Friday, June 4, 2010

Ultima IV and Magic

The awesome Ultima IV Book of Mystic Wisdom page for the "turn undead" spell.

Quick: what game am I describing? In this game, your character has a certain number of "hit points" that increase as you become more powerful. Enemies' weapons and spells, poison, and sometimes falls and other accidents damage your "hit points." The game provides spells, potions, and other items that help you regain them, and you can always regain them by waiting or resting. If your "hit points" fall too low, your character dies.

Anyone? If you guessed Wizardry, you're right. Of course, you're also right if you guessed Phantasie, the Bard's Tale, Ultima III, Morrowind, Baldur's Gate, Diablo, Might and Magic II, or just about any CRPG in existence. Among all CRPGs, there is extremely little variation in the way the game treats your health. In a posting a few months ago, I talked about hit points as the glue that holds all CRPGs--indeed, all RPGs--together. "If anyone ever makes a movie about CRPGS," I said and still maintain, "They ought to call it Hit Points."

Systems of weapons and armor are also remarkably similar across RPGs. Certain weapons do more damage than others. Certain armors protect more. Some weapons and armor you buy, some you can find in the game. There are both ranged and melee weapons. Different classes can wield and wear different weapons and armor. And so on. Very little variation from this basic template from game to game.

Now contrast this with magic systems. Fully describe the magic system of any game, and there's a decent chance that your description applies only to that game, or at least only to games in that series. The ways in which CRPGs vary magic are astounding. Think of all the different dimensions involved:

  • Spell acquisition: Some games allow players to cast every spell from the outset, provided they have enough magic points (Ultima III) or can afford them (Ultima I); others require you to achieve certain levels to acquire spells (Wizardry); still others require you to find or purchase the spells in-game to make them part of your spellbook (the Dungeons & Dragons games, at least to some extent).

The spell book in Might and Magic VII. I'll get there eventually. The game requires you to find or purchase spells to populate your book. As you cast them, your magic points (the blue bar next to the character portrait) decrease.

  • Spell limits: In some games, there are no practical limitations to the number of spells that you can cast (Ultima I); in some, you can cast a certain number per level (Wizardry; sorcerer classes in D&D games); in some, you have a certain number per level and you must memorize them first (most classes in D&D games); and in some, you have a pool of "spell points" or "mana" that depletes depending on the strength of the spell (Might and Magic VI; Morrowind). In these games, your spell points may be dependent on your attributes alone (Ultima III), your level alone, or your level multiplied by your attributes. In a few rare games, spells exist only in scrolls or potions that are depleted as you use them.
  • Spell regeneration: Some games require you to rest to recharge your spell points or renew your access to spell levels (D&D games); some regenerate continually as you walk around (Oblivion). Games of the latter type might have potions that help restore your spell points (Might and Magic VI-VIII).
  • Spell access: In some games, you access your spells by selecting them from a "spell book" (Ultima VII), while some require you to type the name of the spell (Wizardry) or a letter or numeric code (Might and Magic I).

In the Wizardry series, you must know a spell's name, plus have the appropriate spell level, to cast it.

  • Character limitations: In some games, every character can cast at least some spells (Morrowind; Oblivion); in others, there are non-magic-using characters who can cast no spells (D&D games). Usually games of the former type give more spell access to certain classes.
  • Physical objects: Some games require physical objects, like talismans and reagents, to cast spells, regardless of levels or magic points (Ultima IV-VII); others depend solely on innate ability.
  • Spell stratification: Most games make at least a distinction between arcane and divine spells (D&D games), but some do not (Ultima IV). In some games, there are further distinctions, with spell schools like necromancy and illusion (D&D games) or alteration and conjuration (Elder Scrolls games). These games vary as to what types of spells are available to which classes.
  • Custom spells: Most games restrict you to a list of pre-defined spells, but a few (e.g., Oblivion) allow you to create custom spells that combine various pre-defined spell effects.
  • Items as spell proxies: Many games provide magic items, like wands and scrolls, that have the same effect as spells (The Bard's Tale); others use spells for all of their magic (Ultima IV).
  • Magic as a requirement: In a few games, you cannot progress in the game without the ability to cast certain spells (e.g., Phantasie and the teleport spell that takes you to the city of the gods); in some, spells are essentially superfluous--you could just as easily play the game with fighters only (Ultima II). There are many that occupy a middle ground where magic is theoretically optional but, unless you want an extreme challenge, functionally necessary.

