Law and Chaos (and apologies!)

That’s right, an alignment thread. I’m sure some veteran posters out there have heard it all before, so apologies beforehand.

I’m having trouble nailing the Law/Chaos thing. I guess more specifically, in what way is taking a Lawful alignment “choosing a side”? How active must a character be in order to “side with humanity”? The setting info posted on this site mentions that most Neutral characters enjoy the protection of Law… at what point does a Neutral character shift to Lawful? When he takes up a sword and starts hacking up lizardmen in the name of the Auran Empire?

It’s also hard for me not to map Law and Chaos onto Good and Evil, despite the fact that the setting info says this is not the case.

I like the tone that is established by a Law/Chaos alignment rather than the more complex 9-alignment model. But I’m not sure if, say, an adventuring barbarian who just wants to hack down some doors and kill a few trolls should be considered Neutral (because he doesn’t give much thought to morality) or Lawful (because he vents his adventuring energies upon beastmen).

I think I need some examples to clarify this. Any takers?

All answers are only true for a campaign; the ACKS corebook describes alignment for the Auran Empire setting.

There’s some literary examples that are quite useful, mainly Poul Anderson (e.g. Three Hearts and Three Lions) and Michael Moorcock (all the Eternal Champion novels and stories).

Basically, someone who actively worships and advances the cause of the Lawful gods (patrons of humanity and demi-humanity) is Lawful; someone who does the same for the Chaotic gods (chthonic enemies of humanity) is Chaotic. In OD&D, a cleric could start out Neutral, but had to eventually choose between Law and Chaos.

Dungeon Crawl Classics has a great take on two-pole alignment, and makes Neutrality a viable active choice in itself. I recommend checking it out.

I’m not sure if this is in the ACKS book (might’ve been), but your example of the barbarian would be a character who eventually becomes Lawful by deed despite the lack of intent (unless he also sacks cities and brings empires to ruin).

The Good/Evil thing is a bit mixed. A Lawful character can absolutely be evil: maintaining order and civilization and advancing the cause of a realm while torturing your dissenters, assassinating your enemies, and ruthlessly amassing power and wealth for yourself (because you just know you are the one who knows best how to preserve the proper order!)…

Meanwhile, Chaotic creatures and characters are much more likely than Lawful ones to be evil, on balance; destroying civilization tends to involve doing a lot of bad things to a lot of people! But there can also be creatures who are more just Chaotic by nature (Anderson’s elves and trolls, elves and magic-users in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, etc.), and could actually act honorably. The Fae of medieval and renaissance legend are a good example of a Chaotic folk: not always outright evil, but capricious, willful, and often amoral.

I usually specify the Law/Chaos axis for each setting and campaign.

In my conception of R. E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, magic (or most of it), the chtonic “gods” and monsters, the worship of Set, etc. is all Chaotic; being Lawful is defined by fighting against those things. Human civilization is less important, although champions of civilization like King Conan and King Kull will inevitably find themselves in opposition to the forces of Chaos.

In my Crimson Sun campaign, Chaos is pretty much defined by the plundering of the world’s life-energy to fuel arcane magic, and all who do that (or who follow the Sorcerer-Kings who are the greatest plunderers of all) are Chaotic. Those who oppose them (including druids and the Veiled Society, etc.) are Lawful. Most people don’t dare oppose them, but don’t have the option to join them, so they’re Neutral.

In my Land of Kings setting (based on Ancient Mesopotamian mythology), