Freight Car 4 (Sci-fi RPG scenario)
This is a stand-alone sci-fi adventure that’s meant to be system and universe agnostic — it could be played out in any game that supports the idea of a high-tech train stretching for miles.
Whether it’s a MagLev train, as it’s described here, or a Galaxy Express affair that’s crossing a quadrant of Andromeda, this adventure is meant to work just as well after some adjusting.
I lay out a narrative structure that I’ve found works well for this sort of scenario, and propose a story-line with characters that fulfill the roles I describe in it. This is not meant to be an authoritative, prescriptive structure. These are just some building blocks other GMs can play with, but they’re not the only ones that fit.
Trains are meant to be self-contained environments to a degree, confined but dynamic, crossing a landscape that could be beautiful and inviting, but inaccessible or prohibitively dangerous.
This adventure plays into that — the players have to accomplish their goals with a limited number of options, no realistic chance of retreat, and with the background that they’re going from one place to another. This allows this adventure to be either a focal point of the player’s career or merely a notable incident that happens along the way.
The journey the train is on couldn’t be more routine. The tracks, or trajectory as the case would be, are set in stone.
In this particular instance the train will carry unusual cargo. That cargo should be crucial to the motivation of at least 2 of the characters involved. I will provide my own examples in order to tie everything together for my implementation of this adventure, but other GMs should feel free to bring their own McGuffins.
On the subject of characters, I’ve found that the following structure works best. Keep in mind that the players could take up any of these roles:
- Train guards — neutral but vigilant.
- Train robbers — should have a clear goal in mind. Tying it to the “special” cargo works best.
- Spy — also with a clear goal, works best when diametrically opposed to the train robbers’ own, and the train guards will actively pursue them as well.
- Passengers — neutral and aloof, though not necessarily passive.
Having laid that out, here’s what I did with it.
A MagLev train crosses a desert across an untamed land. Its tracks gird an untamed world. It’s the thread that stitches nations together, and in the vastness of these badlands, it’s a gleaming bubble of civilized life.
A madman, a tyrant, a spoiled child that was told his entire life that he was a living god, has died. The nation that he ruled is gripped in a civil war. That, however, is nothing more than something to talk about aboard the train — something that is happening far away. The passengers talk about it, if they’re bored enough, as an academic matter.
There is one passenger among them to whom it matters greatly, and it’s the reason why he’s aboard the train.
In one of the freight cars there is a massive box of smooth, dark metal. It stands out amidst all the beaten-up and corroded shipping containers, random pieces of luggage, and other assorted cargo.
That black box, and dozens like it throughout the world, were the tyrant’s bid for true immortality. Each one of those boxes contains what amounts to an incubator and human embryos, clones of the tyrant, who are about to be awakened.
They’re meant to appear suddenly around the globe, sow chaos, rally believers, and wage war against one another until one of them retakes the tyrant’s throne, not as an usurper or heir, but as a continuation of his life and reign.
That passenger knows about the box, about the plan, and he intends to stop it, no matter the cost, so no one will have to experience the same horrors he did at the hands of the tyrant.
Others know. Others, aboard a small caravan of vehicles, coming in parallel to the tracks, keeping their speed up, checking their equipment, loading ammunition, wait for the train with cold professionalism. They intend to open the box, and spark the ascension war themselves in His Name.
To everyone else, it’s just another day, another trip, waiting for their lives to resume once they get there. That, of course, will change when the fast-moving vehicles come along each side of the train, and the hijackers launch themselves on-board.
Trains, in general, limit space to one narrow axis. From a storytelling perspective, that means that characters have just one path they can follow, with obstacles and bottlenecks along the way.
In a massive sci-fi train, that limitation is less significant, but it definitely ought to be played-up for the sake of the action and story. It allows us to have tense standoffs, exciting chases, and suspenseful hunting scenes where players, regardless of their role, are forced to be engaged.
In my instance of this adventure, the cars are connected via a series of airlock-like barriers at either end. There is also a miniature tram (no standing room, very cramped) that the train’s own security guards can access.
Generally speaking, trains, especially ones of the scale we’re talking about here, would likely have dozens, if not hundreds of cars. Practicality dictates that only 1 car per type should be depicted.
These are the only truly “inhabitable” spaces of the train. Everything is uncomfortable or dangerous, usually both. Still, the purpose of these cars is to extract as much money as possible out of its cargo — Economy class is there to sell tickets, but also to encourage passengers to pay a premium, usually twice the price, for business class tickets. First class is the very lap of luxury, far beyond the other two.
The passenger car is a slice of society itself. Passengers in the coach and economy section are stuffed into the smallest space possible. Rows upon rows of tightly-packed chairs, with the best seats, at best, offering a view of the entertainment screens that have been placed in such a way that all passengers can be monitored easily, and kept as far away as possible from the higher-paying passengers.
Business class is really a minor upgrade; passengers pay for exclusivity, and slightly more leg room. Their accommodations are also slightly upgraded, with entertainment screens for each passenger and a small bar at the far end of the lounge.
Meanwhile, first class is a level of luxury that goes beyond the reasonable. The reclining chairs there have every single imaginable feature, such as a full entertainment suite, noise isolation, privacy screens, localized air conditioning, a la carte service, a fully-stocked bar and small conference rooms. What’s more, the entrance to this section of the passenger car is a false door that can only be activated with a properly vetted first-class ticket.
