Brotherhood_of_the_RailRunning a game of Brotherhood of the Rail is similar in most ways to running any other FAE game, but there are some tips and tricks to getting the right “feel” to the game.



In a broad sense, hobos in Brotherhood of the Rail are paladins.  Like paladins, they have no more wealth than they can carry with them.  Like paladins they travel.  And like paladins they are always finding situations in which they need to help those in trouble, right wrongs, and do good deeds without any sort of expectation of reward or widespread recognition.  Their power and authority to do good comes from within themselves and is not necessarily recognized by either civil or religious authorities.  And like paladins they often have minor magical powers that aid and support them.

Morality in a Brotherhood of the Rail game should be pretty black-and-white.  Bad guys should be bad, and good guys should be good.  The only time grey areas should come into it are a) PCs Trouble or other compels, b) NPCs who have to make difficult choises in order to survive or protect others.  The former is necessary in order to make compels function correctly, and the latter to give an appropriate feeling of quiet desperation to the setting as a whole.  The Great Depression was a tough time and people were often forced by circumstances to make choices they would not make otherwise.  Both salvation and redemption should be major themes for any Brotherhood of the Rail campaign.

Minneapolis Teamsters strike of 1934

One thing that should almost never be a central theme of a Brotherhood of the Rail game is violence.  Unlike paladins in fantasy roleplaying games, hobos in BoTR will seldom if ever have access to magic swords – or tommy guns, shotguns, or even butterfly knives or shuriken.  In addition, having your hobos go around beating people to a pulp to solve problems reinforces the whole “Murder Hobo” stereotype common in roleplaying games – a stereotype that will quickly spoil any BotR game you run.  Real solutions to problems should come through interaction and problem solving, not combat.  But what about those characters who are combat specialists – the pugilists and palookas and veterans?  Leaving combat entirely out of the game will make them irrelevant and rob BotR of some important character tropes.  The answer is to make sure that combat is relevant and directed.  Beating up a night watchman to get into a warehouse – probably not OK, he’s just a mook who doesn’t deserve to get the tar beaten out of him, even if the owner of the warehouse might.  On the other hand, helping to defend unionizing workers against corrupt strike breaking police might work.  Combat against an evil railroad bull who has been murdering hobos is appropriate.  Supernatural creatures like vampires are certainly deserving of a fist to the face, and enforcers for the big bad are often (though not always) fair game.  What’s important here is to avoid putting PCs up against men and women (and even supernatural critters) that don’t fall into the black side of the setting’s black-and-white morality.  Poor working schmucks, even if they happen to be working for someone really bad, are best avoided as targets for violence.

Another major theme for Brotherhood of the Rail is scarcity.  Times are hard, and basic resources are frequently in short supply.  Infrastructure in rural areas is rare and ill-maintained, and often vastly overtaxed in urban areas.  This means that improvisation – and sometimes appropriation – are frequently the order of the day.  Hobos will often need to get creative in order to get together the resources they need to solve problems.  But again the black-and-white morality of the of the setting should preclude outright looting, theft, mugging, etc.  The occasional minor swindle is OK and a well accepted part of the folklore (as well as the reality) of the Great Depression.  For example, pretending to be religious in order to cadge a donut and coffee from the Salvation Army is probably ok for the genre.  Pretending to be religious in order to steal the donation pot from the Salvation Army probably isn’t.  It’s a matter of scale – as GM you should usually overlook a very minor swindle, particularly if it is pulled off in an amusing or clever manner, but any swindle that might stand to really hurt innocents or working class folks breaks the feel of the setting.

Also bearing in mind the idea of scarcity, BotR is best with no more than 3-4 characters.  There need to be some weak approaches in the party, and they shouldn’t be able to count on someone in the group having a +2 to throw out in any given situation.  A big part of the fun of the FATE system is letting players set up Advantages that allow them future bonuses – use this as a resource in BotR games.  Set your difficulty numbers high and make players come up with numerous different ways to set themselves up for success on that crucial roll to convince Boss Markham to give the widow Greely back the deed to her farm.  Occasionally, you may want to throw a character into a situation where they have to use their -1 approach.  Don’t overuse this, but be sure to keep it in your bag of tricks – while players often dread such moments, success will be a memorable occasion for the player and the group.  Hard work is a hallmark of the Depression – there should be no easy or quick victories.

