Wednesday, September 05, 2007

morality in Ultima IV

This post is mostly for Stuart's benefit. I haven't played Ultima IV in years, so if anybody has something to add or wants to clarify my addled memory, please speak up.

Chargen in Ultima IV is unlike any other game I've played. You are in a gypsy fortuneteller's wagon, where she asks you a series of moral questions. None of these questions has a right answer, but instead you must choose one virtue over another. "You and your friend battle a dragon. He thinks he slew the beast, but you know that you are the one who struck the telling blow. Do you Honestly correct him when he claims the glory for himself? Or Humbly allow him to take credit?"

After a series of these questions you end up favoring one of eight virtues over another. Each virtue is tied to a class. The first time I played I ended up being a Bard, because my answer's favored their virtue. Compassion, was it? I think so. The second time I played I gamed the system, picking Humility at every opportunity so I could play a Shepherd.

Within the game you must achieve all Eight Virtues by meditating at the eight Shrines of virtue. Locating and gaining access to the shrines is a big part of the game, as is learning the proper mantra to chant for each virtue. After successfully achieving a virtue, you can lose it. Steal from people in towns? Lose a random virtue. Speak to beggars (some of whom have valuable clues) but fail to give them alms? Looks like you need to purify yourself at the shrine again, bub. Becoming virtuous was hard work. Staying virtuous means avoiding a lot of rascally behavior that many PCs get up to in D&D games.

Some of this looks a little hamhanded and hokey nowadays. But for a computer game with swords and orcs, circa 1985, this was pretty sophisticated stuff.


  1. Lord British (gah, what a name) is still at this in the games he is designing now. His MMOG Tabula Rasa is supposed to have similar sorts of ethical challenges for players.

  2. The gypsy's "cosmo quiz" questions were (I believe) a genuine novelty when Ultima IV hit the shelves, but fortunately it didn't remain unique -- it's since been imitated to some extent in a number of other computer games. The most recent ones I've personally played were the Summon Knight games (GameBoy Advance), where a series of gypsy-style questions determine what sort of familar/creature is appropriate as your companion in the game.

    And, of course, it's been adopted to pen-and-paper play (sometimes more stealthily than others) by a number of GMs over the years ...

    I only wish it were imitated more often, really.

    Oh, speaking of Ultima IV, have you ever played with the fan-upgrade to the graphics?

    The last couple of times I've played Ultima IV (which is, like Doom II and the Infocom library, permanently installed on my computers at all times), I gave it a whirl and it's pretty cool.

  3. Thanks.

    The fact that there was a Shepherd class makes this game double-plus cool.

    The fact that virtues are things you acquire by questing is a bit odd. Did the quests for specific virtues involve practicing/testing those virtues at all or was it just find the shrine and collect the next virtue?

  4. S. John, thanks for that link!

    The fact that virtues are things you acquire by questing is a bit odd. Did the quests for specific virtues involve practicing/testing those virtues at all or was it just find the shrine and collect the next virtue?

    I have a vague recollection that as part of the quests you would occasionally be asked an ethical question by a character and you would get your next clue only if you could provide the right answer.

  5. I always ended up with the Shepherd when I answered the questions honestly. As much as it warms my heart to think that I was a humble young man, I was always disappointed by it - I wanted to play a Paladin, man!

    Was there anything particularly cool about the Shepherd?

  6. Was there anything particularly cool about the Shepherd?

    The class had no mechanical advantages per se. You could use slings and quarterstaffs, IIRC, and wear leather armor. (Though like any other class, you could use the super-special Mystic Arms and Armor when you found them.) You could not cast spells. It was a gimp class, which I can be a sucker for.

    But there seemed to be a strategic a advantage to playing shepherd. One of the cool things about the game that I did not mention earlier is that you had to recruit the rest of your party. You could add a new member every time you gained a new level, up until you had a full boat of 8 characters. BUT you could only have one member of each class, including yourself and you had to find the one member of that class who would join your party. Geoffrey was the only fighter who would sign on with you, Mariah the only mage, etc.

    While playing as a bard I could never find the one Shepherd that would join your party. I searched high and low throughout the realm, trying to max out my party. Eventually I decided to start the game over and play a Shepherd so I could have 8 party members.

    Also, as a Shepherd your PC icon was this cute little sprite with a crook staff.

    Now, if anyone reading this can tell me the name and location of the join-able Shepherd, I'd really like to know!

  7. devin's comment made me think immediately of the Shermy line from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

    The Shepherd that can join the group is Katrina, in Magincia. She returns in Ultima V (which I love on par with Ultima IV and also keep perma-installed) and Ultima VI (which I like okay I guess, and which was the last one I played, but I haven't played it in maybe four or five years, now).

    Katrina's Wikipedia page:

  8. Ah, and upon actually reading said Wikipedia piece, apparently she returns again in Ultima VII, but I recall starting that one and not sticking with it at all. I've got Black Gate/Serpent Isle around here someplace (as part of an all-in-one collection of classic Ultima purchased a few years ago), and just thinking about Ultima VII puts me in the mood to play IV and V instead :)

  9. Great Post. I fell in love with Ultima when I was younger. I saw that banner in the computer store of the Avatar standing with his foot on a gargoyle and I was instantly sold.

    I bought a 4,5,6 pack, that came with a thick clothlike pressed map. In either 4 or 5 I killed someone I wasn't supposed to on some island and wasn't able to complete the game.

    So I started playing 6, which I think was the gargoyle one. Or maybe that was 7. Aahhhh. I can't remember.