One of the most exciting scenes you see in movies is the chase; cars moving at high velocity with violent collisions while making death defying moves (The Blues Brothers, the Borne Movies car chases, The Italian Job), vehicles riding side by side with combatants fighting it out across the narrowing or widening gaps (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom the mine cart scene), people leaping from one vehicle to the next to engage the enemy (Willow and the wagon chase, The Mummy’s street chase in Cairo), and foot chases through urban area’s (The Incredible Hulk rooftop chase). There are hundreds of example in modern movies gripping our imaginations, but trying to translate them to the RPG isn’t always the easiest thing. Lets see if we can’t make sense of it.
Chases have two or more sides. A side can be an individual, a group of people, an army, a swarm of insects, a tsunami, a rolling boulder, or anything you can think of that can do one of two things, Chase or Run. Once you have your sides established you need goals for them. The Running side is getting away from the chasers. The chasers are trying to catch the Runners. These are the basic goals for any chase. It’s pretty obvious, but once you understand the bare bones of something it’s much easier to build upon or modify.
Now that we know the building blocks of a chase the question is what makes them so compelling. Complications. They make chases interesting. They are the events, twists, and turns making the chase memorable. They raise the stakes, give ebb and flow to the action, and create pacing, building to a climax. So how do we do this in a rpg? It’s best to show through example.
The Second Son’s are an adventuring company in a fantasy world. They are attempting to take the body of Janus Whitemore, Captain of Esters 4th legion, from his family home in the city of Ester. He’s laid out for his wake culminating in the burning of the body at the funeral. The Son’s are not welcome in Ester. We look in on the scene at the beginning of the chase.
The Son’s have taken the coffin, loaded it into a horse drawn wagon, and secured it. While taking the body the city has been alerted to their presence. Janus is the son of a General of Ester so not only do the players need to contend with the city guard but also Ester’s 4th Legion who are in the city for Janus’s funeral.
Sides have been established. The Second Son’s are the runners; the Ester city guard and army are the chasers. The Son’s goal is to get out of the city while the Estarian’s goal is to retrieve Janus and capture the Son’s. When the chase begins I start keeping track of rounds. Keeping track of rounds is important when I run a chase. I like to keep things cinematic and I’ve always felt most chases were event based. This particular chase has the whole city against them instead of one group chasing another so when certain rounds come up specific events trigger as the Estarian’s close in on them.
The Second Son’s tear out of the Whitemore estate in their newly acquired wagon and start ripping through the cobblestone streets. As they do a group of guards gets in their way.
The guards are the first complication and the first event on my tracker right at round one. They’ll get a few attacks in and try to get on the wagon. It’s a relatively minor challenge but a good place to start. I’m letting the players know there will be opposition to their escape but I want to start small to give myself room to grow.
They pass the guards and turn down the first street, race along for a moment until several men on horseback come off another road just behind them with crossbows.
The guys on horseback are complication and event number two. They have specific goals in mind rather than just shooting the characters. They want to destroy the horse rigging to stop the wagon. This creates a different dynamic than a strait fight and makes the players understand their enemies are clever.
The Son’s knock the last horsemen off his steed when a wagon of Esteratian soldiers swing around a corner. They launch arrows at the Son’s wagon, some with fire on them. Other soldiers draw blades and get ready to leap onto the Son’s wagon.
Complication three happens at round six. This lets the players actions have some impact on the chase. If they deal with the horsemen quickly enough they have a chance to catch their breath or secure any damage done to the horses rigging. If they falter in their battle with the horsemen it could cause greater problems. Having the remaining riders and a wagon full of soldiers to deal with at the same time is rough.
I’m sure there are questions about how I handle some of this stuff mechanically. Especially since I now have wagons chasing each other. How do I determine speed, control, ect. In a chase I pick a base speed and call it the zero point. For the players Wagon I choose 12 squares in 4e terms. Now that I have a zero point I add modifiers for having greater and lesser speed. For every square of movement over 12 a +2 is given. Ever square below is a -2. Speed isn’t everything in a chase. There is ebb and flow, cornering, bouncing, obstacles to be avoided or gone around. All these things contribute to how fast something can move compared to another. In this case I used Nature checks as move actions for those who were controlling the reigns. This check could only be made once a round by the driver to determine who was moving faster. The check was made by both drivers and any riders. The difference between the nature checks was divided by 5. That number was the amount of squares one group got ahead of the other. The caveat was if the base speed difference was greater than 4 then one group could easily catch or outdistance the other.
