Ultima Game Developer: Morality


The Virtues

The Ultima series assumes that you are a good character; after all, you are the one to complete the Quest of the Avatar and become the epitome of virtue. Some games in the series have a way of keeping track of your virtual morality, in the form of Karma.

Karma is an “invisible” statistic, intrinsically part of your character but not something that you can see on any view in the game. This value is arbitrary, to an extent, in that it only records actions that would greatly help or harm other’s views of the character.

Only in Ultima IV was Karma measured much closer. Each Virtue had its own Karma rating, and as you advanced through the various Virtues their ratings improved. Hawkwind the Seer was the only character who could reveal how far along the path of the Virtues you had traveled.

Adding a mortality tracking system allows you to keep track of your player’s Karma, and have various effects within your game.

Good or Evil

There are several games now that keep track of your actions, and change the plot to suit the player’s motivation. Is it possible to track “Negative Karma” in your game? Should you?

  • “If you send someone to save the world, make sure they like it the way it is.” –XXX

Allowing “evil” characters is certainly possible, but doing so makes an assumption about the type of game you are creating. Evil characters do not have motivations that lead them to defeat the evil wizard, or seek enlightenment.

  • “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” –The Dark Knight

Now, if you’re set to allow evil characters, then you have more than doubled your work. There will invariably be things that only “good” characters will do, and only things “evil” characters will do, and likely a bunch that could go either way. Additionally, you can’t ignore players who will straddle that “shades of grey” middle ground, never engaging in the enlightenment aspect nor maniacal slaughterfest that you’ve designed.


Karma is a good single indicator of good/evil, and can be maintained fairly easily by applying standard modifiers based on certain actions. For example, slaying an orc who is terrorizing a man might add 5 karma. Slaying a helpless villager might subtract 10. These can easily be added to most monsters and NPCs, so they automatically count toward the player’s total. Other actions, such as completing a quest, can have karma modifiers as well, each coded specifically for that case.

How else can you track player actions?

Some games use a Fame tracker, where positive fame causes NPCs to become more receptive to the player and can affect what they can do in a given area. A negative infamy, on the other hand, will cause NPCs to hide, not provide quests or clues, or charge more for a service than they normally would. This can be tied to Karma, or simply be a number that indicates whether someone has heard of the character, and basing their reaction to the player’s Karma.

Fame often brings to mind my search in Ultima VI for the humblest man in New Magincia. One of the characters said something like “He is the most humble man I’ve ever heard of!”, to which my friend and I blurted “Well, he’s not very good at it then!” Being famous and humble would be a tricky task indeed. It’s probably a good thing they didn’t track humility values for the Avatar after Ultima IV…

Other games track how many instances of “criminal” activity you engage in, and when that number gets too high, the NPCs respond by running and calling for the guards. Ultima itself has some of this type of behavior. This is most often done to dissuade evil characters and actions, but if the guards can be bested (either by running, ala the Age of Darkness) or defeated, it may allow a way for dark characters to advance.

Morality Compass

Ultima provides a built-in way for you to steer characters to the path you want. The Virtues guide Britannians toward enlightenment, but some groups oppose the Virtues and their champions. Erstam led survivors of Sosaria to the Serpent Isle, seeking to escape “Beast British” and his enslaving “virtues”. Similar reasons could be given for any anti-virtue group that the player may join, start, or overthrow.

So how will you implement morality in your game?

Browncoat Jayson

Join me in New Britannia!

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14 Responses

  1. Sslaxx says:

    Ascension was interesting in that karma was tied to your mana – the better you acted, the more mana you had and vice versa. But as far as this goes, an Oblivion-style Fame/Infamy count might work well. Or go all-out and track all eight virtues, or maybe just Truth, Love and Courage.

    • Browncoat Jayson says:

      Well, Ascension used the term Karma, but since the only time it changed was when you beat a dungeon, I’m not sure I’d call it a morality system. Linking karma to mana, however, is pretty interesting.

      I’m thinking that ideally I’d track a large range of Karma, say +/-1000, but only a few levels of each Virtue (8-ish). That way there is some advancement through each Virtue, and still a big range of good/bad depth. I’d also probably note that each rank of Virtue requires a certain Karma, so even if you did things to reach Spirituality 4, if you dont have 400 Karma, its not going to happen. (I may eventually do a Guardian Virtue think with negative Karma, but thats for another day.)

      Fame is another thing, which I’ll advance only through questing and performing major actions. As fame increases, NPCs open up, you get better prices at taverns and stores, and people ask you to solve their problems. If you go “negative”, you start to gain Infamy and are despised by NPCs.

  2. Hell of a read. I love your articles, but I always want them to be longer.

    I gave some thought to this in my game. It was one of the earliest exercises in its development actually, very near the point of origin. It’s terribly incomplete, but here’s what I came up with (please open with a monospace editor such as gedit or notepad):


    I am surprised that Ultima IV is the only game to track all eight virtues considering just how much the virtue system is associated with the series. I think a single statistic is a cop out despite it (or nothing) having ruled the majority of the series.

