Game Design: The Car Chase Problem

Wednesday , 25, March 2015 1 Comment

Roleplaying games grew out of a set of rules for miniatures wargames.  For a long stretch of time, it used to be that games would try to differentiate themselves on being the best “reality simulator” on the market. This eventually led to publishers developing plug in “subgames” like Snapshot for Traveller or Phoenix Command, billed as the “ultimate firearms resource.”

Ad Astra LogoUltimately, roleplaying games aren’t about objective reality. They’re about giving players a decision space, ideally with emotional resonance, that reflects the genre tropes of a particular style of fiction or another type of entertainment.  Unfortunately, not all of the tropes of other genres work in roleplaying games.

A classic example of the kind of trope that doesn’t work in an RPG is the car chase scene, or chase scenes in general.

In a typical car chase scene in a movie, Our Bold Protagonist usually has something important at stake, often a passenger or piece of cargo, and a ticking clock is running.  Or they have to reach a certain destination before another clock ticks down, and each challenge they overcome comes at the cost of time.

Time takes a beating in most RPGs, and takes an absolute flogging in maneuver-centric sub-games for RPGs.  Even worse, most RPGs take a binary approach to each challenge; failure usually means more than a minor failure does in the movie.

The other problem with chase scenes is that they usually focus on one player’s character, and the others are either bystanders or cargo.

So, our goal it to make chase scenes more active, and more fun – and to engage every player at the table.

Here’s my solution:

1) Present the stakes.  If the cargo isn’t delivered, something awful happens.
2) One person is The Driver.  Imagine them looking like Jason Statham.
3) Other players are Helpers.

Use a non-binary result system – you get Full Success, Partial Success with Consequences, and Something Really Bad Happens.

Track time like you’d track hit points, except that even a Full Success still costs time.  When time runs out, the scene ends.  The other end condition is when The Driver makes four Full Success rolls, two of which have to be consecutive.

When The Driver faces a challenge, have the Driver roll.

If it’s a Full Success, narrate the outcome and allow The Driver to show off his Awesome L33t Driving Skillz.
If it’s a Partial Success and Consequence, the Driver gets some of what was wanted, but the GM narrates a consequence; the consequence should be narrated in such a way that one of the Helpers gets to show off something cool.  If the Helper succeeds, it becomes a Full Success.  Else, it costs a lot of time.
If it’s a Something Really Bad Happens result, a lot of time is eaten up, and one (or more) of the characters takes damage; a Helper roll can reduce some of the time penalty, but usually the vehicle is partially damaged, a weapon has to be permanently dropped or something similar has to happen.

This is also a suitable solution for handling space combat in an RPG, which usually runs into the problem of “One player and the GM shove spaceships on the map, the other three players look on, kinda bored, and if the GM rolls really hot, the campaign ends…because there’s not a lot left when your ship is blown up by a Meson Gun.”

Kickstarter Update

We hit our initial funding goal, and I’m putting up a video of the first feature I want to add as a stretch goal as soon as I hit “Publish” on this.  You should definitely check out the Kickstarter if you’re interested in my tactical space combat games!

One Comment
  • TheCarl says:

    The James Bond rpg had an excellent system for handling chases. The hero and villain would alternative bids for higher difficulty, with the winner gaining initiative for that set of rolls. The system had a critical/partial success/failure table. A chase scene was a series of these bids.

    One could easily adapt it to other game systems. I think the crucial parts are: let all players contribute, and set a brief upper limit on how many iterations before you change the scene.

    Incidentally, Grats on your recent successes, Ken!

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