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!

A Cover for The Reeking Metropolis

I’m very pleased to share the cover for Steam Highwayman: The Reeking Metropolis. This gorgeous digital painting by Piotr Jamroz takes Ben May’s concept of the Ferguson velosteam and the mysterious, tricorne-wearing hero, and develops it in a darker, more smoky direction, perfectly suiting the atmosphere of the third volume of the adventure.

I discovered Piotr’s online portfolio a short while ago and he expressed a real interest in creating this cover. We spent some time refining the brief and agreeing terms and he set to work with a will. In another post, I’ll write in more detail about the process of editing and refining the cover, but let me say that from Piotr’s very first sketch, I was sure that I had the right artist for the job.

There is a back portion to this cover too, but you’ll have to wait a while before I release the full image…

You’ll probably ask why I have a new artist working on the cover. Sadly, Ben hasn’t had the availability to feel that he could do justice to Steam Highwayman III this year, simply due to his other commitments. Instead of trying to find an artist who might create a perfect style match, I decided that a new look would complement the first two volumes. Piotr’s done that really well.

Three books – one adventure!

I’ll announce dates for the next Kickstarter Campaign soon, when you will be pledge to fund your copy of The Reeking Metropolis, as well as for some other goodies I’ve been preparing. If you’re worried about missing the boat, simply subscribe to my blog here or like the Steam Highwayman page on facebook. So, until then, YOU are the Steam Highwayman!

The Seekerman Velosteam

Something wonderful happened when I handed over design of the Steam Highwayman’s constant mechanical companion to Ben: I lost control. I’ve detailed the process by which Ben and I worked out what the velosteam could, then might, and finally should look like, elsewhere, but for a lone-wolf like myself, this was a massive step forward in my creative process. Typically I’m something of a perfectionist and that prevents me bringing projects to completion. Sharing ownership helped me to break this cycle.

Early velosteam concepts, by Ben May.

The appearance of the machine was always going to be important. It would have been a complete cop-out to publish Smog and Ambuscade without a velosteam on the cover, and although I’m happy to leave a lot to my reader’s imaginations, including the appearance and much of the backstory of the hero of my gamebooks, the intentionally realist steampunk style I chose to borrow from Keith Roberts’ Pavane needed a velosteam design. It didn’t have to be completely plausible, but it did need to be unambiguous, legible and characterful.

Ben’s completed Ferguson Velosteam

Ben put a lot of hard work into that design and his solution of mantling the front portion of the vehicle was an inspired solution: it leaves a lot of the actual workings (including an improbable steering system, power transmission, water tank, boiler and firebox) to the imagination, but clearly communicates that this is a heavy, ironclad, steam-powered bicycle. And when he completed the alternate cover images for Smog and Ambuscade, I realised that the machine itself would become an iconic – perhaps the iconic – image associated with my stories.

Meanwhile, as Ben and I were hammering out the metaphorical boilerplate on the anvils of our imagination, two graphic novelists called Vincenzo Ferriero and Ray Chou were developing Skies of Fire. Like Steam Highwayman, Skies of Fire is a crowdfunded, steampunk (or arguably dieselpunk) publishing project. Whereas Steam Highwayman is of course a gamebook series, Skies of Fire is a compelling and attractive series of graphic novels, with a steadily growing international readership. I’ve been watching their Kickstarters from the sidelines with considerable interest, and if you’re interested in indie publishing, steampunk or graphic novels, I really recommend you do too.

The Seekerman Zephyr

In July 2018, Ray Chou posted a fascinating short article about his project. It included photographs and an account of the modelling of the Zephyr – the starring airship in Skies of Fire. I read this article over and over again, and then decided to do something really out of character: I reached out to the modelmaker who had built their airship and asked him whether he’d be interested in doing something similar for me.

The Steampunk Enigma that is Captain Seekerman

Lo and behold, Captain Seekerman got back to me in a steampunk flash. He immediately recognised the quality of Ben’s designs and so we began discussions of what sort of model I might like, what purpose it might serve, how functional it could be – and the very practical matters of time and money. I had complete confidence in his ability to produce something that would do justice to my story world and the existing illustrations, particularly because of Ray’s blog.

I’ll be posting again about the details of Nate Seekerman’s process in turning the two-dimensional designs into an eighteen inch, three dimensional, smoking, LED-lit model, but for now all I want to do is to honour his professionalism, artistry and craftsmanship. We messaged frequently over a period of several months and just a few days ago I received the completed model. I haven’t been able to stop grinning since. It’s currently standing on my bookshelf here in our living room, quietly biding its time.

