Things You Might Want To Know When Planning a Heist

Who doesn’t love a heist plot? Complex plans, daring teamwork, heart-stopping near-misses—and uses for mechanical skills, social deception and physical prowess alike! The problem is that as plots go, the heist plot requires a lot of knowledge, both about the specific place being stolen from, and about the world in general so people know what they are, and their opponents might be, capable of. But first, the basics.

  1. What are you stealing? While this is important in the kind of cost-benefit analysis that determines whether it makes sense to try to execute the heist or not, there’s another reason why it’s better to know what you’re after before you go after it: portability. After all, it’s all about the logistics—if you can’t get it out of the building, it doesn’t matter how good you are at getting past security. When dealing with the particularly clever or paranoid mark, being able to verify whether what you’re trying to steal is the genuine article isn’t something to be written off either—not to mention being able to leave a decoy in its place, if you want a little extra lead time before the theft is discovered.
  2. What’s the place built like? There are some situations in stories where the layout of the building doesn’t really matter, but this is not one of them. A good heist depends on knowing things like hiding places, escape routes, intermediate spots to stash loot, truly impassible obstacles and obscure shortcuts. As a result, you’re going to want at least a basic floorplan—for a game, this is probably going to require a diagram, whereas a writer might be able to get away with just a consistent description.
  3. Where’s the loot? This question really should be self-explanatory: everyone knows that the last thing you want when you’re trying to steal something is to risk discovery bumbling around looking for it down all the wrong halls.
  4. What’s in the way? Most places worth robbing know it perfectly well and have taken countermeasures. Are there particularly strong locks? Nasty traps? Fingerprint scanners? Keyed alarm-spells? Hallways that turn into nasty reality loops? This one’s particularly important for the creator of the scenario, and particularly difficult for the characters to find out ahead of time—but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be planned out, and it certainly doesn’t mean it can’t be hinted at. I strongly suggest not only coming up with the obstacles, but figuring out how impassible they are—and, particularly with the ones that are meant to be circumvented, at least one way in which someone might do so.
  5. Who’s in the way? Between owners, security, and regular passersby, not all that stands between a group and a successful heist is inanimate. Whether you’re dealing with a paranoid owner who sleeps with the key around his neck and the bypass in the hands of his most trusted associate, a dedicated guard who will personally rip apart anyone she catches where they shouldn’t be, or a perpetual lingerer who’s practically guaranteed to make a fuss if he sees anything out of the ordinary, knowing who’s there—and who’s likely to be where—is not only important to carrying out a heist, but quite possibly one of the easiest things to figure out.

Stay tuned for more Things You Might Want To Know When!


  1. Michael says:

    Hmm, intriguing. I haven’t yet ever written a heist myself, but I’ve often written and planned plots involving rescuing a person from a heavily guarded building, including of course the current arc in Madness. It’s a very similar plot type and all the above considerations can be applied to it — but of course there are differences, since the rescued person (excluding certain types of magic) can’t be carried, might have their own agenda, and will have their own skills to add to the team (and so the escape part usually gets expanded so they get a chance to show them).

    With stealing an object, one might expect that the escape would be the less interesting half (it’s known territory now) but this would violate the pacing curve. So something *always* has to go wrong, usually alerting security in one way or another. That fact might in itself count as a sixth thing you have to know….

  2. Ravyn says:

    That was supposed to be a later post, you know. I only have so much inspiration.

    I wouldn’t consider the necessity of something going wrong on the way out inviolate, either; sometimes you’ve had enough trouble getting in that there’s really no point in making it worse, sometimes the plan really was good enough and it’s just the external factors that make life difficult, so extending the heist part of the plot is only going to make things tedious, (this comes up in Red Seas Under Red Skies, at one point), and sometimes in games people actually make all their rolls (imagine that!) and taking that away from them for the sake of prolonged tension would come across as contrived.

  3. Michael says:

    Sorry about that. And yes, as usual I was mainly speaking from the writing viewpoint; of course you’re right as regards games.

    I suppose I haven’t read / watched enough of these type of plots; it feels to me that it would be dull without the expected “something going wrong” (unless the heist was only a small part of a larger overall plot) but I’m sure it could be done.

  4. Ravyn says:

    Nah, there are plenty of reasons why it wouldn’t be. If the getting in part is tense enough, there’s no reason why getting out mightn’t be relatively uneventful (at least, as escaping after successful heists are concerned); all that means is that there’s no point in taking any longer on it than you have to.

    *grins* You might want to be careful, though. Mentioning a rule of narrative causality in the same breath as you mention a game tends to cause people to read between the lines a little.

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