I'm sure I've missed a few of the facets of magic systems in this brief list (please comment if you can think of any more), but the overall point is that the various combinations of these elements create unique magic systems for each game. Occasionally you find game series that are consistent in their uses of magic (D&D games of the same editions; Might & Magic VI-VIII; Wizardry I-III), but very often even series are inconsistent in the way they treat magic. The Ultima series is probably the most egregious offender here. If I recall correctly:

  • In Ultima I and Ultima II, you buy spells and can cast them until you run out.

Visiting the spell store in Ultima I

  • In Ultima III, your characters have different numbers of spell points depending on their class. Spells are divided into priest and wizard classes. You cast them by specifying the associated letter. Spell points recharge as you move around, at different rates depending on class.
  • In Ultima IV, all characters have access to the same spells. There are 26, one for each letter of the alphabet. Spell points are dependent on your intelligence and a multiplier based on your class (but not on your level). To cast spells, you must first "mix" them using reagents which you must buy and find (more below). Spell points regenerate as you walk around and sleep.
  • Ultima V (this is to the best of my recollection) works like Ultima IV except that there are many more spells. Spells are based on syllables ("AN" for negate; "NOX" for poison; "IN" for creation), and you cast them by combining the right syllabus (e.g., "AN NOX" would be cure poison, but "IN NOX" would cause an enemy to become poisoned). You need your reagents, but I can't remember if you have to mix them first.
  • Ultima VI and VII, on the other hand, use spell books. You must first find or buy spells and put them in your book before you can cast them. You still need your reagents, but these just deplete automatically as you cast the spells.
  • In the Ultima Underworld games, you have a pool of "mana" that depletes as you cast spells. The syllable system is back, but you need the correct rune to use each syllable. There are no reagents.

Spell runes and mana (the blue potion bottle) in Ultima Underworld

I never played Ultima VIII or Ultima IX, so I don't know how they differ, but the overall point is that every Ultima introduces a new twist in the magic system.

Let me explore Ultima IV's magic system in a little more depth. The first thing that's important to know is that spells are almost completely optional. There are a couple of characters you cannot talk to, and a few places you can't go, unless you can cast "dispel field," and I suppose you'd die a lot without the "cure poison" spell, but otherwise you don't really need magic. I'm about half way through the game already and I've yet to cast a single offensive spell.

As I mentioned, to cast spells you must first "mix" them using the appropriate reagents. As with everything else in the game, there are eight of them: sulphurous ash, ginseng, garlic, spider silk, blood moss, black pearl, nightshade, and mandrake. The first six can be readily bought from different magic shops around Britannia, but the latter two (necessary for the most powerful spells) you must "find" in the wilderness. A series of characters give you hints as to where they can be found, and ultimately you need a sextant to find the coordinates for the specific location of nightshade, while you can only collect mandrake by standing on a particular patch of poison. You can only pick them when the dual moons are dark, so amassing a lot of either is quite difficult.

Finding mandrake--and getting nice and poisoned (it grows in a patch of it)

The game is ingenious with the specific uses of the reagents. Rather than just require a random selection of reagents for each spell, the reagents each have specific purposes, floridly described in The Book of Mystic Wisdom. For instance, the book has this to say about ginseng: "Long praised for its strength-giving and medicinal properties, the root of the ginseng plant is immediately recognizable for its forked shape, and to those initiated in the mystic ways, by its overpowering rose-colored aura. It has been used for centuries by peasants who chew it or brew tea from a powdered preparation of the root in order to gain strength and stamina as they toil in the fields." This is all fluff, of course, as you never actually "see" the ginseng in the game (there's no icon for it), but still fun to read.

So ginseng is required for healing, sulphurous ash for fire and "flash," garlic for warding (illness or beings), spider silk for binding, blood moss for movement, black pearl for projectiles, nightshade for poison and illusion, and mandrake for general power. Thus, the "cure poison" spell requires a combination of healing and warding (ginseng + garlic), while "fireball" requires fire and projectile magic (ash + black pearl), and the powerful "negate time" spell requires a bit of flash, some warding (of time, I guess), and a lot of power (ash + garlic + mandrake). Genius. For a few spells, the book does not give you the ingredients, or gives you incorrect ingredients, and you must find out the right combination through experimentation or from NPCs.

