Monday, May 25, 2015

Ultima VI: Unanswered Questions

I started a new job last week, and the resultant adjustments to my schedule (and the fact I'm abysmally slow at acclimating to changes in routine) have meant I haven't had as much opportunity as I'd like to keep plugging away at Ultima VI - but it doesn't mean I've set it aside completely! I had a couple hours to spare, which I spent running around the southern portions of the Britannian mainland, and though I suppose I didn't accomplish much as far as game progress goes, I still met some interesting characters and freed another two shrines.

Well, that was a bit messy.
The day's adventures began, as many of them have, in Lord British's castle, where I'd taken a moment to rest up and heal after freeing the Shrine of Sacrifice. Trinsic was a ways to the south past Paws, and Skara Brae was accessible just over a narrow channel to the west, both of which I'd need to visit at some point. I settled on the latter, partly because I'd already traversed part of the road leading to the city, and partly because freeing the Shrine of Spirituality would prove useful, at least as far as raising my party's abilities went. So after getting lost momentarily in Britain yet again (visibility at night is much better than it was in Ultima V, but I still haven't quite got my mental map of Ultima VI Britain straight yet), I followed the road westward, past the home of the brusque fighter I'd met earlier, and onward to the intersection between the road through the Deep Forest and that leading toward the city of Spirituality. As I neared the intersection, though, the sound of ringing steel announced an impending fight, and sure enough, we came across a group in fervent battle with a few mongbats, which we quickly joined in on - only to find the fighters turning on us once the creatures were dead. Compassion is not always paid in kind, it would seem. When the dust settled, we mourned the results of the incident, gathered what supplies we were able, and continued on our way. Blaine had managed to find enough arrows to make using the bow he'd obtained earlier viable, and so swapped it for his boomerang.

It didn't take much longer to reach Skara Brae, and our first stop was the Haunting Inn. Gideon, the innkeeper, was a friendly sort of fellow, quite willing to stop for a while and shoot the breeze. He spoke on a wide range of subjects, from his first meeting with his wife at the Shrine of Spirituality to the recent sighting of a ghost at the inn to memories of outings with his friends Yorl and Quenton. It was this last that led to a disturbing bit of local news, however - Quenton had recently been murdered. Rumor had it that the perpetrator had been a gargoyle, further evidence of the havoc they were wreaking across the kingdom. I knew I could not let myself be distracted from my larger task, but there was no way I could in good conscience I could simply let the matter lie, either. I resolved to at least investigate as best I could while I was in town.

Yep, definitely a ghost floating around here.
I next spoke with the mayor, Trenton Bell, who was a bit pompous but at least told me a few helpful things. He had his doubts about the gargoyle explanation for Quenton's death, citing the silence the night of the murder. Quenton had no time to scream, and not even a growl pierced the night air - according to Trenton's brother, who served as one of Lord British's guards, the noises a gargoyle makes while doing its work are not easily forgotten. In addition, asking him about the rune revealed that it had been in the possession of none other than Quenton himself, and he had not told anyone of its location before he was killed.

Several others among the townsfolk had their own thoughts on the matter. Dezana, the local healer, was more concerned about Quenton's ghost, and was certain questioning the spirit would be of no help, as he would not be able to communicate directly. Sure enough, when I had my own encounter with the apparition, the only responses I obtained from him were gestures and unusual winds. Stivius, the only witness, seemed unreliable at best in his story - he was certain it was gargoyles that he saw, but could not keep the number of them straight, first saying it was ten or even a dozen, then that it was probably closer to two or three. He claimed they were man-sized as well, or kneeling, or hunched over - there were too many discrepancies in his story to take it as reliable truth, though perhaps there were still grains of it in there somewhere. Yorl even remarked upon how he wished there had been a better witness than the winemaker, though seemed to take him at his word as far as gargoyles were concerned.

Ultimately, there just wasn't enough to say one way or another, much less definitive proof. Reluctantly, I accepted the fact the Justice was not likely to be delivered anytime soon, and I could not spend much more time looking into the matter without neglecting my larger goal. And so I sought out Quenton's daughter Marney, now orphaned, having lost her mother years before. Though justice would have to wait, at least I could offer a little compassion. She had nothing but good things to say of her father, clinging to the mementos he had left behind of both himself and her mother. It was evident just how much the now-broken family had loved each other, especially when, on a hunch after Marney read a poem her mother wrote for Quenton, we discovered that the rune's keeper had hidden it within his daughter's hope chest. She was more than willing to let me take it with me - it was the poem more than rune that meant much to her.

