Downtown a gang of underworld types, who don’t know each other’s names, assembled by the brought together by the local crime boss plan to take down a jewellers. They don’t know that the cops already know the time and place they plan on striking. They never stood a chance but they have style and a good sound track on their side.
London, and an art heist will cover the first phase of the theft of several billion dollars. Meanwhile in Italy the works of de Vinci will be targeted by a cat burglar who grew up by the Hudson River. Somewhere near London thirty years ago an ex-con will utter the words “You’re Only Supposed to Blow the Bloody Doors Off”.
This is the stuff that heist are made of.
Fact and Fiction
The word heist first appeared in prohibition era America. A heist, hist or hoist was the hijacking in transit of bootleg liquor. By 1935 it had come to refer to just about any crime, then the film industry began to use it as a label for films about robberies. Since then a number of high profile crimes, such as the great train robbery, have been labelled heists.
|Stole orb, crown and sceptre
|Captured at the scene
|$2.7m Cash and Securities
|Gang later captured by police investigating the theft of a lawn mower
|Great Train Robbery
|£2.6m in used notes
|Gang later captured
|6800 bars of gold and two boxes of diamonds
|Some gold recovered
|Race horse Shergar £5m ransom not paid
|Shergar never recovered believed to have been killed by IRA kidnappers
|Boston Art Theft
|A dozen paintings worth $300m
|Not recovered $5m reward for their return
|Edvard Munch’s The Scream worth £40m
|Caught by police from Scotland Yard offering £325,000
|Carlton Hotel, Cannes
|£30m of jewels
|Armoured Car Heist
|A limited quantity recovered from a lock up
|Los Angeles Bank Robbery
|Both robbers shot dead after a running gun battle that left a dozen police officers and bystanders wounded.
|Great Plane Robbery
|Cash in transit aboard a flight
|Stowaway fled when challenged
|Heathrow Jewel Heist
|A van carrying jewels
|Robbers stole the wrong van
|The Millenium Diamond worth £200m and twelve other diamonds
|Gang captured at the scene
|Heathrow Mobile Phones
|Mobile phones worth £2m.
|Viagra worth £12m
|26,000 Samsung mobile phones worth £4.2m
|$6.5m (£4.7m) in cash
The heist movie has attracted a wide variety of Hollywood stars including the rat pack, George Clooney, Havey Keitel, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. British actors including Michael Caine, Peter Sellers, Sean Connery and Jack Hawkins have lent their talent to a variety of caper movies.
Heists have received a wide variety of treatments. Heat is the gritty antithesis of the modern, illuminated conspiracy Hudson Hawk. The original Ocean’s 11 played it with 50s America cool while the British film The League of Gentlemen is a dark, dry comedy. Both concern a group of demobbed soldiers putting the skills gained on the battlefield to use in peacetime.
Genre fiction hasn’t ignored the heist. Shows as diverse as McGyver, Dark Angel and The Professional have dipped into the heist tradition for inspiration. Deep Space Nine (Badda-Bing Badda-Boom) and Angel (The Shroud of Rahmon) have given it their own twist. For four decades Harry Harrison has spun sequels out from The Stainless Steel Rat, based around a futuristic, one-man crime wave.
This rich seam of fiction has barely been exploited for role-playing scenarios. Examples can be found for Hong Kong Action Theatre!, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk and Gangbusters. Thieves are popular characters in fantasy games yet they spend most of their time picking pockets and opening doors in dungeons they have charged into. The AEG module The Gauntlet provides a glimmer of hope that the heist isn’t a lost cause for a fantasy game as the characters try to commit six crimes in twelve hours.
There are three distinct basic phases to most heists. First preparations must be made, then the crew attempt to take it down and then there are various post heist activities to consider. The balance of the three phases varies a lot. While the heist itself is usually central to the story some reduce it to a short sequence (The Killer) or it is implied and not seen (Reservoir Dogs). Other (From Dusk Till Dawn) start in the third phase with the criminals already on the run. Heat and The Usual Suspects consist of a sequence of heists leading to a climactic crime.
The single heist story works well for a one shot or convention game and as a single story in a longer campaign that isn’t built around a criminal gang. A multiple heist serial can be used as the basis for a campaign.
