There is an endless sea of TTRPG one-shots, rulesets, systems, and simply not enough time to try them all. To cut down on the time to set up, create a character, introduce the group, and begin a story, Midnight Train links different one-shots together into a longer, continuous game. It does so by providing two things: a narrative framing device and a set of accompanying mechanics.
The Framing Device
You are on a train, travelling through space and time. You do not know where it is headed next, and you are beginning to suspect that even the Conductor is unaware. The train looks like any other 1940s steam locomotive: asteroids and space debris ricocheting off the cowcatcher, stars and planets streaked across your window. From inside the cabin, you can hear the chug of the engine. You and the other passengers sit in large green leather seats. First-class. Far more expensive than you could afford.
Each of you got on, either thinking it was your train or just some other door, only to quickly realize your mistake. The other passengers tried to warn you, but it was too late. When you opened the doors to get off, only the void of space stared back. And so you found your seat.
This is your life now, it seems. Along with the others aboard, you travel from planet to planet, decade to decade. Sometimes the train stops in an abandoned town of an alien planet. Sometimes in the meat fridge of a New York deli. Always at midnight. You can leave, the Conductor reminds you, but the train leaves at midnight—whether you’re on it or not.
Creating the Conductor
The Conductor is your guide to the Midnight Train. They are both a character within the story and the Game Facilitator outside. While most games have this role delegated to a single person, the flexibility of Midnight Train allows for the position to change hands from session to session, giving everyone a chance to play different roles. Because of this, it is important that the creation of the Conductor is a collaborative act. Anyone could take up the role, and everyone should feel comfortable doing so.
While you are free to do otherwise, we suggest the Conductor is two things: nameless, and really old. The Conductor should be knowledgable about the world, wise, but not let on too much. Perhaps it is a sinister vagueness, perhaps their memories have faded. As a group, you should decide what the Conductor’s personality is, what their gender is, their appearance, and a distinctive voice (could be a literal voice, or a set of vocal inflections, word choices, speech patterns).
The Conductor begins each session by recapping what happened last time, then announcing where the train is stopping next, some words about the world, perhaps an eccentric quote. The Game Facilitator can also use this time to go over the new system (if they haven’t yet already). The Conductor then acts as the Game Facilitator, unless in the case of a “GM-less” game, where they assume the role of their player-character.
Creating a Character
While the game system you play in will change, your character stays true. There are stats that help keep your character consistent (described in the next section). Still, they do not replace the need for you to build a tangible character and play them consistently. Here are some ideas on how to do that.
First, start with an idea. This should be a one-sentence-concept of a character you find intriguing, something short and to the point. For example, “Ruth is a stoic grandmother who knows how to fashion a car bomb and make delicious oatmeal cookies,” or “DINK is a (former) sidewalk-cleaning robot with a few loose screws.” You can think of this sort of like an elevator pitch: how can I quickly explain the idea behind my character? How quickly can I make you interested in them? Not only will this help your group members understand who your character is, but it also serves as a way to remind yourself of what makes your character themselves.
Now that you know who your character is consider what they’d be good at. Midnight Train has four stats: Mind, Body, Soul, and Proficiency. The exact meaning of each of these stats and how to build them is covered in the next section. For now, just think of which you would prioritize for your character.
Additionally, your character has a set of beliefs and a set of instincts. Their beliefs are the things that your character fundamentally believes to be true about the world. These do not need to be actually true—in fact, they shouldn’t be. Make the beliefs debatable or even completely false; they should outline the unique way your character sees the world (and obviously, true statements are not unique beliefs). For example, “I believe everyone has something to teach me.” Come up with anywhere from 2–5 beliefs that reveal something about your character. As you play your character, use your beliefs to guide their decisions; what mistakes would they make because of what they believe? The narrative may (and should) challenge your character’s beliefs. In the event of a truly impactful experience, these beliefs may change.
