Let me tell you about one of my favorite video game series. Ultima. If you read about it, it has a history that makes it influential in gaming history in many ways. However, what I want to talk about today is storyline. It is an important thing in gaming, and it ties a lot together in ways that make everything stem from the player’s actions. Let’s look outside the individual games and move towards the overarching story through the series, because unlike Final Fantasy, this series takes place in a consistent world, and how some of this stuff is connected.
The first game has Mondain uses the Gem of Immortality to try to take over the planet and the Stranger comes to shatter the Gem and stop him, with two of the four continents of the world now disappearing into its own little reality. In the sequel, Minax, Mondain’s apprentice and consort, attempts to avenge him, only to be avenged by the Stranger. Then we have Exodus, the offspring of the two mixed with technology to form a sort of demonic AI, raising what was known as the Isle of Fire from the sea and summoning the Great Earth Serpent to protect it as he redesigns the world to his whims, and the Stranger again saves the day.
In between the third game and the fourth, the design changed due to public outcry from various groups like Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, the designers changed the series adding a series of Virtues and trying to add meaning, so the storyline actually became a lot more complex, so I’ll try to make this simple to follow.
First, before the fourth game, the Isle of Fire sank into the water again as the race of Gargoyles summoned the spirits of Mordain, Minax and Exodus into their Shrines of Diligence, Passion and Control and designing a religious system of their own around them. Then the Brittanian citizenry worked to develop a religious system, having the hero prove himself as a religious icon, which was the plot of the fourth game, which in part had the player travelling into the Gargoyles’ realm of the Abyss (though it was not known to be populated by Gargoyles yet) and removing the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom from their Shrine of Singularity to become the Avatar.
The fifth game showed a few shards of the Gem of Immortality from game one get sucked into the Underworld. Then when a ship got sucked there via a whirlpool, the captain found the shards and went insane, killing his three companion. When their blood fell on the shards, they created the Shadowlords. The Shadowlords corrupted one of the Lords of the world who then proceeded to attempt to rule the world, once again stopped by the Avatar.
The sixth game had the Gargoyles mounting their revenge on the Avatar and the people of the planet for stealing from them and other such issues, part of it being due to a prophecy that basically says the Avatar will bring about the end of the world.
This leads to the seventh game, where an organization called the Fellowship is becoming popular as a way to help people find reason and meaning in their life, and a creature called the Guardian who again, seeks to gain control over the world, but is again stopped by our Hero. Part of the game includes an expansion which has the Isle of Fire raised from the depths again and the tests that were built on the island as part of the tests back before the fourth game are now seen and overcome.
The seventh game had a part two, where the hero quested to an area called Serpent’s Isle, one of the two continents that disappeared back at the end of game one. It was watched over by the serpents of Chaos, Order and Balance, the Earth Serpent from game three was the Balance Serpent. Without that Serpent, the other two went crazy and religious groups of each went to war believing they were the true way. The hero came forward and brought order to this chaotic land.
As the next two games flopped due to various issues, there were not very much connectivity with the others. The eight game had the Avatar getting trapped in the Guardian’s world and seeking his way out and then in nine, he comes back to the home world and finds the Guardian is his dark side, purged back when he became the Avatar back in the fourth game.
All of this doesn’t mention the other games; Akalabeth, Underworld 1 and 2, and the Worlds of Ultima games, Savage Empires and Martian Dreams, and of course Ultima Online. The Online MMO game however does expand the storylines, showing an alternative timeline and bringing back some of the threads not used in earlier games.
See how all this is connected, except maybe number eight, where the GM decided to throw the PC into a ‘unconnected adventure’ and now imagine this at your table, players looking back at all the different events that have taken place, seeing the various threads tying everything together and showing how this is quite the active world.
Some of it may seem like a retcon after the fact, but, and this might just be me, I think that so long as you don’t come out and explain everything at the onset, you can add the the meaning after the fact. Like the Earth Serpent in Ultima 3, I don’t think they planned to have it lead to the war and everything in Ultima 7 Part 2, Serpent’s Isle. They just saw it and figured it would be an option to tie it in. For example, your heroes just beat a BBEG and now you want to extend the campaign more. What you can do is, after a little celebratory time (or if you want to keep the players pushing on, perhaps right away) introduce a rumor or two of another BBEG, drop a few hints to the players about what they want and watch the players go charging forth.
The evil Necromancer falls and the champions come marching home to fanfare as they free the land from the zombie hoards. A feast is thrown in their honor, maybe they rub elbows with a few of the major political players, as a group of peasants demand to see the king. A large group of giants has just crashed through their village and are making their way across the countryside. As the players progress, you find out the Necromancer was mentally controlling the giants with magic and now that he’s dead, the spell is broken and the giants are on a rampage as they seek revenge. Then, once the giants are dealt with, healthy people are dropping dead at random, the players must find out why… only to be led to some spirit creature that is sucking on the life force of these people, because their burial tomb was broken as the giants trampled past….