During the planning and preparation phase a crew may need to be assembled. This isn’t always the case, in Heat the crew is already assembled and has been working together for some time. Assembling a crew offers opportunities for role-playing as characters are talked into doing the job.
For there to be a crime there must be something to steal and somewhere to steal it from. The complexity of many heists implies that boring long-term surveillance and research has been undertaken to plan the job. This tends to be glossed over and the characters tie up a few loose ends. Perhaps a specific targets is followed or a vital pieces of information must be ascertained. Usually the plan is presented at a meeting to the crew. It provides an opportunity to outline the challenges that will be faced and the crew can be brought together for the first time. Classic examples of this scene appear in Resevoir Dogs and the TV series Mission Impossible. If you are using an NPC to mastermind your PCs’ jobs you will find this briefing scene invaluable. The remainder of this phase will consist of a variety of preparatory tasks.
Give your players plenty of time to plan the heist. Don’t skimp on the information the as your PCs chances depends on how much they find out about the target. Avoid providing grossly inaccurate information often. If you do your players are likely to go charging in as if the target is a dungeon.
During the second phase the heist is played out as the characters try to take down the score. The keys to this phase are tight timing, taught suspense and fast paced action. A variety of tasks must be performed in a short space of time. Security guards are nearby and one wrong move will set the alarms bells off. The crew’s skills, bravery and preparations are put to the test. Twists that force the characters to improvise, such as unexpected security systems and guards breaking from their routine, will raise the tension. While they are committing the crime note any evidence they leave behind.
Moving figures on a plan provides an easy way of track the location of all of the important characters. Suitable figures can be found in a number of ranges, personally I tend to use Ground Zero Games’ Street Level and Star Grunt ranges with a mixture of figures from other manufacturers including Irregular Miniatures and Ral Parther. Cheap toyshops and bookshops are excellent sources for toy cars, maps and other props.
Once the crime is underway keep pilling on the pressure. Don’t let them stop to talk things over for long. To build tension and focus their attention put an alarm clock on the table when the heist starts. Tell them that when it goes off bad things will happen. The police could arrive or the security guards will discover their presence. Many of the best tension building tricks from horror gaming, such as sending players out of the room when the party spilt up, work equally well as tension builders for a heist scenario.
After the heist the repercussions of the crime become apparent. The loot is counted, sold and divided up. The crew plan to go their separate ways. Things rarely work out well though and crime in films is rarely goes unpunished. Maybe one of the gang tries to double cross the others (The Killer). If things went badly scapegoats may be sought and escapes plans put into operation.
The morals of censors, the press and the public require that the criminals, no matter how ingenious or deserving, get caught in the end (The League of Gentlemen) and some will come to a sticky end (Heat and Dead Presidents). Gentlemen thieves, such as the Saint and Thomas Crown, tend to walk away from their crimes. The heroes of Guy Richie’s London underworld heist films being less evil than the low life scum that come a cropper throughout the films, get away with it in the end. The Italian Job leaves everything quite literally up in the air.
Go over the evidence they left behind and see what investigators discover. Fingerprints, CCTV footage, tyre marks, blood, hair, fibres, bullets, shell cases and tool marks may incriminate them. A witness may remember seeing them acting suspiciously or a vehicles registration. If they planned against leaving some form of evidence reward them by making it less likely that investigators will catch on that way. Spending lots of money with no visible income will attract attention. If the PCs mistreated another character they may rat them out. They should pay their dues and debts to others. Should their activities tread on a bigger fish’s toes things may becoming uncomfortably warm.
If they are stupid or careless don’t be afraid to have the police catch up with them. Add tension as they prepare for a job by having the police pull them in for questioning. If they treat crime like a dungeon crawl make their next adventure a ten-year stretch at her majesty’s pleasure. If they use excessive violence they will become a priority for the police and should expect to be dragged from their beds by overwhelming numbers of highly trained, well equipped and well supported, armed police officers. If they resist arrest they should expect to die an inglorious and violent death.
Wealthy, faceless well insured institutions, such as banks, are the usual target along with nasty, rich individuals such as mafia bosses, so we won’t feel bad when they are ripped off. Little more than a sketchy outline of the victim is usually provided to avoid the risk of that the audience sympathising with them. Die Hard has many elements of a heist movie but the crew’s hostages are portrayed as the human victims of vicious thugs.
