Previously I’ve reviewed Lady Blackbird by John Harper. It was a kind of skypunk riff on Star Wars style narratives with players on the run from an evil empire. It had spaceships, vague magical powers and sky whales. Okay, Star Wars didn’t have sky whales, but it should have.
I’m off track, which is bad given the kind of story this game tells. Ghost Lines is the distant ancestor of Lady Blackbird, set before the world cracked apart into the Blue Yonder. The Shattered Isles are your home, remnants after some cataclysm which has left the sea an inky black and the lands splintered apart. There are cities in the dark, isolated from one another, protected from the ghosts which wander the world by massive electrical pylons. All that connects the cities are the rails and all that protects the trains running along them are you. The Line Bulls capture and put down any stray ghosts who make it onto the trains either from passengers or finding their way in from outside. I guess if you wanted a logline it’d be Grimdark Ghostbusters in the world of Dishonoured. It’s steampunk if the pipes are all rusted, broken and covered in blood.
Ghost Lines is a tiny role-playing game, it’s four pages including the character sheet. Much like both Lady Blackbird and the playbooks from Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games, all the rules are on the character sheet. John Harper is a beautiful designer, definitely one of the best out there for roleplaying games. The brevity of the system is fantasic, too. Ghost Lines uses a pared down version of the already svelte PbtA stylings. You have your character with their name, the name on their badge and homeland. The homeland itself if only worked out by looking at the descriptors (e.g. Akaros has sharp, connected, shrewd and noble). I cheated a little and printed a map from Blades in the Dark, set in the same world, which also has descriptors of the locations. I liked that I had this information as it gave me things to play off.
You pick your role and your stats, then that’s it. The four roles all give gear and a method of leading the charge against ghosts. After I gave the pitch and while I sketched out some carriages, the In-Fighters picked their characters:
Lee played Milos (badge name Bowman). He was the Spider, tasked with using a lightning-web to trap ghosts. He was from the land of Skovlan, where the train was setting off from, packed with refugees and a suspicious amount of Imperial Soldiers.
Jacob played Bragon (badge name Brogan). He was the Owl, who had special goggles to look for weaknesses in the ghosts. He was a noble from a long line of Line Bulls. This was uncommon, normally badges simply pass from Bull to Bull, but the Brogan one was inherited.
Vinnie played Bry (badge name Hellyers). She was the Anchor, the heavy-armoured lunatic whose job it was to attract and distract ghosts. Bry didn’t even left the Line Bulls recruiter finish talking, she just wanted adventure. The anchor gets special hazard pay because they’re the most likely to be consumed by ghosts.
Ash played Astin (badge name Dalmore). He was the Rook, using his lightning hook to pry ghosts off the train and other people. If he weakened the ghosts, Milos could contain them in spirit-bottles.
As an extra aside, this was the first session our group had in Dice Saloon, a game shop/cafe which we’ve held our role-playing sessions in since. You can see the group here:
I laid out a series of index cards I’d drawn train carriages on, starting with the Line Bull’s “HQ” which was the glorified baggage area. They were in a confined room with all their gear. Opposite was a “doctor”, then some whirring and a locked room (role-player catnip, basically). I explained the trip the group were making, from Lockport in Upper Skovlan (which was decided to be basically Scotland) to Sevrin. A simple enough line to work on, however there were Imperial Soldiers who’d boarded in Lockport and taken over a section of the first class seating. Skovvish refugees from the Unity War were packed into two carriages like unruly sardines. Some would occasionally peel off and try to get through, which Hellyers was good at fending off. As the Anchor, she was in the heaviest armour and more of a physical boundary for the refugees than anything else. The drivers wouldn’t let anyone in their carriage which was more of a home than anything else, the children of drivers climbing around the leviathan oil-powered workings as they could fit down the cramped and dangerous holes. Brogan hung out with the soldiers, mask down and schmoozing as his family were probably around some of the more noble soldiers. A young soldier named Tim let on that the group had a secret mission and needed a hand if the drivers protested. Brogan agreed and carried on drinking. The first class carriages were a testament to excess compared to the front sections of the train. There was even a party going on in a private room further back.
Bowman tried to organise the refugees, playing on his Skovvish background, but they overpowered him and tried to pry the weapons off his armour. Hellyers and Dalmore charged in, elbowing aside the desperate passengers. Brogan heard the noise and decided against joining in. One of the drivers ran through the carriage in a panic. He was an old man named Finlas who’d never been out of sight of the train and even the desperate refugees moved away for him. He shouted that two of the power lines on the bridge to Sevoros had become disconnected. Some engineers had gone out to fix it, but not come back. It was likely they’d been consumed by curious ghosts from the other side of the pylons. The Line Bulls pulled their masks on, clambered outside the slowing train and sped ahead on a small engineer’s platform. The train wouldn’t be able to stop and if it slowed too much, might put too much weight on weak sections of the under-maintained bridge. There was another engineer’s platform further down, by the massive pylon leaning at vastly the wrong angle. Four engineers were stood on it, trying to pry apart more pylons, their eyes aflame with green light. They were possessed. There was a very quick discussion about trying to keep them alive, which was overwritten by the fear of uncontrolled ghosts and what could happen if they got loose. This wasn’t a game for deliberation about morality, it was about protecting a train. Brogan set to fixing the first pylon while the others drew the engineers to them. The Anchor lured them forward, Dalmore started hacking at them with a lightning hook so that Bowman could easily bottle them. Brogan paid no attention to the Deathlands behind him, or the inky black mass which floated closer and closer. It pulsed with a strange liquid burbling, hands and faces just about visible beneath the surface. Bowman stared at it, while trying to net ghosts in his lightning web.
