The Beers of Steam Highwayman

So I really quite like beer.  I never drank beer at all until I went to university and there, rather than being exposed to a binge-drinking culture, I found myself among people with a broad taste and an appreciation for all types of alcoholic drinks in moderation.  Before our matriculation dinner (joining the college) we were served a champagne – my first taste – and afterwards, dessert wine, which made something of an impression on me.

But beer was drunk in the college bar.  And I’ll admit that I drank relatively little beer in college.  But there were times and places when it was clearly the best thing to drink – or so my reading told me.  After a long summer’s walk up the Cam to Grantchester, a pint of beer was appropriate, and so I found that I began to enjoy a pint or two in the context of visits to country pubs, outdoor exercise and good company.  Our student expeditions to the Norfolk Coast – simply to get out of the Cambridge Bubble – would each be completed with a drink in the pub too.  Adnams brewery became my benchmark: if Adnams brewed it, I was almost guaranteed to enjoy it, and I used to particularly enjoy any excuse to the Castle, near Magdalene Bridge, when back in Cambridge, because they served Adnams beers too.

On moving to Marlow I was spoilt for excellent beer and excellent pubs.  Of course that’s where much of Steam Highwayman: Smog and Ambuscade was dreamt up.  I also gave brewing my own beers a go, using canned kits from Wilkos in High Wycombe, and had some satisfying results.  The Marlow Waitrose had an excellent selection of bottled beers and I found another Suffolk brewery I could rely on: St Peter’s in Bungay.

Now I could write at real length about my beer experiences and preferences – of course, there are magazines of people doing just that all over the world.  But essentially I’m reflecting on the fact that just like my exploration of Steam Highwayman country is based on my real experience of the hills and woods around Marlow, so my inclusion of the pubs and the beers is based in fact.  A few of the drinking experiences are modelled on specific beers I’ve drunk, some of which remain clearly in my memory and the flavour of which I can recall to my mind’s nose at will.  Others are inventions or based on beers I’d like to exist, but don’t yet.

There’s plenty more space for beer in books 3-6 and I’ll unfortunately have to do some research in the coming months to do justice to them.  Sitting on my dresser at the moment, still undrunk, is an intriguing bottle of St Peter’s Plum Porter.  I have found fruit-flavoured beers over-sweet for my palate in the past, but I’ve got high hopes for this one.  Maybe it’s the Suffolk water they have underneath St Peter’s hall that keeps me coming back to try these amusingly old-fashioned bottles of treasure.  Well, look out for a Plum Porter featured in The Reeking Metropolis and you’ll know whether I liked it or not.

Highways and Holloways nearly finished

Let’s have a few stats about Steam Highwayman II: Highways and Holloways.

  • 1517 passages
  • 270 pages
  • 40+ unique illustrations
  • 80 codewords
  • 49 fights
  • 174 skill checks
  • Lots of beer
  • 6 croquet hoops

I’ve been putting time into formatting the pages over the last few days.  This is a tricky and laborious process, because the column layout that allows me to fit an average of 6 passages on each page is easily upset.  When passages leave ‘widows’ or ‘orphans’ – the small lines of text separated from the main body of their text – it produces an ugly page and, more frustratingly, a confusing one.  This means that each column on each page has to be vertically aligned manually, and I haven’t been able to do this until Ben’s recent submission of the inter-textual vignette illustrations.

However, since they have all been finished I’ve been plugging them in and tweaking the column lengths.  This can also include tiny pieces of editing and re-writing to add or remove a line here and there.

I’ve also had a recommendation from a backer to make the passage numbers stand out a little more.  After experimenting with a few methods and taking some advice, I’ve settled for the nice decorative flourishes – two standard Wingdings characters – that you can see on this sample page.  I think this helps and looks smart too.  There was also a suggestion of adding a number to the top of the page indicating which passages are there to help with locating them when moving between the book, but I haven’t been able to find a way of doing this that doesn’t significantly add to the page count.  A small header might seem like a little thing to add, but the body text is already close to the margins dictated by the printers, and keeping legibility is my priority.

