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Question upfront: Is there a way I can add trains to the core world of D&D 3.5 (Greyhawk/Oerth) without “messing up” the world or its economies?

Reason:
1st: Mainly, it makes no sense to me that with all the resources available in this world that some enterprising young gnome wouldn’t have this epiphany and put it into motion (no pun intended). This will enable merchants to move their goods across great distances at a faster speed. It will also allow Nobles & other rich people to travel in luxury (at least compared to camping on the road).
2nd: I think nations in general would appreciate the improvement to their transportation infrastructure as it only benefits them as a whole.

Note: I tried to put more of an explanation as to how this could work in the question but it made it too convoluted & after going over it several times I decided it would work better to have it as an answer to this question. However, just because I have answered my own question doesn’t mean that this is set. I would like to know if there are competing theories that would either say this would work or this would not. Also, if there are counter points to my answers or other things I have left out.


9/16/2013 Note: This question already has an accepted answer but since there's been recent activity I thought I'd clarify my intent.

EDIT/Clarification: The intent of introducing trains is to replace (or co-exist with) existing caravans. This would speed up travel between cities/towns getting trade goods to distant locations faster and easier. This could theoretically interfere with the economy by suddenly having large amnts of raw materials reach further and faster than traditionally done. How would all of a sudden getting the ore/mineras/and other trade goods to these interact with the existing economy?

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The 3.5e economy already doesn't make sense, so I'm not sure how this could functionally worsen it. Is your game about adventuring (now with trains!) or economics or politics or ...? –  okeefe Mar 26 '13 at 2:58
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What world? Why "mess it up?" IRL rail travel added some advantages and disadvantages... What problem are you facing? Thinking about that may help formulate your question - you have a contextless question right now. What are you worried about? –  mxyzplk Mar 26 '13 at 3:03
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9 Answers

up vote 24 down vote accepted

Eberron has maglev trains

Eberron, which was originally written for 3.5, has the so-called Lightning Rail, which is basically a magical maglev train. It’s a fairly major part of the setting, and certainly doesn’t ruin anything.

Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk don’t have trains, or, apparently, mages who think

As you say, considering the incredible magical power available in these settings, it stands to reason that something like Eberron’s Lightning Rail could have been built, but both of these settings, basically, hinge on the fact that their mages don’t really think about the practical applications of their power much at all. Each has numerous epic-level wizards who apparently do nothing but sit in towers, “studying” but with nothing much to show for it.

If you take the power available to spellcasters in 3.5, and you take the levels available in Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms, and take those to their logical extremes, what you get is the Tippyverse. That has trains, and an awful lot of other things. I’m not sure that the Tippyverse makes an interesting setting for a game, though the thought experiment is at least somewhat interesting just to think about.

But 3.5 doesn’t really have a default setting.

If you aren’t specifically using these settings, anything could go. On some level Greyhawk is sort of the default setting, but the overwhelming majority of the books don’t actually reference it in any way. None of the Core books includes a world map, descriptions of countries or their peoples, and so on.

As such, you could have a train, or not, without really affecting anything, because there is nothing to affect.

And, as mentioned in the comments, 3.5 doesn’t have an economy

The economics of 3.5 are basically a mess. You might see Tippy’s thoughts on them to see what I mean. Even if you don’t go to those extremes (and eliminate the powers that lead to them, either through houserule, gentlemen’s agreement, or plain fiat), there are broken issues all over the place. Most famously, two 10-ft. poles cost dramatically more than a single 10-ft. ladder, which means by simply chopping a ladder in half you can earn a very high return-on-investment. By the rules, in a big enough city you should find no shortage of either ladders or those interested in buying poles.

So if you want your setting to have a coherent economy, have fun: that’s something you’re going to have to work out yourself. Most 3.5 players simply just... don’t look too hard at the economy, and have gentlemen’s agreements to avoid exploiting this lack of real economic background.

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Yes, I believe this is possible to implement without “messing up” the established world as long as there are limits to its implementation and the factors below are addressed.

First of all, any train would have to use old technology, and I mean OLD, by not even using a steam engine. Rather, have a couple of Golems (or similar “creature”) use a simple mechanism like a handcar (which is also used in mining, so the idea is even less far-fetched). Also, the availability would have to be severely limited (no subway stations).

Expenses:
Land: This will be the biggest hurdle and probably the biggest expense unless the land is granted by “the government” (I think they would like to allow the investment in their infrastructure as it can only benefit them if this takes off)

"Fuel": Since we are not using steam or other fuel then we are relying on manual labor. The price of Golems is not cheap, but it is one of the most stable with no additional costs, but we are talking a hefty investment just for our “fuel”.

Labor: Once you have the land you still have to lay the tracks on them..this will be no small endeavor. However, I think that if the King (whoever) has already granted use of the land, they may be willing to allow the use of prisoners for labor. (Ofcourse this is assuming slaves do not exist in the kingdom, for those that do this may be a different issue) However, even if you use prison labor you will still have to hire overseers/guards etc to make sure they stay in line. And you’ll have to provide them food/bedding etc.

Raw Materials: Once you’ve acquired everything above you still need raw material to build the tracks with & ofcourse the actual train cars. This will be the smallest of the large expenses but still a large one to consider.

Routine Maintenance: Not as large as an expense, but all mechanical things break and must be fixed, so it does exist. This expense grows if we run into any of the “problems” listed below.


Problems: Assuming you’ve overcome all the financial/logistical hurdles to build the thing there are still numerous problems with having trains run.

Most obvious will be bandits & monsters/creatures(dragons?) who try to rob the train. The train would have to employ any number of guards to protect the train & passengers. However, merchants would still be required to hire their own guards to protect their wares. Nobles, likewise, would be advised to hire their own guards to protect them in event of any “trouble”. While it might seem unfair to have passengers/merchants pay for their own protection, they would have had to do this for a normal convoy anyway, but the ‘bonus’ now is that they won’t need them for as many days. Besides(Release forms for their safety/wares would have to also include a clause about “unavoidable delays”.)

Vulnerabilities:
Tracks, once they break the tracks the train will have to stop (if it doesn’t derail).
Measures taken to address problem: The train will have to have several cars devoted to spare parts to repair the tracks along with the labor to complete the work.

Bridges!!: This risk is so high/expensive to repair that I think it completely negates their use at all; unless the trains/operators have been around for so many years that they can afford all the VERY EXPENSIVE magical protection to protect them. However, there will always be someone powerful enough to overcome their protection which will make the loss of this bridge even more disastrous; not to mention that there will not be enough labor/parts on hand to rebuild a bridge on the train itself.
Measures taken to address problem: This problem is so expensive/dangerous that it must be left out completely. Any place that would require a bridge simply cannot be traversed by train.

Old fashioned train robbery: Even without damaging the tracks people could still go the old west route and do a direct attack by catching the train in transit. While this made since in real life, in a world filled with magic I think this would be retarded.
Measures taken to address problem: As stated, this option would be retarded, and can be protected against with the guards on hand.

Kill the “Fuel”: This would require the attackers to board the train in one fashion or another, but once on board, a small 2-3 person party with enough power could kill the Golems making the train run turning it into a giant, expensive, lucrative target.
Measures taken to address problem: In addition to the Golem’s own defenses we will need guards solely to protect the golems; a possible anti-life field around the “locomotive” portion of the train will be a very effective, if very expensive protective measure as well. (Logistics on fixing broken mechanical pieces will have be more difficult, but not impossible).

Take away: This would be a VERY expensive endeavor, and the customers would have to pay a pretty coin for this option. Additionally, by paying for their own guards this cost is increased significantly. This would make the “pool” of potential customers shrink significantly meaning it would be even harder to recoup investment costs, let alone turn a profit. Due to the extravagant expense of making this happen, I don’t think it would “mess up” the economy.

Note: I tried to make this answer as “clean” and readable as possible. I think I’ve gotten it pretty good, but if anyone feels they can make it read better, without removing any of the points, then that would be fine too.

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I am going to contrast with most of the answers and say "no". In the time of ancient Greece, there was a track that was used to bring boats across the Isthmus of Corinth called Diolkos that ran from somewhere around 400BC until "the first century AD". Meanwhile, between 80BC and 15AD lived a guy who created the Aeolipile which was a very rudimentary steam engine. Robert Heinlein once said in his novel The Door Into Summer, "When railroading time comes you can railroad—but not before." In history, much before the "high medival" or "renaissance" eras, the technology required to have railroads existed, but was not seen as viable.

Magically, I would say it is unlikely since most wizards would want to figure out teleportation devices to avoid both camping on the side of the road AND sleeping in a wagon (or a train car) that is in motion 24 hours a day.

However, if it is your world's time to railroad, all bets are off!

