On the subject of terminology

My thread about adding engine and speed mechanics has attracted a bit of discussion about terminology in Sunless Skies, i feel that debate warrants its own seperate thread.

Those things you soar around the high wilderness in, what really ARE they? A lot of words are used interchangeably, but i think most of them are not correct

Train - Wikipedia
According to wikipedia, a train is a set of interconnected vehicles (cars, or carriages). Their motion being powered either by internal self motors, or by a seperate locomotive pulling the train.
Since our things in sunless skies are only a single object, and not a series of several things linked together, Train doesn’t seem a correct word for them


&quotA locomotive or engine is a rail transport vehicle that provides the motive power for a train. A locomotive has no payload capacity of its own, and its sole purpose is to move the train along the tracks.[1]&quot

The word locomotive, sometimes called engine, refers to the front car of a train. Its the thing that does the work, with the other cars expected to do whatever else is necessary. Hold passengers or cargo, hold mounted guns, etc (yep guns on trains are actually a thing!)
Given that our things are not simply for moving, but also have other purposes too, i don’t believe locomotive is a correct term


Another peculiarity. Engine seems to have two relevant uses here.
The first, and the one that i really care about, is the more generic definition: An engine is a machine that converts energy from one type to another - typically energy gained from some kind of input (burning fuel, supplying electricity, turning cranks) into mechanical energy to move other machines

The other use of Engine, as mentioned above, is interchangeable with locomotive. But as mentioned, a locomotive is a specialised single purpose vehicle, and i believe the reason they’re called engines is simply because they’re an engine on wheels with very little else. Which is to say, if a locomotive did other things besides powering movement, it wouldn’t be called an engine

All of the above terms refer specifically to something in a certain configuration. None of them can correctly apply to what we have - a full vehicle with multiple internal compartments and facilities. From various ingame texts, it’s clear that your vessel has not only a bridge and a whole seperate engine room, but also barracks with beds for the crew, and at least a galley for preparing food. A cargo hold for storing valueables is there too. I’m sure we’ll find mentions of countless other internal rooms if we scour storylets, it’s far too complex a vessel to be called an engine or locomotive. But as a single vessel, train isn’t correct either

If none of those are correct, what is left?


Terminology was so much simpler in sunless sea, a transplantation of naval culture in its entireity. A ship is a large watercraft, and there’s not much standing water in this setting.
However, in science fiction settings, ship is often used to refer to spacegoing vehicles too.
Wikipedia doesn’t agree with that, FWIW, and instead redirects us to:


A bit of a mouthful, but this seems to be the closest we have to a widely accepted generic term for vehicles that travel in space. IT’s the first one i’ve found which doesn’t have any obvious disqualifying factors, and could be technically correct


This term is entirely fictional, but it does have its own page. A vessel designed to travel around and between star systems. Actually fits what we have pretty perfectly. The four regions in the game are infact star systems, and we will be doing interstellar travel once albion is released. (We seem to have floating islands rather than planets, but that’s a minor detail)

Steam Rocket

A final suggestion, and an odd one, but this does correctly describe the kind of propulsion we have. In sunless skies our engines heat up water into highly pressurised steam, and we open it to release it from the vessel in order to provide thrust away from the direction of release. This is how our trains move, turn and strafe
It’s not entirely clear what the chimney on the front is for, it seems entirely extraneous since it doesn’t contribute at all to thrust. Perhaps simply an emergency vent to prevent pressure going too high

All of the train related terms unfortunately, just seem to be rather unsuitable
Of all the terms i’ve looked into, any of the last three seem to be the most technically correct. Only the last one preserves the pseudo steampunk culture the writers are going for, but it is a bit of a mouthful
I like starship personally, with an unspoken agreement that &quotship&quot is just a shortening of starship, and doesn’t refer to watergoing ships

What are your thoughts, dear readers?
edited by Nanako on 2/1/2018

When choosing words to describe something in a fantasy setting being tehcnically correct is the last on the list. The focus is on conveying the essence of the setting in a way that the players vscerally understand. This is why train, locomotive & engine are used to describe these ships - the writers want the players to truly feel like they’re “flying” a train.