The passenger cars also include a small staff lounge, bathrooms, and a communal bar that is accessible to both business and first-class passengers. There, they’re able enjoy light refreshments; it’s mostly there to give first-class passengers a chance to rub elbows with the “hoi polloi” in a comfortable setting, under the often disinterested supervision of one of the guard-conductors on duty.
A friendly game of cards
Long train rides tend to be dull affairs, regardless of what kind of ticket you bought, and humanity has always been instinctively drawn to playing games. Card games, of any stakes, are a very common sight in the shared lounge.
Likewise, there is a species of bon-vivant that makes a good living of just riding the rails and fleecing the more affluent passengers. If they’re good or charismatic enough, it’s an enjoyable, though costly, experience for their marks. However, it’s a tight-rope act of sleight-of-hand, manipulation, wits and luck.
Things can go wrong very quickly.
Rules are meant to be broken. Ambition requires not taking no for an answer. Sometimes the bathroom lines in economy are too long. Eventually, someone, for some reason, will try to jump the barrier from one class to another.
Jumping from economy to business class is a feat. Obstacles include:
- The staff
- 2 locked doors
Defeating the locks is a matter of having the right tools and skills. Getting past the staff is a little more subjective, but still possible.
The real trick is breaking into first class without raising all kinds of alarms, but the first obstacle they would have to overcome is usually the most vexing: First class has no obvious entrance. A panel slides out of the way when a first class passenger walks up to it.
The mechanical devices involved in this kind of trickery can be any number of things. The central point is that lockpicks and fast-talking are not going to be enough.
Whether it’s hacking the train’s central computer, bribing a guard, or using some other extraordinary power, whoever tries to get into first class will have to put a lot at risk to do so.
Freight Car 4
The guard-conductors know the walkways and safe passages through these inhospitable cars well enough to navigate them without incident, and patrol the freight cars regularly. Anyone else lurking there are, at best, trespassing while they risk their lives.
Lacking insulation, sound proofing, and maintenance in general, a train’s freight cars are not a safe place to wander through. The sound of the roaring train is deafening, the temperate spikes randomly while travelling through open country, and the danger of untethered cargo is quite real.
Stacks of shipping containers can be up to 10 containers tall, and they tend to sway shift. Passengers’ luggage is heaped on webbed palettes, separating the chemical barrels from the rows of vehicles being shipped at the opposite end of the car.
There are walkways running the length of the car, meant for maintenance crews during emergencies, with ladders down to the car’s main floor. They’re barely wide enough for a single person to walk on them, and there’s a good chance for corrosion along its support beams.
The containers could be centuries old, having traveled for millions of miles on the tracks. As such, they’re covered in history, not just rust, scorch-marks and dents. They’re also covered in graffiti, ranging from obscene, humorous, nonsensical, pious or heretical messages. In a way, those containers could transcend time, offering a view of the moments of history they’ve traveled through.
A ticking time bomb can be a figurative or literal hazard. Even without opposition, searching for something in the freight cars is a risky proposition. Breaking into the freight car itself is relatively simple but difficult affair. Routine patrols come through, and the guard-conductors are intimately familiar with these tight spaces.
Finding anything here will be challenging on its own. Doing so in secret, doubly so. Finding something, doing so in secret, and then dealing with it will be a heroic feat in itself.
In some cases, it’s not so much a clandestine action as it is smash-and-grab robbery. Popping open a freight car isn’t too difficult — it’s not an armored vehicle. However, considering the speed at which the train travels, extraordinary tools and abilities would be required.
Sometimes things don’t go quietly, let alone planned, and they lead up to a confrontation of one kind or another.
Combat in a freight car is particularly dangerous. The deafening noise of the train can conceal running footsteps. The stacks sway and shift on their own accord, there may be barrels of substances that just don’t appreciate being shot at or smashed into, and the walkways may not survive bearing the weight of heavily armed combatants duking it out.
In all, combat in a freight car poses a different sort of danger on a “dynamic” battleground.
Locomotive & Control Center
Hauling the equivalent of a small city in cargo and passengers at a fraction of the speed of sound requires immense power. All of it comes from this section of the train; it’s the beast’s beating heart.
It’s also not intended for habitation — the room left for the crew is narrow and poorly illuminated. A three-story-high neck leads to the control platform, which is accessible only through a lift that can carry three people at most.
Narrow corridors that shudder with the noise of the power plants feeding the magnets below make for an even more hostile environment. The engineers that drive and maintain the train have to be a certain type of person; they have to be someone who can work in a deafening, user-unfriendly environment.
The train’s conductors are quartered here, usually enough for two shifts of 3 engineers and 8 guard-conductors. Working, eating, sleeping, surviving in such a tight space isn’t something many people can do. It should be noted that there are only 8 available bunk-beds. The math doesn’t work out.
From the control deck, though, the view of the outside is unparalleled.
Using brute force to stop the train would require an army’s worth of firepower. It isn’t fragile prey. Sneaking into the control room and disabling the train’s engine is easier.
However, there are security cameras along the length of the service corridors. The doors all require access passes. The elevator is prohibitively small. Easier is a relative term.
Beyond the physical security measures, the train itself is designed to be resilient — stopping it has to be more than just flipping a switch. To sabotage the train with a lighter touch should require some preparation and foreknowledge.