Chasing Escapes

I have been thinking a lot about chase scenes lately as I prepare for the launching of our upcoming pulp campaign. I like chase scenes, particularly when it is the characters that are on the fleeing or escaping end of the chase, but this is much less often the case in heroic action games. To help clear my mind of tips and tricks which work well in other genres but are less applicable to pulp, I thought it would be a good idea to put this entry together for conducting chases and escapes in horror games such as Call of Cthulhu.

As it seems like most people ‘out there’ experience Call of Cthulhu at conventions, as a holiday special, or generally as a one-off, this entry will approach the idea of preparing for a chase from the point of view of running a published scenario or using a pre-written scenario of your own devising.

 Motivation

Getting players to choose running over other methods of problem solving, such as grenades, is perhaps one of the hardest skills to develop as the Keeper of a Call of Cthulhu scenario. A lot of steps need to precede that decision to run for it to truly be seen and selected as a viable and appropriate option by the players – particularly those with experience in other genres and settings.

Players need to understand first and foremost that the game is not about them besting the unknowable with force, but in preventing the unknowable from being able to act, or outwitting the vile servitors who seek to unleash it. If it comes to guns, bombs, and military intervention, everyone at the table has failed; you are not playing Call of Cthulhu anymore, you are now playing a variant, such as Delta Green. Once players understand the difference between an Investigator, and character types from other games or sources of fiction, it is much easier to approach the sort of mood and recognize the means of motivation from which great and terrifying chase scenes can spring.

Keepers need to understand that for the majority of the entities presented as possible options upon which to base a campaign, humanity is beneath notice. While these beings will certainly pause for a moment to swat a basically insignificant creature, they will not hunt them to the ends of the Earth. In the same way that you are very unlikely to dig up your entire backyard looking for the one ant which took off with a piece of sugar you had your eye on, Great Cthulhu is very unlikely to wade out of the ocean in hot pursuit of the boat that passed near R’lyeh. If characters draw attention and remain on the scene, they will be destroyed. Only if they flee do they have a chance of survival. Descriptions need to present flight as a practical and tactically sound option, not as a cowardly retreat in the face of peril. This can and should be extended to include more mundane encounters, such as evading groups of cultists, or outpacing a band of villains to an objective.

The two points above play a significant role in helping enable motivation to run from the creatures of the Mythos, and help to reinforce the sense of horror presented in Lovecraft’s works – the insignificance of man in the face of a truly malevolent and chaotic universe. They also indicate a course of action in story design for Keepers, and story navigation for players: “When the stars are right.”

Timing

In these situations, timing is everything. Without the minor comfort of timing preventing many of these horrors from rising to consume all we know in an unthinking exercise of ineffable appetite, not only would humanity have no means of resistance, our purely accidental existences would not likely have occurred at all.

Keepers need to be aware of the need for sufficient lead time to gather the appropriate information, prepare the appropriate countermeasures, and get to the appropriate location to prevent the dire fate upon which the story is built. This is a delicate balancing act as no mystery or investigation goes off exactly as envisioned, but reminding oneself what the point of the story is can help. Is your intent to have some nameless horror rise and destroy the world regardless of steps taken to prevent it, or is it to tell the story of those who prevented it? While it can and certainly should leave room for utter failure, story design should not hamstring the players by requiring impossible timing, or force them through failure into face-to-face encounters with hungry forces from beyond time and space. Not only does there need to be time to run away to face insane cultists another day, there needs to be a benefit to running over staying. Unless there is sufficient time to unravel the foul plot of the mad Gozer worshippers, making a tactical withdrawal is insane. It would be far better to be first in line to be consumed rather than hanging around to endure the chaos wrought by failure. If a chance to encounter the cultists or supernatural creatures exists, Keepers need to be prepared to run an exciting chase scene that will in some way serve to advance the plot, heighten tension, and get the investigation back on a track of higher probability for uncovering what the investigators need to know to effectively intervene in these otherworldly machinations.