So what ARE characters in BotR supposed to do?  In short they are supposed to help people, get into trouble, and get out of trouble.  In the Great Depression there are a LOT of people in trouble.  Millions have lost everything in bank collapses and the destruction of the Dust Bowl.  And for every person who has lost everything, there are 10 more who are just barely hanging on.  Workers struggle to gain better working conditions, often provoking violent reactions from police and corporate leg-breakers.  Epidemics of influenza, typhus, and polio can be devastating locally and sometimes more broadly.  Even the rumor of outbreaks can spread panic.  In rural areas diseases previously conquered by immunization, such as Diptheria, are making a reappearance.

In BoTR there are also supernatural threats to deal with – spooks and haints, malevolent faeries, werewolves, vampires and other nasty creatures prowl the night and threaten innocents.  These threats almost always fall onto the black side of the morality equation, and are a good opportunity for characters to take their white hats off for a time and really cut loose.  The local sheriff isn’t going to object to you burning Old Man Greevy’s house once he finds out that Old Man Greevy is a blood sucker.  Occasionally supernatural threats should provide wonder or opportunities for a different sort of plot rather than being simple evil.  Riding the Wabash Cannonball to the Yonder, visiting the Rock Candy Mountain, or having to mediate between Seelie and Unseelie fairies in a small Louisiana town are good examples of this.

And not everything in the Depression is dark.  Events are afoot that will provide for America’s rise to greatness.  Many of the large infrastructure projects that survive to this day such as electrification, dam construction, and the beginnings of a federal highway system, are underway or beginning.  As the Depression goes on, the federal government begins projects that will employ thousands of migrant laborers.  Bring characters in on these large-scale projects.  Can they find the source of the Gremlins that are keeping the first China Clipper grounded?  Help expose corruption in a Tennessee Valley Authority project?  Can they help police capture John Dillinger?  Perhaps they might meet with famous individuals such as Huey Long, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Woody Guthrie?  There are big, important events and history-making people all across America during the Great Depression, and these should be sprinkled into your plots to give players and their characters a sense of their historical place in the campaign.

One difficulty with the setting of BotR is the level of mobility of the characters.  The campaign can and should be moving around constantly as characters follow seasonal labor and good weather across the United States.  This can give BotR a very episodic feel and make it difficult to create any longer-term plots.  One solution to this is to make the main adversaries as mobile as the characters – a gang of yeggs, for example, that keeps popping up in the path of the characters like a bad penny.  Or place adversaries in places where the characters will have to go repeatedly, such as the “main stem” areas of big cities like New York or San Francisco.  If they establish close ties to a particular place then make sure there is reason for them to go there – not always, but repeatedly.  You can also build long-term plots around a character’s Trouble Aspect (well, any Aspect really, but Trouble works particularly well).  Personify their Trouble as much as possible – make it a “who” and not a “what”.  If a character is an alcoholic, personify it by having a Salvation Army or Temperance League member take an interest in them, or turn their craving for alcohol into a little demon that sits on their shoulder, whispering temptations.

Depression-era America is a fantastic place to set a game, and has all the elements needed for high drama.  If you draw on the historical setting, even just a sprinkling, while you run your games of BotR you will be repaid with happy players, hours of fun gaming, and some good stories to tell in future years about the great moments in roleplaying that you help to create.+

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Here are links to all the articles on Brotherhood of the Rail that I wrote – all in one place for completeness!







I hope you enjoy this setting.  If you do, please drop me a line and let me know!  If you try out a game, that goes double.

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Here are all my articles on conversion of Blue Rose to Fate Core and Fate Accelerated for ease of access.










I hope you enjoy the conversion!  If you do, please post comments on my website!  If you take it out for a test drive that goes double!


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Brotherhood of the Rail – Adversaries


Below are a number of adversaries, both mundane and supernatural, that you can use in games of “Brotherhood of the Rail”.

Bad Actors

This represents a gang of opportunist thugs who beat and rob hobos.  They might be other migrants, local teens, deputized citizens, organized crime lowlifes, or any one of a variety of low level thugs.  They might also be gangs of predatory children, orphaned by the Depression.  They aren’t much of a threat in themselves, but will usually target lone (and preferably injured) hobos.

Skilled (+2) at attacking the weak, intimidating, running away

Bad (2) at stand-up fights, socializing with other hobos

They can come in groups of up to a dozen (6 stress boxes) but most commonly are 2-6 (1-3 stress boxes).

