Today I’ve decided to roll out my first new post to completion in more than 6 months. As the briefest of status updates I’ve had several posts simmering on the back-burner for a while now, but this is my first crack at a good series in a long time and they should be pretty regular updates. They’re also going to be a lot shorter than most of what I tend to write because I struggle with that and the practice of being concise is good for me.
What is this series about?
I’ve read a lot of RPGs. Even more than I’ve played or run, and I’ve played or run a lot of RPGs. One of the advantages to being widely-read is that you come upon ideas all the time. This is pretty usual advice given to a GM who wants to make more cool adventures: if you aren’t publishing the adventure feel free to steal the premise of a story you already know and love and just change the trimming a bit. The title of this post in fact is based on a much more pithily phrased piece of advice offered by the author T.S. Elliot – good authors borrow, great authors steal.
This advice, however, rings true not just for adventure design, but also for campaign mastery. There are some things that some games do that I’ve outright liberated from their respective works and continue to use in most games that I run regardless of what system I run them in. I’d like to go over as many of those as I can while pointing out their exact origins.
Co-Starring: What is it?
The Fate system was created many years ago as an offshoot of Fudge, and rests roughly in the smack center of crunch vs. fluff, GM vs. player narrative ownership, and improvisational vs. prep driven. As a system it’s given rise to one of my all-time favorite mechanics: co-starring.
The first example of this in the Fate game lineup that I can think of was created for Spirit of the Century and goes a little something like this –
- Most of the player characters have met before.
- Each player writes (most of) a short (paragraph length or so) story blurb about one of their previous adventures.
- Then one or more of the other players adds a sentence or two to that story that incorporates how they were involved, too.
That’s it. It’s a paragraph length cooperatively authored (very) short story about a previous adventure that involved at least two of the player characters. Simple, right?
Co-Starring: Why should you use it?
This method solves a common complaint that has existed as long as roleplaying games have: how do I get the player characters to join together in a way that feels natural? The oldest solution to this problem is “dump them in a tavern, say ‘go’, and hope they cooperate for the sake of the game”, but this is a much more elegant method. Here’s the breakdown of the goods –
- As it’s a story it will have at least one antagonist if it’s done properly (and if it doesn’t you should be helping the player to create a more exciting story with more conflict!). It’s not only less work to use that (those) antagonist(s), but also you have less fear of player rejection since it’s their own creation. The same goes for any other established NPCs, antagonist or not!
- The player characters will for the most part know each other already, which means they’re all at most a single “I know him and you can trust him” away from total group cohesion in a natural way once the game itself begins.
- It’s short enough that even the most crunch-oriented players won’t mind giving it a go.
The House Rule Test
I have a very simple test I use for house rules. I ask three questions:
- Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
- Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
- Is this rule as simple as possible?
There are some overlap in those questions, of course, and the first one probably has the most precedence, but the other two are critical for making sure it’s the best house rule it can possibly be. In most cases of narrative-focused games, however, lifting this concept nails all three questions. It’s extremely short, taking at most 10 minutes for each one and being very easy to understand, and it definitely does what it set out to do: make the beginning of the game more natural than plopping a bunch of characters into a story as if they sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus.
The only question that’s left, then, is if it benefits the particular game you’re playing. In most cases of a traditional PC-centric tale of high adventure I’d have to say it definitely does.This is the first of a series of posts on general mechanics you can take from one RPG system and use in another. You can find further entries as follows: #2: Drawbacks #3: Skilled Backstories #4: Abstract Inventories #5: All About Initiative
Let’s face it, guys; when you’re fighting undead, sooner or later you’re going to want to run away screaming like a little girl. Well, alright, maybe “want” is the wrong word – “must” is perhaps more fitting. For a long time in D&D there hasn’t been anything approaching a robust system of fight or flight – only fight. No more! I present to you now, officially, my Spirit of the Century Chase Hack for D&D 4th edition.
What makes a chase good?
