Ultima Game Developer: Skills
In many RPGs, skills play a much larger part than they do traditionally in Ultima games. For the most part, Ultima is concerned only with levels (for spellcasting and hit point accumulation) and partially on statistics. However, beginning with Ultima VII, there were some benefits for gaining skills.
- Ultima VII has three statistics, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Strength. There were also two skills, Combat and Magic. Different trainers can raise various skills and stats, which affects how well the party is at combat and spellcasting.
- Ultima VIII uses the same stats and skills as the prior installment. Only one trainer was available, however; Darion in Tenebrae. In Pagan, however, lack of training did not hinder the Avatar, for it was quite possible to complete the game without raising your skills at all.
- Ultima IX has five skills, each related to a type of weapon: One-handed weapons, two-handed weapons, bows, staves and unarmed combat. Each skill has three ranks to which you could train, and each rank provided a new technique for those attacks.
- The Ultima Underworld games have extensive skills. Since there are no levels in those games, the skills you train determine your capabilities within the series. While the skills were broad, capabilities varied by class, and allowed multiple specialties, they were partially flawed in that the majority (non-weapon and casting skills, essentially) were entirely secondary to available magic spells. In the first Underworld, skills were raised at shrines, similar to stats in Ultima VI. In Underworld II, trainers were available to work on skills.
- Ultima Online also featured an extensive skill system. Here, most skills were part of a set or related skills, such as the Rogue Skills: Snooping, Stealing, Hiding, Detecting Hidden, Lockpicking, Remove Trap, Poisoning, and Stealth. The wide range of skills made specialization nearly required. Skills were useful, even if some of their capabilities were duplicated by magic. Crafting skills were used to create a player-driven economy. Skills improve by usage, although they can be trained up to a point at many
It is your choice whether you use skills in your Ultima game, as Lazarus added to Ultima V, or opt for a game without specific skills. By far the most popular method for skill advancement is using Trainers, but shrines and self-improvement both have precedence.
If you choose to use skills, should you use a small set of skills, as the later mainstream Ultima games did, or should you implement a wide variety of skills, such as Underworld and UO? Limited skills allows you to derive all abilities from a single pool, without diluting content. This means you only need have a limited number of trainers, and limited number of requirements for a given puzzle. On the other hand, a full skill system makes up for some of the lack of magic, if not all characters can become mages. Without skills, a crafting system will generally be always successful, or “paint-by-numbers”. Even a moderate number of skills makes the character building much more important, but greatly increases the complexity of the world.
Another thing to consider is how will skills be used? Do you automatically check them when performing certain actions (attacking a tree to check your lumberjacking?), or must you actively use them? While you can use skills passively, you must be sure to draw attention to your improvement or they may be overlooked. Active skills, on the other hand, can draw attention away from the story and turn off certain players, who would otherwise enjoy an action game.
What amount of skills is right for your Ultima game? None, limited, or extensive? What is the right way to implement them? These decisions can greatly influence your game design.