Interview with Martin Barnabus Noutch of the Steam Highwayman Gamebooks
Creator Interview Solo Gaming Interview Gamebooks

Interview with Martin Barnabus Noutch of the Steam Highwayman Gamebooks

Duncan Thomson
I particularly enjoy selling the books to parents and children (often a father and his son/s) at events - some have never experience roleplaying before, or steampunk, or gamebooks, and it's a privilege to think that my world is their introduction.

An interview with the creator of the open-world gamebooks Steam Highwayman. Continuing the solo gaming interviews and first one on gamebooks.

Chat with Martin of Steam Highwayman

Steam Highwayman is a series of open-world gamebooks set in a steampunk Britain, riding a steam motorbike, stealing from the rich and whoever else is around, and (maybe) helping the common people.

We have the background of Steam Highwayman, challenges and highlights of creating gamebooks, advice for creating gamebooks, and a the favourite real ale.

What was your gaming story before Steam Highwayman?

I grew up in a board gaming house - one of five children - and always preferred games that were open or narrative.  Aged 8 or 9 I encountered Sid Meier's Pirates Gold! on PC - my Dad had bought it for himself - and loved it.  I discovered gamebooks shortly afterwards - first the old CYOA (Choose Your Own Adventure) titles by RA Montgomery, and then Fabled Lands - so they've been with me a long time.

I'm still a board gamer but rarely have time for computer gaming - I have a young family.  My family will often pull out a board game when meeting up for longer than a couple of hours and my wife loves a good board game too.  I enjoy watching YouTube playthroughs of some open-world crpgs (Computer Roleplaying Games) and I follow other gamebook writers closely... perhaps too closely in some cases!

How did Steam Highwayman come to be?

I learnt to write CYOA-style branching narratives - systemless gamebooks - at Primary School.  I had a fantastic junior teacher called Dave Lowery, who had encountered interactive fiction on computers and print in the early 90s and thought it would make a great thing to teach 9-and-10-year-olds.

Then in my early twenties I lived in Marlow, featured in the middle of Smog & Ambuscade, and held a teaching job just across the river and border in Bisham.  I also bought a Yamaha RXS100 motorbike, as I expected I'd need it to commute and hadn't learnt to drive yet - but I didn't need it - miraculously I could walk to work across the suspension bridge over the Thames there - one of most beautiful spots along the whole river.  So I rode it through the Chilterns at weekends to relax.

I read two classics of steampunk around that time - Keith Roberts' Pavane and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine.  I wasn't aware of the steampunk subculture when I began, but I loved the world of steam technology - preferably, an allohistorical world, not a fantastical one.

Around 2016, unable to make great progress with a novel, I decided to write something 'more limited in scope'.  Mix the above ingredients, together with a love for Fabled Lands, and you get Steam Highwayman.

What have been the challenges of creating the gamebooks?

The greatest challenge of creating Steam Highwayman is finding time to write.  I have a young family (although I didn't when I began!) and have to work for a living as well. 

Maintaining the flow of creativity when interrupted by the need to eat food myself, calm a crying child, go out to teach a tutee or generally relate to the outside world - that's tough.  Earning a living at the same time has been incredibly difficult. 

I'm fortunate in that as a teacher I can find work relatively easily, but in 2016 I actually left teaching for a time and my wife paid all the bills for about a year while I simply wrote.  That is a genuine privilege - to a have supportive collaborator and sponsor/patroness.

Another massive challenge was to find an illustrator who could bring the world of Steam Highwayman to life - but something wonderful happened here.  One morning in 2017 (or perhaps 2018), when I had been actively looking for some time and reaching out to friends and professionals in illustration, I awoke with the distinct sense that I should travel to Oxford.  In fact, that is one way I experience God's voice - and it was both unexpected and exciting.  My wife usually used the car to get to work, so I asked her if I could have it that day and she said something like, "Yes.  To go to... Oxford?"  The name of the city had popped into her head as I asked.

I travelled to Oxford, stopping in Marlow on the way, and prayed in faith that God would introduce me to my artist.  As I prayed and read my bible, I simply heard the word 'vineyard' echoing around my head, which was odd.  I found some short-stay parking in the centre and walked about, unsure what to do next, but I noticed a poster of Oxford pubs in a shop window.  Pubs = vineyard, I wondered?  Anyway, the thing was very nice and in a monochrome pen and ink style - exactly what I was looking for.  I could see the artist enjoyed working from real life but had a talent for simplifying and working with crisp lines.

I walked into the shop and drew my courage to ask the assistant if he knew who the artist of that particular poster was.

"The one of the Oxford pubs?" he asked.

"That's right," I replied.  "I thought that maybe they would be local and I wonder whether I could get in contact with them, because I might have a commission for them."

