Thoughts on Terror

So, TERROR. I’ve been thinking a lot about it, both because it has a huge impact on play and because it’s something newsposts have talked about maybe rebalancing on account of STEEL. Thus, it feels fair to talk a bit about it and throw out some ideas.
Anyways! As I see it, the following seems like a pretty good picture of how Terror currently feels:

[ul][li]It’s really finely (and really well!) balanced for a player who charts out an efficient course and hops cautiously between landmass and light-buoy, spending as little time as possible on the open zee.

This fits the &quottrading simulator&quot side of the game really well: if everything goes well you’ll only pick up a few points of Terror between islands, and you’ll be able to offset most of that with stuff along the way. But if something goes wrong (or you plotted an inefficient course), the cost of therapeutic shore leave will cut into your profits.

The &quotbalance&quot seems really good, since Terror is a big enough deal that you have to pay attention to it and is punishing if you screw up, but you can keep it under control if you play well.

[/li][li]On the other hand, zailing off into the wild black yonder on the premise that there’s probably something interesting in that direction will inevitably net you huge bucketloads of Terror. Since Terror gain is balanced around an optimal light-hopping course, while exploring tends to be more a matter of &quotzail in this direction, then bear towards an island when your zee-bat finds one.&quot

This also probably contributes to why it’s so hard for new players: our first impulse is to just set out and explore, and it takes a while to figure out that light-hopping is really important to Terror management.

[/li][li]It’s easy for a new player to feel like they’re just stuck with high Terror, constantly coming back to London with Terror +50 and picking up the attendant Nightmares…which cause more Terror. Resolving this appears to require a huge heap of cash. (Experienced players, on the other hand, are less likely to get stuck there in the first place and will probably tend to save Clathermont and the Sisters for when they need them.)[/li][/ul]

My impression is that the people who are currently putting a lot of time into the game tend to be doing a lot of trading runs. (Not necessarily goods trading, but doing, like - circuits of the Salt Lions and Godsfall and the surrounding islands, depending on the map configuration.)

On the other hand, as someone who came from (and really likes!) Fallen London, I tend to be more about the joy of…stuff? Like: finding stuff! Doing stuff! Nosing around and seeing all the things! I do quite like the sense that Sunless Sea is Fallen London with the plot armor turned off, and it seems totally appropriate and perfectly entertaining to find something on an island that so horrifies my crew that they mutiny before we can return to port.

But the Terror cost definitely makes exploration feel really expensive. I keep cringing at the thought of attempting to push back the boundaries of the map, and finding myself thinking &quotWell fine, but I need to do a bunch of Salt Lion runs first so I have cash in case there’s nothing valuable there. Or in case I get paid like a hundred echoes but have to spend three hundred calming down my crew.&quot

And that feels kind of sad, because I want to go poke around places! I don’t think it’s broken, but it does feel like it’s balanced for the economic game rather than the exploration game.

. . .

Aaaaaand I have an idea about how to deal with this. It probably involves rejiggering some content and might count as a new mechanic? And it would definitely need balancing. But it seems (in my head, at least) to make Terror much more interesting to deal with, and builds upon themes and content that you’ve already got going.

Anyways, here it is:

[ul][li]Formalize Shore Leave as a specific type of action, and make it much more effective. The idea is to use them as narrative beats between legs of a voyage: like, you travel to the Khanate or Polythreme or the Iron Republic, and then the Terror/Shore Leave mechanic encourages you to stay a while before heading back out.

Specifically, I’m thinking of having them reduce Terror by a percentage - removing 30% or 50% or whatever of your current Terror level, depending on their quality. This would encourage players to for longer stretches between rests – if they stop to vacation at every island they pass, after all, they’ll run up a huge bill and never get anything done! (Unless they’re a cruise ship or something.)

This would also let you flesh out islands a little more, maybe offer a couple different choices of accommodation! Maybe you’re high on Terror and need some kind of Shore Leave urgently…but do you want to stay in the expensive, luxurious, and probably safe inn? Or take the cheaper and riskier option? Or maybe you’re getting hints that resting on this island is a really bad idea if you have Nightmares, and that you should probably risk carrying on to the next one.

This also seems like it would provide a good structure for random or periodic events, since Shore Leave represents an extended stay at a place rather than just stopping ashore to do a thing. Knowing that Shore Leave on an island will cause something island-related to happen or trigger some persistent condition can make where and when to rest a much more significant decision.

[/li][li]Have Terror increase slowly, but constantly, while at Zee. I’m picturing the base rate being a little slower than current, but light zones would only slow it down further, not stop it entirely. The idea is for it to function as a &quottime since last Shore Leave&quot counter, and thus more about how long your trip has been rather than how optimal your course was. So you can stray off the well-lit path without it feeling like such a big deal, but if you’re making a long voyage you’ll probably need to stop and rest at some point, probably on some strange island full of people who want to either rip you off or eat you.

