Monday, March 3, 2014

Ultima VI: Clair de Rune

Leveling up at the Shrine of Valor.
Shrines have always played a big part of the Ultima universe, essentially forming the series' religious system. Ultima is notable for featuring no gods, only abstract virtues and principles. In fact, it's possible that the word "god" or "gods" never appears in any of the Ultima games, though I'd have to do some sleuthing on spoiler sites to verify (someone else may want to tackle this). It's particularly notable that the Avatar introduced in Ultima IV is not seen by the public as the avatar of a deity, like Vishnu, but the Avatar of Virtue, indicating that to Britannians, virtues themselves are as worthy of worship as personal gods. I'm not sure if there's a direct analogue in any Earth religion.

We first saw shrines in Ultima III, in Ambrosia (one wonders where this place disappeared to), where they served the Ultima VI purpose of raising attributes. I suppose you could argue that the various signposts in the first Ultima are a kind of proto-shrine, too. The Shrines of Virtue first appeared in Ultima IV. According to the mage named Xiao, who lives near the Lycaeum, it was the Council of Wizards who created them in the first place. I guess this makes sense, though I don't remember it ever coming up in a previous game. 

Knowing that the shrines (and therefore the model of virtues) were created by living Britannians removes some of their mystique, although it does make sense given the alternate principle/virtue systems that we'll encounter later in Ultima VI and Ultima VII. A long time ago, I blogged about how when I was a child, I was raised without religion, and Ultima IV effectively filled that void. The eight virtues, flowing from the three principles of virtue, seemed like such a tidy and obvious package that they might as well have been handed down by the creator of the universe himself. Later, when I encountered alternate systems, both in-universe (e.g., gargoyles, Ophidians) and without (e.g., Ben Franklin), I had a kind-of collapse of faith, much like follows of religions must feel when they encounter persuasive counter-arguments to their doctrine.

A bard named Mandrake has an alternate take, much as in the satirical Ultima IV, Part 2.
Sometime before my arrival in Britannia, the Shrines of Virtue were invaded and occupied by gargoyles, who (for some reason) put the shrine's associated moon stone on it and protected it with a force field. Using the associated rune at the shrine is the only way to drop the force field, collect the stone, and use the shrine for meditation (which, among other things, levels you up). So far, nothing in the game has told me that I really have to do this to win, but I vaguely recall that I need all the moon stones somehow at the end of the game.

I might have something wrong in that paragraph, though. Perhaps it's not the gargoyles who erected the force fields around the shrines. I say this because they don't seem to have occupied the Shrine of Spirituality, but the force field and stone are there, just the same. Did the Britannians erect the force fields to protect the shrines? I might have missed some dialogue.

The Avatar admires his rune collection.

Early in the game, I learned that Lord British had given each of the Runes of Virtue to the mayors of the associated cities. The mayors, in turn, had been senselessly careless with them. The mayor of Jhelom gave it to an idiot who lost it the first night he had it. The mayor Britain gave it to a three-year-old child. The mayor of Trinsic just left it out in the open for anyone to steal. This pattern repeated for all eight cities. Fortunately, no one just chucked it in a lake, or I suppose the land would be doomed.

I'm amused by how unreasonably proud the mayors are that their cities were "entrusted" with the runes, as if Lord British made a careful survey of the virtue levels of each city, instead of just giving the Rune of Justice to Yew, the City of Justice, which happens to be the closest city to the Shrine of Justice, by default. Like there was a chance that Trinsic was going to end up with all of them.

It would have been a bit of a slap in the face if you weren't.
Anyway, the quests to recover the moonstones range from goofy to fun. Here's a quick rundown:

The Rune of Honesty was given to an honest man named Beyvin, live-in boyfriend of a fortune teller named Penumbra, whose house had all those force fields at the entrance. After I'd bought "Dispel Field" off a nearby mage named Xiao, I made my way through the foyer of Penumbra's house and spoke to her. She said that Beyvin had been more honest than someone wanted to hear, and that person had killed him. (No more word on the killer; just as in Skara Brae, I guess it's unsolvable.) The rune was buried with him in the catacombs beneath the city.

There were signs that people had visited the catacombs regularly, leaving flowers for the dead and such, so it was odd that the entrance was so hard to find--a ladder behind a secret door in the pub, blocked by several barrels. I had to break one just to get by.

The catacombs were full of skeletons in alcoves, and searching them produced various weapons, armor, and other items. It was here that I found all the extra gold nuggets that led to my returning to the Mint to trade them (recounted last time). I'm not sure if looting the dead produces a loss of karma or not, but it's not against my personal ethos.

Who the hell gets buried with a stick of butter?

There were a couple areas of swamp in the catacombs, and I only had one pair of swamp boots, so I had to cross by having one character wear them across, then take them off and toss them back to the next character. It was a bit tedious, so I was delighted a few hours later when I found someone selling them in Yew.

Passing a single pair of swamp boots across the swamp.

I had to fight down several levels of catacombs to find Beyvin's tomb, only to discover the door was locked. However, a note outside indicated that his cousin, Manrel, had visited recently. I returned to the surface and got the key from Manrel. Manrel made me promise to leave more flowers at the tomb, which I did.

The rune was buried with the body. I had to fight a battle with a random assortment of fighters and mages on the way out. I'm not sure what they were doing down here.

I received the Rune of Compassion early in the game. The mayor of Britain had given it to the bards at the conservatory, who had in turn entrusted it to the care of Ariana, a toothless, cloying child. She wouldn't give me the rune unless I got permission from her mother. I should have just pried it from her stunted little fingers and taught her a lesson about how the world really works.

The Rune of Valor had been trusted by the mayor to Nomaan, the local armorer and winner of a tournament.

"The Avatar's sword made a soft 'shring' as it left its sheath. Zellivan's smile turned to an expression of horror as he soon found the tip of the razor-sharp blade pressing into his throat. 'I'm on a quest to save the world,' the Avatar explained, his tone making it clear that he was done brooking fools. 'Perhaps you'd like to stop with the puns and just tell me where the rune is.'"

Unfortunately, Nomaan didn't have intelligence to match his martial skill, and during his victory celebration, he dropped it on the floor and a rat carried it into the walls of the pub. You could see the little mouse hole where he'd gone. I think the player should have had to figure out the solution on his own, but unfortunately a little serving girl in the pub had to spell out the whole thing.

For a game that otherwise has good graphics, that's a very-poorly-drawn tray of drinks.

I trudged back to Lord British's castle and added Sherry the Mouse to my party, then returned to Jhelom. In solo mode, Sherry could go through the mouse hole and find the rune--along with a Ring of Invisibility and a block of cheese, which I let her eat.

I was enough of a role-player that I returned to the castle before dismissing Sherry from my party. It seemed unlikely that a mouse could survive the journey from Jhelom. She'd have to stow away on a ship or something.

The Rune of Justice was buried with the former mayor of Yew (as in Moonglow, I guess everyone assumed they'd never need it again), but a thief stole it from the grave. He'd been caught and locked up, but he refused to tell anyone where he'd hidden it.

I used "Dispel Magic" to wake her up in bed and talk to her. I get sick of waiting for people to get out of bed on their own.

I had to get Lenora's permission to get the keys from the jailer to visit Boskin in his cell. Boskin pleaded that he was just trying to feed his family and would return the rune if he could be let go. Lenora balked at that and said that Boskin was a drifter who didn't have a family. When I returned to Boskin, he confessed that he was lying.

You are on such thin ice, my friend.

Finally, he told me the rune's location--hidden beneath a potted plant in the tavern--if I promised not to give it back to the town.

It's at this point that I'm obliged to note that Yew, despite its enlightened dedication to "justice," features a jail cell in which a child is locked up . . .

I guess the child is a "peasant," so that's okay.

. . . plus stocks and a guillotine.

So Britannia imprisons children, subjects people to torture, and still has capital punishment! Boy, this makes me glad to live in the 21st century in the United States . . . of . . . you know, let's just move on.

I already had a bead on the Rune of Sacrifice from my previous visit to Minoc. It was in the hands of the Artisan's Guild, and they'd let me have it if I became a member of the guild. This, in turn, required me to memorize "Stones" and make a set of panpipes from a fresh Yew board. I first had to visit Yew and get the wood from a lumberjack in the forest . . .

