Hard-to-Find Farm Might Be Typical…

The real Hard-to-Find Farm with Shire Horse

I’ve been thinking about how someone meets Steam Highwayman. It’s not through a suggestion on Kickstarter anymore: it’s by reading or watching about it online through a blog like Dave Morris’s Fabled Lands or the recent playthrough video by Lone Adventurer. When I was personally recommending the adventure, there was a simplicity about promising people a particular kind of experience – but the problem was, that the experience I wanted to share was my own solo roleplaying adventure from my very specific experience and knowledge.

For example, the map of Smog & Ambuscade is burnt into my cortex: I can draw it by heart, and know exactly which direction to turn at any junction. The other day I took my family for a summer evening drive through Steam Highwayman Country: Handy Cross (second, minor, exit on the roundabout when driving west on the M40), down to Marlow, across the Thames, through Bisham, up through Inkydown Wood, past Furze Platt, into Maidenhead and, actually, on to Windsor, all by memory and without reference to a real-world map, satnav or even my printed book map. It helps that I rode these roads on my Yamaha back in 2008-2012 – the road to Windsor particularly for my continuing teacher training frequently hosted there.

But the map I first provided in Smog & Ambuscade proved harder to use than I hoped. That was one serious reason for drawing the big A2 maps that I sell as part of the Touring Guide: clearer, larger-scale mapping with better labels.

Yet even armed with a good map, I realise that it is quite possible to explore Smog & Ambuscade for some time and not feel that you’ve got stuck into an adventure. Yes, it is an open-world gamebook, populated largely with shorter quests, and yes, it’s a roleplaying experience, in which the imaginative adventure of experiencing the world is a big part of the payoff, but when people have complained that there isn’t enough to do, I have to listen. It’s a tension in the design and planning that I’ve tried to deal with in the following volumes, but it’s not simple. And Smog & Ambuscade was the first time I did anything like this – someone charitably described my writing as ‘improving in game design’ over the course of the first three volumes.

That’s why I’m working on a hint sheet – or achievement list – or something between the two. A prompt of all the adventures that are hidden inside the relatively slim volume of Smog & Ambuscade, to whet the appetites of the newer reader and perhaps even to challenge the veteran. I don’t mean to provide full solutions or complete spoilers, but light walk-through or directions, to provide work-arounds to compensate for an unintentionally challenging level of difficulty.

Another option I’ve considered is to make a full revision of Smog & Ambuscade – correcting all known errors, of course, but also improving the gameplay with better signposting, eliminating loops, deepening quests and updating mechanics to stay in line with the newer volumes. But since I’m still working on The Princes of the West and will have two more to write after that, I think it might be premature. Instead I wonder about completing the series and then creating a fully-revised and expanded version of Smog & Ambuscade – and perhaps even revising the other books – before publishing a limited run as a collector’s hardback edition, as well as updating the standard print-on-demand paperbacks.

I wonder what my most-faithful readers think. Some are more aware of the problems and issues within my writing than anyone else – and yet are gracious enough to focus on the good points and encourage me to keep going. But, honestly speaking, is the first book a poor spokesperson for the entire team? I’ve been re-reading Smog recently and feel that it has some of my freshest, most original writing in it, although it is probably the book that needs the most patience.

The hint sheet looks like it’s going to be a large piece of work in its own right, though. I’ve only got through about 30 passages of the book and I’ve had to write three pages of notes… Here’s a taster:

Have you…

Built a hideout in High Wood or Windsor Wood?

Earnt some coins playing the piano?

Exacted vengeance on a rich playboy at Boulter’s Lock Hotel? (requiring all 3 published volumes)

Won the Spenser Cup?  (A Great Deed)

Spared a mysterious Coal Board official?

Encountered Mistress DeFancy?

Shown charity to a poor haulier? 

Been rescued by a nameless old woman?

Found Hard-to-Find Farm?

Gained a smattering of Legal Knowledge?

Crossed Cookham Weir?

Repaired a riverside skiff?

Befriended Madame Juste?

Sabotaged the railway?

Followed a rainbow to its end?

Broken into Cliveden greenhouses?

Travelled a narrow way through Boyn Hill woods?

Defended a road convoy departing the Golden Ball?

Befriended Wellesley Garman?

Taught some tax collectors a lesson?

Hunted deer in Heath Wood?

Robbed Coulters Bank?

8 Replies to “Hard-to-Find Farm Might Be Typical…”

  1. I like the hint sheet idea. It lets you know there’s things to see and do whilst still being vague enough to not really be spoilers. Although you could make it a two-parter, part one with the vague hints and then part two being a bit more explicit for those that want more guidance?

    I wouldn’t say I’m one of the ‘most faithful’as I’ve only read the first book (so far!) so I can’t comment about any improvements you made over the subsequent books, but I’ve not had much problems navigating S&A. I did read a lot of Fabled Lands years gone by, though, so I’m used to ambling about a bit in gamebooks, and it’s one of the things i enjoy about Fabled Lands and S&A, plus drawing out my own maps.

    This does however remind me of something that always bothered me a tiny bit: when you leave the Crooked Billet Inn (291) you can ride south down Sheepridge Lane towards Marlow (602), but at 602 you can’t ride back up the lane towards the Inn, you have to ride a circular route to the east or west to approach from the north. Unless I’m missing something obvious there, which is indeed a possibility, is that an oversight or an intentional one way lane?

