Game designers are responsible for so much of our joy and inspiration, but they themselves are rarely the center of attention. Though we see their names on the end credits, and occasionally discover secret tributes and vanity areas in our games, most of the time game creators aren’t larger than life personalities.
Of course, there are a few exceptions to this rule, and Richard Garriott definitely counts among them. The eccentric game designer, entrepreneur, and astronaut isn’t afraid to be a public-facing figure. He made a bunch of money doing what he loves and bought a castle to live in. He sells his own blood for thousands of dollars, and literally flies through space. Garriott has just released a new autobiography to provide some insights into the life and creative process of one of gaming’s most distinct personalities.
But I’d actually like to talk about Garriott’s most enduring contribution to gaming culture, and that’s less to do with Richard Garriott per se, than with a fellow known as Lord British. Like many great moments in gaming, it was spontaneous, rebellious, and hilarious.
To The Manor Born
Lord British was born as an alter-ago for a young Richard Garriott in his childhood gaming days. At a summer camp, Garriott’s friends thought that his accent sounded English, and they gave him the nickname ‘British’. Garriott was actually born in England, but was raised in the US and doesn’t actually have any trace of a British accent, but the name still stuck. Richard called his characters Lord British in his Dungeons & Dragons campaigns and later on as a pseudonym for his first published PC game, Akalabeth: World of Doom.
Akalabeth and Garriott’s other early titles won’t ring many bells but he eventually went on to release his signature Ultima series. In this hugely successful #RPG franchise, Lord British became the ruler of the in-game land of Britannia. Players of the Ultima series would encounter Lord British repeatedly in their adventures over the next two decades, each time essentially interacting with a stand-in for the game’s creator.
Most players were happy to pay their respects to Lord British and did their best to fulfil the quests he assigned them. But gamers being gamers, some wanted to see how far they could bend the rules. So naturally, players set out to kill himâ€”a task that was actually possible in some of the Ultima titles, but never easy. The challenge of beating a supposedly invincible character who represented the god-like figure of the game creator was just too tempting for some troublemakers.
But it was Ultima’s transition to MMO format that would give these would be assassins of kings the chance to really make their name in the world.
To Kill A King
Ultima Online brought Richard Garriott’s fans together to share a world in MMORPG form. On August 8th, 1997, just over a month before launch, the developers encouraged the testers to log in to the beta version for a stress test.
To encourage a high turnout Garriott announced that Lord British would be paying a royal visit to the assembled throngs, and say a few words to commemorate the occasion. This occasion would prove to be even more significant in video game history than he bargained for.
Among many testers present at the event was ‘Rainz’, a 23-year-old head of an internet company who was very excited by the potential of Ultima Online and was also part of a guild that made it its mission to preserve the balance of power in the land. With this in mind, Rainz took it upon himself to challenge the ‘tyrannical’ Lord British, even if he didn’t have much hope for success.
Rainz and friends headed to Castle Blackthorne, where Lord British and Lord Blackthorne (the avatar of developer Starr Long) were mingling with some testers who had traveled there. Most of the server was instead congregating at Lord British’s castle in anticipation of the speech, and would be far from the action when it occurred.
A Cruel Twist Of Fate
Unbeknownst to all parties, the stars were aligned just right for regicide. A recent server cash and reset had turned off the flag that normally protected the devs from all harm. Garriott had forgotten enter the command to reactivate his invulnerability. Nobody, including Garriott himself, knew that Lord British was now open to PvP attack.
Rainz was playing a thief, which wasn’t his usual character, but proved to be a most fortuitous choice for the occasion. Some spontaneous pick-pocketing turned up a fire scroll to use as the weapon for assassination. Rainz’s run of good luck held: the developers, anticipating lag at the castle, had turned off the guards who would normally have caught and executed Rainz for stealing.
When Rainz cast his scroll on the castle bridge where British was standing, and the devs initially reacted with mocking contempt in the chat. Rainz himself didn’t expect his stunt to succeed, but to everyone’s astonishment, British slumped to his death with a dismal groan.
One player took the above screenshot that became one of the most famous in MMO history, showing players struck with disbelief, shouting ‘HE DIED’ and ‘LB is dead!!!’
Rainz didn’t stick around long to face the music but ran away shortly after Lord British died. Things were getting real hot real fast. Demons were summoned, and the guards moved in on the scene. In the chaos and confusion the devs didn’t know who the assassin was and turned on everyone around them. The players fought back, and the whole thing turned into an in-game riot.
While Garriot’s autobiography looks back on the event with amusement, at the time it was a more controversial affair. Rainz was banned by Origin, although his stunt did earn him a place in the #v=onepage&q=ultima%20online%20rainz%20real%20name&f=false”>Guinness Book of World Records. The UO community protested the heavy-handed massacre of the crowd by the developers. Maybe the anarchist assassin had a point.
Nowadays the affair is looked upon as a cherished memory for the UO community. The killing of Lord British stands as example of the ‘anything can happen’ nature of sandbox games and the creativity of gamers striving to bend the game rules. It even gave rise to a new ‘law’ of gaming.
The Lord British Postulate
The ‘Lord British Postulate,’ a rule that states ‘If it exists as a living creature in an MMORPG, someone, somewhere, will try to kill it.’ The phrase was actually coined by Mike Schramm in regard to an incident in WoW, when A’dal, the supposedly invincible lord of the neutral Shattrath City, was slain by creative players exploiting loopholes in the game’s mechanics.
There was no reason to kill the apparently harmless A’dal, but the same spirit that motivated Rainz to attack Lord British had spurred players on here. They just wanted to see what was possible.
The Lord British Postulate applies whenever a player defeats an in game opponent that was intended to be unkillable. Notable examples have occurred in other MMORPGs, such as when 200 players fought for hours to kill Kerafyrm the Sleeper in EverQuest, or the Vyrewatch in RuneScape, which didn’t even have a death animation. But single player games also feature so-called invincible enemies, and you can do things like kill the Mehrunes Dagon in Oblivion, or Billie Adams in Deus Ex: Invisible War.
This can often to be possible due to unintended exploits or bugs, and can sometimes even break the game when players end up removing plot-critical NPCs. But at least they’ve got the bragging rights for pushing against authorial control.
It’s the gamer’s paradox that we need rules to make the game meaningful, and yet there’s such an irresistible temptation to break them. In the end, the authority figure and the iconoclast both have their role to play in the fun. Thanks to Richard Garriott for creating those rules, and kudos to Rainz for showing us the potential of what the rebel can do with some luck, ingenuity, and courage.
Have you ever killed the unkillable? Tell us your tales of glory below!
This article originally appeared on video games magazine site NowLoading.co. The site is no longer online, but I’ve uploaded a selection of articles from my time as a staff writer there (2016-2017) here as portfolio samples.