Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dramatic Situations: The Escape

Decided it was long past time to revise this thread on the blog. Dramatic Situations is a series where I am giving advice, and my thoughts, on particular types of scenes and situations that can come up in your game. The idea is for a fun, dynamic, and cinematic scene. How well will we do? Well, I don't know, but lets try and do as well as we possibly can.

The Escape is, generally speaking, one of the last things that will come up in most games. Not because of how little people want to do it, or because of how hard, or how epic, it can be, but because to have an escape you need to have something to escape from. A daring raid, a final battle, or even just the end of a siege that has gone badly for the players. The big thing here is the setup, and how that happens really is going to depend on your game, your players, and the kind of actions that they tend to take part in. That being said, setting up an escape can be as easy as simply sending overwhelming numbers after your players - be sure you let them know that they  are expected to recognize when they are over their heads, not you - to just dropping the area the players are in out from under them. Either way, a good mistake has a combination of elements going for it, the big three being that it is a timed event, there are enemies to fight, and the environment is also something to be over come.

The first, and most important, thing to press on your players when doing an escape is that things are timed. They only have so long to get out, or it is very likely game over - or at least go to jail - for them. This could be as simple a reason as they need to escape a bomb's blast radius, to the castle they're in will collapse on top of them, to the enemy army will have them completely surrounded after X amount of time.

Put the timer somewhere visible, and keep track of it fairly in game terms. Giving people 10 minutes IRL time to escape a situation in game is all well and good, until something unavoidable comes up OOC, or a rules dispute causes everyone to die. Better to keep things going IC, and leave it at that. This way, if you need to, you can pause the action to clarify things.

All that being said, try to not pause the action. Keep things going IC, and give quick descriptions that point out the relevant details. Relevant being situational, in this type of event the biggest detail that would be immediately looked for is "where can I go next?". Try to keep the energy up, and point out how much time has gone by fairly regularly, it can really keep the tension going as people start running out of time.

The Enemies
Generally while escaping there are still enemies to deal with. Now, this is techinically optional - after all, the opposition could be dead or fleeing themselves - but it is something to keep in mind. Even if the PCs are leaving the enemy in their dust, some groups are likely to catch up, end up ahead of the PCs, or otherwise be in a position to start harassing them. This is your chance to really play up some drama, and introduce some tension as well. Everyone is fleeing, they only have so much time to get out of here, but those enemies are shooting at them. Do you stop and return fire, try to put the enemies back behind cover? Or do you just keep running and hope you don't get hit? If you do stop, how long do you stop for? If you don't stop, but someone else does, do you cover them? Do you leave them to their fate?

What about the enemies? Depending on what is being escaped, old enemies may prove to be allies, or at least may need help. Do you ignore the calls for help from the random mook who is barely holding on? I mean, he hasn't done anything to harm you, he is just doing his job. Do you leave him to his fate? What if the situations are reversed? Does the mook help the PC? If they do, and the situation then goes the other way, what does the PC do?

The fun thing is, generally speaking, people don't want to die. Also, when put in those life and death situations, a surprising streak of altruism can come out. How do your players handle it when an enemy from ten minutes ago is suddenly the only way to get out of the area in one piece?

The Environment
Long time readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of sequences in stories where the opposition is actually the environment. It is harder to get across in games, but you can still do it. With any escape, the environment becomes the primary enemy for the PCs to deal with. After all, it is the structure that needs to be escaped. If it is crumbling, falling rocks and other chunks are going to be a constant source of peril, and even if it isn't there could be random pitfalls, wrong turns, and other things that need to be dealt with. That stairwell that the PCs blew up to protect their rear could suddenly prove to be the big obstacle when they need to get down several flights of stairs later.

This is also the area where a lot of GMs, myself included, can get squeamish (I know the Angry DM is mad at me for saying that!) Killing someone with the ground dropping out from under them just feels different than killing them with an opponent and combat rules. It is a feeling I am working to break myself of, hopefully successfully, though I guess we'll have to see what happens with it. Still, as long as you are fair - did they have a chance to avoid it? Did they bring it on themselves? Was it just a bad roll? - there isn't anything wrong with it. Just be sure you make it fair.

In Conclusion
There are more elements to a good escape than just those, and it is the stringing them together that really creates the fun and tension you are looking for. The time ticking down, running through labyrinthine corridors, all the while enemies shoot at you when you're exposed. The biggest trick here though is for you, the GM, to stay focused on what is going on. Try to not allow distractions, try to keep people at the table, and their attention on you. This isn't like other things where people just wait their turn, in an escape things can go wrong at any moment for any reason. Use that to keep people involved and having fun. If someone is getting bored, make them suddenly have to test against stumbling as a bit of ground starts to go under them. Make them the focus for a few moments, and show them that you are watching.

Bottom line though, have fun with it, and let your players have fun with it too. Done right, it can be a real blast.


  1. I think that the overwhelming numbers/quality of foes coming down, and that driving the PCs to flee has to be set up with the game as a whole. If the players feel that the world has serious consequences, and they feel that battles aren't always going to be won then they'll run. If they've had a heady feeling of invincibility they'll stay and fight.

    I think that the advice about time is a great one, and I've seen for myself how effective it can be as a tool in games you run. An alternative to running out of time, is ammunition. Again, this is a game spanning action, but if you make sure people are tracking their ammunition, their own work at the table as much as yours brings urgency into the situation. People around the table saying they were down to their last mag, or chanting off how many seconds of automatic fire left they had is very effective at mood setting without a lot of work on the GMs part.

  2. One of the better examples of the "The Escape" that I am familiar with is the Star Wars D6 adventure "Starfall". In this, your players start the adventure captured and in the brig of a Star Destroyer. They are 'freed' when the Star Destroyer comes under outside attack. This leaves them in a mixture of a 'chase'/'poseidon adventure' scenario where they are not only running from the Imperials but also trying to escape before the ship they are on is destroyed. Thus you have both the time element and the overwhelming enemy. This also allows for a lot of environmental challenges as players have to deal with climbing through treacherous wreckage, dealing with fires and decompression, etc.