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.