Words to remember, surely.
I had one last stop to make before leaving Skara Brae. The locals had mentioned Horance the wizard living on a small island just to the north, and Marney let me borrow the skiff at the docks to reach it. The man was an odd one, to be certain, speaking in nothing but rhyme, and his own thoughts on the murder were cryptic. He was, however, quite willing to offer me spells and reagents - though perusing his wares, I noted that his selection focused mainly on attack spells, and some part of me wondered what a man who already seemed a little out of sorts might do with such an array of magical firepower. Still, Horance seemed stable enough, and so I bought a few spells to bolster my own magical abilities, and then made for the Shrine of Spirituality. The Shrine itself had been left unguarded, which made using the rune and obtaining the moonstone that lay atop it a very simple matter. Once we had done so, we made for Britain once more, stocking up on ammunition at the fletcher's before turning south to head for Trinsic.

Of course, the road there passed right through Paws, so we spent some time chatting with the locals. Most of them were craftsmen of some sort - millers, weavers, threadspinners, ropemakers... if we ever needed for food or supplies, Paws seemed to be one of the best places to obtain them. We also bumped into a few bards telling their stories in tavern owned by Dr. Cat, whose cats seemed to enjoy the music, bustling about the place just as busily as the clientele. Mandrake in particular was a very talented bard, though his views on the virtues (preferring to abide by ones based on the principles of wine, women and song) and his claim of having been captured by gargoyles once and held prisoner on the other side of the word seemed a little... much, in some respects.

Well that was nice and straightforward.
Though it made for a pleasant time, there was work to do, and we continued on our way to Trinsic. Our search for the Rune of Honor took no time at all, as it sat on a pedestal in the middle of the city - the mayor told us proudly they never worried about guarding it, as who in Trinsic would be so dishonorable as to steal it? It was a relief that obtaining this Rune was so simple, compared to some of the tasks we had undertaken to reclaim previous runes. Likewise, the battle at the Shrine of Honor, further down the road, was much simpler than some of the others, as we only had one winged gargoyle to deal with, and several new spells to make use of on top of it. I must admit there was a certain satisfaction to be had from being the one dealing out the paralyze spells I had been on the receiving end of on numerous occasions. The fireball and magic arrow spells I had also purchased made short work of the wingless gargoyles even as Shamino and Dupre charged at them, and it wasn't long before we claimed victory and the moonstone atop the Shrine.

From there we made our way back to Britain, purchasing a skiff at the shipwright's and planning our next course - likely Jhelom, with a pit stop at Serpent's Hold along the way. Three shrines remain under the hold of the gargoyles, but we do not intend to let them remain so for long.


I don't feel like I got that much further along in Ultima VI in this session, but there were certainly some memorable moments nonetheless during chats with NPCs, which, I think, is a good deal of the appeal of the Ultima games for me in the first place. I was particularly amused by Tobatha, the elderly healer of Trinsic, who was hard of hearing and I had to say 'bye' multiple times to before I was actually let out of the conversation tree, it made for a very nice touch. In terms of worldbuilding, each installment in the Age of Enlightenment games just upped the quality of the dialogue and the characterization of the NPCs, which makes for a world that feels more real, that things continue to go on in the background even without your presence - that these are characters with lives and personalities that aren't only extant so long as you, the hero, are in town. NPCs have opinions on their neighbors, and you can get a good sense of the town 'politics' wherever you go - you know which of the residents are friends and which can't stand each other. It's a good deal of what ultimately is little more than flavor text, and it's easy to lose track of the thread of a conversation with so many keywords to use, but it still hasn't ceased to make me grin.

