The Game Archaeologist: The assassination of Lord British

At the end of August 2015, the fledgling Shroud of the Avatar community gathered together for a massive PvP fight. This wasn’t to be a normal battle, however, as Lord British (Richard Garriott’s in-game avatar) waded into the fray and was the focus of a fierce fight to see who could kill him. Down he went in the end, prompting cheers from the participants — not because they hated him but because it was a reprise of one of the most famous moments of MMO history.

A little over 18 years before that Shroud of the Avatar gathering, a similar group of beta players had congregated in the Ultima Online beta for a stress test. In the crowd lurked a would-be assassin who had a dastardly plan: to attack and kill the most revered figure in the Ultima franchise in front of a live audience.

A boy named British

For Richard Garriott, the birth of his alter-ego Lord British began in his childhood. At a summer camp in his youth, Garriott was given the nickname “British” by his pals. He accepted and trademarked the name, using it for his Dungeons & Dragons campaigns and later on as a pseudonym for his first published PC game, Akalabeth: World of Doom.

As Garriott moved into designing his signature Ultima series, Lord British went from being merely a name on the front of the box to the ruler of the in-game Britannia who came from Earth. Players would encounter Lord British repeatedly in their adventures over the next two decades, in essence interacting with the game’s creator every time they did so.

While most players revered Lord British and did their utmost to help him and fulfill his assigned quests, there were those who took great pains to figure out ways to kill him — a task that was sometimes possible across the nine Ultima titles. The challenge of beating an “invincible” character who stood in for the game’s maker was too attractive for some to ignore.

A royal visit

On August 8th, 1997, just over a month before Ultima Online launched, the developers encouraged the testing population to log in for a stress test. To incentivize participation and draw the crowds, Garriott announced that Lord British would be paying a royal visit to the throngs to say a few words.

One of the many testers was “Rainz” (his real name was never revealed), a 23-year old head of an internet company who had fallen in love with the interactivity and immersion that Ultima Online promised. Rainz was part of a guild that made it its mission to preserve the balance of power in the land, and it was in that mindset that he made an attempt on Lord British’s “tyrannical rule.”

“I knew that it may have been possible to slay British, but I didn’t expect it to come so early in Britannian history,” Rainz said in an interview weeks after the event. “As any Ultima fan knows, killing British is something we’ve all attempted but never really had any luck with.”

Rainz and his friends headed to Castle Blackthorne, where Lord British and Lord Blackthorne (the avatar of developer Starr Long) were mingling with the few testers who traveled there. Most of the server was instead congregating at Lord British’s castle and would thereby miss the events that followed.

A sneaky thief

Unbeknownst to all parties, when the server reset shortly before, the toggle that normally protected the devs was turned off — and Garriott didn’t enter the command to reactivate his invulnerability. Nobody, including Garriott, knew that Lord British was now open to attack in a game that was almost entirely PvP through-and-through.

Rainz wasn’t playing his magic character at the time, but some spur-of-the-moment pick-pocketing turned up the perfect weapon for assassination. This was aided by another fortuitous factor: The developers, anticipating lag at the castle, had turned off the guards who would otherwise have caught and killed Rainz for stealing.

“Luckily my character was a good thief who had high stealing skill,” he explained. “I desperately searched the backpacks of those around me and eventually came upon a fire field scroll. After that it was pretty simple: I just cast the scroll on the bridge and waited to see what would happen. Either [Lord British] or Blackthorne made the comment, ‘Hehe nice try!’ — I can’t recall exactly who. It was a humorous sight and I expected to be struck down by lightning or have some other evil fate befall me. Instead I heard a loud death grunt as British slumped to his death.”

The murder caught everyone off-guard, including British and his assassin. Someone took the above screenshot that became one of the most famous in MMO history, showing players’ disbelief as they shouted “HE DIED” and “LB is dead!!!”

A death that rocked the gaming world

Rainz didn’t stick around long to face the consequences of developer retribution but ran away shortly after Lord British died: “It was a total shock. I stared at his corpse in disbelief then burst out in laughter […] After that it was just pure mayhem, Blackthorne or another force summoned four demons into the castle and people were dying left and right.”

While Garriott, Long, Rainz, and Ultima Online players have a rosier view of the event today, at the time it was a tad controversial. Rainz faced banishment by Origin, although accounts differed as to why: Some say that it was for exploits, some say for both earlier beta activities, and some point to this ultimate PK.

The reaction of the developers, both at the time of the assassination and following, elicited protests by the UO community. Some thought that the indiscriminate killing of the assembled crowd and the subsequent ban of Rainz was far too harsh for what was, in retrospect, an incredible and entertaining moment.

Time turned any bitter feelings by both the developers and community into a cherished memory. When asked in 2013 about his virtual assassination, Garriott responded with tongue-in-cheek, “RAINZ!!!! Some day I will get my revenge! When it happened, I was in shock and disbelief. I did not know what to do. I could no longer speak. I could not resurrect myself. I was in my office alone. Fortunately someone in QA could see me and resurrected me. Then the team decided to kill everyone, as we did not know yet that it was Rainz.”

A lasting legacy

Nearly two decades later, Lord British’s murder remains one of the most memorable events in MMORPG history and an example of the “anything can happen” nature of sandboxes. It also gave rise to the so-called “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 assassination even secured a strange entry in Guinness Book of World Records: First and Only Person to Kill Lord British.

“A lot of people have mentioned that to me as a pivotal moment in their lives,” University of Texas Professor Megan Winget said in 2008.

