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.)

Pain and Suffering

I’ve had a positive response to some references to Buddhism I’ve made on Twitter, so I’ve decided that as an occasional thing, I’ll talk about my understanding of basic Buddhist concepts.

Writing stuff like this is actually a non-Buddhist thing to do—a constant theme in Buddhism is that putting things into words tends to blind you to your actual experiences. However, Buddhist teachers grudgingly admit that words can help you get started. The usual metaphor is that talking is a raft that gets you across the first river. After that, your journey continues, but you should leave the raft behind. Trying to carry it with you would just slow you down.

So let’s start with pain and suffering. Why? Because that’s what the Buddha focused on—ending his own suffering, and helping other people end theirs.

The key insight is simple: pain and suffering are two different things.

We can have pain without suffering. My favorite example is the pain I often feel during and after a good physical workout. It may hurt, but it doesn’t bother me. As they say, it’s “good pain”. It’s pain that I chose to take on; I know it will go away, and I realize it’s a side effect of becoming stronger and healthier.

Other examples: standard nicks and bruises. Usually, I just ignore them. I’ve seen kids get obsessed about microscopic cuts that I probably wouldn’t even notice. Adults have other things to think about…and yes, maybe we’re also more skilled at repression, which is not necessarily a good thing. But most grownups don’t get upset by little wounds. We accept them and pay attention to other things.

So pain doesn’t necessarily lead to suffering. The converse is also true: suffering isn’t always due to pain.

We’ve all experienced suffering when nothing is really wrong. The first example I can think of is when I’m driving and someone else on the road cuts me off or does something that scares me. It’s often a momentary thing, come and gone in a split-second without anything actually happening…but I can brood on such incidents for hours, dwelling on what-ifs and all the angry things I want to say to that idiot.

I suffer. I fixate. I can’t get it out of my head. But literally nothing happened. Nothing went wrong except that I got upset. It’s one thing if I make some decision like, “The next time I’m in that situation, I’ll slow down and watch for trouble,” (or whatever else makes sense for safety). Learning from a situation is what the Buddha would call “skillful”. But tying yourself in knots is unskillful: a source of unproductive suffering.

Boredom is another example of suffering without pain. Boredom is suffering when nothing is really wrong. So is yearning for ice cream or some other treat, even though you aren’t really hungry and you have plenty of food on hand. So is envy of someone else when really, you’re doing okay. You’re bothered by the comparison, not by your actual life.

Et cetera, et cetera. You can have pain without suffering. You can suffer without pain.

Even when you suffer in response to pain, they can still be disproportionate. A tiny pain can cause huge suffering; I prove that every time I have a mosquito bite.

So if suffering isn’t directly caused by pain, where does suffering come from? The Buddha said, “Watch and see.” We’ll talk about that the next time I feel like pontificating.

Sharing: Locations

As noted in a previous blog post, I’m occasionally sharing bits of my writing process in the hope that it will be interesting to readers and useful to other writers. So here’s another report from the trenches.

I’m working on Book 3 of the Dark vs. Spark series, and I’ve reached the point where I’m satisfied with the narrator’s tone of voice. So now that I know what the book “sounds like”, I’ve been working on what it will actually contain. In other words, I’m sort-of-kind-of making an outline.

Before I can figure out what events are going to happen, I like to have a list of possible locations: interesting places I might use during the course of the story. Since the books take place in the Kitchener-Waterloo area of Southern Ontario, this means that I pick some venues where action might happen. Where would it be fun to have a big fight? (This is a superhero book; there have to be fights.) What well-known spots in the city haven’t I used yet? What sort of places aren’t overused in other SF books?

I get out a bunch of index cards and write one place per card. If some event suggests itself, I put that on the card too. To begin with, however, I don’t need to know what happens; I just want to know the place.

So that’s one thing I’ve been doing in recent days…and just as a spoiler, Waterloo is home to the Canadian Clay and Glass Museum/Gallery. It’s really a no-brainer to have a huge superpowered fight in a museum filled with valuable glass artwork. I couldn’t squeeze such a fight into Book 1 or Book 2 of the series, but it’s going to happen this time for sure!

Or at least I hope. I have a lot more work to do before I get a working outline. I’ll keep you apprised of developments as I go along.

Book Birthday: ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS

Today is the official publication date for All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault.  You can get it in all the usual places in hardcopy, ebook, and audiobook.

It’s been several years since my last book came out. Heck, it’s been several years since I actually finished writing ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS. For those who are interested in behind-the-scene details about publishing, I initially sent the manuscript to my agent in February 2015. Since then, I’ve done some editing in response to (excellent) editorial feedback, but the book has been more or less finished for more than two years.

So on one hand, it’s a brand new book. On the other, it feels like an old one. I’ve written two full novels since I finished ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS (including the sequel, THEY PROMISED THE GUN WASN’T LOADED). I also wrote several short stories and a novella. Recently, I even began writing Book 3 in the series, with the working title NOBODY TOLD ME YOU COULD BREAK THE MOON. Still, it’s exciting to see the book finally reach the public. I hope you all like it!

By the way, I have to offer deep and sincere thanks to my agent, Lucienne Diver, who supported the book from Day One…to my editor Greg Cox, for similar support and insightful feedback…to Kat Howard, who provided feedback even before I sent the manuscript out…to Melanie Sanders for excellent copy-editing…to the many people who provided blurbs and kind words about the book…and to all the friends and fellow writers who have believed in me over the years. Thanks, folks; it meant a lot.

Sharing: Third-Person to First

I’ve been reading Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, in which he suggests that writers and artists should share information about their creative process.