I also broke my self-imposed rule of walking everywhere first before I use the Orb of the Moons to shortcut once today, using the Orb to get to the Shrine of Spirituality, partly because I'm not exactly sure how (or even if!) I can walk there first. My choice of this particular playstyle, however, coupled with Withstand the Fury Dragon's remark over on the Codex about the expedience-slash-greater safety of using the Orb to gate in and back out of the guarded shrines did get me thinking. In my past attempts at Ultima VI, I've used the safer method, whereas here, my personal "restrictions" have made me play the game a little differently - and to an extent, the way the story unfolds has been different as well, especially as far as the Gargoyles are concerned. Between the opening of the game and the moment the player enters the Gargoyle lands, the best glimpses - and therefore, characterization - of the Gargoyles are via the fights with them at the Shrines. The way I've gone about it, they're very much a presence and in some instances a very real threat. By choosing the frontal assault approach, the Gargoyles reveal themselves as formidable foes when one goes in against them unprepared, capable of potentially devastating magic when used appropriately, and strong in numbers. Though it can take them a while, they are in fact able to wear down a party in a prolonged fight (I've needed a fair few Great Heal spells to get through some of the bigger battles).

The more 'stealthy' approach, however, demonstrates the fact that for all their power on the front lines - it's all smoke and mirrors. Whether it's due to a lack of skill or a lack of resources or a lack of understanding their enemy or whatever, the Avatar - the chief antagonist in the Gargoyles' own eyes - can simply slip in, nab the moonstone, and slip out, without so much as a scratch on him. Not only that, once the Avatar's done so, they desert their post - apparently, they can't afford to expend the manpower or the resources necessary to retake the Shrines for themselves. Through this method, the Gargoyles are barely a threat at all - they don't strike out anywhere else through the course of the game, and are almost laughably easy to get past when using the Orb of the Moons. This way of playing the game paints the Gargoyles as more... desperate, than anything else, and what's more, incapable of saving themselves, as the one man they need to take down continues to slip out of their grasp with little effort at all.

Both approaches reveal a different facet of the Gargoyles' situation, and it even brings about a different sort of effect in the game's later "reveal" in the Gargoyle lands, when the player learns the Gargoyles are less trying to destroy the Britannian way of live as much as trying to save their own. If the player's taken the frontal assault approach, the reveal invites the player to consider whether it truly was necessary to fight their way through the Gargoyles they've encountered thus far, and as they pursue the path to a diplomatic resolution, amenable to both sides, it can lead to the player considering their actions at the Shrines in a different light - it's subtle, but the invitation is there. If the player has used the Orb to make it quick and easy, though, it's evidence that the Gargoyles, however much they've tried, are not going to be able to save themselves. They might be able to make one big push, but when it comes down to it, they can't maintain the effort. They need an outside party willing to give them aid, and that's exactly what the player does. Whichever approach one has taken, it leads to a different interpretation of the events of the games, and it's all based on a choice that a player isn't bludgeoned over the head with.

Of course, that could just be me reading far more into the thing than was really meant in the first place.

But the fact that I can muse on the effects of player choice and how it can change a story, by means of a simple mechanic that was probably implemented more for expedience than anything else?

I think that's proof that less really is more, sometimes.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Ultima VI: Just Rewards

Having accomplished everything that I could in Minoc, or at least as far as I could tell, I turned my sights westward, with the intent of picking up a log in Yew in order to make the panpipes I needed to obtain the Rune of Sacrifice from Selganor. To do that I'd have to turn back the way I'd come, so I took a shortcut and made use of my Orb of the Moons to return to Britain. I ended up winding my way through a portion of the town I hadn't poked around during my previous visits, and bumped into a wandering troupe of gypsies in the process.

Sure, we can use more entertainment than Iolo's lute!
They certainly marched to the beat of a different drum, but they were pleasant folk, offering very entertaining performances for a few coins, which I was happy to give as they were a very talented performers. In addition, Zoltan was willing to sell me reagents, and Taynith offered a glimpse into the future of my quest. Her tiles revealed a Shaman, a Blademaster, and a 'Clever Fish,' and she told me I'd need to be all three and more to find success. Cryptic, but then again, what did I expect from a fortune teller?

It was Blaine, however, who proved to be the most helpful of the lot, as he wished to join me on the journey. He was a relatively inexperienced chap, but was eager and willing, and seemed just as nimble as the rest of his companions, so I handed him some spare equipment, including one of the boomerangs I'd picked up from the spoils of the fight at the Shrine of Compassion, and told him to give Iolo some support from the back lines.

