The Lost Ultima Tabletop Roleplaying Game

Even before I knew what pen & paper roleplaying games were, I was a fan of computer RPGs. Among the first titles I ever played from the genre were The Bard’s Tale and Ultima VI. While I enjoyed both games, it was Ultima VI which I fell in love with. I still remember playing the game for many, many hours, exploring the vast and pretty detailed world (for the time), tried to learn everything about it and talked about it constantly at school. Since then I have played all titles in the series and even had the chance to play in a roleplaying game by fellow RPG blogger Michael Shorten based on the Ultima series for a while. I might not be the biggest Ultima fan out there, but I’d still say that the series influenced me quite a bit.

Over the years I heard rumors about an official Ultima tabletop roleplaying game which has supposedly been in development during the 1980s and 1990s. From what I could find out, they actually playtested it at GenCon at some point and the world was based on Ultima VI’s version of the world Britannia (the landmasses and towns often changed quite significantly between games). Unfortunately the project never lead to a finished product. Perhaps the acquisition of Origin Systems by Electronic Arts played a role in this, but that’s just speculation. For years I searched the internet for more information on the cancelled project or the “holy grail” itself: a copy of the rules.

Unfortunately all my attempts during the early years of the internet led into dead ends. Then in 2018 I made another attempt at tracking down at least some evidence that the game even existed and eventually hit jackpot. Below is a screenshot of what I posted to the Ultima Dragons Facebook group.

So the game did exist and a binder containing the game proposal and outline from 1987 survived! And to my surprise there was also a roleplaying game adventure based on the Ultima spin-off The Savage Empire! Unfortunately these materials were in some collection at the University of Texas in Austin, and the copyright is probably still owned by Electronic Arts. I faintly remember trying to get in touch with someone at the university asking if it was possible to get a copy, but I never got any answer. Eventually the link in the screenshot stopped working, but a quick Google search revealed that the list of contents of the “Richard Garriot Papers” is still available online.

As a fan of the Ultima series and someone interested in the history of the roleplaying game hobby, I’d love to look at these documents. There are so many questions I’d love to have answered. What were the rules like? Was the character creation based on morality dilemmas like in the computer games? How did they plan to present the world? How did they deal with the scale issues (in the later games the world was much smaller than in the earlier games, because of technical constraints and a more detailed world)? What role do the Eight Virtues play in the TTRPG?

Unfortunately it is highly unlikely that I’ll even find out. In all these years no one revealed anything concrete about the project. No copies of the playtest documents turned up on someone’s attic. I know that many fans (me included) asked former Origin employees including Richard Garriot himself about the TTRPG, they either weren’t directly involved in the development or just couldn’t remember. After all this was probably about 40 years ago.

The funny thing is that the game was probably not very good. It’s highly likely that the mechanics were clunky or the world didn’t really make for interesting tabletop roleplaying. There were probably good reasons why the official Ultima tabletop RPG never saw the light of day. BUT the mystery is the really exciting thing! We have so few information that the game has been a mere rumor from pre-internet times. Now we know it exists, but it’s still out of reach. Heck, the document included in the “Richard Garriot Papers” probably doesn’t even include the playtest documents since it’s just a proposal and outline. So the real deal might be still out there somewhere – hidden in some dusty box on someone’s attic, or it has been destroyed all those years ago.

Update: A few minutes after I published this post, a Twitter user called Ben Lesnick added some exciting information to the whole Ultima TTRPG mystery. Make sure to check out his posts.