    I think we should collaborate on an “Eight Commandments and Consequences” document (or whatever you want to call it), which describes a host of actions and the strength of their effects on the individual virtues. It would give us a great point of reference for designing more complex (or simpler, even), systems of ethics for our games.

    One thing to note about my system is that since Ultima IV derived your class from your dominant virtues, I included “anti classes” derived from corresponding dominant negative values. It was extremely difficult to come up with the anti class names, and believe me I spent some time researching the possibilities. Any input on those is appreciated.

  3. wtf_dragon says:

    A Catholic humourist and op-ed writer that I read and enjoy, John Zmirak, did a series a while ago on the moral and theological virtues that the Church teaches. Naturally, being an Ultima fan, I started thinking about the Eight Virtues as well as I read through his articles week to week.

    His approach, echoing the Aristotlean way of thinking, was to argue that each virtue was not opposed by a single vice, but rather that each virtue existed as a “golden mean” between two opposite vices (or anti-virtues, if you prefer).

    The easiest example I could give, from his series, is the virtue of chastity. Obviously, lust is easily seen as being opposed to chastity, the obvious anti-virtue to the virtue.

    But equally, there is an opposite vice, which Zmirak termed “frigidity”…an unhealthily closed-off, repressive attitude toward sex. This too opposes chastity, because chastity isn’t just about abstinence…a sexually active couple remain chaste in and by their sexual fidelity and openness to each other.

    Anyhow, I started to look at the Eight Virtues in this same mode of thinking. Take the idea of Compassion. Obviously, Ultima has given us its obvious anti-virtue: Despise.

    But arguably, despising someone isn’t the only way to offend against compassion in dealing with them. There is also what could be termed “false compassion”, or perhaps “enabling”. It’s one thing to help the poor; arguably, it could be compassionate to hand over some money to a panhandler. But if he runs off and spends it on cheap booze or drugs, and in so doing remains mired in the thing that keeps him poor, is it compassionate to give him money (and thus “enable” him)…or is it compassionate to not give him money?

    Anyhow, this is a discussion I’d rather like to see happen, because I think it could really expand the Eight Virtues as implemented in the works of the Ultima fandom. (And if nothing else, it might give us an excuse to create another eight awesome dungeons.)

    • Damn man, that is brilliant. In my best cocaine encrusted crazy face, “IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII like it!”

      But seriously, that is pretty profound. The eight virtues need to be run through that machine to see what the obvious possibilities are.

      Let’s see… We have each of the canonical eight virtues, which is the sane default. On either side of each virtue we have the extremes; one positive and one negative.

      First run I get this:

      – Deceit, = Honesty, + Gossip/Rat/Informant
      – Wrath, = Compassion, + Fool/Enabler
      – Fear, = Valor, + Bully/Brute
      – Wrong, = Justice, + Tyrant
      – Jealousy, = Sacrifice, + Martyr
      – Shame, = Honor, + Hyper-vigilant/OCD
      – Apathy, = Spirituality, + Zealot/Fundamentalist
      – Pride, = Humility, + ???

      What would to-a-fault humility entail? Some form of weakness, like the perpetual victim, maybe? Someone help me out here. I love where this is going though. 🙂

      • wtf_dragon says:

        That’s a good start; I admit to not getting too far with it, beyond compassion and valor.

        I think what you have up for Honesty is good, and likewise Compassion. For Valor, I would wonder if “Bully” is the positive anti-virtue; I’ve tended to think that recklessness would fill that spot.

        Your suggestion for Justice is good. “Martyr” is maybe not the best word for the positive anti-virtue of Sacrifice; the word has negative connotations vis a vis Islamic terrorists, but in other contexts has quite positive connotation (“greater love hath no man” and all that…). I’ll need to think on what term is best to use.

        Honor…Honor’s positive anti-virtue is, to my thinking, Blackthorn’s pollution of the ideal. That’s a bit different than OCD/hyper-vigilance. On the other hand, that’s a decent set for Spirituality.

        Humility could be positively opposed by false humility or false modesty…though we need a better term for that. Pride is also a vice to the Catholic virtues; I’ll dig up what Zmirak’s view of its opposite vice was, and see if that doesn’t fit.

        • Its been a while on this one, but another opposing Humility could be Apathy. You arn’t actually humble, you just don’t care what happens to you or those around you. This would also partially oppose Compassion.

          What I may do is create a series of anti-Virtues for the Guardian, based on the pentagram symbol from Pagan. Each will have a class associated with it. I’m trying to decide whether to have 7 (to match the articles of the pentagram), 8 (to oppose the Virtues), or 13 (to have each virtue opposed by 2, with overlap).

  4. What I meant by “positive” and “negative” was the direction of the anti virtue relative to the core virtue, not as in positive = good or negative = bad. Just wanted to clear that up.

  5. I think I may have the answer for extreme humility:


  6. Glad you like some of them!

    Valor is directly tied to courage, so perhaps “hyper courage” could be recklessness as you suggest or fearlessness. To live without fear is surely a foolish mistake (and the sign of a psychopath).

