Hipsters & Dragons

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How To Run a Chase in 5e D&D…. Step by Step Rules!

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.

Sometimes it’s better to run…. (Artwork by Grosnez).

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.

You can run, and you can hide… (Artwork by Czepeku).

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…

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8 Comments

  1. Sam

    Ever thought about trying a chase card deck?
    https://youtu.be/VsgWUGGXEpk

    • duncan

      Hey thanks Sam, I’d never heard of such a thing, but it’s a super cool concept! However seems to me to be essentially a fun way of replacing a chase complication table, by drawing a card, instead of rolling a dice, without a mechanic for gaining or losing distance on someone… so not sure these alone would be enough to run a chase without a lot of improvisation.

      The complication tables are fun and how you deal with complications could be a way of determining the chase outcomes, but they seem to me leave a lot of questions unsolved, about distances between people, casting spells, attacks/opportunity attacks, when it might be possible to lose sight and hide etc., or else simply outrun someone.

      Also I have a feeling that a lot of these complications are going to stretch the narrative credibility, if they are delivered one after another.

      Anyway I might well pick up a pack and give it a go, as I’m kind of intrigued now.

  2. Max

    Great site in general, and I like your system, so please don’t misinterpret the following as being aimed at your game design chops.

    That being said, I don’t understand the premise of this article, tbh. The conditions for ending a chase are self-evident, and the means by which to achieve it are already baked into the core rules: you have a movement speed, the other side has a movement speed, and all parties can either opt to use Dash to increase theirs during a given round, or not. The problem wasn’t that there was no way to end a chase, you resolve it using simple math. The thesis of the DMG’s section on Chases (p252, as you note) is that the pure your-speed-vs-my-speed system alone fails to capture a common outcome in which slower creatures are able to catch faster creatures through happenstance and/or endurance.

    The latter is covered on DMG p252, and is alluded to briefly in the beginning of your piece. There, it says you can only use your Dash option 3 + [CON Modifier] times before you have to start rolling Con checks to avoid taking on exhaustion levels. Exhaustion is a limiting agent here, obviously, and provides a natural decay to the chase duration with all other things being equal.

    But, of course, that would be almost as boring as the original “no system” system, and wouldn’t comport to reality (even a fantasy reality). So, the former, pure luck, is expressed through a combination of the hiding mechanics for the quarry (DMG p253) and the Chase Complications table on DMG p254, as noted in your piece. All the Complications have some deleterious effect on your movement speed that round, thus improving the chances that you will lose the larger chase because, through simple math, we will see that the gap has widened.

    Since all creatures also have a vision limit, after which it can be adjudicated that a subject is out of sight, the mechanic for the quarry hiding or not handles that scenario … if they succeed, the chase is over. If they fail, the chase continues and the distance between the two closes by virtue of the pursuers adding their full move speed for that round, and the quarry adding zilch (because they were busy trying to hide in a bounded and immediate locality, not running away from the pursuit). This gets more complicated in an urban setting, but in those types of scenarios, instead of vision limitations per se, use something like a 50′-100′ “Range of Information (Disturbance)”, meaning the distance at which the pursuing party and the quarry are still exchanging information via something other than a direct line of sight (viz., the kerfuffle of surprised pedestrians reacting in real-time to the quarry’s passing).

    Either way, the point is, using some very simple math and the Complications table, you can resolve chases in feature-heavy environments pretty easily using only the RAW.

    Am I missing something? (I often am.)

    • duncan

      Hi Max

      No worries, thanks for the comment. Criticism always welcome when imparted politely!

      Actually, I am surprised though because I don’t find the official rules self-evident at all, and I’m not sure the majority of DMs do either… my experience points to the opposite case.

      Have you ever used the chase rules to the letter, to determine a chase? Did the mechanics resolve all the scenarios, or did you have to improvise a tonne? Did any genuinely thrilling chase scene emerge? (Genuine questions, not sarcastic ones!).

      None of the three DMs I play with (me being one of them) have used the rules to the letter (I contest the fact that such rules exist, as I read them again and they still don’t make sense to me), and we’ve always ended up improvising chases.

      This post was an attempt to bring about some system… although I haven’t been able to test it yet, and I am worried that perhaps my system is a little too complicated!

      Anyway, looking again at the Rules As Written… some problems/issues I see:

      1) At the very start of the ‘Chases’ section it states: “strict application of the movement rules can turn a potentially exciting chase into a dull predictable affair. Faster creatures always catch up with slower ones, while creatures with the same speed never close the distance between each other…”

      However I don’t see any rules given afterwards about how to determine a creatures movement, other than by strict application of the movement rules.

      This whole section is a false promise… but anyway some more problems.

      1) Regarding ‘Dashing’ on p.252 of the DMG.

