I was introduced to Ultima Online when I was around 10 years old in the late 1990s. One fateful day, my next door neighbor invited me over to show me this new computer game. I spent the rest of the day watching my friend adventure in this new world on his avatar, the valiant swordsman Vertigo. My young mind was instantly captured by the possibilities and freedom of this fully open fantasy world where I could do practically anything, become anyone, and meet new people. As night fell and my appetite for this glorious realm remained insatiable we were forced to organize a sleep-over and stay up all night to play.
After spending every hour at my neighbor's house, day after day I finally convinced my parents this game was absolutely necessary to my survival and I would be needing my own copy. Luckily however, I was fortunate enough that my friend's disk allowed me to install the game on my computer as well. I just needed to make an account and subscribe for $10/month. This took another round of convincing my parents and selling my soul away in exchange for monthly and weekly chores but in the end I was successful. After scrambling to install it, and setting up my account from that moment forward I was constantly fighting for every minute of computer and internet time that I could get.
I started off on a shard (a regional server instance of the game) called Great Lakes where I struggled through the early days of creating a new character as you start the game practically itemless, skillless, and have little direction on where to go. Having witnessed first hand the success of my friend's swordsman, this is the path I chose to help me find my feet. After some trial and error (so much error) I slowly started amassing enough wealth to have some spare gold and supplies as a cushion for hard times in the safety of my in-game bank. Not long after I began to feel comfortable, the progress started to dwindle off as my avatar became more advanced and it quickly became more difficult to increase my skill. The dangers of the world and my risk-averse personality kept me away from the higher level and more difficult areas of the game where I could continue to increase my skill. And so I decided it was time to try my luck in greener pastures.
Set AnimalTaming 100.0
As I was deciding on my next move I logged in one day and noticed an oddly named shard had become available called Test Center. Intrigued, I decided to investigate and made a new character. As I entered the world, I soon realized that this was something entirely different than I had previously experienced on Great Lakes. It was the same game and the same maps, except in this world instead of working for days or often weeks to level up a skill I could become whatever I wanted by typing in a few key words to set my stats and skills to max level.
I had already spent hours pouring over skills and skill descriptions in the manual that came with the game, deciding what would pair best together and what sort of character I wanted to become. Back on Great Lakes as a lowly swordsman I frequently saw high level players riding these fantastic, intimidating horses known in game as "a nightmare". A solid black horse with glowing red eyes that had the strength of a dragon, the ability to cast powerful magic spells and most importantly the ability for a player to gain control and make it their pet through the use of a skill called Animal Taming.
These characters who were typically known in game as "Tamers", who had a nightmare would almost certainly have other rare and powerful items, and often times a dragon too. Because of the combination of rare and powerful items, creatures and wealth these players often had a sort of in-game fame associated with them. This was just too much for 10 year old me to handle, and I was always very envious of these players. And now with the discovery of this new "Test Center" maybe I could get a taste of some of the fame, glory and riches that these other players had. There was only one problem: I had no idea what I was doing.
An actual literal picture of me playing Ultima Online in 1999
To remedy this dire situation of ignorance, I decide the best thing to do would be to head into one of the popular in-game hubs and start asking questions. In Ultima Online one of the most popular "hangouts" was near the bank in the major cities. In particular: Britain and Moonglow. In this case, my character had started in the city of Britain, and I had a short walk to get to the bank.
Map of Britain
As I meandered my way through the streets of Britain one of the things I immediately noticed is the amount of items just laying on the ground. Due to the difficulty of the game and the constant hunt for gold and items I developed a low-key (totally more than low-key) hoarding mentality and so I greedily snatched these things up so that I could resell them later. The closer I get to the bank the more items I notice scattered around the ground and my confusion begins to heighten. "Why is everyone throwing all of these valuable items on the ground?" I wonder. As I arrive at the bank my bags are overflowing with items and my character has become over-encumbered causing my avatar to no longer be able to move.
Vendor buy the Bank some Guards!
To open your bank in Ultima Online, you simply approach the bank building and while you are in the vicinity you type out "bank" and magically a new UI window opens showing your bank. Typically a new player starts with only the clothes on their back, a few starter items in their bag, and an empty bank. But as I opened my bank, it was far from empty. It was absolutely filled with gold and rare and magical items and resources that I could use on my journey.
I thought there must have been some mistake, how did my character get all of these items? Was I somehow reverse hacked and ended up with someone else's items for free?
Then it clicks.