    A martyr as I understand it is someone who dies for a cause. Yes, sometimes this is commendable (sacrificing yourself to save others’ lives), but generally dying for anything is an act of last resort or a side effect of fucking up in your quest. Very few set out with the explicit goal of dying for their cause, therefore martyrdom is generally a mistake. The word is charged, but I think it’s appropriate. I’m looking at things outside of modern sensibilities, so I don’t really care about 9/11 or terrorists and all that jazz.

    Honor is derived from courage (will to act) and truth (awareness of reality), who’s attribute is strength. Yes, that does fit what Blackthorn did (wow, that sounds like it really happened). So perhaps zealotry/fundamentalism should be ascribed to honor? Methinks thou has won that argument!

    That of course begs the question, what then is hyper-Spirituality? Maybe smoking too much weed, taking too much acid, and generally being a lazy piece of shit that doesn’t really know what’s going on? Spirituality in the context of Ultima is the search within oneself, being contemplative about the bigger picture; philosophy basically. Help me with this one, WtF.

    False humility… I still like my suggestion of despondence/hopelessness. Someone who thinks so little of themselves that they feel they have no worth. They’ve given up and just want to pass. Depressed and suicidal people are like that.

    It sounds weird, but I think we’re making good progress here. This is all very cool.

  7. Iceblade says:

    I would have to agree on the Hopelessness thing.

    Humility itself does not contradict Truth. You can be humble and still take pride (internally/know yourself) in your work or skill. It is like the difference between saying you are good at something (assuming this is an objective fact) and saying you are one of the best or the best at something, which you can never know for sure.

    So the antivirtue for Humility is really Hubris not Pride, and is a false over-sense of your own worth.

    The “positive” side of humility would likewise go into false territory but this time it is a drastic under-sense of your worth where you may actually be very good at something but think you are terrible and never can be good at it.

    Also, to stop striving to better yourself in an area essentially means that you have fallen into one of these two sides for at least the particular situation in question be it a Virtue/skill/etc. You have stopped because either you think you are a really good/good enough for whatever purpose it is or you’ve quit thinking yourself incapable of doing any better.

    Obviously this is really a spectrum rather than discrete points on a line, and the virtue/skill/etc in question is something you want or need or that has a high-priority in your life.

    At least that is my interpretation of Humility.

  8. Iceblade says:

    Also, UIV did take some of this “over-virtue” into account.

    For instance, Valor was not stepping down from evil but it wasn’t meant to be where you go picking a fight with every hostile creature you came across. In addition, running (IIRC) didn’t count against you certain situations like near death.

    I just noticed where Honor and Spirituality are rather similar here. I would more attribute apathy in with anti-Honor. So apathetic that you live Shame.

    Anti-spirituality is more not caring about bettering yourself, more an introspective apathy or lazyiness.

    Too much honor is really the common joke about D&D Lawful Good Paladins who would send you to jail for several years just for Jaywalking.

    Too much Spirituality I would imagine as being rather self-asborbed and ignoring what is best for other people. So focused on bettering yourself, that other people don’t really enter into the equation. Truth for the sake of being 100% truthful and blinded compassion and heroism that hurts more than helps. Almost a combination of too much honesty, compassion, and valor.

    Heck if the Avatar was like this, he probably would have gotten imprisoned and killed by Blackthorn or joined him whole-heartedly from the outset.

  9. Timo says:

    Most games that make use of a karma system have a simple single-axis good-evil way of measuring things. This leads to some obviously absurd mechanics, such as one cold-blooded murder being equally bad as stealing X number of things. Or that if you’ve been a good enough guy, your karma is so highly entrenched on the good side that murdering an entire settlement for no reason still leaves you overall as a pretty standup guy.

    Ultima IV tracked eight different virtues, which to my knowledge is still unparalleled in games. Considering how most people think of morality in the real world, I think a threefold karma system would be sufficient. Let’s call these three aspects “person”, “property” and “truth”. Person-karma would be about violence, or the lack of it. Property-karma about theft and destruction of property. Truth-karma about lying, cheating and manipulating people. A potential fourth category would be sexual morality, but I don’t think most game developers want to open that can of worms.

    This would allow for a wide range of reputations. You could become known as a thief who gets anything for the right price, but avoids killing people to get it. The same act could affect more than one karma meter. For instance, stealing stuff from people you are allied with would lower both truth and property karma.

    Another thing that would help make karma systems more versatile and realistic is to set up certain border values, which can only be crossed by acts of high enough magnitude. Such as, robbing valuables from rich people for whom it matters little could only lower your karma to X, but stealing charity funds from an orphanage would plummet it right past X.

    • Browncoat Jayson says:

      While the eight virtues would likely be enough, when looking at overarching karma could be broken down into those three aspects. Ultima would even relate them to the Principles: Courage would be defending others and risking yourself, Truth would be lying, cheating and stealing, and Love would be about violence (positive would be courage against monsters, negative would be violence against people). Each would have multiple things to track, but it is definitely another way to look at morals, and probably preferable to a strict virtue-based system if you are not actively encouraging Avatar-hood.

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