So this is what the internal pages are currently looking like.  I hope, like me, you feel it is an improvement.  It does give me a few longer-term ideas about design and illustration, but I’ll save those for The Reeking Metropolis.

Write Your Own Adventure Available!

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So, you want to teach your class (or small group) of Key Stage Two (or Three) pupils how to write choice-based fiction?  You want to motivate them, allow them to identify as authors and to have ownership of their own stories?  Well of course you do – that’s what all great teachers of English do!

Now a handy teacher’s book including over fifty pages of photocopiable resources, plans and schemes can help you do it.  And I wrote it for you.

I’ll have a few copies at each of my Steam Highwayman events in the next month if you’re meeting me in person, but you can also order a copy through Amazon.  I have had reports of strange delivery times, but don’t be worried by these – this is usual with new print-on-demand publications for the first few sales.  None are actually printed until an order is made, but it usually takes 5 days for my printer and distributor to print and ship, and then they’re in the post on their way towards you.

You can find out more about the project, and the workshops I offer to Primary Schools in the London Area, here.

 

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’.

New Book – Write Your Own Adventure!

Take a look at this front cover, designed for me by Cheryl Adamos Noutch, my talented wife.  What a nice piece of work it is – I can’t wait to see this glossy and printed on the front of my new book, Write Your Own Adventure: Choice-Based Fiction in Schools.  My files are in process with the printer: I’ll be ordering the first proofs imminently.  Write Your Own Adventure is coming soon – very soon indeed!

If you’d like to see more of Cheryl’s work, have a look at encourageart.co.uk, her website.  You can also find her on instagram, where there’s lots more of her luscious, leaf-patterned calligraphy and textured landscapes.  And she is available for commissions, illustrations, design and school workshops!

 

A Thing in Tring – Gamesfest Report

Tring is one of those little market towns you see on a map – one of hundreds across England – that might never attract a visit in its own right.  A funny name, an old church, a bit of twentieth-century expansion, a victorian satellite railway hamlet with a hotel two miles down the road, a nearby canal.

England.

Steam Highwayman country.

My country.

But Tring also hosts the annual Gamesfest, attracting hobbyists and role-players from London and the Home Counties.  And this year, the Steam Highwayman made an appearance too.

It was a very pleasant day, introducing hardened DnDers to a solo, steampunk roleplaying experience, spending time with some faithful backers, including Colin Oaten, SH2 Backer 12, who lost himself in the proofing version of SH2 for over an hour, preying on the locobuses near Woodcote and failing to smooth-talk his way into Wallingford.  I also met – in the flesh – several members of the gamebook community, including Sam Iacob, author of the Sword of the Bastard Elf and Scott Lloyd of Gamebooks himself.

But perhaps the highlight of the day was when two boys, Sam and his friend Shaun, aged 10 and 13 respectively, wandered in with their step-dad in the misguided hope of finding some X-Box gaming.  Initial disappointment gave way to the enchantment of first-time gamebook experiences.  In they dived, rolling to fight their duels, snatching coins from pleading nobility, upgrading their velosteam.  I guided them in to begin with and them left them playing.  After forty minutes, Sam looked up.  “Can we buy this?” he asked.

It wasn’t the sale that excited me as much as knowing I’d passed something on.  Passing the book over in a bag, I asked them how they’d be spending the rest of the day.  “Reading this,” they both answered.

Where will it lead?  Will they get bored, tired of the mental energy it requires to imagine and read, leaving the book closed in a pile before the week is out?  Or will they press on, pursuing and adventure and gaining an education in choice-based fiction in the process?  Will I hear from you again, Sam and Shaun?

And that wasn’t all.  I also had an unexpected visitor – a distant cousin – another Nou(t)ch who had hunted me down and dropped in to introduce himself, handing me a scroll of part of our family tree just like a quest-giving shady figure in Pirates! Gold.

