94 Things to do in Smog & Ambuscade

Long-time player unsure if you’ve done all you can do as the Steam Highwayman? First-timer looking for a little help in finding an adventure? Stuck and unable to find a key item to complete a quest?

This new list of achievements (also available to print as a pdf) might help you if you’re looking for more.

Looking through the entire volume to create this hint / achievement list has been pretty fun: it reminds me of the feeling of writing Smog & Ambuscade for the very first time. There are some great adventures in there.

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?

This Intriguing Cornish Cove Inspires Underwater Steampunk Adventure…

How was that for a clickbait title? Did I do it right? Ridiculous headlines are everywhere now – A Peaceful Town Just 1hr 30mins from London Where Every House is Grade II Listed. Are these generated for us? Do the ones you get suggested look anything like that? Similar grammatical structure and differing content?

I saw a meme the other day that contrasted Google, the search engine of the noughties, which presented the contents of the internet, with the modern Google experience, that offers you some sponsored content, some where-to-purchase options, a ‘personalised’ suggestion and then finally what can actually be found out here on the internet. And it has contributed to a feeling I have that the internet is like this generation’s Tower of Babel… An almighty achievement of humanity striving to be like gods, communicating effortlessly together to do business and build to great heights.

But you know how that story ended. And I wonder if we’re on the cusp of something catastrophic, when all that we have begun to take for granted – functional supply lines, and a network of energy and information and commerce – gets tangled up by the complexity of the very system we have collectively created. The internet is chaotic and all the systems of distribution and communication that depend on it are efforts to impose order where there is no real underlying order. Like waves on a vast ocean – patterns that exist when you look for them, but overlaid on a mass of movement in a thousand directions.

But that wasn’t what the title of this post led you to think about, was it? That was merely my slightly gloomy musings on late-stage capitalism expressed. Because I also have to admit that the internet makes my career as a writer possible. Clearly, I can write and publish on a website and you can read this – and remote print-on-demand and storefront services get my books manifested from digital to physical and in your hands. But also in the actual writing stage. It looks a bit like this.

Here’s Roward’s Quay, just north of Chapel Point, south of St Austell on the south Cornish Coast. Months and months ago, when I was building a coastal map that would allow the diversification of the Steam Highwayman’s portfolio to include smuggling, I came across this tiny inlet with an intriguing name on the 1892-1914 OS 25inch series published by the National Library of Scotland. If you’re a regular reader, you know how much I love these. So I thought, yes, why not? Most of my interaction are small towns and fishing ports, but I’m going to need some interesting coves and cliffs for putting illegal cargo ashore. Roward’s Quay is in!

Fast forward to today, when I’ve been writing in East Ham Library and set myself the theoretical target of completing Barnstaple – the town in north Devon I’ve been populating with quests, sub-locations and so on. But something drew me to fill in a gap as I scrolled through my draft – this happens a lot – and I decided I’d visit Roward’s Quay.

The power of the internet is that not only can I access vintage maps, but modern ones – including satellite imagery like this drawn from Google. There are houses on Roward’s Point now – but you can see that little rectangular cove there still, isolated and perfect for a small boat putting contraband ashore. I wonder if anyone has posted any photographs?

Here’s Chapel Point from the South-West path, just north of Roward’s Quay. Hmm. Enchance 203 to 608.

Aha. Deckard, eat your heart out. Mr Darren Walden posted this image of seals hauled out on the shingle in February this year – 2024. Quite a fresh picture by Google Photos’ standard. And not only can I see the cove and better imagine exactly what it might be like to come ashore at the dark of the moon, but also I’ve got a brand new piece of information: seals like to haul out here! I think these might be Grey seals – but I am far from an expert. They look like nice content. Perhaps their barking could give you away to the Constables? Perhaps you could hunt them for their skins… Or is that simply a leftover piece of Saga I feel compelled to include.

Hang on. I’ve actually got two sea maps to write for Princes of the West. One on the surface and one… underwater. I’m unsure if this is going to make it into the final edit and I might actually hold it back as a stretch goal for the Kickstarter. But steampunk = submarines and has ever since Monsieur Verne… I recently gave Nemo’s Fury a read and was certainly prompted to try my own version of a submarine – or ‘nethundical’ adventure.

So what will you do at Roward’s Quay underwater… Imagining that the sea is clear enough to see through. I’d better include two new items (oh no! Not more items!): a diving suit and a harpoon. Excellent.

Perhaps this is classic feature creep, but I’ve also learned over the process of writing Steam Highwayman that I have to indulge my imagination at times: these can be some of the most fun-to-write and most original sections in my gamebooks. Readers like the random stuff – I had feedback a while ago about someone enjoying becoming a sky-high sous-chef in Highways & Holloways. And I need to write it, not simply the mechanical stuff that is more about balanced gameplay, to ensure I still enjoy myself doing this.

