My usual Monday night group (formerly Sundays, currently playing Scum & Villainy) has decided to start playing some Saturday night one-shot. We kicked it off with a session of The Great Soul Train Robbery. This is a “Sweetened by Honey Heist” game, which itself reminds me a lot of “Lasers & Feelings”.
We started by talking about tone and setting: serious vs dark comedy vs something else? What sorts of things did we want to avoid or at least be careful with? In text chat over the previous few days, we knew we wanted to lean into the Western feeling, but we also knew we wanted to be careful to stay away from the racism baked into the history and mythology of the American West. What’s more, we have a range of religious views within our group and I wanted us all to be respectful of that.
CONTENT WARNING: Brief references to alcoholism and family violence.
Our crew of desperados included:
Shafi (she/her) – a Renegade Fury motivated by Prophecy but also Sheer Stubborness. Shafi is a tall, statuesque, muscular supernatural creature, with dark blue (almost black) wings. Her features denote her status as neither angel nor demon, but something in between.
Tammy Cogburn (she/her) – a Tomboy motivated by Faith but also Revenge. Mid to late teens, probably around 16. The player explicitly cited a similarly-named character in True Grit as inspiration.
Virgil Barnes (he/him) – a Snake-handler motivated by Temperance but also a Death Wish. When asked about this, he responded, “we keep our vessels clean and I do not fear meeting my Maker”.
In terms of setting and such, I rolled on the provided tables and determined that the train in question runs through the “Burnt-over Lands” (which I decided look like the American Southwest – think Road Runner cartoons) and uses the blood of the damned for fuel. The “prize” for which they were undertaking this enterprise would be the deeds to your town. The players made up some fiction about a God-loving town named Haven. Prospectors found gold in the hills nearby and too many people showed up, with all the vices associated with a gold rush town, including laudanum addictions and the “love of money, known to be the root of all evil”. Shafi, the Fury, knew of a prophecy that the gold mine contained a sword that would be used to defeat a great evil, and therefore could not allow it to fall into the hands of those who would thwart the prophecy.
Shafi pulls them up from a handcar. How did the humans get into this part of Hell alive? Tammy had prayed to God for some assistance and got some connection to Shafi, who she thinks is an unlikely-looking sort of angel – just an unlikely tool. However Virgil, upon seeing this devilish-looking creature, has a moment of doubt and asks God not to smite him.
The first car ahead of the caboose is a railroad crane used for loading goods and materials, but no crane operator sits at the controls. For a moment, though, the machinery is relatively unstable and they have a close call that nearly takes off Tammy’s head. She repeats her belief that “God will see us through” and instead moves into the lead
This open-air car holds construction materials. We talk about what these might be; I was thinking something basic like “brimstone” but one of the players suggested “structural bones” and honestly that was way better.
On this car, though, are a pair of Pinkerton guards, each with a three-headed hellhound. Shafi claims the two humans with her are “fuel” (fresh blood) and rolls a 3, exactly her number, so there’s a complication: one of the hellhounds gets loose!
Virgil reaches into his satchel & rips off salt pork, quickly dips it in a poison, and rolls a 1. Success! One of the heads lolls to the side and the hellhound goes quiescent for a bit. The Pinkerton thinks that they just gave the “dog” a treat and lets them past.
After leaving the Pinkertons behind, Tammy tells Virgil “we’re not here for them, remember.” Ironically, in the saloon car, she sees a table with four heavy-set men in pinstripe suits, drinking and smoking cigars. Two of them are town bankers responsible for this mess! Tammy walks up and pulls out a knife, cutting one of their throats. She rolls a 3, matching her Sinner score. This means complication! The Pinkertons see this from behind and react.
Virgil physically gets in-between Tammy and the guards, trying to convince them it’s no big deal since this train is headed into Hell anyway. He uses Lover and rolls 1 for a success: the Pinkerton doesn’t want trouble and leaves them be.
Shafi is impressed by this whole exchange. The other bankers get up and move to another table, leaving their drinks behind at the insistence of the desperados (who pour it out – temperance!)
Passengers on their way to Hell need to rest, apparently. Shafi leads the way through this one. The car smells of whiskey and piss: drinkers sleeping it off. We all look to Virgil, who quietly tells us that his father was an alcoholic and abuser. He struggles a bit with his anger but decides to move on. (Honestly, I didn’t really want to linger on this bit, so that was as much for my own comfort as anything.)
This tanker is full of some bodily fluid, so I ask the players which one. I kind of thought it might be blood or similar, given the train’s fuel but they suggested “bile” and that seemed great!