Foot chases, especially, all have some very common themes:
- They don’t last long in the game. A terror-induced sprint can only last for a short while, especially when you’re burdened by adventuring gear, armor, and weapons. Beyond this timer, generally the terrain and actions of the chaser and chasee result in one side catching or losing the other in short order.
- They shouldn’t last long at the table. A chase is fast, and it should therefore be mechanically simple so that you can keep up excitement at the table. There’s not a LOT of strategy here compared to something like a fight, but there is a lot of involvement.
- Speed helps, but it isn’t the MOST important thing. Relying on speed alone might simply make you run into the cart of cabbages the heroes flipped behind them.
- Innovation is key. A good chase scene is driven by actions besides “I run some more”, like parkouring over rooftops, throwing down caltrops, or swinging across a chasm on a rope.
So, what mechanics can we use?
As mentioned, these mechanics are lifted as closely as possible from Spirit of the Century, since they got chase scenes (admittedly for vehicles) pretty much correct from the get-go. Adapting it to the generally-on-foot nature of dungeoneers is surprisingly not very difficult. Here are the rules of the chase scene in handy bullet point format.
- Select a Trailblazer for both the PCs and their enemies (in the case of the PCs, let them choose their own). The Trailblazer of team monster will probably change over the course of the chase, but so far I haven’t had much luck with re-arranging who gets to lead on team PC (once you select a PC Trailblazer for a given chase scene you should probably just keep them unless you know the terrain is going to change drastically). Those of you shooting for irony can ask for a Pathfinder instead, but be warned that players generally react aversely to bad puns.
- The Trailblazer for the team being chased selects a primary skill. A common choice is athletics, but alternatives that also often come up are acrobatics and endurance, or sometimes even stealth. It is possible to switch primary skills between exchanges, but I haven’t seen it come up very often. Remember that skill rolls in a chase scene are predicated on good roleplaying of what the skill roll entails from a character perspective. The roleplaying drives the mechanics of the chase scene and vice versa – neither functions without the other.
- The party of the Trailblazer on the side of the PCs (the monsters do not do this, they’re not heroic enough and since they’re all played by you anyway there’s no need to enforce teamwork) can select one of their members besides the Trailblazer, who will be able to designate another skill as the secondary skill. The Trailblazer cannot be aided by the same person two exchanges in a row. They will, same as the primary skill, give a snippet of roleplaying for why this skill applies to the situation and how their character is using it.
At this point the rules diverge slightly based on whom is being chased and who is doing the chasing. If the PCs are being chased –
- The Trailblazer sets a single DC that applies to both skill rolls, then both he and the party member contributing the secondary skill roll make their skill checks. Remember, if they describe great success and the rolls come up as flubs, the opposition was just that much better and your description should match that fact. If either of these checks beats the DC then the PCs experience success, otherwise they experience failure (described below). Remember to apply any miscellaneous modifiers (described below).
- The monster Trailblazer (generally the monster with the highest bonus to the skill still in the chase since most monsters have low bonuses to most skills and will provide little challenge otherwise) attempts to roll against the DC using the primary skill. Remember this isn’t a one way street – you have to give a description, too! Again, below the DC results in some degree of failure, while above the DC results in some degree of success.
If the PCs are the ones chasing –
- The monster Trailblazer sets a DC and selects a primary skill. Again, remember that your skill check requires a description to work. Make a check against this DC, with matching or above being some degree of success, and below being some degree of failure.
- The Trailblazer and the secondary skill contributing member of the PC team will make checks, with the Trailblazer using the primary skill as designated by the monster team and the aiding PC using a secondary skill designated by himself (again, this needs a good description – don’t be afraid to say “that makes no sense”). The usual successes and failures apply.
These are some recommended values and methods for handling successes and failures. To wit I have used these in my West Marches sandbox campaign, which features generally only one or two combat encounters per session (if that), which means the penalties are a bit harsh in order to have a challenging game. If you want a longer chase scene, or you want to adjust it so that the penalties to the PCs aren’t as bad so they don’t need to take an extended rest as soon afterwards, you can easily do that by simply adjusting the number values.