So I’m thinking that the undersea section of Princes of the West might total around 200 passages and they have some neat mechanics just for them. That makes about 25 pages or 20,000 words, which . A gamebook of 1522 passages or 276 pages (like The Reeking Metropolis) costs £6.46 to print at present. 1722 passages or just under 300 pages increases the print cost by 5.9% to £6.84 – but not shipping or handling fees. Seems like a classic case of increasing the core product’s value to all backers – something that good crowdfunding campaigns need to focus on, rather than adding on extras that only work to sap energy from the main outcome.

What do you think? Risky? Perhaps I’ll write a few underwater passages, plan a network and leave most blank. Then backers can also suggest content, if they really want to get deeply involved. I can think of at least one who would – Mr Sennet? Or is this a distraction?

Current progress is around 700 passages completed, by the way.

The Lure of the Sea

Oh dear. It’s got me bad. I must go down to the sea again – to the lonely sea and the sky. Here I am, simply wondering about creating a rich adventure for my Steam Highwayman readers, so that they don’t feel short-changed while exploring a Cornwall that never was… and the overflowing gameplay of taking your adventure to sea is causing serious feature creep.

And I’m just going to go for it! If I had an editor, perhaps they’d tell me to reel myself in and complete the main adventure of Princes of the West before going mad with new content and new gameplay. But that’s the joy of being my own publisher: no killjoy editors between me and my readership.

Perhaps this will be a dead end. I don’t know – like the large airship layer I wanted to include in Highways & Holloways, but couldn’t fit within a sensibly-sized volume. Perhaps this will have to be a stretch goal in an eventual Kickstarter. One thing’s for sure – the fun I had creating a crew and boats and weather and cargo in my stalled Saga project is still sloshing around in my imagination, looking for an outlet… together with pieces of Sid Meier’s Pirates! Gold, Das Boot, Aces of the Deep and any number of nautical dreams…

Torpedoes? Very steampunk. A wide variety of fish to catch? Why not? Open-world means open-world. Nice peaceful fishing… not smuggling at all. Submersibles? Maybe secretly… Or not-so-secretly, as they’re just too fantastic and central to the genre. What else? Squids? Sharks? Whales?! Underwater wrecks??!?!

You see the problem.

Decapod distractions

No, I’ve not been obsessed with lobsters for a whole month. But it is a full four weeks since I have been able to put any time into Steam Highwayman IV: Princes of the West, currently in draft. Since Delemand the Bull, I’ve been busy with my other work, ministering at church, raising my family and taking some holiday.

But today I’m back with a vengeance. A rest is good: by the end of March I was getting dry and rather frustrated with the difficulties of structuring a project as large as Steam Highwayman IV. A view weeks without directly thinking about it has allowed some things to rise to the surface – and one of those is lobster-potting.

Steam Highwayman was never meant to be simply a combat-based robbery simulator: the name was the best fit for an adventure within a realist Steampunk world. Originally I planned parallel tracks, a la Fabled Lands, for your main character: you could be a gambler, a rat-catcher, a chimney-sweep, a detective etc… In the end, each of these has become a minor quest within the Steam Highwayman world – and to be honest, I doubt Steam Ratcatcher would have grabbed as committed an audience or proven to be as sustainable a project.

But Cornwall isn’t Cornwall without the coast, and the coast isn’t the coast without fishing. Or lobsters. Taking Steam Highwayman to sea, not just along a river, like in the first three books, will prove to be a big piece of work. Fabled Lands and Legendary Kingdoms have both done it, with varied success – some of which I mean to mimic. But unless the Steam Highwayman can skipper a craft out beyond (or below…?) the Imperial blockade and bring back contraband, I’ll miss the greatest opportunity of a Cornish gamebook: smuggling. And the flipside of smuggling is fishing.

So lobster-potting – which is a little more about patience, rather more static, and certainly as luck-based – is my starting place. And to be honest, isn’t there something very steampunk about lobsters? I just read The Swordfish and the Star here in the library, which was really a sort of third-person collected memoir of Cornish life, and a great deal of it was about the hard lives of western Cornish fishermen.