. . . then take it to a sawmill near Minoc and have it turned into a board. Selganor had insisted that I create the panpipes myself, but Julia ended up doing the entire thing for me.

Or any adventurer just pretending to be a bard, I hope.

Gwenno had taught me "Stones," so I went and played it in front of Selganor, was admitted to the Guild of Artisans, and got the Rune of Sacrifice.

It's a good thing the next one was easy, because I was done jumping through hoops to save everyone's life. The Rune of Honor was just sitting on a pedestal in the middle of Trinsic for anyone to come and take.

The mayor explained that the city's residents are so honorable that none would think of taking the rune for unworthy reasons. And it's not like there's a band of thieving gypsies camped just a little ways to the north.

Trinsic, incidentally, is the only walled city in this game, though all of them were walled in Ultimas IV and V. There are only two entrances, with guards patrolling them constantly. The walls feature no less than eight turrets with cannons. It's literally the only Britannian city prepared for a gargoyle invasion. Perhaps they should have been given all eight runes.

I'm not sure I've shown an image of a secret door yet. Can you see it just to my east?

The Rune of Spirituality was with Marney, the tragic orphan in Skara Brae. Her father had been entrusted with the rune, and he passed it on to her in a basket. Finding it was just a matter of searching a chest in her house.

Finally, the Rune of Humility was in New Magincia, given by the mayor to the most humble person in the town. I have to say that the Magincians have always creeped me out a bit with their cultish dedication to humility, always tripping over themselves to show how self-effacing they are.

Oh, come on. Get over yourself.

In the typical Magincian paradox, the most humble person was the one person who didn't prattle on so much about humility: Conor Starfalcon, a knight-turned-fisherman. Once I gave his name to the mayor, I got the rune and was out of the odd little compound.

Right. I'm sure the profit margins on liquor had nothing to do with it.

After I recovered each rune, I went to the associated shrine and fought the gargoyle occupiers. They got more difficult as time went by. The Shrine of Compassion had only three wingless gargoyles and one winged one (only the winged ones can cast spells), but by the time I cleared the Shrine of Humility, I was fighting three or four winged gargoyles and half a dozen wingless ones. In fact, I didn't complete that last battle. My party was so damaged that I eventually opened a moongate and escaped. But killing the gargoyles isn't necessary to free the shrine, and if you remove the force fields, the gargoyles are gone when you return.

"Liberating" the shrine is simply a process of using the rune and speaking the mantra. The force field drops, and I could collect the moonstones.

I confess that I haven't been going through the role-playing motions of asking townsfolk for the mantras. I remember them all from the two previous games. The one time I did think to try, I got some lip from the mayor of Yew.

I suppose she has a good point.

I now have a bag full of moonstones and a bag full of runes and no clue what to do with either. I'm sure it will become clear. To close, I want to note that according to Daver, the bell-ringer in Britain, the runes have "a symbol on one side, and a letter on the other." He muses that they would "probably spell something out if you put 'em all on a necklace."

Yes, I believe they would spell out INFINITY, which makes me wonder why I had to record all of those visions at the shrines in Ultima IV instead of just looking at the damned runes in my hand.


  1. With regards to getting buried with a stick of butter, did you see the recent find of a 3800 year old Chinese mummy that was buried with cheese?

    1. Aged cheese may be good. Aged butter, not so much!

    2. Yes but how does it taste? Do we need to start a future market of 4,000 year old cheese given extra flavorfulness by dent of their mummy caretakers?

  2. I always liked the Virtue system, and I'm not sure I could even name another equally well thought out religion created for a game.

    I think it's one of the things that adds so much to the world of Britannia, and with the other religious systems in the Ultima games it stands out amongst fantasy worlds.

    1. the Tribunal/Almsivii Temple in Morrowind springs to mind.

    2. The most original one was in Kult: Heretic Kingdoms - the God was officially dead and any kind of worship was considered heresy and severely punished ;)

    3. What I like about The Elder Scrolls religious system is that it's messy. You've got multiple competing faiths (just like on Earth), some of them contradictory, such as the Dunmer revering certain Daedra seen as "evil" by others. While the Tribunal, the Nine, and the Daedra incontrovertibly EXIST, it's never clear whether we should really regard them as "deities."