Once you mix a batch of spells, you have them in your reserve to cast them when you need them, provided you have enough magic points. The game is a bit vague on how many points are needed for each spell, so it's been a bit of trial and error. So far, the most useful spells for me have been the aforementioned "cure poison" and "dispel field" plus one that allows you to exit a dungeon immediately.

As I said, there are 26 spells--one for each letter of the alphabet--and 23 of them begin with a sensible letter, so they're easy to remember: (c)ure poison, (f)ireball, (l)ight, and so on. The three exceptions are the three dungeon movement spells, which are (x)it, (y)up, and (z)down. The Book of Mystic Wisdom has some fun with the fact that these don't follow the pattern: "The most elementary forms of transportation both have strange names and may be used only when underground. The more difficult of the two is known by the letter 'Y' in honor of the mage Yenthak Gnor, who first crafted the enchantment... The origin of the [name for the (z)down spell] is uncertain, but it is believed that the letter 'Z' is the first letter of the unpronounceable Truename of the Lord of the Underworld, a demon of much power."

Now, this wouldn't be Ultima IV if there wasn't a virtue angle to the spell system, and it comes when you purchase your spell reagents. For some reason, all of the reagent vendors in Britannia are blind. You go to buy garlic for 4 gold pieces a clove, specify that you want 10 cloves, and the seller asks for 40gp. The game then gives you the option to pay whatever you want. Cheat her, and your honesty (and perhaps some other virtues) suffers; overpay and your compassion and sacrifice go through the roof.

The Avatar does not cheat blind women

On to my own Ultima IV game: I've finished visiting all the cities, towns, and keeps, collecting mantras and runes, and finding clues. I bought a sextant (which allows you to identify your coordinates) and used it to collect the bell of courage, the book of truth, and the candle of love, which I need at some point to enter the Abyss. I also hauled Mondain's skull from the depths of the ocean--this is a powerful item that will instantly kill all your enemies, and everyone else in the area, but at the cost of all your virtue. An NPC told me the only virtuous way to use it is cast it in the lava outside the Abyss.

I spent a lot of time on bridges fighting trolls and gathering enough gold to purchase a decent number reagents. I also went and gathered a little nightshade and mandrake although I've yet to mix any spells that require them.

The seer Hawkwind in Lord British's castle tells me I'm ready for avatarhood in a few virtues, so my next step is to travel around and meditate the shrines. After that, it's time to hit the dungeons--I've got my eye on a magic wand and magic bow at the weapons shop in Buccaneer's Den, but I need piles of gold for both. In my next posting, I'll talk about shrines, meditation, and avatarhood.


  1. That was a great post on magic. I like that you add lots of screenies (You can never have too many screenshots!).

  2. Thanks, Stu. Finding appropriate screenshots for games I'm not actively playing is sometimes difficult, but it's nice to know that people appreciate them!

  3. You're making me think now. I play a pen&paper game occasionally called Ars Magic. What is interesting about that is the breakup of magic.

    You have things like your elements + extra (Air, earth, fire, water, beings/animals) and then your 'effect' (Create, remove, modify, mental) etc etc.

    The idea being you can mix and match elements and effects.

    eg.. To skin a cat you could mental/animal (Convince the cat to skin itself) remove/animal (Remove the skin from the cat) modify/animal (The animal now has now skin).

    The release date of Ultima IV? 1990. Ars Magica? 1991.. The proximity of times makes me suspicious.

    After all. Those 'words' associated with the spells and their effects...

    Could be happy coincidence (Correlation != Causation)

    Loving your blog. Later on I'll sort out a profile. In the meantime, I gave you the hint of healing with bards in bards tale with internal party fighting.. :P (To give you some continuity with visitors)

  4. and finally (As a follow up to my anonymous post). I typo'd.. Ars Magica NOT Ars Magic.

    Just got up-to-date on your blog..

    Keep going. This is fantastic.

  5. Does Hawkwind have anything particularly memorable to say, such as quotes from the band of the same name?

    1. Thou hast lost compassion over thine assault and battery of the human anatomy.

  6. Ha! I'd never heard of this band. Unfortunately, you can't interact with Hawkwind the same way you do with the other characters; all he does is tell you where you stand on various virtues. If there are song lyrics in here, I didn't notice them.

