Hands down, the best Skill Challenge I ever ran was a heist. It was also completely impromptu – while preparing to move the adventure along to our planned portion for the evening, one of the players simply said “Before we ship out, I need to pay my old rival back. We’re going to rob his brothel.” There was a moment of silence. I took my twenty minutes to prepare the skill challenge, they took theirs to plan the job.
It’s a great scenario for any RPG game: The team of specialists coming together to separate and use their individual skills to overcome obstacles, then working together to eliminate the unforeseen dangers.
What follows is not a specific heist, but the guidelines on how to run a freeform caper scenario using the Skill Challenge as the core backbone of the action.
Whether you are knocking over the safe in a backwater town’s brothel or infiltrating the Inter-dimensional Bank of Sigil, a heist should be meaningful and complicated, with plenty of risk and opportunity for the whole party to stretch their specialized skills. I’d recommend a minimum of Complexity 3
It All Starts With a Simple Plan
Behind the DM screen, keep a numbered list of the total successes needed to complete the skill challenge. Leave a line next to each digit to be filled in momentarily.
A strong benefit to using a heist in your game is that they always begin with a planning and prep phase. This allows the players to participate alongside you in building the Skill Challenge itself – and lets them do some of the heavy lifting! Begin the scene by introducing the idea of the heist, but don’t specify a skill challenge. As each PC adopts a role in the heist and adds steps to the plan, mark down those steps on your numbered list. The players might do your work for you, creating exactly the same number of “steps” as there are requisite successes in the challenge. If they don’t, start pointing out complications to the players – only things their characters might legitimately notice or recent changes in the lay of the land – What if the safe is trapped, too? … You notice a guard with a crossbow walking the roofs … The Countess will be wearing a mask just like all the other guests, (etc.)
No Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy
In a heist, primary skills represent the PCs actions to further the goal of nabbing their quarry. In the normal skill challenge, the only risk for failing a roll with a Primary skill is that the party is one failure closer to losing the skill challenge. During a heist challenge, this also generates a Complication.
The Complication must be resolved (usually by the character that failed the roll though not necessarily) before that character can attempt any further rolls towards completing the skill challenge. Failed attempts to remove the complication also count against the skill challenge, but will rarely count toward it. Because heists are long, difficult, and dangerous skill challenges – it might behoove a DM to use one or two of the Complications (depending on their circumstances) to also remove a failure from the challenge. For example: Dispatching a sentinel who caught the PC using Stealth might remove that failure (the witness is gone) but successfully hiding to avoid a patrol after setting off an alarm doesn’t halt the alarm and thus shouldn’t cause a failure to vanish.
Use Complications as a tool to mechanically reward/hamper the PCs actions in the story. They ramp up the tension, pad the challenge into becoming a longer and more meaningful encounter, and ask the players to stretch their character’s creative muscles. Specialists who botch a die roll may need to improvise, rely on often ignored skills, or use teamwork to overcome an unexpected interruption.
Below is a chart of some suggested Complications and likely skills used to respond to them. It is by no means exhaustive and as always good roleplaying and clever but logical thinking should always win out over the base rules. Use this chart as a guideline to improvise the use of other skills in these challenges as well (Arcana might work in place of Thievery to disarm a magical rune trap, perhaps Religion stands in for Bluff to deal with a nosey cult inquisitor):
*Combat – Erupting into a full mat-and-minis combat would definitely bog down and steal the thunder from a heist (if an extensive combat is involved in the heist, it should probably be an expected scene that occurs anyway). If the player opts to use feat of arms to get out of a scrape simply have them make an attack roll, and make attack rolls for the sentries opposing them (ideally an appropriate minion of the player’s level +/- 1). If the attack roll hits, the PC dispatches all foes involved single-handedly, but incurs damage from any of the attacks rolled against him/her. If the players opts to use a Daily or Encounter power, forgo this roll as they have paid for the error with a resource.
Players may have more detailed wishes for this scrape, and that’s fine. Do whatever you can to keep the fracas in a “theater of the mind” kind of resolution system to speed things along. Depending on the situation, they might need to make a further Complication roll to get rid of the bodies (Stealth or Athletics being the recommended skills).
Obviously, attacking nosey servants or bumbling guests poses little threat, but the problem of removing the body (as well as the moral ramifications of harming and innocent passerby) should serve as the appropriate challenge. And if the witness escapes the attack, the PC might be in even deeper water.
Secondary Skills and Complications
What constitutes a primary skill is very open for debate in a heist. Perception could be used in a leading role to discern which casino guest is carrying the mcguffin, or it could be used in a support role to be on lookout duty for another PC using Stealth to sneak into the governor’s private rooms. Only Primary skills are subject to Complications if they fail. However, you might rule that an appropriately applied secondary skill (such as Perception in the above example) permits a PC to ignore the effects of a Complication, ignore a failure, or both. If a player is not using a primary skill to push the challenge along but is helping in other ways, don’t be afraid to make their contribution meaningful – negating failures is a great way to do this.