Cinematic car chase scenes? -- is it possible?

Started by Sonja, March 31, 2009, 03:33:29 AM

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I just watched the 1960s movie Fantomas and was really inspired from the long, dramatic and amusing chase scenes. Reminded me of the endless chicken fights in Family Guy that go from vehicle to vehicle to vehicle. Are there any RPG mechanics that successfully capture these kinds of cinematic chases?

I currently play D&D 4e, and I'd like to adapt some excellent vehicle chase mechanics to have a vehicle chase gaming session.



This is the kind of thing that Iwas hoping someone would attempt when I put forward my idea for the GAS project contest.

A series of game mechanisms that would really help to push a very distinct style of scene, whether cinematic, dramatic, comedic or otherwise.

In the end there were only two of us who even attempted the challenge, and most people just didn't get the notion of designing a game mechanism to reflect a specific scene type. Either that, or they were too filled with hubris that their thought their catch-all mechanism covered everything and they didn't need to worry about such things.

As for your specific point, what is it about the "car chase scene" what is it that really grabs you about the concept?

Is it the thrill of the hunt; pursuer dedicating their successes toward getting away from thew hunter, while the hunter dedicates their successes to getting closer?

Is it the chance to see this chase go through specific obstacles? Can I outrun the police vehicle over this frozen lake without the ice breaking under my car?

Is it the emotion running through the drivers minds? Can my girl handle the adrenaline coursing through her veins and the keep a steady head as she swerves her way through traffic?

Really start to think about what it is that motivates your emotions when it comes to scenes like this.

I've played games where a series of contested dice rolls determines the outcome of a car chase. I'll use the terms getaway car and police car in this example, but these could easily be changed. The getaway car has a 1 success head start, then each side gets to roll against a simple difficulty.

If they both succeed, they progress to the next part of the chase scene. 
If the getaway car succeeds but the police car doesn't, then the getaway car gets another success ahead. They've made ground on their pursuers.
If the getaway car fails but the police car succeeds, then the police car catches up to them.

This continues through a variety of obstacles with different difficulties reflecting the different types of terrain that the pursuit goes through. If the getaway car manages to get three successes ahead of the police car, they lose the tail. If the police car manages to get ahead of the getaway car, then they manage to catch their prey.

One group really got into the descriptive element of the game, really developing the chase into an epic piece of storytelling. They'd narrate the emotions going through the minds of their drivers as they succeeded or failed on critical rolls, they'd bring stereotypical cliches into the chase just to up the ante bit (eg. old lady pushing stroller across the road, bus pulling across the intersection).

Another group just used it as an excuse to roll dice against one another. My roll, success. Your roll, fail. My roll, fail. Your roll, Success. My roll...

...and that got really boring and didn't give the feel of the chase at all. It was just your standard roll off, much like most D&D combat I've experienced.

If you want to adapt some car chase mechanics to D&D 4e, I'd seriously consider checking out some of the Spycraft stuff reeased a few years ago for d20 Modern. It shouldn't take too much to convert it across.

Just some ideas...

A.K.A. Michael Wenman
Vulpinoid Studios The Eighth Sea now available for as a pdf for $1.


Much like a fencing duel (in my mind) the fun I can imagine putting into play is the way the chser and the chasee seems to foce one another into dangerous situations where they test their various abilities against one another. Some are tests of handling, some of nerve, some of toughness of the car, some of speed, willingness to damage things or people in the way, and many of quick thinking and knowledge of the terrain.

I would love to see the same thing for foot races, but it doesn't work in my mind as well, which is a shame as I thought about this first in the contest of a chase in an opening situation for a game.


We've got a 30's game with the editor now that uses two standard decks of cards for any chase scenes (initially for cars, but we realized it worked for any type).  The very basic mechanic was that the chaser/chasee were moving around a 60 segment board (which, incidentally, also is used for that game's 60-second combat mechanic). 

Cards are turned over simultaneously, a la WAR.  Black cards are always good, Red cards are always bad.  If a number is turned over, the player moves their pawn n segments in either the positive (black) or negative (red) direction.  Turning up a face card generates special effects, like clipping nearby objects, maneuvering in a position to take a shot (or two) at the other vehicle, among others.

We added some special rules for when the vehicles were on adjacent or shared spaces on the board, so they could ram or trade paint.  Passengers in the vehicles have opportunity every so often to fire their weapons.  And ultimately, the chase ended (or sometimes restarted) when one vehicle crashed or the chasee made it 20+ segments in front of the chaser, effectively "getting away".

