In October I began a new playthrough across the three completed Steam Highwayman volumes, but got caught by my old enemy, the Coal Board before really getting very far, and was forced into a year of servitude with serious attribute penalties.
Well, to keep myself in the mode, I’ve been continuing to dip into that playthrough in the last few days while feeling a bit under the weather. Steam HIghwayman was always meant to be as fun to fail as to win, so I picked myself up, shook off the coal dust and made a plan: I would find the in-game ways to regain my attributes and boost them even further!
Freed onto the dirty streets of Camden, I rode down to the Pineapple at Lambeth, where I remember explosives fetch a good price. The Coal Board were more interested in punishing me than confiscating my stuff, you see, and after a year in storage my explosives were still valuable goods in someone’s eyes. They might end up reaching Flat Billy, the crimelord, but I shan’t worry about that for now. Someone told me about the street gang who mudlark on the north bank, so I rode through Southwark, grabbing a cold pork pie on the way, popping over to Spitalfields to buy a new pistol and sabre, and then dropping in on the boys corner of the muddy foreshore. After a little repetitive mudlarking (amazing how many Constables’ whistles the silt can cover) I met the Waterside Boys themselves and, with my abysmally low GALLANTRY, mud-smeared clothes and, crucially, fresh Southwark pork pie, I won their hearts and their allegiance.
Another trip to the outskirts saw me stop the Coal Board once more, grab some loot and a handy codeword, report to the Telegraph Guild at Bloomsbury and claim a fairly paltry reward, considering their hatred for the other faction. I was bleeding in a couple of places after fighting off some stokers in the ambush, so I headed to Hampstead and took at room at the Holly Bush – very much out of the way.
While trying to heal my wounds there, my low INGENUITY really became a problem, so I gave thought to my long-term prospects. If I am to succeed as a highwayman, I will be getting wounded, and if wounded, I will need a reliable way to heal myself. There are a very few ways to heal wounds without resulting in scars, which inevitably lead to retirement and the dreaded epilogue, but self-help is more effective with training… So I set off on a new mission. First, I would buy medical supplies in the reeking metropolis, before heading west into the first two books… I got a cheap bottle of whisky down in the docklands too.
So once on the road to Smog and Ambuscade, I resolutely ignored any temptation to ambush anyone else and rode straight to the Red Lantern in Maidenhead, where I stocked up on one of the rarest, and most game-changing, of medical items. Pink pills (NIM + 2) [_] [_] [_] A boost to your NIMBLENESS just as you are drawing your sword can be very, very helpful in surviving a duel – particularly when you are still carrying the scars of a year’s servitude.
Then it was up to Lane End, where the good Dr Smollett can be found. He was one of the earliest characters I wrote, one I really enjoy re-reading, and one I would love to explore a bit more. I met him, let him rant at me (I really haven’t hurt or robbed anyone he would have patched up… I think!) and then returned to Marlow where, surprise surprise, he turned up in the parlour of the Ship on a dirty night wanting a ride…
So off we went to Bullocks Farm, where I assisted in the delivery of a fine baby boy. Which, incidentally and not at all the entire reason for the escapade, gained me a level of Medical Training (greatly increasing the efficacy of self-treatment – at least in SH3 onwards…).
I returned to Lane End with that bottle of whisky and we sealed our friendship over a drink, the good Doctor and I. Now on to book 2 to gain that other boost…
I build my Steam Highwayman open-world gamebooks from the map upwards. Since discovering the National Library of Scotland’s georeferenced historical maps, I’ve used the OS six-inch 1888-1913 as inspiration and reference, and for the last couple of weeks I’ve been poring over Dartmoor.
It’s a place of legend and myth, prehistory and geology, industrial archaeology and military remains. There’s simply too much of interest to include everything in Steam Highwayman IV: The Princes of the West.
So I’ve begun by creating the navigational network underneath the events. This means planning and writing around eight key locations that are linked together to represent the vast expanse of Dartmoor itself. However, things become more complicated following that.
