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)!
This morning I completed the hundredth passage of my current gamebook project. That’s a pretty nice feeling, as I’ve had to carve out a new pattern of writing time to achieve it and it’s been tough getting used to even earlier mornings. I’ve got a deadline to motivate me and lots and lots of research to lend wings to my fingertips.
What is it? Well, not Steam Highwayman IV. That’s still in planning stages: I mean to complete the plan for IV, V and VI together now that I know what I’m doing. So I took on another project in the meantime that is… different and yet similar.
I’m creating another open gamebook world with a different flavour. Like Steam Highwayman, it’s atmospheric, morally ambiguous, and written with a love of geography. But this time it’s not entirely my own project, so there’s a limit on what I can share.
However, that deadline means that there will be a lot more you hear from me about it this year. For now, I simply want to celebrate this milestone – it hasn’t been easy keeping a big secret – I am poor at keeping secrets generally.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
You know I love a graph. Here’s my interactive record of Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis as a draft. I have to track which sections are reserved or complete – or partially complete – on my spreadsheet as I go along, so graphing it is a natural development. Maybe it’s procrastination too.
The graph will be live on this post, also on the new SH3 page on this site, which at the moment looks pretty bare.
I’m hoping to finish a draft by the end of the summer. And that will probably be 1500-200 passages in length.
If you’re interested to see what other sorts of things I write, I posted a sci-fi short story earlier, set on the moon. I wrote it a few months ago and I’m pretty pleased with it.
Now that my gin is bottled, I’ve been putting in some time sketching passages 301-400 of Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis. Like with the two previous volumes, I began by laying down a web of interlinked location passages. This portion represents the east central portion of the map: Bethnal Green, Shadwell, Whitechapel and Shoreditch.
There is so much to write here in an alternate, steamed-up East End. Body-snatching, sweat shops, front-room industry, the London Docks… and the slums.
In 1896, a now-forgotten novelist called Arthur Morrison published an angry and brutally honest story called A Child of the Jago, set in a fictional slum based very closely on streets immediately adjacent to Old Nichol Street in Shoreditch. It follows the fortunes of Dicky Perrott, who scrapes through childhood and into a criminal survivalism that seemed unbelievable to polite readers of the day. This was at the end of the Victorian period, when the bad old days were meant to have been left behind. But they hadn’t been.
The text is available online and it makes tough reading. I don’t find it over sentimental or graphic – just frank. Morrison was trying to rub his reader’s noses in the reality of desperate poverty just streets away from their own lives, much in the way that we see independent documentary makers nowadays. But one result is that it really prevents me from being too sentimental or simplistic about the depiction of the poor in my own gamebook. There’s no way I can do justice to those realities in the little passages I use, but at least I hope to avoid cartoon poverty.
If you go looking online, you may find that there is a Covent Garden tailor that uses the name of Morrison’s book, which I find really quite distasteful, as I don’t think a romanticisation of the criminal dandies implicit in the clothing on sale is at all helpful. Or you may find one of the little maps that show the location of the Old Nichol. It was located on one edition of Booth’s Poverty Map, but by the publication of the more widely available edition, the Old Nichol had been cleared and replaced with social housing… that the original inhabitants could not afford, displacing them to other slums and destroying what community they had. Plus ca change, eh?
One more little detail: do you notice the thick red lines on the left? Shoreditch High Street. Up the top, St Leonard’s Church, whose bells say ‘When I grow rich…’ in the East End rhyme Oranges and Lemons. That’s a interesting place in itself, as the burial place of Shakespeare’s business partner and fellow actor, Richard Burbage. But you might recognise it as St Saviour’s from Rev, in which Tom Hollander did his best to minister to a desperately poor inner-city parish.
Shoreditch is entirely different nowadays, though, isn’t it? Hipsters and hamburgers and cold-press coffee and cycle shops. Well, to be honest, I think there’s still a lot of hidden needs and poverty in Shoreditch. It’s enough to make me wonder what the unseen, spiritual dimension is behind all of these stories. There’s something desperate there.