Monday, May 3, 2010

Ultima IV: Battle and Exploration

Is there any CRPG that doesn't have orcs?

Since I last wrote, I have visited the cities of Skara Brae, Trinisc, and Paws, collecting clues and hints. My to do list has already grown fairly long. I've organized it by town when I knew the town:

  • JHELOM: doors to jimmy, ask in pub of sextants
  • LORD BRITISH CASTLE: Find secret entrance to dungeons, jimmy
  • MINOC: Ask Zircon about mystic arms
  • SKARA BRAE: Return with keys to jimmy doors
  • TRINSIC: Ask of the white stone at the tap, return with dispel field spell
  • VESPER: Ask barkeep about nightshade
  • Ask at the Folley Tavern of mandrake
  • Ask Hermit Sloven near Lock Lake of white stone
  • Calumny: Ask about Mandrake
  • Lock Lake, reachable only by ship: ask Mentorian of gate travel spell

I also fought my first Ultima IV battle, against four orcs. Fortunately, I had picked up Shamino in Skara Brae, so I wasn't alone. Shamino and I survived and, just as importantly, so did two of the orcs. In this game, you allow fleeing enemies to get away, thus satisfying the dictates of honor. This battle was followed by a few fights against trolls, who attacked when I crossed their bridges. I had forgotten about that. Standing on bridges and hitting the spacebar (pass) provides nearly endless troll fights. Chests, unfortunately, are almost always trapped, and with no thief class in Ultima IV, I can't open them safely until I mix up a number of open chest spells.

Battle in Ultima IV is basically identical to Ultima III. When you switch to a battle screen, you control each of your companions individually in turn. They can attack, maneuver about, used ranged weapons, and cast spells (if you have any prepared). One new feature in Ultima IV is how the battle landscape changes depending on the terrain you were on when battle is initiated. The type of terrain can offer advantages and disadvantages. For instance, moutainous terrain, shown below, provides obstacles that prevent multiple enemies from attacking at once.

The game manual notes helpfully: "a few valiant fighters strategically placed in a narrow rocky pass can stand off an army numbered in the thousands."

With Shamino plus the game map, I figured I had enough role-playing cause to make my way to Lord British's castle. I forgot how tough it is to find your way around this game at the beginning stages. The moongates take you near towns, but Skara Brae, Jhelom, Moonglow, and Magincia are all on islands, and the moongate near Minoc is surrounded by poisonous swamp. Finally, through trial and error I found myself near Trinsic and managed to make my way up the coast to Britain and the castle.

After briefly exploring the castle, I visited the throne room, bribed Lord British for hit points, killed his jester, and looted his treasury. No! Those are the other Ultima games. Instead, I had a very civil conversation with him. He clarified that my quest involves becoming an earthly manifestation of each of the eight virutes, and clued me in (if I didn't know already) about the associations of the towns to the classes to the virtues. Once I become an Avatar, he says, I can brave the Great Stygian Abyss and view the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. This bears repeating: the final goal of the game is not to kill an evil wizard, overthrow a tyrant, or retrieve a magic amulet, but to read a book of wisdom.

Lord British is helpful for once.

I talked in my last post about the symmetry in this game, and it manifests in a few ways that I forgot. First, the eight virtues derive from three principles of virtue--truth, love, and courage--in various combinations. Valor is pure courage, but honor is a combination of truth and courage, for instance. The Venn diagram below shows the relationships. More on humility in a second.

Each principle of courage has primary color associated with it, and the combinations of colors determine the color of the stone (which I have to find in the dungeons) associated with each virtue. Red (pure courage) is the stone of valor, and blue (pure truth) is the stone of honesty, so purple (truth + courage) must be the stone of honor.

The number eight also appears in other ways: since there are eight virtues and eight associated classes, your party can have a maximum of eight characters. Each character can reach a maximum of level 8. There are eight spell reagents, eight phases of the moon, eight types of armor to wear...oh, and probably a dozen more incarnations that I haven't spotted yet. But the symmetry is even more notable for the fact that things don't really occur in series of eight: they occur in seven plus one. What I mean by this is that for every group of eight, there's always an odd one out: something that's not like the others. The virtue of humility, for instance, does not derive from the principles of virtue; it exists outside of them. Its associated class, a shepherd, is almost worthless as an adventurer and makes you wonder why the class exists. Humilty's town, Magincia, is unique among the towns as not being really about the virtue of humility; instead, it was founded on pride (not a virtue) but then destroyed by demons. There are eight dungeons, but one of them is the Great Stygian Abyss, which is fairly unique. Most of the stones are found in dungeon altar rooms but one, of them, the white stone of spirituality, is missing. Nightshade is unique among reagents in that it can only be found in a single place, and one of the eight types of armor you have to find through a quest. This is a meticulously planned game.

Again, thanks to the Internet, I've found something I never knew about Ultima IV. The creators include NPCs named after familiar famous philosophers and writers, which was obvious. But I didn't realize until I did a little Googling that they used those individuals' actual quotes in the dialog. For instance, a philosopher in Skara Brae named "Buddha" says that, "if one speaks or acts with pure thought, happiness will follow like a shadow that never leaves," a quote actually attibuted to Buddha. A ranger named Michaelangelo says, "May thou always desire more than thou can accomplish!," a paraphrase of a real Michaelangelo quote: "Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish." The game seamlessly works these adages in to the dialog so that the casual gamer is none the wiser.

Now here's a riddle for all of you who have played Ultima IV before: when exploring Lord British's castle, I came across a mage named Joshua who asked, "If the eight philosophies of avatarhood combine into and are made from truth, love, and courage, what one thing creates and is created by all truths, all love, and all courage?" I have no idea what he's talking about, and any potential answer I could think to give returned a "that I cannot help thee with." I don't remember this guy at all from my previous Ultima IV adventures. Any idea what he's going on about? If you do, give me a hint--not the answer!

