Designing rules for chase/escape scenes in PbtA

Hi there!

I’m designing a PbtA game that has horror elements. Most of the design has come along nicely, but I’ve run aground on how to handle PCs running away from a threat. I’ve written and playtested many options, but they’ve all fallen flat one way or another. Any thoughts from all of you would be very much appreciated!

Ideally I’d like for such a scene to emulate chases in horror films—the protagonist runs here, runs there, hides in a closet, gets found, runs again, trips over something, sprains an ankle (of course), risks trying to temporarily disable the threat (e.g., with an improvised hairspray blowtorch), and finally gets away.

Assuming Apocalypse World as our baseline PbtA ruleset, how does the MC determine when the PC has escaped? What’s the timer? If there’s a countdown clock, what actions by the PC translate to ticks on the clock? If multiple PCs are trying to escape, or PCs and NPCs, how does that change the equation? What if they run away en masse versus breaking into groups? What if the escapees need to get to a safe place that’s far away versus just getting out of the house?

The easiest solution is a move like: on a 10+, you escape; on a 7–9, you escape with complications; and on a miss, you’re caught with no chance of escaping again. This is simple and direct, and it’s my fallback if nothing else works, but it’s too abrupt and not really what I want for this genre.

Have you MC’d a chase/escape scene like this or designed a ruleset to handle it? What works and what doesn’t?


  • Are you familiar with the countdown clocks of Blades in the Dark?
  • I am, but AW doesn't have effect levels. I did fiddle around with ticking a countdown clock on hit results, with maybe 4 hits needed to escape. The issue is that there's a stat (Shadow) for surviving by avoiding threats, including by running away. However, allowing any hit to count as a tick toward escaping means that high Shadow characters are no longer better at escaping than other characters. A countdown clock seems like a good solution, but I haven't found an arrangement that quite works.
  • And if you think about it like 'harm'? It exists in AW too. -1 harm for 7-9, +1 harm for Shadow like characters... Its a quantitative distinction.

    If you want to create qualitative ones, just give the Shadow types special moves which are better then the basic option. Think Bonefeel vs Read Sitch. Or Thief skills vs standard dungeoneering in any kind of D&Dish game.
  • So if I'm following, you're suggesting that hits count toward the escaping clock, but high Shadow characters get maybe +1 hit each time, thereby filling the clock faster? That's an interesting idea. I'll definitely give that a whirl. Thanks. :)

    I'm still trying to figure out the basic option. ;)
  • If you dont have playbooks which are better in chases then everyone else...
    And everyone uses the same stat for chases...
    Than rewarding a bonus to PCs with high Shadow stat is double awarding.
    (They already have higher chances to roll 10+ than others, thus statistically they will make more hits on the clock without extra rewards.)
  • I assumed you meant using other moves too, like hiding or disabling the threat, and getting +1 to those hits. Guess I'm not following what you meant by "-1 harm for 7-9, +1 harm for Shadow like characters."
  • It seems like my English is not good enough! :) What I meant

    7-9: -1 tick
    If your class/type/playbook/etc. is the best in this particular task: +1 tick (So a runner type PC would get +1 tick when she is fleeing, but a shadowy character would get +1 tick for hiding etc.)
  • Wouldn't the PC skill already be factored in to the dice mod?

    Listen, "tick-by-tick" can sometimes feel boring and artificial. I like Blades overall but I don't like the clock mechanic.

    If you do have fictional support / prep / established a chase detailed enough to be resolved over many actions, go for it. And then you don't need a clock. The chase at the end of [module name elided b/c spoiler] took us over an hour, running and shooting and hiding in a maze. Because the fiction supported it ("do whan the prep demands").

    If you don't, then one roll is perfectly fine. It can be a tense af roll if there's a lot on line for the -6, and the 7-9 can lead to more. Establish stakes&positioning and then roll. Make it count.
  • edited June 2018
    When running for your life roll+distance. Depending on the nature of the chase distance may represent tens of meters or tens of miles.

    On a 7-9 your only chance of escape hinges on finding refuge, either hiding or barricading yourself in. If you cannot find refuge you are caught. On a 10+ you escape.

    This move doesn't work in isolation, the PC should be made aware of the threat and decide for themselves when it's time to start running. Imagine someone notices they are being followed. The stalker does not want to blow their cover but get as close as possible before the chase begins, the victim will try to increase the distance before they start running for their life. This move is the climax of the scene in the same way siezing by force might be the climax of a series of maneuvers involving a gang.

    Depending on the monster you should decide what distance means.

