[MUD-Dev] RE: Some essays I've written lately

Koster Koster
Fri May 8 11:50:34 New Zealand Standard Time 1998

What Rough Beast?

     Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
     Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Forgive me if the quote is inaccurate--it's from memory. It was 
written by William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet, and people have been 
quoting it ever since.

The latter line may hold some resonance for those players struggling 
with the issues of harassment and playerkilling in the virtual 
setting. It's a difficult problem, to say the least. "Where," players 
might ask, "have the Virtues gone?" This is, after all, Ultima 

By now most gamers have heard the story, of course. Richard Garriott, 
after making Ultima III, felt that his games were lacking a moral 
center. And so in Ultima IV, he made the central storyline of the game 
be about a simple moral structure: eight qualities he found admirable 
and which fit well within the fantasy setting.. The Virtues. And ever 
since, Ultimas have been about ethics, which is a large part of what 
makes the series a landmark in the history of computer gaming.

Yet UO does not directly support the Virtues, at the moment. Why is 

For an answer, I thought I would dig up a design document I wrote back 
on September 13th, 1995...

     Setting implications

     The setting statement implies that the regular course of the 
Ultima games is the aberration in the normal course of events. Normal 
worlds in the multiverse do not get set under the caretaking hands of 
a Time Lord, therefore they do not manifest such recurring forces as 
the Avatar and Lord British and the Guardian and all the other 
characters who make up what we know in the regular Ultima sequence.
(The "setting" referred to is the fact that UO is an alternate shard 
from the regular canon Ultima universe. Within the canon Ultima 
universe, the Time Lord sends Avatars, of course, who serve as 
examples of the Virtues. The other shards, as those who have read 
Sherry the Mouse's book may know, are mere shadows that may or may not 
someday reunite with the main universe. However, they are not 
receiving that paternalistic intervention from outside...)

     Instead, the normal world is composed of daily power struggles, 
of ethical dilemmas without clearcut answers, and clearly have a lack 
of guidance from outside. There is no ultimate authority like a Time 
Lord sitting out there to tell the inhabitants of these other worlds 
exactly what course of action is the best.

     Granted, the instruction of the Time Lord till now has been 
essentially that the "corrrect" course of action is often not the one 
that comes immediately to mind; in that sense, the regular Ultima 
series is a gradually developing course in ethics, beginning with 
simplistic good and evil (Mondain, Minax, Exodus), to the notion of 
'absolute' virtues in a rather Aquinas-like philosophy, and from there 
towards the notion of ethical relativity that manifests in U6 and 
later episodes. Thus the regular Ultimas develop the concept of 
ethical behavior gradually.

     The goal then for the setting and theme of Ultima Online is to 
recapitulate this development on an individual basis, permitting 
players free rein to behave as they prefer--but also to incorporate 
the notion that has been implied in all the mainstream series: that 
ethics and governance are essentially the same subject. That what is 
proper ethical behavior on the part of the individual, i.e. the 
governance of one's impulses and desires, is also proper behavior for 
those who seek to govern others. Thus it is that Lord British becomes 
the exemplar of behavior in Ultima Online, rather than the Avatar, for 
in the normal course of human events, people do not develop into the 
sorts of external forces that the Avatar is in the regular series.

     In Ultima Online, the underlying game mechanics do not only 
reward behavior that considers the good of the many, they demand it. 
The game's basic principle is that of governance and conservancy. The 
role of the player seeking to continue the thematic impulse of the 
Ultima series is therefore that of governance--the process of 
developing into someone in the game context who seeks to emulate Lord 
British's goals of equitable governance. The system poses 
irreconcilable ethical dilemmas just as any ecological system must, 
and the player will simply have to navigate these as best he can.

     Given these implications, the game mechanics of Ultima Online 
must include a mechanism to reward players who successfully survive 
and continue to succeed, by granting them greater powers to govern 
others. Building castles, etc, is a possibility. Then again, the 
truest simulation of this may in fact be to simply let those with 
enough money build and gain power, and let their own natures or 
roleplayed natures determine their fates (hated tyrants or benign 
despots or enlighened rulers?). The design issue becomes whether this 
is an overt enough statement of the thematic underpinnings of the 

Fairly lofty stuff for a design document! And of course, it has that 
assumed notion of players exercising power over one another. In its 
crudest form, this manifests as playerkilling.

