Is it just me, or do chases not really work in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons?
Mapping a chase out as an extension of combat quickly turns into a farce, as either the fleeing party is faster and the pursuer has zero chance of catching up, or the pursuer is the same speed or faster, leading to them wearing down their quarry with a tedious series of opportunity attacks.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide attempts to come to the rescue (p.252), and while it does introduce some fun “chase complications”, it forgets to give us any mechanics to determine the chase’s outcome, other than a) waiting for one side to drop dead of exhaustion or b) having the quarry make a successful Stealth contest to hide, and thereby escape. Which would be fine, but (as the authors themselves state) the quarry can only do when they are out of sight… and how they gain enough ground to get out of sight is not covered. 🤔
Shall we have a go at fixing this mess!?
Hell, why not…
Running a Chase: Hipster’s Rules Variant
In my revised rules, I’m going to run chases as a series of contests between participants. A success for the quarry over any given pursuer represents putting one level of separation (henceforth know as ‘gaps’) between the two of them. A success for a pursuer means the quarry is not able to open up any distance between them, while a success by 5 means that the pursuer actually closes 1 gap on the quarry.
[Note: depending on how testing goes, it may that the the quarry should have to win by 5 to open up a gap. A draw being a contest in which neither party is able to win by 5].
Here is a crib sheet for how to run this variant:
1) Establish that a chase has started.
A chase starts when a creature uses both its move action and the dash action to flee, and at least one other creature decides to pursue it, using both their move and the dash action in an attempt to keep up (in order to be on an even footing, it should do so before the start of the fleeing party’s next turn). When that happens the pursuer triggers a chase contest, and both the quarry and the pursuer roll. Any further pursuers also partake in the contest, following initiative order, comparing their roll to the quarry’s original roll.
2) Establish the appropriate skill for the contest
As the DM, determine which skill you want to use as the base of the chase contest. I suggest Strength (Athletics) for a chase taking place in relatively open terrain, like a field or hilltop, or Dexterity (Acrobatics) for a chase in obstacle-rich terrain, such as dense forest or winding/crowded city streets.
(If you don’t want to punish NPCs and monsters who don’t tend to have as many proficiencies as PCs you could opt for a straight Strength / Dexterity contest. And if you want something between Strength and Dexterity you could opt for a crossover skills check… Dexterity (Athletics), for example).
3) Establish each creature’s chase modifier
We need to reflect the fact that some creatures are faster than others, and some – like rogues with their cunning action ability – have added mobility. We can do this by applying additional “chase modifiers” to the contest.
For every 5 feet of movement above 30 feet a creature has add +4 to their chase contest modifier, for every 5 feet less, use a -4 modifier. (In other words a creature with a speed of 40 feet adds +8 to their chase contest, while a creature with 25 feet speed has a -4 modifier).
Creatures who use an ability, such as the rogue’s cunning action, to take the dash action twice in one round, gain advantage on their chase contest roll.
4) Determine the success of any pursuers
Determine if a pursuer loses 1 gap, maintains distance, or closes 1 gap on the quarry, by comparing their rolls to that of the quarry.
Any pursuer that ends their turn with zero gaps between them and the quarry may take an Attack action directed at the quarry (hint: they may want to select grapple in a bid to end the chase).
As with the rules in the DMG, we are doing away with opportunity attacks once the chase is underway, so if the quarry is still alive, and not grappled, it may continue running away without provoking further attacks.
5) Escaping / Ending the Chase
When the chase begins, as the DM, determine how many gaps the quarry must open up between itself and its closest pursuer to escape and finish the chase. I would suggest between 3 or 4 gaps for an urban chase, or 4 or 5 for a more open chase.
As an option you could give the quarry a chance to end the chase 1 gap earlier than the gaps required to outrun the pursuers, by contesting a Dexterity (Stealth) check against the Wisdom (Perception) of any pursuers. On a success they have outfoxed their hunters, finding a hiding place, or slipping away under cover. On a failure, as the DM, you will have to decide if the quarry is now cornered or in a position to dart off and start the chase again.
