Alignment in the Kitchen Sink Campaign

A reader with the tenebrous name of The Shadow has a point to make about alignments in role playing games:

To give an example I’ve sometimes used before: Sir Henry passionately upholds the classic ideals of knighthood, even when others mock him for it, even at personal risk. He is unfailingly courteous to all regardless of station, especially women. But he is inordinately proud of his lineage, to the point of unreason. He sometimes gets rather too deep in his cups, and on such occasions he has been known to profess his undying devotion to the Lady Caroline, whom he has long loved silently from afar, though she is entirely out of his reach.

What, I ask you, is gained by saying that Sir Henry is Lawful Good? In what way does it help anyone to play him?

I can speculate as to what the point of Gygaxian alignment is, even if I cannot say what the good is.

If I am the moderator, and I have put in my D&D world a magic sword, Goodalibur, which can only be drawn from the stone by a good knight, but I also unwisely put in my D&D world a magic sword, Lawthung, which can only be plucked from the roofpost by a lawful knight, having the words “Lawful Good” written on the character sheet by the player enable me not to make a value judgment of the player’s actions, nor to assess his moral worth.

Let me hasten to say, I myself would never, ever approach such a situation as a moderator in any such way. I fundamentally cannot accept such a division of labor between moderator and player: it deeply offends my sensibilities.

Let me explain why.

If I have a magic sword in my game (and I do) and if the sword is self-aware, possessed by a spirit that judges its wielder and acts accordingly (and I do), then I treat the sword itself as an NPC, who judges and acts based on what it sees and knows, not what the moderator knows, according to its own bias and philosophy, whatever that may be.

I might have “baptized” or “unbaptized” in a game, to see if an unseen angel may or may not protect a man from a curse or a devil, but this is as far as I do in terms of alignment.

In any game I run, you are what you are and you do what you do. If you run afoul of unseen spirits who disapprove of your actions, that is no different, in my game, from running afoul of a robber-baron or the local mafia.

For example:

Once I ran a game I called the Kitchen Sink Campaign. It took place on modern earth, but I threw everything from any book or story I liked into the mix.

One player was an immortal from the TV show HIGHLANDER. Immortals are governed by certain rules: no duels on holy ground; no duels where mortal eyes can see; all duels are one-on-one.

My Highlander had to hide from organizations seeking him.

The player characters were all members of the Watcher’s Council of Saint Anne’s, run by a director named Ransom, a space-traveler.

The order was called the Ancient and Honorable Order of Unslumbering Watchers for the Signs of the Parousia, and their mission was to detect supernatural activity on Earth (such as electrical immortals fighting duels with lightning-swords).

Ransom did not know my Highlander, named Methos, was himself an immortal. He had infiltrated Saint Anne’s to keep an eye on the people keeping an eye on his people. Saint Annes was trying to find the buried Merlin, who was prophesied to come to life at about that time.

Methos was running into Men In Black and Aurors from the Ministry of Magic who were using flashy things and obliviate charms to erase memories, because both sides wanted to hide from the public the war taking place above the Bermuda Triangle between the UFO people and the sexy mermaids of Atlantis.

The Moon-men needed women to re-people their dying planet, and only the daughters of Eve had the blessing to be fruitful and multiply.

The Wizards called the Men in Black “the technocracy” and sought to elude their notice, all except Harry Dresden, Chicago Wizard, who was reckless.

Some of the Men in Black were highly advanced ninja-robots, and you had to take the Blue Pill from the great god Morpheus to gain the ninja skills to fight them in bullet-time.

John Wellington Wells, an Auror, thought Methos was a mummy or perhaps daywalking vampire; Agent Zed thought he was an extraterrestrial. The chief Auror was secretly a death-eater named Klingsor, who had the Lance of Longinus, the god-killing weapon, whose wounds no art can heal.

Only the Watchers Council, currently directed by Elwin Ransom, who oversee and govern the reincarnation cycles of the Vampire Slayer Maiden, knew the secret of the Immortals, and watched their duels. In theory, they were not supposed to interfere, but…

In any case, Methos the Highlander, when challenged to a duel by another immortal named Koschey, being a cunning and cowardly sort, stunned the fellow, and stole his sword and threw it in the sea… despite being warned in a dream not to do so.

Methos also spoke out against the duels, and tried to convince his fellow immortals to break the rules.

Now, in this game, unbeknownst to the player characters, there was a reason why the immortals were swordfighting each other, and why they could not die from wounds by any other weapon.

Unbeknownst to them, every blade of an immortal was “hoarcrux” which contained his soul. Such a soul could not depart his flesh unless the sword was defeated in a fair duel to another sword.

For the Immortals, also called Nemians, were candidates for the Rex Nemorensis, the “King of the Wood” that is, priest of the goddess Diana at Aricia, as described by Sir James George Frazer. Whoever slew her priest in a duel became her priest.

For Michael the Archangel had become a monk, taking a vow of nonviolence, and put his great sword Dernwyn aside, so there was no one to swordfight the champion of Cthulhu in the tenth and final Mortal Kombat when the stars were right, to see whether the doors of hell would break open or not.