Pack of dogs

Dogs are a common threat to hobos, and this group can represent anything from a couple of junkyard dogs to an entire pack of hounds set on fugitives.

Skilled (+2) at chasing, smelling, running (sometimes biting)

Bad (-2) at climbing, getting into enclosed areas

One hit will take out a dog.  Give them one stress box for every two dogs in the pack.


Yeggs are far more dangerous than the Bad Actors they resemble – Yeggs are professional criminals who travel the rails in order to avoid the law.  They might be safe crackers, murderers, professional muscle hired by the railroads, etc.  Unlike Bad Actors, a group of Yeggs is sufficiently tightly knit that they take consequences before being completely defeated.  A hobo expecting an easy tussle with a few Bad Actors can be in for a very nasty surprise if it turns out that they are Yeggs instead.

Skilled (+2) at Defending, Attacking, one sort of criminal activity (robbery, assault, theft, etc.)

Bad at:  interaction outside their gang,

A gang of Yeggs will typically have around 3 stress boxes, and the normal complement (2, 4, 6) of consequence boxes.  Unless directly involved in their preferred criminal activity, however, Yeggs will generally give up a conflict after losing their stress boxes.

Gangs of Yeggs are typically led by an important Bad Guy, who should be statted up as appropriate.

Railroad Bull

These are police and security guards hired by the railroads to assure that hobos either a) pay for riding on trains, or b) don’t ride them at all.  A typical railroad bull should be a challenge for a group of hobos – they are usually armed with some sort of club and sometimes carry guns.  Some will simply do their jobs like reasonable men, but a few are sadistic monsters who delight in robbing or killing hobos.  Particularly vicious railroad bulls, such as the notorious Texas Slim, will be near to legendary figures, and extremely powerful and difficult to defeat.


Sheriffs are similar to railroad bulls, and should be created as major bad guys.  Unlike most Bulls, however, Sheriffs have access to a few deputies, lots of firearms, and the ability to call on the police departments of neighboring towns  and to deputize large numbers of people in case of emergency (such as an entire group of Player Characters arriving in their town and causing trouble).  Attacking any member of the law enforcement community, no matter how corrupt, dishonest, or evil, is generally a bad idea, and will usually instigate a massive manhunt for the perpetrator.  Defeating a Sheriff should involve outwitting him or convincing him to become an ally.


With a few exceptions, supernatural threats should always be major bad-guys.  They may be able to control more mundane threats (werewolves, for example, may be able to control packs of dogs), but any supernatural threat should be pretty tough to handle and not be easily defeated.


Often serving as independent minor troublemakers, or as the servants/lackeys of more powerful faeries, gremlins delight particularly in destroying complex machinery and/or stealing, pestering, and generally annoying people.  Virtually infinite in numbers, defeating a group of gremlins will provide at best a temporary respite before whoever or whatever is summoning them just gets a bunch more.

Skilled (+2) at:  breaking machinery, stealing, biting, defending against attacks other than cold iron

Poor (-2) at:  defending against cold iron, resisting milk

One hit of any type by a weapon of cold iron will defeat a gremlin.  They have two stress boxes against any other sort of attack.  Gremlins appear individually or in groups – sometimes very large groups.


A Haint is a ghost or apparition.  It usually occupies a specific location, but it sometimes tied to a specific object or (more rarely still) a specific individual.  Usually a Haint is the spirit of a person, but it can sometimes be the manifestation of some great evil that took place in a particular location.  Haints vary greatly in appearance and abilities – some are no more than voices or cold areas, while others can visibly manifest.  Some haints can communicate, but urually in cryptic ways such as riddles, obscure references, gestures, or writing on mirrors or frosted windows.

Haints are usually impossible to defeat permanently unless the events causing them to manifest are dealt with.  Physical conflict with them is usually a waste of time, though characters with aspects like “Magical” and “Supernatural” can activate their aspects to affect Haints normally for one round.


Gargouille Rougarou by PhantomCrowsA particular Louisiana take on the werewolf, by the time of the Depression the Rougarou can be found across America, though it is still most common in the Bayous (and Quebec).  Rougarou are typically loners, though some are able to summon and control packs of local dogs/coyotes/wolves.  They are humans cursed to take the form of a wolf-headed man (0r less commonly a supernaturally large wolf) and roam the countryside.

