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.
There’s a brewery in Steam Highwayman III that would like to expand. That’s nice, isn’t it? So your friendly ale-drinking hero is going to get involved, of course.
But how involved, exactly? If the Director is keen to offer independent pubs contracts and pay you a generous commission for each signature, would you do his bidding? What side will that put you on, exactly?
This is the question at the heart of my recent chunk of writing. I’ve passed 130 complete passages and have reserved a further 300 reserved: these are early days in the writing process, but so far I’ve sketched and reserved the vast majority of street and hub locations, written a large proportion of the ambushing and random traffic passages, and spent quite a lot of time creating some interesting pub interactions, particularly in Hampstead and Highgate.
There are a couple of complete quests in and a few loose trailing ends, but the cast majority of the story is to come. I’m thinking about a complete range of quests and interactions – tiny, spontaneous stories on the streets, quests that involve travelling across the map, larger ones that involve several decisions and then a couple of big stories you will keep bumping into. Behind the scenes, you see, are the great unwashed crying for Reform or Revolution, just as they really did in the 1830s. Then there’s the rivalry between the Guilds and the powerplay in court and Parliament. Nowhere is closed to our silver-tongued, sharp-bladed adventurer!
What would you like to see in the adventures of the Steam Highwayman? Let me know!
Smell the oil, the coal-gas and the hot metal once more: the Steam Highwayman is heading for the Reeking Metropolis itself – London.
I’ve been working on the navigational network that underlies Steam Highwayman III. I drafted a map and began on numbering it some time before Christmas, but now I’ve started the dog-work of creating the passages and links that tie all that movement together. Creating an explorable city is very different to adapting the country lanes and villages of Buckinghamshire for a map. Some areas need to feel like dense networks of streets, but I don’t want the reader’s journey through them to feel slow or boring, so there have to be some short-cuts, timesavers and asymmetrical routes to keep the movement interesting.
I’m using the excellent National Library of Scotland’s georeferenced archive of OS maps that I’ve blogged about previously, but I’m imagining some differences due to the departure point c.1785. For a start, ‘Regent’s’ Park is right out. Queen Maria’s Park seems a better fit for this timeline.
But what these maps really offer is the detailed alternate world of a London that has almost disappeared. Mews, old watercourses, slums and old bridges… The site of the London stocks (that’ll come in handy) and old Devonshire House…
Some of it is unchanged, of course. So as I was detailing a movement along Upper Thames Street from London Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge, not only did I realise that I should include a quest engaging with the Royal College of Arms, but that I also needed to give St Paul’s its place.
There’s only one melody that says ‘St Paul’s Cathedral’ to me. Not ‘Zadok the Priest’, not even ‘Jerusalem’, but the Sherman brothers’ ‘Feed the Birds‘.
Now what sort of self-respecting Steampunk would miss the chance to check on that old birdwoman and buy a bag full of crumbs?
Well, at this rate it’s going to be a long, detailed and intensely-researched book.
In two days time my second Kickstarter Campaign will be complete – and fully funded! In fact, the campaign is currently at 137% and more backers are still trickling in. Where will it all end?
And what have I been doing? Well, my daily task has been manually checking the several thousand passage links in Highways and Holloways. That looks like this…
The temptation to over-edit has to be fought. I’ve re-arranged one knot of roads, simplifying it to make navigation quicker and more straightforward. This was one of the few criticisms about Smog and Ambuscade and, honestly, one I can completely understand. One of the tricky things is that, having created the maps, ridden the roads and spent months writing the adventures, I can no longer trust myself as a standard of reading the navigation. I know exactly where places are and have, like a homing pigeon, a certain sense of direction, no matter what passage I am reading… So I’ll be relying on my playtesters in the next weeks to help me with this.
Tick, tick, tick, tick, scratch, flip, tick, turn, tick, flip, double-check. Why on earth did I allow the book to reach 1500 passages?
Immediately after the end of the campaign I’ll be heading to a meeting with Ben to make a full plan for the illustrations, and after that will come my backers’ chance to have a say in what gets drawn. So, expect several more posts in the next few days!
Wowee! What a week it’s been. Steam Highwayman II: Highways and Holloways has been live on Kickstarter for a week and 117 backers have already joined the project. Approximately 65% of those are backers from last year’s kickstarter and I’ll be so pleased to be acknowledging them again in the back of the book – but I’ve also see real growth, with gamebook fans, steampunks and kickstarter-lurkers all joining in.
Once again, Steam Highwayman proves to have strong international appeal. The aph here shows that nicely to date.
I’m right in the middle of editing, working with Ben on the cover and generally messaging the new backers as much as I can, but I’ve also been spending some time preparing for the autumn, when I hope to be running some ‘Write-Your-Own-Adventure’ workshops in primary schools. I’ve had success creating these books in each school I’ve worked in and even managed to create a book in 30 minutes with a class for an interview earlier this year – the observer commented that it was one of the best literacy lessons she had ever seen. I’ll be sharing more about that later this summer, as well as creating a new section of this website to host / attract professional traffic – ie teachers wondering who I am and what I do!
Anyway – payday has come for many and with that, a warning. The Steam Highwayman is no fool and lurks in wait: if you’ve been delaying your pledge, better do it quickly before the costs of living snatch your hard-earned cash away from you!
From tomorrow, Tuesday 17th July, you can fund your copy of the second book in the Steam Highwayman series: Highways and Holloways!
Set around Henley, Wallingford and the Chiltern villages, SH2 sees you take to the air on extended missions, engage in factional rivalry, encounter dozens of combats, meet a dangerous sky pirate, build new friendships and discover new secrets, find ghost-ridden vales, bitter noblemen, vengeful revolutionaries and inspired inventors!
The book is 1500 passages long – 50% more than Steam Highwayman I: Smog and Ambuscade – and interlinked passages allow you to continue your adventure and travel between volumes at will.
Who is the Steam Highwayman? YOU are the Steam Highwayman!