2400 devlog: The Venusian Job

The Venusian Job is a heist scenario generator, sending players up a space elevator to rob the swankest casino in the inner system. It’s available as part of the entire 2400 series on Itch.io, and on its own and in the 2400 bundle on DriveThruRPG.

Influences

It should come as no surprise that The Venusian Job owes a lot to heist movies and TV shows like Ocean’s Eleven and Leverage, but I also count an unlikely source among its main influences: Slingers, a sci-fi heist series that never got made. It never saw more than just a trailer, but that trailer stayed with me for the better part of a decade.

Maybe that sounds silly, but it makes a certain sense to me. Would I have actually loved the series as much as I loved the idea of it? Beats me. But that’s exactly what attracts me to RPGs: the idea of what you might do with them. Like a trailer for a non-existent series, an RPG text — perhaps especially a 2400 game — is necessarily incomplete, offering little more than a few evocative scenes and promising character concepts. I hoped The Venusian Job might pack some inspirational ideas into a few pages like that trailer managed pack into just a few minutes.

The Venusian Job also owes a debt to heist RPGs, especially Blades in the Dark. As I acknowledged in the original devlog, this game was (and perhaps still is) arguably the biggest departure from all the other 2400 games by playing especially fast and loose with the establishment of fictional details.

Quantum inventory

A quick glance at nearly every other 2400 game should make it obvious that I love giving players very specific things — equipment, skills, talents, alien artifacts, whatever — and seeing how they use the tools at their disposal to solve unpredictable problems. (I even designed a whole other game around that very phenomenon, because it is delightful when players bend over backwards to find uses for things like “a briefcase that opens to reveal a fresh plate of pasta, every time.”) The Venusian Job goes in another direction, though: jumping right into play, and deciding what you packed only at the precise moment it’s relevant.

I think I first encountered this “quantum inventory” concept in the “adventuring gear” in Dungeon World — an item that let you mark off a use to say, “Oh yeah, of course I brought a shovel.” You still have to pick some specific gear when you make your character — the “big” stuff, the stuff that’s thematically related to your archetype. The smaller, miscellaneous stuff, though? It probably won’t affect how you think about your character’s actions or personality. Abstracting it away makes sure you don’t lose time to trying to decide between buying a hammer or a screwdriver, when it’s pretty likely neither will even come up in play.

This “quantum” approach is taken to an extreme in Blades in the Dark, where “quantum inventory” isn’t just limited to “adventuring gear.” You can produce a whole inventory in play — all you have to decide is how heavily kitted out you are, letting you bring more items by saying you’re more weighted down. And if you’ve already read The Venusian Job, you’ll recognize that as an idea I swiped wholesale.

Flashbacks vs. surprises

In Blades in the Dark, the inventory isn’t the only thing left open to definition until you need it — the entire past is up for grabs. Bump into a guard while pulling off a heist? No problem — spend an appropriate currency (most likely “stress” or “coin”), and narrate a flashback in which you slipped him a bribe already. Roll to see how it went, and on success, he waves you on past and pretends not to see you.

I usually shy away from mechanisms like this in most RPGs. I have played a lot of different games, along a broad spectrum of “narrative authority” — from GMless (or GMful) games where everybody wears the narrator hat, to strictly prepped blorb-like games where the fictional world basically “exists” irrespective of the players’ involvement. And I’ve decided I favor something in between: improvised situations based on minimal prep, but based on a consistent logic, with a pretty traditional division of player duties and GM duties. In my favorite RPGs, players see the world from “behind their character’s eyes,” and don’t have to step outside that head space too much to think in “GM mode” to describe other events.

(For the record, I don’t think my preference is better than GMless play. It’s just what I like, mostly because it’s familiar and relaxing. And while anybody at the table can fast-forward, rewind, and retcon in 2400 — it’s right there in the rules in every game! — that comes up pretty infrequently at my table, at least. I use those Script Change tools more as corrective techniques than as the primary mode of play, and I expect that to vary from table to table.)

So yeah, I usually shy away from rules that play fast and loose with established events.