Passing out of Britain, I met a fighter along the path toward Skara Brae, using 'met' in the loosest sense of the word. He refused to give me even so much as his name, and often acted as if he did not hear my questions, his bearing suggesting I might not appreciate the results if I dared to ask him again. I left him alone for the time being, leaving him to whatever business he had, but if he was trying to make himself unremarkable, he had rather the opposite effect. Such an abrasive figure is not particularly easy to forget.

We turned north at a fork in the road, and found ourselves beset upon by a group of roguish adventurers. The tables were turned on them rather swiftly, and once the dust cleared, we thanked Blaine for his assistance in the fight - it was his first, after all. Some of the spoils we recovered after the fight seemed like things he could use, and so he was a bit better equipped as we traveled further along the road. There were a few lights dancing along the pathway, which put me on my guard remembering how dangerous an enemy wisps could be from past adventures, but they generally left us alone, and so we did the same as we slipped by. Iolo pointed us toward his cottage (as did a sign along the path) as we neared, so we made a pit stop there, picking up some blood moss along the way, and paid Smith a visit, ever vigilant against the hay menace that threatened to consume the land. It took some doing to coerce a slightly dumbfounded Dupre along again, and he and Iolo were settling some kind of bet over the matter of a talking horse by the time we arrived at the gates of Empath Abbey.

Well, I am supposed to ask Dr. Cat about those...
The Abbey seemed as peaceful and contemplative a place as ever it had, and I spent some time chatting with the locals. The vintner and beekeeper offered samples of their wares, and the latter made an interesting statement concerning the gargoyles and his blind sister - something about being their lot to make the best of their situation, as it is with us all, though we know the gargoyles more by their differences than their similarities to us. It certainly made me think, as I wandered through the cemetery. Mole, the gravedigger, seemed a simple man but a good sort, though he seemed to be having some trouble with Glen, the mortician. I ended up passing a fair few messages back and forth between them, with a decent amount of rolling my eyes - Glen seemed to have a good deal of regard for the dead but little for the living, even forgetting to pay Mole and referring it as just a "little detail." It did gain me the possessions of a recently deceased wizard with no next of kin, though, which felt... a bit dubious, honestly, but some extra coin and reagents, along with a magic ring, could certainly help. There was also mention of an enchanter who lived to the east, between two rivers, and though I didn't pay him a visit just yet, I made a note of it as his services might prove useful as well.

I chatted with Sionnach, the local bard, which told me stories of the shipwreck of the Virtuous and made mention of the Empire and Dutchman, telling me to seek out other bards to learn the tales of the others. I remembered hearing of the Dutchman in Britain - I may have to seek out these wrecks at some point. But I was left with little time to ponder this possibility, as I soon found myself in Yew and turned my focus toward my two tasks here, procuring a log and obtaining the Rune of Justice once more. Lady Lenora, the town's mayor, seemed a hard woman, but told me that the Rune had been stolen. The thief had been captured, but the rune was still missing. She also informed me that the logger was west of the town hall, into the forest, then a bit north.

...he says, while sitting on a stool "there."
On my way to the jail to question the perpetrator, I met a few of the other locals, including Andrea, the burly owner of the local tavern, and Utomo, the smith whom Andrea seems to have a bit of a crush on, which seemed to make him uncomfortable on account of the fact he already had a girl. (As something of an aside, me being a linguist, the "islander" phrases that Utomo uses made me wonder whether they're based on any language in particular. While some cursory Googling didn't reveal anything conclusive, leading me to believe they're not, I did smile a bit when I stumbled across an article or two on the Budi Utomo, an Indonesian group of some importance in the events leading up to the country's independence from the Dutch. My family tree includes Indonesian immigrants, and I didn't expect to get a brief glimpse into some of the history behind one facet of my heritage as a result of playing Ultima!)