      Assuming that most NPCs and monsters will have at least +1 Constitution modifier, the exhaustion mechanic is unlikely to come in until the end of round 5… the chase will already feel quite old and cumbersome by then! Someone also has to fail twice on an easy check before gaining the two levels of exhaustion required to lose speed. On average it might be round 9 or 10 before someone is slowed down using this mechanic.

      2) Regarding ‘Spells and Attacks’. It states that chase participants can’t normally make opportunity attacks against one another…

      …but if we imagine a combat that then turns into a chase, it doesn’t really state when combat ends and a chase starts, and when that rule should come into play. Common sense dictates as soon as two parties use their dash action in sync, but it’s another lack of clarity.

      3) Regarding ‘Ending a Chase’ on p.253. This whole paragraph section is incredibly vague and poses more questions than answers. It says things like “a chase ends when the quarry escapes…” obviously, but still waiting for some mechanics at this point.

      Next it gives us a Stealth mechanic we’re supposed to use at the end of each round… but this is confusing as it’s not actually the Hide action as it doesn’t seem to require taking an action. Then straight away they say… forget that, that’s only for when the quarry is out of sight anyway.

      Also being out of sight is very open to interpretation. The quarry always goes first (in order to have to have started the chase this must be the case) and could therefore go around a corner using its movement and then hide using its action and end the chase according to the rules… without having done anything to put some distance between them and their pursuer. This would flaunt the ‘reality’ of the fact the creatures turns happen almost simultaneously, and that the pursuer would likely only be a few yards behind the quarry at any given time.

      3) Chase Complications
      These are great but they are basically the designers thinking outside the box on the problem that chases don’t work in D&D using combat rounds and movement speeds… so they’ve created obstacles that affect those speeds (which they are still strictly applying, despite promising us something different!)

      These complications also only really make sense in certain scenarios, if at all. The urban chase complications might have you passing a pack of dogs, a brawl and an overzealous guard in the space of 60 yards (180 feet). It also might be a stretch to imagine these complications in a city at the dead of night, when all is quiet. The wilderness complications stretch the imagination further… and wouldn’t work on anything less than a dense forest or jungle. Anyway the principle can work, and they are great tools for improvisation… but I see the Chase Complications as a kind of ‘cheat’ solution.

      Ultimately in RAW, chases are determined by your movement speed… which is boring and rigid to the extent of defying realism. For example, no other class can EVER catch or escape a monk or rogue because of their ability to use a bonus action to dash.

      In cases where both parties have the same speed, chases could drag on and on, forever, because you can’t even use opportunity attacks, so you’re waiting for a complication or endurance to kick in. We’re already established endurance might take around 9 rounds to make a difference, while a complication might reduce someone’s speed by 5 or 10. How many complication checks would the pursuer have to fail before the quarry is out of sight? Over any field or hill they would be endless!

      I’m not confident my rules fix these issues, but I respectfully don’t agree with your hypothesis that they don’t need fixing….

      If you Google around, there are a host of posts either trying to clarify or seek clarity on chases…

  3. Lewis

    I love doing chases, and haven’t done one in my 5e game yet, but this will definitely help! A great way to add some drama to a chase, make your city/forest/dungeons what have you feel alive and breathing, not just back drops! Does the bad guy your chasing decide to set the orphanage on fire to slow the party down? does the party topple fruit carts and disrupt the merchants while they run from the city guard, inuring higher prices? always a fun addition to my games, thanks for the post. Also, have you ever fired your gun in the air whilst going ‘ahh’ ?

    • duncan

      Hi Lewis, thanks for the inspiration. I always give my players advantage on chase contests if they stipulate that they are firing their gun in the air whilst going ‘ahh’!

  4. Joe

    I might be missing something, but how do you determine in step 4 if a pursuer loses 1 gap, maintains distance, or closes 1 gap on the quarry. It seems like this system is saying roll initiative, then roll for the quarry, then each round the pursuers roll and based on that against the quarry roll makes the distance determination? But if it is success vs fail, how would one maintain the distance?

    • duncan

      Hi Joe

      I think possibly you missed my preamble (under header: “Running a Chase: Hipster’s Rules Variant”), where I stated:

      “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.”

      To summarise:

      Success for Quarry = +1 gap
      Success for Pursuer = maintain distance
      Success for Pursuer by 5 = -1 gap.

      This obviously favours the Quarry somewhat, although I think escaping is easier than catching, and most Quarry will be pursued by several Pursuers… so I’m cool with that. I do also suggest in the same paragraph however you might want to switch to…

      Success for Quarry by 5 + 1 gap
      Neither wins contest by 5 = maintain distance
      Success for Pursuer by 5 = -1 gap

      Does that answer the question!? If not let me know!

      Cheers!

      d

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