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Obviously, my question (& answer) was with the assumption that this would work. BUT I wanted answers that said no also so I could work out the bugs. Your answer in particular actually helps me out as a yes! See, if it's "before its' time" then the train will never "take off" to large scale use and I will avoid affecting the world/economy/etc by simple fact that it sees only limited use! Thanks for the answer & +1 already given –  Ben-Jamin Mar 26 '13 at 18:54
    
+1 for pointing out that technological innovations doesn't occur in a vacuum, because in a vacuum there aren't any benefits from technological innovations. –  GMJoe Mar 28 '13 at 2:45
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I'm afraid have to say that you probably shouldn't worry too much about messing up the economy, because 3.5 doesn't actually have one. That might sound odd, given that there's prices for almost everything listed in the rules, but 3.5 doesn't really attempt to model how gold moves around, except in terms of how it enters and leaves the possession of adventurers. Still, with a little houseruling and handwaving it's possible to overlook the flaws in the system, and give rough answers to questions like these.

Your own answer has already addressed whether or not establishing and running a train is possible, so I'll discuss some of the consequences of having trains exist.

First up, trains make it economically possible to transport large quantities of cheap goods long distances. This might not sound important, but it has a huge impact on the world. For one thing, it helps prevent famine. Suddenly, staple foods such as wheat and barley can be imported cheaply, in sufficient quantities to feed an entire village in a bad harvest year.

Conversely, this also means that many places may start to produce less food, since they can just import it. If a mountain village known for its fine quarry and terrible soil imports food instead of paying what the local farmers are asking, it can reduce its running costs - and thus make more money exporting stone on the new railroad.

The presence of rail also dramatically increases the size of the market available to manufacturers of specialist and luxury goods (especially perishable ones) while reducing the cost of importing those same goods. Demand soars, prices rise, and luxury exporters (and train line owners) profit hugely - and attracting those who would like to collect taxes.

Since luxury goods manufacturers are suddenly prosperous, they're likely to put their newfound wealth to use in expanding their operations and improving their own positions. In effect, this could lead to the formation of the gentry, an effective 'middle class' of people with financial power similiar to or exceeding that of the traditional noble classes, but without the traditional agricultural basis of wealth.

These nouveau rich will, of course, attempt to purchase luxury goods, leading to an increase in demand that traditional artisans will have trouble meeting... Until some enterprising dwarf works out that he can use cheaper, unskilled labour to do it. All he has to do is split the manufacturing process up into a set of simple, non-varying steps with no need for decision-making, and assign one worker to each step. His workers will only be able to make one product, each identical to the next - but that's not a problem, as there's enough demand for the product that they don't need more capability than that.

In fact, if our dwarf makes the steps simple and repetitive enough, he could even get a machine to do some of them, cutting his costs further - and wouldn't that revolutionise the industry?

...Long story short, introducing railways will have significant long-term effects down the road that will absolutely change the way society in your world works. It probably won't go exactly the way I've described (as I'm sure others will point out), but change of some sort will be inevitable.

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If you're adding trains at the beginning of a campaign, you wouldn't even need to change the economy from RAW - those numbers just become the "after" (and presumably stuff was more expensive in the before-times) –  Allen Gould Oct 4 '13 at 21:28
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You can't "break" Oerth's realism because it never had any to begin with.

Oerth wasn't designed – it was accreted from various silly in-jokes in Gary Gygax's original game of D&D. It has lasers, portals to our world, and voice-activated flamethrowers because that's what they thought would be fun.

Go ahead and add trains. I think Gary would approve.

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Trains wouldn't work in the D&D worlds. There are many reasons, but let me boil it down to 2 words. Rust Monster. You want to run iron rail way tracks through a world with a creature that EATS metal, especially iron.

Then there are orc and goblin tribes that would rip up the tracks and make metal weapons out of them. Druids, who would see this as a HUGE offence to nature, and can cast spells that rust metal.

Besides, methods for transporting mass goods and people already exist in these worlds for the rich and powerful, in the form of magical gates and teleportation spells. The rich have no need to build something like a train that would only really benefit the craftsmen and merchant classes.

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Welcome to the site! Please take a look at the tour and the help; they're a useful introduction to the site. The reason people aren't talking about rust monsters is that Stack Exchange is a Q&A site, not a forum, so each post provides a unique answer to the question being asked. This would be a great addendum to a full answer, if you'd like to edit it so you're talking about the rest of the question, too. And once you have 20+ rep, feel free to join the chat! –  BESW Sep 15 '13 at 10:35
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@Gilithar In particular: this question is not about whether the world's inhabitants would mess up the trains, but about whether the trains would mess up the world and its inhabitants (their cultures, societies, etc). I agree with BESW that it's a useful to point out how disastrous building a railway could be, depending on the materials chosen - but your answer still needs to address the question, and this would be a useful addendum to that. (Also, I wonder if there are better materials than iron: magically strengthened wood, maybe?) –  Jonathan Hobbs Sep 15 '13 at 12:53
    
