This Train is Bound for Story… Part 1

Two things lately have had me thinking about trains in the context of telling stories at the game table.

First, there’s the Zeitgeist adventure – Always on Time from EN Publishing and designer Jacob Driscoll. We’ve been playing the 4e version for a few sessions now and I have to say it’s been interesting to see how things progress. Even though my character is VERY out of his element, it’s not stopping us from blundering stop to stop in a mad dash to solve the mystery in Orient Express style.

Second, there’s the movie Snowpiercer, which is now available to stream on Netflix. It’s full of political commentary and action, set in a dystopian, apocalyptic future.

trainsetSo what does this have to do with gaming? Well, I’m not offering a review of Zeitgeist (other than to say that it’s awesome) nor am I giving you a movie review of Snowpiercer… Instead, I’m going to muse for a bit on the train as a metaphor to help with adventure and campaign design.

I’ve mentioned a few times that my preferred style of game to run is a sandbox. I like setting up the locations, kicking a hornet’s nest, and seeing where the players take me. Though it may not take me where I expected to go, it will probably get me someplace fun I’ll have to think my way out of quickly – and that’s part of the give and take at the table. But not every group likes having that much control of the situation.

When I kick that hornet’s nest, I usually have some idea what might happen next but don’t think too far down the line, tending to rely on the players quite a bit for inspiration. But what if we approach it a little different, setting up some milestones at major plot points along the way?

Consider the storyline as a continuum. If you have a true beginning, middle, and end, you could view each transition from act to act as a station on the tracks. Maybe you stop along the way to explore a particular station or maybe your train is an express blowing straight through as quickly as possible. The trick then becomes deciding at what points to set up stations.

Those stations might be physical locations or plot points. Our beginning, middle, and end might be just as interesting stops along the way as cities, towns, or whatever else lies on the map.

Then look at the PCs and NPCs as the passengers on the story continuum. On any journey there are characters that arrive and leave at their own whims and needs. Some may travel from the beginning of the track all the way to the bitter end. Others may only stay from one stop to the next as a quicker means of moving along. Zeitgeist taught me that and it’s a great lesson. In this case, we’re not moving far distances but using the plot points as stage entrances and exits.

Next time we’ll look at my idea for the Phaedrus adventure and see if I can apply the Train idea…

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