"I'm the artist," replied Ben, the shop assistant.  That made me laugh.

So finding my illustrator went from being an insurmountable challenge - something that I could not imagine a solution for - to something joyful and really quite simply, although it did test my courage and my willingness to believe what I am happy to call God's voice.  Other people might be happy to call this string of events something else, but it is one of many experiences in my life that, when I combine it with the conviction that God genuinely cares for each of us, bolsters my Christian faith.

The process of getting the design for the Ferguson velosteam - and the highwayman him(them)self correct was a very satisfying one, and you can read more about that on my website.

Explore Steampunk London in The Reeking Metropolis

What have been the highlights of creating the gamebooks?

Seeing the series received well, enjoyed, played and explored is very gratifying.  There are a relatively few people who really understand and are willing to commit the time it takes to get the most out of Steam Highwayman, but those readers are incredibly faithful and supportive. 

I particularly enjoy selling the books to parents and children (often a father and his son/s) at events - some have never experience roleplaying before, or steampunk, or gamebooks, and it's a privilege to think that my world is their introduction.  Seeing the artwork and enjoying it is a massive pleasure.  I love to handle and look at the books, the maps and my copies of the illustrations.  Working with Ben, Piotr and the late Russ Nicholson to turn my ideas into images is very rewarding.

And then there's playing through the series myself.  If I didn't enjoy being the Steam Highwayman, then I would have failed to write something that I thought was any good.

And finally there is the crowdfunding.  Although born of necessity, I've discovered I really enjoy marketing and sharing my projects and building a network of supporters and readers across the world.  It's a privilege to be a writer at this moment in time, when the internet can still be used to start something new and share it!

What are your other favourite gamebooks?

Dave Morris' and Jamie Thomson's original Fabled Lands series takes some beating - and I have to add Paul Gresty's excellent Serpent King's Domain to that. 

Some of James Schannep's Click Your Own Poison books really make me laugh, and being systemless, pure-choice based, they're quick and easy reads that I can share with others - like my wife. 

I really enjoyed the gameplay of Swen Herder's Rider of the Black Sun (goodreads link), which also had fantastic story-telling, although as a rule I'm not that partial to fantasy settings and plots.  There are lots of others I want to try but haven't the time for currently.

What advice would you give people writing gamebooks?

Single biggest piece of advice: go for it!  Write, edit and publish as quickly as possible and iterate and improve.  Spend money on artists if you value your own writing and want to see it received with respect.  There is a very supportive, tight-knit community of modern gamebook writers around who can offer advice, are prepared to playtest and readthrough and generally encourage you.   

And, as far as possible, be original.  Do something that people haven't done before - or go to a place or setting that hasn't been visited before.  It will resonate with someone out there.

What is your next big project (gaming or otherwise) that you can talk about?

Steam Highwayman IV: The Princes of the West is in draft right now - I estimate I've written about 50%, although there'll be a long editing phase for this one.  As the series extends, it becomes more complex and my standards are rising too!

I have also put about two years into a Viking series called Saga, which was originally written under contract but has returned to my ownership.  I'll be very pleased when I can get some of this out there to readers - maybe in short (eg 400-passage) adventures, or possibly as another open-world series.  It has a unique tracking mechanic - when you complete something notable, you gain a line of your saga...

What are your favourite things outside of gamebooks?

I have a lot of things I am keenly interested in.  I could bore you about food, sustainability, experimental archaeology, vernacular architecture, maps, fruit trees and my family.  I'm passionate about the good news of the kingdom of God too - and that underpins a lot of what I do.

What is your favourite Real Ale and favourite one from Steam Highwayman?

Favourite real ale would be (currently) Tribute from St Austell brewery, if we're talking bottled. On tap it would be Adnams Southwold Bitter. But there are many runners-up.

In Steam Highwayman, the descriptions are often based off real beers, but occasionally drawn straight from my imagination. In Marlow, at the Two Brewers, you can enjoy the understated Wethered Thames Bitter. It's not a complex or a showy beer, and one I can imagine drinking any day.

Where can people find you on social media?

I have a website with about ten years' worth of posts and ramblings.  Steam Highwayman is on facebook, instagram as @steamhighwayman and youtube.  I've been dabbling in reddit recently too. r/gamebooks.

Is there anything else you would like to talk about?

I think I've said plenty, really.  But if anyone is interested, there will be a Kickstarter when SH4 is complete or near enough - possibly in the autumn or early next year.

Finishing Up

So if you like gamebooks and you're still reading, go and check out Steam Highwayman! Smog and Ambuscade is the first one and contains enough for many hours of play.

There are many more articles on Rand Roll. Plus a Rand Roll Discord and instagram of Random Tables. I also create Generators at Chaos Gen and have a monthly random tools Newsletter.