Inspiring Illustration

It’s only four days until the Steam Highwayman III Kickstarter Campaign launches and I’ve a question for you: what does Steampunk London look like?

It’s not a simple question: there are as many different definitions of steampunk is as there are steampunks – plus a few more. Then, the way this idea translates to the hypothetical, allohistorical building of a city as iconic as London could be interpreted in as many ways. For Steam Highwayman, set in something like our 1860s but following countless minor (and a few major) divergences, that means I fancy a heavily realist steampunk – Marco Omnigamer called it a ‘light fantasy’ and wished for a few more aliens and mad scientists. This is largely because of my original inspiration born from Keith Roberts’ Pavane, but also due to some of the tools I’ve used since then to help build my world, chief among them the historical OS maps available through the National Library of Scotland.

With this in mind, I’ve been keen to push some of the more fantastic elements of my world, so working and talking with Russ has been a great shove. I have to make real effort to prevent my adventures becoming too mundane and realistic – a recent criticism I’m mulling over – so I don’t want the illustrations for Steam Highwayman III to have the same problem.

So what do you think the Steam Highwayman’s London looks like? One faithful backer recently sent me a collection of images and suggestions, expressing exactly this. We discussed the problem of the cliche of steampunk London, which uses buildings like ‘Big Ben’ (the Victoria Tower) and Tower Bridge as international shorthand for London, irrespective of the sense of them appearing in an alternate timeline. Neither have been – or will be – built in the Steam Highwayman’s world, but St Paul’s cathedral has been, so that can stay on the skyline. Maybe a world with less dominant railways might not build the Midland Hotel… but perhaps a similar building was built for other purposes? Are there other architectural landmarks that you think should feature in the illustrations? Let me know and some of them may well end up, thanks to Russ, in the book.

Oh, and steampunk buildings definitely doesn’t mean taking existing buildings and sticking cogs on the roof.

Steam Highwayman III Reward Pledges

In just over a week, Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis will go live on Kickstarter. It’s taken a long time to plan this campaign, partly because I’ve chosen to add some merchandise into the equation, as well as offering two ways in which Backers can see themselves in the finished book.

The basic pledge is exactly like in my previous campaigns; for £15, backers can receive a copy of the gamebook with a written acknowledgement printed in the back. This is a little cheaper than the RRP and, of course, you’ll know that you helped create this. If you’re looking for extras, I’ve been working on custom dice, as well as beginning to redraw the maps from Smog and Ambuscade and Highways and Holloways. These will be printed, large (at around A2 size) and folded, together with a small booklet of further regional info, much like an OS map. For £30 you will be able to receive the book, three maps (one for each volume) and two custom D6.

If you don’t yet own your own copies of Smog and Ambuscade and Highways and Holloways, or if you’d like to make a pledge as a gift for someone, you can also have all three books at a considerable saving, with or without the maps and dice.

However, for an additional cost of £10 for one book or £20 for three, you can have a custom Wanted Poster printed into the front of your book. This is made possible by the power of print-on-demand, and your books will be completely unique – these will be true one-offs. The extra pledge will pay for the additional printing cost and contribute towards the rest of the project. You will be able to submit a digital image of yourself (perhaps a photo in costume, or even in everyday clothes) that I will edit into the poster, and this will be the first thing you see when you open your copy of The Reeking Metropolis.

Finally, there is a limited and exclusive opportunity to be drawn into the book itself, featuring as a character in one of the illustrations. This is going to be limited to only 5 backers, since it impacts directly on Russ’s timeline and on the whole budget. But it’s something I’ve wanted to offer for years! As part of your pledge, you’ll receive each book, customised with a Wanted Poster, the three maps, dice and an art print of your illustration for your wall. After all, YOU are the Steam Highwayman!

If you’re not currently following the Kickstarter, head over there now. You’ll be reminded on launch and get a chance to pledge for your reward straight away.

Bare-knuckle brilliance!