I’m finalising my other events coming up – it looks like it should be December when I’ll next have the chance to lay out my wares – and busy with Write Your Own Adventure, but I’ll be back in Tring, for sure.

Changing the World

I’ve been busy writing a new book: Write Your Own Adventure – Using Choice-Based Fiction in Schools.  It’s intended to be a teaching resource for educators who want to use the power of choice-based adventure stories to create a strong writing culture in their classes, to engage uninterested writers and to broaden children’s experience of writing.

And to change the world.

Maybe not all at once, but incrementally, in the same way that Dave Lowery changed the world when he taught me and my classmates how to write Choose-Your-Own-Adventures at Lynncroft Primary School in 1995.  Without his work, there would be no Steam Highwayman, no Words and Ideas nor any Mr Noutch in any of the schools I’ve taught in.

Teaching is a strange profession and at times it can be disappointing to see how pedestrian and predictable teachers are in their methods and philosophy.  I think this is essentially due to many of them reproducing their own schooling, which accounts for the inherent conservatism of the educational system as a whole.  But, wild-eyed and visionary though I am to many of my colleagues, I’m only trying to build a tower on a foundation that was laid in my own childhood.

Have you read Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed?  I think that’s largely to blame for my readiness to accept the responsibility, as a teacher, of changing the world by educating a new generation with a new set of values and interests – not just skills or knowledge.  It’s something I’ve played with exploring in fiction elsewhere in my Teacher on Mars novel – unfinished, obviously, or you’d see a banner atop this website urging you to go buy it online and in your local sci-fi section.

But I wish I heard more stories of teachers unafraid to do something different and to actively shape their students’ futures, rather than satisfy themselves doing a job and fulfilling someone else’s requirements, so I guess that producing this book is another part of that.

Finished date?  I’m aiming to have it done by Christmas.  Buy it for the Literacy Coordinator in your life.

Where next? Gamesfest!

A short while ago I was asked by fellow gamebook enthusiast Lloyd of Gamebooks whether I would be attending Gamesfest or Dragonmeet this year…  And after a little rustling around, it looks like I’ll be at both!  I’m keen to share Steam Highwayman with game enthusiasts as well as steampunk, so friendly and welcoming events like these seem just the place.  I have been organising and hope to perform an interactive reading at Gamesfest, so if you’ll be attending, please let me know so that I can include you!  I’ll also be posting a write-up here in a couple of weeks.

My currently booked event schedule for Steam Highwayman appearances and sales looks like this:

  • 20th October – Gamesfest, Tring
  • 1st December – Dragonmeet, Hammersmith
  • 8-9th December – Steampunkalia, Nottingham

If there’s an event you know of – particularly during November – that you think would be improved by the sudden and terrifying appearance of the Steam Highwayman, please suggest away!

 

A Sort of Magic in Tintagel

Dolphin clocks,
Magic rocks,
Buy them all in Tintagel.
Oe’r your hearth, a
Bust of Arthur
You can buy it here as well.
Cornish ice cream,
What a nice dream,
Can you feel the aura here?
Local bread,
Leave well fed
There’s even magic in the beer.
Someone, sometime cast a spell,
To empty brain and purse as well,
Beware th’enchantment, the gift-shop bell
Should you visit Tintagel.

I haven’t been to Tintagel since 2014, but I enjoyed it when I did.  Visited previously c. 2006 and I think that was when the first couplet of this silly little leonine verse got into my head.  Now I have used it and posted it in the wild – on googlemaps.  There’s not enough feral poetry out there, is there?

A Recipe for a Better Brexit?

Can You Brexit Without Breaking Britain?

Authority: 53%; Economy 48%; Goodwill: 66% and Popularity 48%. With final scores like these, it seems as though I negotiated a middle-of-the-road success of my withdrawal from the European Union, although I did have stick my finger in the page when tossing an imaginary coin to decide a nasty last-minute leadership contest. My rival, the utterly unlikeable and deeply eurosceptic Colin Fungale, decided to rejoin the Conservative Party, you see, and my hands-off disregard almost backfired. That was when all my hard work in negotiating looked like it was going to become unstuck… but I figured that I owed it to the authors to see what would have happened if I survived the election.