    Xenomorph distances:
    0 = visible or audible
    +1 = it's a blip on your motion sensor
    +2 = direct tracks (slime, claw marks, victims)
    +3 = indirect tracks (barricaded doors, shell cases, desperate messages)
    +4 = same structure
  • @2097, what criteria had to be met in order for everyone at the table to agree the PCs had escaped? Did the PCs have to meet a series of interim goals too? I'm interested to hear how your GM put a hard edge on their prep (so to speak).

    @Krippler, I had a similar idea about the 7–9 result offering narrative actions like "you can get away if you injure your pursuer and slow it down," but I like how your 7–9 result is fictionally more broad.
  • @onrigato, I was the DM. but the area the PCs were running in, a maze, had a map in the module. They were running and shooting and when they had left the house, they had escaped. We were playing a game with movement rates etc
  • edited June 2018

    What might be really helpful is for you to picture, in detail, how you want a chase to play out at your table, and, ideally, write that out as text.

    Then you can 'reverse engineer' where and how you'd like the chase mechanics to come into play, at what points they inject information or decisions, and then decide what they should look like.

    Starting from "it should be like AW moves" will lock you into a very limited design space and you might not ever get to what you're looking for.

    Also, as far as Vincent's games go, check out circumstances in Afraid and the chase mechanics in In Dreaming Avalon. (There are very similar, but slightly less developed, mini-games for chases in Firebrands and The King is Dead.)

    Finally, for a really "zoomed-in" version, you might look at Murderous Ghosts, which is, in many ways, one long chase/escape sequence.
  • @2097, thanks for clarifying how you ran your game. With maps and movement rates, it's much easier to determine when the PCs have escaped. Games that are more fiction-based seem more slippery for determining that endpoint in a way that isn't just GM fiat.

    @Paul_T, thanks for your suggestions. My game started out based on AW, and overall the ruleset is working great, but chases have been a total bugger to nail down. The issue is the combination of fiction first in PbtA and the fact that the MC has a lot of leeway when making MC moves. So, how to determine (1) what actions might allow the PCs to escape, and (2) how to determine when the PCs have actually escaped? As you suggest, the answer is probably far afield from AW itself, but I haven't gotten there yet.

    If anyone is willing to share an example of an extended chase sequence from a PbtA actual play, that would be fantastically helpful. (Though in the horror genre, ambushing your pursuer is risky at best.)
  • So, how to determine [...] when the PCs have actually escaped?
    What about multiple objectives? A move to last-ditch escape, rolling +prep, and plenty of things they can do to prep (and complicate things on <10). So leave the one-roll option, but suggest that things like distractions might help, then those are 6- oh no, 7-9 +1 prep but something's gone wrong, 10+ yay +1 prep? Use it for an easy chase at first but when you get to the real horror, notify your players that they start at -2 prep. :D

    Originally when I wrote "multiple objectives" I was thinking of something like in Anima Prime where you might have an overarching "escape the horror" but it's not even attackable until you complete "get out of the house" and if you don't manage to complete "extract Billy" first, then Billy's toast. In the AP framework players can also suggest objectives like "find the keys" which, if completed, would give bonuses toward completing "escape the horror".
  • edited July 2018

    I wanted to thank everyone again for your responses and suggestions. I playtested the move below over the weekend, and I'm very happy with the result.

    One piece of getting a workable move was figuring out the timers; a chase now ends when a PC rolls a hit on flee in terror (and thereby escapes), maxxes out on harm and is taken out of the action (and is thereby irrevocably caught), or disables or kills their pursuer. The second piece was limiting the MC's moves on a miss.

    The third piece was figuring how to do the kind of sequential chase I talked about in the original post. The solution is that the MC declares two or three locations the PC has to get to in sequence, so they'll need to get a hit on this move two or three times in order to completely escape. In the playtest, the PCs had to (1) make it out of the vampire nightclub, (2) run to their car, which was parked several blocks away, and (3) drive to their safe house. It creates some fun choices for the players when one PC makes a flee roll and the other two don't. ;)

    Flee in terror

    When you flee in terror, say where you’re fleeing to and roll+Shadow.

    On any hit, you can get away if you want.

    On a 7–9 hit, there’s also a cost. Choose 1:

    • Pay now. Getting away costs you something now, but your pursuer completely loses your trail.
    • Pay later. You suffer no consequences now, but your pursuer has learned something about you.

    On a miss, your pursuer is still after you, and the MC chooses 1:

    • Your pursuer catches up to you. [Note: catches up to, not catches.]
    • You find yourself in another bad spot.
    • You break with reality. [There's a prerequisite associated with this option which I won't get into here.]
  • I like the 7-9. The 6- looks interesting but Im not sure what the first two option really mean. Some special cases?
  • The 6- to me seems to have a lack of progress

    make it so that on a 6- you get eaten up♥
  • Limiting the MC's moves is a clever touch.