It’s also been a bit of time to take stock. My self-built website shop, the Highwayman’s Hamper, has begun to make profit, and I’ve been sending off the remaining copies of the Gormley-Watt Touring Guide. I’ve invested some of those takings (each sale makes me double what an Amazon or bookshop sale makes me) into a trader’s spot at the upcoming Fighting Fantasy Fest 5 in Ealing, hosted by Jon Green. At this rate, I might not have too many remaining Touring Guides to sell, but I have a lot of loose maps, and it’s always great to be present in person at this event: it is really the only convention for gamebooks anywhere. Two years ago, I was bringing samples of Saga… Back at Fighting Fantasy Fest 2, my first, I was dropping flyers for the Kickstarter for Steam Highwayman: Smog & Ambuscade and giving free samples to influencers…! I’m very grateful to Jon for all he’s done to keep the flame burning in the recent decades, as he bridged the gap between the first golden age of gamebooks and the current renaissance, as well as running the convention.

In fact, if you fancy supporting him and the subject takes your fancy, he is currently kickstarting the most recent in his series of Ace Gamebooks: Shakespeare Vs Cthulu: What Dreams May Come.

But I’ve got to get back to lobsters before I can get onto Kickstarter again. I love running a crowd-funding project – I’ve discovered that they’re a part of this career of being an independent author that I actually really enjoy – and I’d love to get SH4 up there before the end of the year… So I’d better finish with the lobster-potting, the smuggling, the ambushes, the main quest, the inter-book links, the beer descriptions, the illustration briefs, the cover illustration brief, the marketing preparations, the playtesting, the issuing to playtesters, the editing and correcting…

Delemand the Bull

Why should you buy my next Steam Highwayman adventure (when it’s finished)? Because you get to participate in a cattle auction!

Delemand the bull is one of my favourite sequences in The Princes of the West. It’s one of those stories that has swollen to fill twenty passages or more without even testing me. You can hear a rumour in one of several pubs about a farmer forced to sell his prize bull to pay his taxes… and then take it from there. Go see Ralph Chambercombe for yourself and try to help him out? Head to the cattle market and watch the auction? Bid for the bull yourself and squander your hard-won, er, hard-stolen cash on a pedigree breeder that you can have absolutely no use for and then use him to terrorise those who deserve it?

Gateridge Blackjack X545, 3-year-old pedigree Aberdeen Angus sold by JA & PE Dickinson of Market Harborough at Melton Mowbray Market Cattle Auction, 28th February 2024

There was an oversize bull in Cities of Gold and Glory, my favourite of the Fabled Lands books, famous for his massive stamina and the hilarious response of the farmer should you ever defeat the bull in battle. Was there even a Russ Nicholson illustration? (Just checked, and, yes there was, and the original brief by Dave Morris has been recorded too. Can’t find my copy though, so any really keen reader is super-welcome to add one in a comment.)

When I was twenty-two and qualified as a teacher, but yet to accept a paid position, I spent about six months on the dole in north Leicestershire. I went to collect my weekly benefit from Melton Mowbray Job Centre, on a Wednesday. Which was market day. And market day in Melton Mowbray is still a real market. One week, I went into the cattle auction, and watched as the followers of a dairy herd were sold off, some at bargain prices that I still remember. And then the final sale – the bull.

He was an Aberdeen Angus, as many dairy bulls are. His calves by all the various mothers are of secondary value to the milk they demand, but as Friesian/Angus crosses, their carcasses have more meat and are worth more. Although this was fifteen years hence, and I understand that there have been a few changes in dairying since.

Anyway, I had been helping a neighbour pasture and stall her fourteen Angus in the previous months, including one tragically short-lived but very highly-bred (inbred) young bull we called Ebenezer. My neighbour, Anne, needed a name beginning with E to match the pedigree line, and I suggested Ebenezer because I had got into cattle after she asked my dad if he could spare a son for a short while every day for three weeks to help a calf stand and relearn to walk. He had been born weak and then caught a cold and was shuffling around his stall with his rear legs extended and his front bent – essentially scraping through the straw on his knees. Anne had had one of her own knees replaced recently and the other was due for surgery, so she wasn’t really up for lifting a forty-kilo calf to its feet. So that was my job over Easter.

Sadly, Ebenezer, though genetically valuable, was a high-risk investment. His inbreeding had weakened him and when he was autopsied, the cow coroner discovered that he had not enough stomachs, and thus had never managed to gain enough nourishment after weaning. Poor thing.

The bull I saw sold at Melton Mowbray sold for a colossal amount of money. I saw a Jersey cow and her calf sold for £700 together a short while before, but the bull made something like £100,000.

Cracking progress on Steam Highwayman IV

What is a good day’s work on Steam Highwayman IV like?

