I found www.nesfiles.com a while back.  For the NES junkies out there like me, Nesfiles is a site that allows you to play emulated NES games in your browser. Go nuts. I’m not sure of the legalities of emulators though, so go nuts at your own risk.

One of the games I found there that I had loved years ago was Ultima Exodus. Despite the fact that it’s a video game, there are still pertinent lessons to be learned from it. For those of you who want to go back and complete this classic adventure, you can find an excellent shrine with all the info you need to play the game and an exploit guide that explains how you can complete it in under two hours online.

Ultima Exodus was the 3rd of the Ultima Series of games, for a long time considered the best series of computer RPGs. For the most part, Ultima’s popularity was due to it’s sandbox style play which allowed you right off the bat to go anywhere and do anything in it’s massive game worlds. In addition most of the Ultimas had either a robust or free-form character creation system that allowed for dozens of different character choices. While by today’s standards some of these character creation systems are very limited, in their day, their selection of possibilities was staggering. Ultima 3 is no exception to these rules. It was the 55 character choices (some of them clearly superior to others) and it’s two large worlds to explore with teleporting moon gates, towns that appeared and disappeared, dungeons, seas and hidden temples that kept me playing the game again and again for years. 

Ultima 3 has the following basic plot: The king summons your band of four adventurers and asks you to defeat the evil Exodus. You have to collect the four marks, the silver horn, and the four cards, then infiltrate Exodus’ castle and defeat him. Simple right? The problems in that formula however start immediately. On every odd level, newer harder enemies spawn. Even with maxed out stats and the best gear in the game anything beyond the first few tiers of enemies will destroy your characters easily unless you use the battle strategy outlined in the exploit guide linked above.

Further, to get the stats necessary to cast the best spells, to buy decent equipment, and to recover your characters if they get killed (see: monsters destroying you w/o exploits above) takes TONS of money. As the difficulty ramps exponentially the money drops remain static, eventually making fighting enemies w/o exploits a negative sum equation forcing you to grind endlessly or to use one of a handful of money exploits (steal it from a town, clean out dungeons, create, strip and delete characters, or grind forever at level 1)  to improve your characters.

Add to this the fact that almost everything in the game is a secret and all the NPCs in the game are apparently cryptography experts and without a guide explaining how to proceed, the game boils down to creating parties, running them into the ground as they advance, then trying again. That’s how I spent those hours and hours in my childhood but thanks to the huge pool of character choices and expansive world while it was frustrating to never make progress it was still fun exploring.

The two major strengths of this game, options and exploration come with some caveats. In some systems they require a lot of work. Make sure you understand and are up to the workload they require before building a game around them. They can lead to option paralysis easily too so make sure you understand this and have elements in place to take control of pacing when your players have the deer in the headlights look. Finally they’re simply not for some players, groups and GMs. I’ve GMed for groups before that want nothing to do with sandbox play. They want to be spoonfed clear objectives, complete them, and return next week. If that’s what your group wants think twice before throwing them into a world that requires self motivation. It may result in a lot of navel gazing.

The failures of this game fall mainly into two categories- balance and clarity.
The balance issues are more blatant and more obvious. You shouldn’t have to (but do) deliberatelysubvert the intended path of game play in order to succeed. In a tabletop game this is an easier problem than in a computer game. If you see your players floundering, getting frustrated or failing routinely, this might be an issue you need to address.

The clarity issues are a more subtle set of issues because the accepted level of cryptic clues, vague puzzles and hidden paths vary from group to group. Some players LOVE being armature Angela Lansburyies and if your group is one of those, feel free to find and download a transcript from Ultima 3 and use it in your game. If not, know the limits of what your group finds a fun challenge and what they find a frustrating pain in the ass and plan accordingly.