And this is my best attempt yet at drawing out a legible, useful and atmospheric map for The Reeking Metropolis – out by the end of the year.
One thing I love about maps is the density of information – but that is also one of the things that makes them hard to create! This is very heavily based on the Ordnance Survey 1885-1900 One Inch map of London, available online courtesy of the National Library of Scotland. It’s not a copy or a screenshot, but a digital tracing, with my own exaggeration of the most important routes through the city for a desperate velosteamer.
It also includes my first attempt at using icons for several of the most important locations. Yes, I did begin with the pubs (which are almost completely written).
I had made a few prior attempts, but this seems to work because of the negative space around the irregular city ‘blocks’, which indicates the main roads and gives an impression of a much more complex city. Once again, like with every volume I’ve written so far, I’ve realised that I could have chosen a much smaller area for the reader to explore and still had a jam-packed book. So be it: I guess everyone writing open-world gamebooks (all 2/3 of us currently?) must feel like this. @Paul Gresty? @Oliver Hulme?
Anyway, I’d love some feedback from readers of Steam Highwayman. What works for you with the current maps in Smog and Ambuscade and Highways and Holloways? I’ve received some criticisms that these need more labels. Do you agree? Does every location – small and large – need to be identified on the map? Is that what you want in a map? And then, if you’re a backer who pledged for the large maps, do you feel the same? Please give me your views. Perhaps you have some specific critiques of the map above – or something that you think has to be included?
You’re not the only seeker of adventure to find your way into the Reeking Metropolis. That rascally lady of the burnt rose is back to stir up trouble among the wealthy… and she has her eyes on the greatest treasure in the capital. Will you become partners in crime or rivals? Will you earn her respect and friendship, or will the bump on your head from Cliveden Ball remind you of your grudge?
Something I’ve always wanted to do is to explicitly celebrate the pubs of Steam Highwayman. Every one featured in the series is based on – and usually, named directly after – a real, visitable pub in our very own timeline. And now that the Kickstarter for Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis has raised an incredible £10,000 in pledges, I’ll be producing a trio of special maps and a printed guide to the regions, which will feature reviews of every single pub.
The page above is my first attempt at a mockup, and it has its own story to tell. The image is my own pen and ink, but heavily inspired by a certain poster I once saw in an Oxford bookshop…
When I was still in the process of writing Steam Highwayman I: Smog and Ambuscade, before had any experience of publishing or working with an illustrator, I was looking for someone to draw my world and the pictures for my gamebook. I knew a few illustrators and I had received some help refining exactly what I was looking for and writing a brief, but I had no strong leads. The people I knew weren’t about to jump into a new project, or to draw what I was looking for: monochrome, classic, pen and ink, with an exciting sense of movement and a realistic take on steampunk. Where to find such an illustrator.
One evening as I was praying on the balcony of our flat, I distinctly heard the word ‘Oxford’ in my mind’s ear. It popped into my head accompanied by a sudden sense of peace and a release from the worry I’d been accumulating about how I would ever find myself a collaborator. So the very next day, I drove to Oxford.
I didn’t have a particular plan or destination, but reached Oxford around lunchtime. I walked around for a short time and entered Blackwell’s art shop. There, just inside the door, was a fine poster of the pubs of Oxford, drawn in pen and ink, in a fine, confident style.
It took me a little while to work out what I should do, but I eventually plucked up the courage to speak to the person behind the desk and to ask if the illustrator of the poster was local, and if they knew how I could contact them.
“This poster?” asked the young man behind the counter.
“Yes,” I replied.
“I’m the artist,” he said.
And that’s how I met Ben May, who designed the Ferguson velosteam and illustrated the first two volumes of my adventure: the power of prayer and a good pub drawing.
Russ has sent me a finished version of his first illustration for Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis, and I love it! From the fancy footwork to the flying gobbets of blood, the leashed dog and the multitude of hats.
