn’t really look any of them up. They just kind of found me. And it’s been a weird (but very pleasant) experience. It’s all been coalescing into a stew of contemplation.

I finally picked up a copy of Shadows Over Baker Street after seven million people[4] expressed disbelief that I hadn’t read it yet. Overall it’s been enjoyable. Plus, right now it’s a bit easier to read a short story in between things going on instead of trying to stay on top of a 2,000 page novel from George R. R. Martin.

Eh, that’s that. Brain’s dry.


Footnote 1: No, I can’t really talk about them at the moment.

Footnote 2: Swords that shoot bullets and have magic gem slots in a cyberpunk world? FUCK YES.

Footnote 3: Ditto for laser swords and sorcery.

Footnote 4: Give or take 6,999,993.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]