    What do you mean by one PC making a Flee roll while the others don't?
  • edited July 2018
    I think they mean something like that :
    Alice, Bob and Charlie try to get out of the haunted house. Each one rolls. Alice : 10+, Bob : 7-9, Charlie : 5. Alice can grab a sports bag full of stuff and pull a flipping Bob by the hand. As they pass the threshold, they hear Charlie screaming in the basement. Will they go back ?
  • That sounds... a bit awkward to me.

    I'll wait to hear for clarification!
  • edited July 2018
    Thanks for the questions! I didn't include a lot of the discussion of this move for the MC's benefit, so here goes.

    @hamnacb: "Your pursuer catches up to you" means that the pursuer has closed the distance with the PC, and the MC can have the pursuer inflict harm on the PC or make a threat move. However, although the PC has been caught up with, the PC isn't irrevocably caught in the sense of ending the chase. The PC might fight back, try to manipulate the threat, or flee again. "You find yourself in another bad spot" means the pursuer is still after the PC but is out of position for the moment; the PC finds herself in some other trouble, maybe a different threat, maybe forced to choose between fleeing and helping someone else.

    @2097: Haha, I tried that but it made for some rather short-lived PCs. :)

    @Paul_T: @DeReel's example is what I was going for. What are your concerns about its being awkward?

  • Splitting the party ?
  • edited July 2018
    Oh, if you tested it then I'm satisfied, ABT: always be testing
  • edited July 2018
    I've tested it during only one playtest session, so there are probably situations where it falls apart. :) It works great when there's only one PC fleeing, but multiple PCs do make it more complicated. I've gone back and forth between having one player roll to flee on behalf of all the PCs and having each player roll it individually. And another question is whether a PC can help someone else escape.

    I'm curious, how do you all handle this type of "group skill check" situation in your PbtA games? What if three PCs are trying to sneak into Dremmer's compound—do you ask for one act under fire roll or three? Who's allowed to help whom? Can the PCs do a round robin of helping—A helps B, B helps C, C helps A?
  • In general I don't like them in PbtA but check out "Perilous Journey" in Dungeon World. A move that is often criticized and replaced by hackers tho :open_mouth:
    And I can see why. Because normally you (the PC) are doing the things, not the group of players.
  • To go specific, and Apocalypse World:
    What if three PCs are trying to sneak into Dremmer's compound—do you ask for one act under fire roll or three?
    What are the specific dangers there? I'd zoom in and play this out a bit more since there players are interested in the details. Start dropping in moves like announce danger and turn to one PC at a time with specific sitches.
  • edited July 2018
    @onrigato a group roll in this this situation, especially when it can resolve the entire chase, seems to skip over much of what a scene like this could be about (actually running from monsters.) If a chase scene is what you want, I think the move should capture what the PCs are each doing moment-to-moment.

    This is an interesting problem. I think a timer of some sort is still a good idea.

    An idea for a "count-up" chase timer:

    When you flee in terror,

    To put distance between you, roll +Shadow:
    On a hit, take +2 distance for yourself or +1 distance for yourself and an ally.
    On a 7-9+, you also expose yourself to harm or loss of property.
    On a miss, set your distance to zero.

    To hide, make an escape, or lead a diversion, roll +distance:

    On a hit, you do it.
    If you hide, your pursuers pass you by; On a 7-9, you are stuck or pinned down or your allies think you're dead.
    if you make an escape, you're free and clear, far and away; On a 7-9 ask the MC what you dropped, sprained or came bumbling into.
    If you lead a diversion, your allies may freely escape; On a 7-9 set your distance to zero.

    On a miss, you are caught and at your pursuer's mercy. If they stop to dally with you, your allies take +1 distance.
  • edited July 2018
    Yes, that's exactly where it might get weird or awkward.

    If we're acting as a group, and the dice tell us that you escape but I'm left behind... they've just forced you to abandon your friend.

    If it's a game where escaping as a group might come up often, you'll need to build it into the move, I think.

    EDIT: massively cross-posted! I hadn't seen the messages above this one.
  • edited July 2018
    @2097, I hadn't looked at Perilous Journey very closely before, so I will definitely check it out.

    @Dirk, thanks for your suggestion of the count-up timer. Map- or grid-based rules make chases really easy to adjudicate. That's an interesting idea to fold distance into the moves format. I'll give it some thought!