Utomo provided me with some much needed swamp boots, along with a two-handed axe for Dupre, and also made mention of a magic fan that could create wind. Having outfitted myself a little better, I made my way into the prison, where the jailer told me I would need permission from Lenora in order to borrow the key to solitary confinement, where the prisoner currently was. Lenora provided me with such, and I proceeded to query the thief about his actions. He claimed he only did it to feed his family, and promised to tell me where to find it if I could convince Lenora to let him go. I was skeptical, but agreed to speak with her on the situation. She told me he was flat-out lying, as he had no family to speak of, though in doing so, made me wonder if she took the definition of justice a little too harshly. I confronted the thief once more with this information, and he confessed to having lied - he simply did not want the "pompous blighters" to have the rune. He offered to tell me where it was if I took it away from the town, and upon learning of my intentions for it, told me it was hidden under a plant in the tavern. I picked it up, along with a log, before I left Yew, shaking my head slightly as I wondered just how well they had learned their lessons on what Justice truly was, especially in the wake of Blackthorn.

Retaking the Shrine of Justice was... not an easy task.
I turned toward the Shrine of Justice, and the fight that met us there was long, arduous, and bloody. There was a larger contingent of gargoyles present here than at the Shrine of Compassion, including no less than three of the more powerful winged variety. I was glad for the Great Heal spell I had bought in Cove earlier, as I had need of it on a couple occasions through the course of the battle. Eventually, though, we struck them all down and claimed the moonstone atop the shrine. We took some time to heal from the fight, then returned to Minoc, where I had the log cut down into boards, which I then took to Julia so they could be fashioned into panpipes. After playing Stones on them for Selganor, he pressed the Rune of Sacrifice into my hands, and it was off to another Shrine. The fight to reclaim the Shrine of Sacrifice proved less arduous - though it, too, was guarded by several winged gargoyles, by the time they discovered our presence, we'd dealt with a good number of the wingless surrounding the shrine, and thus could focus our attentions better. Dupre's new axe proved helpful, and even the inexperienced juggler did a fair amount of damage (both he and Shamino found themselves gaining a level between the two fights at the shrines). I'm likely to replace Blaine's boomerang with the bow and arrows we picked up as some of the spoils from the battle, once I stop by Britain and pick up some more ammunition, but it was there that we called it a day.


The sheer size of Ultima VI is truly staggering, I'm realizing as I play through. I've had two solid sessions thus far and I know there's still a lot of plot to get through. I haven't even mentioned everything I found worth noting down, either, simply because a good deal of it is interesting but there more for flavor than contributory to the plot - the Burma-Shave-style tombstones in Empath Abbey are the first things that spring to mind along those lines, along with the virtuous reminders I get from meditating at the different shrines. I'm going to be on this one for a while, I think - but it's certainly holding my attention, especially since I'm taking the time to explore and poke around. With three shrines freed now, that leaves me with Skara Brae and Trinsic accessible from the mainland, so I think that'll be my goal for my next session. Hopefully those adventures get me enough gold to get myself a ship, and then I can finish my rounds of the realm. Onward!

Always such detail on Ultima gravestones...

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Ultima VI: Early Battles

It took some time to start my trip through Ultima VI proper, both due to general life reasons and the fact I needed a bit to really get the hang of the controls and interface of the new engine before I truly got started. I must have played through five brief sessions of simply the opening fight and some running through the castle messing with everything before I felt comfortable with them. But with that under my belt, it's time to get going.

I can't get started, however, without taking some time to go over the in-game introductions. Normally I'd save this for my opening thoughts, but in this case, the introduction is too tightly tied to the first moments of gameplay for me to do so. While Ultima V made use of an introduction to set the stage for the game proper, Ultima VI stepped it up a degree further. Ultima V kicked things off with a bit of showdown between Shamino and the Shadowlords, giving the player a taste of the power his adversaries hold. When you're dropped into the game itself, your initial circumstances are reflective of the events the introduction tells of - you're at Iolo's hut, which is where the introduction describes you running off to, Shamino's HP is low, and Iolo's description of the state of Britannia sets the tone for the rest of the game.

