Saturday, 1 September 2018

Sunless Sea - a review and stealworthy ideas

What I did on my holidays (I think I have a Hobbit thing going): mostly lay about in our garden, read books and play the hell out of Sunless Sea. A report and an inventory of stealable content.

This game from 2015 had me at "lovecraftian steamship" and the tagline only sunk the hooks deeper. "Lose your mind, eat your crew", indeed. I did both on my first trip and wanted more right away. Sunless Sea has you captain a rickety steam boat out of the port of Fallen London, relocated a mile under the surface of the Earth by bats. (The city itself is explored in more detail in a forerunning browser game - I haven't played that one yet. Holidays are over.) Fallen London is the shining light of civilisation and you, you sweet idiot, head out to the pitch black Sunless Sea with a crew that's increasingly afraid of the dark.

Smart folks, your crew.

Sunless Sea pushes you to explore and punishes you for not paying attention to food, fuel and morale. Or Terror, as the game calls the ever increasing bar of "how much more sailing in utter darkness can the crew take before their collective fear crystallizes into mutiny or horrid tentacle monsters".

Never explained in game. Any story would be more prosaic than what you make up yourself.

GAME PLAY - CHOOSE YOUR TERROR

Sunless Sea is a roguelike - randomised events, hard to survive, permanent death by auto-erasing your save file, and very quick to start a new character and set out again for more punishment. It looks like a game of trading and resource management at first, and this is at the core of the game. Your character has five stats that are boosted by officers and equipment, your boat has hard points for weapons, engines and equipment, and a crew capacity that influences handling and rationing.

You juggle space in your hold between fuel for the engine, supplies for the crew and cargo for trade. But margins are slim (and smuggling is dangerous) so you quickly find yourself looking for more profitable options. Try to kill sea monsters for dubious supplies or secrets buried in their flesh. Raid pirate ships for a quick restock of fuel and food. Treat with any number of dangerous and counteracting factions. Get free food at the Chapel of Lights or risk becoming a cannibal when supplies run out.


Free food. Red decor.
A more robust taste.



There's a lot to do out there on the zee, as the game's slang has it. The further you roam, the weirder the world - shades of Exalted's elemental poles and Into the Odd. Bring reports on those far and weird places back to Fallen London to get favors, fuel and funding from the Admiralcy. Placate sentient coral reefs and uplifted hamsters while you’re out there.

Sunless Sea is a balancing act. You are strapped for fuel, supplies and cargo space unless you pay exorbitant sums for better ships; you choose whether to burn extra fuel to run the lights, or run dark and see your zailors' Terror skyrocket. Constantly you choose between safeish quests with marginal benefits, and dangerous ventures with huge profits. Stat drain and Terror-hikes lurk everywhere.

The constant juggle of risk, resources and rising mental stress is the essence of Sunless Sea. Creep across the map because your ship moves slowly -so journeys feel far- plan out how much food and coal to bring and how much profit you can make with the cargo space that will have opened up once you arrive. Conversely, once I had enough ill gains to buy a huge freighter, I could carry enough supplies and fuel to cross the map without restocking and still have a cavernous hold for trade. This allowed me to trade vast quantities of rare trade goods for upgraded weaponry and engines. A couple of high end quests turned my freighter into a murder speedboat - and most of the game's horrific appeal went away as I was passably safe for the first time.

FLUID REALITY

You never learn what happened to Fallen London or why the Islands in the Sunless Sea change location from time to time. This fascinates me. There's bits and pieces hidden in flavour text, hints of an alien invasion, a war with Hell a generation ago, earlier civilisations forcibly relocated into the depths - people don't question it anymore. The game hints at its backstory and you never learn the deep secrets of the setting. Instead, you accrete a vague and personal network of ideas and relations in your mind. It reminded me of exposition in Dune, or the Malazan Books of the Fallen. Dreamlike and impressionist and absorbing.

Expensive trips up the locks to the surface cities of Naples and Vienna show you that the world has moved on in a way after London fell. Your cargo and knowledge are of vast interest to the surfacers, and diplomatic games cross the mile of darkness to the Sunless Sea. Your skin burns. The sun whispers seductively. Get out of the light. Head back to the lake of Avernus, where mythology sites the entrance to the underworld and find the cool darkness again.

Go on, go in. You don't need your Sanity, captain.

Hold on. Are you sailing into Purgatory? How much have your kind changed in their generation of darkness?

It all doesn't matter. Reality seems fluid. People got used. And handily, your character isn't expected to understand their world any better than you do. What you need to know? There's a good reward for people willing to ship out and explore.

WHAT PEOPLE ARE DOING

Hosting a devil enclave, for instance. Squatting in the shell of a giant tortoise or on the door step of a titan I’ve fortress that will drive explorers stark raving mad. Ferrying the not-dying in their wrappings to the tomb colonies or on Grand Tours. Smuggling souls, or red honey.

Sweet lord, the evil that is red honey. 

Catching addictive sunlight, or dream snakes from the other sides of mirrors. Hunting for pirates and mythical beasties with nothing more than a piss weak deck cannon while the chief engineer's eyes are about to hatch and the first mate is whispering to the tattoo that's growing across his face. There's conspiracies and mysteries and monsters and secrets out in the dark. Sail off the edge of the map.

Fire blind or wait for the gunner to complete his firing solution?
Run dark and be hard to find, or light up the thing?

THE APPEAL - HORROR MADE MUNDANE MADE HORRIBLE

People in the setting of Sunless Sea seem used to horrible things being everywhere. One of your starting officers can have an affliction of "eyes about to hatch". Fallen London openly trades caskets of souls and hosts an Embassy of Hell! It's all described matter-of-fact, the terrible made mundane. This doesn't make it boring. Instead, you absorb the fact that nothing is safe, nothing can be trusted.

