The Mass Transportation Migrant Tribe

This is the first of a series I’m calling “Thousand Word Bombs.” Each is an essay of roughly 1000 words intended to be used as inspiration for RPG campaigns. Not all will be applicable for all RPG systems and settings, but I hope people will get inspiration if not actual “use as written” benefits from them.

They are a people without a homeland, yet whose territory spans the world. They move among us unnoticed, engaged in a mission we cannot understand. You see them, but do not comprehend what you are glimpsing. Endlessly roaming, never tarrying, they are the members of the Mass Transportation Migrant Tribe.

Core Concept

There are people in the world who live their entire lives within its mass transportation networks. Buses, subways, trains, and even ships, along with the terminals that connect them, are all these people know. You can tell them by their eyes, which seem to whirl like wheels when you look at them too long, by their poor complexions stemming from a diet of snack bar fare and fast food bought from express stands, and by their shabby clothes, washed in restroom sinks.

To most observers, the mass transportation migrant tribe members are identical to the destitute and often mentally unbalanced passengers not uncommon to public transportation—and being a member of one group doesn’t prohibit acceptance in another. The tribe members, however, are anything but mad, possessing the keen intelligence and cunning necessary to survive unnoticed and in constant motion.

The mass transportation migrant tribe is constantly moving, their travels only interrupted by brief pauses in train or bus terminals, or subway stations, where they await their next conveyance. They sleep in short stints in bus seats or on subway benches, awakening when the rhythm of motion is even slightly broken. Unemployed, yet somehow they never lack the modest means to buy cheap food or replacement clothes purchased from newsagents and tourist shops found throughout the world’s mass transit networks.

The tribe has its own cultural customs, meeting for brief moots in larger transportation hubs to trade news, arrange marriages, and conduct secret rites. The tribe has little in the way of authority figures, but the oldest and most experienced of the tribe’s members form ad hoc “elders’ councils” as necessary. When deaths occur, if the body isn’t removed by local authorities alerted by the mass transit operators, the tribe members inter their own in hidden crypts near subway stations, in shallow graves along railroad lines, or slipped over the railings of a ferry for a burial at sea.

Membership in the migrant tribe is either a result of birth or adoption. The tribe’s arranged marriages result in usually only a single offspring and the infant mortality rate is high among the migrants. Some become tribe members because circumstances have forced their hands. More than one runaway teen or person fleeing the consequences of their actions has been adopted by the tribe, initiated into the secret nation after demonstrating their ability to endure the constant movement required for the migrant life. Ethnicity, race, gender, or religion are meaningless among the tribe, and members can be of any background.

The few esoteric anthropologists who know of and have studied the mass transportation migrants hypothesize that they number less than 500 world-wide and, aside from the occasional moots noted above, seldom travel in numbers larger than three or four. Solitary tribe members, however, remain the norm.

Possible Background

There are a few possible origins and purposes for the mass transportation migrant tribe. These are just starting points for the game master to build upon or to inspire her:

  • The tribe are the custodians of an ancient relic or other item of power that their ancestors swore to safeguard long ago. The tribe’s constant motion makes it difficult for those seeking the item to track it down, and the object changes ownership constantly in subtle exchanges that would make a three-card monte dealer jealous. Until the day comes when the rightful owner of the object makes themselves known, the tribe will remain in motion.
  • The first tribe members were the victims of a powerful curse, one perhaps laid upon them by someone whose life or livelihood was impacted by mass transportation. The mother of the first person killed by a train might have been a witch, for example, or the owner of a once-profitable stagecoach line who lost his fortune when the railroad came through and paid a hoodoo man to lay a curse on the railroad workers. Over time, those suffering similar baleful enchantments have been initiated into the original tribe, passing their curse down either in truth or simply by tradition. The tribes’ moots are really opportunities to exchange information on how their curse(s) might be broken or to plot for revenge against those who set them in motion for perpetuity.
  • The tribe members are from outside this time and place, perhaps having fallen through holes in dimensions (such as from alternate history Earths) or rifts in the time stream. Unable to integrate themselves into an alien culture, they are a people suffering from “future shock” and only the soothing rhythm of constant motion keeps them from going insane. As they move, they plot, plan, scheme, and hope to find a way home, taking in other misplaced peoples from other places and times.

Adventure Ideas

  • A friend of the PCs suddenly goes missing and all attempts to determine their whereabouts are unsuccessful. Several months later, one of the characters catches sight of the missing person standing on a subway platform as the PCs train passes by or sitting in the window seat of a bus rolling down the street. These sightings continue on and off for some time, with PCs always just missing their lost friend. Finally, after some effort, the party gets on the same bus or train as their friend and confronts them. What he/she reveals exposes them not only to the existence of the mass transportation migrant tribe, but the danger that causes their friend to become one of them.
  • The party awakens with a start as the train they’re on lurches away from the station. The problem is that they each went to bed at home the night before and have no inkling as to how they got on the train. They can easily get off at the next station, but quickly learn that shadowy, almost demonic figures, are pursuing them. It is only when the PCs are on a form of mass transit that their shadowy pursuers’ sinister attacks cease. How do the PCs solve the mystery of what happened to them and what is chasing them when they’re limited solely to whatever assets they can access on public transportation routes?

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