I don’t mean for the reader to simply be able to steam up onto the hill and tear about: Dartmoor is too treacherous for that. Neither do I want a constant series of MOTORING checks – particularly as the skills of riding a heavy velosteam over the moor, navigating across the various watersheds and steaming over the uneven ground are unlike the classic road-focussed skills I normally represent with that attribute. So instead I’m using secret links and tickboxes: on the first arrival at some of these locations, details are given about them. Returning to that passage, the book will presume that the reader knows what is going on and where they are… if you remember! After exploring for long enough, you may even be able to gain a knowledge of Dartmoor good enough to unlock secret routes across it, opening up much greater options for fast travel and getaway.
But I’m still leaving space for events and quests to happen here. Perhaps a certain glow-muzzled dog might track you in the mist, or one of the several stone circles prove to hold more than moonlit grass within it. But these can come later. For now, the navigation has to work and then onto this backing the extra events can be embroidered. I’m toying with the idea of using visible options unlocked by a variety of common-to-rare possessions.
One knot of passages is formed by the base you can build at Merripit Barn. Hideouts are going to be ever more important in SH4, and having one tucked away in the west may be just what you need. Some of the options here are generic, sending the reader off into what Brian Hazzard called a ‘subroutine’ loop when he interviewed me about this some time ago (warning: contains unpopular opinions about the repetitive nature of Fantasy gamebooks!). And these are crucial to preventing bloat within the gamebook while allowing the game part to really flourish – essentially the idea that you should be able to do the same thing at different locations. At Merripit Barn you can rest, treat your wounds, mend your velosteam, train your pet raven and all the other things a self-respecting road pirate does on their day off.
And Merripit Barn is just the right place at the right time: I needed a location that was on the edge of a location on the edge of Dartmoor, isolated but only a turn or two from one of my busier routes. Some time poring over the NLS’s maps and I found what I needed.
I’m hoping that before publishing SH4 I’ll have a good chance to revisit Cornwall and West Devon – and if I do, I’ll go and see what is actually going on at Merripit Barn.
If you haven’t seen the video revealing the draft SH4 planning map, here it is again… this time, with music courtesy of @ramonsole5729 and Cubus Games.
The messenger smiles. “And to you he gives this sign of his bond.” He takes a fine ᚼ carnelian ring ᚼ, the prize of some ancient upriver raid, and fits it upon your hand. “Know that he has a care that your folk prosper. Olaf will call upon his jarls to take spear and fight, soon enough. So strengthen yourself and your folk. Prepare weapons and ships: he means to cross the sea and fight the Bretland Kings, proving his might and his claim there also.” You host the traveller for three days. In that time, you must slaughter for him a cow or two pigs or lose 5 DOMR. Turn to 330.
Olaf was King of Norway around 1000AD, which is (very loosely) when SAGA takes place – although I’m allowing the reader to participate in events from about 780-1200.
My current headteacher is also called Olaf, but I am not about to fight in his invasion of Britain.
My main draft is now 50,240 words, to be more precise. That’s 444 complete passages – and 405 is the most recent. It seems common practice among many gamebook authors to fill up their passages from 1 to 400 (or 800… or 1512 etc) and then re-order. I prefer to fix the numbers early on, as the number of links in an open-world gamebook can make re-numbering a real challenge. There are passages with more than twenty entry points, for example.
I’ve spent a few sessions planning the winter events at the four (yes, four!) settlement sites. There’s Brevik, the main settlement in which you begin as Jarl, and then three more locations you can scout, claim and settle. I mean to include the same mechanic in each other volumes, each of which has a planned starting settlement and three locations to start a new Viking story.
Anyway, early on in the sequence of settling, your folk will want to have the land shared out fairly. Fail this test (which is currently dependent on your DRENGSKAPR, with modifiers) and you will be sorry – particularly if Jorun is in your crew! She makes a great ally in battle, but she does not like wasting her time with arguments about farmland.