For the last few decades, the academic world has been paying a lot of 
attention to the notion of the Other. That is to say, that poorly 
understood and perhaps incomprehensible being or beings that is not of 
our own tribe. There is a lot of turgid writing going on analyzing the 
work of writers who deal with issues of cultural conflict, such as 
Bharati Mukherjee, or Chinua Achebe. You might have heard of this 
latter fellow--you may have read his best-known book, Things Fall 
Apart, in high school.

Achebe's novel deals with the issues of what happens to an African 
tribe when its values begin to contact those of Western society, and 
what sorts of compromises must be made. It's a great read, in part 
because it crystallizes a sense of loss for the culture which is being 
overwhelmed and diluted. Yet at the same time that it is a novel about 
the Other (and in his novel, the Other is us, really--the Western, 
computer-literate Net-surfing UO-playin' types) it is also a novel 
that creates a stronger sense of identity for the lost culture than 
would have otherwise existed.

This is because, as any visual artist can tell you, if you want 
something light to stand out, you had better put it against a dark 
background. And in cultural terms, the Other is the perfect dark 
background. It is somewhat ironic that in order to convey to readers 
the African culture which he saw as vanishing, he selected a book 
title drawn from an Irish modernist poet.

Which brings us to the Dracul and Kazola's tavern, or the similar 
events that are occurring in Oasis with the reorganization of the 
player militia to denfend against organized attacks. (You knew I'd get 
to UO at some point, right?). What makes us fear the Other is the 
exercise of power, or the potential for it. Yet what we use as a 
yardstick for our own identity as a culture is very often our 
difference from the Other. From the enemy. From what we do not wish to 
exercise power over us. The last paragraph of the call to arms from 
the Sonoma Oasis Militia is particularly telling and eloquent in this 

It is the idealistic goal of most citizens of Oasis that one day the 
city will need few active guards, and the spotlight will rightfully 
fall on our tavernkeepers, smiths, tinkerers, seekers, innkeepers, 
chefs, tailors, beggars, alchemists, mages, bards, rogues, librarians, 
scholars, rangers, miners, assassins, diplomats, and tamers--ALL of 
whom currently exist in Oasis but are frequently overshadowed by 
conflicts with those who would attack us. To approach that state, 
however, we need to continue to surmount substantial challenges...

   Oasis seeks to defend its culture from the Other, and what's more, 
it is coming together, and becoming a stronger entity because it faces 
those challenges. Kazola's tavern is famous in UO, not for being a 
roleplayer's tavern, but rather for being a flickering light of a 
roleplaying tavern that struggles against the forces of darkness.

So thank heavens for the Other, and thank heavens for the 
playerkillers. For without them these places would not have acquired 
the sense of cultural identity that they now have. Bonds have been 
formed by struggling against a common Other that would otherwise have 
been cheaper, and easily earned. Cultures define and refine themselves 
through conflict. What's more, you can measure the strength of a 
culture by people's willingness to fight for its survival.

So we come full circle to the Virtues. Oasis and Kazola's (and the 
Councils of Virtue, and Rivendell, and the City of Yew and...) are 
expressing the Virtues. They are just doing it without the training 
wheels. Unlike the standalone Ultimas, UO is not an open-book quiz.

The Ultima series was ready to make the leap from leading to allowing 
players to lead. To go from difficult ethical choices on paper to 
difficult ethical choices in reality. The question to ask is whether 
the players it attracted were ready.

You may each have your own answers for that, but I am optimistic. 
Right now the fledgling societies within UO are rambunctious, rough, 
occasionally cruel and callous, sometimes gloriously civilized. But 
they are indeed the sign of things being born, and of people following 
the Virtues on their own and not because the game makes them do so.

How did that poem go? "What rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem to 
be born?" I bet we'll find out together.

-Designer Dragon

An aside: the response to yesterday's essay was immediate and 
gratifying. Many thanks to those players who shared similar stories on 
the web boards and in private email, and to those many fan sites who 
wrote asking for permission to reproduce the essay. Permission is of 
course granted.

MUD-Dev: Advancing an unrealised future.

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