    @Paul_T, I'd intended for the move to allow escaping but not mandate it, but I didn't write it that way. I'll edit the earlier post.

    And more generally, regarding helping, a PC is either fleeing herself or helping someone else flee, maybe by creating a distraction. That at least cuts down on the "I help you, you help me."
  • I like Dirk's suggestion - generally, the PbtA way to "zoom in" on a certain type of action is to create a variety of moves which handle dealing with it in a variety of ways, and pass the action off to each other - and that's exactly what he's doing here.
  • Also, you may be interested in the Regroup/Recover/Prepare move from Vincent's "Freebooting Venus". It might be partially applicable here. (It's not perfect but it shows another way to handle this situation.)
  • Also, group checks in Blades in the Dark and FitD games are cool. Someone leads the team, everybody rolls, only the best result counts, but every not 10+ rolls causes some small bad consequence. In BitD its that the leader gets stress (a mental 'harm') after every not 10+ roll. In your case it could be weariness, a lost item or anything you like.
  • edited July 2018
    I like Dirk’s idea best so far, it is pretty similar to my original conception of how the move should work, but simplified.
  • Thanks again to everyone for your suggestions. It's been a super fruitful discussion.

    I think the main issue was handling fleeing as a group. I like @hamnacb's suggestion from BitD but modified it slightly. No leader, everyone rolls, best roll is used for everyone, and everyone takes –1 Nerve (like mental stress) for each miss. On a 7–9, the players have to come to a consensus about whether to pay now or pay later.

    I'm leaving it up to the MC to call for a group roll or individual rolls. Group rolls are simpler and faster, but individual rolls lead to those fun decisions about whether to stay and help your allies, or run ahead and try to find a weapon, or just say "screw it" and save yourself.

    I'll be playtesting on Sunday and will let you know how it goes.

    Flee in terror

    When you flee in terror, say where you’re fleeing to and roll+Shadow.

    On any hit, you can get away if you want.

    On a 7–9 hit, if you get away, there’s a cost. Choose 1:

    • Pay now. Getting away costs you something now, but your pursuer completely loses your trail.
    • Pay later. You suffer no consequences now, but expect your pursuer to track you down later.

    On a miss, your pursuer is still after you, and the MC chooses 1:

    • Your pursuer catches up to you. [Note: catches up to, not catches.]
    • You find yourself in another bad spot.
    • You break with reality.
  • The only way you can miss, then, is if everyone misses? Would that result be equivalent to a TPK? I dunno how bad -Nerve is.

    If you've got 4 players and everyone misses, then all of:
    - all 4 of you take -4 Nerve
    - your pursuer is still after y'all
    - either your pursuer catches up or y'all find yourself in another bad spot
  • @Guy Srinivasan, good points all around. I'm understanding now why PbtA games don't usually have group moves. :neutral: Taking –4 Nerve isn't immediately fatal but will have very bad consequences down the road.

    Next iteration of group fleeing: one person rolls (likely the PC with the highest Shadow stat), that PC takes –1 Nerve for each other PC in the group (it's stressful to compensate for the stragglers), and their roll applies to everyone. On a 7–9, the person who rolled gets to choose whether to pay now or pay later.

    I've resisted this option because PCs with a high Shadow stat will operate with less Nerve than other PCs if there's lot of group fleeing going on. But it might be the most workable option at this point.
  • edited July 2018
    ooh ooh, I know this one! Heres what I said in an RPG I wrote:

    Chases and dynamic competitions are similar in the way they break down. One side is will generally be intrinsically faster, more powerful or simply better than the other. They might have a faster car, for instance, and everything else being equal they will inevitably pull away and win the race.

    So the onus is on the ‘losing’ side to make sure things do not remain equal – by raising the stakes, doing something radical, generally changing up the situation in such a way as to manufacture a temporary advantage.

    Example: A fleet-footed urchin has cut the purse from the belt of a grizzled crusader and is sprinting away through the crowd. Unless the crusader does something radical, the boy will quickly be lost to sight. Lumbering after him, pushing people left and right, the crusader grabs an apple from a stall as he passes and hefts it with the intent to startle a horse and cart in front of the boy, hoping to slow him momentarily and allow him time to make ground. Thus rather than using his speed, he is changed the situation in such a way as to make use of his martial prowess.

    So each turn one side gets a chance to do something, Make it a 'best of 6' contest where each side gets 3 turns, and add up the result. If they like, each side can go with their intrinsic ability at the contest and see if they can get lucky, but the interesting part is actually seeing if you can imagine a way to employ a superior ability by changing up the rules of the contest.
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