- If the PCs are being chased and equal or exceed the DC they set with at least one of their two checks they take no immediate penalty and (probably, see getting caught below) continue to flee at top speed. Top speed is assumed to be five times overland speed (speed 6 characters would be running at slightly over 15 miles an hour – something that I think is suitable for heroes at a dead sprint with gear, but you can adjust this to suit your own personal preferences), and a single exchange takes one minute. If you are in a small area and are afraid the chase might go outside of the area, you can reduce the amount of time an exchange takes to a matter of seconds rather than the full game minute, or alternatively you can reduce the movement rate due to it being a confined space.
- If the PCs are being chased and both checks are below the DC, the higher check result is used. All PCs in the group lose a number of healing surges equal to the difference divided by 2 rounded down to a minimum of 1 surge. Adjusting this divisor to be higher can make chases less punishing on PCs, or lower can make them more punishing.
- If the PCs are being chased and the monsters equal or exceed the DC with their one check, PCs each lose healing surges equal to the difference divided by 2 rounded down to a minimum of 1 surge. Again, adjusting this divisor to be higher can make chases less punishing on PCs.
- If the PCs are being chased and the monsters do not equal or exceed the DC, they will take damage on their stress track (see The Stress Track below) equal to the difference divided by 4 rounded down to a minimum of 1. Adjusting this divisor can make monsters easier to catch or escape as you please, and will have much the same effect as changing the divisor on lost healing surges.
- If the PCs are chasing, and the monsters equal or exceed their own DC, the monsters will continue to flee at top speed (probably, see getting caught below) where top speed is determined the same way it is for the PCs.
- If the PCs are chasing, and they equal or exceed the DC with either or both checks, the monsters take damage to their stress track equal to the difference of the larger result and the DC divided by 4 rounded down to a minimum of 1.
- If the PCs are chasing, and both of their checks do not equal or exceed the DC, the PCs will lose healing surges equal to the difference of the larger result and the DC divided by 2 rounded down to a minimum of 1.
- If the PCs are chasing, and the monsters do not equal or exceed their own DC, the monsters will take on their stress track equal to the difference between the result and the DC divided by 4 rounded down to a minimum of 1.
The Stress Track
Monsters, unfortunately, do not REALLY have healing surges. I mean they technically have one per tier, but that’s a pretty lousy amount of surges to use as a progress bar. Therefore I have lifted the concept of the Stress Track directly from Spirit of the Century. Each 4 minions contributes one box, each standard monster contributes one box, each elite monster contributes two boxes, and each solo monster contributes five boxes. Each box is sequentially numbered left to right starting with 1. When a monster team takes damage to a stress box, that number box is filled in. If the box is already filled in, the empty box with the next highest number is filled in. When the “box” above the highest actual box on the track is “filled in” the monster team is defeated (see below). As an example, if they take damage to the 1 box, the leftmost box is filled in. If they take damage to the 1 box again, the leftmost EMPTY box (2 box) is filled in. If they take damage to the five box, but their stress track is only four boxes long, the monsters are considered defeated. Additionally, if all of the boxes are filled in the monsters are considered defeated (since each box correlates to a remaining monster, with no boxes left there should be no monsters left). If you want to be really involved mechanically you can have monsters give fewer boxes if they’re injured, but I’ve never found that to be necessary.
