Tuesday, September 04, 2007

PC to tabletop: Ultima IV

There's been a lot of talk lately about video games like Worlds of Warcraft and Final Fantasy informing design decisions in the upcoming 4th edition of D&D. I fall in the camp that I don't care where a good mechanical idea comes from, but I'm not yet sure whether I want what other people consider to be good ideas in computer gaming. Still, I agree with the basic premise that a video game has the potential to positively impact tabletop play. Case in point: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.

I don't really play PC games any more and Ultima IV represented the highpoint of my interaction with computer gaming. I had played a bootleg copy of Ultima III, a less ambitious but still fun predecessor and I tried to enjoy the sequel but largely found it exchanged the soul the the earlier installments for greater technical sophistication and graphical embellishment.

Ultima IV featured great exploration of a huge overland map, secrets to be discovered, clues to be found, and interesting people to interact with. I found the dungeons genuinely thrilling and travel by sea exhilarating. And the quest of the game featured something previously unencountered in various Bard's Tales and Might & Magics and such: the evil to be defeated was not an external threat like an evil wizard or something. Rather the goal was to ennoble the hearts of the inhabitants of Britannia by leading an exemplary life of virtue. It was a game with a genuine moral dimension, not just a lameass alignment system.

The graphics were pretty weak, even by '80s Commodore 64 standards, but I loved the overhead view of the overland and town maps. The art was stylized in a way that made the lack of detail less important, in the way that a chess piece can be abstract but still symbolic.

One of the greatest thing abotu Ultima IV was the extra thing-a-ma-bobs that came in the box. (I guess someone at EN World decided that we would start calling this stuff "regalia".) For starters, you get an awesome cloth map of Britannia. Most of it is quite accurate, such that you can navigate large chunks of wilderness travel with it. The labels are all in a modified Viking style runic. A key for translation came in the box, but it wasn't necessary to use it to finish the game.

You also got two nifty stapled digest-sized books. I love digest-sized gamebooks. They just seem so light and fun. One of the books was titled The History of Britannia as told by Kyle the Younger. It was a great little mechanics-free overview of the gameworld, printed on a lovely heavy stock cream colored paper with brown ink and adorable little illustrations. Flipping through this book is a delight. Everything a starting player needs to know about the gameworld is contained in this small book, all presented in nice little snippets.

The second book was the spellbook. The cover was dark red with shiny gold runes on it. How can you not like that book? Inside each spell gets a one page description, largely free of mechanics and such, and a fullpage illo of some cool-looking wizard using the spell. Spells in Ultima IV weren't divided along class or level lines. Magic was just... magic. You might not have enough Magic Points to cast a particular spell, but you would only find something like that out via trial and error. The spellbook also explained the spell component system. There were only six or eight components and all spells made use of one or more of that set. The majority of these components could be bought at magic shoppes. But the two most potent components had to be found in the game.

Finally, each Ultima IV box came with a little cheap metal ankh, the symbol of morality in the game. In retrospect this use of the ankh has shades of Crystal Dragon Jesus written all over it. But I still treasure the ankh that came with my original copy of the game.

I look back at Ultima IV and see a lot of stuff I would enjoy in my tabletop games. Wouldn't it be great to be able to hand out a cute little booklet of campaign information, instead of a drab printout? And presenting a spellbook that looks like an occult tome would be the bee's knees. A cloth or parchment player map that looks genuine and is useful but that doesn't exactly match the official campaign map would be great. And I'd love to give out some sort of little gew-gaw to give players as a momento of a campaign. That's not even touching on the actual morality at work in Ultima IV. I'm not sure exactly what to do with that.