Those 5 steps should give you a solid outline of a useable chase mechanic.
A few more things to bear in mind…
More Chase Mechanics…
6) Measuring Distances / Variable Starting Points
One gap is not meant to represent an exact distance, but, when you need to, you can consider a gap as around 30 feet. That means when a creature starts 60 feet away from an adversary which turns and flees, the chase starts with 2 gaps between the quarry and its pursuer, even before the first contest is rolled.
In the scenario when one creature flees in combat, and is pursued by not only the creature it was fighting, but by a second creature who was slightly further away on the combat grid, then the second creature suffers a -2 modifier for every 5 feet it was away from the quarry (before the quarry fled) on its initial chase contest. Obviously if it was 30 feet away simply start with 1 gap between them, before the first contest begins. (If it was 40 feet, start with 1 gap and a -4 modifier on the first contest roll).
Optional Rule: If someone wants to chase and still use their action (to cast a spell etc.), then you can let them automatically lose 1 gap on the quarry and roll the usual contest to potentially lose a second. In this case remove the chance of closing one gap, even if they roll 5 above the quarry in the chase contest.
Someone that uses neither their move, nor their action to dash, automatically loses 2 gaps on the quarry. (This might occur if someone chooses to do something first before entering the chase).
7) Consider Introducing Exhaustion
I wouldn’t bother introducing exhaustion checks within chases to begin with, as they will slow the whole scene down further, which is about the last thing you want during a high speed chase. But once you’ve got a good handle on these mechanics, I think there’s some realism and merit to the rules in the DMG (p.252).
To summarise: a creature can use the dash action in a successive numbers of rounds a number of times equal to 3 plus their Constitution modifier. After that they must make a DC 10 Constitution check or suffer one level of exhaustion. (Exhaustion levels gained during the chase can be removed by a simple short rest).
8) Obstacles / Complications
Navigating obstacles is baked into this chase rules variant system, in that success and or failure in the chase contest rolls is effectively about how well or badly a creature deals with things like low hanging branches, tree roots, divots, ditches, or in an urban chase, crowds, carriages, tight corners, piles of detritus etc…
However there’s nothing to stop you adding in the flavourful chase complications from the DMG (p.254), once you’ve got the basic mechanics running smoothly. Just use common sense to adjust the result for this system. If the quarry slips and falls prone for example, every pursuer might gain 1 gap automatically (if they themselves do not fall prey to the same obstacle!).
Another way you could handle obstacles or changing scenery in a chase would be to switch the skill used for the contest for one round. For example, if you’ve been using Dexterity (Acrobatics) to contest a chase through the narrow back allies of Waterdeep, you could switch to Strength (Athletics) when the chase opens out onto a long stretch of main road. This is also a bit quicker than consulting a table, which can slow things down.
Narrating A Chase
It’s all too easy for a potentially breathtaking chase in Dungeons & Dragons to turn into a slog of tedious dice rolls, whether you’re using my system, or the RAW (Rules As Written).
A die roll to establish or close a gap, without any descriptive context, is yawn-inspiringly dry and dull. A die roll to determine how deftly a PC manages to leap over falling barrels and then skirt around a sharp corner is immersive and fun.
In other words, the success of a chase scene in D&D is more down to how you describe it than the mechanics, so give yourself plenty of permission to improvise and have fun.
Bring the players in on it too, by describing the scenery of the chase but having them narrate how their character navigates the stacked chicken coops, tumbling barrels of oil, panicky flock of sheep etc., using their dice roll to narrate the appropriate amount of success.
So there you go! I’m looking forward to giving these a go in my next Dragon Heist session (until now I’ve been a bit lost in chase situations, so this is my concerted attempt to fix that!)… let me know how you get on with them in the comments section if you choose to try them out.
I’m going to leave you with probably the best foot chase in cinematic history for a bit of inspiration…