Usually.

But then again … I don’t usually run heist games. And I’m stealing these “quantum rules” because, to my mind, they are the best mechanisms yet designed to evoke two closely related “musts” for a heist narrative: hyper-competent characters and satisfying twists.

When you play a hyper-competent character who’s a warrior, nobody expects you — the player — to be any good at swinging a sword. When you play a bard, your friends probably don’t make you sing. (Probably. Mine would probably prefer I didn’t.) And when you play a master thief, you are not going to be as good at planning what gear to bring as a “real” master thief — so you, the player, get to decide in the moment what your character did earlier. It’s still something your character did, so (hopefully) you still feel like you’re “behind the character’s eyes.” They just happen to be so good at this that you couldn’t even specify what they had earlier any more than you could specify the precise technique to wield a sword.

Making rules for satisfying twists is a trickier business for me. Blades in the Dark handles this with flashbacks, stating: “The rules don’t distinguish between actions performed in the present moment and those performed in the past.” It’s a very clever solution — but it sits just a little bit closer to the “GM mode” end of the spectrum than I personally prefer.

When I played Blades, I didn’t feel like I had to dip into “GM mode” at all for quantum inventory, largely because my options were so constrained. But in devising scenarios and situations to put my character into — to revise the entire apparent meaning of a charged encounter — it felt like the sky was the limit. Maybe some players can shift into that more easily than I could during play, using the same imagination-muscles we use when defining our own character’s back story — still “behind the character’s eyes,” but a different angle, perhaps. Or, I thought, maybe that kind of perspective is easier when you do it before play, rather than during play.

And so, I adapted the flashback mechanism a bit for The Venusian Job. Rather than looking at every scene as an opportunity to rewrite the past, you write “surprises” before play. (I would’ve called them “twists,” but I already use that term on tables across a bunch of 2400 games.) The intent was that you would then have a constrained range of things to draw from and interpret during play, which might help keep you behind your character’s eyes.

And it worked … kind of. I mean, when it works, it works, and I love it. But it requires a certain amount of practice to write just the right level of vagueness and just the right level of usefulness. It’s a lot more rewarding to use them than to tear them up for an auto-success, so I’ve seen them stretched and reinterpreted quite a bit to justify using them somehow. I basically turned surprises into those hyper-specific screwdrivers and hammers I didn’t want to make you shop for — inventory items that you will bend over backwards to figure out how to use, rather than prompts to help you delight and surprise everyone in play.

In retrospect, this shouldn’t surprise me. The “surprise” rule effectively asks every player to put in an effort akin to writing a custom move, PbtA-style. When surprises work well, they look something like one of the “Savvyhead” moves from Apocalypse World, which allows you or the MC (a.k.a. GM) to spend a currency to “have you already be [in a place] with the proper tools and knowledge, with or without any clear explanation why.” The move’s called “Bonefeel,” recalling the whole hyper-competent character angle: This person just shows up at the exact right time, with the exact right stuff, because they’re that good. They feel it right down in their bones.

I don’t want to ask you to write moves, and I don’t want you to spend a ton of time writing custom hammers and screwdrivers. I wonder if the surprise rule would work better by being even more constrained, and thus even more open to interpretation. Maybe you could do more with surprises that are limited to only a few words, like “me in disguise,” “hidden gear,” or “that’s our exit.” Maybe it’d be more useful to actually have pre-written surprises players could select, but part of the fun is in actually surprising everybody with something nobody else knows you wrote. I’m still not sure how to get this one right, but I’m not sure I’m done with it yet.

The heist

I wrote The Venusian Job intending to use it as either a one-shot or the first session in a multi-session arc. Technically, the team could get away scot-free and be “set for life,” but this scenario is a pretty classic example of one bit of instruction under the GM rules: “Present dilemmas you don’t know how to solve.” Between that and the statistical unlikelihood of rolling only successes, I figured the session after the heist would probably involve a lot of running for your life.