The other section, instincts, is your character’s beliefs applied. These are one-sentence guides to how your character acts in certain situations. For example, “when backed into a corner, I always fight dirty.” When playing your character, your instincts act as a cheat sheet to how your character behaves. You don’t always have to follow them, but you should have a pretty good reason if you don’t. Write four or five.
Finally, write down your character’s backstory. It is recommended that you complete this step last and leave it as open-ended as you can. It is often our intuition to create complex backstories, hoping that it produces a more tangible, fleshed-out characters. In reality, these backstories are too complicated to play, too much to introduce to your group members, and limit where you can take the character in the future. Instead, let the character’s history be a mystery to yourself and others, revealed over time through gameplay. When you are not tied down by pre-written memories and motivations, you are free to improvise, adding backstory elements when the story calls for it and making interesting choices that are relevant to the group. You may not actually enjoy playing the character you wrote out or find that the backstory elements you thought would be cool fall flat. Therefore, you should let this aspect develop organically.
There is one backstory element that is suggested: the moment you got on the train. This story is a useful way to introduce yourself to the group, and it is recommended that everyone recount the event in the first session. The best ones capture a slice of your pre-train life. What were you in the middle of? What was your life? Who did you leave behind? This will not only give others a digestible insight into your character’s life but remind you of where they are coming from and what motivates them to stay on the train. For example, perhaps you got in an elevator to go visit your grandmother. Still, the doors opened onto the train instead of floor 8. Maybe she lives in a cramped two-bedroom apartment with your parents and siblings, and you were excited to see your whole family for the first time in months. Perhaps you were running late because your manager asked you to work an extended shift again. There is a lot this slice-of-life tells us about this character, what they value, and why they might be motivated to stay on the train (the hope that it will one day take them back to their family).
Midnight train creates your character with 4 general stats: Mind, Body, Soul, and Proficiency (Prof). These stats help you define your character and keep track of them as they grow. Mind is anything related to your character’s intelligence, charisma, cunning, etc. whether it’s that your character has read a lot of books and is very strong intellectually or if they are just quick on their feet and often thought of as very clever, that would be your character’s mind. Body is the physicality of your character. If your character is physically fit, strong or nimble, those are related to their body stat. Soul is everything else that doesn’t neatly fit into those categories, whether it’s your character’s grit, spirituality, or their connection to some magical essence of the universe that would fit into their soul stat. Finally, Proficiency proficiency is a more special stat as it both a stat and a list of the proficiencies. The proficiency stat is your character expertise at specific tasks (how good are they at the things they’re good at). While all characters will have some things they are specifically skilled at, the level at which they are is determined by the Proficiency Stat. If your character is more of a jack of all trades master of none, then they would have a low proficiency stat, and if they are highly skilled at some tasks, then that stat would be high. The final part of proficiency is your proficiency list. This is a list of those expertise your character is especially skilled at.
To create a character, distribute 11 points among the stats as you see fit. The next thing to look at is your proficiency list. Your proficiency list begins blank, and at the end of each session, when arriving back on the train, you can add a new proficiency to the list up to a max of 4. This listed proficiency should be specific enough to not just be one of the already existing stats. For example, having your proficiency be sharp or clever may be too broad, while having it be running fast would be acceptable. You can only have up to 4, though, so when coming back from a session with a full list, you must remove an existing one if you wish to add a new one (you don’t have to add a new one if you don’t want!)
On Train Rolls
While often on the train rolls will not be made if a player makes and action with some level of uncertainty, a roll is required. To make a check, roll a d20 and add your related skill, and as well if your charter is doing something they are proficient at, you should also add your proficiency score. A 10+ should succeed most checks; however, if the task is exceptionally difficult, the facilitator can decide a difficulty though a 15+ should almost always suffice. There is no direct “help” mechanic; however, all players should feel free to do other actions to set up or improve the position of the character acting. When a character is doing an action, and the situation is particularly favourable, they have advantage and should roll twice and take the higher result. Similarly, if they are in a particularly unfavourable situation, they would have disadvantage where you would roll twice and take the lower result. finally, there are no specific combat rules if for some reason, combat occurs, just treat it as a set of actions your player does. (If harm occurs, refer to the Death and Health section)
Death and Health
While on the midnight train, there is no health bar for you to keep track of. Though you can feel free to takes notes on the state of your character’s health. With that in mind, this does not mean your character is impervious to harm while on the train. If something would appear to harm them, let the fiction guide what happens next. Be honest with yourself and the other players of the game with what consequences should occur.
