In Saga, there are Kings and rulers scattered everywhere. This one, King Wihtred, rules the Island of Vecht, just south of Bretland – at least for the time being…
One of the pleasures of writing from a Viking perspective is trying to create names that sound or feel right – sometimes using combinations of old Norse, or translating toponyms, or making intentionally rough transliterations of the oldest names I can find for places. Some names are recorded, of course: the Suthreyar, the Northreyar, Jorvik and so on, and I find magical. Suthreyar in particular is very funny to me – I’ll have to write about it again.
I could never produce something actually accurate, but place names are always a mish-mash of different languages and cultures anyway, so all I’m aiming for is a map littered with beautiful sounds, which, if you think about or investigate, turn out to make some kind of sense. Any historians or linguists among my readers are more than welcome to stick their oar in!
Interested to hear more about this gamebook project, coming in 2023? Find out here. Haven’t seen the longer sample? Try this.
Watch this space! I’m very excited to be able to announce an imminent publication from Sharpsword Studios. This one makes me very proud – and it’s quite different to what you might have read here on my site or in my gamebooks before.
Is that intriguing enough? I’ll be able to spill the beans in just a few days.
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.
Yes, it has been quiet here at martinbarnabusnoutch.com Here’s why.
Over on Facebook, there’s a relatively new group called Interactive Fiction & Gamebooks Discussion Group (Book Club). Catchy, eh? Well, since the beginning of August, I’ve been posting there every 2 days or so, sharing how Steam Highwayman was written and what I like about it, as well as responding to other readers’ comments. In fact,t the series has been the Club’s featured Book of the Month, so it would be rude for me not to be there!
Then there’s normal life! My two little children, Samuel (6months) and Teodora (26months) are getting some full-on family time, seeing as it is my summer holiday from my full-time teaching job. But just because it’s holiday time, doesn’t mean I’m doing nothing! Oh no. Aside from all the day trips and the park visits…
We moved flat (within the same area – in fact, the same building) and have been redecorating and setting up within a slightly bigger space, which includes a [tiny] desk for my laptop, so there will hopefully be [long-term] an easier writing schedule that doesn’t depend on tidying away for dinner (although I am sat on a dining chair).
And then there’s what I have been working on… Steam Highwayman IV, V and VI are in a gentle planning stage, I want to try to have all three planned out and will probably write them side-by-side, so they need time. Until I’m ready to tackle that, I have some contract work on the horizon that I will be very excited to post about, once I can. And an add-on to the Steam Highwayman project that I’ve posted about before – the Steam Highwayman App – has also been taking up time. I should have more details about that soon.
Then there’s been a steady trickle of readers ordering copies of the Gormley-Watt Velosteamer’s Touring Guide, which takes a regular bit of admin (buying online postage, printing, labelling packets and sending) and quite a lot of Happenings at our local church congregation, where I have some responsibilities.
So watch this space – and if you’ve missed hearing about some of these and would like to find out more, follow the links in the post.
Over on Kickstarter you can read my most recent progress report about the Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis project, including a little bit of background about the fine illustration you can see above these words, which is, of course, by the one and only Russ Nicholson.
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-world, responsive 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?
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…
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.
Something wonderful happened when I handed over design of the Steam Highwayman’s constant mechanical companion to Ben: I lost control. I’ve detailed the process by which Ben and I worked out what the velosteam could, then might, and finally should look like, elsewhere, but for a lone-wolf like myself, this was a massive step forward in my creative process. Typically I’m something of a perfectionist and that prevents me bringing projects to completion. Sharing ownership helped me to break this cycle.
The appearance of the machine was always going to be important. It would have been a complete cop-out to publish Smog and Ambuscade without a velosteam on the cover, and although I’m happy to leave a lot to my reader’s imaginations, including the appearance and much of the backstory of the hero of my gamebooks, the intentionally realist steampunk style I chose to borrow from Keith Roberts’ Pavane needed a velosteam design. It didn’t have to be completely plausible, but it did need to be unambiguous, legible and characterful.
Ben put a lot of hard work into that design and his solution of mantling the front portion of the vehicle was an inspired solution: it leaves a lot of the actual workings (including an improbable steering system, power transmission, water tank, boiler and firebox) to the imagination, but clearly communicates that this is a heavy, ironclad, steam-powered bicycle. And when he completed the alternate cover images for Smog and Ambuscade, I realised that the machine itself would become an iconic – perhaps the iconic – image associated with my stories.
Meanwhile, as Ben and I were hammering out the metaphorical boilerplate on the anvils of our imagination, two graphic novelists called Vincenzo Ferriero and Ray Chou were developing Skies of Fire. Like Steam Highwayman, Skies of Fire is a crowdfunded, steampunk (or arguably dieselpunk) publishing project. Whereas Steam Highwayman is of course a gamebook series, Skies of Fire is a compelling and attractive series of graphic novels, with a steadily growing international readership. I’ve been watching their Kickstarters from the sidelines with considerable interest, and if you’re interested in indie publishing, steampunk or graphic novels, I really recommend you do too.
In July 2018, Ray Chou posted a fascinating short article about his project. It included photographs and an account of the modelling of the Zephyr – the starring airship in Skies of Fire. I read this article over and over again, and then decided to do something really out of character: I reached out to the modelmaker who had built their airship and asked him whether he’d be interested in doing something similar for me.
Lo and behold, Captain Seekerman got back to me in a steampunk flash. He immediately recognised the quality of Ben’s designs and so we began discussions of what sort of model I might like, what purpose it might serve, how functional it could be – and the very practical matters of time and money. I had complete confidence in his ability to produce something that would do justice to my story world and the existing illustrations, particularly because of Ray’s blog.
I’ll be posting again about the details of Nate Seekerman’s process in turning the two-dimensional designs into an eighteen inch, three dimensional, smoking, LED-lit model, but for now all I want to do is to honour his professionalism, artistry and craftsmanship. We messaged frequently over a period of several months and just a few days ago I received the completed model. I haven’t been able to stop grinning since. It’s currently standing on my bookshelf here in our living room, quietly biding its time.
First of all, this is a display model, so I really look forward to bringing it with me to future Steampunk Events, conventions and readings, to give existing fans another look at the design and to catch the eyes of potential Highwaymen-to-be. It won’t be living packed away in a box. But the Seekerman velosteam also has a function as an inspiration to me as a writer. It is the physical proof of the quality of one of my own ideas, first transmitted to an artist to draw, and now to a modelmaker to sculpt. To see it riding out of my book and into reality – however small – is a wonderful feeling.
My current plans to exhibit the model do have a few limitations, however! My wife and I are expecting our first child this summer and I’ve turned down several invitations to read and appear at June or July steampunk events. This means that my next appearance for sales (and possibly reading) will be at the gamebook convention, Fighting Fantasy Fest 3, on the 31st August in West London. This may well be the first public unveiling of Nate Seekerman’s work. It’ll be great to see any gamebook readers or enthusiasts there – watch out for a lot more about FFF3 on here soon.
If you want to see more of Nate Seekerman’s work or you’re inspired to see him bring your story to life, have a look at the Seeker Design Group. And if you’re interested in finding out more about this model, where it goes or how it was made, just watch out for my next updates here on the website.