Codewords

draft sh3 codeword list (part blurred)

When Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson invented the Fabled Lands codeword system, they created something that massively increased the interactivity of gamebook adventures.  Until then, gamebooks tracked a player’s activity through a combination of several techniques: simple branching, unique possessions and player memory.  Simple branching is straightforward: if the player was reading a passage that was only reachable after a choice, then the text could ‘know’ that this choice had been taken and could describe what had happened as a result.  However, this is a one-time and one-directional choice: no reader can go back and ‘undo’ their choice in the same read-through, and other branches of the narrative are closed to them until they die and restart.

Unique possessions, usually noted in an adventure sheet, can also identify whether a player has made certain previous choices.  If a particular horned helmet is only available within the loot of a dragon, then by asking the reader whether they possess it, the book is also practically tracking whether the reader defeated or avoided the dragon earlier in the story.  However, this can be complicated if a reader has to manage a limited inventory and decides to jettison an item that seems, at the time, unimportant.

Player memory was the least sophisticated and least reliable of these methods.  It was used when a passage simply asked the reader something like ‘Have you visited this place before?’  Problems here are the ease of cheating and the need to ask this question quite soon after the original event, meaning a short consequence delay, because readers can genuinely be quite forgetful.

Whereas codewords are something else.  An alphabetical list of neutral, arbitrary(ish) words that can be ticked – and unticked – are unlose-able, repeatable and undoable trackers that can be used by the writer of a gamebook to note any variable they choose.  Your reader defeats the dragon?  Get them to tick the codeword Basket.  Your reader returns to the dragon’s cave.  If they possess Basket, all they will find is an empty cave and a faint smell of sulphur… but if they don’t possess it, turn to passage 701 where the dragon is alive and well.  Until the reader visits these passages, the appearance of the word Basket in a list in the back of the book doesn’t even hint at the mortality of a dragon.  What do these all do, we wonder.  If Basket tags a dead dragon, could Burnish imply that the protagonist is pursued by a vengeful ghost?  (That one is very Dave Morris).

In short, codewords allowed Morris and Thomson to invent the open-worldresponsive gamebook.  It’s an elegant and a powerful system, and one which Fabled Lands doesn’t abuse by leaning on too heavily.  Unlike what I think I’ve done in Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis.

In the current draft, SH3 has 98 codewords…  Some of those track choices in other books and offer you the consequences of actions you took in other books – or that you will only be able to take when I write future books.  Some track non-player-character’s attitudes or destinies, locations, others track quest solutions, faction loyalties, the profitability of certain businesses and a whole lot of other stuff.  In fact, one of the powerful results of this system is the ability to cause side-effects: the reader kills a soldier and gains a certain codeword, meaning that when they return to that location, the soldier will be dead.  But what about when the player visits a nearby terrace and, possessing the same codeword, is directed to a cottage where a wife weeps over her lost husband and cries, knowing that she and her hungry children will soon be evicted for unpaid rent?  Now that’s interactivity.

But 98 is a few too many, so I’ll be trimming the fat in the next few weeks.  But until then, peer at a blurry section of the entire list and enjoy your own puzzle: what do these arbitrary words actually track?  What is possible in The Reeking Metropolis?

Kickstarter Update: Draft Complete

Over on Kickstarter I’ve just posted an update about the current project progress. It’s a full one, including some details about plans up until November as well as lots of remarks about work complete. Head over there and enjoy the details!

Over here is a fresh image from Russ, full of action and violence – great! You might spot the eponymous hero himself somewhere in the background (sensibly masked against infectious diseases) as well as a backer in the brawl…

Steam Highwayman III Update: Plenty of Progress

I’ve just posted another update over on Kickstarter, giving a bit more info about what I’ve been up to over the last fortnight, and where I mean to be in a fortnight’s time.

Black and white line drawing of the Holly Bush Inn, Hampstead
Russ’s rendition of a Hampstead Hostelry

Suffice to say, the draft of the gamebook itself is close to completion, and I hope to reach the end or a point near enough for editing and revision to begin, by the end of next week.

 

Meet the Reeking Metropolitans!

A new update for my Kickstarter Campaign of Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis has gone live.  It’s brief, but includes some tasty images of the sort of people you might mingle with in the muddy streets of London…  Ohh, let me take you by the hand, and lead you through the streets of London…  I’ll show you something…  Ahem.  Excuse me.

And here is Russ’s rendition of that wonder of nineteenth-century prefabrication, Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, which housed the Great Exhibition.  Not bad for a gardener from Derbyshire, eh?  Paxton, not Russ.  Russ is Scottish.  And not a gardener.  Not primarily, anyway.

Every Book Needs a Map

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?

She’s back…

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?

The Fight is On!

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.

On top of this, I’ve added some stretch goals to the project: head over and take a look.