Alea iacta est.

Make a MOTORING roll of difficulty 13…

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.

Russ. Nicholson.

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!

What’s possible with a few strokes of the pen…

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.

Steam Highwayman III Kickstarter Campaign Announcement

At last! Steam pressure is up, tyres are checked and the velosteam is prepared for the Steam Highwayman’s third adventure, Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis. The Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the illustration and publication will run from 7pm (GMT), Thursday 23rd January 2020, until Saturday 22nd February.

Over the next month, I’ll be revealing more about the campaign, including:

There’s plenty of time to have your say about what you’d like to see in the upcoming book, as I’m still writing it, as well as sharing your ideas about the Kickstarter itself.

So put the 23rd of January in your calendar – I can’t wait to share more of the project with you!

Want to find out more about what’s in Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis? Head over to the dedicated page.

How long is a net of string?

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.

Twine Highwayman

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.

The Gamebook Ecosystem is Growing…

I’ve been spending time finding an illustrator to work on the internal art for Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis, writing briefs and reference documents and leafing (digitally) through portfolios. It’s a tough job, as I’m having to build new working relationships and plan for a wide range of outcomes to a new Kickstarter. The affordability, quality and deliverability of the illustration is the primary concern of my campaigns, since I do my best to have the book written before hand.

One thing is clear – there are some great illustrators out there, ready and keen to work in gamebooks. Which is great, because the more gamebooks that are being published, of all kinds, then the more exposure the medium will have, and the greater chance of new readers discovering my own project.

And less selfishly, it’s plain to me that a high proportion of readers of choice-based fiction have dabbled in writing it too. Even if it wasn’t at school, like through my Write Your Own Adventure programme (which I used in class last week and will take to a neighbouring yeargroup on Thursday), there’s a good chance of your average reader of gamebooks being a hobbyist writer too.

Over the last few years I’ve met many of the people engaged in independent gamebook writing and publishing, largely based around the Fighting Fantasy fan community. Among them, Steam Highwayman Backer #5, Mark Lain, has today launched his own Kickstarter Campaign to raise £3000 to produce his gamebook, Mistress of Sorrows. Last year I enjoyed the first volume in what he’s called the Destiny’s Role series, and if you’re interested in reading more or in supporting the independent publication of gamebooks, why not head over to the campaign page to take a look? He’s working with some talented artists and seems set to fund in a very short time.

Nethundical Adventures

Duty Vessel by Vadim Voitekhovich

I’ve been writing the Steam Highwayman’s encounters and adventures with His Imperial Majesty’s Nethundical Corps over this weekend: nice to broach an original subject. Steampunk submarines are their own subgenre, chiefly focused around different interpretations of the Nautilus from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. However, Vadim Voitekhovich’s interpretation of a steampunk sub is much more to my taste than the baroque, pointy sort of thing I often see. Like his airships, Voitekhovich’s subs are weighty, bulbous, and curiously animal. It’s something like this that I imagine moored in rows off Deptford Creek, just along from Greenwich, where moonlit launches carry troops and supplies out under the cover of darkness.

If you haven’t come across Voitekhovich’s work before, do look him up. His particular perspective has crept into Steam Highwayman in all sorts of places: particularly his street scenes, his steam road vehicles and his juxtaposition of old and new. There’s also something reminiscent of Sean Tan’s fantasy cities and technologies, such as drawn in The Arrival, in his work. He’s a sought-after painter as well as a military re-enactor, so no wonder his images have such realism.

But back to my own work: The Reeking Metropolis has been paused for a few weeks while I started a new job (as you can see from this graph) but a combination of deep thinking and reading some other gamebooks has spurred me on to create some new, steamy, and really original content for the book. I’ll be disappointed if I’m essentially just redrawing a Victorian London, so things like the invention of a submarine navy are helping me stay excited about such a long project!

At Fighting Fantasy Fest III (which I attended a few weeks ago, and which still deserves a write-up) I picked up several gamebooks, including Oliver Hulme’s Valley of Bones. I’ll produce a full review sooner or later, but it’s the first of the books from FFF3 I’ve been working through and it’s given me a lot to think about. Like Steam Highwayman, it’s written in homage to Fabled Lands (or to rip it off, as Jamie Thomson joked when he saw us side-by-side) but there are many differences. Reading someone else’s parallel take on an open-world gamebook has really helped me to see what is special about Steam Highwayman, and what I love about it, so thanks to Oliver for that extra burst of semi-competitive enthusiasm!

Fighting Fantasy Fest III

In just under two weeks’ time I’ll be at Fighting Fantasy Fest III, in Ealing, to showcase Steam Highwayman and to meet up with others in the gamebook community. FFF3 is a small convention born out of the international appreciation for the incredible Fighting Fantasy gamebook series – the ones that probably did the most to popularise gamebooks in the UK, and possibly worldwide. People come from all over the world to meet authors and illustrators of the original 54 books, including Jon Green, who organises the event.

But FFF3 isn’t simply backward looking. It’s also the hub for the future of the gamebook renaissance in the UK. Dozens of writers of self-published or amateur gamebooks, of a wide variety of styles, will be attending. Some are members of the Gamebook Authors Guild, a new group for independent writers, and some are simply fans of the original Fighting Fantasy series who are flexing their own muscles. At the previous convention, Fighting Fantasy Fest II in 2016, I met James Schannep, who writes the Click Your Own Poison series of interactive novels, as well as Jon Ingold, narrative director at Inkle. This was also the very first place I publicised Steam Highwayman: Smog and Ambuscade, and the organisers were good enough to let me flyer recklessly as well as hand out some freebies and sample pages.

