I’ve been working on some Cortex rulesets for a number of different settings and games that involve dramatic heists, espionage, and the types of tense action found in as varied places as Andor, For a Few Dollars More, Heat, Inception, the Gentlemen Bastards series, Mission Impossible, the Ocean’s films, etc., etc. I also recently watched most of Netflix’s Kaleidoscope (very much worth seeing), which might have been the direct catalyst for this write-up.
Regardless, these are the rules I’ll be using to run heists in my Cortex games until playtesting moves me to modify them. Maybe they’ll be useful for you, as well. If you’ve got criticism, thoughts for expansion and improvement, or stories of using the system, I will very much look forward to hearing them.
Rather than the default difficulty rules, Heists use a variation of the Limited Doom Pool system as well as Crisis Pools (Cortex Prime Handbook, pp. 32-33). Note that this system is only one in the toolbox for resolving actions—some “heist-like” activities (like a smash-and-grab) may be better served by the Narrative Action or Combined Action systems.
The Heist itself has a Doom Pool, starting with dice that represent the difficulty and complexity of the Heist (a low-level job begins with d6, d6; while breaking into the highest security facilities may start with a d12, d12 (such facilities should likely be the grand target after a series of set-up heists and should be used sparingly). We will call this specialized Doom Pool the Heist Pool.
Play starts with a brief Legwork phase as the players take actions to discover the countermeasures, security, and particular nuances of the heist they’re planning, then proceeds to the heist proper, and then to the aftermath.
In the Legwork phase, each player describes an action their character is taking to learn about the target person, object, or facilities. The GM and player determine the Traits applicable to the test and then that pool is rolled against the Doom Pool.
If the test is successful, the character’s Effect Die is added to the characters’ collective Plan Pool. At the same time, the GM may purchase hitches from the player’s pool to add to the Heist Pool, representing security features identified, the target getting some indication of a potential attack, etc.
Each participating player should get at least one Legwork test. Once each player has had a chance to make a Legwork test, the players may discretionarily make additional rolls. Bear in mind that each roll carries the risk of increasing the Heist Pool as well as providing additional dice to the Plan Pool. Regardless of the number of tests made, no test may duplicate the action of a previous test made by another player; each new test must involve a new method of inquiry or course of action.
The GM should allow the players to see both the Plan Pool and the Heist Pool. If, after conducting their Legwork, they look at the relative pools and decide not to proceed, jump to the Aftermath phase.
Once the Legwork phase is complete, the players determine the general layout of the plan; they do not need to go into too much detail—the broad scope of who is doing what should suffice. Once established, the Plan Pool is rolled against the Heist Pool; this is called the Position Test.
If the Plan Pool beats the stakes established by the Heist Pool, the Effect Die may be used to reduce or eliminate a die from the Heist Pool. However, the GM may purchase hitches for the Heist Pool as usual.
The general result of the test should be interpreted to determine the general situation when we jump into the action of the heist. If the Plan Pool defeated the Heist Pool, the heist is going relatively smoothly when detailed play begins. If it failed, an unexpected complication has thrown a wrench into the works, part of the plan didn’t pan out, or something else has happened to leave the players scrambling to react and adapt to complete the mission.
At this point, use the Doom Pool to play out the heist. In addition to the other options, players may spend Plot Points for a Flashback; this allows a player to create Assets representing previous actions taken before the heist to set up the current action even though they had not been previously described. This ability is essential to ensuring that play keeps moving and that players don’t get incapacitated trying to plan for every possible scenario in the Legwork phase.
During a heist, the expenditure of d12, d12 (to end the current scene) indicates that the heist has failed and moves play to the Aftermath—with the characters all having successfully escaped without further consequences over those suffered during the heist. If the initial difficulty dice in the Doom Pool were d12, d12 (which should be an exceedingly rare event), do not spend those dice to achieve this effect.
The expenditure of d12, d12 is not the only way the heist may end unsuccessfully. If a series of failed tests against the Heist Pool results in a narrative where failure makes the most sense, declare that to be the result and move to having the characters attempt to escape before being capture, killed, identified, or otherwise inconvenienced.
Once the characters have escaped, move to the Aftermath phase.
Some consequences of the heist (including but not limited to injury) will undoubtedly occur during the heist itself. But no heist goes entirely smoothly, and here is where the GM gets to put some additional pressure on the players and their characters.
The mechanics of this are simple: the GM may transfer the remaining dice from the Heist Pool to one or more Crisis Pools representing continuing consequences of the heist. These may represent an institutional response to increased crime, investigation by law enforcement, a team of hit men dispatched by the target to recover lost goods, the betrayal of a fence or other trusted person, the ignition of a war between criminal or other factions, etc.
The players may attempt to address these crises per the normal rules—taking actions to throw pursuers off the trail, getting revenge on traitors, etc. They may also attempt to avoid these consequences as best they can—lying low for a while, fleeing to another jurisdiction, or taking other actions to let the heat die down. If the narrative militates that a crisis pool should no longer exist, take it out of play whether or not the characters have acted against it directly. Cases and trails go cold, new crises of the day emerge, the news cycle refreshes, and even the biggest of jobs becomes history eventually.