Fallen Heroes: Feature Spotlight

Creating multiplayer content in Below is tricky. I want players to interact - it’s exciting, and it creates an unpredictability that the core game can’t. But it’s important not to fracture the sense of subterranean isolation, or to give the impression that what the hero is doing is commonplace. Below is about ordinary people driven to extraordinary things. If ‘adventuring’ were a reasonable, accepted thing to do, that stops feeling true any more.

So we cheat. Most interactions between players happen in the Above Deck, tucked safely away in the hero’s memories. But there’s one way heroes can meet while they’re in the dungeon: it’s just that one of them needs to be dead.

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When your hero dies, you can inform a friend who’s playing Below of their demise using a special social action. Dont’ forget to include a message about the grisly circumstances of your death! If they listen to the tale, they gain a new quest: to find your remains. First they have to make their way down to the Depth you died at, then search the Below deck for your grave. When they find it, they can claim a prize: from a gloomy lesson, to a pocketful of sorceries, a treasure-hoard or a moment’s hope. The deeper your Depth, the better the reward!

Design Notes

The most bare-bones, no-frills way to implement the concept was this:

Accepting the social action puts a new card into your Below Deck. When you draw it, you come across the grave and claim a fixed reward.

That’s easy to do: a single social act, a single card, a single choice, a single reward. An hour or so’s work to implement and test? It’s dull though. I can’t imagine anyone doing it more than once. So I thought about ways to expand it, rating them on ease and benefit. ‘Ease’ assesses the amount of content needed, how mechanically difficult it would be to implement, and how well it worked with the StoryNexus UI. ‘Benefit’ covers how much an idea would add to gameplay, how much it would reinforce the game’s themes and setting,

Variable or randomised rewards

This felt like a no-brainer. It adds replayability and some surprise to the content. It makes it a fun, rewarding gamble. It was also straightforward to implement now that StoryNexus can modify qualities by random values. Writing the content was the most demanding bit of this.

Carry Over Information about the Fallen Hero

When the content was described to beta testers, one of the first questions they asked was whether they’d be able to nominate an item to be found on their corpse. It makes a lot of sense, and it’s a cool way to dress up gifting to other players. But it turned out to be prohibitively difficult to implement. You’d need a unique social act and triggering branch for every item that is (and ever will be) in the game. There might be balance concerns, too, although the challenges of implementation make them irrelevant.

Another approach would be to describe something distinctive about the corpse you found: ‘a fallen Friar’, say. That doesn’t actually add much to the game, though. The player of the fallen hero can always write a message specifying details like that when they send the social act: ‘Alfred the Friar died from an infection caught from wading through bat guano…’.

In the end, the only piece of information it was practical to preserve was the Depth at which your character fell. That at least recognises one of the circumstances of their death. It was still a hassle. There’s actually a branch and social act for each Depth from 1 to 10, because it wasn’t possible to set one of the invitee’s qualities to the level of one of the inviter’s.

What made it worth the trouble was that Depth could tie into the variable rewards. The rewards improve as you delve deeper to find them. There are two rewards available at each Depth, and a small random element can nudge your effective Depth up or down by one when calculating what you find.

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More Challenging Requirements

An extra requirement beyond ‘draw from the Below Deck until you find it’ would give the player a transitional goal they can work towards, rather than just trusting to the luck of the draw. Again, the fallen hero’s Depth was the key, here. To find them, you had to make your way to the Depth they fell at, then start drawing from the Below Deck. This added a UI burden, though – the player would need a clear, accessible reminder about where to look.

This turned the content into a full quest, complete with a pinned card. When your Depth is less than the fallen hero’s, the card tells you to keep going down. If you go too far, it tells you to go back up. When you’re at the right Depth it tells you to start searching the Below Deck.

Add an Associated Deed and Reputation

This is on the ‘to do’ list. It’s fun to have the game recognise player accomplishments. Finding one, three, ten fallen heroes feels like a nice thing to acknowledge. Unfortunately, the content had grown as much as I was comfortable with. Reputations are a significant burden to implement and balance.

For now, a quality tracks how many fallen heroes you’ve found, so that in future a Deed (and perhaps a Reputation) can be attached to it.

This raises another question. Should the player who falls get a Deed, too? It’s good to reward people for being social, right? Not always, it turns out. Rewarding social approaches can lead to people spamming other players. It’s better if social approaches are motivated by altruism, really: a genuine idea to show someone else the content. People are welcome to form reciprocal arrangements, of course (‘you gave me the quest last time your character died. When my character dies I’ll return the favour’)

Final Thoughts

This ended up being a relatively straightforward, trouble-free piece of content. Testing went surprisingly well, with just a couple of significant but easily-solved bugs turning up. It fits well with the game’s themes and mechanics. It’s an extra occasional goal for players to pursue.

It feels a bit like the bloodstains in Dark Souls that mark where another player died. It also reminds me of playing Diablo at a LAN party. When someone got too cocky, ventured too far ahead of the party and got nobbled by Leoric on level 3, the rest of us would have to fight our way down to where he was to bring him back. There’s no saving a fallen hero in Below, but that gives the narrative its own twist.

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