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.

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.

Fighting Fantasy Fest III

In just under two weeks’ time I’ll be at Fighting Fantasy Fest III, in Ealing, to showcase Steam Highwayman and to meet up with others in the gamebook community. FFF3 is a small convention born out of the international appreciation for the incredible Fighting Fantasy gamebook series – the ones that probably did the most to popularise gamebooks in the UK, and possibly worldwide. People come from all over the world to meet authors and illustrators of the original 54 books, including Jon Green, who organises the event.

But FFF3 isn’t simply backward looking. It’s also the hub for the future of the gamebook renaissance in the UK. Dozens of writers of self-published or amateur gamebooks, of a wide variety of styles, will be attending. Some are members of the Gamebook Authors Guild, a new group for independent writers, and some are simply fans of the original Fighting Fantasy series who are flexing their own muscles. At the previous convention, Fighting Fantasy Fest II in 2016, I met James Schannep, who writes the Click Your Own Poison series of interactive novels, as well as Jon Ingold, narrative director at Inkle. This was also the very first place I publicised Steam Highwayman: Smog and Ambuscade, and the organisers were good enough to let me flyer recklessly as well as hand out some freebies and sample pages.

I’ll have a stall and Smog and Ambuscade and Highways and Holloways will be available for purchase, but I’ll also be publicising the upcoming Steam Highwayman: The Reeking Metropolis Kickstarter campaign. Attendees will be able to see the smoking, shining Ferguson Velosteam by Captain Seekerman in all its 3d-printed glory and even get a glimpse of some limited Kickstarter reward samples…

I’ve also been honoured to be asked to conduct an interview with Chris Achilleos, the legendary fantasy artist who painted the covers for Armies of Death, Temple of Terror and other Fighting Fantasy books, amongst a varied and massive oeuvre. That’ll be at 3pm (15:00) in the Weston Hall.

There are still tickets available online, so if you’re interested in the cutting edge of printed interactive fiction, or in the nostalgic wonder of the Fighting Fantasy Series, why not come along?

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!

Speed the Revolution

I’ve been working on everything but the stories of Steam Highwayman III recently – other writing contracts, preparations for my next Kickstarter, school work, and learning to change nappies and recognise the different cries of my baby daughter. But at last I’ve been able to spend a steady couple of days with my mind in the world of Steam Highwayman, and the results have been exciting.

When I spend too long at a stretch trying to hack out plot for Steam Highwayman, I can really dry up. The style and structure of gamebook writing means that there is a constant need for new ideas – alternate possibilities, fresh starts, new encounters. But after having a break, I can find that all sorts of ideas have percolated through from my subconscious, creative mind and are ready to type straight up.

I’ve been writing the sequence that might bring the whole Steam Highwayman saga to a close – if you choose it. Revolution is pretty much a one-way street and even for a nimble velosteam rider like yourself, there are events from which there are no going back.

The questions that will face you are challenging ones: do you consider the Compact for Worker’s Equality trustworthy in their intentions and methods? Do you think their preparations are sufficient and their plan likely to succeed? Are you personally ready to put aside the life of the road and put yourself at the service of the people?

Or was your alliance with the Compact only ever cynical and self-serving? Is it time to cash in your chips, take a reward from the Constables and see the whole bunch of these dangerous anarchists locked up?

I love the little, strange options that you encounter riding through the villages. But in the City, you’ll have to face bigger questions with much bigger, more permanent consequences.

Sewing Story Seams

One of the innovations that I – and many others – really respect in the Fabled Lands series is the way in which Morris and Thomson connect narratives across volumes. As a reader, I’ve always found it incredibly satisfying to travel to a new land, a new city and a new volume and find that the events there respond to my choices made hours, days or weeks previously, in a different book, on a different continent and in a different context. Obviously this was also one of the techniques I have chosen to mimic in Steam Highwayman and one I am very proud of getting to work. When I explain how a gamebook works to new readers, they may make impressed noises, but when I explain that choices made in one volume have consequences in other volumes – volumes later, or even earlier in the series – then I see that mindblown look.

I don’t just do it to feel smug. I really consider this one of the most exciting and interesting ways of using interactive narrative, because there’s a lot more to the technique than simply recording progress with a codeword and checking for that codeword in another passage – although that is exactly the mechanism the authors of Fabled Lands and I use. The skill comes in writing just enough linking reference that the reader remembers what sparked the narrative development off – but not too much, giving the reader the mental task of drawing connections and causal links between events. Sometimes the book can make these links explicit, but at other times I prefer to leave them mysterious and tantalising. People rationalise the same information in different ways and I love to hear my readers explaining their understanding of what caused what.