Virgil asks Shafi, “what’s your play here?” Why help rob this train that you work on? Shafi responds that, for the order of things, the prophecy MUST succeed. She can’t guarantee whether the sword actually defeats the great evil or not, but the sword must return so that it can play its role in the battle.
However, while hanging on the back of the tank car, they look up to see another Fury flying along, keeping pace with the train. Shafi interposes herself in front of the humans and spreads her wings out. When the Fury questions their activity and points out that the humans shouldn’t be here, Shafi responds, “you know this isn’t the only thing not supposed to be happening. You know they’re trying to give away Haven.” On a Lover roll, even with 2d6, we get a 3 (failure).
We have a discussion on the details of the town deeds. The players decide that the physical deed in the real world is corrupt, but the one here is correct and real. If they don’t return with the original deed, then the forces of Hell will control the town and the mine.
Due to the failure, the Fury above says she can go get the deed, though her tone indicates she might not quite have the same intentions as the group. Virgil says God will punish her if she does and rolls a 4 on a Lover roll. Shafi also intervenes and makes an ultimatum; on a 3d6, she rolls a 3 and succeeds. Between the two of them, they convince the Fury to stand down.
So, what kind of livestock can you find in a livestock car on a train to hell? Spiders! Giant meat spiders that moo – covered in black and white mottled cow patterns. The kind my aunt has all over her kitchen. You know the sort I mean.
This car has stalls for the spiders running down both side. The group can walk between them, but the spiders can spit webs. Obviously, the entry of a bunch of intruders combined with the rocking of the train has them riled up. Virgil tries to push through, but gets stuck. To get him free (and to shift a point back towards Lover), Shafi incapacitates her left arm by letting it get globbed by the webs.
What’s being kept on ice in the refrigerator car? Tammy suggests it has feed for the hellhounds. This means carcasses (whether animal or human). However, one of the meat lockers speaks up. It speaks to Virgil and instructs him to tell his friends why you stopped drinking.
As a GM note, I paused here and checked in with the player to make sure he knew I was not defining anything about the character. The hellish appliance could be lying or playing mind games. He was free to define what the truth was for his character, including potentially by rejecting the premise that he had ever been drinking or however else.
Virgil instead responded, “because the drink made me lose everything.” He tells story of how he came home drunk and lost his family (“I only hit her once, but I don’t blame her for leaving”). After a moment, we collect ourselves and move on.
The fuel car sits behind the engine, containing barrels of blood fuel. The floor has that faintly sticky feeling, like when you haven’t mopped your kitchen in a while. The crew in here consists of dust devils wrangling the barrels for feeding into the engine ahead.
Shafi tries to blow them away by beating her wings. In fact, she flexes so hard that she takes a scar (a chunk out of a wing) – and still fails. The dust devils merge and congeal into some larger bull-like humanoid creature, breathing fire and brimstone.
Tammy holds out a cross towards this infernal creature and warns it not to interfere with God’s plan. On a roll, she succeeds with a complication (for rolling the exact number).
The train in front decouples their car.
Virgil flashes back to Haven and all that’s at stake, pulling himself together. He also takes a scar as getting cut on a hook as he makes a leap of faith (“crit” 1 by rolling multiples, although that’s not really a mechanic.) Tammy throws a lasso to him, and between that and Shafi helping carry her, they’re able to rejoin on the next car.
The Conductor awaits them here at the Engine. (I voiced him like Hank Hill for my own entertainment). Like any good devil, he’s willing to make a deal, so he wants something for the deeds.
Tammy flashes back to when the town got overrun by riff raff. Her dad (formerly a pious shopkeeper) fell into vice after getting gold fever. After her mom died of consumption, her dad died in bar fight he instigated, so one of the deeds is to their house. Tammy is revealing her own vice: revenge. Therefore, she’s willing to trade her soul to get the deeds back, as sort of an act of redemption.
Virgil isn’t happy about someone younger taking this. She has much more life to offer, and instead he should do it. While he’s going on about this, Tammy sneak-attacks the Conductor with a cross, empowering it with faith (taking a scar while doing so) 1: success!
This is enough for Shalfi to rush forward with a chain, locking herself in battle with the Conductor while Tammy grabs the deeds from him. She and Virgil leap off the train to make their way back to Haven…
I think we’ll play this again with a different GM. We liked the vaguely Western aesthetic without needing to lean on some of the really unfortunate tropes. (A couple of us had Johnny Cash playing quietly in the background during the game, and that REALLY helped the aesthetic.)
Cloven Pine Games ran a successful Kickstarter campaign in February to expand the game out to a 32-page zine, and when that comes out I will definitely be grabbing a copy!