Monday, June 20, 2011

Alignment of the Night's Watch

Game of Thrones: Oath of the Night's Watch

Night gathers, and now my watch begins.
It shall not end until my death.
I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children.
I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.
I shall live and die at my post.
I am the sword in the darkness.
I am the watcher on the walls.
I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men.
I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.

-The oath of the Night's Watch, A Game of Thrones

If you're watching HBO's A Game of Thrones adaptation, you're familiar with the Night's Watch - it's an order of rangers and soldiers that swear oaths to protect the realms of man, foreswearing all previous loyalties and family ties when joining the order.  They garrison a series of fortresses along a massive northern wall, protecting the civilized southern lands from threats beyond the wall.  (In the books, those threats are "wildlings" - barbarian north people - and creatures of myth and legend, like the White Walkers, a kind of winter wight).

The Night's Watch is not made of moral heroes - many of the members are criminals and rapers, sent north to take their vows after choosing between the watch or death.  And yet, throughout the Song of Ice and Fire series, the men of the watch continue to keep their eyes on the wild lands to the north in accordance with duty, while the many noble houses fight and backstab each other over control of the throne.

Now take a moment and contrast the mission and Oath of the Night's Watch with this introduction to the Keep on the Borderlands by Gary Gygax:

The Realm of mankind is narrow and constricted. Always the forces of Chaos press upon its borders, seeking to enslave its populace, rape its riches, and steal its treasures. If it were not for a stout few, many in the Realm would indeed fall prey to the evil which surrounds them. Yet, there are always certain exceptional and brave members of humanity, as well as similar individuals among its allies - dwarves, elves, and halflings - who rise above the common level and join battle to stave off the darkness which would otherwise overwhelm the land…

How about using alignment in the way Gygax is discussing here in the Keep intro?  There is the Realm of Man, and the borderlands beyond the realms of man represent Chaos.  It's a world view of man against monsters, civilization against the wilderness, regardless of parochial interests or loyalties.  The Keep is for all mankind.  And if good and evil are present at all, they are relative - good is equated with civilization, and evil with its absence, a very human centric viewpoint (with small exceptions tossed in for our faithful demi human allies).  FrDave had a similar idea over at Blood of Prokopius a few weeks ago when making sense of the Law-Chaos axis, and it's even a throwback to Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, where Law and the realms of Man were pretty much synonymous.

And this brings me full circle to the Oath of the Night's Watch - it is an Oath to Law, an oath to protect the Realms of Man against the forces of Chaos beyond civilization.

Some final thoughts - first, when you're using the three-tiered alignment system of old D&D, Law, Neutral, and Chaos, it's common to conflate Law with AD&D's definition of good and chaos with AD&D's view of evil.  After all, Moldvay's edition actually say, Law is *usually* the same as what people think of as "good" and Chaos is *usually* "evil".  But there are certainly ways to use the alignments of Law and Chaos beyond AD&D's ethics-management straitjacket.

I'm using something a bit different in Gothic Greyhawk - Law represents the divine order (both good and evil) and Chaos represents the elemental and magic realms - once again, neither good nor evil.  Alignments are like magic auras (and only folks that draw on divine or magic power actually radiate an alignment).  It's a supernatural view of alignment that works well in a game featuring themes of supernatural horror.  It's also almost identical to the LOTFP approach.

Oh - and next time I bust out Keep on the Borderlands, I just may make the garrison "sworn brothers" like the Night's Watch, bound by duty to take up a lonely vigil on the very edges of the Realm of Man to ward against the forces of Chaos beyond the walls of the Keep.


  1. I was always quite taken with the WFRP approach, in which Law is just as damaging as Chaos - cruel, harsh and absolute, with followers denying themselves much of their humanity, and the saving grace largely being that the Law Gods were very much losing.

  2. This post is a thing of beauty. I did a bit of a write up of how I would do a "northern weird fantasy" campaign here:

  3. "Oh - and next time I bust out Keep on the Borderlands, I just may make the garrison "sworn brothers" like the Night's Watch, bound by duty to take up a lonely vigil on the very edges of the Realm of Man to ward against the forces of Chaos beyond the walls of the Keep."

    Great Idea! Consider it yoinked! I may try that with Frandor's Keep and HmB.

  4. @Jack - yeah, I love that RPGnet thread- lots of great Weird fantasy ideas there.

    Sometime after the Black City project, I'm considering taking on something like fantasy Rome, with a Hadrian's Wall taking on the role of the Ice Wall.

    It has many of my favorite flavors - the glory of Rome, the unknown darkness beyond the light of civilization, and the grim duty of soldiering on the harsh frontier. And much like A Game of Thrones, there's plenty of opportunities for Byzantine politics back in the capital.

  5. Man, there is so much that people are coming up with because of Game of Thrones, and I still haven't seen or read any of it yet!!

    Great idea though, definitely going to have to keep it in mind.

  6. It's a good series to catch, either on-demand or when the DVD's inevitably come out.

    Fantastic inspiration for a low magic, grim and gritty fantasy world.

  7. Great post, Beedo! I'm a huge fan of Song of Ice and Fire. Started reading the books about 10 years ago. In my opinion, they represent the best the genre has to offer on the shelf. The show has been fantastic as well. I was sad to see it end last night knowing it will be months of waiting for the next season. Then again, if you've been a fan of the series for as long as I, you're used to long waits. Martin takes forever to write and release a new volume.

  8. I don't have much interest in AGOT (yet), but I like your thoughts on alignment here -- I too have been horking alignment ideas from LotFP lately:

    Great minds think alike! (Or steal from greater minds like Raggi's.)