But now to the nitty-gritty. Writing these things is challenging – another reason I use them! For the volume currently under construction, The Reeking Metropolis, I have notes and references for more than forty narratives of different sizes that overflow from the other volumes into this one. All roads seem to lead to London, at the moment. Some of these are short references – characters that you met in Smog and Ambuscade that mentioned they were trying to reach London, where they hoped to make their fortune. A single passage can resolve this story, as you discover whether they really did strike it rich. Others are much larger, multi-plot strands of story that I haven’t even really decided how I want to use, like the Revolution narrative that powers your interaction with the Compact for Workers’ Equality. Then there are the stories that I ran out of space to tell and the mysteries I haven’t thought of answers for yet.

But the fascinating thing is that some of these are the very first pieces of Steam Highwayman that I ever wrote – pieces like the redemption of the workhouse orphan, who ran away from his master to try to reach the big city. I even created a plot within Smog and Ambuscade that could only be reached after beginning a quest in Volume III, which has taken me two years to reach.

As a reader, I know that the more time that passes in the real world between a choice and the consequence, the more mystery and intrigue it holds for me. I can’t wait to hear what my readers think when, on receipt of The Reeking Metropolis, they realise that decisions they may have made two years previously are still limiting their options, or opening doors for them.

The photo above, by the way, is a piece of attractively peeling plywood hoarding along the Crossrail (Elizabeth Line) site a short distance from where I live. I get really excited by the way the process of decay creates textures far more complex, and yet balanced, than any human imagination could achieve.

On the Ground, in the Air

This morning I completed a series of passages that allow you to ambush the vehicles of the Atmospheric Union. An early start, kicked off by the glorious sunshine streaming into our flat, meant that I managed to increase my passage count despite it being a busy school day. On Thursdays I travel to Islington for some regular supply work in a Primary School, follow that with an after-school club based on Native American crafts and stories and then often tutor GCSE English in the evening.

So it’s really nice to disrupt the pattern with a few ambushes.

The Union are one of the larger factions in the world of Steam Highwayman. They play quite a large role in Highways and Holloways, in which you can take work aboard one of their craft or rob them in the skies. In The Reeking Metropolis they have a main landing field at Parliament Hill and there’s a good chance of meeting their supply vehicles or passenger transport carriages on the roads around London – particularly if you have a telescope.

Put this all together with my modular event designs and you can stop their carriages using several of your talents, rifle their supplies or rob their passengers, fight their officers and even, if you come prepared, blow up their immobilised engines. Why you might want to do that, I haven’t quite defined yet, but it’s probably something to do with inter-Guild rivalries.

The image heading this post is a rendering by deviantart user awiz that I found some time ago. Airships of the sort that are fun for my narrative are not particularly realistic, but this design has created something relatively original and it certainly appeals to me. The high-class promenade deck and banded funnels resemble something out of 80 Days, although all of their steampunk vehicles are pictured in silhouette.

Another appealing set of airship designs come from the Kickstarted comic series, Skies of Fire.These have a dieselpunk-steampunk look and the writers have spent a huge amount of time on their world-building, which I respect. Although I love a tight, balanced narrative, I suspect I’m really a world-builder at heart, but maybe Steam Highwayman has already told you that!

Business Brewing…

There’s a brewery in Steam Highwayman III that would like to expand. That’s nice, isn’t it? So your friendly ale-drinking hero is going to get involved, of course.

But how involved, exactly? If the Director is keen to offer independent pubs contracts and pay you a generous commission for each signature, would you do his bidding? What side will that put you on, exactly?

Camden Brewery in 1913

This is the question at the heart of my recent chunk of writing. I’ve passed 130 complete passages and have reserved a further 300 reserved: these are early days in the writing process, but so far I’ve sketched and reserved the vast majority of street and hub locations, written a large proportion of the ambushing and random traffic passages, and spent quite a lot of time creating some interesting pub interactions, particularly in Hampstead and Highgate.

There are a couple of complete quests in and a few loose trailing ends, but the cast majority of the story is to come. I’m thinking about a complete range of quests and interactions – tiny, spontaneous stories on the streets, quests that involve travelling across the map, larger ones that involve several decisions and then a couple of big stories you will keep bumping into. Behind the scenes, you see, are the great unwashed crying for Reform or Revolution, just as they really did in the 1830s. Then there’s the rivalry between the Guilds and the powerplay in court and Parliament. Nowhere is closed to our silver-tongued, sharp-bladed adventurer!

What would you like to see in the adventures of the Steam Highwayman? Let me know!

Other recent projects: infusing some rhubarb gin, exploring Shoreditch on various maps.