Sunday, June 10, 2012

On running away

Why do we like combat in role playing games?  Why are the rules for combat generally the most extensive and complex part of the game?  Because combat - at least properly executed - is exciting.  It has high stakes for success and failure.  It's unpredictable and surprising, which is why even in role play-intensive games, we reach for the dice when it comes to a contest of fists, blades, and claws.

But you know what else is exciting?  A good chase scene.  It's so universally considered exciting that it's become almost a cliche in movies and TV and even literature.  Foot chases, car chases, horseback chases, motorcycle chases, airplane chases, boat chases, golf cart chases...  It's been done straight, it's been parodied, it's an action staple.  We even have an expression based on it:  Cut to the chase!  In other words, get to the good part, and the chase is the good part.

So why aren't the evasion and pursuit rules in role playing games more robust?

He knows how it's done.

 In Classic editions, evasion in the dungeon is handled almost entirely according to movement rates: the faster side wins.  Evasion in the wilderness is determined on percentile dice, based on the number of creatures in each party and modified by their relative movement rates and any other factor the DM deems important, such as terrain.  If the attempt fails, there's a 50% chance that the fleeing party is caught, and presumably forced into combat.  Otherwise, it may attempt to evade again, and continue the process until it either successfully evades or is caught.  It's a pretty low-res system, with very little room for interesting tactical decisions, and I think that's unfortunate.

A lot of making pursuit exciting falls to the game master, in the form of providing interesting terrain.  In a forest, there are trees, fallen logs, underbrush, slopes up and down, streams and ponds, etc.  In mountains, you've got cliffs, boulders, rocky fields, slopes of loose scree, ravines...  Swamps and bogs have quicksand, stands of rushes, mud, shallows, narrow paths of solid ground.  Desert hazards include shifting sand, rocky terrain, gullies and dry washes.  A dungeon may have branching corridors, slopes, doors, stairs, nooks and crannies to hide in, furniture, statuary, rock formations, traps that can't be found by characters sprinting away from danger, and so on.  A town is rife with obstacles - crowds, vendors' carts and stands, fences and railings, buildings, wide streets and narrow alleys...You get the idea.  Give the players some features and obstacles to work with, and they'll find creative ways to use them to their advantage.  Intelligent monsters should do the same, of course, and ones familiar with the local terrain will exploit the disparity of knowledge for all it's worth.  

Rules-wise, we have part of what we need.  There are rules for running and fatigue from running.  It might be nice to have a modified, more specific set of rules for running, to account for minor but crucial differences in speed, endurance, and such between characters.  Maybe add a character's adjustments to Strength and Dexterity, multiplied by 5, to running speed.  A Strength check might be allowed to add a desperate burst of speed at a critical moment.  Instead of a flat half turn of running movement, a character can sprint for a number of rounds equal to three times his Constitution score, or jog for his Constitution score in turns. Beyond that point, a Constitution check can be made on d20 to keep up the pace for another round or turn, respectively.  A failed check leaves the character winded and staggering along at normal encounter speed.

Many of the mechanics you might need for pursuit situations can be improvised with ability checks and such.  Dexterity could be used for obstacles that would make for unsure footing, or for scrambling over barriers.  Strength works for leaping over ditches or hurdles.  Some types of terrain, like uphill slopes and clinging underbrush, might reduce a creature's movement rate by 1/3 and count double or triple against its Constitution limit for fatigue.  Hidden hazards like quicksand or sudden drops might require saving throws to escape or avoid.

Rules for fighting while running would be useful, too.  Most missile devices should be next to impossible to fire on the run, but thrown weapon and melee attacks are possible with a penalty.  Being hit might require a saving throw vs. paralysis to avoid being knocked off stride and losing half your movement for the round.  A serviceable set of rules for grappling would also be a good thing for attempting to grab and drag down a fleeing opponent.  With any kind of attack, a critical hit should definitely knock the target down, while a critical miss leaves the attacker eating turf.  Getting back up takes a round.  Large four-legged creatures like horses might only suffer a knockdown or delay result on a hit from a massive weapon.

Successful evasion may depend on how determined the pursuer is.  One that has a compelling reason might pursue relentlessly.  For others, morale or reaction checks can be used to decide whether it continues the chase or gives it up.  A pursued creature or party might escape if it can get beyond the pursuer's line of sight for a few seconds and find concealment.  If all else fails, the chase may ultimately be decided by the endurance of each party.  In the case of undead, magical constructs, and other creatures that never suffer fatigue, the fleeing characters may be in for a long and grueling chase indeed.

Once you've made the decision to make combat deadly and uncertain enough that players may want to escape or avoid it, running away becomes an option they'll probably exercise a lot more often.  Played right, it might be just as exciting as the combat would have been, or maybe even more so.  Let's just cut to the chase, shall we?

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