Because Fainting Goat Games recently published a heist adventure, I've been thinking about heists and dark ops lately. These are preliminary thoughts and I reserve my right to change my mind.
Most heist movies and novels involve these stages:
- The crazy idea, along with some motivation for feeling that the target deserves it. Now, it's a crazy idea because the location, whatever it is, is hard: They've got security, they're under surveillance, they're in a tough spot. (I refer you to The Hot Rock, by Donald Westlake, where they have to break into, in order, a secure museum, a prison, a police station, an insane asylum, and a bank vault.)
- The intellectual prep work, which might be glossed over in talking or it might be shown, but it usually involves, in some order:
- Casing the joint
- Getting the gang together
- Making the plan
- Getting the necessary stuff. This might involve some smaller heists or the main character having to deal with someone (usually a romantic interest) that he or she doesn't want to deal with, or both. It might be part of "Making the plan," too, or this one and the intellectual prep work get cut together.
- Starting the plan.
- Adapting when things go wrong because for story purposes, things always go wrong.
- The last reversal...this is when it all looks like it's lost. The characters are caught, the old guy has a heart attack, they've escaped but the agents of the target have found them...
- The escape. This usually involves either:
- That part we thought where things were lost? It ws part of the plan all along
- The characters more directly overcome that last obstacle (well, not if you're The Producers or Baby Driver)
- In a movie, then we have some kind of validation, where we see that the target is, in fact, ruined, and that our heroes have gotten away.
- The last scene, in a movie, is a different kind of validation, or resolution, where we see them with their money or their love interests.
And in gaming...
But how does this translate to superhero gaming?
Most of it looks pretty self-evident, but it might not play particularly well. It's also kind of cerebral, but if you have a group that loves planning, this is great: it's essentially:
- Making the plan for about a third of the session
- Things work perfectly until about the halfway point
- Things go wrong but you know, we adapt...,/li>
- Things go really wrong, and we see what the opposition really is and scramble to fix things.
- Things go really really wrong and here is where we see a betrayal or a probable betrayal or the arrival of the dictator when he wasn't supposed to be here and we planned to be out before now. Or we've managed to achieve our goal but not flawlessly because they're on our tail.
- Victory pulled from defeat because we see the last reversal, where the betrayer was actually acting on our leader's advice, or we manage to defeat the following bad guys, or the member of our team we thought was dead isn't really and we have to pick him up.
If you have an established group for this, maybe you can skip "getting the gang together" except that's usually the spot where everyone shows off their abilities, by doing something spectacular, and it's kind of nice to let the player characters shine for a moment.
"Casing the joint" is another place where you want them to shine, ideally by having some NPC fail to notice the bad thing. That might be done as a set of Awareness rolls, and as a bonus for a massive success (or any success plus the amount of someone's Leadership) they get a free reversal at the end. ("Yes, it looked like I got shot but I have this reversal, right, so it was planned the whole time. As a dead guy, I can escape from the morgue and infiltrate the security system. And this was prearranged, so they've made arrangements to pick me up after the opponents' GPS takes them to Bumlandistan.")
Or you can do it where you start in medias res and we begin with the characters in the casino/undersea headquarters/whatever. There's a certain joy to having the obstacle show up, then having the player roll the appropriate skill roll as a Preparedness kind of thing, and if they did well, they're prepared for whatever the obstacle is...but if they roll poorly, not that they didn't prepare, they didn't prepare correctly (three things are possible: What we knew has changed or was incomplete, what we knew was flat-out wrong, we've been betrayed).
A staple of the genre is the reversal, when you discover that something was actually a lie, and our heroes manage to pull it off anyway: Carl Reiner's character is still alive, Paul Newman's character is still alive (or was it Robert Redford's character in The Sting?) How do you pull those off?
Some games provide a kind of retcon mechanic that can be used for that last reversal...Leverage is particularly informative here.
However, would it be fun to know you can always get out of trouble by spending a Determination Point in ICONS? (Well, yes, for some people.) It seems a bit larger than the remit of the usual retcon in ICONS. There are a couple of ways to go, it seems to me:
- Don't. Always an option. However, it always makes the ending an escape and a fight. Which is fine if that's what you want, but if you want to emulate a fictional heist, well....
- That kind of retcon is more expensive. The next possibility, it seems to me, is that it's not just one Determination Point, it's multiple Determination Points: everybody who doesn't want to be captured has to kick in one, or the number of Determination Points is equal a certain value. (And I'm saying "Determination Point" advisedly; I don't mean Advantages here: it's too easy to get Advantages. No: here I'm suggesting Determination Points, which you can only get by running afoul of your Qualities. Other games have the equivalent. Ken Hite's suggestion that it be tied to the equivalent of natural 20s or critical successes would also work.
- There's a special mechanic. In part this is Leverage. (I have actually read the game some day; I own a copy because it came as part of a PDF bundle, but I've never read it. Now that I've seen most of the show, I'd have a proper appreciation.) Special mechanics might include the Determination Point thing I've already mentioned, or some way of determining if there might be a reverse and then building on that. I don't have a specific mechanic in mind, but in Supers! it might involve the payment of competency dice; in M&M it might involve the use of Hero Points.
But let's see how this might work.
Your Random Dark Ops Generator
(Here will follow an attempt to insert code into blogger. It might not work because, well, blogger is a wrapper around things.)
Why Are We Operating In Secret?
First, we have to figure out why this has to be a dark or deniable resource operation. You might already have a reason; if so, great!
- You're criminals.
- You're not allowed in their territory.
- You're enemies.
- They hate you even if you don't hate them.
- Time is short and going there requires permission you haven't time to get.