First of all, this is a display model, so I really look forward to bringing it with me to future Steampunk Events, conventions and readings, to give existing fans another look at the design and to catch the eyes of potential Highwaymen-to-be. It won’t be living packed away in a box. But the Seekerman velosteam also has a function as an inspiration to me as a writer. It is the physical proof of the quality of one of my own ideas, first transmitted to an artist to draw, and now to a modelmaker to sculpt. To see it riding out of my book and into reality – however small – is a wonderful feeling.

My current plans to exhibit the model do have a few limitations, however! My wife and I are expecting our first child this summer and I’ve turned down several invitations to read and appear at June or July steampunk events. This means that my next appearance for sales (and possibly reading) will be at the gamebook convention, Fighting Fantasy Fest 3, on the 31st August in West London. This may well be the first public unveiling of Nate Seekerman’s work. It’ll be great to see any gamebook readers or enthusiasts there – watch out for a lot more about FFF3 on here soon.

If you want to see more of Nate Seekerman’s work or you’re inspired to see him bring your story to life, have a look at the Seeker Design Group. And if you’re interested in finding out more about this model, where it goes or how it was made, just watch out for my next updates here on the website.

SH3 Progress

You know I love a graph. Here’s my interactive record of Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis as a draft. I have to track which sections are reserved or complete – or partially complete – on my spreadsheet as I go along, so graphing it is a natural development. Maybe it’s procrastination too.

The graph will be live on this post, also on the new SH3 page on this site, which at the moment looks pretty bare.

I’m hoping to finish a draft by the end of the summer. And that will probably be 1500-200 passages in length.

If you’re interested to see what other sorts of things I write, I posted a sci-fi short story earlier, set on the moon. I wrote it a few months ago and I’m pretty pleased with it.

A Child of the Jago

Now that my gin is bottled, I’ve been putting in some time sketching passages 301-400 of Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis. Like with the two previous volumes, I began by laying down a web of interlinked location passages. This portion represents the east central portion of the map: Bethnal Green, Shadwell, Whitechapel and Shoreditch.

There is so much to write here in an alternate, steamed-up East End. Body-snatching, sweat shops, front-room industry, the London Docks… and the slums.

Shoreditch has a big hole in it in 1894…

My usual map of recourse has an interesting gap just here: take a look. And hereby hangs a tale.

In 1896, a now-forgotten novelist called Arthur Morrison published an angry and brutally honest story called A Child of the Jago, set in a fictional slum based very closely on streets immediately adjacent to Old Nichol Street in Shoreditch. It follows the fortunes of Dicky Perrott, who scrapes through childhood and into a criminal survivalism that seemed unbelievable to polite readers of the day. This was at the end of the Victorian period, when the bad old days were meant to have been left behind. But they hadn’t been.

The text is available online and it makes tough reading. I don’t find it over sentimental or graphic – just frank. Morrison was trying to rub his reader’s noses in the reality of desperate poverty just streets away from their own lives, much in the way that we see independent documentary makers nowadays. But one result is that it really prevents me from being too sentimental or simplistic about the depiction of the poor in my own gamebook. There’s no way I can do justice to those realities in the little passages I use, but at least I hope to avoid cartoon poverty.

The Old Nichol – marked by black and dark blue housing

If you go looking online, you may find that there is a Covent Garden tailor that uses the name of Morrison’s book, which I find really quite distasteful, as I don’t think a romanticisation of the criminal dandies implicit in the clothing on sale is at all helpful. Or you may find one of the little maps that show the location of the Old Nichol. It was located on one edition of Booth’s Poverty Map, but by the publication of the more widely available edition, the Old Nichol had been cleared and replaced with social housing… that the original inhabitants could not afford, displacing them to other slums and destroying what community they had. Plus ca change, eh?

After the slum clearance

One more little detail: do you notice the thick red lines on the left? Shoreditch High Street. Up the top, St Leonard’s Church, whose bells say ‘When I grow rich…’ in the East End rhyme Oranges and Lemons. That’s a interesting place in itself, as the burial place of Shakespeare’s business partner and fellow actor, Richard Burbage. But you might recognise it as St Saviour’s from Rev, in which Tom Hollander did his best to minister to a desperately poor inner-city parish.

Rev.

Shoreditch is entirely different nowadays, though, isn’t it? Hipsters and hamburgers and cold-press coffee and cycle shops. Well, to be honest, I think there’s still a lot of hidden needs and poverty in Shoreditch. It’s enough to make me wonder what the unseen, spiritual dimension is behind all of these stories. There’s something desperate there.

A Birdin the Hand…

Is worth two in the bush. And here, at last, but not behind schedule, is the first printed copy of Steam Highwayman: Highways and Holloways (featured alongside its sister volume and our family Christmas tree.)