I identified several of the (in-game) problems this endeavor would face in my own answer. However, I was focusing on just the economy and, by extension the overall structure of the game. There are ways to counter this, the owners would just have to weigh the cost/benefit ratio. –  Ben-Jamin Sep 17 '13 at 3:15
    
However, "just the craftsmen & merchant classes" is a HUGE category of potential customers, and honestly exactly who I was targeting...ie, using the train to replace the existing trade caravans that run through..this would be faster & "safer" depending on circumstances. –  Ben-Jamin Sep 17 '13 at 3:17
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I see no reason to think that trains would mess up the economy even if the economy weren't already nuts.

Note, also, that there's another approach to trains that doesn't even require a steam engine: Horse "trains". You lay rail like you would for a normal train but the vehicles using it are horse-drawn wagons with flanged wheels. A horse can pull more weight when the wheels don't have to deal with bumps in the road.

Gilithar is right, though--the reason against trains has nothing to do with the economy or the technology, but rather with how people will deal with them. You can't lay rail in anything less than a civilized land--but there's little for adventurers to do in such a land.

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A "horse pulled train" may be cheaper on initial setup, but long term care/use of the train would be very limited. My own answer suggested using golems or something similar. –  Ben-Jamin Sep 17 '13 at 3:19
    
Also, trains between towns that are 4-7 days by caravan would be doable and outside the "civilized" lands but close enough to be safe enough for the trains..and most commonly used this way to move tradegoods & such between towns for the merchants. –  Ben-Jamin Sep 17 '13 at 3:21
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@Ben-Jamin You can buy and feed a LOT of horses for the cost of one golem. I don't think you can run trains through uncivilized land, period--somebody is going to do something to your track. –  Loren Pechtel Sep 18 '13 at 5:10
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Building a railway takes time and money. If nothing else, it requires a lot of iron. Mining and refining all that iron is going to cost a lot. Bandits/orcs/whatever stealing it is going to cost a lot. Rust monsters eating it is going to cost a lot. Hiring guards to protect hundreds of kilometres of railway is going to cost a staggering amount. Who is going to pay for all of this? What ecomonic implication does that have?

Also, nobles already travel is safety and luxury: teleportation, flying animals, flying magical devices, portals, astral travel, etc. Building a railway would, essentially, be declaring war with those who have the monopoly on exiting travel: mages. You think bringing scab labour in against a trade union on the docks is bad? Imagine if the union members had fireballs and could summon demons!

That war is going to be expensive, both in money and lives.

In summary, I think that in a world with teleportation and astral travel, a railway over anything longer than trivial distances will fail. On the other hand, I think it would make a cool background for a roleplaying game!

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Your 1st paragraph is most directly tied to what I was thinking, but it is the part already addressed in my own answer. Your 2nd & subsequent paragraphs I don't think apply, b/c you are right nobles would use magic, however, merchants do not use that method, they use caravans & I was thinking that this implementation would be to replace the old caravan model to speed up delivery of goods between towns/cities. –  Ben-Jamin Sep 17 '13 at 3:25
    
Also, stoneshape is significantly cheaper than miners. And you only need iron if you can't shape the stone into tracks. Dig down to bedrock, tunnel to wherever, emerge. All it costs is air until you can get magical constructs pulling enclosed wagons. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Sep 17 '13 at 6:43
    
If you have the magical ability to stoneshape hundreds of kilometers of railway then you probably have the magical ability to not need the railway in the first place. The only reason one would build a railway in a swords & sorcery world would be if one had economic wealth but no magical wealth, which is where the conflict I talked about comes from - mages vs non-mages. –  Greenstone Walker Sep 19 '13 at 1:44
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Certainly you can. It's your world (unless it isn't, but even then, it's your interpretation of their world). I suggest reading how Eberron implements its Lightning Rail, as this may give you ideas for how your railway might work.

That said, rail would affect a D&D world -especially a magic-heavy one- rather differently than it did us. In our world, rail was fast and cheap. In a D&D world, rail is slow: you have gates and teleportation to take you across continents in the blink of an eye, and rail cannot compare to that. Since rail can't compete on speed, it will have to compete on price instead. That's not impossible, of course: gates are expensive, at least by RAW. But you said you wanted to keep some semblance of realism, and if that is still important, you'll need to work out why a transcontinental rail trip is cheaper than taking a wagon train through a gate.

(IIRC, the way Eberron managed this is that only low-level magic is common there. High-level magic is still rare, and therefore it is still expensive).

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