    I’m quite looking forward to Princes of the West so I really should get back to S&A and the other two books!

    1. At the very beginning, I liked the idea of unidirectional routes to make travel more unique, but really they’re just a pain: the Sheepridge Lane error is an artefact of that, being one of the very first parts I wrote and never managed to pick up on. Feel free to write in an option to turn north on Sheepridge Lane (291) into passage 210: I’ve added it into later editions.

      As for the hint-sheet, I want some form of spoiler-free list that simply tantalises my readers: I’m working on it now. Perhaps a page here on the website with drop-down lists of steps or something. The idea of two separate sheets isn’t the worst way of doing it.

      And yes, I think the Fabled Lands veterans cope with wandering around much better than people who are used to the more linear gamebook experience. For those who have Steam Highwayman as their very first gamebook, I find a 50-50 split between those who LOVE the freedom and those who grow to love it.

  2. Sorry to leave yet another comment but first of all I have no idea how to format comments here so first of all, apologies for that big unwieldy block of text. Must I hit enter twice? Let’s find out:

    Second, I had ‘Notify me of follow-up comments by email.’ ticked and I received an email to confirm this yet when I clicked on the ‘confirm email’ button it gives me an error saying ‘Sorry, but the provided signature isn’t valid.’

    1. Hmmm. Don’t know about the confirmation thingy. I might try and look into that later. There’s always manual revisiting the site!

      1. It seems my post did format correctly after all. Which is odd as it showed up as just a single block of text right after I posted it. Maybe I just needed to refresh the page.

        I already penciled in a route back up the lane in my copy, but it always made me curious whenever I used it. Glad it isn’t just me that’s going mad(der).

        Spoilers with drop down lists kinda reminds me of the Universal Hints System website which I’ve used over the years when stuck on some ridiculous puzzle in a point and click adventure game.

        UHS has different pages for various parts of the game in question and the first hint will be something quite general, but then you can press to view another hint and get something a bit more detailed, and so on until you basically end up with the complete solution. Very occasionally I’ve had to drill down all the way to find out what to do, but most the time it just takes one or two more vague hints to prod me in the right direction. It’s pretty neat and you might wanna look into it if you’re never used it before, it might provide some inspiration for your own hints.

        1. That sounds very helpful. I don’t know if I’m going to be fully able to be quite so thorough and detailed – but I’d be happy to send you a preview of what it might look like so far and you can say whether you think it’d serve the purpose, if you’d like.

  3. Hello Martin,

    Thank you for the the hint sheet. It’s amazing that there are so many accomplishments available in a single book, and I can see how much time and care it took to create SH.

    I’m a gamebook author myself, but I’ve never attempted an open-world gamebook. I think the challenge lies in finding the right balance of providing that air of exploration and mystery, but also incorporating plenty of easily accessible quests. I think some of the frustration for a new player in SH is the sense that there’s a lot there, but much of it is just beyond your fingertips. (Don’t have this specific item/codeword? Move on. Haven’t met this particular person? Move on.)

    From what I recall, the start of S & A is a nice action sequence (robbing a coach) but after that, it’s slow going for a while. It does improve with repeated playthroughs, once you learn the layout and locations of quests. The tipsheet will go a long way for new players.

    My comments on the game mechanics aside, the story and setting are fantastic. To one of your points, yes, I think once the series is over, an updated S & A would be nice; designed with mechanics that match the later books, and also a more clearly marked out map for easier and more intuitive navigation.

    One thing that’s always puzzled me (again going from memory) is that a player starting off in Reeking Metropolis will have lower starting attribute scores than a player starting off in one of the other two books. At any rate, I would strive for consistency across all books. One of the way that I think SH is superior to Fabled Lands is that the difficulty level is pretty equal across all the books, as opposed to later books acting as higher “levels” (like a video game), ramping up the challenge level for skill checks and enemies.

    While I’m at it, I have a vague sense that the combat rules could be improved, but it’s been so long since I played that I don’t have anything more substantive right now. Same thing with the currency system- (vague memory of having to convert paper notes? Simple is better here- I’d like to spend money in whatever form I have it).

    All of my comments will hopefully come across simply as ways to improve an already great recipe. SH is a unique, fun, terrific gamebook series. I’m looking forward to the other three books. Best of luck as you continue to create and innovate!

    1. Thanks for your many compliments in here, Gaetano. Yes – one reason I wanted to create the hint/achievement list was to give an idea of just how much can be done in S&A. It’s not even an entirely complete list (I’ve left out many single-event ambushes) – and I know when/if I do the same for volume II, there’ll be an even longer list!

      I’m realising that much of the pacing of S&A is a direct result of the playstyle I used when first encountering Fabled Lands: aged 9, I had endless free time, boundless curiosity and a lot of initiative, as far as games went, anyway. But that’s not exactly a normal modern gamebooking experience!

      Some of the things you mentioned are definitely fix-able with a big enough revision – and yes, I am certainly happy to have these sort of criticisms / critique. The map in the first book is the weakest in the series and one reason I was happy to make the big A2 ones – but I need to make something intermediate too. Well – onward and upward.

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