Delemand the Bull

Why should you buy my next Steam Highwayman adventure (when it’s finished)? Because you get to participate in a cattle auction!

Delemand the bull is one of my favourite sequences in The Princes of the West. It’s one of those stories that has swollen to fill twenty passages or more without even testing me. You can hear a rumour in one of several pubs about a farmer forced to sell his prize bull to pay his taxes… and then take it from there. Go see Ralph Chambercombe for yourself and try to help him out? Head to the cattle market and watch the auction? Bid for the bull yourself and squander your hard-won, er, hard-stolen cash on a pedigree breeder that you can have absolutely no use for and then use him to terrorise those who deserve it?

Gateridge Blackjack X545, 3-year-old pedigree Aberdeen Angus sold by JA & PE Dickinson of Market Harborough at Melton Mowbray Market Cattle Auction, 28th February 2024

There was an oversize bull in Cities of Gold and Glory, my favourite of the Fabled Lands books, famous for his massive stamina and the hilarious response of the farmer should you ever defeat the bull in battle. Was there even a Russ Nicholson illustration? (Just checked, and, yes there was, and the original brief by Dave Morris has been recorded too. Can’t find my copy though, so any really keen reader is super-welcome to add one in a comment.)

When I was twenty-two and qualified as a teacher, but yet to accept a paid position, I spent about six months on the dole in north Leicestershire. I went to collect my weekly benefit from Melton Mowbray Job Centre, on a Wednesday. Which was market day. And market day in Melton Mowbray is still a real market. One week, I went into the cattle auction, and watched as the followers of a dairy herd were sold off, some at bargain prices that I still remember. And then the final sale – the bull.

He was an Aberdeen Angus, as many dairy bulls are. His calves by all the various mothers are of secondary value to the milk they demand, but as Friesian/Angus crosses, their carcasses have more meat and are worth more. Although this was fifteen years hence, and I understand that there have been a few changes in dairying since.

Anyway, I had been helping a neighbour pasture and stall her fourteen Angus in the previous months, including one tragically short-lived but very highly-bred (inbred) young bull we called Ebenezer. My neighbour, Anne, needed a name beginning with E to match the pedigree line, and I suggested Ebenezer because I had got into cattle after she asked my dad if he could spare a son for a short while every day for three weeks to help a calf stand and relearn to walk. He had been born weak and then caught a cold and was shuffling around his stall with his rear legs extended and his front bent – essentially scraping through the straw on his knees. Anne had had one of her own knees replaced recently and the other was due for surgery, so she wasn’t really up for lifting a forty-kilo calf to its feet. So that was my job over Easter.

Sadly, Ebenezer, though genetically valuable, was a high-risk investment. His inbreeding had weakened him and when he was autopsied, the cow coroner discovered that he had not enough stomachs, and thus had never managed to gain enough nourishment after weaning. Poor thing.

The bull I saw sold at Melton Mowbray sold for a colossal amount of money. I saw a Jersey cow and her calf sold for £700 together a short while before, but the bull made something like £100,000.

Cracking progress on Steam Highwayman IV

What is a good day’s work on Steam Highwayman IV like?

07:00 – Get up, get dressed

07:30 – Eat breakfast (black pudding, beans, toast, black coffee)

08:00 – Take daughter on the bus to school

08:45 – Drop daughter at school and speak to teacher about her excellent reading skills (daughter’s, not teacher’s)

09:05 – Arrive at library and settle in

09:30 – Write. And eat a packet of crisps, an apple, two Tunnock’s bars, a chicken sandwich, drink a flask of hot chocolate and a large bottle of water as I go. Sort of elevenses…lunch…snack…keep going

14:30 – Stop writing and shake off the daze

Result? A new page on my website and around 3000 words of the book drafted.

A slice of my progress spreadsheet

Steam Highwayman IV progress

Does that sound as if it is written from personal experience? Ha! Sleepless nights and runny noses are a bigger part of my life as a father than ever before.

Three years ago, when snow lay on the ground and my daughter went outside with the cry ‘Dig, dig!’, my last Kickstarter for Steam Highwayman III was still in progress. It feels like far too long since I rode that particular pony… But then two years or so developing a Viking-themed adventure will do that for you.

Steam Highwayman IV: The Princes of the West has just reached 40,000 words in draft. That’s about 4/15 complete – call it a bit more than 25% written. That’s taken me 30 writing days, spread over a complete project length of 122 days, although I began planning looong ago. Even back when there was snow on the ground and my daughter spoke in mere monosyllables.

What are the standouts for SH4? Well – the interplay of several key characters, their rivalries and power-play is one. I committed to that with the plural ‘Princes’ back when I drafted the titles of my six book series in 2016… But Cornwall is proving excellent fun to write. I’m also seriously considering adding submarines.

The map for SH4 is wonderful. I’ll draw up a giant one, like I published for SH1, 2 and 3, and probably some smaller, regional ones too.

Humiliation and pride in SAGA

In Saga there is a lot to balance: stand up too tall, and your overlord may take umbrage at your pride. Vikings were exiled from their homelands over real – or perceived – insults.

Yet your own folk want to see a leader full of DRENG and decision: your DOMR score tracks your standing with the folk of your own settlement.

Making these choices is about more than impulsiveness. Save that for the battlefield!

Vecht, Wihtred and Lodia

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.

A New Book coming very soon…

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.

100 Passages of a new gamebook

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.

Why so quiet…?

Yes, it has been quiet here at 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.


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?