It feels wonderful to have this hefty chunk of book in my hand after seeing it in my mind’s eye and on the screen for the best part of nine months. Thankyou to everyone who pledged towards the project, allowing me to commission this fantastic artwork from Ben and pay for the much-needed proofing and so on. I’ll be checking this book as carefully as I can before excitement gets the better of me and I ship the backers copies. Then the book will be live on Amazon too – and in fact, I already have pre-orders to fulfil!

Dragonmeet was a real adventure for me. I had a great time crossing paths with several increasingly familiar faces from the Gamebook community – Mark Lain, Colin Oaten, Jon Green and Stuart Lloyd among them. I also made a new friend in fellow author, David Cartwright of Camelot 2050, with whom I shared a table. If you, like him, want something to fill the space where Arthurian legend should meet saturday-morning science-fiction, then check out his two novels – a third is promised for March.

It was tiring day, I’ll not deny. I hit a new high on step-counter… But I was particularly encouraged by the interest in my WYOA book and took several pre-orders for that, which have now been ordered. There were even a couple of orders for SH2, which will be shipped after the backers’ copies.

So where next? Nottingham – the richest plum of them all (as King John would say). Next weekend (8th-9th) I’ll be featuring at the Steampunkalia at Wollaton Hall with live readings after 3pm on Saturday and around noon on Sunday. And this time I’ll have a hard copy of SH2 to show…

Couldn’t Get to Manticon…

This made my day.  Over on the facebook Fabled Lands page, Dave Morris posted a link to two videos taken at MantiCon, the German role-playing and fantasy convention, earlier this summer.  The first features Jamie Thomson and Paul Mason and Dave discussing role-playing games and it’s jolly interesting.  The second, embedded below, is a longer video in which they discuss the various gamebooks they have written and even some more recent ones they have read.

Including, at 1:11:49 onwards, Mr Morris’s interesting response to Steam Highwayman.

[Steam Highwayman]is very rich and I look at something like that and think, it’s great because it’s obviously based on Fabled Lands… but now I can learn from him.

The rest of the discussion is very interesting to a gamebook enthusiast and includes some great anecdotes of the golden age (the first golden age?) of gamebooks.  If you end up having a listen, let me know what you think.

‘Noutch’ isn’t a common surname by any measurement, so I won’t bother him for rhyming it with ‘pooch’ instead of ‘pouch’.

Illustration Poll 1 Complete

I’m really pleased that so many backers have made time to share their preferences regarding the art of Steam Highwayman: Highways and Holloways.  I’ve just finished a phone conversation with Ben, in which we discussed the results of this poll:

You know by now that I love a graph.  Well, out of the eight options I gave backers (and you can see featurettes of the passages below…) there was a clear winner: everyone wants to see a velosteam chase, with constables astride their Imperial road engines.  Ben and I are both really happy about this: it’ll give him the chance to work with some of the other designs for the velosteam that he created last year.  Will an Imperial velosteam include some of those features?  I’m as excited to find out as you are.

We’re also going ahead on a feature of Captain Coke as our second full-page illustration.  He’s been an intriguing character throughout the writing of the book and I’ve enjoyed inventing him.  To see him take on flesh will be even more interesting…

The other options won’t disappear.  They’ll be developed as other options for illustrating the book, but may turn out as quarter or half-pages, depending on how successful the images seem once Ben’s had a go with them.  As soon as I mentioned punt jousting Ben grabbed a pencil and began to laugh, so I’ve certainly got hopes for that one…

SH2 Fully Funded

Yep – that’s right.  Steam Highwayman II: Highways and Holloways is now fully funded on Kickstarter.  It’s particularly to do with the generosity of four backers who have chosen to pledge to be drawn into the book as Wanted Criminals – watch out for these dangerous people and their wanted posters!  But of course, those four wouldn’t have been able to fund the thing entirely – I’m grateful to the 138 others – and families – who have chosen to pledge and contribute to the project.

In the meantime, I’ve been editing and working on smoothing out the playthrough.  This morning, though, I woke up with an idea and began sorting out some of the planning and links for SH3…  Perhaps that was a good way to be thinking!

There’ll be news soon about the cover and other illustrations, but for now, good news and thankyou!

Steam Highwayman II Playthrough 1-1

On a dark night, I set out to ambush travellers and seek my fortune as a highwayman in the wooded hills of the Chilterns.  My past as the scion of a noble family was forgot: only my high GALLANTRY score (6) and my inherited rapier (PAR 4) reminded me of my origin.

