For the past few days, I’ve been going through and applying the final bits of polish to the next Legends of Earthdawn adventure, Lip Service. It is nearly ready to head over to layout, and will be available in the near future in PDF.

I’m not going to go into spoilers here, but there’s a scene in the adventure that focuses on the player characters pursuing somebody who is trying to get away from them. Working on that scene led me to thinking about chase scenes, and how they can sometimes be difficult to incorporate into a tabletop game session.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is the tendency for pursuit to boil down to a simple comparison of movement speeds, perhaps bringing in a couple of rolls. But chase scenes in popular media usually have a degree of tension, excitement, and pacing that doesn’t translate to the game table. Especially if you collapse it down to simple mechanics and a handful of die rolls.

So I think it behooves us, when considering chases in tabletop play, looking at our inspirational sources and figuring out what purpose a chase scene serves within the framework of a story, and figuring out if there’s a way to use the mechanics available to us to make it more exciting and engaging.

A chase is not usually an end in itself. It represents a challenge, an obstacle that stands between the character(s) and their objective. In fact, if you look at chase scenes in film and television, they are often a series of varied challenges and obstacles that must be overcome.

This, then, serves as the template for constructing a chase scene. The player characters have an objective. It might be, capture the fleeing suspect, escape the Theran patrol, or reach the ruined temple before the other treasure hunters. The “chase” is an extended challenge, where success or failure depends on how they handle the obstacles they must overcome on their journey. I’ll lay out the process by way of a basic example.

We start by laying out the stakes. The player characters want to capture a thief who just snatched a purse and is rabbiting. The thief wants to get to his hideout. We’ve defined success and failure, but it’s pretty basic. Let’s make it a touch more complex by building in some degrees of success. The best result is the player characters catching the suspect before he can reach the hideout; they only need to deal with the thief. The next best result has the group keeping up with the thief to the hideout, but they face him there, where he has some allies who delay or otherwise get involved in the conflict. A third result could be the group still locates the hideout, but the thief got there with enough of a lead that he is able to set up an ambush for his pursuers. And the worst case is the thief simply gets away.

So we have possible conclusions to the chase in mind. Now we need to come up with obstacles the group needs to overcome to achieve their objective. If we’re talking about a chase through city streets, a few ideas come to mind:

  • The thief jumps a fence with a locked gate. The group needs to scale it themselves, unlock the gate, or find some other way around.
  • The thief climbs up and the chase moves to the roofs.
  • The thief runs through a market and dumps a fruit cart, forcing the characters to navigate the mess, and possibly deal with an angry merchant.
  • Simple fatigue. Can the group keep up the pace?
  • Keeping sight of the quarry, or figuring out which way he might have gone at a junction.
  • The group has lost track of the thief, and questions a bystander to get information about whether they saw him.

Since a large part of a chase scene involves speed and pacing, I think it’s important to try and keep die rolling to a minimum. Set up each obstacle to be resolved with one or two tests — not to determine success or failure of the individual task, but how long it takes for the group to navigate the obstacle and get back to the chase.

The overall progress toward the objective, then, can be measured by counting the number of successes achieved on each test, accumulating over the timeframe of the chase. Once you have an idea about the obstacles involved, set a threshold for how many successes achieve the top level win condition. In our example, if the group gets that total before the last obstacle, they have caught the thief. If not, then you can gauge the end result by the successes that were achieved.

Let’s say, for the sake of our example, we set 15 total successes as our win condition. If the group achieves 15 successes or more they catch the thief right after the obstacle where they cleared that benchmark. If the group doesn’t get 15, but does get 10 or more, they reach the hideout hot on the thief’s heels and gain surprise on the other people in the hideout. Between 5 and 10, they locate the hideout but an ambush is set. Less than 5, and the thief gets away.

At that point it’s a matter of setting up the tests and DNs required. For the first example, if one character in the group can pick the lock (DN 7), each success on that test counts toward the total. If that fails, they can climb (DN 5), but each character needs to test, and only the lowest number of successes counts toward the total. If a character (or characters) fail, they still get past the fence, it just takes longer, no successes are accumulated toward the goal, making more negative results more likely.

(The numbers in this example are totally off the cuff. Make sure you’re setting appropriate difficulties, and make the threshold achievable. Just how achievable depends on how hard you want to make it.)

Dealing with the angry merchant might involve an Interaction test against the merchant’s Social Defense to persuade (or intimidate) them into letting the group go. If that fails, the group needs to help clean up the mess, causing delays.

Keeping sight of the thief could involve Awareness, Tracking, or Streetwise tests. It’s a good idea to keep your options open; be willing to allow players to come up with creative uses for their talents to overcome obstacles (or come up with obstacles that might be best solved with particular talents or abilities available to the group, giving different characters their own moments to shine).

Ultimately, the goal is to keep things moving quickly. Describe the problem, roll the test(s), narrate the result, and move on. Throw in a little variety, and try to let the group’s different talents and abilities come into play.

There’s a lot of potential in a good chase scene, far more than I can get into in a blog post. For a more detailed example, keep an eye out for Lip Service, the second Legends of Barsaive adventure, coming soon!