Players need to be aware of the gnawing fear of failure that would be very real to their characters. Accepting this as one of the underlying conceits of the game is hard for many, but once done, allows for a far greater range of action and interaction with the setting. Characters cannot afford the time to get caught, or injured, or eaten. Their role is one of sacrifice and obsession. Decades are invested in learning obscure facts, or in developing world-class skills in unusual specialties. Despite the cruelty of the cold, dead-but-dreaming expanse of the mindlessly sentient universe, these characters have a narrow slice of time in which to intervene. They are the ounce of prevention in a cosmos that never had a pound of cure. When their investigations run head on into armed or fanged or tentacled resistance, it is time to cut and run – not blaze away. Having this firmly in mind and using the escape as a method of regaining the tactical advantage lets this part of the story be less about getting away, and more about gaining the high ground. Characters should have a place to go other than a vague ‘away,’ and a reason to get there other than being eaten.

The two preceding points help to keep things perspective, and enable characters to have control over their environment in the same way that combat tends to do in other games. When both sides of the screen are working in concert with a grasp on how the stories need to work, and what kind of actions will actually be effective, the cycle of making a character, fighting evil, going mad, then replacing the character can finally slow, and sometimes even stop. In an existence with non-Euclidian geometry intruding on our space-time, can we really afford to avoid lateral and creative thinking?

Sanity

Many Mythos tales show us the effects of characters who have lost their grip on sanity, their hold on their tenuous positions in society, and who are slowly but surely sinking down into the sea of madness. These are not the people we sit down at the table to play as our characters; these are the victims. Our characters need to be better prepared to act and interact. Our characters are the ones who can learn from failure and turn it into victory. Our characters are the ones who recognize the threat of insanity and take steps to prevent it.

Cutting to the Chase

The chase and escape scene can be one of the greatest moments of engagement and excitement in a Call of Cthulhu scenario, and it can achieve many things. Through the use of this device, players can experience the enjoyment of a level of danger and action that does not necessarily involve madness or immediate death, allows them to use skills which are otherwise useless in the more famous aspects of the game, exposes them to more of the period setting than skulking in mansions, libraries, and ruins will, and as has been indicated earlier, gives them greater control over the environment than freezing in terror and becoming lunch does.

Horror chases differ from action adventure chases on several levels, not the least of which is the absence of comedy. A chase intended to get the pulse racing, inspire a sense of risk or fear of loss, and above all intended to escalate the fear of the unknown, needs to focus on obstacles, challenges, and opportunities which do not resort to cheap laughs. Careful use of frustration, and controlled application of the sense of the inexorable encroachment of the enemy, closer and closer, combined with a fast and furious onslaught of choices all work together to create a mood which heightens rather than lessens the atmosphere of hopelessness and dread for which we are aiming. Victory snatched from those jaws is inspiring. Victory gained from the ineptness of the enemy, or from the silly providence of blind luck only serves to disempower us and make us feel ineffective.

These chases can also differ from action adventure chases by serving as a metaphor of the overall story; they can display the struggle of the characters in microcosm. While that might seem overly artistic to some, usage of both overt and subliminal reinforcement of archetypes is an effective means to reassure players that they are connecting with the game world, and are making good choices. Chase scenes are exciting, represent significant peril, and have clearly defined victory conditions. Using them as a reward not only amplifies the fun and effectiveness of a story, it serves as positive reinforcement for good play.

Choices and Chances

In my experience, a good chase in this genre will rely on the presentation of options, and the players’ desire for a favorable opportunity.

To keep tension building, each choice should have some element of loss, and some risk of danger, either to the character, or to a helpless bystander. While not action heroes, the Investigators are in the process of sacrificing life, limb, and lucidity in the vain hope of thwarting threats beyond comprehension. As the chase continues, crossing the paths of strangers can potentially place those people in harm’s way, and the means taken by the characters to avoid them can make a simple choice of going left or right much more interesting.

For example:

The Investigators are “tearing” down a dark, rutted country road in their custom-built Hispano-Suiza with a truckload of cultists pursuing them just a few car-lengths behind. Ahead of them, they can dimly discern the shape of an old woman with a large sack slung over her shoulder. She is in the middle of the road, and doesn’t look able to get out of the way. On the left side of the road is a deep, narrow ditch with fields stretching into the distance. On the right side of the road is a rickety fence with thin trails of barbed wire separating the road from a cattle pasture. There is no room to swerve around the woman.

This presents choices to the players: go straight ahead and run over the old woman, stop and let the cultists catch them, go left trying to jump the ditch and race across the field, or go right to try to break through the fence and dodge the cows. Each choice has a sense of risk attached. Some of the choices place the instructors in peril, and some place innocents in peril. Add in a little time pressure from the Keeper to keep the energy up and each successive complication in the chase scene will contribute to the enjoyment of the imagined danger.