  7. Anonymous wrote:
    "The release date of Ultima IV? 1990. Ars Magica? 1991.. The proximity of times makes me suspicious."

    Ultima IV (as in "4", according to "Know Your Roman Literals, Lesson 1") came first to the market in 1985. I should know - thanks to the C64-version I nearly blew my school exam in '86/'87...
    Either you meant a different Ultima or it's pretty clear who stole where.

  8. Mondain's Skull is very much like the one ring. (Guess that's obvious) but U4 makes it tempting to use as the ring was in LOTR because it will kill your enemies easily but also your soul!

  9. As someone who never read LOTR--I just saw the movies--I always wondered exactly what the "one ring" DID. I mean, I know it turns you invisible, but is that it? Why does Boromir want it so bad? How does he plan to "use it against the enemy"? Have a spy sneak invisibly around Mordor trying to learn the enemy's secret plans, all the while having this giant eye going, "I see you!" at him?

  10. All the rings- the 9 for humans, 7 for dwarves, and 3 for elves, magnified their power and influence, and allowed them to achieve great things. The One Ring was secretly made to rule them all- to dominate the other ring bearers, and to control their works. For instance, Galadriel held one of the elven rings- if Sauron regained the ring, she and all her works would have fallen under his control.

    In general, the hobbits were able to use very little of what the ring was capable of, but in the hands of a powerful individual like Gandalf, Galadriel or Sauron, it would have been earth shattering. Boromir could have become a devastating general, perhaps. But everything the ring was used for would have been corrupted.

  11. Thanks for the explanation. I probably could have just looked that up. My wife and I re-watched the entire "Rings" trilogy recently, and I was struck by how little sense a lot of the plots made. There's all this talk about the rings given to the elves, dwarves, and men, but then no mention is ever made of them again. Then there's the passive voice that the rings "were gifted" to them. Who gave them? Sauron? Why did they take them?

    Then there's the business about Gimli not knowing his cousin and all his followers had been slaughtered what looks like decades ago, given the condition of the bodies. And how Gandalf seems to know about the balrog before they even go into the mines but doesn't bother to tell anyone. And how when he first meets Aragorn et. al. in the second film, he's so confused he doesn't even know his own name, but then literally in the next scene, he's back to his old self again. And nothing about what's happening with Arawen makes any sense. God, I need a whole blog for this. I suppose the books explain it all better, but I could never get through them.

    1. Sorry for being late, but some other blog I've been following in my RSS feed just recommended your blog and I've been hooked from the first minute.

      I am currently reading every post of yours, from the first going upward and wanted to answer your unanswered questions about LOTR:

      Yes, the books do give more details, but not only the LOTR books (my favorite is the Silmarillion, telling events from the old ages).

      Sauron was a master craftsman and, under a disguise or some kind of magical illusion, he came as a benefactor to the Elves of Middle-Earth (he had t hide is real person since he already caused mischief, even then).

      He helped the Elves to forge the 9 rings later given to humans and the 7 given to dwarfs. However, Sauron secretely forged his One Ring in secret to have control over these. Celebrimbor, the Elves' leader, forged alone the Elves' 3 rings of power, so they remained out of Sauron's One Ring grasp.

      Gandalf and the balrog: although there could be historical explanation (armies of Balrogs existed ages ago, which Gandalf knows about since he's knowledgeable of the past, being himself centuries-old), it is just simpler to think that he didn't want to terrorize the party by telling them (also, he probably didn't know if the Balrog was free or not...moreso he would hope they cross the mountains quickly so they don't get spotted by anything, less a Balrog).

      As for Arwen, she is mostly forgettable in the books. Peter Jackson put her in the front scene probably just to push a love story so girls would like the movie better (my own cheap judgement). In any case, Arwen having so much time was a liberty Jackson delivered by himself. You will see the same kind of liberal creation from him with Legolas being part of the Hobbit movie, which the book never mentionned first hand.

      Sorry for littering...back to reading and talking about CRPGs now. :)

    2. Thanks. I do appreciate the clarifications. I'm not sure it excuses the lack of these explanations in the film, though!

