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The setup: the PCs work their way through a moving lightning rail, fighting off pirates that are attempting to rob the passengers. They get to the cargo hold, fend off their leader, and chase him up to the roof the lightning rail... Where both PCs and pirates are surprised to find Warforged agents attempting to sabotage the rail. Now the PCs must chase an Artificer back to the coach, where it will attempt to place and set off alchemical explosives to destroy the lightning rail.

I can't seem to find anything too definitive or detailed on movement rules while inside (or on top) of lightning rails. Real-world moving trains are a pain to walk through; would a lightning rail be all that much smoother of a ride? And what of the rooftop, where the footing is more treacherous?

The idea I have is to require DC 10 Balance checks to move full speed while inside the train (otherwise they move at half-speed or not at all or fall prone, depending on the magnitude of the failure), and up the DC to 14 while the on rooftops. The PCs are level 2. Does this sound good? Or are there any official resources I can rely on? I know Whispers of the Vampire Blade has a lightning rail encounter, but I don't have access to that module.

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3 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Some background thoughts on real life trains

My understanding of how a lightning rail train works is that it's levitating, rather than riding on rails or anything like that. That said, here's some reasons why real life trains can be difficult to move in:

  1. Obstacles like seating, handhold bars (in a subway car), people, luggage, etc. These would apply depending on what type of car you're in. If you're in the cheap seats and it's crowded, it's going to be slow going.
  2. The cars are connected to each other by some method, but meant to be generally isolated. They have a connection to move between them, but even if the train is going straight it's not open terrain. If the train is turning things will be moving around somewhat and make it even slower going.
  3. The big issue with trains is that tracks are sometimes not perfectly level. There are slight bumps and jostles, which make waking harder compared to a surface that holds still. I don't think this would apply to a levitating train like the lightning rail. Consider an airplane: walking around on a plane that's at cruising altitude is really easy, as the floor isn't moving around on you. In turbulence or during takeoff/landing it's much harder to hold your balance (and not recommended for safety reasons!). So I'd actually say that moving inside the lightning rail is a bit easier than moving inside a real train.

On the roof? Well, you've got all kinds of difficulties there:

  1. The terrain itself isn't really meant for walking on. It might be painted, have vents, be designed for aerodynamics (on high speed trains), or any consideration other than someone walking around on.
  2. At speed, you're going to have a whole lot of wind resistance on your body when you're standing up. Aside from making it hard to walk into it, it'll be pushing you against you while stationary. If the train is going fast enough it would also impact your vision, as it's harder to see clearly with an 80km/h wind blowing in your face.
  3. You probably don't have any kind of designed walkway between cars on the roof, so you're jumping. If you're going forward and the train is going at high speed, you're jumping into significant wind resistance.

Game Mechanics

All that said - your idea for inside the train was to apply a balance check to move full speed. That may or may not make sense, depending on why you think they'd have a hard time moving. Based on my above thoughts about a lightning rail being a smoother ride than a train, I wouldn't personally use that. I would apply the difficult terrain rules:

Difficult terrain hampers movement. Each square of difficult terrain counts as 2 squares of movement. (Each diagonal move into a difficult terrain square counts as 3 squares.) You can’t run or charge across difficult terrain.

If you occupy squares with different kinds of terrain, you can move only as fast as the most difficult terrain you occupy will allow.

Flying and incorporeal creatures are not hampered by difficult terrain.

My reasoning is that they still have to deal with obstacles like the seating, baggage, and possibly other passengers if the train is occupied. I don't see the ride being bumpy enough inside the train to actually knock someone over very easily, but a balance check doesn't let you get around that it's a cramped space with stuff in the way.

On the top of the train is another story. A Balance check seems like the most appropriate skill check in 3.5e to move in those conditions. There is the risk of falling off to consider in that case, which is a risk that doesn't really exist inside the train. There's also more room with less stuff in the way, so if you can move safely you wouldn't have to worry about passengers, seats, or luggage to be in the way.

One added wrinkle is that Balance normally allows you to move at half-speed, unless you take a -5 penalty to your roll. Another consideration is that a DC 14 check at level 2 will be rather difficult for members of the party without a good DEX score, as not many classes will have many ranks in balance by level 2. Many classes won't have the skill points to have any, and with a DEX of 12 they would need to roll a 13 on the dice, which means they'll fail a majority of the time. Balance also has a risk of falling if you fail by 5 or more, so setting the DC too high could result in fatalities if they go up there, roll badly, and fall off at high speed.

Exactly how you want to do that and what DCs you want to use will depend on things like how fast the train is going and how high you want the falling off risk to be, so it's hard to give you some precise values. To give you some ideas, here is how I would handle it if I were running the game.

