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June 8, 2015

Chase Rules for D&D 5th Edition Part 1 - Introduction and Escape Rules - Run Away!

Today begins a three-part series on chases in D&D 5th edition.  This first part discusses escape rules.  Chase scenes are one of the pillars of thriller action.  To run a good chase scene, you need good "escape combat" rules.  D&D has never really had good rules for escaping combat.  

Throughout this series, I'll give you some house ruled systems to use.  None of the house rules below change existing 5th edition D&D rules.  In fact they change the 5e system a little bit less than the chase rules in the Dungeon Master's Guide!

To run the Escape rules, below, the DM simply cuts from a combat scene to frame an escape scene.  This requires ending the combat before the PCs have all been killed.  The only way for the PCs to get away from combat is for combat to end before they're all killed.  It seems self-evident!

Retreat is an opportunity for drama, heroism, and spotlighting characters' strengths and weaknesses.  Strong characters are highlighted whether they show bravery or skill, or show that they really need and appreciate their teammates.  It's a tactical choice, too; but there's not much complexity to it.

The traditional method for running a party rout is for the GM to continue running combat as normal, except that the players try to have their characters get away.  In 5e D&D, that means the Disengage and Dash actions.  But that sucks.  It becomes a fighting retreat as enemies use ranged attacks or continually move into melee and use opportunity attacks because of the clunkiness of an initiative system in a chase (characters keep getting closer together and farther apart over and over like the sides of an accordion).  Plus, if a character has already been dropped, everything gets more complicated.

Unlike in Fate, D&D characters can't concede to escape a fight, then narrate what happens.  What we need are house rules for ending a combat with PCs fleeing.

Here's the system for it.

Rules for running away: Escape

When all the players agree that their characters should flee, combat stops immediately.  Ending combat is the Dungeon Master's prerogative anyway.  This just formalizes it.  The DM should just ask the players "It sounds like you guys think you should retreat.  Does everyone agree?"  If the players all agree, say, "OK, let's narrate the end of this fight.  Here's how we're going to handle this..."

Every spell or effect with a duration in rounds or in Concentration ends immediately.  Ongoing damage or status effects (helpful or hindering) with a duration in minutes or less all end, as well.  This is because the escape takes a few minutes of time, and the PCs' actions for that time require their complete attention.

Each player must narrate an action consistent with their traits, ideals, bonds, or flaws.  Here are the choices for how they can narrate it.  Below the term "[level] damage" means "damage equal to your level," so a level 2 character would take 2 damage.  I've made a printable sheet of these options to hand out to your players.

  • Brave retreat:  Gain Inspiration or grant it to someone you protect.  Take [level] damage.

  • Inspired retreat:  Spend Inspiration.  Narrate how you find a cunning or skillful way to escape.  Feel free to narrate helping others, too.

  • Assisted retreat:  Narrate how another character helped you escape when you badly needed it.  You have to get the other character's player to agree with your description of how they helped you.  If that player agrees, that player's character gains Inspiration.

  • Tough retreat:  Spend Inspiration.  Gain 1 hit point as if you had rolled a natural 20 on a Death Saving Throw.  Narrate how you escape despite your grievous wounds.

  • Desperate retreat:  Gain 1 hit point as if you had rolled a natural 20 on a Death Saving Throw.  A character who helps you escape takes [level] damage.

Design note:  This system was designed to help players spotlight one another and focus on their personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws.  It also recharges the party's Inspiration, so they at least have that resource!  The optimal strategy for any party is to have everyone who can do so use Assisted Retreat.  If characters are dying, they get a hit point back, but always at a cost.  Technically it doesn't change the rules - it just gives unconscious PCs a free natural 20 as a reward for roleplaying their character's escape.  This also solves the problem of parties being unaware that a fight is too hard until a PC is down; and then being unable to flee because a PC is down.

The philosophy behind these options is that escape has a cost.  Characters who have 0 hp can escape and gain an automatic recovery (natural 20 on a death save) at a cost: Either it's a cost borne by another player character (desperate retreat), or paid in Inspiration (tough retreat).  Other characters can get away at cost, too:  Damage (brave retreat), Inspiration (inspired retreat), or an action that spotlights another player's character (assisted retreat).

If someone gets Inspiration and already has it, they can just pass their "old" Inspiration to another character and take the "new" one.  See the example, in Part 3 (in two weeks), for how this works out.  It's totally rules-legal to do this.

It's up to the GM what happens next.

If you want to keep the heat on the PCs and keep the pace moving fast, you can transition to an Evasion chase scene (see below).  If you want to reward their sensible retreat, you can let them get to safety so they can take a rest.

If you're firm on simulation, decide what the enemy would do based on what they are.  Are they predator animals, starving carnivores, or insane killers?  They might give chase.  Are they guards or sentries?  They won't leave their post, but they'll send word to their superiors.  Are they intelligent monsters?  They might give chase if they're not hurt.  But if they're hurt, they'll rest, heal up, and redouble their defenses.  Are they programmed automatons like necromancer-controlled undead or golems?  They'll do what their programming said to do, which is probably "stay here and kill anything that comes in sight unless I say otherwise" - which means once the PCs break line of sight, they'll let them be.

This post is part of a trilogy!  Here are links to the other posts.