I’ve also released another five slots at the SPONSOR A LIKENESS pledge level in the Kickstarter Campaign: that’s five more lucky backers who can be drawn into the final book by Russ.
It’s not a simple question: there are as many different definitions of steampunk is as there are steampunks – plus a few more. Then, the way this idea translates to the hypothetical, allohistorical building of a city as iconic as London could be interpreted in as many ways. For Steam Highwayman, set in something like our 1860s but following countless minor (and a few major) divergences, that means I fancy a heavily realist steampunk – Marco Omnigamer called it a ‘light fantasy’ and wished for a few more aliens and mad scientists. This is largely because of my original inspiration born from Keith Roberts’ Pavane, but also due to some of the tools I’ve used since then to help build my world, chief among them the historical OS maps available through the National Library of Scotland.
With this in mind, I’ve been keen to push some of the more fantastic elements of my world, so working and talking with Russ has been a great shove. I have to make real effort to prevent my adventures becoming too mundane and realistic – a recent criticism I’m mulling over – so I don’t want the illustrations for Steam Highwayman III to have the same problem.
So what do you think the Steam Highwayman’s London looks like? One faithful backer recently sent me a collection of images and suggestions, expressing exactly this. We discussed the problem of the cliche of steampunk London, which uses buildings like ‘Big Ben’ (the Victoria Tower) and Tower Bridge as international shorthand for London, irrespective of the sense of them appearing in an alternate timeline. Neither have been – or will be – built in the Steam Highwayman’s world, but St Paul’s cathedral has been, so that can stay on the skyline. Maybe a world with less dominant railways might not build the Midland Hotel… but perhaps a similar building was built for other purposes? Are there other architectural landmarks that you think should feature in the illustrations? Let me know and some of them may well end up, thanks to Russ, in the book.
In just over a week, Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis will go live on Kickstarter. It’s taken a long time to plan this campaign, partly because I’ve chosen to add some merchandise into the equation, as well as offering two ways in which Backers can see themselves in the finished book.
The basic pledge is exactly like in my previous campaigns; for £15, backers can receive a copy of the gamebook with a written acknowledgement printed in the back. This is a little cheaper than the RRP and, of course, you’ll know that you helped create this. If you’re looking for extras, I’ve been working on custom dice, as well as beginning to redraw the maps from Smog and Ambuscade and Highways and Holloways. These will be printed, large (at around A2 size) and folded, together with a small booklet of further regional info, much like an OS map. For £30 you will be able to receive the book, three maps (one for each volume) and two custom D6.
If you don’t yet own your own copies of Smog and Ambuscade and Highways and Holloways, or if you’d like to make a pledge as a gift for someone, you can also have all three books at a considerable saving, with or without the maps and dice.
However, for an additional cost of £10 for one book or £20 for three, you can have a custom Wanted Poster printed into the front of your book. This is made possible by the power of print-on-demand, and your books will be completely unique – these will be true one-offs. The extra pledge will pay for the additional printing cost and contribute towards the rest of the project. You will be able to submit a digital image of yourself (perhaps a photo in costume, or even in everyday clothes) that I will edit into the poster, and this will be the first thing you see when you open your copy of The Reeking Metropolis.
Finally, there is a limited and exclusive opportunity to be drawn into the book itself, featuring as a character in one of the illustrations. This is going to be limited to only 5 backers, since it impacts directly on Russ’s timeline and on the whole budget. But it’s something I’ve wanted to offer for years! As part of your pledge, you’ll receive each book, customised with a Wanted Poster, the three maps, dice and an art print of your illustration for your wall. After all, YOU are the Steam Highwayman!
If you’re not currently following the Kickstarter, head over there now. You’ll be reminded on launch and get a chance to pledge for your reward straight away.