I feel sorry for Lord British's janitorial staff.
Ultima VI ups the stakes considerably - not only is the player the one to be jumped rather than Shamino, this time for a ritualistic sacrifice, the gameplay begins with a fight between the player and his allies against the three gargoyles that follow them through the moongate at the end of the introduction. Not only that, by using Iolo, Shamino and Dupre in the rescue, it establishes the connection between the Avatar and the Big Three of his companions for new players, and re-emphasizes it for those returning to the series. I couldn't help but notice that the length of time and the disillusionment as a result of it since the last adventure is brought up as well - the Avatar is almost impulsively eager to return to Britannia, not even taking the time to gear up as he did when he received the summons of Ultima V. In a way, by comparing the reaction to the summons in V to the appearance of the red moongate in VI, we can get a sense of the shift in the Avatar's mindset after the events of Warriors of Destiny. It solidifies Ultima V as the game in which the Avatar's role in Britannia is concretely defined, and the drive the Avatar has to fulfill the duty such a role demands - and a glimpse of what Britannia means to him, personally, at this stage. I think it's telling that the only thing the Avatar brought with him is his ankh - if he didn't take the time to prepare, then it must be something he carries with him normally.

It was with all this running through my head, then, that I tumbled into Lord British's throne room, three gargoyles in hot pursuit, unarmored and with nothing but an ankh and a sword Dupre had thrust into my hands only mere moments before. All was frenzied for a moment, but old skills returned to mind swiftly, and between that, Dupre's strength, Shamino's swiftness, and Iolo's accuracy, this initial skirmish was over swiftly. After we'd all taken a moment to catch our breath, I spoke with Lord British, who took some time to go over several matters with me - the collapse of the Underworld after his rescue, the subsequent gargoyle invasion, the capture of the Shrines, a recent attempt to retake the Shrine of Compassion, and on advice from court mage Nystul, the operation of the Orb of the Moons that I'd picked up before charging through the moongate. My old friend Geoffrey, now Captain of the Guard, told me a little more about the failed attempt to recapture the Shrine, telling me that the survivors were now recovering in Cove. Nystul, meanwhile, took an interest in the book Iolo had taken from the ringleader of the gargoyles we'd just escaped from, and thought it would be best to bring the book to Mariah to translate.

Hostile birds were around this carcass - vultures, I suppose?
With these two initial leads to follow up on, I took Lord British's invitation to gather what supplies I needed from the castle before setting out. Armor, a spellbook, reagents, potions - all were there waiting for me, and it wasn't long before I felt myself ready once more. In the process, I bumped into Chuckles the jester, who after some of his usual foolish antics suggested that there was a clue waiting for me in a chest of Nystul's, which pointed me to look under a plant in Serpent's Hold. Knowing Chuckles, this probably won't work out to anything of proper use in the end, so while I made a note to look around when I was in the vicinity of the keep, I didn't give it much import.

It was thus to Cove that I turned my sights, figuring that it was best to know the enemy I was facing, and the memories were freshest to those recovering there. Loath as I was to make things more difficult for those soldiers as they attempted to cope, they seemed my best bet for the time being. My path there, however, would necessitate me going by the Shrine of Compassion, and as I had suspected, the gargoyles that had taken and held the shrine were still around - one of them large and winged, and as we would find out in the ensuing fight, capable of wielding powerful magic. Shamino was paralyzed by a spell and took rather a beating, as did we all from the explosive magic slung around by our foe, but we persevered and managed to send them off running to lick their wounds while we pressed on toward Cove - though not before taking note of the moonstone surrounded by a force field resting atop the shrine itself.

No wonder she seems so serious...
Ahrmaand, the mayor of Cove, made mention of it as well when we talked to him, likening it to the mysterious force that had required a proper rune to bypass back in the days of the Quest of the Avatar. He pointed me to Tholden, mayor of Britain, to find out what had happened to the Rune of Compassion since I last held it, and then went on to tell me a bit more about the recent battle fought, as well as the fact the survivors were at the healer's, should I wish to speak with them. Only their leader, Gertan, was in any shape to tell me much, remarking about the moonstone and the glow that surrounded it as well. It seemed I would need to seek out the runes once more to reclaim the Shrines for Britannia, so after purchasing a spell or two from Rudyom, Cove's resident mage and apparently specializing in healing spells, I used my Orb of the Moons and returned to Britain.

