Urban World - Chases


Radio silence while I figure out a number of side-projects. However, in the meantime I’ve been working on some optional rules/moves for Dungeon World. Our last Dungeon World game took place in a pretty urban environment1, and one thing I found was that the regular moves don’t really account for the city as environment, setting, or community.

Well, that needs a bit of a caveat: Dungeon World is totally cool with the idea of cities, mechanically speaking, but they mainly exist as locations for resupply, or places to be defended from great evil. The sprawling metropolis of sword and sorcery fame, on the other hand, is less of a thing to be protected and more of an environment in its own right, existing above and apart from nations and rulers: you can invade such a city, beseige it, afflict it with plague; people die, empires crumble, powers fade, but the city lives on. The city is, in essence, its own front in the same way that Apocalypse World’s Landscapes or Dungeon World’s Dungeons are fronts: a place with its own impulse and moves.

So basically, I’d like to make some moves that allow/enable play in this sort of city: that give the GM and players some more mechanical hooks onto which their fiction can attach. The whole bundle of custom moves is still in development, but here’s an alpha of one of the more complex bits.

Image credit Jonas DeRo

Chase scenes

When you’re involved in a break-neck chase through the streets…

This mechanic models an extended chase - anything that the table wants to spend some time and attention on. The chase takes place through a series of beats. In each beat, you’ll go through the following steps:

  1. Lay out the terrain
  2. Roll dice and assign hold
  3. Apply results

During these steps, you’ll attempt to widen or narrow the gap between the two parties, control where the chase goes, and otherwise mess with the other party.

The chase’s progress - whether the chaser is catching up to the chased, or falling behind - is measured by the following ladder. The three middle steps of the ladder are also given ranges, in case someone wants to attack or harass the other party.

  1. Escape!
  2. Getting away (far)
  3. Gaining ground (close)
  4. On their heels (range)
  5. Capture!

The chase starts at gaining ground.

The steps

1. Lay out the terrain. Whichever party is controlling the chase (the GM, on the first turn) describes the terrain the chase is taking place through. The type of terrain determines which ability is used in step two:

  • For open spaces, long lines of sight, and straight-out sprinting, use CON.
  • For treacherous terrain, such as a chase along the rooftops or through the middle of a bustling market, use DEX.
  • For convoluted or maze-like surroundings, such as the interior of an apartment building or a maze of twisting alleyways, use INT.

2. Roll dice and assign hold. Each party nominates a leader. The leader rolls + the appropriate ability: on a 10+ they hold 3, on a 7-9, they hold 2, on a 6-, they hold one. Both parties then spend their hold in secret on the following options (you may spend more than one hold on an option), before simultaneously revealing.

  • Direct the chase. By considering the ground ahead of you, you’re able to direct the chase in the direction you want. Whichever party spends more on this option controls the chase for the next beat. On a tie, the persued party controls the chase.
  • Perform a character action. Maybe you want to take a crossbow shot at the other party, or cast a spell. Each point of hold you spend on this option allows any member of your party except your leader to take a complex or demanding action, while still keeping up with the chase. NPCs or monsters may make any move appropriate to them. A character action generally should not end the chase.
  • Gain an advantage. Through mastery of the terrain, you manage to pull away from, or catch up to, the other group. Whichever party spends more on this option may shift the chase’s progress by one step on the chase ladder (e.g. from Gaining ground to Getting away). On a tie, nothing changes.

Whoever is now controlling the chase describes the action. If the chase has reached Escape!, the perused party has managed to get away: they get to describe how they evade their pursuers’ clutches. If the chase has reached Capture!, the persued party has been caught, cornered, or otherwise run to ground: the persuing party gets to describe how they catch up. Otherwise, the chase continues to another beat.

Additional rules

NPCs in chases. If your party contains a mix of PCs and NPCs, the NPCs cannot lead the chase. The PCs could maybe get them to perform character actions during the chase, however. If a party is made up entirely of NPCs, the GM can quickly assign them point values (3/2/1) in CON, DEX and INT as appropriate. When it comes to step two, rather than rolling, just assign the appropriate number of points. If you want a particularly inept group, feel free to assign 2/2/1 among the abilities instead; for an elite task-force, 3/2/2 might be more appropriate.

Aiding and interfering. Creative characters will work out how to shift the advantage to their side in a chase, using character actions. A character being chased might use a character action to put down an obstacle behind the party or provide cover, while one doing the chasing may attempt to hobble their opponents, take a shortcut, or divine where the chase will end up. This is good! It’s this sort of thing that makes chases interesting and unique, and distinguishes them from an extended dice-rolling session. Most of these character actions can be resolved with a defy danger roll: a full hit grants +/-1 hold to assign as long as the conditions continue to apply, while a 7-9 may only grant a one-time bonus or penalty.

The singleton rule. No one likes revisiting the same location again and again over the course of a chase, but since everyone is going to have their favourite ability, it’s tempting for the DEX-heavy people to stick to the rooftops all the time and so on. Therefore: once you leave a location in a chase, you cannot return there. This means that if you spend some portion of your chase sprinting down the Royal Avenue, once you’ve left you cannot return there.

Example scenario

The party learns of an imminent assassination attempt on the Grand Heirophant of the Church of the Seven Skulls as he sleeps, and bursts in to his bedchamber to stop it - just in the nick of time! After a brief fight, they kill one assailant, but the other two escape out the window onto the rooftop. While the Cleric stays to check on the Heirophant, the Fighter and Thief give chase.

GM: You burst out onto the rooftops, and you see two shadowed figures running along the crenellated edge of the temple proper. As you watch, they vault across the narrow alleyway onto the neighbouring warehouse. What do you do?

Fighter: No way they’re getting away that easily! I take off right after them. If they can make the jump, so can I!