Yes, I’m still writing. This is a piece of SAGA I that I really like. I must have written it around five or six months ago, but re-reading my work to get back into the flow of things, this stood out for me as containing the flavour, and the mechanics, that I’m happy with.
The cloud is the death of your thegn Thord: the silver lining is getting his 1d8 axe.
There are around 50,000 words of SAGA I currently – as well as several spreadsheets of notes that feed into volumes II, III and IV. I missed last year’s deadline but the Spidermind gang have graciously allowed me more time to get this right.
What helps sustain a project like this? Good ear-music: Alan Stivell’s Ys, Zimmer’s Gladiator, other things that I can find that balance melody and atmosphere.
And I just read Pratchett’s biography A Life with Footnotes by Rob Wilkins. Now that was pretty galvanising! I held off for a bit (it was published last summer), but had some birthday book tokens and treated myself to a long walk, a burger and a bookshop visit after school one light last week. I enjoyed a lot of the family history – his upbringing – and a bit more information about his work as a journalist and press officer – but was really pleased to glean a little bit about his writing practice. Not that I mean to imitate him in that – but I have had an idea about some critical work examining his use of story structure for a long time. If I can get SAGA I done by the summer, you might get to see some extended essay posts – with infographics? – in the autumn as I explore how his Discworld stories are structured.
Sound dry? Well, I hope it won’t be. Among the best example of in-depth critique and analysis I enjoy for the writing alone – although the subject matter is pretty good too – is David Addey’s Typeset in the Future [book, blog]. Which I’m also waiting for in print, as another birthday voucher result, partly to enjoy re-reading and partly to help me think about how I want to present this stuff.
But in the meantime, 5:30-7:00am, and evenings when I can, it’s more Viking bloodshed and folk-leading. The seas are waiting for you and your wave-goat (knarr)!
What’s going on here? A mock-up of the ‘shipsheet’ that will be part of a reader/player’s record-keeping for SAGA. The background image is a lightly-modified version of the plans of Skuldelev I, which, as every Viking enthusiast knows, is the wreck of the large, ocean-going knarr found at Skuldelev in Denmark. Historical accuracy is pretty key for my project, so why not go straight from archaeology to gameplay?
What sort of features will be included in your shipsheet? Well, the number of your crew is vital: all are assumed to be able to participate in a raid, even if you are sailing a trading knarr, like shown here. Some of these may be wounded in battle or accident, so that’s got to be recorded, although maybe not by name. Total food is a bit of duplicate – as a single vaett of food contains 40 matr, and 1 matr costs 1 penningr and should be enough to sustain a single crew-member for a month – and a vaett occupies a single ‘room’ or cargo space in the vessel. A voyage might last 3-6 months, in the current system. Other cargo spaces might be 1 vaett of beer, or iron ore, or amber, or 2 cattle, and so on.
Your two thegns are vital: their drengskapr, vel, vithirdugr and styrkr can replace or reinforce yours during skill checks; their hylli represents their loyalty and contentment with your leadership. They can also support you in battle, using unique tactics, and have their own story-goals, plot-lines and quests. Think of them as supporting characters, or key members of your party.
The length of your voyage and the time since your most recent raid will also feed into crew contentment, which should be checked fairly regularly. The longer you are away sailing, of course, the more you risk bad weather when you return home, and the more you risk missing your harvest, putting your winter food stores in danger. Pretty key statistics, then.
This all gives the book a real solo role-playing-game flavour, with so many details to track. Yet so far, I’m convinced I’m balancing this out with the depth and colour of the world and the stories that are being told within it. I’ll have to share some more of that soon, and take your input.