I’ve decided to do just that. At the end of every day, I intend to tweet about what writing I did. From time to time, I’ll also write blog posts. So consider this the first installment of an ongoing feature.

First, some background. On November 7, my next novel comes out: ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS WERE SOMEONE ELSE’S FAULT. In it, four students at the University of Waterloo gain superpowers. My plan has always been to make a four-book series, with each book centering on one of the students.

The first book is told by Kim Lam in first-person, past tense. The second book, THEY PROMISED THE GUN WASN’T LOADED, is told by Jools Walsh in first-person, present tense. I turned in that book to my editor in August. Afterward, I took some time to work on short stories and other projects, but I started Book 3 around the start of October.

My original plan was to write Book 3 in third-person past tense, and Book 4 in third-person present tense. That way, each of the four books would have a very different feel. So I started Book 3 and wrote about 2000 words. Then I started again with a different approach and wrote about 4000 words. Then I started again and got to 8000. Each version described the same events but with a different flavor and tone of voice.

This is standard procedure for me. I try different ways to get into a story, with different tones of voice and ways of opening up the action. Sooner or later, something clicks and I can proceed to get into the meat of the story.

But my attempts to use third-person, past tense just weren’t working. They were too distant. I originally thought this would be okay, because Book 3 centers on the character of Miranda, and she’s quite a private person. In fact, I could easily believe that if Miranda sat down to tell this story herself, she’d write it in the third-person to impose a sense of separation.

But I didn’t like the effect. For one thing, it wasn’t as funny as the first two books; third-person wasn’t personal enough to allow wry comments and turns of phrase. It also wasn’t as energetic as Miranda herself. She’s a strong quirky character. That wasn’t coming across.

So a few days ago, I decided to start again. A phrase popped into my head: Dear [Redacted]…. (I’ve omitted the name because I think there’s a good chance I’ll change my mind on who it is, and I don’t want to set up false expectations.) The idea is that Miranda is writing a letter to someone she met in the course of the adventure, and telling them how everything worked out.

I find this idea interesting; I think it will work. So I’ve started another iteration, this time writing in first-person past tense, the way you’d write a letter. I think this will make the voice sufficiently different from the first two books that Book 3 will sound like it comes from a brand new narrator. The epistolary format also justifies certain kinds of exposition: the person Redacted isn’t familiar with a lot of the world’s background, so there’s an excuse for Miranda to fill in backstory while she’s telling the tale.

I have high hopes for this approach. So far I like the chemistry. I’ve got about 4000 words in the new tone of voice and another 4000 to go before I match what I’ve already got. After that, we’ll see what happens when I finish revising existing material and start something new. Wish me luck!

Doing PR

Because ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS comes out very soon, I’ve spent the past few days working on publicity: writing guest-blog posts, doing email interviews, and arranging a number of events. Since that’s where my mind is right now, let me share a bit about the PR experience.

First of all, it doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve been persuaded by this article by Havi Brooks that the phrase “shameless self-promotion” is pernicious. If you’re promoting something that you think others might enjoy, how does “shame” enter into it? Telling people about it is doing them a favor. I totally agree with that. However, as a self-effacing Canadian introvert, I have a lot of reticence to overcome. So I’m working on it. Self-promotion is a useful and learnable skill; with practice, I’ll get better at it.

Second, things have changed since my older books came out. Back then, book tours were a primary means of promotion. The beginnings of the web existed when my first book was published, but the full potential hadn’t been tapped. A few web sites posted book reviews, but even the best of them only did it sporadically. As for book ratings from regular readers, the term “social media” hadn’t even been invented.

Now, of course, there are many forums that can help your book get noticed. I’m happy to say that ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS will be covered on several sites that have a large number of readers. I’ve written guest-blog posts for a few of those, and have done a couple of email interviews too.

What will this mean for sales of the book? I have no idea, because something else has changed since my first book came out: the entire publishing industry. Sales of hardcopy books have declined over the years, and the ebook market isn’t big enough to compensate. Bestsellers still happen, and some books hit the jackpot; but many don’t.

Furthermore, being in the middle of the pack isn’t as lucrative as it once was. Thirty years ago, a mid-list writer could make a reasonable living. Now, it’s harder. If you aren’t near the top, you need a supplementary source of income. (Lots of writers teach part-time, get grants, or have a significant-other who helps pay the bills. Since none of those applies to me, I’m trying to make extra money by editing other people’s writing. Think of me if you want feedback!)

In the meantime, I’ve spent a week away from writing fiction and instead have been writing PR pieces. I’ve also been arranging events: book signings and the like. My publisher (Tor) has assigned me a PR person (hi Lauren!) who’s been very helpful in setting up guest-blogging opportunities. However, I’m on my own for local book launches; publishers simply don’t have the resources or contacts to set such things up.

I’ve arranged for a launch at the University of Waterloo (where ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS is set) and another in Toronto at Bakka-Phoenix Books, the best sf specialty store within driving distance of my home. I’ll also be signing books at the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio, Nov 2-5. Finally, I’ll be doing an event in January at the Kitchener Public Library. For details on any of these, see my list of appearances.

I wish I could do more, but there are cost-benefit considerations. If I drive someplace far from home, will the event increase sales enough to cover the gas money? At the moment, I’ve decided to err on the side of thrift. If ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS does well, maybe I’ll have enough seed money for more promotion on the sequel.

We’ll see. As I’ve said, I’m learning. Check back here in a month or two, and I’ll pass on any lessons I’ve picked up.