Ultima Game Developer: Magic



Ultima is a game of sword and sorcery. Unlike other role-playing games, however, Ultima has established a living magic system. New spells can easily be added, as long as their context can be converted to Words of Power.

The traditional Ultima model, as used in Ultima IV and later (with minor modifications) is Britannian Magic.

  • Each spell is part of a Circle of magic. Each circle of magic requires a corresponding level of experience in order to utilize it. In some games, a lower circle, or Linear system of magic is available, which can be used by anyone with magical training.
  • There are syllables of magic which correspond to the letters of the alphabet. Additional syllables are possible, as is shown in Serpent Isle. Each syllable of magic is also a gargish syllable.
  • Some special magic spells, or rituals, are written in gargish (beyond just the base syllables of magic). This is shown at the end of Ultima VI, and throughout Ultima VII and Serpent Isle. These special incantations are always for a particular purpose, and are rarely inscribed in a Spellbook.
  • Reagents are used for spells, and correspond to attributes about the spell. Each reagent has a purpose, such as Black Pearl being used for all spells that propel an object at range. While the reagents did not need to be manually mixed beyond Ultima IV, the spell description and reagent information indicate that mixing was still performed during the casting of a spell. Additional Reagents can be included, as was shown in Serpent Isle and Pagan.
  • Some users refer to this spellcasting system as Thaumaturgy, although that may be a unique school of magic as well.

The older Magic of Sosaria has been lost to the ages.

  • Each spell was cast by invoking a Latin-like phrase.
  • Magic was split between the arcane Cult of Runes, and the clerics of the Cult of Truth.

The Underworld series introduced Runic Magic. Although it shares many similarities to traditional Britannian magic, there are a few unique properties of this spellcasting system.

  • Runic magic can be cast even in magic-dead areas like the Stygian Abyss] or when surrounded by Blackrock.
  • Each syllable of magic is rendered as a rune. Up to three runstones can be held in one hand, between the fingers, and the combination of runes determines the spell to be cast.
  • No reagents are necessary to cast spells.
  • The circle of the spell and its mana requirement are the same as those spells cast traditionally.

Beyond the traditional magic systems, others exist alongside the Britannian model:

  • Elemental powers in the world of Pagan allow four different spellcasting system to exist: Sorcery, Necromancy, Tempestry and Theurgy.
  • Ultima Online features additional spellcasting systems: Magery (the traditional Britannian magic), Necromancy, Chivalry (Paladin Magic), Spellweaving (Multiple Mage spells), and Mysticism (Gargoyle spells). Alchemy is a skill used to create magic potions and objects using reagents. Bardic music skills, such as Discordance, Peacemaking and Provocation, are also mystically embued.
  • Savage Empire has a system where offerings given to a skull allowed the spirit within the skull to grant magical boons to the shaman. While quite simple in this World of Ultima game, as shaman and skulls were quite limited, a more complex system could easily be expanded.
  • Certainly, the Tarot cards, crystal ball and other devices used by the Gypsy during character creation are magical, although what system they utilize is not known.

What spellcasting system you use is often determined by what type of game you are emulating. Traditional Ultima games will use the traditional Britannian magic system, while Underworld-like games will use Runic magic. You could add in variation, either by including or excluding certain spells, changing the circle that spells belong to, or placing one of the optional magic systems in place, all of which have been done through the Ultima series.

How do you implement magic? This will often be one of the hurdles of game development. Must you acquire and inscribe each spell into a Spellbook, such as Ultima VI, VII and Serpent Isle did? Can anyone will a spellbook cast any spell, assuming they have the level, reagents and mana to do so? Do you gain access to each circle of magic as you level, or must you be tested by the Circle of Mages at the Lycaeum? Can all Britannian’s call upon magic, or only certain folk? Must you be born a mage, or can the skills be learned?

As you can see, magic is crucial to an Ultima game. How it is implemented, however, is very much in your hands.

Browncoat Jayson

Join me in New Britannia!

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2 Responses

  1. wtf_dragon says:

    I always liked runic magic.

    But if I were to try and implement it as a system in a game today, I’d probably add in a feature allowing for the combination of runic spells to create more potent magical effects. To my thinking, it’s something that the idea of runic magic rather naturally lends itself to.

    And it would also only make sense if a runic magic system included a couple of “quick slots” where useful spells could be cached for immediate use (possibly with a diminished action penalty, in a turn-based system)…not unlike stuffing the runes for a useful spell in one’s pocket.

  2. Magic is something I’ve always thought was exploited as being as easy as swinging a sword or throwing a rock. I think because it is inherently impossible it should be inherently taxing, meaning you can’t just hit a button on your gamepad or keyboard and have some crazy shit happen over and over again to your imbalanced benefit.

    Magic should be arcane, nebulous, and satisfy like nothing else can when used properly. It is a higher power and should be as far away from throwing a rock as possible without being a total pain in the ass gameplay-wise.

    When you heal yourself, you should sigh in relief that you’ve just accomplished the impossible and saved your own life.

    When you send a fiery orb into the midst of your enemies, though weak from exhaustion and falling to a knee you should rejoice as they shriek in fear and run away whether you hit them or not.

    Magic should never be taken for granted and never be common outside of the most dedicated of mages. I think magic should evoke a reverence that it hasn’t felt in some time, and whether it’s mixing reagents or sacrificing stamina it should come at a real price to the caster or those around him.

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