What is it about a train that makes it such a strong symbol of salvation? An extension of some still ingrained Manifest Destiny? The sense of locomotion on such a grand scale? The grandeur thousands of miles of track; a bold conquest over nature? Connecting people from so far away?
I’m just speculating here, but I’ve seen trains multiple times in games: Scott White’s Iron Road, John Harper’s Ghost Lines his ongoing rail Apocalypse World game, and now Mike’s Redemption Rail. Transportation means getting out of this horrible place, with the hope that there is something better on the horizon? Regardless of the psychological or sociological reasons, I know my experience playing games centered around trains has always been one of strong purpose, there was something worthwhile to strive for!
History of Redemption Rail
Redemption Rail was formerly an isolated railway junction and during the Apocalypse a great train passed through. It was westward bound and escaping a disaster in the east. The train was almost a complete ecosystem (like Snowpiecer) with solar panels on top, and cars devoted to providing it’s own food and water. For an unknown reason, someone decoupled the tail end leaving most of who would become the decedents of the holding. These original residents are known as the Waysiders, and they struggled to survive in what is equivalent of the Nevada badlands. Over time, they formed a religion centering on two beliefs: there was place in the west called Pair-of-Dice filled with clean water and green plants, and that a great engine would come and carry the remaining cars to there.
Though, Redemption Rail is isolated, there were rare trade caravans that would drop by a few times a year. Unfortunately, it wasn’t immune to raider attacks, and one particularly nasty one struck about fifteen years ago that decimated the community. Among the dead was the spouse of the Gunlugger who also was one of the parents of the Hocus. This encouraged a man named Frost to take over Redemption Rail who ruled the Rail who became a despot eventually lead him to a confrontation the Waysider who were opposing him. This confrontation critically injured the Hocus and killed their twin sibling. In retaliation, the Gunlugger single-handedly murdered Frost and his entire gang (about 20 people). Some say it was justified, while others believe they should of spared the less enthused members of his gang. Following Frost’s downfall, there has been relative peace in the holding. Though there was no clear leader, the Hocus took over the Waysider, and through it, was able to keep any significant conflict arising for the next ten years.
Gradually, refugees began to trickle into Redemption Rail, escaping either devasting raider attacks, or a natural disaster. The raider attacks all came from a group known as the Immolators: brutal cannibals with seemingly supernatural powers that swept over holdings like locust picking everything clean before moving on. K the Ruin Runner, knows of them intimately, but rarely speaks about them. The natural disaster has come to be known as the Conflagration and is responsible for most of the refugees that have ended up in Redemption Rail. It is a fire that burns out east, and immolates regardless of the presence of fuel, poisoning the land, water, and sky with it’s smoke.
During this period, the Hocus started getting visions of the Savvyhead and the Conflagration. The visions showed that a great fire was coming to Redemption Rail, and the only means to escape it was for a new engine to be built by this Savvyhead. Though many of the Waysiders were faithful, they were still surprised when the Savvyhead showed up with their sibling, the Brainer. Unfortunately, the Savvyhead wasn’t the only refugee to show up, as the Conflagration started claiming the last remaining holdings out east, causing a horde of refugees to poor into Redemption Rail, many of which lead by the Chopper, Canker.
Facing starvation, it was the generosity of the Hocus and the Waysiders that saved the refugees, but now the holding is facing food and water shortages as the refugees doubled the number of people in the holding.This has caused increased tensions between the Hocus’s cult and Canker’s gang the Prarie-Jackals, vying for the limited resources in Redemption Rail. For now, peace has been maintained, but pressure is building for change to occur, good or ill.
The Cast of Redemption Rail
For this game, Michael created six pre-generated characters that already had history within the rail. He also tweaked the playbooks some to fit the setting. We had:
Canker the Chopper: You lost everything to the Conflagration except your daughter, who was burned badly, but survived.. You arrived at Redemption Rail with nothing, but have managed to transform a fair number of your fellow refugees into the very dangerous gang: the Prairie-Jackals.
Hector or Hope the Hocus: Fifteen years ago, a feud broke out in Redemption Rail between two factions which you and your sibling found yourself opposite sides of. Not wanting to kill your own twin, both of you tried to broker peace, but, in the end, you were gravely injured and your sibling was shot dead. In the aftermath, you took over the Wayside church and have nearly doubled the size of your congregation. Unfortunately, the refugees, the raiders, and the coming of the Conflagration threaten the stability you bled for.
Samson/Sister the Gunlugger: You remember the world before the Conflagration, though you were very young then. You spent your entire life in Redemption Rail raising your twins, Hector and Hope praying that they never know they pain you had to endure to survive. Then the feud broke out and you nearly lost both your children. With one in the ground and one at death’s door you snapped and went to murdering every single one of those sons of bitches. Fifteen years later you still have all their guns as mementos of slaughter you committed, but you swore you’d never use them again…unless you had to.
