James Wallis levels with you

Please help me choose my next book

It feels like time to write another book, and I’ve got a question for you. I’ve got three projects that I could usefully and quite easily turn into books, and I’m torn between which one to pursue, so I’d like your advice. Which of these would you be interested in reading? Which of these might you pay for? If more than one, which first?

In the summer of 2006 I researched and walked the route of the original Pilgrim’s Way, 146 miles between Winchester and Canterbury. Some of it was along established footpaths, some was along major roads, and parts involved trespassing through farms, woods and gardens, as well as working out how to cross major rivers where there haven’t been fords or ferries for hundreds of years. And since the medieval pilgrims didn’t have maps of the route, I didn’t either.

At the time I wrote a blog of the whole thing, which with some editing and about 10,000 new words could be turned into a witty chronicle of a journey that was more physical and emotional than spiritual—though along the way I would try to finally answer the question of why an atheist like me would go on a medieval pilgrimage. Also there aren’t many recent books about the Pilgrim’s Way and its actual course, and it’s a subject that covers the history of Britain and its evolution into the country it is now, so there’s plenty of tasty meat. This would be much, much more than a chronicle of a ramble.

I gave a talk at GameCamp about ‘Videogamesmanship, or how to win games without being any good at them’. It was based on Stephen Potter’s splendid 1947 book Gamesmanship, which is better known as the basis for the Terry Thomas movie School for Scoundrels.

Gamesmanship involves using psychological cues to put your opponent at a disadvantage, unsettling them, breaking their concentration and convincing them that you are the better player, or at least the one who ought to win. Potter applies it mostly to games like golf and tennis, where you have face-to-face contact with the other player, and there’s a sense of sportsmanship and fair play that the good gamesman can exploit to their advantage.

Gamesmanship is a delightful and very funny read, but it’s completely out of date—and in fact is long out of print in the UK. In an era of online games, where twelve-year-olds will teabag your twitching corpse while yelling about how they’ll shag your mum, is there still a place for methods of elegantly outplaying your adversaries?

I think there is. And I think I can get 30,000 cracking words out of it.

Videogamesmanship would cover the art and science of gamesmanship in online and offline play, realtime games like FPSes and RTSes and asynchronous games like Words With Friends, as well as MMOs, social games and mobile games, board-games, card-games and RPGs. Plus  the correct use of forums, possibly Twittermanship and  Angrybirdsmanship, and of course gameswomanship. If successful it may devolve into a second volume: Internetmanship, or how to win any argument on the internet despite being wrong.

Alas Vegas is the first tabletop RPG I’ve designed since The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. I did a lot of work on it about eighteen months ago and then put it to one side when real work intervened, and never went back to it. Nevertheless I think it’s good stuff, unlike any other RPG I’ve ever played or read about.

Alas Vegas begins with the player-characters digging themselves out of a shallow grave in the desert outside a large casino city. It is midnight. They are naked. They have no idea who they are or how they got there. The game involves exploring the city, rediscovering their identities and learning what path led them to their sandy graves. At the same time they must work out what this place is, how it works, and how they can escape its clutches.

The game uses a semi-conventional GM-and-players structure, and plays to conclusion in four sessions. The main story has a pre-determined plot—it’s not a railroad but there are key NPCs, events and encounters. However the second story, the PCs’ identities and relationships and stories, is dynamically and collaboratively created by the players themselves as the game develops. At the end the two come together in a stunning climax of revelation and realisation, in an encounter with the shadowy figures who run the place… and just possibly a way out.

Alas Vegas is driven by a cut-down version of the never-before-published narrative system I originally developed in the 1990s to power the Bugtown RPG. The core mechanic is a version of Blackjack played with Tarot cards. The game is short. This is not a conventional RPG: it’s setting and system in a single pack, with no room for supplements or expansions. It is what it is and when it’s done it’s over.

To say more would spoil it, but this isn’t an RPG version of Tim Powers’ Last Call. It’s much weirder than that.

* * *

Okay. I want to write all three of these books, but it’s a question of prioritising one over the others. I could do Come On Pilgrim quite quickly but the other two require an investment of time and resources, so I’d probably have to run a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign to fund them. Would you back either? Both? Which one would you prefer?

There’s space for comments below and I look forward to hearing what you think.

Categorised as: fiction | game design | writing


  1. David Hayward says:

    Videogamesmanship! I would back that with bells on.

  2. The medieval buff in me favors The Pilgrims Way and I’d prefer Videogamesmanship on the theory that I’d likely never get a chance to run Alas Vegas.

  3. Gareth says:

    Videogamesmanship has by far the widest appeal, especially if you’re Kickstarting it (and if you do, a stretch goal for a chapter on RPGmanship and board games would be nice.)

  4. Matt Gibbs says:

    I’m with Peter Hentges on this, the archaeologist and historian in me would enjoy The Pilgrims Way, and it also sounds like the quickest project for you.

    I’d suggest alongside it, out of the two kickstarters, Alas Vegas though. Both projects are interesting, but personally I liked to see you do another self contained RPG, especially now it’s harder to organise regular games with friends as we get older.

  5. Dethe Elza says:

    My interest is definitely piqued about Alan Vegas, I’d back that.

    As a relative newcomer to your blog, is Bugtown a finished project? And is it based on the Post Bros./Savage Henry comics?

  6. Joe says:

    Videogamesmanship, then Alas Vegas, then The Pilgrim’s Way. Yes, I’d back Kickstarters.

  7. Bryant says:

    Videogamesmanship, followed by Alas Vegas, followed by Pilgrim’s Way. I’d like to read all three.

  8. Jason Durall says:

    I would do them in the order presented.