      Take the whole Talos question from Skyrim. The game itself never really comes down on either side, and there are compelling arguments either way.

      Ultima presents a much tidier package, which I confess I like a little less as an adult. On the other hand, The Elder Scrolls has never remotely prompted me to consider worshipping Daedra in real life, while Ultima did serve as my ethical base for about a decade.

    4. To a certain extent, Ultima's virtues system comprise more of a "philosophy" than a "religion" - at least not an "organized religion". Whereas a group of people who collectively worship some fictional entity are definitely a form of "religion". One could argue that a person could believe in the "philosophy" of Ultima and still be an adherent of a complementary religion (or non-religion/atheism).

    5. I don't know. All of the towns are FOUNDED on the virtues, and the people in them cheerfully say stuff like, "I meditate on Compassion!" If your entire society--heck, even your geography--is organized around a philosophy, I think it strays into "religion" territory.

    6. One could argue that a person could believe in the "philosophy" of Ultima and still be an adherent of a complementary religion (or non-religion/atheism). - It's a post-Christian misconception that one can't be a follower of several religious traditions. Abrahamic religions demand exclusivity, but there are traditions (especially in the early ages) that do not. A shining example would be Roman religious system where any kind of cult was accepted as long as its followers agreed to worship the emperor too.

      Also religion isn't necessarily "deity worship". The defining point of a religion is the concept of "sacred", which may be something quite abstract (think Taoism, for example). I'd say that Britannians view virtues as something pretty much sacred, thus it's a religion.

  3. The virtue system reminds me of Buddhism. I'm not especially well-versed in it, but I understand one of its foundational teachings is the eight-fold path, basically eight behaviors that contribute to freedom from suffering. It's also an atheistic religion in that it eschews specific gods, and veneration of the Buddhas (who are basically just people who have achieved enlightenment) mirrors the role of the Avatar. Except I don't think any of them had to kill an army of gargoyles.

    1. Buddha would have been all OVER those gargoyles if they'd come, though, clearly.

      I think that the interesting (albeit somewhat preachy) notion of the Ultima games and the virtue system really comes into its own here in Ultima 6. The idea is that British (along with but not exclusive to his companions) are all aspiring towards these virtues thar establish what could easily be viewed as a religion. However, without the perspective (from the outside looking in) of the Avatar, it's suddenly far easier to see the gargoyles as an invading force of evil instead of painting them with a fair and even brush, no matter how virtuous you might be. Insert allegories to the cold war here, queue Richard Garriot waving a world peace sign from space, the oceans are invaded by cute puppy dogs and kittens, go America.. You know. The regular stuff.


      Buddha lays the smackdown on demons so fast, them demons have to reincarnate 3 times over, invent a time machine and travel back to the past to catch with their current selves.

    3. "It's also an atheistic religion in that it eschews specific gods,"

      Only very specific denominations (who tend to be recent and popular in the West) do this. The vast majority of buddhists throughout history have worshipped gods. Also, in the oldest Buddhist text avaliable, the Buddha himself says that people should worship the gods.

      And in some denominations the Buddhas and Buddisatvas have basically replaced the gods. There is a Buddha for childbirth, a Buddha for rain, a Buddha for commerce, etc.

    4. Nate's point is still quite valid, though, given that the games were designed by westerners. The eightfold path/eight virtues theory is awfully compelling, particularly given that the eightfold path grows from a "threefold division" (although not in the Venn diagram way of the virtues). You could even argue for some direct analogues between the eightfold path factors and the virtues. Honesty="Right Speech"; Valor = "Right Action."

  4. I don't remember Ultima 7-9 well enough to comment on future Ultimas, but it is interesting that there is no specific mention of a being to worship. That said, I think I remember the Guardian placing itself in the role of a god-figure...I just don't remember if the term "god" was specifically used or not, but I certainly got that impression...which is also interesting in light of your thought!