GM: So you’re giving chase?

Thief: Definitely. I’m guessing we’ll be rolling +DEX on the rooftops?

GM: The sounds about right.

Thief: OK, I’ll take the lead here.

The GM decides that the would-be assailants will have stats of DEX-3, INT-2, CON-1. The thief has a DEX of +3 and rolls an 8, for a total of 11 (which gets them 3 hold). The GM secretly assigns the assailants’ hold as follows:

  • Gain an advantage: 3

The players decide on the following:

  • Direct the chase: 1
  • Gain an advantage: 2

GM: It looks like you’re directing the chase now, but I’ve pulled away from you. What happens?

Thief: I think these guys are just too fast across the rooftops. As soon as I notice they’re getting away, I get us to fan out, and start herding them out of the Temple Quarter and toward the Grand Market.

GM: Well, it looks like it’s working. Second beat, you get to direct. Where are we?

Thief: Well, I think the houses get lower and lower, until it’s easy enough for us to jump onto a parked cart and from there onto the ground. We’ve forced them into the Grand Market, which is a big square with a lot of canvas stalls set up from the day’s trading. There’s still people wandering around, buying and selling, but there’s not enough activity for them to hide. Both of use are yelling and shoving our way past people as we sprint from one side to the other.

GM: Excellent. You’re setting us up for a roll +CON, I take it?

Thief: Damn right.

Fighter: And this is where I take the lead.

The fighter has a CON of +2, and rolls 7, for a total of 9 (2 hold). The GM assigns their 1 hold on Direct the chase, hoping to gain control again. The players spend their hold as follows:

  • Direct the chase: 1
  • Gain an advantage: 1

GM: We tie on directing the chase, so the thugs you’re pursuing get to decide where to go next. As you dodge in and out of the stalls, you find yourself gaining ground on them. One of them gives out a yell, and they break down one of the long alleyways that run through the market proper. You’re back on their heels as they quick-step down the wide steps to the Royal Canal. The two figures jump from the riverside onto a barge full of silks, from there onto a houseboat moored halfway out into the water, and from there onto a small gondola. As you reach the waterside, they’re jumping boat-to-boat to get away from you.

Fighter: Great, this is another dexterity challenge, isn’t it?

Thief: If we’re now at Gaining ground, those thugs are at close range, right?

GM: That’s correct.

Thief: Reckon you can hit one of them in the leg with your crossbow?

Fighter: I can try…

The thief takes the lead again, rolling 7 for a total of 10 (3 hold). The GM is going to try to keep the chase on the river, so they assign assign their values:

  • Direct the chase: 1
  • Gain an advantage: 2

The players go for:

  • Perform a character action: 1
  • Gain an advantage: 2

GM: You continue along the canal, hopping from barge to boat and occasionally back onto the shore. It’s a constant contest, working out which way the thugs will go and keeping on their tail. Still, you manage to keep them in your sight.

Fighter: As we’re chasing, I pull out my crossbow. I’m going to try getting one in the leg, see if that slows them down.

GM: OK, sounds like you’re defying danger with DEX to make the shot.

The fighter rolls a 10, plus their DEX of +1 to give a total of 11.

GM: The bolt goes right through the leg of one of the thugs. I guess they’ll be assigning one less dice while they’re running and jumping around. I was planning on sticking to the canal, but I think that now one of them is injured, they make a break for an alleyway. You give chase, but soon you’re ducking and dodging between piles of trash and passed-out drunks. The thugs are always one or two turns ahead of you - you’re having to go based the sound you hear ahead of you and split-second decisions at every intersection.

Thief: That means we’re rolling +INT? I’ll go for this.

The Thief has an INT of +2, and rolls an 8, for a total of 10. The players have three hold, and they know they’ll have more to spend than the thugs. The GM knows this as well, and (assuming the players will spend heavily on gaining an advantage) spends all their hold to give the thieves a chance to strike back at the players:

  • Perform a character action: 2

The players decide to spend as follows:

  • Direct the chase: 1
  • Gain an advantage: 2

GM: You follow the sounds of frantic footsteps around a corner, up a narrow alley - and suddenly they’re gone. You get a moment’s notice before the two thugs spring on you from a narrow niche they’d holed up in. Both of them are using their move Strike from the shadows. Each of you take 1d8 damage, as knives flash in the gloom.

Fighter: Great. But we’re now right on their heels, right? And we get to direct the chase. We’re going to force them out onto one of the main thoroughfares. There’s nowhere to dodge, and at this time of night there’s not even anything to hide behind. It’s a straight-out sprint.

The fighter rolls a 5, but with their +2 CON, that’s still an 7. With two hold, the players can freely assign:

  • Gain an advantage: 2

The GM knows the thugs are toast, so they spend their action on another action: the thugs might as well attack while they get the chance.

  • Perform a character action: 1

GM: You catch up to the assailants - one of them goes down in a flying tackle, and the other turns to face you. How do you want this to end?

Fighter: I think we want to take them hostage, right?

Thief: Definitely.

GM: OK. One of them is using their most Hit them where it hurts, though. Fighter, you get your guy tied up, but when you get up you find his dagger sticking out of your stomach. He must have slid it in when you were busy cuffing him on the ground. You’ve got the two of them where you want, but you’re bleeding pretty bad now. What do you do?

…and the adventure continues.

Alpha notice

These rules have not been playtested. They come out of a half-remembered internet conversation on chase scenes, the scene from Ong Bak where Tony Jaa runs through the marketplace pursued by fifteen knife-wielding bravoes, the fighting rules from Apocalypse World: Dark Age, and a little bit of the space combat rules from Diaspora.

If you get a chance to play this, I’d love to know how it goes!

  1. Think: Ankh-Morepork, Llankhmar, Ambergris, Viriconium, etc.