I’ll have a stall and Smog and Ambuscade and Highways and Holloways will be available for purchase, but I’ll also be publicising the upcoming Steam Highwayman: The Reeking Metropolis Kickstarter campaign. Attendees will be able to see the smoking, shining Ferguson Velosteam by Captain Seekerman in all its 3d-printed glory and even get a glimpse of some limited Kickstarter reward samples…

I’ve also been honoured to be asked to conduct an interview with Chris Achilleos, the legendary fantasy artist who painted the covers for Armies of Death, Temple of Terror and other Fighting Fantasy books, amongst a varied and massive oeuvre. That’ll be at 3pm (15:00) in the Weston Hall.

There are still tickets available online, so if you’re interested in the cutting edge of printed interactive fiction, or in the nostalgic wonder of the Fighting Fantasy Series, why not come along?

A Cover for The Reeking Metropolis

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.

Three books – one adventure!

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!

Speed the Revolution

I’ve been working on everything but the stories of Steam Highwayman III recently – other writing contracts, preparations for my next Kickstarter, school work, and learning to change nappies and recognise the different cries of my baby daughter. But at last I’ve been able to spend a steady couple of days with my mind in the world of Steam Highwayman, and the results have been exciting.

When I spend too long at a stretch trying to hack out plot for Steam Highwayman, I can really dry up. The style and structure of gamebook writing means that there is a constant need for new ideas – alternate possibilities, fresh starts, new encounters. But after having a break, I can find that all sorts of ideas have percolated through from my subconscious, creative mind and are ready to type straight up.

I’ve been writing the sequence that might bring the whole Steam Highwayman saga to a close – if you choose it. Revolution is pretty much a one-way street and even for a nimble velosteam rider like yourself, there are events from which there are no going back.

The questions that will face you are challenging ones: do you consider the Compact for Worker’s Equality trustworthy in their intentions and methods? Do you think their preparations are sufficient and their plan likely to succeed? Are you personally ready to put aside the life of the road and put yourself at the service of the people?

Or was your alliance with the Compact only ever cynical and self-serving? Is it time to cash in your chips, take a reward from the Constables and see the whole bunch of these dangerous anarchists locked up?

I love the little, strange options that you encounter riding through the villages. But in the City, you’ll have to face bigger questions with much bigger, more permanent consequences.

Sewing Story Seams

One of the innovations that I – and many others – really respect in the Fabled Lands series is the way in which Morris and Thomson connect narratives across volumes. As a reader, I’ve always found it incredibly satisfying to travel to a new land, a new city and a new volume and find that the events there respond to my choices made hours, days or weeks previously, in a different book, on a different continent and in a different context. Obviously this was also one of the techniques I have chosen to mimic in Steam Highwayman and one I am very proud of getting to work. When I explain how a gamebook works to new readers, they may make impressed noises, but when I explain that choices made in one volume have consequences in other volumes – volumes later, or even earlier in the series – then I see that mindblown look.

I don’t just do it to feel smug. I really consider this one of the most exciting and interesting ways of using interactive narrative, because there’s a lot more to the technique than simply recording progress with a codeword and checking for that codeword in another passage – although that is exactly the mechanism the authors of Fabled Lands and I use. The skill comes in writing just enough linking reference that the reader remembers what sparked the narrative development off – but not too much, giving the reader the mental task of drawing connections and causal links between events. Sometimes the book can make these links explicit, but at other times I prefer to leave them mysterious and tantalising. People rationalise the same information in different ways and I love to hear my readers explaining their understanding of what caused what.

But now to the nitty-gritty. Writing these things is challenging – another reason I use them! For the volume currently under construction, The Reeking Metropolis, I have notes and references for more than forty narratives of different sizes that overflow from the other volumes into this one. All roads seem to lead to London, at the moment. Some of these are short references – characters that you met in Smog and Ambuscade that mentioned they were trying to reach London, where they hoped to make their fortune. A single passage can resolve this story, as you discover whether they really did strike it rich. Others are much larger, multi-plot strands of story that I haven’t even really decided how I want to use, like the Revolution narrative that powers your interaction with the Compact for Workers’ Equality. Then there are the stories that I ran out of space to tell and the mysteries I haven’t thought of answers for yet.

But the fascinating thing is that some of these are the very first pieces of Steam Highwayman that I ever wrote – pieces like the redemption of the workhouse orphan, who ran away from his master to try to reach the big city. I even created a plot within Smog and Ambuscade that could only be reached after beginning a quest in Volume III, which has taken me two years to reach.

As a reader, I know that the more time that passes in the real world between a choice and the consequence, the more mystery and intrigue it holds for me. I can’t wait to hear what my readers think when, on receipt of The Reeking Metropolis, they realise that decisions they may have made two years previously are still limiting their options, or opening doors for them.

The photo above, by the way, is a piece of attractively peeling plywood hoarding along the Crossrail (Elizabeth Line) site a short distance from where I live. I get really excited by the way the process of decay creates textures far more complex, and yet balanced, than any human imagination could achieve.