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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.

– Ryan

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14 Responses to Action Sequences are Conversations

  1. I think this has an interesting implication. This would be a good way to add some flavor to chase scenes regardless of the genre or system.

    For example, I could see this being adapted to a D&D foot chase through a major city as well as a Technoir-esque “chase” between hacker and security specialist.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Jeremy,

      Huh. Now you’ve got me thinking about writing this up as a system-agnostic add-on.

      – Ryan

  2. Cam Banks says:

    OK, I like this mechanic and like the idea behind both sides more or less being equal. You are essentially saying that nothing on any “character sheet” is important, narratively speaking the two sides are on par. So far so good.

    I am not getting any real sense of a link between the cool dice trick and the conversation or the narrative, however. There is no implicit hook or directive or buy-in to provide clever descriptions of what your guy is doing in the chase. I could just as easily say “I run some more” and roll dice.

    How would you make this less of a case of “well, obviously you have to describe it” dodge, and more of a “this informs the fiction” kind of deal?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Cam,

      You’re on par. The main purpose of this mechanic is pacing the conversation, which is does pretty well. And it is pretty hippie in its demands of narration, which I’m comfortable with.

      The description did strip out some discussion of what you might say when you bring in dice. I have in mind a trait system that you use, on both sides, when you bring a new die in or reroll. Like, “I’m using my ‘Gun Happy’ die. I describe blah.” However, the execution of what I’ve done so far I don’t care for. Maybe because I was trying things more complicated than what I just now typed.

      The other side would be in how the dice fall. I was talking with someone else about this idea, and they wanted 1s to be something bad. While mechanically that would be a disaster, adding in a stumble or something could color the moment.

      So, there are some places to hook in where the dice specifically inform the fiction rather than just pace it. The best way for my game will, of course, take some testing. But I wouldn’t want to add too much to it. I’m also of a mind that informing more might be the purview of a richer game, like how Cortex+ would handle it. (A post I need to do at some point. About my love of Cortex+, not about Cortex+ chases. That’s, of course, handled in Leverage.)

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Cam,

      And, of course, your comment has dislodged an idea from my brain. I don’t know how well it’d translate. Imagine if your action star had, say, ten core moves that he or she could do in a scene. Signature things he’s known for, like “wall running” or “scaring bystanders” etc. Rather than generic traits, it could be these sorts of things that make the chase scene fiction hook work.

      I already have a thought about how character creation is about everyone building the badass by picking traits off of a list. The idea that the lists are “martial arts moves” or “gun moves” or “psycho moves” etc. might be interesting.

      – Ryan

  3. I think you should think about doing this as a system-neutral plugin, Ryan. I am certainly going to think about these ideas the next time my PCs get in a chase scene…

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Paul,

      Hah! I was just musing on that while getting lunch. Maybe over the next week.

      – Ryan

  4. blackcoat says:

    If you want failure to be in there, how about:
    2-9 is a number that you need three of a kind.
    0 is a wild card.
    1 is a stuck die. You can’t re-roll that die, unless you also re-roll a 0 die.(Or spend an action point, or whatever)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I certainly don’t want failure there, as the math for that Gets Ugly Fast, but I was thinking about something like that for coloring the narration.

      – Ryan

    • blackcoat says:

      I guess that my problem with it as a mechanic is that there isn’t a good way, aside from either a larger total dice pool available (The Badass can eventually throw 8 dice, while the Motherfucker can eventually only throw 5) to show that The Badass is better then The Motherfucker.

      Also, there’s no good way that a PC could specialize in Chase Scenes without skills (or Feats/Stunts/Qualities/Advantages/Whatever) that influence the mechanics.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That’s where the dice tricks I mentions, but didn’t describe because they need tweaking and would have distracted from the conversation, are for. Again, this was a scaled down “this is how chases work, here’s a skeleton mechanic, yes I acknowledge there needs to be more” bit.

      – Ryan

  5. Phil says:

    The general idea sounds good to me. Chase scenes shouldn’t be mechanical mathfests. I don’t need to know how far i am from the guy or how close I am to ditching him; I just need to know if I do ditch him and how. This reminds me somewhat of the chase rules in Diaspora, just a little more abstract and narratively focused.