Dice rolls are handled basically like any Powered by the Apocalypse game, albeit a little stripped down. You make a move, such as Dalmore trying to spear a couple of ghosts, weakening them enough to be netted and bottled. In this case, Ash would explain what he wanted to do, roll 2d6 and add his Force. The slight difference here is that 6 or less is a failure, 7-9 is a success at a cost, 10-11 is a success, but now 12+ is that you succeed really well. In this case Ash rolled well enough that he inflicted great harm, suffered little harm and managed to create an opportunity for Bowman. He would be unable to help the unaware Brogan. Between them, Bowman and Dalmore bottled all of the ghosts, leaving Hellyers and Brogan to seal up the fence. Hellyers threw a makeshift grenade into the inky blackness which barely slowed it down. They just about managed it before the inky mass pushed through. It floated there, watching them, the faces and limbs inside tormented and barely visible as they moved the engineer’s cart back to the train.
The next leg of the journey was uneventful until they reached Tyrmoor on the north coast of Severos. The city was large and would gain them many opportunities for to earn some jangle on the side. Some of the group had wounds which they wanted to speak to the “Doctor” about. No one asked about why his role was in quotation marks, it was better to leave those kind of questions alone, for their own sanity.
Bowyer took on a side job as a courier, Dalmore helped some Leviathan hunters (Leviathans… I’ll get into that when I cover blades in the Dark). Hellyers helped look after some of the ghost-hunting horses which Severos was famed for. Brogan performed and caroused with his friends in the Imperial Military. There were some rumours of a noble’s “going away party” on the train involving ghosts somehow.
Soon enough they were back on the train and in motion towards Sevrin. Tim drunkenly told Brogan that they were stopping for a secret mission two thirds of the way towards Sevrin. A spirit well had been found and they were going to try and do… something, to it. Once they reached their destination, the train stopped by an old abandoned station. It had a few shacks and small fences keeping the immediate space next to the station safe. The soldiers armed up and charged out with all the bluster and joy of men who hadn’t seen combat before. The moment they left, Jacob and Lee’s conspiratorial table chatter turned into an actual attempt to break open the room with the whirring. I knew that it would be catnip to the players, but they set about breaking it open fairly quickly. Inside were a handful of armaments which hadn’t been taken by the expedition. There was also a “hull”, a gigantic robot body normally inhabited by a ghost. It was bound and powered by leviathan oil, packed with explosives. Looking around, the wall was able to be opened up to allow the hull to get out. Brogan started carefully disconnecting the explosives which caused the hull to move, grabbing Dalmore in a gigantic hand. The hull started to squeeze Dalmore, who could feel his ribs wanting to give way to the vise-like grip.
Meanwhile, Bowman and Hellyers were rallying the Skovvish refugees by singing shanties with them.
Brogan freed his comrade and disconnected the explosives as outside, people were starting to spot something in the distance. Maybe half of the Imperial Soldiers were fleeing, some discarding armour as they went for increased mobility, dropping weapons, they were running for their lives. Hellyers and Bowman let them in and saw Tim had been brutally damaged, his chest ripped open, his breaths ragged with his own blood. One of the soldiers said that they had been overwhelmed and needed to get the hull ASAP. The ghosts were coming and they would need to detonate the train, the soldiers and everything else here. Tim asked that he not be left here to die here in the Deathlands and become a ghost, so the Line Bulls took him to one of the back carriages, killed him and burnt the body with Leviathan Oil so no spirit would rise.
The military were closing in and didn’t have their weapon to kill everything. This was good for the train but bad given the horde which was following them. The Line Bulls went into action, taking the fuel supplies from the room with the hull in it, then barking orders at the engineers and tinkering with tech themselves, they started to supercharge the train. It burst forth out of the old station before the spectral hordes could get to the gate.
The train made it to Sevrin, but was destroyed by the process. It didn’t matter though, the Bulls had managed to get through another shift working the lines.
Afterwards, we discussed Ghost Lines as a perfect game to play when we’re short of players. The game takes up probably less words than this review, but it’s full enough for the stories which it tells and there’s enough of a system for campaign play so that people can get invested in making their Bulls work as much of the Shattered Isles as possible. The PbtA system is present, but there are a lot of the standard John Harper flavours which colour it. The game also acts as a nice preview of Blades in the Dark with the concepts of a retirement stash, side jobs, the ghosts and the strange tech of the Harperverse. It’s fascinating and contains far more than I would have expected going in, even after having read the rules a few times beforehand.
If you want a spooky steampunk Ghostbusters game on trains filled with the desperate and the decadent, then Ghost Lines is for you. It’s free and found here.
As a little bonus, here are the table tents which the group made for their characters. In most games it’s good to have a reminder to other people who your character is, more so in a one-shot like this.