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Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 118
Movies, television series, and novels frequently depict the same scenario: a team of experts, each of its members able to contribute a specific and unique skill set, tries to pull off a complex heist. Whether it’s jewelry thieves breaking into the diamond exchange, a rescue team extracting a high-value target from a maximum-security prison, or even former convicts hired to find and report on vulnerabilities in a bank’s vault security, detailed and hair-raising tales of carefully planned heists (often gone awry with thrilling twists and turns) abound in popular storytelling. It only stands to reason, then, that GMs running a game based on intrigue and subterfuge might want to introduce the excitement and thrills of a complex heist scenario.

Running a successful heist requires the GM to understand of the strengths and weaknesses of the participants, and to grasp how to build challenges for them that play to their strengths.

An ideal heist allows every character in the party a chance to shine, making it fun for everyone involved.

What is Different?

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 118
Adventuring is about overcoming obstacles to achieve a goal. Normally, PCs react to whatever impediments are set before them—kick in a door, disarm the traps, or slay the monsters. Heists flip this familiar script: the PCs carefully research everything that might stand between them and their goal, and construct plans to disrupt the status quo, while the GM must determine how the monsters and NPCs react to the PCs’ machinations. In essence, when planning a heist, the PCs write an adventure and the GM reacts.

Parties will often split up for a heist. The GM should treat each member of the party (or subgroups of two or three) as if she were an individual adventuring group, and provide opportunities for all characters to showcase their respective skills. Working backward, consider each hero’s strengths and each player’s interests, and then present an obstacle against which that hero is most likely to excel. In a well-planned heist, every character (and by extension, player) needs an opportunity to take center stage—PCs will naturally gravitate toward activities at which they excel, and will want to build their heist schemes around those skills. Making sure the pieces of the heist interconnect—that many goals can be achieved only by characters working on different tasks in tandem—ensures that each player has a stake in what the others are doing. This sense of teamwork is the driving force behind making a heist rewarding for everyone involved.

Building a Heist

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 118
Build your heist encounters using the following four steps.

Other Factors

Limitations and betrayal aren’t part of every heist, but they are common enough to be addressed here. Use them with discretion—particularly betrayal.

Inhibitions and Limitations: Every heist should have consequences for both failure and success. On top of the consequences of succeeding or failing to complete the heist, work layers of consequences into the steps of the adventure, tying them to certain obstacles. If you suspect the PCs will be tempted to just bull their way through a heist (maiming or killing foes who get in their way or damaging property indiscriminately), those consequences should be severe, and can even cause them to lose or damage the goal.

For example, perhaps the female heir to a noble house wishes to discredit her foppish brother and prevent him from claiming rulership over the family, so she hires the characters to steal the family will. She does not wish to see any harm come to the family or its servants, nor does she want any damage done to the property. The heroes now have a motivation of restraint, so they must come up with a stealthy, nonviolent means of pulling off the heist.

Betrayal: Sometimes a heist is just a feint or a con game itself. Someone wants the characters out of the way, so she arranges for the group to get caught while trying to pull off a bogus heist. This kind of double-cross can typically be used only once (possibly twice, if the reasons are vastly varied). If used effectively, it can make for a real thrill of an adventure, as the characters are forced to adjust their plans and wing it, or talk their way out of the predicament. Leave a few loose ends in the betrayer’s plans so that an especially savvy group can figure out the scheme and turn the tables.

Small Encounters

In a heist, often only two characters work together, and single characters may work alone, independently of the rest of the party. In this case, the subgroup or individual functions as a separate adventuring party with its own Average Party Level (APL). GMs can judge how difficult to make an individual task by applying an appropriate Challenge Rating to it. In the Designing Encounters section of the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook recommends subtracting 1 from the APL for a group of three or fewer players. When considering how many guards a single character should be able to take out, or how difficult a trap a thief should be able to disarm, GMs should set the Challenge Rating according to this formula. Every character should be handling tasks that play to his or her strengths, so the challenge ought to be appropriate despite operating alone. Easy and average encounters should make up the bulk of heist obstacles, since a single character or a duo is already behind the curve for the expected power of a three-person party.

Running a Heist

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 122
With the preparations complete, it’s time for the heist itself. There are two main parts to this process: planning and execution.

Example Heist

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 126
The following example illustrates the step-by-step process of building a heist, and how a group might tackle the heist during a game session.

The GM decides she wants the next big encounter in her campaign to be a heist, in order to add some new intrigue elements to the table. The PCs have been enjoying their ongoing struggles against a rival merchant lord who has been making life difficult for them. The GM plans out a quick encounter with an NPC who suggests that the best way to get leverage on the merchant lord is to steal the records of his illicit dealings with the local thieves’ guild that he keeps in a locked safe in his workshop.

The goal is “Steal an Item,” and the GM decides she wants a heist of moderate scope, so each character should have three mandatory obstacles to overcome in order to pull it off. She begins to compile a list of each character’s strengths. The four characters are Valeros the fighter, Ezren the wizard, Merisiel the rogue, and Kyra the cleric.

Valeros is, of course, very good at fighting and breaking things, but also happens to be good at carousing. Ezren likes to fling powerful magic around every chance he gets. Merisiel is great at skulking about, and she makes a good flanking partner for Valeros. Finally, Kyra is wise and observant and somewhat skilled at interpersonal tasks. The GM chooses a variety of obstacles that she thinks will be fun for these characters to overcome by using their strong suits.

The GM decides to include several guardians that block the path and will likely need to be defeated by force, including front-gate guards and a guardian gargoyle that Valeros and Merisiel might be able to fight together. Figuring the party will gather information before the heist, she seeds information on the tavern where the guards like to carouse, expecting Valeros might join them for a drink and try something there before the main heist, potentially asking to join as a new guard. She also includes information about an old priest who used to serve the merchant lord for many years and knows the full layout of the manor house, unlike most guards who don’t have access to the inner areas; the GM thinks Kyra might want to use her status as a fellow cleric to convince the priest to help the PCs in some way.

Anticipating that Ezren might enjoy doing something flashy, she decides that the final obstacle of escaping with their prize will involve a rival gang of thieves disguised as manor house servants, giving Ezren a chance to make a distraction so the others can slip away. She continues setting these obstacles and opportunities for the PCs, filled with chances for the PCs to use abilities, character personalities, and background tidbits the players would likely enjoy.

When the group decides in the course of the game that they want to break into the merchant’s manor and steal his ledgers, they begin gathering information just as the GM planned. However, there’s a slight alteration to the GM’s plans because, instead of having Valeros join the guards, they decide that a careful application of magic could take out the guards quietly. Also, playing slightly differently from normal, the group decides to use Ezren as an observer, drawing on his little-used scrying magic to assist in penetrating the grounds with little notice, leaving Kyra to put on a light show with her sun magic and make the final distraction to aid the escape.

And so it goes, as the Game Master reveals the manor’s defenses and the players figure out their way of dealing with them. The heist that the group plans and executes is different from what the GM guessed it might be. However, the whole group still has a good time pulling off the heist and the players all get a chance for their characters to shine.


Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 128
An infiltration requires stealth and discretion to win the day. Unlike a heist, infiltration is typically limited to a smaller set of skills, and suited for one or two PCs rather than utilizing the whole group.

Infiltration covers both a direct infiltration with a single, set goal (similar to a heist) and long-term espionage that requires living a double life and has a less specific goal. Infiltration ranges from breaking and entering to using social skills to get inside a location. Infiltration usually requires the Stealth and Disguise skills, and often social skills and Sleight of Hand as well.