Russ has sent me the first draft image for The Reeking Metropolis – and I’m sure you’ll join me in agreeing it’s a corker. Wow! I love the depth and the movement in this, as well as the character of all these figures, each one of whom could have a fascinating backstory. I asked Russ to produce something to illustrate a bare-knuckle boxing fight, but I’ve certainly got more than I asked for: I’ve got another piece of the Steam Highwayman world, inspiring me to write more stories and characters. Now that’s good value.
It’s massively exciting to see this here, as it feels like the beginning of the existence of the third volume of Steam Highwayman adventures as an entire book. I’ve had passages, and a cover, and now have the first internal illustration. I’ll be revealing some more of Russ’ work during the upcoming Kickstarter – don’t miss it! – but there’ll be plenty held back to surprise you once you hold the book itself, hopefully later this year. If you haven’t yet found the pre-launch page, why not head over and follow along?
To work with a legendary illustrator like Russ is a real privilege. He recently featured on the Vintage RPG Podcast talking about his work, on what he says is his first ever podcast. Fair enough considering he has a career spanning more than half a century of drawing!
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…
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.
Who draws the Steam Highwayman? Well, for The Reeking Metropolis, I’m incredibly pleased to announce that Russ Nicholson will be illustrating our hero astride the Ferguson riding through the fog and murk of Steampunk London.
If you’ve been a member of the gamebook community for any length of time, you’ll know Russ. Not only did he draw Fabled Lands, my own inspiration for Steam Highwayman, but he drew the very first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. In recent years he’s collaborated with gamebook author Jonathan Green, to complete the excellent Beowulf Beastslayer – which I whole-heartedly recommend, both here and in my Amazon review – and drawn the seventh Fabled Lands book, The Serpent King’s domain.
Russ reached out to me after seeing my online posts about seeking a new illustrator and expressed real excitement and interest in the Steam Highwayman project. The prospect of including his artwork within the my third book, as well as in the upcoming Kickstarter campaign, excites me enormously – as I hope it does you too.
This all adds considerably to the excitement of being able to offer original art and draw-in features as rewards for the SH3 Kickstarter. If you haven’t added your ideas to the reward survey, please let me know what you’d like to receive. So far there have been a few stand-out choices: lots of people are excited by the idea of large, printed maps and customised dice. More of this soon, but for now I’ll be continuing to refine and plan the Kickstarter campaign, as well as to write the second half of Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis. The campaign is currently scheduled for 23rd January – 22nd February and you’ll be able to pledge your support and choose a reward very soon.
But back to the illustration. What I’ve always loved about Russ’s work is his atmosphere: whether illustrating monsters in dripping caverns or smugglers beneath a glowing moon, he has a way of creating a scene that you can return to again and again, to breathe in the salt spray or the reek or the smoke. Here’s one of my favourites from Cities of Gold and Glory (Fabled Lands II).
What I love about this is the depth of space, the scale of the natural world – something I think Russ really excels in – and the little figures so carefully poised – all in quick, ready penstrokes. You can ready secrecy, movement, danger – and perhaps someone looking on. There are caves up in those cliffs – cave which Dave and Jamie never wrote into the book and which you can’t explore, but which have always intrigued me. The sequence with these smugglers is brief but memorable, and all the more so for Russ’s contribution.
Here’s another – this time from Beowulf Beastslayer. It displays Russ’ famous filigree style, his skill with detail and also his skill with likeness. There are at least two members of the online gamebook community drawn into this, as part of their reward for Jon Green’s Kickstarter, and Russ has told me that he’s keen to do some draw-ins for my project too. So if you’d like to see your face featured as the Lady of the Burnt Rose or Lord Hadrian Beaufort, Chief Constable, you’d better be quick with your pledge!
If you’re interested in seeing more of Russ’ art, why not take a look at the Facebook group celebrating his illustrations? And if you’re interested in seeing what he’ll do for Steam Highwayman, well, simply watch this space! I’ll be posting a few more updates about plans for rewards and the kick-off for the Kickstarter Campaign for Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis is 23rd January, 7pm.