Assuming the train is moving and occupied with a modern passenger train load (people have seats, nobody is required to stand, as opposed to a packed subway at rush hour):

  • Movement inside the train: No check required, difficult terrain rules apply (that is, you move at half speed)
  • Movement above the train: DC 10 Balance check to move at half-speed. That would allow them to optionally try for a 15 to move at full speed, that they would fail to move on a 6-9, and risk falling on a 5. Anybody with no DEX bonus and no ranks might want to think twice about trying it, but dexterous party members would be fairly safe.

Now if you want it to be riskier or more difficult for them, raise the DC. 14 would give them the risk of falling on a 9, which would be VERY dangerous for someone like a Cleric.

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Have you considered modeling the air resistance as wind, applying wind rules? –  Zachiel Sep 23 '13 at 19:13
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To begin, probably best to compare the lightning rail to maglev trains. The fact that they hover probably indicates that there won’t be too many bumps (though I’ve never ridden a maglev train so I can’t say for sure). Speed is probably a bit more constant than it is on a real train, too, which makes keeping your footing easier.

Inside the train, DC 10 Balance checks even seem high. The problem is, if you are balancing and don’t have 5 ranks of Balance, you are flat-footed, which doesn’t seem appropriate here. I’d probably just do something like: each round the DM rolls a 1d4; on a 1, everyone must make a DC 10 Reflex save against the jolt. Failure forces you to make a DC 10 Balance check or fall prone. Considering that I ride considerly-less-smooth subway trains every day and have never been knocked off my feet by a jolt, even these numbers might be high, but then people in combat are a bit distracted.

Other considerations are likely a large amount of obstructions, and any acceleration or deceleration that the train is undergoing. Trains tend to try avoid any sudden accelerations or decelerations, but while those are going on you are effectively on a sloped surface: from the perspective of someone in (or on) the train, walking towards the front of a decelerating train (or towards the rear of an accelerating train) feels like walking downhill, while walking towards the rear of an decelerating train (or towards the front of an accelerating train) feels like walking uphill. The DMG has rules for fighting on slopes, so those should probably be applied.

Outside the train, the balance problem becomes more severe. The “floor” in such cases is not designed to be walked on, may be quite smooth, and may be rounded, sloping off towards the edges. Now serious Balance checks are appropriate. At level 2, the maximum rank in Balance is 5, Dexterity scores are, at best, 20 (for a +5), and taking feats or anything like that improves Balance checks is a rather unusual choice (and anyone who did so deserves to be “off the curve” so to speak). On the flip side, it wouldn’t be too hard to have a −1 or −2 to the check, so that’s the range you’re looking at, −2 to +10.

Given that a +10 requires a fair amount of investment and implies that the player should be good at this, that should probably be an almost-automatic success. Meanwhile, the guy with −2 shouldn’t be completely barred from the fight, though he’s going to regret that −2 at least for now. As such, a DC in the 13-15 range seems appropriate. So your guess of DC 14 is pretty much spot on.

I will comment, however, as someone who spends a lot of time on a train, though, and wouldn’t put my modifier on Balance above +2 or +3 or so (certainly never trained in it aside from playing as a child, not a particularly dexterous person, but I’ve noticed my sense of balance seems decent compared to those around me who didn’t do gymnastics or anything like that), I’m not sure that I buy that I could stand on a moving train with 40%-50% reliability. So if you want to go for verisimilitude, the stunt may be beyond your players. But frankly, that’s kind of boring, and totally not what Eberron is about.

Finally, while you’re outside on a moving train, you effectively have a wind in your face (assuming you’re facing forward) equal to the train’s speed (which, for the Lightning Rail, should be quite significant). The DMG and SRD have rules for handling high winds.

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Wish I could accept both answers, since I plan on cannibalizing parts of both. I especially didn't think to take wind impact into account (according the ECB, lightning rails travel at 30 mph, which is the upper limit of severe winds). I'm pretty excited to run this session tonight. –  agradine Sep 21 '13 at 21:59
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Without going into the specifics of D&D3.5 rules, I ran a Savage Worlds sci-fi adventure on a armed plutonium transport train. The team were never expected to be in the train's interior, as it wasn't a passenger train, so all the rules covered being on the train's exterior.

I like to keep the rules simple. I made a small random event table to keep the team on their toes. Each round, I rolled:


1-3: No event.

4-5: The train rounds a sharp corner. All characters that are standing must optionally take a Balance action or fall prone. This counts as one of their actions this turn.

6: The train passes under a low hanging structure (bridge, tunnel, lightning tower, etc.) Any character still standing on top of the train at the end of the round is hit for the equivalent of maximum falling damage, and possibly knocked clean off the train. Characters prone on top of the train are safe.

Otherwise, movement used standard walking and climbing rules. It prevented the game becoming overcomplicated.

The players made the most of these events. They used the sharp corners to kick NPCs off the train, and distracted them when the train went under bridges. It was a lot of fun.

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