Russ has sent me the first draft image for The Reeking Metropolis – and I’m sure you’ll join me in agreeing it’s a corker. Wow! I love the depth and the movement in this, as well as the character of all these figures, each one of whom could have a fascinating backstory. I asked Russ to produce something to illustrate a bare-knuckle boxing fight, but I’ve certainly got more than I asked for: I’ve got another piece of the Steam Highwayman world, inspiring me to write more stories and characters. Now that’s good value.

It’s massively exciting to see this here, as it feels like the beginning of the existence of the third volume of Steam Highwayman adventures as an entire book. I’ve had passages, and a cover, and now have the first internal illustration. I’ll be revealing some more of Russ’ work during the upcoming Kickstarter – don’t miss it! – but there’ll be plenty held back to surprise you once you hold the book itself, hopefully later this year. If you haven’t yet found the pre-launch page, why not head over and follow along?

To work with a legendary illustrator like Russ is a real privilege. He recently featured on the Vintage RPG Podcast talking about his work, on what he says is his first ever podcast. Fair enough considering he has a career spanning more than half a century of drawing!

MarcoOmnigamer reviews Steam Highwayman

American game and gamebook enthusiast Marco Omnigamer recently posted his review of Steam Highwayman I and II. He had lots to say about the scale of the books and seems to have enjoyed the open world, as well as appreciating the realism of the ‘low-fantasy’ setting. My favourite line? “If you like Fabled Lands, you’re going to love this so hard.” However, he also had his criticisms.

What do you think? Have a listen and see whether you agree! While I think some of his response depends a bit on personal playing style, I know there were things I wanted to improve about Volumes I and II… which is why the third is on its way. Have any improvements of your own to recommend? Now’s the time to make them, while The Reeking Metropolis is on the workbench…

Alea iacta est.

Make a MOTORING roll of difficulty 13…

Three years ago when I first contemplated a Steam Highwayman Kickstarter, there were options for creating custom dice over the internet, but all amounted to ordering hundreds at a time in order to reach affordability. However, since then new manufacturers and middle-men have appeared on the internet and I’m in the process of designing and receiving prototypes for custom dice to accompany my books.

Custom dice have been one of the most-requested additions to my Kickstarter campaigns…

My current plan is to offer 2 custom Steam Highwayman dice as a reward bundle with re-drawn colour maps at around A2 size – watch out for a post about those coming soon. This means that long-time backers can receive the new Steam Highwayman volume with or without the additions, and any new backers can order all three volumes simply as books, or as a complete playing bundle.

Estimating the costs for custom dice is particularly difficult, as it’s hard to guess exactly how popular they’ll be. However I’m hoping to offer some stretch goals that could upgrade these packages, such as a pouch to keep the dice in, as well as extra features for the maps.

Either way, these little bones roll evenly and have been powering me through a current playthrough. I haven’t decided whether these will be the version available to backers, but the more I rattle them, the more I like them.

Russ. Nicholson.

Who draws the Steam Highwayman? Well, for The Reeking Metropolis, I’m incredibly pleased to announce that Russ Nicholson will be illustrating our hero astride the Ferguson riding through the fog and murk of Steampunk London.

If you’ve been a member of the gamebook community for any length of time, you’ll know Russ. Not only did he draw Fabled Lands, my own inspiration for Steam Highwayman, but he drew the very first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. In recent years he’s collaborated with gamebook author Jonathan Green, to complete the excellent Beowulf Beastslayer – which I whole-heartedly recommend, both here and in my Amazon review – and drawn the seventh Fabled Lands book, The Serpent King’s domain.

Russ reached out to me after seeing my online posts about seeking a new illustrator and expressed real excitement and interest in the Steam Highwayman project. The prospect of including his artwork within the my third book, as well as in the upcoming Kickstarter campaign, excites me enormously – as I hope it does you too.

This all adds considerably to the excitement of being able to offer original art and draw-in features as rewards for the SH3 Kickstarter. If you haven’t added your ideas to the reward survey, please let me know what you’d like to receive. So far there have been a few stand-out choices: lots of people are excited by the idea of large, printed maps and customised dice. More of this soon, but for now I’ll be continuing to refine and plan the Kickstarter campaign, as well as to write the second half of Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis. The campaign is currently scheduled for 23rd January – 22nd February and you’ll be able to pledge your support and choose a reward very soon.

