So, as promised, today I want to do the second installment in the Dramatic Situations series I started on here. Today's situation? A bit of a classic, but car chases. If you don't know what I am talking about, then you need to watch more action movies. Car chases are a classic way to add more spice to action sequences, adding the danger of racing through cramped city streets, or weaving through traffic, to the already tense situation of being involved in a gun fight. Even without the fire arms car chases give you heart pounding action that is strong enough that a number of movies have been based off of that alone (any racing movie for example). So, how do you catch that energy in the much more slower paced form of combat that round timers and dice add? Well, lets take a look.
So, first off, let me paint the situation for you. Your PCs are working as law enforcers in a town when they get the call, Jane's Jewelery is being robbed by four armed thugs wielding assault rifles and ski masks. The PCs grab their gear and head out, arriving just in time to see three of the four robbers already in the car, with the fourth getting in. That fourth robber spotting the PCs opens fire on them, just enough to slow them down so he can dive into the escape vehicle. With the sound of screeching tires and the smell of burning rubber the robbers take off, the PCs in hot pursuit.
It's a simple set up, but it is also one that has been done in countless movies just before a decent length, fun, and thrilling action sequence. The two cars race and weave around the city, people lean out windows to shoot at each other. Bullets ping off of the metal of the car, shatter glass, and ultimately don't do all that much else aside from perhaps a lucky or particularly good shot. The tension falls on every roll as even a small hit can cause drastic consequences killing everyone involved. Catch the atmosphere right, and you'll have your players by the seat of the pants. The first step towards doing this?
Surprising as it may be, the driver is the most important part of the equation in a vehicle chase (not surprising I know, bear with me) as without people driving it is just another action sequence, however the driver player is quite often the person who is the most bored in a chase action sequence. I mean, think about it. Everyone else gets to declare attacks, shoot, kill people and have lengthier terms. The driver? He gets to make a control roll every round and that's about it, unless he wants to risk killing everyone when he takes a penalty to his roll from doing multiple actions. While some systems do a better job of getting the driver involved (Spycraft for example), most systems just leave it at "make a roll, ok, you don't crash".
Fixing this is remarkably easy by the way, just get the driver involved. Ask him where he's going, how he's doing it. Give him options as you throw obstacles in front of people. Does he cut down the alleyway to try and cut off the person he is pursuing? How does he deal with that police barricade, or the truck that just pulled up in front of him. There's a line of cars stopped in front of him, does he go into oncoming traffic or onto the sidewalk full of pedestrians? Get the driver involved, and explain what is going on around them quickly, make them make decisions and have those decisions impact the other people. Did he go for the curb? Well that jostle should give the people shooting from his car a penalty this round, if not make them drop their guns. At the same time though, it would also make them harder to hit as they move erratically. The key here is to be dynamic, give the driver options and let him drive.
Passengers are also important in chases, though their options are a bit more heavily curtailed. They don't really have their own ability to move at speed, and so are instead restricted to aiming and shooting. This is another area you can spice up with description though, don't just say they missed describe glass shattering or bullets pinging off of the metal of the car. When they get the kills, make them more visceral. You didn't just 'kill' the driver, you killed the driver making him slump on the wheel and send the whole vehicle cartwheeling down the road.
Don't forget to add other tense situations that don't involve shooting. Have someone almost fall out of the car due to a sharp turn, try to hold onto their guns when their vehicle hits a particularly nasty bump. Stuff like that that you would expect to come up when leaning out of a window at 60+ miles per hour, but just doesn't generally happen. Have fun with it, but don't lay it on too thick. The idea is for this to be fun, not a game of 'how many ways can the GM kill us this time?'.
This is the big place to score the feel of a car chase. Use the environment, and use it well. Car chases in the movies are almost never about the two vehicles actually in the pursuit, but all the other cars around them. The trucks that drop heavy objects for more obstacles, the pedestrians in the street, other traffic, little old ladies and baby carriages. All of these add wonderful obstacles, while also telling you stuff about your players. Does the robber swerve to avoid the child in the street or does he just plow through? What about the cop? Do they keep firing even though there is a school bus in between them?
Use it, use it all, and have fun with it. It is the difference between "just another gunfight" and "holy crap that was awesome!"
Keep it Fast
More than just the vehicles need to be going fast to keep the tension. If you are looking to up the tension, then give your players less time to think. Make them go and make them go fast. Some confusion may happen, but honestly this is a confusing situation with vehicles, bullets, and people all flying around. Don't be overly forceful, but keep people and things moving along. More time to think lowers the tension and the excitement. Less increases the tension and makes it feel a bit more panicy. Use that to your advantage, especially in the really tight spots. One of the things I've found works is to give the player a few seconds to think or just confirm they have the situation right, and then I start counting down with my fingers. If I run out of fingers, I just move along as they 'take in the situation' for that round. An "I shoot at the bad guys" is always acceptable as a response, so they do have a way out if they can't think of anything else.
There is more to it than just this, but these are some of the key things you can do to really bring a car chase to life. Keep it in mind, have fun, and make sure your players are having fun. If you are pushing too fast, slow it up for fun. Going to slow? Speed it up for fun. But have fun.