Bare-knuckle brilliance!

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!

MarcoOmnigamer reviews Steam Highwayman

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…

Two Weeks to Launch

It’s only two weeks until the Kickstarter for Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis goes live! In 14 day’s I’ll be sitting here at my laptop, excitedly watching as old friends reappear and new backers (I hope!) discover the joy of adventure as a free-spirited Steampunk hero.

Kickstarter is always changing, and one new feature is the ability to watch upcoming projects! With this in mind, I’m very happy to share the link for the campaign. If you choose, you can be notified the moment the project goes live (currently scheduled for 7pm GMT, 23rd January), and you’ll have the best chance of bagging one of the strictly limited reward levels… I’ve had to limit the number of draw-ins (when a backer can be drawn into the illustration) after talking with Russ.

Russ and I have been enjoying our recent preparing for the interior illustration. If you’re interested to see some of the references we’ve been discussing, you could do far worse than to take a look at his Gallery Website – particularly this post which features lots of gamebook art from the 90s and the images I’m reposting below.

These have a real moody Victorian flavour – just what I’m looking for, for The Reeking Metropolis. This won’t be an exact example of what will be inside Steam Highwayman III, but they were some of the images Russ shared with me when expressing interest in the job. Do explore his site some more and enjoy his fabulous world-building which so complements the series he has illustrated.

Next week I’ll be providing some sneak previews of the rewards and backer levels I’ll be offering – so don’t go far! Remember – YOU are the Steam Highwayman!

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?