Action Sequences are Conversations
On a Story-Games thread a while back about exciting chase mechanics, I was asked (in a direct message) to unpack my thoughts about my comment:
If you watch action movies, chases follow the same beats as conversations. They’re about moments the chasee create and the chaser respond to. They’re about moments where the chasee has to do something better than “just keep running.”
Watch any Jason Statham movie. Watch the Fast and the Furious movies. Watch Ronin. Look at the beats. Look at the responses.
I made a mechanic for this in a game I haven’t published, called Gun n Fuck (the Jason Statham action movie game). Maybe I’ll blog about the die mechanic later, should it provide inspiration for you.
Here’s the post about the die mechanic! I should preface by saying that the mechanic is the only thing that works about the game, and the rest of it doesn’t really. It almost does. Thus, not worth blogging about.
I was watching Crank 2: High Voltage one day, and this realization hit me: A chase is a series of beats, between the Badass (our Jason Statham-esque protagonist) and some Motherfucker (our bad guy). First, the scene is set:
The Motherfucker is running away, heading into the thick of Chinatown. He’s got the USB drive that has the serum formula on it.
Naturally, you start the chase. The mechanic is simple:
- On your first action, Badass or Motherfucker, you roll two d10s.
- You keep those dice as they stand until the end of the chase.
- On each action after that, you can either reroll any number of dice that aren’t 0s, or add a new die to your pile.
- When someone has three of a kind, counting 0s as wild, they win the chase on their terms. The chasee gets away, or the chaser catches.
- Roll first, then describe what you do (since you might roll triples). The chasee should introduce new elements into the chase narrative & environment, the chaser should describe overcoming them and introduce new elements into the chase narrative and reaction shots.
The principle behind this mechanic: the Badass is, well, a badass. He or she doesn’t need a series of stats on how well he chases someone. The Motherfuckers exist to show how badass the Badass is, so they’re of equivalent skill. (There are ideally some other die tricks the Badass can do, but I haven’t solidified those. And those are exceptions anyway. We’ll talk about those later, maybe in another post. First thing’s fist.) So, the simple mechanic does the job.
The chasee, the Motherfucker in this case, goes first. He rolls a 4 6.
The Motherfucker runs into an alley, knocking over a bunch of garbage cans.
The chaser, the Badass, goes. He rolls a 4 0.
The Badass jumps over the garbage cans by doing a wall run. He grabs a garbage lid and throws it at the Motherfucker.
The chasee has a 4 6. He rolls in a third die, a 6.
The Motherfucker ducks into the crowd watching a passing parade.
The chaser has a 4 0. He rolls in a third die, a 8.
The Badass starts yelling and shooting in the air, causing the crowd to get the hell out of his way.
The chasee has a 4 6 6. He rolls in a fourth die, a 8.
The Motherfucker shoots back, and dives behind a passing float for cover and concealment.
The chaser has a 4 0 8. He rolls in a fourth die, a 6.
The Badass grabs some fireworks from a kid gawking at him, and then runs & does one of those cool jump-slides over the platform of the float.
The chasee has a 4 6 6 8. He rerolls the 4 and 8, getting 7 5. Thus he has 5 6 6 7.
The Motherfucker runs by a dude walking some mean looking dogs. He knocks the dude over, riling up the dogs.
The chaser has a 4 0 8 6. He rerolles the 4 8 6, a 8 8 6. That’s three of a kind, since 0s are wild.
The Badass grows at the dogs loudly, and they back off. He corners the Motherfucker in an alley with no exit. “You’re done, Santo. Hand me the files.” The Motherfucker does, and the Badass shoots him in the leg on principle before walking away.
And that’s the conversation. Now, the trick is in making sure the conversation isn’t too short or too long, which is scene-depending rather than a hard & fast rule. You want your Ronin chase to take a good amount of time, not last just three beats. You don’t want your opening chase with some two-bit thug too long. That’s where in addition to this die shtick, I add in a coin trick too. Not that I’m happy with them, but they’re being worked on. (The Badass can pay an adrenaline point to reroll some of the Motherfucker’s dice, things like that.)
Also, since I’m modeling Crank, the 0s for the Badass sap his Adrenaline. But I’m not happy with that effect, either.
The point is, chase scenes around “do I roll Athletics to jump over the garbage cans” aren’t Action Movie. It’s real life. And games where you get tactical about how much “lead” you have are fun, but they don’t feel like Ronin, or any Jason Statham movie, or the find parkour film District 13. You roll, apply some math, but don’t really add to the chase narrative with new information about it. There are ways of giving those idea more nuance, so there’s more “game” in it, but it’s a careful balance between than and keeping it feeling like a chase scene from a movie. (I erred on the side of movie, so I accept a lack of nuance in the game part of my model.)
Study chase scenes. Watch what they’re doing, what challenges each side introduces, how they overcome them with ease, what sort of new information both sides add in. And study fight scenes — they’re similar in structure, but the challenges & information adds are different. Watch them, and they’ll start to look more like physical conversations.