And so on. Here's a simple list:
|Roll||We're deniable because...|
|1||They don't like us for ideological reasons, such as politics, religion, etc.|
|2||They don't like us for personal reasons: we're arch-foes, they've met us before and disagree with us, one of our guys killed one of their guys (or they believe that to be true), we used to be married.|
|3||We're not supposed to be doing that sort of thing. This suits for your supervillains, but could also work for your government wetwork teams (very Iron Age) for assassination or theft or kidnaping.|
|4||We're not suppposed to do that there. This is the realm of a group operating outside of its domain: this is infiltrating a prison, or the CIA performing operations on USA soil.|
|5||There's no time to get permission. There's some time pressure (always good) and we could get permission (or a warrant), but that permission would arrive when it's too late. So off we go.|
|6||We're actually a loose cannon, whether we know it or not. This mission was ordered without permission, for personal reasons. Maybe the characters know that and agree, maybe not (perhaps they're being blackmailed into it), but this is deniable because it's a rogue operation. Maybe three layers up it's actually sanctioned, but that's for a future adventure.|
Okay. You have a reason why you shouldn't get caught. It might be as simple as "you're crooks" or as complex as "the legal situation around a flying skyfortress in air above Fakeistan airspace is complex, but if we're going to stop Dr. Armageddon, we've got to act now!"
Your basic dark ops operation (and your basic heist) is:
You have to verb some noun in an in inaccessible location. Things will go wrong, and there will be an obstacle.
I know, that sounds like every story ever. I'll try to make it a little more specific to the dark ops or heist genre. This button should show you some examples...
Roll a D6 for each of these columns.
|Roll||Goal verb||Goal noun|
|1||Extract or steal or kidnap (extract means they'll probably come willingly)||A resource, such as an agent or spy or defector or a nine-ton artificial intelligence|
|2||Disable or destroy||Dangerous intel, such as a plan, a secret identity, the knowledge that our political leader is actually a shape-shifting alien|
|3||Terrorize or discourage||Dangerous technology, like the last existing Q-bomb, the factory that pumps out Omniblast robots, the Spear of Destiny|
|4||Discredit||Treasury, such as, well, money, or the ceremonial crown jewels, or the gold bullion|
|5||Scout, observe, or investigate||Dangerous opponent, such as the mentalist who controls the country's superguy, the superguy who is vulnerable for one day a year, and so on|
|6||Aid||A former ally, who might have been mind-controlled or who has faked defecting or who has defected and we want to bring him/her/it back.|
Yes, "Aid." Yes, sometimes the assignment is to prop up a puppet regime because they've promised to do something that we like or giving them the K-bomb without giving them the means to make that bomb.
The location is always difficult to get in to. Why? Because if it's easy, it's not a story; it's backstory. Feel free to add reasons, but we assume that it has normal protections against powers: you can't just teleport in, grab, and go. And, whatever the obstacles, this team has a chance of beating them.
|Roll 1||Roll 2||Location is...|
|1-4||Location is physically remote|
|5-6||Location is difficult for other reasons.|
|1||Temporally inaccessible—Only available for a short window|
Public—Yes, we have a window but it's while the target of the snatch is giving a speech to the UN
|3||Fortified...I mean, all places are fortified but this one really is. It's a prison or a military base or a bank vault or an asylum.|
|4||No powers allowed, either because they have giant nullification machines running or it's on a world with a red sun where you have no powers or everyone, even Iron Guy, has to give up their gadgets to get in.|
|5||Hostile. Some other environmental conditon is actively trying to kill or hamper the player characters, whether it's the fact that no men can go there, or the gravity is too heavy, or the radiation is too high. This is kind of like being physically remote, but with the weirdness and special circustances turned up to 11.|
|6||Ideologically dangerous. This is the kind of place that changes your mind about how bad it is. Maybe it's weird mental powers or maybe you've been lied to all your life about this or maybe it amkes sense in terms of your stated goals, but there's a significant change of one or more of your characters going to that side.|
For story purposes, the location might be unknown at the beginning of the adventure, but it turns out to be someplace difficult to get to.
And there has to be at least one reversal that throws that fine plan into disarray. Rather than list them, I submit that the game-able reversals tend to fall into one of three groups:
- There's something they didn't know. Like, that super-strong guy they figured out a way to defeat? He's super-strong because he's a vampire, and sleepy-gas doesn't work so well on dead guys who don't breathe. Today's the day they're launching the top-secret assault, so everyone is armed and on high alter. New information puts something else in a new light and makes the current plan inadequate.
- Something they knew was wrong. Sure, it looked like they didn't have any kind of mental defenses up, but their telepath makes our telepath look like a child, and they've been leading us on the whole time. The guard was supposed to be bribe-able but he got the dates wrong and now you have Yuri the Idealogue guarding the vault.
- You've been betrayed. This is a special and more personal case something they knew was wrong, but it offers the opportunities for double and triple-crosses. Maybe the betrayer had to do it in order to win favor with his bosses but he's still a sleeper agent for our side. Maybe one of your teammates (probably the guest player) took money or a pardon for this.
Some fleshed-out examples
- We're political enemies. We have to retrieve a defector...except the defector is a nine-ton artificial intelligence hidden in a mountain redoubt.
- We're criminals. We are being blackmailed into discrediting the superhero who fronts this religious group, operating from his floating island.
- We're a set of heroes, but this rival group of heroes has purchased a whole lot of information...and we know that Hyperman's secret ID is in there, on a hard drive that wasn't erased properly. They don't trust us, and we know that they are corporately-sponsored, so we don't trust them to look at Hyperman's ID if we just ask for it...so we have to get it out.
- We're mostly crooks, except for the gal with the personal stake. And we're going to remove all of so-and-so's money, gotten from illegal superhero cage fights in a jurisdiction where so-and-so can't be prosecuted.