How to Create a Chase Encounter That Actually Works
A chase encounter in D&D 5e is one type of dynamic encounter that changes the general structure of a typical combat encounter. They’re a fun way to shake-up combat an keep the party on their toes.
I’ve already written an article that breaks down the elements of a chase encounter, so we won’t be going into much detail concerning those topics. What I want to talk about today is how to get your table to buy into a chase encounter in the first place.
This is more difficult than it sounds. From my experience, it’s difficult to convey that a party is “supposed” to chase after or be chased by an enemy and not just flat-out kill or subdue the enemy.
It’s difficult to plan and execute a chase encounter as the DM. I’ve found that generally, these are spur-of-the-moment encounters that the party decides. However, I have found some success in a few situations lately because I changed-up how I influence the party’s decision to chase or be chased.
Without further ado, here’s what I’ve learned.
The Party is in Pursuit
There are two types of chase encounters. The first is when the party is in pursuit of a target. This could be a single creature or a group of creatures. The encounter becomes increasingly complicated when more creatures are thrown into the mix as they can split off and go in different directions.
The Party Has to Want to Capture the Objective
If you want the party to chase after someone or something, you’re going to need to ensure that it’s something they want to obtain. The party isn’t necessarily going to chase after someone simply because they’re running away from them. They need reasons and those reasons need to be worthwhile from their perspective.
The most obvious way to set up a chase scene is if the creature in question steals something from the party or the party knows that they have a MacGuffin in their possession. Both of these examples are of things the party both wants and will go through the trouble of getting from the target.
Another potential way to set up a chase scene is to use an NPC that the party has a history with. There can be all sorts of premises that use this technique. For example, a villain is running from the party, or a decent or good NPC is running away from the party for an unknown reason.
A unique take on chase encounters is to give your party and their target an objective that they both desire. This could be an item, a person, or even a location that they need to get to before the opposing side.
If you want the party to chase after a carrot on a stick, the carrot needs to be tasty.
You Won’t Plan Most of These Types of Chases
It’s entirely possible to plan for and set up these types of chases. A MacGuffin or some physical objective generally does the trick. However, from my experience, more often than not the party is generally the ones that create chase scenes where they’re in pursuit of a target.
A common way that a chase scene may break out in my games is if a creature or group of creatures attempt to retreat after losing a fight against the party. My party will generally leave no survivors in these scenarios, but sometimes the creatures get lucky and escape to confront the party another day.
The party may make their objectives up on the fly as well. They might be searching for leads and find a seemingly nefarious NPC that decides to run from them to avoid further questioning.
Chase scenes of this nature are oftentimes improvised. Honestly, it’s better this way more often than not. Spend a couple of minutes thinking up the environment of a potential chase scene, but otherwise, give the party the lay of the land and see what they’ll do in regards to the target!
The Party is Being Chased
The second type of chase encounter is when the party is being chased by a creature or group of creatures.
I’ve found that these are way easier to initiate as the DM, but they’re more difficult for the party to buy into. More often than not my party prefers to stand their ground, or get to an advantageous position and then turn on their enemy.
There’s nothing wrong with either of those tactics, but here are some tips if you’re shooting for a proper chase encounter.
The Threat Needs to be Understood
The party needs to know who the threat is and just how dangerous they are. I mean, that makes sense right? If you’re going to run from something you need to know that it’s more likely that it’s going to kick your ass than it is you winning the fight against it.
This is a surprisingly tougher concept to convey to the party than you’d believe, especially if you’ve established a trend of throwing balanced encounters at the party (like me). If your party has always had a fair chance at overcoming any encounter in your campaign, why would this time be any different?
If you ever intend to throw the party a “you need to run or you die” type encounter you need to be 100% blatantly obvious that they need to run. Honestly, you may even want to just straight up say “you need to run or you die” if that is your intention because I can assure you that what’s obvious to you as the DM isn’t always obvious to everyone else at the table.
If they still don’t run, that’s on them, and either they’ll surprise you or you’ll have a TPK on your hands, but you did your due diligence at least.
The threat needs to be obvious if you’re planning this type of encounter. However, I’d honestly say try to avoid these types of encounters, or at least don’t intentionally plan of them. The payoff is typically not worth it and it’s likely to go completely haywire.
There Needs to be a Goal for the Party
Just like when the party is the pursuer, it’s still an exceptional idea to give the party a goal to reach for while they’re being chased. This might sound odd to you, but let me explain.
My most successful chase encounter to date has been the party on their flying ship being chased by a dragon while they made their way towards a sealed dungeon. They’re high level at this point, nothing makes sense so this is perfectly fine trust me.
The party had two goals:
- They needed to run from the dragon
- They needed to enter the dungeon
The party still had a goal that they could complete that is independent of the dragon. The dragon just made them rush to the dungeon faster.
This is an important distinction to make. In this case, the focus of the encounter wasn’t the dragon. The dragon was an obstacle that made the party’s goal more difficult to attain.
Using the chase scene as a vehicle to speed up the party’s involvement or as an obstacle for the party is a great way to utilize these types of encounters. In my opinion, this is more fun for the party as well. It’s exciting to accomplish your goals in spite of adversity, it’s not as fun to be running for your life.
Make the Path to the Objective Obvious
If you give your party an objective to reach towards in this type of encounter, the objective should be obvious and the path to it should be clear as day. An objective in this context could be an item to stop the chase, shelter from their enemies, or reinforcements for the party to turn on their pursuer(s).
A great chase encounter should always have at least one endpoint. These encounters shouldn’t go on indefinitely with no defined objectives for either side other than “escape” or “capture the enemy”.
Giving the party a goal or objective to reach is a great idea, but that goal needs to be easily recognized by the party. Give them all the clues they need to identify this objective. Once you’ve done so, it’s up to them to determine whether or not they beeline it toward that location.
Honestly, this is a situation where I wouldn’t even ask for an ability check to obtain the information. This should genuinely be entirely obvious to the party.
Chase encounters can be fun, but from my experience, they’re difficult to prepare for in a game where any choice can be made at any time. If you’re going to bank on one to move the adventure forward, you need to always have goals and objectives for the party to head towards during the chase.
It’s particularly difficult to set up a chase encounter where the party needs to run from a threat. Especially if your party trusts you to plan tough, but fair encounters as this sort of encounter can require a largely unfair opponent to kick-off the chase. Also, fleeing for fleeing’s sake isn’t super fun in my opinion.
As with any chase scene you should use the environment to set up different obstacles to challenge both sides. However, you can also use the environment as part of the party’s objectives or goals. For example, reaching a certain part of the map will effectively end the chase or turn the tides of the battle.
Get creative with your chase scenes, but also don’t bank on them going as you envisioned. I’d wager that most of your chase scenes are going to be initiated by a course of action that the party took anyway. Learn to improvise these scenes and use them to your advantage!