And indeed it was.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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22 Comments on "The Game Archaeologist: The assassination of Lord British"

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enamelizer
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enamelizer

I remember this so well, that guy was a legend in the game. There was no better example of UO than a thief using guile to kill the fictional ruler of the land as well as the avatar of the creator of Ultima in one fell swoop.

These types of experiences really defined UO as a proper, interconnected living world.

schmidtcapela
Guest
schmidtcapela

StClair schmidtcapela JakeDunnegan 
Very much. It’s why, for example, you see so many people saying that EVE is a great game to read about but a lousy one to play.

StClair
Guest
StClair

schmidtcapela JakeDunnegan Or to put it another way:
Stories like this are great when it’s not happening to you.

Damonvile
Guest
Damonvile

DPandaren Like in the 5th paragraph where it says ….. “there were those http://ultima.wikia.com/wiki/Killing_Lord_British — a task that was sometimes possible across the nine Ultima titles. The challenge of beating an “invincible” character who stood in for the game’s maker was too attractive for some to ignore.”

DPandaren
Guest
DPandaren

Really, the biggest thing missing here is that killing Lord British has ALWAYS been a thing for the Ultima series. Even before UO.

schlag sweetleaf
Guest
schlag sweetleaf

The King is dead, long live The King!

Pepperzine
Guest
Pepperzine

This makes me wanna play UO again

Sorenthaz
Guest
Sorenthaz

JakeDunnegan schmidtcapela Not everyone likes being killed/griefed and losing all their stuff over and over again.

schmidtcapela
Guest
schmidtcapela

JakeDunnegan schmidtcapela 
For the same reason that about any post about a new Open PvP sandbox here is met with a barrage of “PvP? I’m out” posts. When anything can happen in a PvP environment, without effective controls, it means that other players are empowered to hinder my game, to grief me, and otherwise make the game not worth playing at all for me.

I actually tried games with this kind of PvP to see if I could like them. Had the opposite effect, though; after going through a few such games, ending with EVE, I’m not willing to ever again play any game where I’m not able to opt out of any and all PvP without negative consequences.

bryanjturner
Guest
bryanjturner

I hope Rainz got his account back.

JakeDunnegan
Guest
JakeDunnegan

schmidtcapela Drive away? Why? The fact that “anything” can happen is  one of the wonderful things about RPGs and MMOs. It’s not like you’re going to decorate a house in Call of Duty.

I remember when I first got into computer gaming, and on the cover of some Commodore 64 game or box or something they showed a Gandalf-like wizard, and he was shooting lightning at the keyboard. And I remember right then, that one thing right there is what set PC gaming (though, PC in the “personal computer” not “IBM compatible” sense of the words) apart from the likes of console games. And MMOs are just as different from other types of games as PCs are from consoles.

Detton
Guest
Detton

Tamanous Zo5o Keep in mind that in those days, developers would do, regularly, GM-sponsored events.  You would never see that now — how can you ‘justify’ the cost to the finance team?   Could you imagine a developer (or major name) doing that in a game these days?  

I don’t think it’s just the community.  I think the community is just fine, it’s just that it’s grown so large that now not everyone you meet shares your interests.  (They might not share any of them except that specific game).   But development and the attitudes of game creators sure have.

Even among new games that want to try to re-capture that feeling – you hear a lot of “Open world this”,  “sandbox that” and callbacks to other games.

But never about GM sponsored events with game masters who had the power to actually make it a meaningful experience.  And certainly never about a specific lead developer visiting.

Detton
Guest
Detton

I remember that event; it was such an amazing moment.

schmidtcapela
Guest
schmidtcapela

While it is interesting to read, I think it also serves to drive away many would-be players that come across the story. This story played a large role in making me give up on UO back then, in the same way that the main reason I left EVE were the tales of players being attacked and destroyed in high-sec space.

ToyFuzion
Guest
ToyFuzion

I miss UO, the way it was in those first couple of years. Lots of memorable moments. :)

PaganRites
Guest
PaganRites

Really an amazing moment in the MMORPG genre and one that probably hasn’t been surpassed (and may never be).  Loved the old UO days!

camelotcrusade
Guest
camelotcrusade

That was a fun story.  I wasn’t there in UO, but I did play most of the single-player Ultimate games (3 through 9) so I appreciate the “big deal” factor when it comes to LB.

Cambruin
Guest
Cambruin

Oh Lord British…. I hardly recognize you anymore.

Tamanous
Guest
Tamanous

Zo5o Sadly you may be right if the current trend of mmos continues. Nothing can duplicate these stories of old without single server shards and tight knit communities. These old mmorpgs were/are riddled with flaws but all that was great was also purged from modern mmos whilst on their campaign to template and make mainstream.

Tamanous
Guest
Tamanous

Never played OU but experience the Asheron’s Call version of this. There was events across servers where Bael’Zharon and Asheron were played by devs and players picked sides and large open pvp fights occurred. My bud and I rushed to the scene of a confrontation between the 2 main characters of the game when we heard of it and shortly after arriving witnessed Bael’Zharon unloading a huge spell into Asheron. It was clear that it wasn’t planned as such but Asheron died instantly in front of a large chunk of the player base.

Rather funny I must say but of course lacked the overall history iconic history behind Lord British with such a known player behind it. Either way the story was quite a big deal and funny for the entire AC community.

Mark Jacobs
Guest
Mark Jacobs

It really was awesome. :)

Zo5o
Guest
Zo5o

Those were the days….

We shall never see their like again.

*sadface*

wpDiscuz