And that’s pretty much the way this book works. In a playthrough lasting around four hours, my decisions were chiefly about which aspects of the negotiation I would personally oversee and which I could delegate to an unreliable cabinet. In the relationships between Foreign Secretary, Chancellor, press secretary and you as Prime Minister, Thomson and Morris are at their most satiric, maintaining a consistent distaste for the political class, touched with ridicule, pitched somewhere between Private Eye and Yes Minister! Trying to survive their bungling and backstabbing is the lightly comedic and fairly cynical part of the book, while the actual negotiations are heavily factual and purposefully realistic. This means that there are several rounds of briefings available to bring the reader up to speed, more or less useful depending on their political knowledge, but all rather a slog. Reading these tended to push me towards taking a compromised position on most issues, as I think was intended, but I had decreasingly less patience for these rather passive infodumps after the first round and made most of my later decisions by instinct.

And in this process of briefing and decision-making, the authors’ own position becomes clear. This means that the book, while allowing the reader to make choices, does have some recommendations about Brexit. For example, at the end of the whole drawn-out process, you open up your Brexit Deal to a vote in the Commons – a vote which is by no means certain in our own trouserleg of time. Choices presented to the reader are all realistic options, with few flights-of-fancy permitted, meaning that this is a very different type of gamebook to any adventure story. The book closes with brief predictions of the country’s future, tied to your ending scores, but personally I would have been very interested to see the effects of the hard-won policies illustrated in more detail – just as I would have loved to read of more of the national background. The media play a small part, but in general the entire book takes place entirely within the corridors of power, intentionally isolated from everyday experience.

Some readers have noted the cynical tone of the book, particularly in the descriptions and treatment of the electorate, but dismissive attitudes that describe your average voter as wearing ‘George from Asda’ and voting from ignorance are plainly a perspective of the character you are given to inhabit. Thomson and Morris are asking their reader to work with what we have all been given – an entrenched political class, years of international compromise and even the individual character of our current Prime Minister – to represent the odds that are stacked against the Brexit process, and that in itself is their commentary.

The structure of the book depends on periods of intense conversation, interspersed by rather ‘bare-bones’ mechanic passages that check for previous experiences or resolve loops. This complexity means that the reader can pass through three consecutive ‘checker’ passages at points, which breaks up the story significantly. There is little sense of time for most of the book, and suddenly you are told that six months have passed – or only six months remain. Certainly time is a well-marshalled enemy in this book: being forced to choose to engage in only some of the negotiations also intrigues the reader and invites a replay.

That said, this isn’t really a book that demands an adventurer immediately restart and begin again. If anything, I feel the need to breathe after reading this, and to engage with the current political debate to see how accurately I think Morris and Thomson have drawn some of the crucial issues. Can You Brexit is plainly written to engage and educate and, given the right sort of reader, I think it could be quite successful. However, you’ll need one old-school skill at least – a high stamina score – and probably be throwing your five-fingered bookmark into the book constantly. And will you be satisfied with the result? I’ve calculated the ‘best’ scores possible and traced an ‘optimum path’ and it’s bad news – the best outcome still includes massive compromise, the chance of everything tumbling down at the last minute and a disappointing lack of recognition. Who’d go in to politics, then?

Don’t expect this to read like an episode of The West Wing; don’t expect the chance to assassinate frustrating UKIP leaders. Perhaps in another political gamebook… This is all about doing your best with a poor hand – an attitude explored in too few gamebooks, regardless of their setting or story. It may make you smile, grimace or gasp in frustration – powerfully posing the question ‘Is this the best we can expect?’ See if you can beat my scores and, if the results satisfy you, please tell me. But better yet, take your recipe for a better Brexit and tell Mrs May…