My plan right now is to make my way around the continent, visiting the towns and keeps on the Britannian mainland, fighting creatures when I encounter them, until I can either commandeer or afford a ship. I will then visit the cities and towns in order and obtain the runes and mantras for each virtue. Before my next posting, I'll see if I can afford a few reagents so I can talk about the magic system.


  1. Wow!!! I love the detail that you are going through while you are playing Ultima 4. If you are interested I have just release a Flash version of Ultima 4 and would love your feedback.

    Also I have a blog where I wrote about my process to re-write one of the most important and influential computer role playing games of all time.

    All the best and I will continue to follow your BLOG with great interest.

    Blair Leggett

  2. This post was remarkable.

    There was a very nice video on the Ultima Collection CD of Richard Garriott explaining the Venn diagram of the virtues as well as other things about the game.

    I have always loved the symmetry and "rule of eight" in Ultima 4 but until today I had never realised it was, in fact, a "rule of 7+1". I always saw humility as the odd one out but didn't make the connection with everything else: Magincia, the Abyss (since there's no dungeon for humility), the White Stone, even the mystics! (now that I think of it... are there 7 weapon types too, +mystics?). It gives the entire structure of the virtues a very different tone. Another thing about Magincia as well: it's a destroyed, ghost town, where all the inhabitants are ghosts, as opposed to the other 7 towns full of live people.

    Oh, and I think I know what Joshua is talking about, but if I'm correct the answer is in fact a plot point, so I'll let you continue playing and figure it out yourself :)

  3. One reason why the game centers around a "symmetry of 8" is because Ultima IV was programmed primarily for 8-bit computers at the time (Apple II, Commodore 64). Much easier to check which class can do what and perform an AND or ORA operation against a table of values.

    It just goes to show that sometimes a hardware limitation can force itself on a design aspect and create a form of artistic symmetry. Art through adversity.

    Now, the "symmetry of 8" = 8 bits is just based on an assumption of mine. I programmed an old school RPG for an 8-bit computer last year and I went with 8 classes and 8 races. To create more than these would require a more complex lookup table.

  4. Blair, I'm going to do an entire posting on your Flash remake, so thanks. ROQ, I really appreciate the insight on the "symmetry" issue. I don't know much about programming, but what you say seems to make sense. Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that Ultima IV wasn't released a decade later with 1,024 virtues.

  5. Oh, and Ziad, I'm guessing the answer to Joshua's question is the final answer you give in the Abyss to win the game. It just doesn't seem to make sense in the context of his question. Is that what you were thinking?

  6. I can also tell you that the eight runes you find in the dungeons correspond to eight letters that form an anagram of the answer...

  7. Thanks, Anon, but you gotta read ahead. Anyway, I think you're a little off. You find stones, not runes, in the dungeons, and the stones don't tell you anything. You get the letters when you meditate at the shrines and achieve avatarhood. And it's not an anagram: if you put the letters in the order of the virtues, it just spells it out.

    But you're right about the eight symmetry making another appearance. I still remain confused what "INFINITY" has to do with the virtues and principles of virtue, though.

  8. I think it's supposed to suggest a sort of spiritual ascension for the character- that by mastery of the virtues, the character is now able to comprehend infinity, or has become enlightened, or something to that effect. The Avatar, after all, was not just an unusually good example of a virtuous life, but became a sort of spiritual paragon.

  9. If you still don't understand what INFINITY and the eight virtues have in common, write down "8"... turn it sideways...

    1. Wow. I never thought of that. But it's kind of stupid. Does that mean if there had been 6 virtues, the final answer would have been TAPE MEASURE?

    2. Actually, I think it's all about being closer to god (infinity) in this game... Of course, it's all fiction.

    3. If there had been 6 virtues, the final answer would have been DUCT TAPE.

  10. Wow, what a concept! I have to try this some time.
    In the D&D Planescape setting, there exists a rule of three.

  11. Combat: I recalled the bit about letting enemies flee if they chose to leave. I also thought this meant not attacking from behind. In the NES version, not a single enemy ever ran away (or attempted to do so), and no negative consequences I found to attacking enemies that were facing the other direction (as they often did when starting a dungeon battle). The SMS once again takes its design from the PC, and I didn't kill a single orc before it decided to run. This I think would make the shepherd difficult in the beginning as she wouldn't gain any experience until she found another companion.

    Chests: NES version has them, although I found it strange the gold wasn't just added to my reserves; traps, however, are completely removed. The SMS version has them though.

    I didn't play through the entire PC or SMS version, but in the NES the white and black stones are outside dungeons. Also, the nightshade and fungus herbs are uniquely found outside the shops. Also, the Legendary Axe +2 and Robe are different in that you can't buy them from a shop. Seems the idea of seven plus one was slightly off for these cases.

    I have no idea what Joshua was talking about, but did you find an answer that made sense? Since it's not possible to ask everyone their name in the NES version, many of the NPCs go unnamed.

    1. Joshua was clearly getting at INFINITY; for some reason, he just doesn't respond to the answer when you give it to him.

  12. Since you seemed pleased in the last entry to being noticed to years-old typo waiting to be fixed, there is another one:
    "if one speaks or acts with pur__s__e thought, happiness will follow like a shadow that never leaves".

    I don't think Buddha was speaking of purses, but rather of purity. ;) Than again, I know nothing of Buddha, so I might very well be wrong here. ;)

    1. Thank you. I should perhaps think about putting my e-mail address in the sidebar so people can notify me about such typos discreetly.


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