Putting the Steam in Steampunk: The Importance of the Railroad; Part 1: Along for the Ride

As will likely come as a surprise to no one, I have a long history of being a railfan.

I won’t lie, personal interest plays no small part in driving up the importance of highlighting the role the railroad plays in the Gruv, but that’s far from the only reason. For one, this is a steampunk game, so steam power is right in the name. Yes, the tropes of weird gadgets, decorative cogs, and re-envisioned Victorian fashion tend to dominate if you do an image search for “steampunk”, but if you really want to look at steam power in a proper historical context, nothing conjures up the themes of industrial power and mechanical elegance and harmony than seeing a full size steam engine thundering down the line.

From an actual in game perspective, there are several elements that also drive up the importance of a rail network to sustain the British expansion into the Gruv, which were alluded to in the previous post and will be delved into further in subsequent ones. Even on Earth, railways are still vital for transportation at this stage in history. Roadways between large areas aren’t nearly as developed as they are today, so horses and even vehicles are really only good for distances within a small area, unless you’re planning to travel very slowly over rough terrain. Airships are prohibitively expensive and still a rarity, and travel by water can only reach where the water actually is. In short, if your players plan to travel pretty much anywhere that isn’t within their immediate area, they’re most likely going to be taking a train.

The Fort Alice Sourcebook covers a lot of information about the rail network, its role in the Gruv, and some of the types of engines and rolling stock that are present. We’ll be touching on several of those points later in this preview series, but I thought to start out we’d do a basic overview of some general information on what your players are most likely to encounter when riding the rails. At the time of writing, I’m anticipating this being at least a two-parter, with part one covering the perspective more from being a passenger on a train, and part two covering more of the operations end (which players are more likely to encounter if they’re taking work as mercenaries or getting into areas that a normal passenger wouldn’t, which is likely in the course of adventuring). I’m going to be dropping some railroading terms through out these posts, so I’ll try to pop in a definition for anyone who may not know what they mean.

If not engaged in combat, mercenary work, investigation, or anything otherwise that an adventurer does that tends to separate them out from the rank and file of society, they’ll most likely stay primarily in the passenger areas of a train. There are a wide variety of rolling stock [General term for any equipment made to be moved over rails, from freight cars to passenger coaches. This term refers to both powered and unpowered vehicles, though often powered vehicles are more commonly referred to as engines or locomotives] designed for passenger use; aside from general use coaches, there are dining cars, sleeping cars, lounge cars, and so on, depending on how long the journey is and what social classes it caters to. At the basic structural level, the most obvious structural difference between pieces of rolling stock is whether the through aisle for the coach is in the center or on the side. Center aisles are most common for general use passenger coaches, with seating along both sides to give passengers access to the windows. Even in passenger coaches of this type for higher classes, the focus is on cramming in as much seating space as possible, in order to maximize the potential riders and thus profits from that particular coach. Bench seats are most commonly used, generally able to fit at least two people across, three if they squeeze in. Two snarks can usually fit in one bench, but generally no one else, and trolls will often take up an entire bench all to themselves. Some models have all seats in a fixed direction, usually with pairs of benches facing each other, but more and more commonly there are designs with seats made to have shifting backs, so that they can be made to face in either direction, allowing for passengers to be facing the direction of travel without having to rotate the entire coach, or to allow larger groups to sit together facing each other.

Image found on 1880train.com

The aisles are really only designed for the width of one person to move comfortably, two if they flatten out and squeeze past one another. Railway personnel have long learned to deal with the cramped conditions and can easily glide past each other without slowing. Depending on the design of the coach, it may or may not have additional space overhead for storing luggage or small parcels. A lavatory is often located at one end of the coach (or sometimes a pair of them, one on either side of the aisle), though for coaches used only on short service runs, this may not be present. As you would expect on a vehicle made for mass transit, these are cramped and spartan in accommodations. Think airplane bathroom and you’ll get the basic idea. As a result, most trolls that take rail travel on a regular basis have rapidly developed a skill in bladder control.

Bladder Control

Step: Rank + WIL
Default: Yes
Action: Simple
Karma: No
Strain: 1+ (see text)
Tier: Novice

This skill allows the user to hold back when nature calls but circumstances do not allow them to answer conveniently at the present moment. At the initial urge, the user makes a Bladder Control test against their own, unmodified Spell Defense (this is an act of willpower, after all). Upon success, they can stave off the urge for a number of rounds equal to their Rank. Subsequent tests can be made to stave off longer, but each time both the difficulty and the Strain costs increase by one. For example, the second attempt would cost two strain, the third would cost three, and so on. Tests made within the presence of running water require an additional success. While this skill is in effect, the user incurs a Harried penalty, though they can still take other actions. Upon a failed test, the user has up to their Rank in rounds to find acceptable release. On a Rule of One result, they will require an immediate change of wardrobe.

Coaches with side aisles are generally made to have private booths. The aisle width in these isn’t much bigger than that of a center aisle coach, though the coach design over all generally devotes more focus to comfort and additional function, as passage in these coaches costs a premium. Coaches of this design that aren’t intended for a service that will run overnight, which are usually the more common, have fixed position benches spanning along either wall of the booth, with luggage shelving above. The doors are sliding panel design, so that they don’t have to hinge either into the aisle or into the booth to open. Most will have a fixed wall with a wide window to allow for maximized viewing, and may or may not have a fold down table mounted to the wall that can be pulled out for use. A very rare few will have exterior doors in the wall to allow access in and out of the booth directly from the platform, though these tend to be specialty service runs with a lot of loading and unloading of passengers, where having everyone file through the aisle-way at once would delay departures, most common with loop lines.

