It often happens that the most interesting RPG locations are in fact quite ordinary and well-known, even if not commonly used in official adventures for various systems. Because of their absence in such sources, and therefore no imprint on the medium, we game masters tend to overlook them as well. And this is not good, as they often provide fabulous opportunities for plots. One such place is a train — be it a luxury passenger transport or a plain line of coal trucks.
To be frank, train as an adventure location hasn’t been completely forgotten by creators, which is best illustrated by the spectacular Call of Cthulhu campaign Horror in Orient Express. However, horror is hardly the only convention that can make use of trains; they also do very well in action, crime, drama or even erotic sessions. In this article we will look at trains primarily in the 20th century context (like the abovementioned Call of Cthulhu game), but it can also be adapted to many other typical RPG settings, focused on past (steampunk) or future (futuristic subways, transportation of resources on Mars — railroad transport is economical and can withstand harsh conditions) or even pure fantasy (ghost train to the afterlife!). So let’s have a look at this particular environment and determine some ways of using it.
Being non-stationary is the most obvious feature of a train: it is not bound to one place, instead it moves along a fixed, sometimes very long path. This feature was used in the Call of Cthulhu campaign I referred to before, as it made the train its chief form of transportation, which served to move the party not just between locations but also between crucial plot nodes. Even if railroad travel is not that important in our adventure, it cannot be ignored that it sets the landscape behind the window in a constant shift, which allows us to begin lunch on one side of the mountains and finish it on the other. Needless to say, at the very least it enables the game master to try some new descriptions, and possibly even plot points.
Plot-wise, the most important feature of a railroad is impossibility to deviate from the path. This means that hijacking a train will not enable the perpetrators to escape to Sri Lanka; all they will be able to do is maintain speed, and most likely be eventually overcome by the police. On the other hand, such a mindless race can be a source of danger, if the rails are broken or if a bridge collapses… Leaving a train can also be problematic, if it won’t or can’t stop. See paragraph 4 of this article for more on railroad-related dangers.
By structure I mean the actual, physical outline of a train. Although it’s a vehicle, it is in many ways more like a building: it has rooms and other facilities; mostly stores, but bedrooms, kitchens and restaurants can be found there as well. You can walk around it, sit in random places, and like with any other building, even find yourself lost in it (albeit briefly).
What’s more, every carriage and compartment can differ from the others or be made special because of the passengers that travel in it. This is particularly important in high society sessions and in fantastic settings of clashing cultures. This enables the game master to create a small, isolated environment, divided into distinct zones of influence that can be used in many ways. The most trivial use would be to place some sort of opponent in the middle of the train (An old enemy? An evil prince? An SS officer? A monster?) who would be very hard to avoid if the party wants to get past them. Other ideas are a diplomatic scenario with multiple factions (preferably ones that vehemently refuse to talk to each other despite physical vicinity, thus placing the players in the role of mediators), an erotic session where every compartment features a different person/group to interact with, and so on.
When speaking of isolation in regard to a train setting, one is likely to think of the Wild West, where a steel horse runs across limitless prairies, or perhaps of the trans-Siberian railroad. However, if you think about it, even a contemporary Town A — Town B train is quite efficiently cut off from the surrounding world. If a terrorist attack, sudden epidemic or alien invasion happens in a building or any other fixed place, then of course it is still a problem for the locals, but at least some sort of counter-strike can always be organized; try doing the same in against a high-speed train though. Such a vehicle can of course be easily destroyed (by disabling tracks or a number of other means), but if the train or its cargo must be saved, then one’s options are quickly reduced to scratching their head in hope that something extraordinary happens (for example, that a group of player characters on board will solve the problem).
Travelling by train is choke full of elements that guarantee quick and sudden death, such as speed, embankments at least 10 m high and bridges over chasms at least 100 m deep (after J. Wittlin, author of the classical and spectacular Scribbler’s Vademecum, which takes great pleasure ridiculing common tropes in fiction books). Velocity, breakneck jumps, hijackings and breakdowns — these are all quite common in movies, which means that they are thoroughly tested and stimulate imagination well. Why not use them in an RPG session, where they can still pass for a novelty? Action scenarios are bound to pick up the pace if fights happen on the roofs of speeding carriages, and if a valid way of eliminating a foe is to position their head on the path of an incoming concrete pillar. Besides, the element of danger can easily be used as a time limiter: if we don’t stop the train within 30 minutes, we will all die in a precipice!
Whoever controls the engine, controls the entire train. What’s more, the locomotive is normally located at the very front of the entire thing, which makes it easy to defend by any faction which succeeds in securing it. If all you want is to get off, you just need to separate your carriage (and everything behind it) from the train’s front, but if you want to stop the entire train, you must seize control of the engine. This motif was used many times in action films, so there is no need to elaborate on it much.
If you want, you can also make the players ask the question: is there even a driver on board? Emotions guaranteed.
6. Where to steal from
Finally, let me give you a short list of possible inspirations for railroad-related scenarios. I hope they will provide your players with a healthy dose of stress, and yourself — with diabolical satisfaction.
Fantômas Returns (Fantômas se déchaîne)
North by Northwest
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
Firefly episode: The Train Job
Soldier of Fortune (level with the nuclear warhead)
Star Wars: Jedi Academy (mission on Corellia)
Railroad Tycoon/Transport Tycoon Deluxe and similar (because theory never hurts)