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Analysis / The Con

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Anatomy of The Con

This section is based on "The Grifters", a Blades in the Dark supplement by Rob Donoghue.

At the most basic level, a con is any crime that is both enabled by misdirection, and relies on more misdirection for a clean getaway. While confidence schemes can take almost infinite shapes, most have following recurring elements:

  • The Mark is the character who is getting conned. While they may be targeted because of their position in an organization or of some other external context, a con is always a very personal crime, precision-engineered for the Mark.
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  • The Score is the object of the con, something that the Mark has or can do that is the end goal of the whole endeavor. It can be something valuable, A MacGuffin Full of Money, a great secret, etc.
  • The Crew is a group of characters running the con. Since only the simplest short cons can be pulled off by one person, most require multiple actors playing multiple roles.
  • The Angle is a specific detail that the Crew can use to sink their hooks into the Mark. Very often, the discovery of an Angle is what puts a con into motion in the first place.

The Roles

Many long cons require several recurring roles to perpetuate the ruse, and it is important that crew members stick to their already-established roles in front of the Mark. Any crew member seen by the Mark is thus considered "burned". The most common roles are:

  • The Mark, obviously.
  • The Face runs the con and is the main point of contact with the Mark. Ideally, however, they are not the first crew member who contacts the Mark, as that is the job of...
  • The Roper "ropes" the Mark into the con, often by letting them "win" in The Con Within a Con. Their job is to introduce the Mark to the Face (often over the Roper's objections) and to get thrown under the bus by the Mark as the actual con unfolds.
  • The Shill validates the Tale by feigning adversity to the Mark, either as The Rival who wants the same thing or as an enemy of the Face — but never by way of direct support. The more convincing Shills a con features, the more real and urgent it will appear to the Mark.
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    • The Fake Mark is a sub-category of the Shill deployed against Too Clever by Half Marks who then team up with the Face or the Roper to "con" the Fake Mark, validating the actual con.
  • Bit players have minor roles in the con and, ideally, everyone the Mark has contact with during the entire scheme is controlled by the Crew.
  • The Fixer doesn't have an immediate role in the con but provides equipment for its Crew, oversees their progress and communications, and steps in if things go south.
  • The Outside Player has no part in the con until the very end, when they enter the scene to enable a clean getaway for the Crew (of which they are not necessarily a part of).

The Four Acts

The Long Con typically plays out over four distinct acts, with different goals and flow:

  1. The Rope is the point where the Roper approaches the Mark and starts the conversation. Their primary goal is to appear shifty, confident, and just a smidgen dumber than the Mark considers themselves to be. While the specific way of roping in the Mark is often linked to the Angle in some way, the Angle itself should be reserved for the actual con down the line.
  2. The Hook is where the Mark must buy into the Tale. The best way to do this is by showing them an opportunity and trying to stop them from seizing itnote  in a way that the Mark can overcome with some effort. By letting them voluntarily take the Path of Most Resistance, the Mark is essentially led to dupe themselves.
  3. The Score is the crucial junction where the Mark does whatever the Crew wants them to do: money and MacGuffins change hands, secrets are revealed, etc. However, this is also where the Mark is at their most suspicious and dangerous — which the Crew can actually use to their advantage by having something "go wrong" in a way that the Mark was expectingnote . This makes them less careful, raises urgency, and may cue into...
  4. The Blow-off is the grand finale of the con that elevates it above common robbery: the goal is for the Crew to escape with the Score in a way that doesn't (immediately) blow back on them. The many ways to achieve this are listed below.
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The Blow-off

Effective Blow-offs can be categorized into Delayed and Immediate, with the latter generally preferable over the former, but also much harder to pull off. A Delayed Blow-off relies on ensuring (usually by means of forgery or substitution) that the Mark doesn't realize they've been duped until the Crew is far, far away — the problem being that the Crew now has a powerful enemy who's seen all of their faces. This can be mitigated as follows:

  • If the Mark is relatively low-profile, the Crew can just hope to never run into them again. Needless to say, this is the worst possible strategy.
  • A traveling con can simply relocate to somewhere so far away that their Mark can never reach them, though this is not always possible.
  • If the Mark didn't see any of the Crew's faces, through a combination of misdirection and disguise, then they can just get away free and clear.
  • Conversely, if the forgery or substitution has been really good, the deception will just hold up indefinitely, or the Mark will be unable to investigate it further without compromising themselves.
  • Finally, the Crew can obtain some leverage on the Mark to prevent them from acting even after they discover the setup, e.g. if going to the authorities would reveal their own crimes. This isn't quite Blackmail, but is just as dangerous, as any well-connected Mark will look for other ways to exact their Revenge upon the Crew.

An Immediate Blow-off, by contrast, has the advantage of investing the Mark in its outcome and often leaves them feeling obliged to the Crew in some way:

  • Something beyond anyone's control happens and utterly (and believably) destroys both the Score and whatever the Mark wanted in exchange, leaving both sides dissatisfied. Two common problems with this are that Marks tend to (utterly irrationally) blame the Crew for their misfortune, and that if the Score was in any way unique, they will realize the truth if it ever shows up again.
  • The above can be paired with a sudden appearance of the Outside Player threatening both the Face and the Mark, who must then narrowly escape together. This "police raid" ending is such a classic, however, that any remotely savvy Mark will immediately get suspicious.
  • If the Mark expects a betrayal, the Crew can Frame-Up one of the Mark's confidantes to look like they were trying to con them out of their payoff. This validates the payoff to the Mark, provides a scapegoat if it's lost, and offers a convenient excuse for any abnormalities the Mark may have picked up on earlier.

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