To make sure the scenario could be wrapped up in a session, the game starts with a “casing the joint” procedure. That’s inspired by the “engagement roll” in Blades in the Dark and the “legwork” phase in The Sprawl, collapsing what could be days of preparation into a few rolls and brief descriptions.

I was happy with the general concept, but my original design was far too linear for my tastes. I recently redesigned it so there is more variety from session to session. There’s still a slow escalation that might end with “you’re trapped in a vault and need to escape with your lives,” completely upending the plan for the session, but that’s no longer inevitable. It works a lot better as a push-your-luck mechanism now.

All of that said, you don’t have to use it. I hope that goes without saying for anything in any of my games, but I have heard feedback along the lines of, “My players really wanted to roleplay all that out.” That’s okay! You can do that!

In fact, here’s an alternative structure for The Venusian Job, just in case it’s helpful:

Phase 1: Building the team. Start with the players’ characters meeting up again. Each player describes something that signals what their character has been up to since they last saw the other characters. (“She’s squinting at the sun, and comments that it never got quite this bright in solitary confinement.”)

If there are fewer than 5 players, they will spend this session recruiting GM-controlled characters with the street monikers the players didn’t choose at character creation. Depending on how big a team you want, phase 1 could take multiple sessions. If it doesn’t take too long, though, you can move early into the content for phase 2 before the second session.

Phase 2: Casing the joint. Use the same procedure written for “casing the joint” in The Venusian Job, but for one difference: After a player asks a question, anybody who wants in helps improvise a scene, playing out how they might get the answer to that question. The GM might ask for ideas on how they’d get that information, or might just fast-forward right to a scene if one occurs to them.

If players ask about the lock on the vault, for instance, the GM might say, “All right — would you rather pose as entrepreneurs building your own vault and grill the lock manufacturer, or pose as high rollers to get a look at the actual vault in the Aphrodite?” If the scene goes especially well, make the “casing the joint” roll with two dice, using the better result.

Casing the joint might only take a single session, or it might take multiple sessions if players press their luck and roll well.

Phase 3: The job. By now, they’ve probably come up with a plan. Start them wherever they want (unless they botched casing the joint and are trapped in the vault.) This will probably take about a session.

Phase 4: Getaway. If the team gets away with their ill-gotten gains, and you don’t plan to play any more sessions, ask each player to narrate a brief epilogue for what their character does now that they’re set for life.

If you do plan to play more sessions, what happens next depends quite a bit on the circumstances of their getaway.

If they get away with authorities hot on their heels, you may be moving out of heist-movie territory and into action-movie territory. Consider following up with material from other 2400 games, as described below.

If they make a clean getaway with the loot, ask the players what they want to do now. Do they want to play through the stages of moving the loot, finding a fence, maybe even establishing some kind of enterprise? Or do they want to just skip right to the part where they’re “set for life,” and now get to do whatever they want with their lives? If they need suggestions, I advise you all to watch the first episode of Leverage, which ends this exact way.

(And then watch every episode that follows. It’s a great series. And it’ll give you lots of inspiration for this ongoing 2400 heist game you’re apparently considering running.)

Combining with other 2400 games

To expand The Venusian Job, either by spending more time on the whole heist or building off of it as a starter scenario, consider pulling in spaceship options from Cosmic Highway; hacking rules and programs from Resistors; teammate bonds from Eos; talents from Eos and Legends; and expanded gear options, cybernetics, and/or reputation rules from Inner System Blues.

To expand other 2400 games using The Venusian Job, you might use the “casing the joint” procedure, “quantum inventory,” or “surprises” for the occasional heist in another game (especially Inner System Blues or Resistors).”

And if you really like one of those rules, don’t feel like you have to only limit their use to heists. For instance, Habs & Gardens uses quantum inventory too. I justified that to myself by figuring you live on a space station with easy access to plenty of shopping, so go ahead and say you already spent that credit for a garage full of power tools, or the kitchen of your dreams. But let’s be honest, too: Some rules just make it easier to get the game to the table fast, and this sure is one of them.

Featured image edited from original by Beeple (Mike Winkelmann).

2 responses to “2400 devlog: The Venusian Job”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.