    What I don’t see in your system is any sort of narrative or mechanical impetus for being descriptive (aside from the blanket, “you should always be creative!”) with your badassery. You mentioned Banlieue 13. The first chase scene (the iconic one where the Leito flushes the drugs then does a parkour getaway through the district) is absolutely a conversation measured by beats but it also serves to illustrate who Leito is and sets up what kind of badassery he does. If I were to build his character sheet, I’d include parkour and martial arts because that’s what I want him to do. During the chase scene, if I narrate the use of parkour or savate, I would like to see a reward for that. Some small benefit to playing to my strengths would be appropriate and would serve to encourage descriptive narration. It also fits the source material – the badass most often gets the upper hand when he plays to his strengths. Look at Banlieue 13 again – Leito kicks ass with parkour and martial arts.

    Of course, the system should always have a weakness for the character that the GM can narrate to throw road blocks in my way. All of the good badasses in action films have a weakness. Jason Statham in Crank has been poisoned. In the case of Jet Li’s Hollywood movies (mostly Kiss of the Dragon and Romeo Must Die but also The Expendables), his weakness would be that he’s small. He can’t get past big people easily or just bull through crowds the way the taller, burlier people in those films can. The badass falls behind, gets caught or loses the motherfucker when his weakness cannot be overcome.

    In closing, I’d like to say that I think all great action scenes (not just chases) are the same sort of conversation/beat/point-counterpoint scene. Watch Romeo Must Die. It’s a bad movie, yes, but it’s got some GREAT action scenes. Like a good song, each and every action scene has a rhythm to it. The tempo slows down when good things are happening and then the shit hits the fan. The tempo picks up, the tone gets darker and there’s a back and forth between Jet Li and whatever motherfuckers he’s beating up or running away from. That’s good action. Bad action would be Ahnuld holding a chain gun and walking forward slowly mowing motherfuckers down. There’s no back-and-forth, no tempo change, no pitch shifts. Now Ahnuld fighting the Predator? That’s great action.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Phil,

      Thanks!

      As I’ve said to others, it’s incomplete. :) One version of Gun n Fuck had “traits” you worked in when you needed another die, like (because it was based on Crank) “Vicious” or “Psychotic” or other adjectives that today escape me. The way character creation was in this game (very much built as a one-PC, multi-GM one-shot game) was that everyone went around giving the Badass adjectives. I had some other stuff hooked to that, which didn’t work.

      I’m toying with a generic “use for nearly any game” system that will have to be flexible about anything special or prominent on someone’s character sheet — “to press on, you must use a new element. If there isn’t a new element to work in, use an element you already have, but in a very different way.” Something like that.

      – Ryan

  6. My first instinct – and I’m not saying this is better for you, Ryan, just that it’s what immediately pops into my mind – is to tie the sides of the dice to a narrative element, somehow integrated with the system. E.g. 4 means “hand-to-hand fighting”, 6 means “acrobatics”, 8 means “treachery”. Anything you roll are elements in your narration and can additionally impose bonuses or penalties if the align with the stuff on your sheet.

    So I roll 4 6, I narrate some Jet Li style martial arts. But if acrobatic (6) is my weakness (I’m a big lumbering guy), I instead narrate some up-close combat, but due to my lack of acrobatic prowess I’m held up in some way, and lose the die. But if acrobatics is my strength, it’s treated as a wild card. The die results are opportunities you’ve latched onto, or problems you’ve been exposed to. In a chase scene, you don’t have a whole lot of choice as to what you’re doing, beyond running – you take what’s being offered to you in every instance and try to make the best of it.

    Something like that. That should cover both situations where you want stats to matter and provide fuel for narration tied to the mechanics, while retaining the lack of task resolution that makes the system flow.

    The elements would have to be chosen to make sense both within the fight scene and within the system, though they could potentially be individualized for a particular chase scene. This would be a way of modeling environmental effects, as well – if it’s a construction zone, athletics might show up on 3 of the 10 sides, gun fighting on 2, cover on 3, hand-to-hand on 1, and the 0 (wild card).