Alignments in Amber

Alignment is the assignment of a rough and ready system of moral standards to tabletop miniature role playing games, mostly used to allow the Moderator to decide what happens if Boromir picks up the One Ring, or when SturmbannführerToht or Oberst Dietrichpries open the Ark of the Covenant.

Alignment is also used as the simplest form of roleplaying aid for new players who have never pretended to be someone other than themselves before. Just this last month, I saw my own son, playing a half-orc monk named Chim Pan Zi have to confront the fact that his lawful good character could not break into a building owned by the evil Baron, or even disobey the evil Baron’s evil weapons-confiscation laws. (He gave up his weapons and continued to fight bare handed). The solution he came up with was that Lawful Good members of his order obeyed Good Laws according to the spirit of the law, but Evil Laws only according to the letter, being minimally compliant, and not cooperating with an active evil. I thought that was a pretty sophisticated solution for a fifteen year old to come up with. But the point he, he had to think out how someone with a different worldview and philosophy of life would think.

Once Dungeons and Dragons got the ball rolling on Alignment, several other rules systems made several other clever rules about alignment.

The Palladium system is clearer than D&D. It assumes Good, Selfish, and Evil, and breaks down Good into Principled and Scrupulous, Selfish into Unprincipled and Anarchist, Evil in Aberrant, Miscreant, and Diabolical. Let me explain by means of Star Wars examples:

  • Principled is a paladin, Adam West’s Batman lecturing Robin on why they should put a dime in the meter even though the traffic cops would never ticket the Batmobile. Luke the Jedi who would rather die than fight his father is Principled.
  • Scrupulous will sometimes bend the rules in a good cause. Princess Leia is scrupulous, but she will lie to Darth Vader, saying she does not know where the stolen data tapes are.
  • Unprincipled is like Han Solo, loveable rogue, when he is first introduced. He is a pragmatist looking out for number one.
  • Anarchist is Lando Calrissian when he is first introduced, an unloveable rogue. He is willing to betray old friends to the empire when it is to his personal advantage.
  • Aberrant is the classic badass who plays by the rules: Darth Vader when he knees before the image of the Emperor. These are ‘the ends justify the means’ types, and the means include war and torture and treason. But they will not cheat at cards.
  • Miscreant is Jabba the Hutt, a crook, someone who will lie and cheat and kill for fun and profit.
  • Diabolic is Emperor Palpatine, particularly when he tries to get Darth Vader and Luke to kill each other. They lie, cheat, steal and murder even when there is no profit to be had, merely out of sadism. Casanova Frankenstein in the movie MYSTERY MEN is diabolical when he electrocutes his loyal minions and smirks, “You see? I even kill my own men!”

Upon inspection, this is little more than a clarification of the basic Dungeons and Dragons system, just eliminating the confusion of ‘Neutral’.

The basic problem of what happens when a player character acts out of alignment is still present (as when Han Solo does an about-face and helps the rebellion, or Lando has a change of heart, or Darth Vader suffers a total repentance and gives his live for his son).

One solution is to make moral growth part of the story arc or character arc.

This is done in VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE and the related ‘World of Darkness’ storytelling rpg’s by tracking the character’s humanity points or paradox points or what have you. In that case, each class of monster the character is playing has one overriding vice that the player character struggles against, as vampires against their inhuman thirst, werewolves against the beast within, mages against paradox, changelings against mundane disenchantment, and so on. (I forget what it is for mummies.) There is no choice of alignment here: everyone in the game is afflicted by a vice that will destroy him if he fails to resist.

CALL OF CTHULHU tracks a character’s sanity points, which he loses each time he witnesses an eldritch horror or begins to realize human life is merely a small and sinking island in a sea of inhuman and non-Euclidean cosmic horror. Most moderators would not call this alignment, but in effect it is, since it prevents characters from cracking open the Necronomicon and uttering the Sign of the Descending Node to bring back to life a mummified Eskimo sorcerer or long-dead degenerate hillbilly witchdoctor who can contact the Mi-Go for a quick round trip flight to Yuggoth in a brain-jar.

EVERWAY is a quirky card-based story-telling game with more flexibility, but it included the same solution, namely, of having each player character select a character flaw for his character to be overcome (or not) as part of the drama of the game.

PENDRAGON does the same thing for the Knights of King Arthur, trying (in my opinion, successfully) to capture the internal moral struggles of the legendary figures in the Matter of Britain in their dice mechanics.

The single cleverest application of an alignment rule I have ever seen was in an oriental samurai fantasy game (I cannot recall if it was BUSHIDO or LEGEND OF THE FIVE RINGS), where if your character died with honor, in the fashion reflecting the suicidal courage for which the samurai are legendary, then you are reincarnated into the same clan and you got to take your experience points with you to the next character, but if you were dishonorable and tried to live, you didn’t.