07:00 – Get up, get dressed

07:30 – Eat breakfast (black pudding, beans, toast, black coffee)

08:00 – Take daughter on the bus to school

08:45 – Drop daughter at school and speak to teacher about her excellent reading skills (daughter’s, not teacher’s)

09:05 – Arrive at library and settle in

09:30 – Write. And eat a packet of crisps, an apple, two Tunnock’s bars, a chicken sandwich, drink a flask of hot chocolate and a large bottle of water as I go. Sort of elevenses…lunch…snack…keep going

14:30 – Stop writing and shake off the daze

Result? A new page on my website and around 3000 words of the book drafted.

A slice of my progress spreadsheet

The original and best

I’ve been working hard on Steam Highwayman IV over the past months – having reached about 50,000 words last week. Some rearrangement in my work schedule means that I can now spend around 5 hours on both Monday and Tuesday in the library at East Ham, where there is a ‘silent study’ (‘work-from-the-library’) zone with a great, productive atmosphere. My daughter and I take the bus up to her school, I drop her off, take a fast fifteen-minute walk and set down to work until it’s time to collect her. Some days I even manage to eat lunch.

But looking ahead to your adventure through Cornwall and Devon doesn’t mean I should ignore the beginning of this whole saga. I was recently reminded of the biblical ‘law of first mention’ – that where an idea is first mentioned in scripture is the best place to start with your understanding of it. Well, the Steam Highwayman was first mentioned in Smog & Ambuscade, as was the Ferguson velosteam, Dr Smollet, many of my mechanisms and much of the world-building. In short, this is where it all began.

So I hope you can forgive me if I don’t yet think that enough people have met the Steam Highwayman, or realised that they themselves can don the tricorne and spend an evening robbing the rich and riding the midnight roads. If they did, surely many more would put aside their mesmerising devices, stop scrolling and start rolling!

In an attempt to boost sales, I’ve decided to make a short-term, limited offer. I have multiple A2 maps and some custom dice remaining from Kickstarter rewards, so increased printing costs have forced me to increase the price of the gamebook, I think I’ve made a great package in the Steam Highwayman Starter Pack. And who knows, perhaps this is a great opportunity for you, my long-established supporter, to buy a book, map and dice for that friend you’ve wanted to share the adventure with for all this time?

Steam Highwayman IV progress

Does that sound as if it is written from personal experience? Ha! Sleepless nights and runny noses are a bigger part of my life as a father than ever before.

Three years ago, when snow lay on the ground and my daughter went outside with the cry ‘Dig, dig!’, my last Kickstarter for Steam Highwayman III was still in progress. It feels like far too long since I rode that particular pony… But then two years or so developing a Viking-themed adventure will do that for you.

Steam Highwayman IV: The Princes of the West has just reached 40,000 words in draft. That’s about 4/15 complete – call it a bit more than 25% written. That’s taken me 30 writing days, spread over a complete project length of 122 days, although I began planning looong ago. Even back when there was snow on the ground and my daughter spoke in mere monosyllables.

What are the standouts for SH4? Well – the interplay of several key characters, their rivalries and power-play is one. I committed to that with the plural ‘Princes’ back when I drafted the titles of my six book series in 2016… But Cornwall is proving excellent fun to write. I’m also seriously considering adding submarines.

The map for SH4 is wonderful. I’ll draw up a giant one, like I published for SH1, 2 and 3, and probably some smaller, regional ones too.

Hero of the Poor

~ 675 ~

“Bring me a pot of beer,” you reply, and seat yourself beside a couple of grumpy fishermen, who have clearly drunk themselves into uncaring insensibility.

When it comes, the beer is thin, sour and clearly watered-down.  “What is this?” you ask angrily.

“It’s our Silver Cat Pale,” replies the innkeeper.

“More like silver cat’s p-”

“It’s the best we can do, cully,” he interrupts.  “I ain’t ‘ad fresh malt in weeks.  An’ if the maltster ‘ad come through, which ‘e ain’t, on account of Scobley, I wouldn’t’ve ‘ad no coin fer it anyhow.”

Just them, the door slams open and a group of ruffians file in.  One marches up to the innkeeper and grasps him firmly,  knocking your beer onto the floor in the process.

“Nice ter see you,” says the ruffian – a heavily-set man sporting several gold ear-rings.  “Ready fer the next ‘instalment’?”

Watch and see what happens… 1087

“Leave this man alone.” 1106

“Hey!  You spilt my beer!” 1116

I watched The Mark of Zorro – the 1998 one – for the first time (!) last night. I always loved the Tyrone Power version, but the Banderas/Hopkins one strikes me as just as good. Music by James Horner, too. Swashbuckling, flamboyant and fun – just how Steam Highwayman is meant to feel – some of the time, at least.

Let’s see how much more fun I can have when I remember that I want your adventure through the wild west of Cornwall to feel like a Zorro movie.