The PC team is considered “caught” if any of their members takes at least surge value HP damage from losing surges with no healing surges remaining (contrary to normal surge loss, losing surges in a chase will eventually result in losing surge value hit points if you have no surges to lose). Running yourself ragged like this is obviously a measure of desperation, and it is often advisable, if it looks like you will be caught, to simply end the chase as a PC. You can stop fleeing at any time, and begin to fight. Whenever you are caught or choose to stop and fight, you must complete a full round of combat before deciding to attempt to flee again. Aside from this stipulation of a necessary round of combat, the PCs may choose to flee at ANY TIME it is a PC’s turn (and so the same for monsters respectively). You may flee at zero surges remaining, but if you take surge value or more damage from losing surges with none remaining you are once again caught. Monsters are considered completely caught when their stress track overflows or is full (as described in the last section). It is recommended that for inconsequential monsters (i.e. not solo monsters, or named villains) that when their contributing stress box is filled they are overtaken and defeated in a manner you allow the PCs to describe to you, or, if the monsters are chasing rather than being chased, that they fall too far behind or otherwise give up or are taken out. If powerful monsters or named villains are overtaken it is advisable that you use personal discretion in figuring out a reasonable impairment to their combat ability, similar to how PCs would need to engage in combat with fewer or no healing surges remaining. Spending their “big punch” powers such as recharges, encounters, or dailies and having those unavailable, or else having them take automatic damage (like bloodied value as an example) or suffer some other disabling condition like weakened or dazed (until short rest) is what I’d recommend, but really it’s up to you and your best judgment for what would make the best dramatic conclusion to the chase scene in such a case.
It is highly recommended that you include some miscellaneous modifiers in your chase scenes. If the minimum speed of one group exceeds that of the other, the faster group should get a +1 to all checks for each unit of speed they are faster. A speed 7 group entirely made of elves, therefore, against a speed 5 group made of plate armored fighters would give the elves a +2 to all checks. Alternatively, you can match the average speed of the groups together instead of the minimum speeds, although I find minimum speeds to be easier. If you want speed to be more of a factor, such as in open terrain like a field, you can increase the potency of speed, but I wouldn’t put it above +5 per unit no matter what the terrain is like. Speed is important in a chase scene, but not the MOST important. Heroes escape guard dogs all the time, after all, and dogs are pretty fast compared to humans!
Other modifiers include the familiarity with terrain type, and perhaps even plusses or minuses depending on the primary skill selected and how well it suits the terrain. Miscellaneous modifiers is your way to adjust the basic framework presented here to fit whatever situation it’s placed into.
Using the Spirit of the Century modifiers for group size (2-3 = +1, 4-6 = +2, 7-9 = +3, 10-12 = +4, etc.) for the monsters seems to work well, too, since monsters are usually only trained in one or two skills and tend to have lower modifiers than the PCs at that. In the event of solo or elite monsters you could consider giving them modifiers based on number of boxes contributed to the group (so an elite counts as two for purposes of group size, or a solo as five). Whether minions grant bonuses for size based on the individual number of them or based on the amount of standards they are worth/boxes they contribute is up to you, but I generally base it on the amount of standard monsters they should be worth, same as elites/solos.
I recommend, further, that the spending of a daily power should allow the person expending it to make a check of a skill related to that power even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense in the chase scene. A good example would be a wizard who wants to use Arcane Whirlwind, his level 1 daily power, to roll an arcana check as a secondary skill check. Consider giving better modifiers, such as +1 per level of the power, for higher level expenditures. I also considered allowing encounter powers for this, but there were simply too many encounter powers versus the length of the chase so I wouldn’t recommend it unless you want your players to go hog-wild with checks that don’t make a lot of sense.
Chases using Mounts or Vehicles
These will function in an identical manner to the above framework, although the skills used will probably be different, or at least the roleplayed descriptions. Athletics can be used to adjust the main mast, acrobatics to avoid falling off the rigging as you climb to the crow’s nest to get a better view, or nature to coax your horse into jumping across a pit.
Example of Play
Eravan the Eladrin Wizard, Rhovan the Human Warlock, and Lilac Sear the Human Blackguard are adventuring together when they’re set upon by a handful (3) of Maydeath Ghouls. Knowing that they are unable to combat such terrible foes without the divine protection of a Cleric or Paladin they immediately turn and flee the cliffside temple they had been exploring.
Eravan: Oh, hell.
Lilac: Right, we run away. I’ll be Trailblazer.
(The DM doesn’t have much of a choice here since all of the ghouls are the same; he selects one at random to be the Trailblazer for the monsters).
Rhovan: I’ve got a killer Arcana check, I’m going to shoot my Flame of Phlegethos daily power at the Ghouls to help cover our retreat.