Rougarou are often associated with themes of obedience/disobedience.  Common methods for being transformed into a rougarou are failure to observe lent, being disrespectful to a witch, or chronically disobeying parents.  The curse typically lasts for 101 days, and is then transferred to another through a bite or consumption of the rougarou’s blood.

During the day the rougarou appears as a normal, though somewhat sickly, person.  At night they transform and haunt the area, killing anything they can catch.  Individuals frequently react with real horror to what they have become, taking extreme steps such as locking themselves in cages or chaining themselves to trees in order to prevent their murderous rampages.  These methods are seldom successful for more than a day or two.  The curse typically lasts 101 days, after which time the original rougarou may become free of it by passing the curse to someone else by feeding them some of the rougarou’s blood.

Defeating a rougarou in combat is extremely challenging.  They are not susceptible to silver.  Usually it takes something associated with the reason for the curse being bestowed in the first place (which may involve tracing the curse back through several incarnations) such as holy water, a parents tears, or a mojo bag from the witch who cast the curse in the first place in order to remove the curse, though it is also possible to simply kill the rougarou by chopping off its head if you can manage to put it down.


HIGH CONCEPT:  Reluctant Rougarou

TROUBLE:  husband and children

OTHER ASPECTS:  Rotarian, Home town girl


Careful:  Fair (+2) , Clever:  Average (+1), Flashy:  Average (+1), Forceful:  Legendary (+8)/Mediocre (+0),  Quick:  Fantastic (+6)/Mediocre (+0) , Sneaky:  Great (+4)/Poor (-1)

(When approaches have two listings, the first is for lougarou form, the second is for human form)


Because I am a rougarou, I gain +2 to defend against non-magical physical attacks unless they utilize my weakness

Because I am a rougarou, I gain +2 to physical attacks while in rougarou form at night.

Because I fear for my life if discovered, I gain +2 to resist any attempts to convince me to reveal anything about my rougarou nature or background

Because I hate my rougarou nature, once per game when in rougarou form I can transform back into a human for one round.  Players can spend a Fate Point per round thereafter to allow me to remain in human form for another round.  If attacked, I immediately transform back.

STRESS:  3 boxes





WEAKNESS:  Janet Ingles is a fourth generation rougarou.  The original recipient of the curse, Giles Wilson, was cursed because he beat up his elderly parents and stole money from them.  He now lives in a big house, while they live in a tarpaper shack with what remains of their possessions.  The curse’s weakness is exposure to any of Giles Wilson’s childhood toys (the parents have a box of them).

(Note that the rougarou is a good example of a statted up boss level bad guy.  The same general format can be used for other sorts of high level threat characters)


There are plenty of creatures with phenomenal, legendary power that PCs can interact with.  Usually these creatures should not be statted per se and scenarios should revolve around a) using them as patrons and getting them what they want, b) discovering some specific way that they are vulnerable and using that to temporarily thwart their plans.


The reaper of souls himself, Old Man Death is not specifically a figure of evil, though few would call him friend.  In the tough times of the depression, where poverty bred starvation and disease, and medical care was often lacking, it was not uncommon for those who were suffering an ailment which could not be cured to prepare themselves for the arrival of Old Man Death, and even speak of their upcoming encounter with relief as a release from the suffering and toil of the world.

When Old Man Death appears, either it is because your time has come, or because Old Man Death wishes to bargain for a life.  In some cases he may set a task for the Hobos, and spare the life of the one he has come to take if they succeed.  In other cases he may offer a wager, such as a fiddle contest or a game of chess or checkers.  Old Man Death will never offer a wager against any skill or ability that he is poor at (though very occasionally he can be tricked).  Most commonly he will have one approach that he is Legendary (+8) at, two that he is Fantastic (+6) at, one that he is Average (+1) at, and two in which he simply cannot be challenged.

Example:  Old Man Death challenges one of the hobos to a game of chess for his soul.  The GM decides that Old Man Death is Careful (+8), Clever (+6), Flashy (+1),  Quick (+6), and cannot be challenged at Forceful or Sneaky.  The easiest way to defeat Old Man Death at this chess game is with flashy, impressive moves and lots of banter or entertaining cross talk.  If someone decides to intimidate Old Man Death by knocking the board in his face or cheating, they lose automatically.