I used a static wagon on a battle map as the players wagon since they’re the point of reference for the chase. The moveable wagons and miniatures were for the people chasing them. I find it much easier to have the runner be the focus of the scene, the players wagon, and using moveable pieces for the chasers. It gives it the point of view feel of a movie chase. If you want the more macro feel of moving through the city use a larger map to track where you are with pins, dice, or whatever you deem appropriate. If you take this route I urge you to think about how well the players know the area. If they’re not familiar I would suggest hiding the map, and making them guess at directions to turn from what they remember. It could be fun if you want the feel of running away in an unfamiliar place. Now back to the chase.
The Second Son’s are fighting with the Wagon of Esterians chasing them as they round a corner, and find a road block manned by over thirty men with wagons and horses clogging the road. The driver yanks hard on the reigns yelling everyone to lean to the right. He hooks the cart into an alley just in front of the road block going full speed. The army wagon follows them, but doesn’t do as well losing several men in the process. In the alley they spy a metal balcony. The wizard drops a fog cloud in the alley, and the others smash a couple supports dropping the balcony into the alley. The wagon carrying the army men blow through the fog cloud, and barrel right into the fallen metal destroying their horses, and flipping the cart.
The road block was another planned event at round 9. What wasn’t planned was hooking the cart through an alley, or the idea of dropping a metal balcony to block the way. I like letting my players improvise. It lets them be clever, gives them authorship over the story, and makes them part of the game instead of just watching. It also doesn’t hurt the chase because I have things on a time line, so the grand stair event is still going happen. It’s why I don’t like maps for chases. It can ruin all the fun.
The wagon flies out of the alley making a much smoother and wider turn but gets clipped by another wagon of Esterian men going the other way. Lucky for the Son’s it doesn’t do much damage. Wait. What’s that snapping sound? Why is the casket sliding off the wagon? Damn, stop it. They spring into action grabbing the casket, slinging ropes around it while others try and hold on with all the strength they can muster. They just about got the casket secured when the drive yells, “Stairs!”
Since they improvised I thought I’d improvise a little too. As they came out of the alley and hooked a wide left I just happened to have another Estarian wagon coming the other way clip their wagon. In the collision the some of the ropes securing the coffin snapped and the coffin started sliding out. That’s when they hit the climax of my chase at round 12; the grand stair leading to the gates. I built up to the stairs because jumping a horse drawn wagon down a grand set of stairs into the main thoroughfare of the city is pretty crazy. It’s very action hero movie oriented. Lucky for us this is a fantasy action game. I also tried to raise the tension by threatening their goal. The retrieval of the body.
The horses jumped, the wagon flew, eyes opened wide, screams were sounded, and there might have been something vulgar said in Draconic. It seemed like they flew forever but it was only a second or so. They landed with a crash, the back wheels getting the worst of it as they smashed into kindling on impact. The Son’s were jounced around, the casket bounced and rattled but everyone stayed in the wagon. They raced towards the gates being held open by their allies who fought the thickening forces of the city guard and Esters 4th legion. Someone on Esters side made it to the portcullis chain and hit the release. It started sliding shut but not before the wagon scrapped through the opening. Escape was their’s as was Janus’s body. Now they just had to get him to someone who could breath life back into his body.
The players were still being chased by the wagon that clipped them earlier so they took the stairs at full speed having the horses jump. Good rolls and a little bit of luck had them land mostly intact except for the destruction of the rear wheels. A battle was raging at the gates. The Son’s allies were keeping them open for as long as possible. I used the portcullis closing at the end for dramatic effect more than anything and they managed to escape with Janus’s body and succeed in their chase.
This is how I run a chase scene when the party is running away. I like using point of reference, complications which raise the stakes and tension, timelines or events, and improvisation where I feel it enhances the experience. It’s not a static formula, most design and storytelling isn’t, but it’s somewhere to start when people start running.
Look for Part II, all about the Rundown
Chris “The Light” Sniezak
(Part II now available at http://misdirectedmark.com/the-chase-part-ii-run-em-down/)