If you were expecting a post about opiates you’re out of luck, sorry? What it is about is chase scenes. Now if you’ve been hanging around tabletop RPGs for any amount of time you probably haven’t played in a lot of action movie style chase scenes. Well why is that? Play out a chase scene at the table and you will figure it out. Or better yet, try to design one.
One of the underlying problems that quickly arises is most games are designed from a mechanical aspect to deal with combat and tactics on a stationary set of scenery. The difficulty of hitting a moving target while moving compounded by strange situations creeping up into the cover rules make things a bit convoluted. Start opening up that dusty section of your favorite rules system book to look at the vehicle handling rules and you may as well stop the game. At this point no one is having fun.
There are more practical problems like the map. If you play on a tactical surface of any sort you’re going to run out of room and soon. Depending on system specifics an average can straight run off the table surface in about 3 rounds. All that meticulous work you put into making a grimy slum street turns to naught if the PCs only spend 18 seconds of play time in the scene. On top of that, let’s hope the bad guys are able to keep up or at least have a reliable way to slow the PCs down. You can throw the escort quest slow NPC in with the PCs but it’s pretty cheap tactic. It only works once so you’ll have to figure out something different if you want to do another chase in the next… ever. You really don’t want to be harangued by your players for this sort of thing until you die so I say just avoid it if possible.
So then what’s a DM/GM to do? We all would love to do chase scenes. Chase scenes done right are a great way to break up the monotony of see enemies, kill enemies. They also are moving scenes so they can actually provide a way to move your group from one plot point to another. Heck, you can even end your chase scenes with a standoff fight. Imagine you could very smoothly transition from a dialogue-filled plot building scene, broken up by… let’s say ninjas (because ninjas are always busting in and breaking up a good conversation). You transition to being chased by ninjas through a slums district. They’re hopping over buildings, diving over vendor carts, running across suspended laundry lines while chasing the party. Eventually the PCs get corralled into a dead-end alley with warriors of shadow closing in like a silent black hand gripping their throat. Now you can either seamlessly transfer this into a ‘roll initiative’ scene or use it to set up an NPC ally busting through the wall to save them just in time. Transition to another plot building dialogue scene at the new safe house. Do you want that? I want that, it sounds awesome.
First we need a very clear goal and criteria for success and failure of that goal so we can measure it. Using the example above the clear goal for the party in the chase scene is ‘OMG Ninjas, RUN!’, don’t get caught/killed by ninjas.
Success: Make a Clean Getaway
Failure: Get Killed/Caught
So one thing to keep in mind during this endeavor, especially if the usual M.O. for your group is kill everything that moves is make it clear the goal is not to kill the ninjas. Nothing will ruin a chase scene quicker than a group of PCs turning around and digging in their heels. You know how to best make your group aware of this. It might be having extra ninjas show up out of the blue at the edge of the scene each round to reinforce the idea they’re a never-ending supply. Or you could just tell the group they’re certain trying to have it out in a pitched battle is going to end with them dead.
So let’s nuts and bolts this. You know that super detailed map of the slums you made? Keep that around we’re going to use that. Take some time over the weekend and make yourself a really fancy map, don’t be afraid of making it too cluttered either as that may actually be beneficial.
Feel free to put some large features on the map, difficult, and impassable terrain. Get some height as well. This exercise is a great way to work on multiple level battles. Get some roofs on those buildings and make some larger than one story. Add a few balconies, have fun with it.
Grid out your mat/map. My Paizo Flip-Mat is a 30″ x 24″ grid. That’s 720 squares which can be broken down into 5 x 4 surface of 6″ x 6″ tiles. Why did I choose these dimensions? Well, a 36″ square has plenty of room for your PCs to be positioned. Also that divides my map into 20 distinct sectors. Now if only I had some sort of device for randomizing results of 1 – 20…
At this point we have a fun looking map divided into smaller block sectors. Well, it’s not a chase scene without some chasers. We’re using ninjas so pull out some baddies of appropriate difficulty with sneaky, ninja type attributes. Now this can be as deadly and complicated as you like. Feel like spicing it up, add some other groups that will be inserted at different types.
Group A: 1d4 Ninjas
Group B: 1 Master Ninja + 1d4-1 Ninjas
Group C: 1d4 Slum Thugs
You can weight the results and roll for them randomly or set some other criteria like ‘I always want ninjas and one other type of baddie on the board at any time.’ In the above groups I assume my ninjas will be the bread and butter, quick enemies with some ranged attacks and good acrobatics/athletics to be masters of the environment. A ninja master is a beefed up version of the average ninja. Maybe he’s a little faster and has a debilitating melee attack that immobilize or knocks prone. For fun I added some slum thugs, these guys are 1 HP cannon fodder. They’re basically around to be in the way and for the PCs to waste attacks killing.
Each round I add a few more guys to the board to reinforce the enemy. Now, if this is a long chase you may end up with a lot of bad guys. Remember to give the PCs plenty of advantage with cover and the like to keep them from getting killed outright. This helps to reinforce the havoc of chase scenes with death flying through the air in haphazard directions.
Armed with map, grid system, bad guys, and PCs you just need to do the deal. So how long do you make it? I took a page out of the D&D 4e DMG on skill challenges. Specifically I took a look at the successes needed. We have our own ability to gauge failure but we need some way to measure when the PCs ‘escape’ their pursuers. A short chase feels like reaching 4 sectors would be appropriate. An average chase choose somewhere between 6-8 sectors, and for marathons 10-12 sectors. Move to the next sector when the last PC has entered the current goal sector. You can either roll at the table for the sectors or roll them beforehand. I might look to roll them beforehand. The reasoning is I want to make sure there aren’t too many short, long, or same routes.
***Pro Tip: Feeling extra fancy/diabolical? Throw in a rotating black out sector or two. A simple run from sector 12 – sector 15 gets a little more complicated when sector 13 is blocked off.***
That’s it. The most difficult part of chase scenes using this method is the maps. Some of us love drawing maps and some hate it. If you hate drawing maps let an art-inclined PC go at it or use it as a game warm up. Remember that dialogue section at the beginning of our ninja game? Well give the group something to do while talking about it. You can have a really awesome, collaborated slums map with half a dozen people cobbling together random bits. Once they’re done with the dialogue scene it’s chase time. This is a great way to keep your players engaged with the game and save yourself some work. Or take a map off the internet, there are some really great ones out there you can use. So take this and run your own chase scenes and see how it works for your group.
Did I miss something or do you have an idea for something you’d like me to write about? Leave it in the comments or get in touch with me through social media!