    “Come On Pilgrim” has the most widespread appeal, longevity of subject matter, and would make good reading.

    “Videogamesmanship” seems very narrowly focused and, I suspect, might be out of date in much less time than the work that inspired it.

    “Alas Vegas” is interesting in a lot of ways, and might also be expandable to other expressions (a novel, etc.). I’d put it second in my personal interest, but third as the effort-to-sales ratio for an experimental RPG is fairly brutal.

  9. S. Ben Melhuish says:

    Matt Gibbs voted as I do, for basically the same reasons: The Pilgrim’s Way and Alas Vegas.

  10. Personally, I’m most likely to back Videogamesmanship, but your description of Alas Vegas has my interest piqued even though I’m not usually an RPG kind of guy. (At least not pen & paper RPGs.) I would read an article-length version of Come on Pilgrim, but probably not a full length work.

    Good luck with whatever you decide!

  11. John H says:

    I like the idea of the travelogue and the gamesmanship book — but I’m going to side with the travelogue because I like The Pixies.

  12. Dethe Elza says:

    Wow, what a story. Sorry about the problems with Bugtown, even more so because I won’t get to play it.

  13. Allen Varney says:

    To some extent this is an issue of personal branding. What do you want to be known for? The Videogamesmanship idea ties in to your popular “Physics of Azeroth” presentation several years ago. In both cases you’re treating the subject of videogames with acerbic wit and an unexpected perspective.

    Imagine a best-case scenario where Videogamesmanship takes off, you do lots of interviews, you’re on chat shows as “the videogame guy,” and you write three sequels like Stephen Potter. How does that make you feel?

  14. David Dunham says:

    The concept of “weirder than Last Call” is profoundly appealing. Videogamemanship sounds like a great Wired article.

  15. Brian Duguid says:

    I’d vote for Videogamesmanship as what I’d read. However, I would guess the audience for Pilgrim is not the audience for this blog, and the answers you get here may therefore not best reflect the potential readership! I think you should do Pilgrim as it seems furthest from your previous work and therefore potentially the more challenging / interesting to write.

  16. Adrian Hon says:

    I’d be happy to back any of them, but I’d probably be most likely to actually read VGmanship, mainly because I find it hard enough to herd friends together for a single boardgame session, let alone a series of them.

  17. Michael Schwartz says:

    I would do them in the order presented, for much the same reason as stated by Jason. Less work to do for Come On Pilgrim makes it the logical first choice, and while I’d personally vote for Alas Vegas second, Videogamesmanship has much greater sales potential and should take priority.

  18. Amsel says:

    I’d happily read all three, but to be brutally honest probably only pay for Videogamesmanship and Alas Vegas.

    I reckon a kickstarter for Alas Vegas would do well, as the market for it is going to be small, but quite core/dedicated – making it ideal for a shorter, self contained print run with rewards for extra investment, like numbered editions or a custom tarot deck.

    Videogamesmanship seems like the kind of thing that might do well if you could get an academic/specialist publisher to back it? Maybe taking the financial pressure off you with an advance. I like the idea, but I can’t see that you’d be able to get enough of a pre-order buzz to fund it on kickstarter, plus the later readership is potentially large, which means you’d want to have distribution in place as early as possible to reach that market.

  19. Piers says:

    Come on Pilgrim, because I think it’s got a more mainstream audience than the others, and I want you to have more money.

  20. Pete Strover says:

    I’d say The Pilgrims’ Way, because I’d like to hear you talking to Sandi Toksvig on Radio 4.

  21. Ian Sturrock says:

    Videogamesmanship. If you do it, remind me to send you a link to my favourite Catan strategy article, much of which concerns winning the psycho-social part of the game.

  22. Paul Tevis says:

    In descending order of preference:
    1) Come On Pilgrim
    2) Alas Vegas
    3) Videogamesmanship

    Honestly, as along as you write one of them I’ll be happy.

  23. Come on Pilgrim seems like the most sensible choice. It’s a broadly-accessible piece of travel writing that you’ve already worked towards, and which is well poised to take advantage of your strengths as a writer. I don’t think I’d buy a copy, but I don’t think I’m the target audience, and there are a lot more of them than there are of me.

    Of the two gaming related titles (for which I am the target audience), Alas Vegas is much more likely to elicit a purchase or Kickstarter-backing from me. It has a Noumenon-like quality of discovering or rediscovering lost things. The one-shot setting and content combo helps fit it into busy lives and persuade people that they might actually play it. It’s also eminently Kickstarter-able.

  24. Amsel says:

    Actually, thinking about kickstarter (and please don’t hate me for suggesting this) but it might be the ideal way for putting out FRUP, or at least guaging the actual saleability of the thing. As if it doesn’t get funded then no-one has actually sunk any more money in to it? Obviously though there is the time and effort you’d have to put in, and wether or not you actually want to put it out still. I’ll go away and hide now.

  25. Nick D says:

    From a commercial perspective go with The Pilgrim’s Way first, as it’s likely to gain the greatest return with the least amount of time and effort, therefore making it much more likely you can do the other two as well.

    Personally I’d guess that VideoGamesmanship is the most interesting to me, especially as I enjoy team play in FPSs, and like to think I’ve carved a niche for myself as “annoying and noisy distraction” to assist my team mates…

  26. Mink says:

    I agree with @David Dunham that VideoGamesmanship would make a good Wired article, I think it’d be pithier if it was shorter than a book.

    That only leaves Alas Vegas to be Kickstartered.
    I think that should be your priority because for one thing it’s a game, secondly, it’s a really, really big project with lots of untested innovations in it, and thirdly, it’d be easier to make up backer rewards for.

    They all sound cool, do all of them!

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