K the Ruin Runner: You are the only one who have seen the Immolators and lived, but the price you paid for your survival was very high. You had to watch everyone you ever loved, including your entire family be tortured and murdered. You yourself were no stranger to their cruelties, but one day, you managed to get the upper hand on one of your captors and you bashed his face in with a crowbar before escaping into the wasteland. Out there, you learned to survive with nothing but your wits, but the isolation was too much to bear so you found your way to Redemption Rail. Most see you as complete wackjob, but you can’t help it. It’s hard to talk to people after all you’ve been through. Luckily, someone has taken pity on you and given you place to stay, and more importantly, their friendship.
Ash the Savvyhead:Your father was a fucking monster, but he had to try and sacrifice your sibling for you to discover that. After you gunned him down, Phoenix and you escaped to Redemption Rail. There you found your abilities to fix old tech has made you invaluable. However, there is prophecy of a great engine and you role in creating and you’re not sure if this a party you want to play.
Phoenix the Brainer: Your father was a fucking monster and Ash saved you from him, or at least that’s what you both want to believe… You are incredibly gifted as well as cursed. In addition, you have insight on an enemy no one else understands.
Highlights of play
We selected K (Karen), Ash (Bry), Pheonix (Mike), and Canker (Sean). The other two characters became important NPCs in the story. I don’t want to go into to many details because there are some fronts and threats that Mike is a) still working on and b) planning to drop on players at Dead of Winter.
We saw an awesome transformation of K from a terrified creature to someone whose drive gave him courage. In our first scene when given the choice of saving his own skin or facing his fears to help another K just bolted! Boom, he was out of there. In our final confrontation though, K didn’t lead the “charge” (we were mostly running anyway) but he did show us where we needed to be, despite the risk to himself.
Ash and Phoenix were two sisters that had been messed up something fierce by their father. We never got the whole story behind Phoenix but it was pretty clear that her name wasn’t coincidental and that her sister had somehow given her a new life. It was great that Ashed loved her sister unconditionally, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t a little scared of her too. Brainers, right?
This moment when Ash gives Canker’s daughter a present (a hood ornament from the SUV that we just took by force) and she turns to her daughter and asks “what do you do when someone gives you something?” and Delfinia immediately ferrets the shiny object away under many layers and inside a hidden pocket safe from robbers and thieves. “Good girl!”.
The mounting complications involved with turning on the “Food Switch” (my character’s very limited understanding of hydroponics and gardening combined with a real urgency for food meant she just kept driving towards whatever the Savvyhead said was needed to provide food).
Fucking running away through a minefield! K had a secret holdout on the other side of the minefield and woe be to those who try to chase him down. We found Bone in pieces afterwards.
Pheonix getting to the truth of the matter…one broken brain at a time.
I usually play characters that care, that are at some level driven by compassion. They are easier to empathize with for me. Canker wasn’t that person. She cared about her daughter. She cared, in a general sense, about stability, but she gave exactly zero fucks for people that got in her way. We started the game with me “making an example” of Fuckboy and curb stomping he head against the rail itself. In fact, up till the end, most of the blood spilled was by Canker asserting herself over the savage fucking Prairie-Jackals. I think I realized I was breaking my norm when Bry said “I know now not to fuck with Sean when we play Apocalypse World”. Being badass in this game isn’t hard, but when I heard the siren call of “This is a Canker problem” I responded.
Mike B did a fantastic job of playing a Brainer who was fucked up, but not weird for the sake of being weird. Pheonix wanted to know the truth about her father, about the impending doom, and about the doomsday cult that hailed it. All the scary ass shit she did was in the service of finding out that truth, and then acting on the knowledge she had.
Lots of strong ties in this game. Between Ash and Phoenix, between Canker and Delfinia, between Ash and Lagato (sp?). Some great PC-NPC-PC triangles between Phoenix-Bone-Canker (Phoenix knew Bone was our enemy, Canker trusted her with her daughter) and K-Samson-Canker (Samson had taken K in and took care of him, Canker threatened to put a hole in the old man’s head if K didn’t return her daughter). You know, good, healthy relationships.
The props, both the map and the pictures were great. They breathed life into the characters…which we snuffed out one by one. Sorry Pampers, Bone, Gerber, Fuckboy, Diesel, et al.
Ash’s scene where she used and old timey radio to tune into the Psychic Maelstrom and find out what started this all was just amazing. The call backs were great.
Mike’s answer to what was needed to fix the train was great. Drove two PCs (Ash and Canker) right against each other!
What could have improved
The Conflagration, a force beyond mortal ken existed alongside the Psychic Maelstrom. I think it would have been stronger (and present less confusion when making moves like “open your brain”) if it was the Psychic Maelstrom. In this world, that’s what it is!
There were some NPC relationships between Hope and Grove and Hope and Sampson that made sense but they weren’t “charged”. No PC agency meant the players were bystanders to their development which dragged some energy out of the game. It seems like Hope is a pretty central character. She should be given out first, before the other characters are offered.
We had some discussion after the game about pitching this as horror. The horrific threats were distant and external. The immediate threats were personal (two people at odds) or based on scarcity (food, water, etc). There were great but didn’t evoke horror or fear. We needed more announcing future badness in the form of our loved ones being either converted or consumed by the unknowable threat.