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!

Trickling Stream

Steam Highwayman I has now been live on Amazon for around 3 months and I’m very pleased to find that it is continually being discovered by new readers from around the world.  My intention with distributing through Amazon was that potential readers would experience the minimum of clicks between hearing a recommendation and being able to order the book: it’s something like a minimum of 3 clicks if you’re already signed in and a regular customer.

But on top of that, Amazon is also a great place for me to make my own brand.  I’m very happy to see the excellent company in which my book finds itself – ie Messrs Thomson, Morris, Gresty and Green.  I’ve seen my book on shelves alongside these writers – now I’m seeing it on sale alongside them.

Because of Amazon’s special recipe, I won’t be paid for any of the sales for some time yet, but once the first few pounds a month begin trickling in, I am convinced that this will be a stream of interest and income that will last a very long time.

In other news, I’ve been editing and formatting SH2 this week: yesterday I corrected all the dice-rolls and today I logged and fixed all the codewords.  A few more stages like this and I’ll be able to send it to proofing.  Ben has some more work to do on a provisional cover and then I’ll be able to start the buildup to Kickstarter 2: SH2.

Steam Highwayman II

I’ve been working on Steam Highwayman II since November 2017, during the first lull presented by the SH1 Kickstarter. However, in the last few weeks I’ve been progressing through my draft of the sequel gamebook and enjoying myself developing new plots, new games and new mechanics.

The blue line is the important part at the moment: the closer it gets to the purple, the happier I’ll be. But will I need to extend the passage-count for SH2? My current estimations make me think that this book, Highways and Holloways, may be 150-160% of the length of SH1: Smog and Ambuscade.  I may be suffering from feature creep or perhaps the map I drafted back in November was simply too ambitious…  Either way, I plan on learning a lot from this process!

I’m hoping that this graph will remain live as I update my master spreadsheet.  Yummy.  So check back in here if you want to know where I am!  Don’t forget that you Steam Highwayman I: Smog and Ambuscade on Amazon now, too!

The Highwayman Afloat

Why does Steam Highwayman feature a parallel, water-borne adventure?  In Book 1, Smog and Ambuscade, around 150 passages out of the total 1017 are devoted to your options to take to the River Thames and captain your own steam barge, shipping freight and discovering unique adventures.

Because I love narrowboats.  I love everything about them and their history, their lore, the short-lived and much-romaticised ‘traditional’ life of the bargee families.  When I was designing my alternate but plausible steampunk past, I could not see how a Britain dependent upon steam power but lacking large railways (one of my premises) would work without some reference to the canal network at least.  In out timeline, water-borne freight on the Thames has always remained competitive with the railways, and to some extent, the roads.  Boats still lug building materials, hardcore, sewage and waste up and down the old river daily.

One of my regularly re-read books is LTC Rolt’s Narrow Boat.  Essentially, he was the first canal tourist and also responsible for a lot of our modern romanticised view of the canals, but he was also a writer with a real interest in the genuine traditions of the canal people.  I bought this some time back in 2010, I think, on a canal holiday with a good friend and his family.

When I lived in Marlow, between 2008 and 20012, I got to know the reach between Maidenhead and Henley very well.  I had only been afloat on it a handful of times, but I was fascinated by the boathouses and bridges and could see how a highwayman adventuring back and forth across this great boundary would have to interact with its people and way of life.  I had walked the towpath between Marlow and Henley in sun, rain and the dead of night.

Writing a continuation and development of the river into Book 2, Highways and Holloways, I’ve had to make some decisions.  I’m currently trying to smooth out the reader’s journey to include fewer repetitions and more story.  There should still be the opportunity to trade, investing relatively large amounts of capital to make good returns, all in the name of that retirement bank account at Coulters!  After all, trading (and defeating pirates) by sea in Fabled Lands was always the best way to get your hands on a pile of cash.

But I know the reach between Henley and Oxford less well.  So I’ll be depending on the good old OS171, Chris Cove-Smith’s The River Thames Book and lots of googlemaps.  Nothing can replace the insight you gain from the locations themselves however and since a very large part of my pleasure in writing the Steam Highwayman series is to share my love of the parts of these parts of the world, I think I’ve got a good excuse to take an extended walk along the Thames pretty soon.

