Friday, June 21, 2013

Last Train Out of Warsaw

September 17, 1939: the Germans are advancing on Warsaw and a crowd of people hope to escape on the last train that leaves the city, taking them to the Rumanian border. There will not be room for many of them and the train carries a secret as well - all the gold of the Poland’s National Bullion Reserve, which must not fall into the hands of the Germans.

This is where Last Train Out of Warsaw (link will open PDF) starts, a game for up to eight players and one Guide. The characters are ready-made, with short descriptions, a couple of things in their possessions and a couple of secrets and goals. The game is diceless and relies heavily on creativity and storytelling, especially cooperative storytelling. Everybody gets to add something to the scene if they feel like it.

Usually, there are ten scenes and every players has his turn during each scene. That rule went out of the window immediately and we all described the scene together, what everybody was doing. It worked well for the rest of the game and we all had great scenes. People with less experience in that kind of game or roleplaying in general may want to use that rule, though. I think our way added nicely to the feeling of chaos and unpredictability that the setting has.

Here are some things that happened:
- upon discovering an abandoned pub when looking for food in Pilava one of the players deadpanned: 'Pavel Kovalski, fourth-generation pub owner, had suddenly decided that living to see a fifth generation was more important that staying a pub owner'

- the train goes way too slow due to the weight of the gold and the train personnel starts to get suspicious, which leads to a couple of awkward scene between them and the two officers who accompany the train (ostensibly to ensure the safeness of the civilians). The Fireman has no qualms at all to more or less subtly threaten the Adjutant with violence to get the truth, especially after he picked up on the fact that the man is far from brave during an aerial attack on the train.

- the train stays hidden for almost twelve hours near an abandoned mine, where the Engineer had already hidden once before from the Germans during WWI. He is recognized by a young man from a nearby village - the Engineer's unit had plundered the village to stay alive. That scene almost ends in violence.

- the Pretty Girl discovers that something is hidden under the floor boards of the train and she gets caught by the Quiet Man (one of the officers). This scene does end in violence and the Quiet Man takes her into one of the buildings around the mine and shoots her. A little boy seems him take her there, but the Quiet Man is not so far gone that he would shoot the child, he merely knocks him senseless and binds him so that the child can escape later.

- Lublin is on fire. The tracks are destroyed, but railroad workers rebuilt them, right in front of the train. A group of passengers, young men, wish to leave the train and the Adjutant tries to make them stay. The Fireman steps between them and in the end the Adjutant is knocked out by one of the men who do leave the train and stay to fight.

- the tracks are barricaded by a couple of tree trunks, a brightly coloured wagon and a truck and people are waving for the train to stop (the Pretty Girl's family, but we don't know that). Engineer and Fireman decide against that, they let the train run at full steam and the Adjutant, only just come around again, is conscripted to help shovel coal. They manage to break through, but the Engineer is badly burned by hot steam. He dies with the knowledge that he has done his duty to his country.

- at a small station, the Russians have already arrived. Again, the Fireman (who now has to drive the train) decides against stopping. Unfortunately, the Russians have an anti-tank gun and open fire on the train. The first shell removes much of the second carriage, the second one hits the first carriage, but it's a dud. The Quiet Man grabs it and throws it back at them, neatly rolling it under the truck the gun is mounted on. There, it explodes and the train escapes further harm.

- upon arrival at the Rumanian border, there is a small problem: the Rumanians will allow the civilians into their country, but since Poland no longer exists, they cannot allow the train (and thus the gold) to cross the border. The Quiet Man solves that problems by removing and painting over any signs that the train is Polish and he and the Rumanian officer agree that neither of them has seen a Polish train. And so the gold is brought to safety. The Quiet Man, having done his job and having sacrificed too much for it, then commits suicide.

The Conductor was, we all agreed, the best character - think Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. Give him a Polish railway uniform, a whistle and have him try desperately to maintain order and, above all, a proper timetable while around him his world collapses into chaos. Whenever the train stopped or departed, even when it was in the middle of nowhere, the Conductor loudly announced it and advised everyone to get on board, close the doors, keep their pets on a leash and their tickets ready.

We played, with a small break for dinner, for twelve hours. It was a lot of fun to watch the characters come to live and to see the story unfold, with each player adding something to each scene. It was the kind of game that stays with you, I know I needed a couple of days to sort through all of it. It was at times a harrowing experience, especially the first scene and the on in Lublin, driving through a city at war, with the knowledge that everyone who helps us escape will stay behind.

We skipped one scene. The train is supposed to be stopped by bandits, but the Pretty Girl's player added a similar scene before that. Having read what is supposed to happen in that scene, I'm fairly glad we skipped it. The bandit WILL bring the train to a stop, their barricade is much more substantial. And then then bandits will start to take everything away from the passengers, will threaten them and maybe kill people who resist. And they will choose some women to rape. I really would not have wanted that sprung upon me.

I'm not at all concerned when it comes to violence during a game and my characters often use violence themselves. But rape is different. It's too often used anyway as shorthand for 'something the female character experienced to give her more depth' or 'yeah, those guys are really evil'. And although I don't worry about being raped when I leave the house or live in fear of it all the time, it's nonetheless closer to what I experience in daily life than, for example, seeing someone shot.

I had actually no idea that this would have been an issue for me. So far, the topic has never come up in any of our rounds. But when I read the scene, I knew right away that this would have been a problem, at least when done without a warning. We're going further and further in the Jeepform/Nordic Larp direction with our gaming and there is a good reason why those games always have a briefing and debriefing to avoid exactly such things.

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