Yikes – what a playthrough!  As part of my editing, I’ve been playing Steam Highwayman II as a new reader.  Complementing the link-checking, this allows me to discover what balances are needed and tweak them before the final version is published.  But I’ve also been massively enjoying re-discovering the world I wrote earlier this year, trying to overcome the forces of the law and of poverty and sickness.  Nobody said that this life would be easy!

So I started by keeping my blade clean and talking my first victim into handing over cash.  I headed for the Crown at Pishill but was unable to take a room since the landlady lacked trust.  Listening to her sob story, I set out to try and right a wrong and made my way to Wallingford, where I was unable to convince a menial paper-pusher in the barracks, despite using charm and gold.  I’d be back with a bigger bribe, I decided.

So I set off to try and get a pot of guineas to throw at the problem.  My first attempts at ambushes were only mildly successful and I was wounded twice with little to show for it.  Now a new problem arose: finding medical treatment.  It was risky to continue to ambush carriages but with only a few shillings, I was unable to buy what I needed to set up a camp in the woods or to take a room at an inn.  One more robbery was needed…

I stopped a carriage and lucked out – a priest!  He showed fight and wounded me again, but I subdued him and stole his precious golden pectoral cross.  Earlier I’d found a goldsmith who had offered me a good price for these things, so I shot off in his direction, mercifully still unknown to the Constables as a result of maintaining my disguise.  The gold was sold and I had money in my pocket at last!  I returned to Wallingford, bribed the official, headed for the Crown and gave the good news to the landlady, who let me take a room.  Once inside I could attempt to tend my wounds – but required bandaging.  This was the first point at which I thought my gameplay was being frustrating and I decided to edit more bandages into some of these locations.

Things looked up!  I left the and decided to head out to find an adventure.  Not far away I came across a grand house, bluffed my way inside with my good breeding and a double six and burgled the place.  The lady’s jewels were in my grasp… but, folly of follies, I could not resist striking out for more and I came a cropper, trying to sneak around the house.

Beaten and subdued, I was handed to the Constables, who scorned me as an unimportant burglar (and to tell the truth, I had indeed achieved little of note) and threw me into prison – but not before confiscating my weapons, remaining cash and those lovely jewels!

Released, I completed a little honest work delivering parcels, but soon grew tired of this slow employment.  I desperately stopped the first two carriages I came across and scraped together enough coin to buy a sabre (PAR 3) at a market – oh for my lost rapier!  Doing so, however, I earned the wrath of the Haulage Guild and the Constables.  Eager to gain more gold and bootstrap myself up into some higher skills (I had also grabbed some goggles (MOT+1)), I returned to the scene of my earlier crimes and prepared another ambush.  This time, as a result of my growing notoriety, the Haulage Guild were ready for me and the vehicle I met was guarded.  A MOTORING test allowed me to dodge damage to my precious velosteam, but in the process I was wounded once more, and still without a firearm, I was unable to press home my attack.

I’m somewhat amazed at the story that has just appeared from an hour and half’s gameplay.  To me it feels realistic, challenging, gritty and hooky.  Is this just the start of a great tale or is it doomed to failure and replay?  If you’ve read this, you may end up recognising some of these events during your playthrough, but I’m also amazed that another reader or another reading of Steam Highwayman II: Highways and Holloways could proceed for just as long without a single common event with the story I’ve just described.  From your choice of backstory and the manner in which you approach your first robbery to your decision of where to base yourself, how to treat wounds, which sort of travellers to target and the manner in which you pursue profit, your choices could be entirely different and your experience in the book much more – or less – successful.

That’s really the biggest difference between the two volumes of Steam Highwayman.  Smog and Ambuscade was open-world in many ways, but I created ‘choke-points’ to make the mechanics manageable and in the end didn’t feel that there were enough opportunities to behave as a highwayman should – essentially robbing travellers.  Now in Highways and Holloways, I’ve been able to develop my structures and instead of ‘choke-points’ I have what I think of a ‘dispersal passages’ that gather events from different locations, shuffle your options and send you back out to your region.  It’s a powerful mechanic that keeps the story moving and helps you zip across the map when you need to.

I’ll continue with this playthrough (I was sorely tempted to stop once I missed that NIMBLENESS roll in the night burglary!) and probably post some more, but I’ll try to avoid hard spoilers as I do.  Anyway, by the time you read the book, the world will be responding to your choices, not mine.

If you haven’t yet pledged on Kickstarter, why not head over and fund your copy of Steam Highwayman II: Highways and Holloways now?  The project is 87% funded and with unique custom art spots still available, this is your opportunity to appear as the Steam Highwayman in print!