No, I was not unusually lucky but in fact EVERY player had these same items in their bank. And that was why most people were just throwing their excess items on the ground, because everyone had instantly become super rich and powerful the moment they created their character.
Hours passed as I look through every single item to organize everything and select a few necessity items to take with me. At this point I am ready to figure out just what the heck I am doing. The bank area I had chosen was one of the most popular areas to hang out and as such was packed with many particularly powerful looking characters. One particularly powerful looking player was already in conversation with another player about how he tamed his nightmare mount and I politely eaves-dropped from a distance. From their conversation I learned about a popular spot to find nightmares and some of the recommended skills to help acquire one: animal taming and animal lore.
As a result, I put together a combination of stats and skills that I thought would give my character the best chance at obtaining a nightmare and becoming even more rich and powerful than I already was... in the game, of course. With my pack full of supplies, a fresh suit of armor and maxed out skills I set off on my first adventure: to tame a nightmare. I mean, how hard can it be?
To Tame a Nightmare pt.1
Shadow emerged from the moongate, stepping into the center of the encircling ring of stones. The peaceful sounds of the Minoc forest filled his ears as the crisp morning sun warmed his skin. On the wind he caught the scent of freshly baked bread from the nearby city of Vesper and he fondly recalled simpler times when he would find clever and often devious ways to acquire the baker's desserts. Today though, he did not have time for tasty crumbly treats; he had much more important matters to attend to.
Over the past few days since entering this new realm Shadow had spent his time mastering his newfound abilities. By undergoing increasingly difficult adventures until he felt confident enough to move on to the next test he began to learn much about his skills and the world around him. He mastered powerful magics of fire, healing and energy. He studied the creatures of the land, their habitats, strengths and weaknesses. He learned how to play music and use it to calm the restless beasts. But most of all he practiced his new animal taming abilities as often as he could. After spending hour after waking hour honing his skills he finally felt ready to take on the adventure he had been preparing himself for. Today he would push the limits of his abilities, safety and comfort. Today he would become a true animal tamer by taming a nightmare.
Shadow continued on leading his horse out of the moongate ring and proceeding to do his final check over his gear. Satisfied, he mounted up and lightly booted his horse forward towards the main road. After a short time at a moderate trot the trees opened onto the Minoc/Vesper road and Shadow slowed his horse to a steady walk as they began heading West. He still had most of the journey left to go and he needed his mount to maintain it's strength, as well as needing to maintain his own. The main road winded it's way in a large horseshoe shape hugging the Central Britannia Mountain starting in the North East on the outer edge of Minoc Forest down past the coastal fishing city of Vesper. The road continued on for endless miles splitting off many times but Shadow's path had been set and so he began rehearsing his plans over and over in his head. Before he knew it he had arrived at the first crossroads which split the road into two paths: one leading South towards Vesper, and the other leading West towards the city of Britain many miles away. He chose the Western path that lead towards Britain and along the way his true destination - the dungeon of Covetous.
Inside a log cabin in the woods outside of Covetous dungeon
"Ya' ready yet Jorx?" a gruff voice calls.
"Oi said give me a few minutes Jerp!" a nasally voice replies.
"Ye said that ten minutes ago. C'mon! What're ye even doing?" Jerp complains.
"Restocking my regs, jees just chill!" Jorx screams.
"Yer killin' me Jorx!" Jerp storms off in frustration.
As the sun crested its zenith Shadow spotted the dead oak tree with the special markings signifying the unmarked path towards Covetous. Turning his horse, he broke away from the main path riding the tan gelding into the darkening wood. The dense foliage quickly blocked the view of the road and much of the sound of the outside world. In the few remaining patches of visible sky Shadow began to see ominous storm clouds forming overhead as he entered deeper into the woods was slowly consumed by the darkness.
Fat raindrops began to fall and distant thunder rolled as Shadow emerged from the woods into a small clearing on the edge of the Central Mountain Range. A jagged cave entrance sat half exposed along the rock wall on the other side of the clearing directly opposite Shadow. A humid, rank wind rode forth from the mouth of the cave stirring the leaves on the ground and breaking the pleasant scent of fresh rain. Shadow had made this trip dozens of times before and faced his fear each and every time. He knew the sights and smells of this desolate place and what awaited him in the depths. Each visit he conquered his fear and ventured into the cave, each visit becoming that much more familiar, making it that much easier. This time however something felt different.... He couldn't determine what it was but he knew something was off. Pushing the doubt to the back of his mind he gathered his courage and stepped out into the clearing as he muttered "Well, here goes nothing."