Jewels, cash, bullion, antiques and works of art have all been the target of heists. In many heist movies the target is a McGuffin. What the crew aim to take down is important as it is something to steal yet it is of very little importance other than being something to steal.
Sometimes it has special properties that need to be taken into account. In Robbery the gang is too small to pull off the job of moving postbags from a train to the getaway vehicles alone so they bring in other gangs to help. The small size of the gem in Snatch makes it easy for it to move from one character to another finally being swallowed by a dog. Bearer bonds (Heat) have the advantage of being extremely valuable and portable. With the advent of the Internet information and electronic fund transfers has become lucrative targets.
Thieves can expect to get considerably less that the value of an item when they sell it.
“The Scream” by Edvard Munch, stolen in 1994, was offered to undercover Scotland Yard SO10 officers for £325,000, less than 1% of its sale value of £40m. The glamorous lifestyles of fictional criminals suggest they get a better share from their fences.
Once a target has been selected its location becomes important and can add twists to a story. While banks are a perennial favourite valuables can be found at casinos, laboratories, skyscrapers and art galleries. Moving targets, such as a train or armoured car, presents special problems but may be easier than a vault in a building.
A locations surroundings govern police response times and potential escape routes. If the crime scene is overlooked there may be unseen witnesses or surveillance. Some building’s approaches feature retractable obstructions and tire bursters. Fences, walls and gates are used to keep people away from the outside of a building. Flood lighting makes sneaking in at night difficult. Perhaps security systems or guards can be interfered with without entering or approaching the premises. Buildings may be protected from ram raiding by bollards and landscaped obstructions.
Identify potential entry points to the location as they will be of particular interest to players. Windows and doors are the most common but sewers and ventilation ducts can provide access. Some crews try to tunnel in or break through walls from other buildings.
Consider the separation of public areas from private areas. Is all of the target closed to the public or are there foyers and corridors that they can move through unchallenged? Larger institutions may have several areas with different degrees of security. Banks and casinos have clear demarcations between the public and private spaces with locked doors separating the two. Other buildings may have separation but rely on trust and a few warning signs.
Lift shafts, ducts, crawl ways, false ceilings and service spaces may allow unobserved movement through a building. These can be corridor sized or only just big enough for an adult to crawl through. Such routes can be hazardous since some aren’t designed to carry the weight of a person and they may be littered with detritus including broken light fittings.
Floor plans for many building, except unsurprisingly, for banks can easily be found in the architecture section of libraries or by searching for “floor plans” on the web. Steve Jackson Games have produced a number of plans and the out of print Millenniums End GM’s Companion contains a selection of building plans. The New Metric Handbook is a useful collection of information and plans to help building professionals design and layout modern buildings.
Pen and paper can be used to produce a drawing that allows your players to plan the job. CAD and drawing packages can be used to produce floor plans for a building of your own design. AutoRealm is a good, free package designed for gamers. While the resulting plans can be printed out quite easily if you want a more authentic look take the file to your local print shop to be plotted onto a large sheet of paper. I usually produce a separate plan for myself that includes details of security systems, guard positions, patrol routes and other details.
The challenge of many heists comes from defeating the security protecting the target. These vary from mundane precautions such as security doors, guards and motion sensors to lasers and biometric locks. Cameras have become widespread in recent years. Staff monitor most CCTV systems but they might be watched by a computer looking for change or capable of identify faces and tracking individuals movement. Remote piloted vehicles including balloons and submersibles can have cameras fitted.
Biometric sensors are becoming practical and affordable. Finger print, voice identification, face recognition and retina scanners are all available. High tech security may include rooms that have their temperature measured accurately (Sneakers and Mission Impossible) or the levels of gasses in the air monitored.
When designing a buildings security systems consider how your PCs will defeat them. Are there blind spots in the systems coverage? Perhaps a camera only photographs the top of someone’s head because it isn’t installed properly? Devices can be bypassed by obtaining the method used by the building’s occupants to deactivate them such as keys or cards.
The guards at a location will normally be people and possibly guard dogs. Llamas are used to guard Christmas trees and geese can give a thief a nasty fright. They may be equipped with large torches that can be used as clubs, batons, stun guns, sprays or firearms for self-defence. Radios and mobile phones allow them to communicate. Most wear uniforms but plain-clothes guards may be used in public areas. They will have badges or passes that identify them as security personnel. Unless it is illegal in the area identification and uniforms may be designed to be similar to those used by local law enforcement.