While getting back on the train, minor wounds are healed; however, any serious injuries you have had, including death, are permanent. If your character has had a severe injury such as the loss of a leg or the breaking of their mental state(feel free to reflect that mechanically though it is not required), those are not healed by the magic of the train. Those are injuries your player will live with for the rest of their time on the train. If your character dies while off the train, they die, and when you get back on the midnight train, a plaque with their name will appear somewhere on the train commemorating their time living on the midnight train.
All items are fragile and damageable. Luckily on arriving on the midnight train, the Conductor gave you a satchel and a storage locker to call your own. You were told that while your storage locker is almost infinite in size that your satchel is the only thing that could guarantee when getting on and off the train that your items are not damaged by the cosmic rays the midnight train chugs travel along in. However, that being said, while items in the satchel won’t be damaged in transit, the dimension the midnight train exists in is unstable. Sometimes on arrival back to the cabins of the midnight train, items will disintegrate. This means that any items that you want to take must be placed in the satchel or risk damage when arriving at your destination. This is to stop your from taking an entire universe. The fact that items can disintegrate is a tool that can be used by the Game Facilitator to remove items from play that may have made sense in the context that they were found but could have a negative effect on game feel and flow in other contexts.
Converting to Games
On transitioning the games, you play you midnight train stats are your guide to move to the other games. When transitioning to a game feel free to take a much or little of the system that you want this is your game and if something doesn’t make sense for a one-shot of short session game, leave it out you have ownership over how you play don’t be afraid to exercise that control. Some things to keep in mind when transitioning to another system are, most importantly, be character-focused. This game is designed to centre the character, so if there is a question of how to transition, you should try to go with the solution that feels most true to your character rather than the world as the world will only exist for 24 hours, but your character will keep going. Aswell remember that the game you are only playing this game for one session so things can feel a little broken. Allow stat distributions to be uneven or unallowed by the game. Give your self extras in something that maybe you wouldn’t be able to normally before you think is this allowed in the game I’m going to be playing think is this portraying my character accurately and truthfully. If the game you are playing doesn’t have stats, keep your train stats around to help, you keep your character in mind and centred but don’t force stats in places they are not needed. Finally, suppose the game you are transitioning into a game with stats. In that case, you should use your train stats as a guideline for making your character in that game and using those stats, remember that with the train stats, 5 is high and 1 is low. For example, let’s say my character Dink has a Stat spread of 4 Body 4 Mind, 1 Soul and 2 Prof. However, I know that the way I play Dink the Robot is as Strong and Smart, but since they are a bulky robot, they aren’t the quickest on their feet or the best communicator. So if I was transitioning to D&D, maybe my stat spread would be 18 Strength 14 Dex 18 Int 13 Cha 10 Wis 10 Con. An important thing to keep in mind is that each game you go into is 1 session, so it is ok to be a little broken or bend the rules again. For example, let us say Dink’s Proficiency are “Looking Scary” and “Bending things” sure, D&D says that all proficiencies are the same, but maybe to show that you are good at scaring things instead of just giving a plus 2 Proficiency to Intimidation I give a +4 because even though my Charisma is low Dink is good at scaring people, so that is shown mechanically what they are good at however since Dink is good at bending thing but also already strong and only has a Prof of two give them a +3 to athletics. Again, don’t be afraid to break the game’s ‘rules’ to make your character feel true to how you imagine them.
If you’re playing a game that has special abilities, your character can have those special abilities during that session of play, but as you get back on the train at the end of a session, you feel those abilities fade away and can no longer use them.