But this raised the question becomes how intrusive is the alignment supposed to be? When is the moderator allowed to punish a player for violating his character’s alignment, or, even, by fiat, prohibiting it? “Your character cannot do that action.”

Myself, I think alignment should be very intrusive if you are playing a comic book superhero game like CHAMPIONS or SUPERWORLD, or if struggle with the player characters sense of honor or sense of humanity is in the center of the game (as in PENDRAGON, BUSHIDO, and VAMPIRE).

In some games it is inescapable. Alignment has to intrude on STAR WARS, because if one is playing a jedi one must be tempted by the Dark Side, because that temptation is one part of the furniture of the setting, just like hyperdrive is, or dogfights in space.

But there should be little or no intrusion by alignment in a setting where the inanimate objects or the cosmos does not have an innate moral code. I mean, did Kirk lose stripes for breaking the Prime Directive?

If you are playing a James Bond style espionage game, you should gain points for seducing Goldfinger’s beautiful but evil Hench-babe, not lose them. In GANGBUSTERS or any Film Noir milieu, the morality has to be de-emphasized, because that is also part of the setting.

No doubt the single bored reader who has continued reading to this point, mostly because there is nothing else to look at on the computer, and the next issue of NARUTO has not been released on Crunchyroll yet, is thinking of a question: ‘I wonder if I should get up and make some toasted cheese?’ The answer to that is ‘yes’ and grab a cold brew while you are at it.

But suppose he had been wondering instead ‘How would John C. Wright, sciencefictioneer and fabulist extraordinaire, handle alignment in his role-playing game?’

Ah! I am glad you asked, imaginary person who asked exactly what I wanted you to ask!

I believe in a hands-off method of moderation in games, and so I try to keep everything as ‘in game’ as possible, to minimize the times when the moderator has to make a judgment call about player character actions, and to minimize the temptation of the players to argue with the moderator.

In other words, I try to invent rules and situations where the topic simply never comes up.

Now, being a lazy sort of fellow, I long ago decided (this was in 1987, if memory serves) to run a multiverse game, so that whatever sort of game I felt like running, and whatever sort of character the player wanted to play, we could encompass under the same umbrella game.

At the center of the multiverse is a city called Amber or Tanelorn, ruled by Oberon the Wanderer, the one-eyed Lord of Ravens. In his hand is the great spear Gungnir with images from the Pattern of Amber inscribed into it, written with the runes of the laws of the world. His wife is Titania, with whom he has quarreled. His sons and daughters have the power to travel to other worlds and reorganize their contents according to their willpower, and to enforce or to break the laws of nature.

Oberon’s brothers and nearest doppelgangers rule the dimensions nearest to him; Mages come from Roke, Jedi from Avalon, the Gathering and Hunters of Annuvin and other immortal swordsmen are from Valhalla, the practitioners of the magic-destroying Doomgaze come from Mount Cumae where immortal Ayesha rules, and the Time Lords, of course, come from Gallifrey. There is a missing brother, named Prometheus, whose lost children, called The Creators, have the power to see into other dimensions and to draw new patterns and create new worlds.

The ironic limitation of the Creators is that they think they are making up stories, when they are actually getting psychic insights into the secrets of other worlds. The Creators know Clark Kent’s secret, and they also know Bilbo Baggins’ secret, and they both know where the son and daughter of Darth Vader are hidden, and where to shoot the Death Star to make it explode, so these Creators are very, very dangerous.

Now, the Pattern of Amber was drawn right in the midst of the Unendurable Citadel of the Great Race of the Yeth, destroying the regime of Old Chaos, and imposing laws of nature and rigid forms on what had previously been a roaring tumult of ever-changing pandemonium. The Great Race cast their minds forward through time into the new creation, and set about to destroy it and restore the original chaos. At the same time, certain powerful spirits escaped the trap of the laws of nature and fled to the outer dreamworlds, beyond Kadath, and used the glamour of dreams to take upon themselves fair and seductive forms. By their songs or silent lures they drew men and beasts out through secret doorways or cracks in the walls of the world into the greater freedom and eerie beauty of the dreamscapes and made them into their champions.

Hence each race of law has its opposite and counterpart among the courts of chaos: opposite the Mages of Roke are the Njoldor exiled from Valinore, who know the ring-lore which even the Master Namer cannot overcome; opposite the Jedi are the Inquestors of the High Compassion, the utopia hunters, whose minds cannot be read; opposite the Gathering are the Selchie, who are shapetakers and masters of disguise that can take on the form of deadly monsters; opposite the Doomgazers are the Fomori, who draw trumps and fold space; opposite the Time Lords, of course (who else?) the Great Race of the Yeth.