I still live by the Thames, but much further east and I see the Thames Barrier out of window and enjoy the tides defining the rhythm of the day.  Regular shipments of estuary and Dogger-dredged aggregates are unloaded opposite our tower at Angerstein wharf – the largest gravel and sand unloading wharf of its kind Europe.  The walks along the river here are quite different – and a good subject for another time, or another book.

Two other fluvial reads I’ll recommend here are the hilarious JK Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which furnished me with the minimum of an amusing encounter in Smog and RL Stevenson’s An Inland Voyage.  Three Men has still got plenty to give, so I’ll be mining it in the next fortnight, whereas the Stevenson is much more down-to-earth.  I might borrow some of his cold and damp.

Buzz!

Something has changed about my Steam Highwayman project.  For several years, it was an idea in my head that I occasionally mentioned to my brother or sister, or toyed with on my laptop.  Then I saw other people standing up and making a success out of their writing, using their brains and passion to push something from their imagination into reality.  80 Days, by Inkle, wasn’t a commission.  Nobody asked for it or told Jon Ingold, Joe Humfrey and Meg Jayanth to write it: they chose to and made it work.

So in September 2016 I changed my attitude about my writing: I was unlikely ever to meet a patron who would sponsor me in comfort and style to create something with the perfect brief, giving me creative control but enough direction to get going.  I had to make it work.

I chose to work on Steam Highwayman because, unlike my efforts in writing novels, I had good example for a printed, multi-volume gamebook in Morris and Thomson’s Fabled Lands.  I also believed that I could produce something with a limited, defined scale of success.  I recognised that, despite my inherent need to develop and surpass any model, I needed to choose a ceiling to bump up against.

So I began writing, first using Twine to create something that could be made available to modern readers on their phones, but soon changed to focus on producing something I have a much stronger understanding of: a printed book.

And then at Christmas 2016 I had to defend my decision to my dad.

It was great: he grilled me in front of my family and my wife and I had enough answers.  Not every answer, but enough.  He was a self-employed multi-discipline artist/manager/technician at an architect for a quarter century and knows a thing or two about breaking ground, managing yourself and finishing projects.  And about making it happen.

I think that was the beginning of the buzz.  When I began to see that Steam Highwayman, if successful, would become much bigger than I could imagine – that people would discuss it without me being directly involved in the discussion – that it would be strong enough for me to not have to defend it or explain it.

So now it has all changed.  This weekend I promoted the project with a live reading at a Steampunk event in Surrey.  Before the end of the afternoon, there were several dozen people talking to each other about this character, the Steam Highwayman.  THE Steam Highwayman – as if he or she had an independent existence.  At one exciting moment, I was introduced as the Steam Highwayman, but when I demurred and asked ‘Who is the Steam Highwayman?’ I was met with the ringing reply, as my friend pointed to those around, ‘You are the Steam Highwayman!’

Last night I dreamed I was travelling along a dusty road and, stopping to refuel at a petrol station, overheard two strangers discussing what they had been reading.  You guessed it: in my dreams, unconnected randomers are discussing Steam Highwayman.

Then in the last few days I’ve been privileged to have the support of several volunteer proof-readers, a few of whom are close friends or family, but more are people I would have never known before pushing this idea into reality.  And then there’s Ben, who has been so inspiring to work with as an illustrator.  Somewhere out there tonight, in the US, the UK and New Zealand, there are people reading extracts of the adventures of the Steam Highwayman – an invented character in an invented world that had no previous existence until I began to share it.  Elsewhere there is a man who is devoting his time to visualising a story that is entirely made-up – but he wants to get it right and do it justice.

I’m a little bit mind-blown.

Steam Highwayman at 200%!

With three more backers overnight, we reached exactly 200% early this morning!  This is a real celebration moment: I always felt £2000 and 100 backers was a small target, but I had to admit that I really wasn’t sure that we could double that.

Jane on the left here, with the tray of knitted Cthulus at the Crossness Engines Steampunk Convivial

But here we are!  Generous pledges have boosted us up towards the milestone, but three more backers have each ordered their book bringing the total to exactly £4000 pledged towards the project.

Our Double Funding Backer is Jane Darnbrough of Bromley!

If you are in need of a decapod
Of a stripy or spotty or a checkered god
Then ask smiling Jane
Who remains cheerfully sane
While secretly celebrating all that’s odd.