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Action Scenes!

Chase Scene: On the Open Road

by Dan Bayn
Dec 09,2004


Chase Scene: On the Open Road

Annex's sleek convertible idles on the freeway shoulder, right beneath the "Emergency Stopping Only" sign. Her cyberspecs zoom in on a military convoy approaching in the southbound lane. One semi-truck and two escorts, right on time. Rumor has it that her old nemesis, Interloper, is after the same loot, so time is of the essence. She releases the e-brake and grinds the accelerator into the floor, blasting into traffic like a land-to-air missile...

Car chases are sorely under-used in role-playing games. I think part of the reason is that even relatively rules-lite games tend to assume that vehicular combat needs a crunchy rules system, which can turn a white knuckled thrill ride into an exercise in tedium. Putting pedal to pavement shouldn't require anything that your combat system doesn't already provide... so long as "wining" the chase means causing the other guy to crash, spin out, miss a turn, blow a jump, or otherwise fall hopelessly behind.

Stunts and attacks are made against the other driver. Give the vehicles some hit points or, better yet, "wound" penalties to the driver's rolls. Hopefully, your system provides stunt bonuses. (If not, you should!) From there, every stunt is an "attack" because you're hoping the other guy won't be able to follow. Every gunshot is an attempt to make the other guy spin out, flip over, explode, whatever.

This three-article series is not about vehicular combat rules, though. It's a treatise on what I like to call "autobatics," a philosophy of the car chase that values death defying style over realistic physics. In a cinematic role-playing game, cars should be capable of everything from barrel rolls to back flips! This first article introduces the topic (done!) and dives into the pure adrenaline of freeway chase scenes. The next two articles will deal with city driving and off-roading, respectively.

The freeway's primary selling point is speed, plain and simple. Higher speeds mean bigger, messier, crashes! Freeways also allow you to use vehicles that simply wouldn't work in an urban chase: semi-trucks, cement mixers, buses, fire trucks... things that take a while to get up to speed and can't turn to save your life (literally). They also make excellent fight platforms, as the freeway sequence from The Matrix Reload ably demonstrates.

All that isn't to say sports cars are out of place. On the contrary, the freeway is the only place where some models can be driven to their fullest. (I once saw a History Channel program about a guy who modifies cars for driving on the Autobahn. Many are fast enough to outrun police helicopters!) Combining fast, agile vehicles with a few lumbering behemoths can add variety and much-needed road hazards to your chase.

Speaking of hazards, the freeway has them in spades! Cloverleaf interchanges (where ramps loop around an overpass on all four sides) provide ample opportunity for crazy jumps and roller-coaster drops. The cement dividers between lanes can be used as obstacles or improvised ramps. (We're ignoring physics here, remember.) Depending on the terrain, there may be tunnels, cliffs, and bridges in various states of (dis)repair.

Which brings us to the topic of road construction. If your suspension of disbelief demands something better than an overpass or lane divider to jump from, construction sites are your sangria! Count on conveniently ramp-like piles of dirt or asphalt, barricades that can be knocked over to form ramps, and flatbed trucks with (gasp!) actual ramps on the back. You'll also find such entertaining chase vehicles as cement mixers, earthmovers, and steamrollers.

If you're out in the country, the freeway will be bordered by even more chase locations. Farms and fields are the most common by far. Don't underestimate the enjoyment one can derive from driving blind through a wheat field at ninety miles per hour! You can also stop to hijack a truck, combine, or pesticide sprayer. In the U.S., many freeways play host to bizarre roadside attractions like the Corn Palace, the Petrified Wood Park, and the World's Biggest <insert noun here>. Every one is just waiting to be demolished by a speeding tanker truck!

The Genre Mash

According to Popular Science, the future will be rife with flying cars, but that dramatically changes the nature of a car chase. If you want to inject a little techno-gadgetry into your car chases, I recommend using a near-future (possibly cyberpunkish) setting. Cars are mechanically the same, but might be decked out with autopilots, helpful sensors, and safety features from force fields to insta-foam. Of course, they'll also be much faster!

The classic fantasy chase involves horses and/or carriages (stagecoaches, to you Wild West fans). The speeds are relatively sedate, but you can raise the stakes with dangerous terrain: woods, cliffs, rickety bridges, and so forth. Crashes should still be spectacular, if a little less fiery. Fantasy gamers can set their chase scenes on the backs of large animals like dragons, leviathans, or sand worms! As long as they stay on the ground, the chase is pretty much the same.

Hostile Tactics

As mentioned above, the easy way to run a car chase is to treat stunts as attacks: they're intended to make the other guy crash. Thus, the fundamental car chase tactic is autobatic one-upsmanship. Swerve through oncoming traffic! Fly off the side of an overpass! Zip between a pair of merging semi-trucks! If the other guy can't follow suit, he comes one step closer to crashing or falling behind.

If you want to take a more direct approach, you can use your vehicle as a weapon in two ways. The first method is the most blunt: hit the other guy with your car! Smashy, smashy. If you're in a bulldozer and she's in corvette, the odds are in your favor. The second method is to steer your enemies into obstacles like construction barricades, tunnel walls, and other vehicles. If you can run your opponent off a bridge, you're good to go!