But back to the illustration. What I’ve always loved about Russ’s work is his atmosphere: whether illustrating monsters in dripping caverns or smugglers beneath a glowing moon, he has a way of creating a scene that you can return to again and again, to breathe in the salt spray or the reek or the smoke. Here’s one of my favourites from Cities of Gold and Glory (Fabled Lands II).

What I love about this is the depth of space, the scale of the natural world – something I think Russ really excels in – and the little figures so carefully poised – all in quick, ready penstrokes. You can ready secrecy, movement, danger – and perhaps someone looking on. There are caves up in those cliffs – cave which Dave and Jamie never wrote into the book and which you can’t explore, but which have always intrigued me. The sequence with these smugglers is brief but memorable, and all the more so for Russ’s contribution.

Here’s another – this time from Beowulf Beastslayer. It displays Russ’ famous filigree style, his skill with detail and also his skill with likeness. There are at least two members of the online gamebook community drawn into this, as part of their reward for Jon Green’s Kickstarter, and Russ has told me that he’s keen to do some draw-ins for my project too. So if you’d like to see your face featured as the Lady of the Burnt Rose or Lord Hadrian Beaufort, Chief Constable, you’d better be quick with your pledge!

What’s possible with a few strokes of the pen…

If you’re interested in seeing more of Russ’ art, why not take a look at the Facebook group celebrating his illustrations? And if you’re interested in seeing what he’ll do for Steam Highwayman, well, simply watch this space! I’ll be posting a few more updates about plans for rewards and the kick-off for the Kickstarter Campaign for Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis is 23rd January, 7pm.

Steam Highwayman III Kickstarter Campaign Announcement

At last! Steam pressure is up, tyres are checked and the velosteam is prepared for the Steam Highwayman’s third adventure, Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis. The Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the illustration and publication will run from 7pm (GMT), Thursday 23rd January 2020, until Saturday 22nd February.

Over the next month, I’ll be revealing more about the campaign, including:

There’s plenty of time to have your say about what you’d like to see in the upcoming book, as I’m still writing it, as well as sharing your ideas about the Kickstarter itself.

So put the 23rd of January in your calendar – I can’t wait to share more of the project with you!

Want to find out more about what’s in Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis? Head over to the dedicated page.

How long is a net of string?

During the last few days of an unexpectedly home-bound halfterm, I’ve been enjoying building the world of Steam Highwayman III. Juvenile gangs, powerful opponents and dangerous criminal allies have all slotted nicely into place. My graph is showing some tiny growth (after a long, long hiatus) and I’ve been able to share a few passage excerpts on Facebook.

But something also possessed me to reload some of the first pieces of Steam Highwayman I ever wrote. Well, specifically, I reinstalled Twine – the interactive fiction software I’ve used this year to collaborate with a game developer on an as-yet unreleased educational title. My current version was somewhat out of date and had stability issues – it kept crashing – and I expect to have to use it again next year.

The reinstalled program discovered some files I thought I had lost: old, unfinished (of course!) versions of what I have since called ‘Twine Highwayman’. I loaded them up and, though incomplete and missing some of the parts I remembered best (like the ability to rob any passing steam carriage and collect jewelry, or the procedural pub menu system), they still showcase some of the original ideas of the project. Some made it through into book format and others didn’t.

I wrote the programming behind Twine Highwayman in Autumn 2016, creating some really crunchy and idiosyncratic code in formats so inefficient and hard to understand that I have since lost the ability to read them. Nonetheless, the core of the game – for it is a game, not a book – still functions. Take a look, if you like.

