When it comes down to it, there are a lot of similarities between a treasure hunt and a heist. Both involve a big payoff at the end. Both involve death defying traps. Both involve puzzles, planning, and research. However, there are some big differences, and if you tell your players you're going to run a Treasure Hunt and you give them a heist, or vice versa, you can end up with a lot of disappointed people. Today I want to talk about that.
Treasure Hunts Move Move
The first big difference is that in the course of a treasure hunt the scene changes more. Heists involve breaking into a place - a known place - and everything about the heist story is related to that place. You don't see Danny Ocean and team start talking about breaking into Casino A and then end up in a different country breaking into Hotel C (I mean maybe you do, but as a side thing or prep, not the main course.) Treasure hunts on the other hand involve going from place to place solving clues and puzzles as the group tries to find where the score is.
See the difference? One is people moving around a central goal known from the beginning. The other is going from A to B to C all the while looking for where the final game is going to take place.
The other big difference is the opposition. Both treasure hunts and heists can have opposition, the difference is in how they show up. In a treasure hunt opposition is another group looking for the same treasure the protagonists are looking for. In heists - while there can be a group racing the protagonists to the score as well - the opposition is already in possession of the treasure or payoff.
This doesn't mean a treasure hunt can't have guards holding the treasure, but they're not the 'antagonists' of the story so to speak. Often this has to do with the background to the treasure itself, but there's not really a main person directing the opposition intelligently against the protagonists so much as there are just forces present to try and kill anyone who comes for the treasure.
This also means you get more Cat & Mouse type play in a Heist. With a force intelligently guarding the treasure, and the protagonists going for the treasure, you can end up with multiple games going on between both groups as traps are laid and have to be avoided or overcome for progress to happen.
The Origin Of the Pay Off
The last big difference is the origin of the payoff. A treasure hunt is a hunt for a (usually long) lost treasure from the distant past. A heist is taking money that belongs to a person or group in the 'here and now' for whenever the story is set.
You wouldn't get a "Heist" for the Lost Templar Treasure for example, unless you first had someone find said treasure and established them holding and guarding it. At the same time, you're unlikely to have a treasure hunt for "Baron Cohen's Treasury" unless Baron Cohen was a famous or legendary Baron from a dozen to a thousand years ago, and said treasury had been lost to time for some grand reason.