[/li][li]More random events based on Terror levels! Sort of how Hunger works now: it’s not so much that high Hunger is an instant lose condition, as that things tend to get…difficult when you’re out of supplies. The idea is to encourage people not to linger at high Terror levels, even if they aren’t worried about them being fatal – and I dunno, maybe positive events can even accompany high morale? That’d help support the ‘story beat’ thing, with a nervous and paranoid crew landing on an island only to leave in cheerful good spirits.[/li][/ul]

I’m not actually sure how much work that would be to implement - or if it’s even something you’ve already bandied about, and decided against! But it’s a thought that’s hopefully helpful in some way.

I dig a lot of these ideas. I do get the impression that some of the things you’ve mentioned are already in the works, because there’s already a precedent set with the way places like Polythreme are more expensive than Mutter Island, or the way some places require particular items/conditions for terror reduction, etc…

And there are some places (can’t remember which off the top of my head… I think Venderbight is an example once you open Jonah’s) that already have multiple terror reduction options which have different amounts of reduction and risk, so some of these are already implemented to some degree.

But the idea that I really liked was the idea that things could be contingent on how long since your last shore leave, or different shore leave options based on the last place you took shore leave.

Example: Take leave on Mutter island, talk to someone at the inn, and they come up with some random justification for you to visit a different inn on some other island… &quottake this trinket&quot or &quottalk to my brother&quot or &quotgo burn down this other inn because I’m sick of the competition… ARR!!&quot and you get bonus terror reduction.

Good post. Interesting things to think about.
edited by KhzDonut on 9/18/2014

[li]an old bone of much contention from the earliest days of the release, right up there with combat, grindiness, and trading. (gasp!)

cue blackout, screams, thunder & lightning, and the wailing torment of Lost Souls

your impressions are fairly spot-on. the author’s intent is for players to explore a world of mystery and the unknown, primarily through a storyline-based mechanic. in keeping with the game’s overall theme, this exploration was to be both dangerous and frightening. &quotTerror&quot was added as a factor in making exploration expensive - players either have to stick to coastlines and lightsources (and thus burn extra food and fuel) or they can ‘cut costs’ and gun it through the crawling deep and trade consumables for points of fear.

the trouble, as you both surmise, is balance. deep exploration is severely punished, which encourages players to stick to known waters and run familiar - and tested - circuits, a habit greatly reinforced by the overall grindiness of the game. in effect, players get pushed into the very ‘trading run’ scenarios the author originally sought to avoid.

on the other hand, if you open up the number of opportunities to reduce terror abroad or sharply cut its dollar-value at home, you run the risk of the opposite - that of turning Terror into a triviality. [/li] [li][/li] [li]&quoteh. big deal. i’ll cross that ocean of ‘horrors’ cause i know i can burn all that terror for cheap at whatever port i hit.&quot [/li] [li][/li] [li]this also means you don’t have to worry as much about food or fuel consumption, because you’re taking the direct route, and that’s why travel banks against three factors. and if you weaken one, the whole structure goes off and means next to nothing in play.

right? i mean, if there’s gold at the end of every nightmare, it kinda turns them all into rainbows, doesn’t it?

it’s hard to say where this might go. but in my mind, the critical factor in this interplay of balance are the stories - and the fact that less than half their content is currently available. we’re playing half the show. so at the moment, there just aren’t tha many adventures to purse, and of those that are, players face walls of precondition and the capricious whims of the wild & whiggy Random-Miser that arbitrarily locks them of stories for onerous periods of Time.

but … if you fix the Random-Miser and openup more storylines at each port, it just might be that exploration becomes profitable enought to warrant the cost. that right there could be your game-changers. unfortunately, we aren’t likely to find out until late October or November. &quotSteel&quot has put the whole project behind schedule and the focus afterwards will be on new islands, not pumping up the existing ones.[/li] [li]
edited by Psst! on 9/18/2014[/li][li]
edited by Psst! on 9/18/2014

Considering though that Steel is supposed to overhaul the terror system somewhat in light of the new combat system its possible that it will address a lot of these concerns.

Hello there !
I had to register to say how much I like what’s being said in here.

I’m in complete agreement with what Nocculi said about terror. You perfectly described the two kinds of playstyle that I adopt depending on my goals, and I think it’s a really good indicator that the devs have done a great job to guide the player’s behaviour through game mechanics.
I also had the same thoughts about the &quotterror investment&quot vs &quotexploration reward&quot, seeming a little bit imbalanced right now, but once again, another member - Psst! - expressed the same thing I was thinking : The imbalanced feeling is certainly due to the fact that not all events are in-game, and having more content in the future will probably set things right.

Also, I think there was some changes recently about trade and merchandise cost, making it less interesting to spend time on. So, I suppose that we have to wait for the next update to see how things go from here.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts, it was quite pleasant reading it.