They may work singly or in groups and are usually either based at a point or patrol. Patrolling guards may wander as they please or follow designated patrol routes and schedules. Consider if there is a gap in the patrol pattern that gives access to a low security room that has access to other places bypassing guards.
All of a guards senses are important but sight and sound are the most likely to detect an intruder. Consider their field of vision. At night seeing beyond security lighting is difficult. How much can they can hear over the background noise of their surroundings? If they are in a quiet mansion at night the slightest noise will be heard but in a loud nightclub they will struggle to hear gunfire.
Remember that guards are individuals and may be persuaded into helping a crew through bribes, a share in the take or threats. Individual guards may falls asleep at their post or have poor hearing. Some are stupid and will hold the door for someone who looks like they know where they are going even if they are carrying large, valuable items such as a speaker the size of a small car.
Dossiers on guards and other characters at a location help players focus on finding human weaknesses to exploit. These don’t need to be long or detailed. A lined filling card with the characters name at the top and a photograph of the characters face cut from a catalogue and stapled to it helps players remember the characters they have encountered. This reduces the amount of scrabbling around to remember who is who that your players will do if there are lots of NPCs.
When a crew has defeated all of the security measures they may face one last obstacle. In the classic heist this will be the vault with complex locks protecting it and devices built into it that alert someone when it is opened. A character trapped inside an airtight vault with only minutes before they run out of air is a good way to focus players minds.
A buildings security systems will usually be brought together for monitoring. Depending on a buildings size and the paranoia of its owners there is likely to be a security control and possibly one or more sub stations. In advanced buildings these systems will be controlled by a Building Security Management System (BSMS). In advanced “smart” buildings this will be integrated with other computerised systems into a Building Management System. This may, if other parts of the system are insecure, allow attacks to be made on the BSMS. These systems may be monitored or controlled remotely. This can, as in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, complicate the heist if the communications to the remote centre are secure or make it easier since no one is on site.
Guards and security systems may sound the alarm in a variety of ways. It might silently contact security personnel and possibly the police that a crime is in progress. It may sound sirens and flash lights to alert local security and panic the thief. Interfering with the alarm itself may be easier than deactivating the systems that trigger it. Alarm boxes, being outside a building, are often easier to get to than the security system itself and are quite vulnerable to a variety of measures. False alarms can reduce response times and the effectiveness of security personnel. By setting an alarm off repeatedly a crew may be able to gain an advantage.
The Crew and Cast
For the archetypical bank job the bulk of the crew will be ordinary criminals. They will have a leader, senior lieutenants and one or more drivers along with specialists such as safe crackers, electronics wizards, hackers and demolitions specialists. A heavy, gunman or martial arts expert may also be included in the team. For plans involving a con game one or more grifters will be there to smooth the way. Characters with military and criminal backgrounds are most common occasionally undercover or former law enforcement officers, spies and the odd insurance investigator join in.
Cat burglars, on the other hand, tend to work either alone or as a pair. They are proficient at extreme sports and are experts in a variety of activities that would be jobs for different members of a gang.
Crime bosses often organise or finance the job. While they may be hands on (Reservoir Dogs) or distant (The Italian Job) both sorts want a return on their investment. Most crews use fences to move stolen items and they may also act as a quartermaster. The crew may have also have specialist contacts such as the bent cop or the clerk at the records office.
Most characters in heist movies are Caucasian males. This has changed in recent years with the inclusion of other ethnic groups. Few stories, with the rare exceptions like Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment and the crew in Widows, feature women participating in heists. The most common female stereotypes in the genre are the fem fatal and the good woman. The former drives men to commit the crime to keep her in the way she is accustomed (The Killer) while the good woman wants them to go straight. The male characters often have stained relationships with woman.
The most common motive is avarice. Some steal because it’s the only way to get something they want (Moonraker and The Thomas Crown Affair). Duty figures in a variety of guises including duty to family (Gone in 60 Seconds), duty to nation (Ronin), duty to the force (Reservoir Dogs) and duty to protect others (Angel). Some characters are like mountain climbers doing it for the challenge (The Thomas Crown Affair), for kicks (Point Break and Drop Zone) or to be the best (Entrapment). A few do it for revenge (Ocean’s 11) or to get the girl (Ocean’s 11).