In case this is unclear, this is a total ‘kitchen sink’ campaign, where anything and everything can be thrown into the mix, and the players can pick anything they want to play. There are no restrictions on race, class, type, powers, or anything.

The only limit is that if you want to play someone who knows any of the books and stories and films and comic books from Earth, you have to play a Creator, in which case you are playing yourself. If you want to play a flying child-soldier who can shoot lasers from his eyes, then you do not know who Clark Kent or Bilbo Baggins is.

In this setting and background, there are only two main factions: Oberon and his ruthless, Machiavellian children, who all believe the ends justify the means; and against them is Feanor the Lord of the Silmarils and his children, who believe that no oath, once taken, can be abridged. They have vowed to free all the trapped spirits and destroy the evil enchantment of one they call Melkor the Enemy (whom the Sons of Oberon call Dworkin, foolishly thinking he is a harmless and eccentric old wizard instead of the most powerful of the Valar).

The Amberite claim that destroying the Pattern will unleash a pandemonium of anarchy; the Chaoticists claim that destroying the Pattern will abolish death, suffering, and all limitations preventing paradise.

The Amberites are Lawful Evil, and use underhanded, horrid means to protect the universe from the coming Ragnarok; the Chaoticists are led by honest and honorable paladins who use aboveboard and even chivalrous means to destroy the universe, so they are Chaotic Good.

The third available alignment is only open to players who find out where the Unicorn comes from, and what her purpose was in destroying the Unendurable Citadel of the Yeth with the lightningbolt on her brow. The alignment of the servants of Eru the One is called Saintly.

Within the lawful camp, there are fourteen alignments:

  1. Jovial: acting like Jupiter both toward women and toward laws and oathbreakers.
  2. Junoesque: protecting the institution of marriage, queenship, dominion, law, mercy.
  3. Neptunian: favoring rebellion, uproar, sudden changes, but also trade and exploration.
  4. Cereal: favoring the farmer and the laborer, communal life, and all things rural and plain.
  5. Plutonian: favoring silence, darkness, dread, occult ceremony, police-state tactics, and strict enforcement of the laws of nature.
  6. Persephonean: living in hope of the resurrection of the dead. Also likes moody poetry and wearing black lipstick.
  7. Apollonian: favoring the useful arts and sciences, medicine, prophecy.
  8. Artesian: favoring maidenhood, woodlore, wild places, conservation.
  9. Martial: favoring war and other manly pursuits.
  10. Venereal: favoring the arts of love, romance, generation and seduction.
  11. Mercurial: favoring cunning, speed, and the arts of lawyers and magicians.
  12. Athenian: favoring insight, wisdom, warfare, and all high and holy things.
  13. Volcanic: favoring heavy industry, and virtues of thrift, craftsmanship, hard work.
  14. Vestal: favoring home, hearth, family, clan, and all the old fashioned virtues.

There is also a Dionysian alignment, but whether this is lawful or chaotic is hard to say.

But the moderator never has to police the actions of the player characters. Anyone who makes a vow or joins a side or prays to one of the gods or goddesses, or makes a deal with them, has to answer to them for their actions. But the moderator merely treats the gods as he would any other non-player character, each with his own personality and quirks, and, more importantly, his own limitations on his knowledge. Just because the moderator knows you did something does not mean the gods do. They are powerful beings, but they don’t think like men, they don’t see reality the way you do, but they are not omniscient. Gods can also be swayed by things like sacrificing a hecatomb of cattle. (It is always a fun role playing session to see players playing normal Earthmen running around trying to find a hundred cows to sacrifice.)

In other word, in my game, joining an alignment is like joining a political party or a secret brotherhood. The only penalties for violating the alignment are entirely in-game, that is, Cain of Amber (having shadow-walked into your water-closet) will stab you with his crysknife in your kidneys or if he thinks you betrayed Tanelorn to Nyarlathotep.

Or Julian the Black Lensman of the Sith from two hundred miles away will use his oneness with nature to have all the dogs of the earth and birds of the air close in on you and rend you like a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS combined with Stephen King’s CUJO. Caine’s crysknife is made from the tooth of Smaug the Shai-Hulud. Julian wears an invulnerable jacket of mithril scales worth more than the Shire.

I don’t want to mention what Saruman of the Many Colors, Archimage of Roke after Sparrowhawk lost all his powers, would do.