Repeatedly creating a sequence of such choices on the fly is not something that most people can do consistently, so advanced preparation of possible complications is time well spent for Keepers. On the players’ side of the screen, taking time to envision escape and evasion tactics that their characters might reasonably be inspired to try in the heat of the moment is also of great value.

What helps me in orchestrating these chases is to not only prepare the standard proximity chart for chases, to clearly display the extent of the gap between the evaders and the pursuers, but to fill in a chart for consequences and complications. The chase proximity chart works all by itself to increase tension and excitement, but to this normal bit of preparation, I like to prepare a timeline with possible complications branching off of it. I like to have a generic one for those spur of the moment chases, and I like to create a specific one when the published story or the course of the investigation seems to indicate that one will be unavoidable.

Examples

Generic Consequences Table (Car)

  • Car takes damage
    • Rear (gets rammed, rear-ended)
    • Bumper starts to drag on the road on one side
      • Bumper falls off, creates obstacle for pursuer, possible gap increase
  • Rumble-seat (open and occupied) batters occupants
    • Jams partially closed pinning occupants
    • Joints break, opens out and down, dragging behind the car, spilling occupants out unless they can get hand holds
      • Seat back tears off, creates obstacle for pursuer, likely gap increase
  • Rumble-seat (closed and unoccupied) crumples
    • Falls open
    • Joints break, opens out and down, dragging behind the car
      • Seat back tears off, creates obstacle for pursuer, likely gap increase
  • Rear Tire loses alignment, increases steering difficulty
    • Wobbles significantly, increasing aiming and steering difficulty
    • Inner Tube begins to deflate, decreasing speed
      • Tire goes flat further increasing steering difficulty and speed loss
        • Crash
    • Tire tears off, bringing the rim in contact with the road, unbalancing the car, and significantly impairing control
      • Crash

Scenario-Specific Complications Chart

Car Chase from Manor House near Dawn

  • Turn 1 – Gate is closed (not locked), stop or ram it
  • Turn 3 – Milk Cart with single horse is heading toward PCs, avoid L(easy)/R(hard)
    • L= wide shoulder, minor penalty, R= no shoulder, large penalty
      • Choosing R will spook horse L forcing pursuer R
  • Turn 6 – Edge of Town, some witnesses may see the chase and report it
    • Garbage Truck straddling both lanes with collectors rushing out to both sides of the street, wide L and R risks hitting collectors and curbs, narrow L and R risks possible collision with stopped oncoming traffic
  • Turn 8 to 11 – Farmer’s Market on both sides of the street
    • Vendors setting up stalls, opening awnings, stalking fruits and vegetables…
    • Crates being off-loaded, some sitting in the road
    • Workmen with signs, crates, etc moving across the road
    • A teenager steps suddenly into view, sweeping the street
      • All obstacles require a drive roll
        • Failure leads to handling damage and pedestrian injury
      • Require rolls in rapid succession
        • Add a small penalty with each successive complication
  • Turn 12 – Open road – Speed wins out
  • Turn 15 – Pursuers Quit

Charts like these do not take long to generate, and can just be used to spark ideas when the game is in play, or cover for periods of blankness. I like to write them with an escalating sense of damage and increasing difficulty to keep my destructive tendencies in check, and prevent me from applying a chase ending ruling to something which is better served by a complication or consequence. The normal chase rules do a pretty good job of dealing with closing the distance between the pursuer and the pursued, and the damage rules work well with degrading the vehicle’s performance, but I find using this method adds more colour, keeps my creativity high, and keeps the action moving in ways simple die rolling cannot.

What were we talking about?

A century ago, when this entry began, I mentioned I wanted to share some ideas about running chases in a horror game. For me, enabling the development of proper motivation, being careful about the timing of scenes and scenarios and empowering players to make use of it, and by expanding the abstract chases the game works well with to include a chain of complication and consequence work extremely well. As always, if you have additional suggestions, I do hope that you will offer them in the comments section~

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by warden ep, RPG Bloggers Network. RPG Bloggers Network said: Chasing Escapes from Casting Shadows http://goo.gl/fb/vtsMQ #RPG […]

  2. […] (from Casting Shadows) looks at chases in Call of Cthulhu, and the value of running […]



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