    3. As for his cousin getting slaughtered; Remember that all contact was by messenger. It wouldn't be unusual for a distant outpost to go a few years without sending someone on a long and dangerous journey to talk to the rest of the dwarves. If Gimli had been travelling or in a further distant hold it is entirely plausible that he wouldn't have gotten news that the normal messengers hadn't been seen.

      Gandalf certainly knew why Moria had been originally abandoned (They dug too deep and uncovered Balrogs) but he probably didn't know if any of them were still there and free--It had been a hell of a long time since anyone had been there, so long that even the Dwarves had forgotten what had driven them from Moria.

    4. This will be sacrilege to a lot of people, but I always liked The Hobbit better than LOTR. At least the book. I thought The Hobbit movie (though TBF I only bothered watching the first one) was crap.

      The Hobbit had a simple plot and characters you could identify with. The Dwarves came off as kind of average Joes. You'd read the events and think, 'Yeah, I could see that.'

      LOTR has a lot of meandering plot points and there are too many over the top superheroes. After Gandalf returns you never get the impression that the characters are in danger. They're just too powerful and mow everything down. None of the bad guys, even someone like the Witch King, gets 'over' on me as being a threat. You get that sense in the movie as well.

      IMO there are a lot of things that happen in Lord of the Rings where I think, 'If this wasn't Lord of the Rings I would never buy this'. I'm not saying it isn't worth reading. It's a classic after all. But it's treated like some kind of a Bible and it's not THAT good.

  12. The LOTR films are more style than substance. Visually and technically brilliant, but the plot and characters are weak.
    The Elves at Helms Deep and Aragorn killing a diplomatic envoy (Mouth of Sauron) is so totally out of character that I'm glad Tolkien himself was in no position to witness the travesty.

  13. Hawkwind could have been a tribute to the Micheal Moorecock character of the same name: As I recall the band was named after him.

    I never thought about it before, I read this, but it has been bugging me since. Tabletop RPGs have thought up many new systems for magic and HP that CRPGs don't seem to have payed attention to, despite the common origin of the games. Tabletop RPGs have a lot of limitations on the amount of math the players are willing to do, while CRPGs can do that sort of thing in the background, so it seems to me that CRPGs should naturally have evolved much more complex combat systems then tabletop RPGs, however the opposite seems to be true. The math in tabletop RPGs has been getting more and more complex, while CRPGs seems to be mostly static. I think it is because in a tabletop RPG the mechanics are A) More open, so everyone has to deal with the underlying system a little, B) You generally play a tabletop RPG a lot more then a CRPG, since there is no 'winning' the game.

    Still, you think there would be some CRPG designers who would have played GURPS or HERO or something and made CRPGs based totally on point buy, or where you don't have HP, but each wound you take adds penalties to your rolls, with some sort of death trigger when you gain a certain negative penalty. Now, on the other hand you do see a fair number of games with wound locations: Fallout being the first one to come to mind, but I'm sure there are others.
    Still, it seems odd that given the freedom to make the computer do the math for you that you wouldn't experiment with things more. Heck, there have been tabletop RPGs that tried to do exponents and logarithms as part of the game: no one played them, but there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea if you make a computer do the math.

    1. The Sega Genesis Shadowrun does play like the pen and paper version for magic, using force that may deal damage to you. No smoking though but it's different from a lot of CRPGs

  14. The magic system for Ultima 8 is one of the many cool things about that game. I look forward to reading your review of it (in a few years time??)

  15. In Arx Fatalis (2002) you use mouse gestures. That was quite some time before touchscreens and us starting to use actual gestures on them.

  16. Stumbled onto this while looking for images similar to Ultima IV's magic book and ended up reading the post. I really appreciate your first steps into summarizing the various CRPG magic systems.. I have not seen a similar overview. Also, I was surprised because I had not remembered the use of spell points in U-IV. I am currently developing an Indie game based on old-school CRPGs and have just started thinking about the magic system. I would like it to be a cross between U-IV and U-V.. but something that is not so complicated that it will keep the attention of a modern audience while also being accessible on a console (U-IV without a keyboard is tough and I am not sure players are willing to keep notes like you had to when we were kids).
    If you have other thoughts on what you like best/worst about old school CRPGs, I would love to hear them (feel free to reach out directly).

    1. I completely forgot about this entry. I should expand this into a bigger entry now that I have more experience with RPGs in general.

      As for your last point, that's really what my entire blog is about.


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