Besides, space trains don’t exist in real life so who’s to say skyfarers didn’t appropriate these terms? Surely Victorians cared less about the technicalities of the words they’re using and more about the connotation they carry.

Using railway terminology sets the setting apart from the usual science fiction that mires its space travel with maritime names for everything. I do think that making the vehicles more trainlike in their function and usage would help distinguish the game a ton - write the various ports to seem more like train stations, perhaps.

Locomotive is the constantly preferred term of the developers, and is likely to remain that way. Yes, the sky locomotives of the reborn Empire have considerably more space than the thirty square feet a land-bound engineer might have, but that doesn’t change their essential nature or function. Besides, it conveys precisely the information they need to convey, with precisely the atmosphere they need it conveyed in. Tell someone they’ll be flying locomotives through space, and they’ll imagine something very close to what Sunless Skies actually is. Tell the same people they’ll be flying steam rockets, and they’re likely to imagine something more like From the Earth to the Moon.

There are many, many early science fiction authors who not only are precisely correct in their terminology, but will happily stop the story to explain to you how the engine works. Even Asimov, though he never tried to explain how Daneel’s brain works precisely, wrote with the specificity of a working scientist, and always knew the weight of his terms.

Besides, anyone working on speculative fiction these days has to be prepared to contend with the Internet’s habit of finding things to complain about. If someone grossly misuses a term, they will hear about it on everything from Reddit to Twitter.
edited by Siankan on 2/2/2018

It does, infact, change their essential nature and function quite considerably.
The engine is not used to turn wheels, but merely to generate pressurised steam for rocket propulsion. They’re steam rocket ships with a locomotive aesthetic, and looks aside, bear very little functional similarity to their namesake

Given that the main thruster is at the rear, and 99% of all steam generated is ejected through there, it would make the most sense for the engine to be at the rear of the vehicle, and the frontal boiler cylinder to be at least partially empty space used for storage and rooms

Here’s the pellinore for an example

Look where that chimney is, slap bang in the middle of the train. The most logical conclusion i draw from this design is that the boiler and furnace are located somewhere in the rear, and that large frontal section is cargo storage and rooms. If it were not so, there would be a lot of highly inefficient piping to move things around. Pumping a liquid or gas along any distance will lose pressure, you need to minimise the distance it has to travel, and that’d be most efficiently achieved by creating the steam where it’s needed - the rear

Londoners like familiarity, that’s a theme that’s repeated regularly in sunless skies. What if the locomotive aesthetic is just that - an aesthetic

The moloch, for a rather opposite example, barely resembles locomotives. It’s designed after luxury cars which i don’t believe were invented in the year of our setting.

On the part of the developers, at least, the locomotive aesthetic is just that- an aesthetic. A lot of things are there that make no technical sense, like the chimney on top, and the chugging sound it makes as it moves. FBG is composed of artists and writers, more than programmers. Technical ability has never been their strong suit - no offense intended to them. It is their style to handwave away technical details in favour of artistic flourish and mystery. Steam is basically science-flavoured magic, it powers everything and to hell with physics

It’s a silly kind of fun. Sunless skies isn’t hard scifi, and i don’t think some technical inaccuracy is a sufficient reason to shoot down an idea - with such an approach the fundamentals of how these things work comes into question. That’s not to say there’s no place for hard scifi, technical accuracy has a role too, in making the world feel believable. But it tends to take second place to fun when it comes to both gameplay design, and writing.

TL;DR: These are steam rocketships that look and sound like trains. They don’t act like trains at all, and the technical details of real steam trains only apply until they become inconvenient. Artistic license
edited by Nanako on 2/2/2018