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.

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 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…

New heights!

Something fabulous has been happening over on Kickstarter…  My first publishing and gamebook project last year raised around £4700, partly thanks to the generosity of friends and family who wanted to see my work in print and several of whom gave far more than the suggested pledge.  In all, 189 supporters joined the project.

But this time, things have been different.  Around 85 of last year’s backers have returned to order the sequel and almost a hundred new backers have joined in – and with a far smaller number of family and friends, the project has now raised more than £5100 towards the publication.  This is very exciting for me as the project is really standing on its own merits now, appealing to readers on account of the recommendations of genuinely-interested advocates (which is why I prepared the new image above) and on the strength of Book I’s reputation.

This bodes really well for the ongoing project.  With each volume I write, there will be an increasing number of readers who return to see the next book published – I hope – and the work will increasingly do its own publicity…  Every now and then when I discover a mention of Steam Highwayman out in the wilds of the internet, my heart skips, like when I saw it on the front page of Demian Katz’s gamebooks.org – and if you haven’t visited that amazing labyrinth of dreams, head over there and find out about all the gamebooks you haven’t bought or read yet!  Demian is a librarian (I believe) and a backer of book 1 and has a lot to share with you about the workings of choice-based fiction.

Steam Highwayman is Funded on Kickstarter

Well, I’m fairly excited about that!  The generous support of several international backers overnight has tipped the Steam Highwayman project into the green-light zone: no longer just a plan or an intention, it is a funded publishing project.  Fantastic!

I’m just as overjoyed to have gained the support of several gamebook authors along the way, chiefly Jamie Thomson and Dave Morris, who posted a feature on Steam Highwayman last night on their Fabled Lands Blog.  The write-up means a lot to me, but I also hope that it will allow me to find out, like my dad said, how much steam this project has in it…

The process is pretty busy for me now.  I’ll be green-lighting the first batch of illustration work with Ben May and sending him a brief I prepared the other day.  I’ll also be looking for another round of proof-readers soon to make sure all the text is free from errors.  I have to prepare some costume, too, as I’m hoping to make a couple of appearances in character to get the project some exposure at Steampunk events.

Please continue to share the project!  I would love to meet my stretch goals, which will allow me to invest in Ben’s talent more significantly, as well as giving me a little breathing space to settle down to Volume II.  I was world-building yesterday afternoon to distract myself from facebook and kickstarter: the next volume promises some new concepts, new plotting mechanics and lots of new characters to interact with.

Steam Highwayman Live on Kickstarter

Steam Highwayman launched last night at 8pm and already, around 12 hrs later, it is nearly 50% funded! Great news. I’ve had some generous support from friends but also have managed to secure backing from gamebook fans and international backers.

My Facebook page for the project is also steaming ahead: another 26 likes and I get to publish my account of the design process for the character of the highwayman. Can’t wait!

I’ve had some great social media support from the gamebook community, so I’m still waiting to find out how far this will go. It’s going to be a great ride.