Choice is a powerful tool of engagement. Training as a teacher in the late noughties, I was taught that the epitome of classroom practice was the Early Years model of ‘choosing time’, which you may vaguely remember from your own start at school. Lay out engaging learning activities in engaging ways and allow the young learners in your care to move between them at will, following the impulses of their own curiosity and the rhythms of their own attention. The biases in the University Education Department were historic, with lecturers and mentors frequently harking back to the pre-1988 period before the National Curriculum standardised Primary School course content. They were philosophical biases too, based on the still-powerful writings of Piaget, Vygotsky and their countless disciples in the British education system. But they were also biases in tune with the popular psychological dictum that had become mainstream by the end of the twentieth Century: give people choices, and they will make responsible decisions. The Labour Party’s landslide victory in 1997 ran on a slogan of ‘Education, Education, Education’ and all around echoes of this idea could be heard and read. Privatising services was justifiable since the consumer would have an increase in choice, and would make responsible decisions…
It all feels rather naive in a world in which political and societal stability seems under constant threat from populist politicians and demagogues. Journalists seem to believe that we are once again in the age of the mob and that we are under the influence of people with the skill to whip up emotions, unbalancing what the supposed responsible, sensible, rational decision-making of the general public and herding them into Brexits, panics, xenophobias and surrenders of their own power and agency.
But reflecting on this as a teacher and a specialist in writing choice, I have a few thoughts.
Choice was always emotional. In the classroom, children can only rarely be trusted to follow their own preferences, and even then, it must be within bounds defined by their educators. No teacher or school can can provide enough options for all learners, or all readers; some children will want to play or exercise outside, out of supervision (!). And then there are the children who want to test the limits of choice-and-consequence. ‘I know we’re not meant to do this, but what if we do?’
This recent, and amusingly-structured, article in the New Yorker by Leslie Jamison is excellent, and she quickly gets to the point that so many theorists of choice, both teachers and writers, seem to miss: people like to choose badly. It’s the old ‘What-happens-if-I-press-this-red-button?’ temptation. (I have a guilty memory of curiously and needlessly pressing an airline steward button on a flight sometime in 1991 or 2 that seems to be burned into my amygdala. I remember her face, the dim light of the plane cabin, and the smell… And the acute embarrassment. I would have been around 6 years old and very English indeed in my social discomfort.) I have observed children reading and writing choice-based fiction explicitly for the ‘wrong’ choices: they love to play with a sudden death, an unfair, tricky author’s punishment and an unexpected consequence.
And this is where I think the largely-untapped education power of choice-based fiction: in the emotional engagement if the reader. Feel that a consequence was disproportionate to a choice? Life is unfair? You’re likely to remember what you chose, hanging your memory on an emotional hook of resentment. And you might not make that mistake again.
If I were to design a series of choice-based education materials based around a single topic, I would first aim to engage the emotions of my reader and invest them in what they were reading. I’d want them to be curious, but also playful. I’d need my reader to appreciate that the story or environment in which they found themselves was not a genuine free space with unlimited options, but a collaboration of agency, in which they accepted the author’s limits and in which they were granted in turn a specific type of power. Yet part of the deal, if the experience is to be attractive to a reader, is the right to explore, to play and to knowingly make bad decisions, both to see what the author has chosen in the way of consequences and to think about it yourself – to see if you agree.
And that’s how I genuinely try to build my classroom. I currently teach 9-10 year-olds. It’s also, from one perspective, how my Steam Highwayman works, and how Saga seems to be developing. There’s a relationship with my long-term love of Science Fiction – or Speculative Fiction, as I think the genre is better named. Speculative Fiction has space for your classic or near-future Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Alternate History – a parcel of some of my favourite genres. Back when I was a teenager reading at speed through Asimov’s oeuvre, I realised that his formula, as a scientist writing, was to take a hypothesis and to experiment with it, through the medium of a story. What if robots were conscious human-analogues? How would that really work in society? How would their systems be governed? Then he would test the edges – make intentionally bad choices – and see the stories go wrong, characters imperilled or killed or disappointed – but explore the idea.