Diana, the pagan goddess of the wood, had blessed certain men with immortality, and set them to dueling each other, to find a candidate worthy of taking up the Sword of Michael, since only a man with centuries of continuous practice could hope to equal an angel in combat. The sword of Michael was the “prize” and to be the Champion of Earth — but centuries passed, Cthulhu did not wake, younger immortals killed off the older, and the point of the duels was forgotten.

In this game, the pagan gods were angels fallen from heaven, but not loyal to hell. Some had taken the fair daughters of man to wife, and opposed the will of heaven when the Great Flood swept over the earth. They carried the Sons of Cain, demigods and nephilim, their children, to hiding places at the bottom of the sea, or to other planets.

These “antediluvian” angels wanted to protect and preserve man, and dally with their daughters, but not to damn nor destroy them as did the hellish angels.

In any case, when my player character decided to break the rules of the duel, it was not the moderator who discovered the action and took actions to punish him — it was Diana the Goddess.

Stepping onto sacred ground, of course, prevented her powers from reaching, which was why no duels could take place on sacred ground. In my game the immortals started aging when they are in churchyards, graveyards, or monasteries, and they regained their lost fertility.

Unbeknownst to my players, any Immortal of Nemi at any time could leave the duels, and never fight again, if he merely lived on holy ground, joined a holy order, or underwent an rite of exorcism.

Since Saint Anne’s, where the Player Characters were headquartered, was itself sacred ground, I regret that the game did not last long enough to allow this fact to be discovered. It is somewhat ironic that Methos, in effect, had already had escaped the necessity of the duels — but did not know it.

Sadly, my highlander character was frustrated with me, the humble moderator, because he thought I, the umpire, was the one enforcing the cruel rules of the duels, and that I, the umpire, wanted to frustrate his desire to halt them.

As if an umpire would take sides!

Far from it. I was not rooting for Diana any more than I was rooting for Klingsor or John Wellington Wells or Agent Zed.

If anything, Diana was acting blasphemously, thinking she could provide for the warrior to fight the Great Red Sea-Dragon of R’Lyeh, Leviathan, during Armageddon, and do what Heaven could not do. Her plan, in this background, was absurd. But the players did not find that out. As I said, the game ended prematurely.

But Methos did not have Second Sight, and could not see the Hounds of Diana walking in his footsteps — hounding him, so to speak — and leading other immortals to come fight him.

My point is there that I did not have an “alignment” called “Highlander” or “Technocracy Agent” or “Death-eater” or “Watcher” or anything like that.

Myself, I have no idea whatever how to describe these people in terms of law and chaos, good and evil. It was a game of intrigue and conspiracy: everyone (except for Ransom) was trying to hide something, or to use evil means to achieve good ends. How you acted was how you acted.

Yes, if you cheesed off your organization, they might send a man (or a ghostly wolfhound)  to come for you — if your organization discovered it, and thought it worth the resources to do so.

The Wizards wanted to hide from the Muggles, and the Technocracy wanted to hide from the Soviet super-apes who had gained hyper-intelligence in the 1950s when passing through the Van Allen radiation belts, because the super-apes had infiltrated the Illuminati Counsel running the banks, the media, and the military of Europe. The mermaids wanted to hide from the land-dwellers, especially the Cthulhu Cultists secretly running the Coast Guard, who were trying to find the Non-Euclidean Ruins of R’lyeh, which they mistakenly thought was in the Bermuda Triangle.

Meanwhile, the moon-men of Sulva wanted to hide from SHADO, the military arm of the MiB agency, who were hunting down the moon-men ruthlessly — deservedly so, since the Moon-men were running a white slavery ring, trying to abduct women with any trace of Atlantis in their genetics, the daughters of Adah and Tsillah.

The those poor Roswell children! Royalty from another planet, but the agents were closing in on them!

All in all, it was a pretty cool set up for an intrigue game. Lots of intrigue. Many conspiracies. Vandal Savage was behind one of them. Doctor Doom, in this background, was both a technocrat and a wizard. He was attempting unlawful experiments with necromancy to raise his long-death mother.

Again, the NPCs, whether earthly or lunar or subaquatic, physical or spiritual, only knew what they knew, and acted based on their own lights, and the did not have any more access to the moderator’s notes than the players did.

It is not my job as a moderator to enforce a moral code on the players. The moderator is an umpire: he only enforces the rules of nature, and keeps track of the non-player characters.

I regard the alignment system, at its root, as unfair to the player characters, because it places an artificial restriction on how they can act.

If the alignment changes the moment a chivalrous knight breaks an oath, let us say, or joins the Merry Men in a tax revolt, then alignment means nothing, because it will change act by act.

If there is a price to pay for changing alignment, such as the loss of a level, then playing a villain who reforms is dis-incentivized.

The whole alignment system seems designed to provoke quarrels between player and moderator, and puts the moderator in the position of trying to judge the heart of the player, or, at least, of his character.

Where is the drama in that? Where is the fun? What does it add to the game? Bah!