Clever types may have more fun with a tether. A grappling hook or harpoon on a cable is all you need, but sci-fi settings may supply magnetic or gravitic "hooks." Very handy. The obvious application is anchoring an adversary's vehicle to a stationary object, but tethering two cars together has much more stunt potential. For example, tethering a tiny sports car to a lumbering semi-truck is like leashing a crazed weasel to a (soon-to-be) angry elephant. Even small differences in speed or direction can cause the smaller vehicle to swing around, in front of, or beneath the larger!

In super-powered or wire-fu games, you can let a fight scene range across rush hour traffic. Combatants leaping from car to car, throwing each other across the lanes, dodging the multi-vehicle crashes that inevitably ensue. Let a couple of characters remain behind the wheel so that drivers can rescue falling fighters, and fighters can deal with enemy drivers up close and personal. Don't forget to fill some of your combat platforms (and by that I mean buses) with entertaining bystanders (and by that I mean well-armed gun nuts).

Last in our litany of vehicular manslaughter are the old mainstays: puncture your pursuer's gas tank, dump large (and/or explosive) obstacles onto the road, cause innocent bystanders to spin out and pile up, or hijack a bus full of old folks, children, or nuns.

Lights, Camera...

Annex swoops down towards the trio of camouflaged trucks like a kamikaze on wheels. She braces for impact as her convertible closes on the cement divider between them. The engine block is crushed like a pop can while the back end is carried up and over, flipping the entire vehicle into the air! It buzzes the lead truck during its first rotation; Annex leaps off half way through the second, landing gracefully atop the middle truck's cargo trailer. Her car plummets into the last truck, enveloping it in a shroud of flame and steel.

Before the troops in the lead truck have time to react, she marches up to the cab and perforates the roof with bullets. She swings around the driver's side and crashes through the window, kicking the corpses out of her way. The autopilot's emergency override flashes at her angrily... so does the muzzle of an assault rifle ten feet in front of her! Annex ducks under the dash as a dozen rounds of autofire erupt from the lead truck and obliterate her windshield.

Driving blind, Annex disengages the autopilot and guns the engine. The resulting collision isn't enough to disable the troop transport, but it does disrupt the gunman long enough for Annex to launch her magnetic tether through her shattered windshield. One end locks onto the side of the truck and the other snags a delivery van that's desperately trying to outrun the carnage. The civilian panics and swerves onto an off ramp, stretching the tether tight between them. When the cable has reached its limit, it snaps both vehicles towards each other and brings them to an indecorous halt in a drainage pond on the side of the road.

Two minutes later and three miles later, Annex pulls into a construction site. The crew went home early, but a flatbed has been left for her, keys conveniently still in the ignition. The cargo truck backs up to the flatbed and Annex piles out to take a look at her prize. Before she can break off the lock, the truck roars back to life! The cab jerks to the right and, as it comes into view, Interloper flashes his nemesis a gleeful grin from the driver's seat. Then, he levels a smartgun out the window and plugs an explosive round into the flatbed. Annex hugs the ground while shrapnel rains down around her.

With her paycheck escaping, Annex searches desperately for a set of wheels, any set of wheels. The only thing left at the site is a dump truck. "I've done worse." Annex hotwires the behemoth in mere moments, but by the time she's out on the freeway and up to speed, Interloper's a quarter mile ahead. She catches up quickly... maybe too quickly. Without warning, cargo truck swerves at its passes between a bus and a station wagon. The latter bounces off the divider in an ill-conceived attempt at evasion, then fishtails back into the center lane. The bus does the same from the other side and, when they meet, both vehicles tumble out of control.

The twisted wrecks slide across the road, nearly blocking all three lanes. Annex veers to the left and presses her vehicle against the divider, but it's not enough. Large pieces of the station wagon careen into her, demolishing the passenger's side door and bouncing the truck up onto the divider. Annex rolls her mammoth vehicle up on two wheels as the back end of the bus whips through her lane like an executioner's axe!

It crashes back onto all four wheels nearly perpendicular to the road. She finds herself flying up an off-ramp as Interloper races through the corresponding underpass. Seeing her chance, Annex guns the engine and rockets through the intersection. The dump truck reaches speeds it could never have imagined as it devours the on-ramp, rejoins the freeway, and nearly sheers off the cargo truck's grill! Annex keys in the "Unload" command and deposits a pair of asphalt boulders under Interloper's nose. The impact nearly forces the cargo truck's shocks up through the undercarriage!

As interloper jack knifes to a halt, Annex heaves the e-brake into position and spins her goliath around 180 degrees. It charges back down the freeway like a bull elephant, giving Interloper precious few seconds to dive out before his cab turns into a trash compactor! Annex is instantly enveloped in a cocoon of life saving insta-foam. With both vehicles destroyed, the military on the way, and his nemesis safely ensconced for the moment, Interloper decides to cut and run. When the foam finally evaporates, Annex decides to do the same, but she knows something her rival doesn't... the cargo has wheels.

Next Month: Where Pedestrians Fear to Tread!

Loath Your Fellow Man

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