Angels are messengers and assistants to God, and will often appear in times of great spiritual trouble.  They can appear in any form they desire and will usually appear to hobos as another hobo (though one with a particularly noble or commanding bearing).

Angels have difficulty communicating with humans because they don’t really understand humans.  Angels do not experience time in a linear manner the way humans do, and see everything in terms of its moral, not physical consequences.  Because of this they often speak cryptically or symbolically, and it is extremely difficult to hold an extended conversation with them or to question them for details.

Example conversation with an angel

Angel:  Beware the tow-headed boy!

Hobo: Why?

Angel:  If you do not, the suffering will be great!

Hobo:  Suffering?  What kind of suffering?

Angel:  That caused by the tow-headed boy.

Hobo:  What will the tow-headed boy do?

Angel:  Cause great suffering!

Hobo:  But how?  Will he kill someone?  Die and break his family’s hearts?  Invent some kind of pois0n?  Be the cause of a terrible accident?

Angel:  Beware the tow-headed boy!


Other important legendary figures include such individuals as Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and John Henry; encounters with legendary places and things such as the Wabash Cannon Ball (a railroad version of the Flying Dutchman), the realm of faerie, and even the Rock Candy Mountain.

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Back to Part 3

On to Part 5

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Brotherhood_of_the_Rail1.  High Concept and Trouble

  • High Concept – your character’s High Concept should reflect their life as a Depression Era Hobo.  “Industrial Magnate” is not appropriate, but “Industrial Magnate Turned Drunk” might be.  Below are some suggested High Concepts.  This isn’t a list, but should serve to generate some ideas for the character’s High Concept.  Combining two or three of the ideas below allows for a large number of interesting concepts.
    • American Nomad – you have traveled all around the country
    • Big Ole – you are a big fella!
    • Boston Bum – other hobos tend to thing of you as sophisticated
    • Cajun Hobo – you know your way around bayous and swamps
    • Card Man – you are a member of the International Workers of the World, which makes you popular with employers
    • Circuit Rider – you have a steady income from Veterans benefits or Social Security
    • Coast Beggar – you are very familiar with the West Coast
    • Emperor – other hobos look to you for leadership
    • Flimflam Man – you are good at conning and hustling people
    • Fruit Tramp – you know about crops, and get along well with farmers
    • Gypsy – you have connections to the gypsy community
    • Home Guard – you are particularly knowledgeable about a particular city
    • Looloo – you are a pretty woman (or a handsome man)
    • Magical – you have been to the Candy Mountain and have discovered the magic of the hobo’s world
    • Palooka – you can throw a punch and take a punch
    • River Rat – you know your way around rivers, docks, and riverboats
    • Streamliner – you are particularly adept at travelling light and quick
    • Trombenick – you have connections with the Jewish community
  • Trouble – a character’s Trouble aspect is particularly important because it represents not only ways that the character can get in trouble, but stands in for the troubles and difficulties that hobos have in Depression-era America.  Careful consideration should be given to what sort of Trouble the character gets in.  Again, some examples are listed below:
    • Bad Actor -trouble follows you, and other hobos don’t trust you
    • Boob – you aren’t a smart one
    • Cabbage Head – you are addicted to drugs of some sort
    • Cracker – you are intolerant, uneducated, and rude – and you really don’t care
    • Dodger – honest work gives you the heebeegeebees.
    • Fall Guy – whenever something goes wrong, you’re always taking the blame.
    • Fink – you are known as a strike breaker and scab, and I.W.W. members and union sympathizers loathe you.
    • Gimped – you have lost an important part such as an arm, leg, or eye
    • Glass Jaw – you are a coward
    • Glims – you need spectacles in order to see worth squat
    • Gummy – you tend to stick to others and let them do the work
    • Hot – the law is after you
    • Sterno Drunk – regular alcoholism just doesn’t do it for you anymore
    • Stoolie – hobos know that you sell information about them to the railroads, but railroad folks like you
    • Yegg – you either are or have been the lowest form of life, a hobo who preys on other hobos.

2.  Another Aspect – add another aspect to your character.  This is a good place to round things out or add in something special or unique about your character.

3.  Name and Appearance – most hobos don’t go by their real name.  Instead they go by a nickname or moniker.  Flesh out your character’s appearance, and even give him or her a name if you like, but hold off on the moniker for now.