Image from TripAdvisor.com

Depending on the design and intended use for the coach, there may be additional storage areas between booths for larger luggage, used primarily for longer trips. There is usually a lavatory at least at one end of the coach, possibly at both, and these tend to be a bit larger given the wider space available. Some of the more expensive layouts for long journeys may only have two or three large booths that function as full rooms, with benches that stretch out to beds and possibly even a private lavatory. Naturally, the less passenger capacity a coach has, the more expensive it is to book passage on it.

For trips that span overnight, sleeper cars are also made. The cheapest of these will be center aisle designs, with bunk beds spanning along the length of both sides of the coach, and nothing more offered for privacy than a thin curtain that stretches across the bed, though there will usually be a changing room on at least one end. Side aisle sleeper cars will usually have either two or four bunk beds to a booth, generally making them collapsible so that the bottom bunk can also server as bench seating. Depending on the configuration, luggage storage may be in a shelf above, a large cabinet on an empty wall, or in the space between bunks and accessible from the aisle.

Images from Wikipedia.org

Unless one can afford a large private booth, sleeping on a train is usually a cramped affair, often noisy with crews and passengers having to walk past the aisle on a regular basis (not to mention the usual train noises) and thin walls without a lot of sound insulation in order to maximize the space, and shaky with the continuous motion of the train, which some find soothing and others find jarring.

Most other cars intended for passenger use have a more open floor plan. Dining cars usually still have a center aisle, though they often use more traditional chairs rather than benches fixed to the floor, so the layout can be modified more easily depending on the parties using them.

Image from travelandleisure.com

Lounge cars also have a more open floor plan, usually having larger, more comfortable chairs that can be moved about as needed for social mingling. If the train is large enough and traveling far enough to have either of these, then there will usually be a bar in either the dining car or the lounge car as well; catering to vices, many of which are addictive, can produce a lucrative profit, particularly when your customer base is stuck in an enclosed area for a long duration and you can charge them a premium for the access.

Electric lighting, while once novel, is actually quite common for rail coaches at this time frame. Lights will be powered by a dynamo run by the locomotive with power connected when the train is assembled and the engine connected, though many still have mounting points for oil lamps either as a backup or simply from retrofit. Passengers could see the lights go out if the engine runs into trouble and needs to squeeze out some additional power, the engineer may shut off the dynamo to devote more steam to other purposes, or if the line between the coaches was severed (or not hooked up to begin with if they had to depart in a hurry). Most have enough windows to provide enough natural light during the daytime hours, though if you were on a train at night and the lights went out, you might have to deal with darkness penalties.

Many coaches at this time frame will have open platforms at either end rather than enclosed walk ways, both for moving between cars and for getting on and off at stations. Generally only paltry railings were used, often more for something to hold up the roof over hang to keep rain off the platform than for actual safety. Occasionally there might be a short length of chain at about waist level where the steps let out to the platform to keep people from blindly walking off that way while the train was in motion, but these were generally either hung on a hook or attached with a simple hand clip, and could be stepped over fairly easily even if they were tightly secured. As with many other aspects seen through out the game line, safety is not exactly a major concern at this stage in history. The only usual exception to coaches having an open platform will be brake coaches, which are put at the back end of a train and will have additional housing at the rear for the guard [Also commonly referred to as the conductor in the Union/Confederacy] instead of an open platform, often with sections that jut out so they may look along the side of the train for trouble. The brake coach, unlike standard coaches, will be built heavier and will have brakes that can be controlled by the guard in the event of a disconnect to stop the trailing end of the train, in an emergency to assist the engine in stopping, or partially applied as needed when navigating a steep incline to take some of the pressure off of the engine.

Finally, the overall design of coaches will vary the most depending on if they are on a fixed wheel design or bogie [A chassis that the wheels for a piece of rolling stock are mounted to, which then attaches to the rolling stock on its own pivoting mount. Bogies usually have their own internal suspension in addition to the suspension attaching them to the rolling stock. Most bogies have four wheels, though six or eight wheels are possible for larger rolling stock.] design. Fixed wheel rolling stock will typically have four wheels, running on single axles at either end mounted directly to the frame, though there will usually be at least a simple suspension system. Sometimes designs will be made that have six wheels with another pair at the center of the coach, though these may have additional difficulty on turns. Even with the suspension, these tend to ride rougher and have more limits in terms of their length and weight capabilities, and can’t take turns as quickly. They will by necessity be shorter, as making them longer would require a longer run that is unsupported, and there is a diminishing return in cost for using more durable materials to squeeze a few more passengers on one coach, compared to simply building another. They tend to be either older designs, used more for short runs and/or branch line work, and lines that run mostly straight rail without a lot of bends.

Image from gwr.org.uk

Bogie coaches, having pivot points for their wheels allows them to articulate around bends easier while still maintaining speed and balance. As such, they can be made larger and heavier, able to carry more people and goods, and at higher speeds. Bogie coaches are most often newer models and used on main line services, or on any line that tends to have a lot of curves to navigate.

Image from tnmot.org

Next installment we’ll be taking a look at some more information on the railroads, with less of a focus on what it’s like simply riding on a train and more what to expect when working on or around one. If you find this sort of background information useful for your game to flesh it out further, please let me know in the comments below and/or on Discord, as well as if you want to see more or have other questions you’d like to have answered.