    1. Yes, the Fellowship in U7 is certainly made out to be a religion. That they are also the bad guys might be a hint as to which side of the religion debate Richard Garriot falls.

    2. I've always thought that the Fellowship had been a parody of Scientology... And Batlin's Travolta.

    3. I may've read too much into it, since I'm Calvinist, but I saw the Fellowship as Garriott's not-so-subtle poke at Christian dogma of grace and works. The Avatar's system of eight virtues is clearly works-based -- do this, do that, follow the rules, and live up to a high ethical standard. The Fellowship, meanwhile, points out that no one can truly match up to the Virtues' exacting requirements, and so instead we should have a society of love, brotherhood, and forgiveness. Batlin, as the false messiah, explains in his tract (the game manual) how he himself lived the complete Avatar life. I found it a clever swipe at St. Paul's dichotomy of grace vs. works, and St. Paul's claim that the messiah Jesus had perfectly lived out the law.

      Incidentally, too many years ago I applied to Origin and got as far as a phone interview. The interviewer told me, I kid you not, that my being a Christian worked in my favor because I could be the token Christian in the office. Apparently, the interviewer claimed, Garriott had created his Virtues system in response to Christians claiming his earlier games were demonic. I'm sorry I didn't get the job, 'cause I would've loved to be part of Origin, token or otherwise!

  5. There's several.

    Planescape: Torment - Everyone is, or potentially can/will be, a god.
    Torment: Tides of Numenera - You ARE a god (well, part of it).
    Fallout and Wasteland: Technology is religion.

  6. "Look- Thou dost see butter."

    1. I wondered about this. It's worth noting that at the time that Ultima6 was being programmed/released, there was a product starting to do the rounds around the US called "I can't believe it's not butter". It was mocked and parodied extensively by various comedy shows. "I can't believe it's not carcinogenic" etc.

      Could the butter be part of this mockery of this product? The timing is right. 1990 for game release. 1989 for when the product was becoming common around US

  7. In Ultima 8 I think it is implied if not stated that the people of Pagan worship the Titans as gods. Although Ultima 8 is easy to forget about, even if you have played it. (Even the developers of Ultima 9 forgot major plot elements from Ultima 8!)

  8. You'd think they'd be a little more careful with these super-important runes. I do understand and appreciate the need for some gamey-ness in these situations, but sometimes it seems so silly it'd break my immersion. At least most of the quest seem fun to fulfill.

    1. The game never really explains where the runes came from--presumably they were created by the Council of Wizards when they created the shrines. Can they be RE-created if they're lost?

    2. Wasn't there a guy in Ultima IV who carved runes for living?

    3. And judging by how Brittanians are handling them, he should be doing a roaring business.

    4. Yes! Good call, Ilmari. I just looked up my notes, and his name was Azure. He made it sound like runes were generic things rather than unique artifacts. This makes sense given that multiple people might want to visit the shrines.

    5. Speaking of the word infinity, how was one supposed to figure that out originally? Don't the letters just briefly flash each time you gain the 8th for that virtue? And weren't they in that runic language as well? What if you didn't notice the first time a weird letter flashed on your screen, then got the other 7 and forgot what the first one was?

    6. That's interesting that they can just be made. Makes me wonder what there inherent power is then - or are they basically just keys that can be copied?

      Though this really just serves to switch the question to - why go through all this trouble instead of finding someone to carve them all up for you? Maybe the carving thing is a lost art now. How long after 5 does this take place?

    7. Steve, that actually happened to me the first time I played the game. The first few times I got an "eighth," I didn't realize the displayed runic letters were important. Party of the problem was that so many of them were the letter "I", which doesn't look very significant (in runic or English), and I don't even think I realized the game was showing me letters.

      Once I figured it out, I had a jumble of potential letters, and it didn't occur to me to string them in the standard "virtue order" to see what they spelled. I fought my way through the Stygian Abyss--on the C64, you couldn't save while IN the Abyss--got to the door, and had that "Oh, hell" moment when I realized what the final question was going for. Whatever I guessed, I guessed wrong.

      I didn't want to restart the game, so I called Origin Systems, and they told me the answer.