4.  Choose Approaches – when choosing approaches choose one Fair (+2), two at Average (+1), two at Mediocre (+0) and one at Poor (-1).*

5.  Create one stunt (regular or hobo magic) – Stunts in FAE come in two varieties – those that give a +2 bonus to a specific approach under specific circumstances, and those that allow the character to do something cool or bend the rules.  For this setting, the first are considered to be mundane stunts, and the latter are considered to be magical stunts.

Choose one stunt for your character.  If that stunt is magical, come up with some idea of what your magic is based on and what it looks like.

6.  Set your Refresh at 3.

7.  Moniker.  Your character’s Moniker is the name he or she uses with other hobos.  Monikers are usually the result of some incident in the hobo’s past – perhaps something significant, or perhaps something insignificant or even completely irrelevant that simply stuck.  It is a rare hobo indeed who actually gets to choose his or her moniker – they are almost always bestowed by other hobos.

Choose another player to give you your moniker.  That player can ask you questions about your character, offer you choices, or make the decision totally on his or her own as to what your moniker is (though the GM might veto particularly obnoxious monikers not in keeping with the spirit of the game).  The only other restriction is that the player giving you the moniker has to tell you how you earned it.  Again this can be something big and meaningful, or something small and whimsical.

Your moniker acts as an aspect.  As such it should be something that can both be invoked as a bonus, or compelled to earn fate points – though the exact balance between the two is up to the player who gives you the moniker.

Example – you ask one of your fellow players to give you a moniker.  She decides to tell you a story about a time when you disappeared from the Jungle for several days.  Everyone thought you had been arrested, beaten up, or were on a bender, but it turned out you were actually out collecting toys for some of the children living in the jungle, including a very nice rocking horse that the children loved.  Your moniker, she informs you, is “Hobbyhorse”.

You can now invoke “Hobbyhorse” to give yourself a bonus, perhaps when helping or interacting with children.  The GM can also compel it to get your character to help out children when it might cause you trouble.

8.  (Optional) Depending on what the GM, you might be able to add some additional Aspects and Stunts at this point.  By default, you don’t.

On to Part 4

Back to Part 2


*Hobos are not action heroes.  They also live in a pretty tough world.  The reduction in points for Approaches reflects this.

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Brotherhood of the rail is a fantasy game set against the backdrop of Depression era America.  Characters play hobos – itinerant laborers travelling back and forth across the United States seeking work and the freedom of the open road.

Dust bowl

The setting does not seek to simulate all of the details of Depression era America, but GMs should always bear in mind that the characters are living a tough life in tough times.  Many of the standard rewards and goals used often in RPGs – the accumulation of wealth, power, authority, and material possessions, simply do not apply here.  Hobos are poor, exist as an underclass, and have no more wealth and material possessions than they can carry with them from town to town.  A hobo’s wealth is his skill, his ability to survive, and his willingness and ability to make the world a somewhat better place through his labor and his compassion.  But behind every hobo there is a story.  A few might live the life out of choice, but most hobos have taken to the roads because of tough economic times.  Bank failures may have wiped out their entire savings, or their farm and livelihood might have been buried under the dust bowl.  Their old job might have disappeared either because of the economy or simply due to the continuing effects of industrialization and modernization.  Perhaps they have a family somewhere, or perhaps they have lost that too.


American folklore is a strong component of Brotherhood of the Rail.  The United States is filled with mythology and legend.  The Native cultures had their myths, and settlers from across Europe brought with them their own mythology, legends, and stories.  Uniquely American tall tales and folklore also developed over time until the landscape was filled with a hodgepodge of supernatural – some of it old, some of it new, and some of it a mixture of the two.  Folk magic from numerous cultures also mixed together to provide effective, if seldom spectacular, thaumaturgy accessible to the working poor.  These two combine to give a fantasy flavoring to Brotherhood of the Rail – characters will encounter not only mundane foes such as railroad bulls and hostile coppers, but goblins, haints, hodags, and other creatures of lore as well.


Hobos travel.  It is part of their nature, either because of wanderlust, the nature of the work they do, or the tough times that they live in.  Getting from place to place is not just convenience, it is survival.