Your boat moves slowly, so slowly across the zee. The starting ship and engine just aren't very fast, and upgrades are out of reach of safe players for a long time. Get used to risking Terror rise to save fuel and maybe make port. A monstrous crab bigger than your ship creeps onto the screen, its angler-fish light waving. Detour. Avoid. Glance at the fuel gage. Reduce throttle and save fuel? Your crew mutters to dark candles.

What will your next captain be like?

From the Zubmariner expansion. I think this is actually a port.

IDEAS TO STEAL

These are 90% written down from memory, two weeks after the last time I played and they're just a fraction of what's in the game. Impressive content and eminently stealable to build a hex crawl out of.

  • A hidden research station pays well for closed caskets of plague sufferers. From their flesh a strange metal is harvested that binds and shields against spirits.
  • An island where the high cavern roof is broken and sunlight streams down. Write fast - the light scars. Supplies are crazy bountiful, and the right contraption can bind and store the light for Sun Addicts. If you can resist the burning light and the siren song from the hold.
  • A bucolic island of peaceful farmers that suddenly gets barricaded by the imperial fleet.
  • A rules referred to on the streets as the Traitor Empress, in power since the city went into the deeps.
  • An intelligent coral reef where chess competitions prepare you to treat with the reef itself. It is growing and hinting at its horrible origin, and will give you a servant if you bring strange items to become its next Pieces.
  • The Chapel of Lights out on the edge of the map is always lit with candles and offers free food for all comers. Will you donate supplies and join their red mass?
  • The Dawn Machine is waking. Its ships shine with Sunlight.
  • An embargoed island where sentient monkeys pay well to obtain your soul and knowledge and are building a zeppelin to escape their confinement.
  • The Uttershroom, a titanic fungus bigger than some islands. It will reward you if you spread its carnivorous fungus-creatures to other islands.
  • Facing stone Sphinxes that rise out of the seas, being excavated to appease the mysterious Bazaar that squats in Fallen London since it was stolen from the surface - haul this precious cargo and keep your ears open for other parties that may be interested in the spirit stone.
  • The floating Khanate where war trimarans treat your ships as newcomers in the dark - Fallen London is hardly the first Great City to be stolen into the darkness.
  • The island where every thing is alive, from the drinking cups to the cobblestones. The King only receives stone idols with a watchful presence. Docile Clay Men are available for transport to work in Fallen London - or other places if you have found out how to make creative use of their animating spirit.
  • Travel to the southern continent where the Mountain has influenced three cities along its coast in startling ways. One you can only visit by bringing a story. One is lit with lights and mirrors in constant fear of the dark. One gives you a fast-growing tree to time the hours you have left.
  • The isle of Visage, where all wear a mask that constrains the role they may play in society.
  • The pirate enclave halfway up a stalactite to the cavern roof.
  • A fallen stalactite fortress, crashed into the zee ages ago. Its depths are best not explored in the dark, and hold darks hints of forces already at play when Fallen London was London still.
  • The city of Irem of the Pillars (yeah, I ran away from THAT myth on first hearing, but it turns out to be a nice place in game and a real world legend to boot!) that trades in exotic tales.
  • Fallen London where the Dark-Spectacled Admiral pays for port reports and strategic information, where the Voracious Ambassador pays more but has a hidden agenda; where you can get commisions to insert spy networks in power centers, trade with the Embassy of Hell to track down its traitors, or bring exotic finds to the Alarming Scholar. And find love and a reason to retire, perhaps, to safety.
  • No names for NPCs. Works wonderfully alienating. Only your captain can be named, all others have descriptors: Bandaged Poissonnier, Brisk Campaigner, Carnelian Exile, Disillusioned Doctor, Gall-Eyed Engineer, Guinea Page, Haunted Doctor, Irrepressible Cannoneer, Maybe's Daughter, Nacreous Outcast, Plausible Surgeon, Presbyterate Adventuress, Scrimshaw Chronicler, Shady Cook, Sigil-Ridden Navigator, Lady in Lilac, Merciless Modiste, Prudent Magician, Scarred Sister, Tireless Mechanic, Wistful Deviless, Dark-Spectacled Admiral, First Curator, Merchant Venturer, Voracious Diplomat, the Alarming Scholar.
Wonderful little creatures to seed on other islands.

MECHANICS TO ADAPT

The big attraction of the computer game is resource management; you're constantly paying attention to that. I can imagine this getting stale in a tabletop rpg. Probably need to abstract this further, but still give players a good reason to avoid running out of food. Build a web of ports and track where trade goods are cheap to buy or good to sell.

A very stealable mechanic is Terror. As an inverted Sanity/Morale score, it tracks how afraid the crew and you are, how many unsettling events have happened, the risk you're willing to take, how deep and unexplored the sea around you and how much money you'll spend in well-lit establishments once you're back home. If terror rises too high, unexplained horrors start to happen on board - lose crew, lose cargo, lose your life. Some sites are only accessible if your terror is low enough. Others, only when your grip on mundane reality is weak enough.

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Of course an rpg of exploration by ship needs rules for boats. Skerpes is putting together good stuff. I'd like to detail upgrades for boats: engines, weapons, lights and smuggling spaces and golems to shovel coal. And downgrades for the hard at luck captain. I'd also like to add a mechanic to track the health, abilities and sanity of the zailors or marines - treated as an aggregate with a common health pool, not individuals except for a few officers. Unless someone wants to play the Extras, that is!

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