While it is often overlooked, there are fantastically simple rules for starting, running, and ending a chase. Today we’re going to go over these rules and talk a bit about how they can and should become a staple in your DnD games. Let’s talk about how to run a chase in Dungeons and Dragons
Why Do We Run?
In DnD there are two main reasons to be running: to escape from something or to catch something. This seems fairly obvious, but we rarely stop to think about what running is like.
Do you like running?
While some of you might enjoy a brisk jog from time to time, that’s a very different thing than running for your life. When you’re running in DnD you are typically doing so at full tilt. It’s exhausting. Running like that for more than a few rounds will be extremely difficult, and this is what a chase is used to represent.
Chase Mechanics in DnD and the Rules As Written
- Beginning the Chase – When one group starts to run and the other pursues. Time from here on out is measured in rounds (just like combat) even if the chase starts out of combat.
- The Chase – Combat-like turns of movement and actions. Running individuals are typically taking the Dash action to move as far as possible each round.
- Ending the Chase – When either side gives up or is caught.
The concept is simple, but there are a few mechanical elements that enter into mix after the chase begins.
Any chase participant can only use the dash action 3+ their Constitution modifier times before they have to start making checks. Each Dash they take over the limit forces them to make a DC 10 Constitution check. If they fail, they gain one level of exhaustion.
This is a really neat mechanic!
Exhaustion is criminally underused in the game and it adds to the feel of being battle-worn adventurers.
Using exhaustion in a chase is really interesting because after taking the first level of exhaustion players have disadvantage on every subsequent check. At two levels their speed is cut in half. The third and fourth level of exhaustion don’t really make running any worse, but they certainly make fighting worse if anyone catches up to you. At the fifth level of exhaustion your speed drops to 0, so if you hit that, the chase is over.
Losing Your Pursuers
As exhausting as running can be, there are other mechanics at play for when the one being chased pulls ahead.
If the pursuers lose sight of the one they are chasing, the pursued makes a stealth check and the pursuers make a perception check. If the one being chased ends up with a higher roll, the chase ends and they get away.
This mechanic really shines when you layer in the surroundings and environment. The individual running away can use all sorts of things to their advantage and work really hard to break line of sight. The DMG recommends giving advantage or disadvantage depending on the setting and lays out a few obvious scenarios where these might apply.
What’s far more interesting is that if your players are the ones being chased then they’ll need to work out exactly how they’re going to get away. Coming up with clever ways to dodge guards or escape monsters makes for a really thrilling session without a ton of stop and roll combat.
Chase scenes can be rather fast paced and end in an instant. This is exactly how they should feel to everyone at the table, so don’t feel like you’re doing them wrong. And even though the rules are slim, the mechanics are solid and work extremely well to build a good amount of immersion.
Preparing for Chases
Chases are a fun thing to add to your game, but they should be used correctly. A good chase is hard to plan out and often happens spontaneously. If you mostly do theatre of the mind style combat sessions, actualizing a chase scene might be hard because you won’t have a map to reference for the chase.
If you expect a chase is likely you should map out a general direction and set of locations that someone might run to. This does not have to be a literal map, but can instead be a list of distances between landmarks that you can anchor your players’ imaginations to. If you know there is a clearing 300ft from the forest battle you just ran, you can have a chase that goes there or even through the location.
The most important things for you to know before a chase are all the places the chase can go and roughly how far apart they are. If you have prepared 5 locations, you only need to list how far apart they are. You can easily do this in a matrix by indicating the distance between related areas.
No matter where the chase resolves you will know where your players are in relation to points that matter.
If your chase is going to take place in a city or dungeon you should have a full map with scale distances prepared. The reason these locations need more detailed maps is because your players will be making more turns and trying to work out the route they take as the chase goes on.
It doesn’t matter if your party is doing the chasing or being chased; you need to be able to give them accurate turn-by-turn descriptions and a way to keep track of their own location relative to everyone else. This is nearly impossible to do without a mini map of some kind.
The downside to using a full map is that it takes away some of the mystery. Your players will make different decisions if they can see where the turns they take will end up. If you can use a VTT or other virtual device, relative fog of war works really well for this. If you don’t have a virtual map for your players you can always cover the map where they cannot see ahead, though this gets a little tedious to manage and can slow the pace of the chase down a little.
Either way, your players are better served with a tool to keep track of their locations than with nothing at all. Realistically, relative locations only work in wide open spaces or overworld chases, so make sure you plan accordingly depending on the type of chase you want to employ.
Provoke More Chases
If you want your players to use chase mechanics you need to explain the rules to them. You also need to give your players a reason to run. This might be through adding more deadly encounters that making running away from something a valid strategy.
On the other hand, you could make your monsters more intelligent and have them run away from combat at a much higher frequency. Personally, we like to designate a set level of HP at which a monster will always attempt to flee combat, and if they cannot, they will try riskier things that may make them more dangerous.
All in all, it’s not too difficult to provoke more chases in your game, but you need to be the instigating force in the matter as the DM. Your players won’t give chase to monsters that don’t run, and they won’t run away from things they believe that have a good chance to kill.
Making Use of the DMG
The Dungeon Master’s Guide is full of a lot of great mechanical rules that make the game a lot better, but so often new DMs don’t make it all the way into the book to find them. These rules for handling chases are so good, but they’re tucked in the last hundred pages of the book under a subheading! While chase mechanics are just a small example of what great rules are hidden deep in the text, they clearly illustrate a reason for exploring more of the book.
If your players are tired of by the numbers combat, a chase might be just the thing to spice up your game. Once you run one, you can pretty reliably build the mechanic into future sessions without much difficulty. Try giving chases a try in your next game and flex those optional rules.