Twine Highwayman

It was playing Inkle’s 80 Days – something far beyond my ability to emulate – as well as the excellent Fabled Lands Application (since renamed Java Fabled Lands) that inspired me to give this a try. Considering I had zero previous experience of Twine, I don’t think I did badly. But it was the feature creep (a system for automating the weather… and the phase of the moon… and the mood of antagonists…) that killed the project and convinced me to limit my ambition to a good old, paper gamebook. I’d mimic Fabled Lands, that’s what I’d do. I’d keep it simple and achievable. I wouldn’t attempt to surpass my models, just to match them. I definitely wouldn’t write something 50% longer… Oh, well.

The Gamebook Ecosystem is Growing…

I’ve been spending time finding an illustrator to work on the internal art for Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis, writing briefs and reference documents and leafing (digitally) through portfolios. It’s a tough job, as I’m having to build new working relationships and plan for a wide range of outcomes to a new Kickstarter. The affordability, quality and deliverability of the illustration is the primary concern of my campaigns, since I do my best to have the book written before hand.

One thing is clear – there are some great illustrators out there, ready and keen to work in gamebooks. Which is great, because the more gamebooks that are being published, of all kinds, then the more exposure the medium will have, and the greater chance of new readers discovering my own project.

And less selfishly, it’s plain to me that a high proportion of readers of choice-based fiction have dabbled in writing it too. Even if it wasn’t at school, like through my Write Your Own Adventure programme (which I used in class last week and will take to a neighbouring yeargroup on Thursday), there’s a good chance of your average reader of gamebooks being a hobbyist writer too.

Over the last few years I’ve met many of the people engaged in independent gamebook writing and publishing, largely based around the Fighting Fantasy fan community. Among them, Steam Highwayman Backer #5, Mark Lain, has today launched his own Kickstarter Campaign to raise £3000 to produce his gamebook, Mistress of Sorrows. Last year I enjoyed the first volume in what he’s called the Destiny’s Role series, and if you’re interested in reading more or in supporting the independent publication of gamebooks, why not head over to the campaign page to take a look? He’s working with some talented artists and seems set to fund in a very short time.

Nethundical Adventures

Duty Vessel by Vadim Voitekhovich

I’ve been writing the Steam Highwayman’s encounters and adventures with His Imperial Majesty’s Nethundical Corps over this weekend: nice to broach an original subject. Steampunk submarines are their own subgenre, chiefly focused around different interpretations of the Nautilus from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. However, Vadim Voitekhovich’s interpretation of a steampunk sub is much more to my taste than the baroque, pointy sort of thing I often see. Like his airships, Voitekhovich’s subs are weighty, bulbous, and curiously animal. It’s something like this that I imagine moored in rows off Deptford Creek, just along from Greenwich, where moonlit launches carry troops and supplies out under the cover of darkness.

If you haven’t come across Voitekhovich’s work before, do look him up. His particular perspective has crept into Steam Highwayman in all sorts of places: particularly his street scenes, his steam road vehicles and his juxtaposition of old and new. There’s also something reminiscent of Sean Tan’s fantasy cities and technologies, such as drawn in The Arrival, in his work. He’s a sought-after painter as well as a military re-enactor, so no wonder his images have such realism.

But back to my own work: The Reeking Metropolis has been paused for a few weeks while I started a new job (as you can see from this graph) but a combination of deep thinking and reading some other gamebooks has spurred me on to create some new, steamy, and really original content for the book. I’ll be disappointed if I’m essentially just redrawing a Victorian London, so things like the invention of a submarine navy are helping me stay excited about such a long project!

At Fighting Fantasy Fest III (which I attended a few weeks ago, and which still deserves a write-up) I picked up several gamebooks, including Oliver Hulme’s Valley of Bones. I’ll produce a full review sooner or later, but it’s the first of the books from FFF3 I’ve been working through and it’s given me a lot to think about. Like Steam Highwayman, it’s written in homage to Fabled Lands (or to rip it off, as Jamie Thomson joked when he saw us side-by-side) but there are many differences. Reading someone else’s parallel take on an open-world gamebook has really helped me to see what is special about Steam Highwayman, and what I love about it, so thanks to Oliver for that extra burst of semi-competitive enthusiasm!