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.
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.+