Just a thought, but one we've found extremely entertaining.  Even had a couple groups at cons that just wanted to play chase scenes as a standalone.
-Anthony Anderson-
-Partner, visioNation studios-


If your characters have a decent skill/stat/ chance at success in driving? A success based model works.   But if the characters lack the requisite skill, it can be sometimes frustrating for the players, and leads to the DM sometimes fudging the roll to extend the tension.  One of the things that worked for me is making it about whomever screws up the least.
  The idea was each time the driver failed the roll, they had to describe something rotten happening to their car.  The worse they botched the roll, the worse it was for the vehicle.  I did the same thing for the pursuers, and it allowed the players a little more freedom since they could take more cinematic risks, instead of just making their stakes about winning the Fortune mechanic.

The redcard/blackcard/face card thing sounded great too.



You could always add in a couple of game mechanisms reflecting the vehicles as well.

Drivers gain a bonus on their attempts to outrun their opponents if they really put their pedal to the metal...but this costs a premium from the fuel tank.

Drivers can pull elaborate stunts like handbrake turns...but this wears out the brakes.

Drivers can ram other vehicles...but this reduces the car's structural integrity.

Actually I'm getting images of "Death Race" just thinking about it. A scene of driving, another scene rebuilding the car and adding optional extras for the next drive scene.

Then again, games like Steve Jackson's Car Wars did this pretty well over two decades ago.

A.K.A. Michael Wenman
Vulpinoid Studios The Eighth Sea now available for as a pdf for $1.

Mel White

I think it is possible.  I like the way Spirit of the Century handles chases.  In SOTC, the chased vehicle gets to describe an action, set a difficulty and roll an appropriate skill to determine success or failure.  The chasing vehicle must match the difficulty of the action to avoid taking damage and potentially being knocked out of the chase.  In actual play, this has worked out pretty neat.  In a game I ran we had a car chase through New York City that involved things like the players introducing a trolley impeding traffic that had to be avoided, switching drivers, characters getting out onto the running boards, characters shooting pianos or something being hauled up a building, and characters jumping from one car to the next.  I think it was the highlight of the game and I talked about it and played an excerpt of it at Virtual Play.
And, oddly enough perhaps, I think Beasthunters could create an equally cinematic scene of any type, including chases.  In Beasthunters players describe their character's surroundings, adding in whatever elements make sense and are needed for the desired action.  For example, from a game I played, elements like vines to swing from, ancient trails to race along, dense foliage to hide in, and things like that were all created by the players.
What these two games have in common in this instance is the ability for the players to add details to the scene on the fly as needed in order to make an action possible. 
Virtual Play: A podcast of roleplaying games


What I like about car chases is when they feel like a sort of dynamic Katamari Damacy, where the chase rolls along picking up swerves and dynamic elements from the environment, with a kind of growing chaos. Either that or I like the flipping up and around/crossing over dynamics with lots of putting trucks in the way and finding creative ways around. It's obvious that they will succeed but it's more about the kinetics of the situation. Now that's just me, I know people who just like the cars, or the wish fulfilment of driving dangerously!

I might run a more bond-esque chase scene as a kind of narration oneupmanship with limits on the obstacles you can propose (no direct mentioning of the difficulty of the situation, just what it is). Obviously there must be a way of dealing with "dead ends" in this system, short of banning them "you cannot specify that there is no way out", I also considered some kind of narrative buying system, with the unused power used to supe up the cars, but that is a little tricky, to say the least, so my natural reaction is to acrete a rules system based on playtesting. The only other rules I can thing would be that you cannot pass through the obstacle unchanged, and must carry some feature of it on, and that people chasing must deal with the situation too if their opponent does.

I can see the value of making the runner set the narrative situation, it's less about driving people into problems and more about finding your own way that they cannot follow. I wonder whether the two should roll off on knowledge skills to gain the narration, or whether they should take turns.

Another feature of almost all film car-chases is the "show off the city" thing. I wonder if there is some way to get the city personality into the chase? Either by the "landmark bonus", where the standard city personality reveals itself, or something influenced by psychogeography or something, where the chase, by it's alternative view of the city, strings together a new bit of identity and allows you to author something about the character of the city. But that's a totally different kind of chase, I can imagine a film noir slow tension chase, where neither want the police involved or I can imagine some kind of scifi city chase like in star wars. Or stretches of minority report.

These would be more leisurely thoughtful chases, with either slower speeds or larger distances, and probably more collaborative narration. In that world I would make actually catching them a slow burn thing, with some way of pacing the chase by the things people wanted to say. Perhaps a very mechanical chase distance measure, with people able to set the maximum or minimum change, so they can linger in a portion of the city if they want to, with the chase actually resolving only when the tour is complete! Actually I think that needs more flexibility than just max/min, where the dice overrun at the and after people have run out of things to say, but the dice should stretch and shrink that, so people have interplay between the grip of a section of the city and the dice mechanic's view of progress. Something that says, "this cannot end yet", in a way that allows conversation. I'm thinking a build up of ending pressure, "He would be caught by now"/"They'd be clueless" that can be mitigated, but not forever.