Chase Scenes in RPGs

I take part in tabletop role-playing games on a regular basis, both as a player and as GM. Some of my absolute most favorite sessions are based around chase scenes, so I thought I’d write a little about them.

Chase scenes are classic bits in adventure movies and TV. They’re less common in books and stories, perhaps because it’s harder to pace them well in prose. If a chase in a book goes on more than a page or two, it feels slow. You just can’t create the breakneck pace that you get on a screen.

In typical tabletop games, chase scenes tend to be short. If you’re using a tabletop map, the quarry escapes by reaching the edge of the map. That’s often possible in a single turn. But players feel cheated if a quarry gets away when it seems easy to catch. On the other hand, it’s not very interesting if a chase just comes down to seeing whose running speed is higher. In movies, chases aren’t just a case of comparing numbers.

The first time I saw a good mechanic for chases was in Night’s Black Agents from Pelgrane Press. It’s an abstract mechanic that works quite well.

All pursuers start a chase with a distance number of 5 from the quarry. Each turn, everyone in the chase can just keep going as is, or they can take a risk to improve their situation. A risk may be some crazy running/driving maneuver, or it may involve using a skill (e.g. knowledge of the city streets) to outdo the opposition.

If the quarry succeeds in a risk, all pursuers have their distance number go up by 1. If the quarry fails, the distance numbers go down. Similarly, if a pursuer succeeds in a risk, his or her distance number goes down; if the pursuer fails, the distance number goes up. Particularly crazy risks may change the distance number by 2 (up or down).

If a pursuer’s distance number reaches zero, the pursuer has caught the quarry. If a pursuer’s number reaches 10, that pursuer is out of the chase. Maybe the pursuer has just lost the trail. Maybe the pursuer’s horse has gone lame, or the car smashes into a building. It’s up to the GM to come up with something interesting, usually based on the individual pursuer’s most recent risk.

This system is simple and easy to adjust. For example, if you want a shorter chase, set the initial distance number at 3 and declare that the quarry gets away at 6.

But distance numbers are just a way of keeping score. The real fun comes from the risks, especially when you use them to emulate the kind of action that happens in movie chases.

Ideally, the GM should prepare a list of props and events in advance. As an example, here’s what I did when I ran a chase in a cyberpunk campaign set in Vancouver.

First, I set up the stakes: a bad guy does a deal and acquires a suitcase nuke at a gigantic rock concert. He then hops onto a motorbike and speeds away.

Obviously, the heroes will want to pursue. What can they chase the bad guy with? I supplied a selection of interesting vehicles. It just so happens that a gang of outlaw bikers have left their Harleys unattended. Throw in a sports car, an autogyro, a jetpack, and maybe a cybernetic horse. Each player character gets a choice of how to pursue. The horse and jetpack are bound to go first, then a lot of motorbikes. I made sure to have bikes left over, so the outlaw bikers could chase after the heroes: all part of the same chase.

One way or another, all the player characters had a chance to grab a vehicle and speed off in pursuit. From that point on, I made sure to have an appropriate set of hazards to spring along the way. For example, the quarry chose the risk of driving into a street festival: one with fireworks, a Chinese dragon parade, etc., etc. The quarry had to make a driving roll to get through the crowd. Pursuers could make similar rolls…but what if a player character is better at acrobatics than driving? In that case, maybe the character is better off doing wire fu moves up the side of a building and along the rooftops, avoiding all the confusion in the street. On the far side of the festival, there happens to be a taxi idling its engine. “Follow that motorbike!” And the chase continues.

The GM should let players improvise within the spirit of such chases. For example, if a player successfully makes an acrobatics roll to reach the rooftops, don’t require a roll for a taxi to be waiting. In movies, there’s always a taxi waiting…or a motorbike or a horse, a beautiful woman in a Ferrari or a hot-looking guy on a hover-board. You want your players to feel free to try wild stunts without penalty—just like in the movies.

Naturally, everyone will be shooting while all this is going on: guns, arrows, magic spells, whatever. But as in the movies, a successful shot doesn’t end the chase prematurely. If you shoot out the bad guy’s tires, he simply steals a new car…or he stays on foot and runs down into the subway where the chase continues.

As GM, you should have plenty of contingency plans to avoid premature endings. On the other hand, if the players do something really clever (or lucky), don’t be afraid to reward them by letting them catch the quarry, even though their distance number isn’t zero yet.

My favorite chases have been deliriously over the top. That cyberpunk campaign also included a highway chase with 18-wheelers, and it had a super-high death count. (The exploding oil truck was a contributing factor.) But you can always have more serious chases, especially if the heroes are the ones being pursued. The secret is still to have a big toolkit ready ahead of time: a list of possible events and stunts inspired by appropriate movie chases. Running across dark rooftops while you try to stay silent can be a nail-biting experience if done right.

If you’ve never done a chase in a role-playing game, I encourage you give it a shot. We did one in my 13th Age campaign last night…and as soon as the players realized a chase was coming, they practically started cheering. (Flying brooms and a flying Ford Anglia were involved.)