  9. Maybe, Britannians inscribed the letters somewhere between U4 and U6? You know, just to save their future saviour a bit of trouble... Nah, doesn't look plausible.

    1. Maybe the Avatar himself inscribed them! Think about it: he was sitting there in the shrine, holding the rune in his hand, when the vision of the letter suddenly came upon him. He thinks, "I'd better write this down."

  10. I won't spoil it but Ambrosia does make a comeback later on.

    Also, I didn't realize that it gets progressively harder to clear the shrines as you go on. Or is it just that the Shrine of Compassion is easy since it's right near the starting town? I remember when I played the game I would moongate in, free the shrine and just moongate back out, ignoring the gargs.

    It seems like most quests in the Ultima series essentially boil down to a series of scanvenger hunts. You're searching for runes, stones, mantras, bells, books, candles, skulls, shards, LB's missing items, etc. But I think that works very well. It reduces combat (no "go into X dungeon and kill Y boss" quests), allows for variety (some items are in towns, some are in dungeons, some are in secret locations) and keeps the focus on exploration and discovery which is where Ultima excels in. This post shows that quite well.

    1. I don't think it's just Compassion. I found Valor and Honesty to be relatively easy, too. I did rise one or two levels during the process, so I suppose it could be a leveling issue.

    2. Actually, to me, I think it would be better if they did something to increase combat. I have only finished 3 and 4 so far, but I enjoyed combat in them and wish there could have been more.

  11. "So Britannia imprisons children, subjects people to torture, and still has capital punishment! Boy, this makes me glad to live in the 21st century in the United States . . . of . . . you know, let's just move on"

    You gotta problem with that? Go back to Massachu . . . oh.

    1. Don't forget the guy in the supermax isolation unit is in there for stealing a stone off a dead body. What are they going to do when they catch up with the perp who brazenly stole the magically locked vaults containing Lord British's gold reserves from the mint? Security video caught a grainy picture of a big dude with an ankh strapped to his forehead... better oil up the guillotine...

    2. That's a good point. Do they ever intend to let him out of there? Is he in jail for life?

    3. Perhaps Britannia was ahead of the curve in passing a "three strikes" law. Maybe he got busted twice before for minor offenses like, I don't know, killing Chuckles or whatever, and then he nicks the rune and that's it, mandatory minimum sentencing rules, 30 years.

    4. Once I tried taking justice into my own hands with him... tried to blow up the door and accidentally killed him. Restored... I managed to get the door unlocked (maybe by the magic-lock and then magic-unlock trick) and he just stays there, never leaves the cell, never changes his conversation...

    5. I just started Might and Magic 1 and feel the same way. Why am I helping a town that seems to be half a prison where the underground IS an entire prison, the same size as the town? That makes American's severe imprisonment rate seem mundane!

      Though to be fair, I have no idea why I'm doing anything in Might and Magic so far other than some random prisoner asked me to deliver a letter... so I guess I am taking sympathy on them.

  12. I really like that even after having their town destroyed, Magincians Just Don't Get It.

    1. You have to admit, humility is a tough one. Most of the other virtues are about actions, but humility is more of a character trait, and if you don't honestly feel it, you're just faking it.

    2. Penitent man is humble before god. Kneel!

  13. Regarding gods in Ultima, Ultima IV documentation I believe said that Magincia was destroyed by the gods for it's pride. Or that the gods let demons destroy it. True though, it's not really something in the religious lore of the games.

    1. I thought you were wrong--that daemons just destroyed it on its own--but the manual does indeed mentione "the legendary town of Magincia, which the gods destroyed for the insufferable pride of those that dwelt there."

      Nonetheless, this is the only appearance of "gods" in the manual.

      I just went on a search for other documentation. Neither "god" or "gods" appears in the manuals for I or II. III offers the player the wish that "May the Gods of the People grant thou victory." No gods in the manuals for V or VI, although VI does refer to horses as a "godsend."

      In-game, III says "you can't cheat the Gods!" if you don't have any money when you go to the shrines in Ambrosia. One character in IV says "thank god!" when you give some good news. No other mentions of gods in any of the transcripts.

      So Britannia does seem to have some conception of deities; it's just not a very well-defined pantheon.


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