Thanks, fellow community members of nonspecific gender!

Psst!: The idea, I think, is that an event-based system lets the writers be more flexible in applying difficulty, by targeting it to trigger on specific game states? (As opposed to having to tune a constantly increasing value to be just right for all phases and types of play.)

Like, currently Terror is a Menace to keep track of, and a money sink; an anti-resource, basically. With this idea, it’s basically just a mechanic that switches you between two game states:

  • Low Terror, where things are pretty much fine! But as you zail, things will slowly progress to…[/li][li]High Terror, where things happen to you while you’re at zee…unless you find a port to rest in, where things will happen to you there.

I’m not even picturing 100 Terror being a lose condition! It’d just…put you in a state where things are a little difficult, is all, with your crew acting erratically and carving eye-watering sigils in the hull and throwing your fuel overboard and awaking the terrible, terrible things that lurk in the deeps to munch upon your ship.

And because this stuff is event-based, it’s easier to tune it to react to the play state? Like:

[ul][li]If you’re carrying valuable cargo, Shore Leave is a great opportunity for someone to try and steal it![/li][li]If you’re carrying valuable but…inadvisable cargo that maybe whispers just a little into your crew’s dreams, you might see your Terror increasing at a faster rate. Which encourages you to stop into port, where someone can try and steal it.*[/li][li]Of course, dealing with theft is probably a Veils check, while keeping your crew together at high Terror will tend to call for Hearts. So the player has some room for deciding what the best way to attack the problem is.
[/li][li]Shelling out for items like Secure Storage (or for safer accommodations) could help mitigate the theft risk, too.[/li][/ul]

…and so on.

And the fact that these events would trigger a) when Terror reaches a marked threshold, or b) when the player takes a clearly marked action would give the player awareness of the situation and a modicum of control over it, so it’s not like a random event just pops up and says &quotWhoops! Something bad happened out of nowhere.&quot Because no one likes that!

*And then mail it to your Lodgings because they’ve discovered that they really, really don’t want it.

In general I’m not a big fan of the random-event style of play, I prefer the sort of Sandboxy &quoteverything is accessible, so long as you work for it&quot kind of thing. I hate working for something and just having a dice roll be the deciding factor in not getting the reward.

But at the same time, the thing that is making Sunless Sea so immersive is the EVER-PRESENT risk. There’s just nothing you can do to get away from the unforseeable. It’s not just a simple matter of knowing I need 4 fuel and 3 food to do a loot-run circuit, I have to have some extra on hand in case of some random unforseeables.

I wouldn’t mind the randomness being taken away from events like the Magician’s quest, because I was pretty annoyed when I got randomized out of getting the Serpentine Engine (and by &quotpretty annoyed&quot I mean &quotvillages got burned to the ground&quot)

But I like the random &quotsomething fell from the sky and made your crew go mad&quot or &quotoh look, a tentacle just ate one of your crew for no reason&quot stuff. It makes me plan way harder before I leave port, and it gives me a feeling of unease that I wouldn’t otherwise have, and that feeling of unease is really what sells the game for me.

If you read into that &quotTentacle ate your crew for no reason&quot narrative… you’ll find there is VERY much reason for the &quotcreatures of the zee&quot to be lusting after your crew

I feel part of the problem with balancing terror is that the game has a bit of an identity crisis on whether it wants to be a rogue-like (or -light) or a an Elite/RPG hybrid.

A punishing terror mechanic is just fine for a rogue-like. A certain amount of grinding is ok in an RPG, and even expected in an Elite-descendent.

Unfortunately, these two elements are fundamentally at odds with each other, which is why most rogue-likes place strict limits on how much XP/money/etc. you can earn before being forced to move into a new area.
edited by Beanstalker on 10/1/2014

I like the ideas outlined in the OP. A gradual fear growth coupled with ports resetting a percentage would go a long way to making the game more immersive. That said, I do also agree that it makes sailing much less thought-provoking in that you just B-line for the nearest port. This also leads to the discussion of what kind of terror-induced random events would we be seeing? There needs to be enough incentive to keep the existing gameplay of “stay near the lights” without punishing the players too harshly for exploring a little.

A possible option is as the terror grows your crew grow more erratic and have a possibility of A) throwing fuel/supplies overboard, B) attacking fellow crew members, C) jumping overboard themselves, or any other number of increasingly dark, lore-based events. With the suggested system these would still be fine, but the curve for starting to see them would be much lower than it currently stands (not necessarily a bad thing) so players can’t just zip through the darkness from one port to the next. Unfortunately this has the opposite effect of what some players wants, which is making exploration much more of a challenge as any time away from a light source or port almost a guarantee of losing supplies/crew members.

Running around in circles aside, I would be excited to see at least a demo release play with this idea down the line after combat is more finalized.