Hobos will walk when they must, and a lucky few may have automobiles, but the most common method for travel is via train.  “Flipping a freight” – sneaking aboard a freight train – offers a free ride, but with some risk.  Simply boarding a moving train is risky, and a missed handhold or slip at the wrong time can result in death or crippling injury.  Riding underneath a freight car can result in falls underneath the train.  Riding on the bumpers between the cars can result in being crushed if the cars come together suddenly.  Riding on top of the car can result in a shaved skull or worse if the train passes through a low-clearance tunnel, and smoke and cinders from the locomotive can result in burns or asphyxiation.   Hobos who fall asleep in boxcars or refrigerator cars may awaken to find the doors locked and the cars parked on a siding for days or even weeks.

In addition, many railroads hire private security guards to protect their rail yards, freight, and trains from hobos.  Commonly known as “Bulls”, they range in temperament from decent men doing a hard job to sadistic monsters who prey on hobos or in extreme cases murder them for fun.  Even the most even tempered and kindly Bull will still ditch any hobo found riding without paying, which might result in a ‘bo being stranded far away from the nearest town.  Local law enforcement would also check over trains in some towns, often accompanied by vicious dogs.

Upon arrival in a new town, the hobo begins a search for work.  Water towers at the railyard are common places to pick up rumor, gossip, and lines on work from other hobos.  Friendly towns offer potential employment either as an agricultureal worker of as unskilled labor at docks, warehouses, and factories.  Employment agencies are another common place to find work, though some unscrupulous agencies will collect fees from more men than there are jobs.

If no job is readily available, the hobo might turn to various relief agencies, churches, missions, or the back doors of local residents known to offer handouts.  Still others pose as cripples to elicit sympathy and beg in the streets.  For the typical hobo, this is an action of last resort – a hobo would always rather work than beg – but times are hard, and every hobo has one or more sob stories ready to tell as needed if the situation requires.

Hobos tend to congregate in a single area of town.  In big cities this area is known as the “main stem” and is usually a single street that caters to the migrant laborer population with inexpensive hotels (“flophouses”), cheap bars, soup kitchens, outfitters, employment agencies and the like.  Some of the most famous “main stem” neighborhoods in the US are the Bowery in New York, West Madison in Chicago, and Third Street in San Francisco.  In a few places large shanty towns, commonly called “Hoovervilles” have developed.   There are two such shantytowns in New York (Central Park and Riverside Park), and notable Hoovervilles  in Washington DC, St. Louis, and Seattle.

In rural areas hobo communities often congregate around the local water tower.  This area, known as “The Jungle” often features a number of semi-permanent facilities such as gumboats (gallon-sized cans used for cooking), fire pits, latrine areas, and occasionally even semi-permanent structures built from salvaged wood.

Hobo communities operate under a sort of loose, community justice.  There are a few rules that everyone is expected to abide by such as keeping the area clean, not stealing from or hurting other hobos, and not bringing trouble down on the community.  Those who make trouble will quickly find themselves whipped or beaten, chased out of the area, or at the very least challenged to a fist fight by the wronged party.


Hobos are not wizards.  They do not carry grimoires, throw fireballs, or live in high towers (though they occasionally sleep on or around water towers).  Hobo magic is very much of the folksy sort, and is subtle in effect and infrequent in use.  Most hobos don’t have any sort of magic at all, and the few who do tend to keep in under their hats and save it for special circumstances.

In mechanical terms, hobo magic is one of the two formats of stunt described in FAE as described on p. 32 of the FAE rulebook – the sort of stunt that allows you do make something true, do something cool, or generally bend the rules in a certain way.  Any sort of stunt in this format is considered a form of magic  Any time one of these stunts is used in game, it is the responsibility of the player to give a plausible mundane explanation of how the stunt works.  For example, if the character has a stunt that allows for the removal of a situational aspect once per session, the character still has to explain how that situational aspect is removed in some plausible manner.

Hobo magic is highly individualized, so there are no hard and fast rules for it.  Most hobo magic has some trapping associated with it – an item such as a rabbit’s foot, a carved walking staff or a wooden nickle: music such as the spoons or harmonica or just humming, singing, or whistling; gestures such as warding signs or hexing; or symbols such as glyphs.  Different hobos may have different trappings for the same effect, or the same trappings for different effects.  The GM should work with players to develop a “look” for any magical stunt they choose.

Below is a discussion of common types of hobo magic and some suggestions about how they might work as stunts in FAE, but this listing is by no means exhaustive.