Lilac: Alright, well, since this is a caldera I’m just going to say that we run as fast as we can across the overgrown garden and back to the entrance hallway, where we can start climbing back down the ropes we left from the ascent. DC 21.
DM: Go ahead and roll, guys.
Lilac and Rhovan (simultaneously): I got a 23!
DM: Haha, alright, the Ghouls come after you with their supernatural speed hungering for your flesh! (Knowing the Ghouls are speed 6 and Lilac’s armor slows her down to speed 5, the Ghouls get a +1 bonus to their check, and since they are a group size of three they get another +1 bonus). 16! Ah, looks like the Ghouls take a hit to the (21-17=4/4=1) 1 box. (This DM is being transparent about the mechanics, you don’t need to announce which box is struck if you don’t want to). The flames of Phlegethos carve into one of the Ghouls and it’s too busy being on fire to chase any further, but the other two are right behind you! Your minute long sprint takes you across the garden and back into the entrance tunnel full of graffiti – you can see the door out to the cliffside from here. (If the Trailblazer was the one that was removed from the chase, the DM will need to select a new one).
End of First Exchange, beginning of Second Exchange
Lilac: Hm, well, we’re going to have to climb down the ropes; athletics is generally the skill used for climbing and I’m not good at much else that will be useful so I say that we’ll descend the ropes as fast as we can, hoping that the Ghouls don’t know how to climb. DC 22.
Eravan: Is there any way I could maybe use Perception to find the quickest way down? (Eravan has a very high modifier to perception and wants to try to use it in a reasonable way).
DM: No, the ropes are anchored where you left them – you’ll have to just use them as they are unless you fancy a free-climb down the cliff-face.
Eravan: Well, that is definitely not something I fancy. Hrm. Alright, I’d like to use Nature to try to figure out if Ghouls can climb after us so we’re ready to jam when we hit the bottom if they can?
DM: That seems reasonable to me. Roll ’em guys.
Lilac: 21, drat!
Eravan: 20, not really any better.
DM: Alright, you guys each lose 1 healing surge (22-21=1/2=.5, minimum 1). When you reach the bottom of the cliff, however, it seems as though the Ghouls aren’t interested in pursuing you outside of their lair (they decided to stop chasing, which they can do at any time just like the PCs). You’ve escaped… for now, at least.
I find that the above framework tends to work very well, and so do my players. It’s very fast since it only involves a small handful of rolls, it’s roleplaying rich since roleplaying is required to make a check, and unlike a skill challenge there is no contrived “X before Y” designated ending point with the heroes instead in full control of how much effort they want to devote to running or chasing. Speed is a factor, but not the most important one, with innovation (roleplaying your checks) being at the forefront. The chases don’t last too long at the table (generally only about ten minutes in my experience), and they get everyone involved due to secondary skills. They let the dumb muscle character get his chance to shine – a fighter only gets three trained skills, but chances are two of them are Athletics and Endurance, which are both perfectly suited for a chase scene and use either his primary ability score or a secondary one. What’s more, the use of secondary skills allows the PCs to not just follow the villain’s footsteps, but to employ their smarts to cut him off at the pass using a different skill. And, not only that, but the seemingly useless monster skills are finally relevant! Hooray! Finally, they don’t penalize characters who are naturally bad at running, like a wizard, since the wizard doesn’t need to be the one rolling Athletics as Trailblazer.
That’s it from me, but I’d love to hear how people use and adapt this framework to their own games when chases occur. I had to use it about a half dozen times to narrow in on the divisor values that worked for me in terms of Stress Track and Surges lost, though, so I’d recommend the first time you use the system you keep in mind that you may need to step in as the DM and say “alright, these values aren’t correct, I’m just going to narratively end this chase scene and we’ll adjust them after the session to something we like better.”
This post is part of the May of the Dead Blog Carnival. For more great content regarding Halloween in May, head over there ASAP!
May your undead have the PCs flee in terror,
The Hydra DM