Alternate History does a similar thing, even more extremely than Historical Fiction. I love the rich world of O’Brien’s Master and Commander series, which seems to ask ‘What if the men of Nelson’s navy were pretty much like the humans we see and know today?’ and then pursues the hypothesis for twenty-one books. Alternate History then asks, ‘What if it had been like this?’ Three perspectives on a Nazi victory in World War II – Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Deighton’s SS-GB and Harris’s Fatherland – run parallel experiments with some strikingly similar results, each beginning from a fundamental Bad Choice.
Play is the Highest Form of Research
Albert Einstein (according to the internet… and also not)
Speculative or Choice-Based Fiction should be a place to explore – a place for ‘learning play’. The Einstein quote (above) that gets thrown at toddler groups and university students alike here is almost certainly a misattribution or, at best, a paraphrase. (There’s a short discussion of its possible origin here). Hyperbole aside, play can be research, and if the space is safe enough to intentionally make bad choices, then there has to be an element of playfulness present. But in a written book or an authored Choice-Based educational programme, there is only an illusion of experiment for the reader: the author has already decided upon the consequences. It is the author who is really playing – really experimenting – not the reader. If the reader wants to experiment with seeing what happens when they make new bad choices, or if they disagree with the author’s consequencing, they must graduate to creating their own Choice-Based fictions and be prepared to defend their own structures of choice.
An educator has a responsibility to their student. For a learner to experiment open-endedly, without plan, structure or system will result in a mass of findings – data – and emotions that they will struggle to use. But to lead a student along a path, using a collaboration of agency invites questioning and challenge: I love to hear my students or readers disagree, when they say ‘I don’t think that should happen…’ in response to the consequence I have suggested. That’s fine – they simply need to be able to tell me what they think should happen, and begin their own choice-and-consequence chain.
While looking on Pinterest for an amusing image of this much-bounced-about quote, I came across another that terrifies me a bit, and not just because of the ugly comma in the centre where a semi-colon or a nice conjunction would be so much clearer: “I never teach my pupils, I only provide the conditions in which they can learn.” I’m a father now, as well as a teacher and a writer of Choice-Based Fiction: I recognise the absolute need to teach my children and my responsibility to be direct and unambiguous. Yet without the right conditions – more the illusion of choice, or shared experiment, or safe play – there will never be a genuine independence of learning.
In Saga, there are Kings and rulers scattered everywhere. This one, King Wihtred, rules the Island of Vecht, just south of Bretland – at least for the time being…
One of the pleasures of writing from a Viking perspective is trying to create names that sound or feel right – sometimes using combinations of old Norse, or translating toponyms, or making intentionally rough transliterations of the oldest names I can find for places. Some names are recorded, of course: the Suthreyar, the Northreyar, Jorvik and so on, and I find magical. Suthreyar in particular is very funny to me – I’ll have to write about it again.
I could never produce something actually accurate, but place names are always a mish-mash of different languages and cultures anyway, so all I’m aiming for is a map littered with beautiful sounds, which, if you think about or investigate, turn out to make some kind of sense. Any historians or linguists among my readers are more than welcome to stick their oar in!
Interested to hear more about this gamebook project, coming in 2023? Find out here. Haven’t seen the longer sample? Try this.
Yesterday I enjoyed attending Fighting Fantasy Fest 4 in Ealing, West London, organised by the inestimable Jon Green and company. Fantastic! Books were sold, signed and shared.
I also distributed around 50 copies of a sample sheet for my upcoming project, in partnership with Spidermind Games, and already there have been requests to see it from others who weren’t able to attend. So, without further ado, click here to download a sample sheet of SAGA and get a taste of what awaits.
I have a new page for the project here on martinbarnabusnoutch.com, which will host static information, while I’ll continue to write blogs about the writing process here, as I used to during Steam Highwayman III. And don’t worry, I’ll also update from time to time about the progress of the next three Steam Highwayman books: they’re far from abandoned. Our family trip to Devon earlier in the summer particularly got me thinking about some more content for Princes of the West.