Fiona of Amber would probably use her Bene Gesserit Voice powers on you and tell you to jump in the sea. Benedict would use the Hand of Kwll which is symbiotically attached to the stump of his right arm to reach through dimensions and run you through the heart with his pattern-sword, the older brother blade to Grayswandir called Laevatein.

(Laevatein was originally the sword of Bleys, whom the Norse call Loki, given to Benedict when Fenrir, the chief of the Hounds of Tindalos and servant of the White Witch, bit his sword hand off, and broke the great sword Nothung into fragments. The dwarf Thorinn Oakensheild has the shards of Nothung and is training Siegfried, son of Gerard, whom he is raising in secret, to forge them back into a sword which can penetrate the one weak spot in the armor of Midgarthsormr. The witch named Mommy Fortuna fortunately has this one spot of Midgarthsormr’s belly on display in her Midnight Carnival, along with Oberon’s mother, the Unicorn. She is hence Sigfried’s greatgrandmother, so things will end badly no matter what.)

On the other hand, if you are working for the Courts of Chaos and attempt to betray them, all that would happen is that Nyarlathotep would come to have a talk with you, and your brain would change slightly, and you would begin to see things hidden from normal men, such as the little cracks and flaws in timespace, the angles of time, at which the silent and screaming eyeless faces ever press inwards, trying to escape from the Hounds of Tindalos. And another person who looks just like you, equipped with a copy of your brain records, would take your place. You see, the Chaoticists don’t kill people. They are the nice guys. I think.

You can see why I don’t care what anyone plays in this game. Even Superman is not a Big Dog in a game with shapechanging time-traveling reality-controlling archimages who can turn off and on the laws of nature. The conflicts are moral and personal rather than military and melee in this game, and most of it is intrigue and detective work, and that depends on the wits of the player, not the powers of the character, to find a happy resolution.

Yes, I run a totally over-the-top kitchen sink campaign, chock full of everything from every book or story I’ve ever encountered, where the Men in Black from the Will Smith movie are one and the same as the Technocracy from the World of Darkness game are one and the same with the agents of the Matrix from the Keanu Reeves movie. Want to join them? They are recruiting. They have been told by Floramel of Amber (who happens to be the First Speaker of the Psychohistorians of the Second Foundation) to expose Corwin of Amber to their flashy thing neutralizers once a month. We don’t want him to wake up and remember who he is, do we? And we cannot kill him, because that will trigger his death curse. When the Blood of Oberon is shed upon the Earth, the laws of nature are erased, after all.

None of the children of Oberon are entirely on each other’s side, but each one has selected (or been selected by) a god or goddess whose vision of the world he supports. Benedict is for Ares, Flora for Vesta, Fiona for Athena, Random for Mercury, and so on.

In such a game, the alignment operates entirely by which side you are going to be on, and if you want to stay neutral like Switzerland, you’d better have both some natural defense and some natural advantage you can offer either side to keep them off your case, like Switzerland.

Of course, if you play a Creator from this our Earth, maybe you can trick the amnesiac Cary Corey from upstate New York to lead you to Middle Earth, where you can mug Bilbo Baggins, take his gold ring by force, trick the amnesiac Gilbert Gosseyn into teleporting you to Earth 616, and use the ring to dominate the soul of Clark Kent, who has no ability to resist magic, and fly on his back to where the Death Star is, and tell the Emperor that if he does not train you in the psychic arts of the Dark Side, you will have the Kryptonian use his laser-eyesight to blast the secondary thermal exhaust port below the main port…

…. whereupon you will realize that a structure the size of a small moon does not have any labels on it, nor does the Kryptonian know what a secondary thermal exhaust port look like, and besides flying on the back of a Kryptonian into outer space without a spacesuit on is a death sentence, and now that you’ve been using the One Ring to dominate minds and crush souls, you feel a certain lidless eye beginning to seek for you through time and space.

Brand of Amber graduated from Roke, and became a sorcerer. Ask him for help. He is a nice guy. Just get him out of that tower where he is imprisoned, guarded by a big glass snake.

Do I have any plans to publish this game? Of course not. It is all other people’s material thrown together in a mad blender. Will I ever write a novel based on events and situations in the game? Of course. This game is designed as the one game into which all other games can be placed, so any story I invent will have at least some aspects of this decades-old juggernaut of imaginative world building tossed in somewhere. Everything is grist for the mill. Oberon has already appeared in the EVERNESS stories, and the Olympians appeared in ORPHANS OF CHAOS.

Perhaps our imaginary one remaining reader is curious about one more thing: “How does alignment work in real life? Is it just a matter of choosing among competing factions?”

That is a fascinating question which needs must wait for another day to answer.

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