Evil Eye

This is a form of curse that a ‘bo can cast on someone just by looking at them.  It brings bad luck, ill health, misfortune or any one of a variety of other detrimental effects.  It might cause injury, make someone sick (giving them a reduction in one of their approaches), cause someone ill-luck (making them automatically fail a specific type of action once) or even cause injury (improving an attack roll, for example.


This is a catch-all term for various types of folk magic.  Hoodoo affects aspects, so it might allow a hobo to place a temporary aspect, or temporarily remove an aspect.  For example, the character might be able to automatically place a specific situational aspect, temporarily disable an aspect of a foe, or activate the aspect of a friend.

Stone Soup

Food is a great community-builder and none moreso than stone soup.  Stone soup can be used in order to influence the opinions of NPCs, making them more friendly or convincing them to do a favor once per session.  It might also be used as a medicine to help the ill, or to heal consequences.


Sometimes luck is the only thing you have going for you.  Luck should allow characters an automatic success (or even success with style) at a specific action using a specific style.

On to Part 3

Back to Part 1

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Brotherhood of the Rail – INTRODUCTION


“A hobo works and wanders, a tramp dreams and wanders, and a bum drinks and wanders.”

- Ben Reitman


The Great Depression (1929-39) was the deepest and longest-lasting economic downturn in the history of the Western industrialized world. In the United States, the Great Depression began soon after the stock market crash of October 1929, which sent Wall Street into a panic and wiped out millions of investors. Over the next several years, consumer spending and investment dropped, causing steep declines in industrial output and rising levels of unemployment as failing companies laid off workers. By 1933, when the Great Depression reached its nadir, some 13 to 15 million Americans were unemployed and nearly half of the country’s banks had failed.  These tough economic times gave rise to a large class of migrant workers who traveled throughout the United States seeking temporary labor.  While such a class had existed since the Depression of 1873, the Great Depression greatly increased their numbers.

A rich tradition of folklore and mythology developed about these migrants in America, and they have been romanticized in literature and film.  Older mythologies became incorporated into the legends of the hobos – goblins and faeries and ghosts, even the devil and old man death himself!

Brotherhood of the Rail is a setting for Fate Accelerated that allows players to tell tales of the hobo’s mythical world during the Great Depression.  The world of tramps and hobos was at once one of unprecedented freedom (with the widespread availability of automobiles, a transcontinental railroad, and the beginnings of an interstate highway system people could travel the country more easily than ever before) contrasted with some of the worst poverty that the nation had ever known.  Daily life was frequently a challenge, and hobos were often distrusted, discriminated against, scapegoated, and denied legal protections.  At the same time they were essential to keeping a lot of industries alive during the Depression, and provided the labor that build much of the nations Depression era infrastructure such as roads, bridges, dams, railroads, and electrical lines.  They also dealt with a hidden world that most people could not or would not see.

I am greatly indebted to Aaron Houx for his 2002 publication of “Knights of the Road, Knights of the Rail” from which much of the inspiration and material for this setting is drawn.  Since Mr. Houx was, in turn, greatly inspired by Mike Gentry I am indebted to him as well.


Bevon, Tim & Cameron, John & Coen, Ethan & Felner, Eric (Producers) & Coen, Joel & Coen, Ethan (Directors) (2000) O Brother, Where Art Thou?, United States, Touchstone Pictures & Universal Pictures.

Chaplin, Charles (Producer & Director) (1925) The Gold Rush, United States, Charles Chaplin Productions

DeSylva, Buddy G & Sturgeon, Preston (Producers) & Sturgeon, Preston (Director) (1941) Sullivan’s Travels, United States, Paramount Pictures

Hough, Stan & Hyman, Kenneth (Producers) & Aldrich, Robert (Director) (1973) Emperor of the North [Motion Picture], United States, 20th Century Fox Film Corporation.


Songs of the Depression:  Boom, Bust, and New Deal is a good overview of the music and artists of the Depression era.

Socialist and Labor Songs of the 1930′s is a good sample of background music about the growing labor movement in the United States during the ’30s.

Woodie Guthrie‘s early works are also quite appropriate as background music.

On to Part 2

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BULLDOGS! One space available.

I have one space available in my Friday night FATE Core “Bulldogs!” game if anyone is interested.  The game runs Friday nights weekly (though with a generous cancellation policy that adds up to functionally running about every other week) from 7:00 pm – 10:00 pm Pacific Standard Time via Skype and Vyew.  Drop me a line if you are interested.

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