Conflict can be created if the members of the crew have different motives. This may be internalised within a single character when a leading character has several conflicting motives (Ocean’s 11). In Dog Day Afternoon Pacino explores his characters motivation for most of the 119 minute long bank robbery revealing his character’s internal drama. Dead Presidents follows the external forces behind its characters’ actions detailing the events that drive them to crime. Motivation can change as the story progresses. In The Thomas Crown Affair the motive moves from the challenge of stealing something to getting the girl.
Varying levels of technical provision can be found in heist movies. The poorest equipped, epitomised by Reservoir Dogs, use handguns, cars and commonly available tools. Characters wear gloves and masks to protect their identity. The bulk of heist movies, including Heat and The Italian Job, feature more exotic equipment. Luxury cars, lorries and ambulances are used along with radio scanners and portable computers. They have access to automatic firearms, grenades and explosives.
At the most sophisticated level gadgets that would be at home in any Bond film appear. Jewel and art heists (The Thomas Crown Affair and The Pink Panther), high tech hacking (Swordfish and Entrapement) and huge amounts of cash (Ocean’s 11) along with spy films (Mission Impossible) are the common at this level. Advanced climbing and scuba gear allows the use of access routes unavailable to less technically proficient thieves. Helicopters, private jets and sports cars show the status of the thieves. Purpose built computer equipment is used to defeat security systems. Sprays reveal where lasers are while retina scan faking helmets, false fingerprints and other biometric security system defeating techniques are employed. Guns are less common as wits rather than force are employed.
The crew usually dresses to blend in with those around them or wear practical black outfits. Their choice, however practical, is normally stylish. Actors who have played Bond carry the well dressed Brit motif off in their appearances as thieves while Michael Caine is the epitome of 60s London cool. The crews in both versions of Ocean’s 11 and Resevoir Dogs are remembered for looking cool in sharp suits.
Kit can be obtained by legal or illegal means. In The League of Gentlemen the gang steal guns from the Army. It can also be obtained through deception (Heat) or through underworld contacts (Ronin).
Role Playing Heists
The vast majority of heist fiction is set in the last hundred or so years. A lot of the tricks and techniques from this fiction can be easily used in games set within that period. CORPS provide opportunities for playing the heist straight. Characters in the Worlds of Darkness, could use their special gifts to carry out the perfect crime. In Cthulu, In Nomine and Conspiracy X a group of characters might set out to steal items to protect humanity from things that should not be spoken of. The flexible system from Over the Edge could easily be used to put together a heist game that could either be played straight or with a dash of oddity.
Character’s from GURPS WWII or Weird War II could find themselves caught up in a heist during the confusion of war in the style of Kelly’s Heroes. Alternatively after the war, once they return to civilian life, they might take up a life of crime.
Heists will work equally well in most none post apocalyptic science fiction settings. Depending on the grittiness you want Transhuman Space, Cyberpunk and Shadowrun are all eminently suitable for futuristic heists. A 1920s pulp SF game or Victorian scientific romance game could be built around a group with gentlemen or two fisted thieves. A world plagued by superheroes would probably lead to security systems designed to prevent them simply taking what they wanted with impunity.
Fantasy settings shouldn’t be ignored either. Thea the world of 7th Sea is awash with rich, famous individuals with valuables to temp a thief. The wide variety of prestige kits for rogues in D&D 3rd Edition would allow a varied, all rogue, party to be put together to heist there way across a fantasy world. If the game is not to descend rapidly into being an all thief dungeon bash a GM should be careful to encourage the players to plan the heist before hand.
The keys to a good heist adventure, whatever the setting or game you use is tension. Do everything you can to build it and get your players’ hearts racing. Encourage and enable them to plan the caper rather than charging in. Reward them for doing this but throw them a few curve ball to keep them on their toes. If they pull off the perfect crime let them get away with it. You can always have some seedy crime lord blackmail them into doing their next big job.
Always remember Michael Caine’s last line from the Italian Job it should spring easily from your players lips
“Hang on Lad’s I’ve got an idea”