Now that I had need to poke around Britain for a while, I took the time to get to know some of the townsfolk. Lazeena, a bard currently plying her trade in the Blue Boar, sang of the shipwreck of the Dutchman and recited a poem about the healer Artagel, missing after taking a trip to the Shrine - I wondered what his fate had been, a sinking feeling told me it was likely not pleasant. I learned that Lord British was looking for a copy of The Wizard of Oz, and was offering a reward - perhaps the Lycaeum's library might have it? I chatted with the town weaver for a bit, who praised Charlotte of New Magincia for her skill in weaving silk. I exchanged the gold nuggets Dupre was carrying for coin at the mint, then left in a hurry - Terri was an absolutely shameless flirt, and I found myself a touch uncomfortable in her presence.

So do I, kid! Well, the modern equivalent, at least.
It was Tholden who told me the most critical piece of information, though, namely, that he had given the rune to the bards at the conservatory. So I paid a visit to Sir Kenneth, and after we spent some time catching up (I took the opportunity to demonstrate I had, indeed, been practicing since the lesson he gave me in Greyhaven), he told me he'd given the rune to Ariana, a promising young harpsichordist at the conservatory who'd been playing since the tender age of three. She was unsure whether she should part with the rune after she had been entrusted with such an important object, so she wanted to check with her mother Anja first. I'd spoken with her earlier at the Blue Boar, so I returned to explain the situation, and was swiftly given permission. With the rune in hand, we headed back to the Shrine of Compassion. The gargoyles protecting it were back, having recovered, but we knew what to expect this time - not one of them escaped us alive. The rune, combined with the proper mantra, dissolved the force field, and we took the moonstone with us. Everyone but Shamino was experienced enough to find themselves a bit stronger after some meditation at the Shrine as well, so we took the time to do so before we set our sights toward Minoc - we surmised we'd have to repeat the process for the remaining seven shrines, and we were already on the road to the City of Sacrifice.

Upon arriving, we sensed the residents of the city were less... concerned about the threat of the gargoyles. Lady Isabella pointed me toward the guild and its head Selganor for the rune, and he informed me I'd need to join the guild proper before he could give it to me. To do so, I would have to craft my own set of panpipes and learn how to play Stones on them. It seems like a good deal of work to put in when time is of the essence, but I agreed (for any man who holds a preference for stringed instruments cannot be one of completely unsound judgment, in my personal opinion), and sought out my friends Julia and Gwenno to assist me with the project. Julia told me I'd need freshly cut wood for the pipes, so I should get a log from Yew, then take it to the sawmill on the eastern edge of town, have it cut there, and bring it back. Gwenno, meanwhile, refreshed my memory on the tune. Once again I took the time to get to know some of the townsfolk as well - Doris, the innkeeper, stood out to me in particular simply because how rudely standoffish she was, with her nose in a book and an elitist air about her. She did, however, let slip that Xiao over on Verity Isle could teach spells of the highest circle, which could prove useful. I also met Michelle the basket weaver, who made mention of a story her father told her of weaving a basket large enough for eight people! It sounded fantastic, but who knows? Perhaps it is not as far-fetched as it may sound.


One down, seven to go...
And there was where I called it a day, making a note to head for Yew next to pick up a log and take care of the Shrine of Justice in the process. I didn't cover much ground plot-wise - this is probably in part due to the fact that I'm walking everywhere, at least for the first visit, but I think the sheer scope of the game was the main factor. I spent a heck of a lot of time running around Britain and Minoc conversing with its residents, and having a grand old time while doing so. The conversation system continues to grow more extensive and complex, which naturally leads to more well-defined characters as well. Michelle's eager cheerfulness, Doris's haughty scholasticism, Terri's flirtatiousness, Lazeena's morose stories, Gwenneth's teasing... the dialogue's definitely improved further, and that coupled with the portraits are making Ultima VI's characters even more memorable. I'm finding it easy to get lost, and that can make it a bit complicated to sell off unnecessary equipment (along with the fact shops only take certain items, as well), but overall I'm enjoying the game thus far. Still trying to figure out what I want to do party-wise, though. I've already bumped into Gwenno and Julia, both of whom are willing to join my party, but I'm leaning more toward Segallion and Blaine when I bump into them - Ultima VI is a game about bringing very different worlds together, in a sense, so it seems thematically appropriate to include another visitor from another world and a gypsy (who are scorned to nearly the same degree as the Gargoyles come Ultima VII, in some circles) in my little band. But we'll see what happens! I'm only just getting started, and there's still a lot of story left to tell. Who knows what might shift in the telling?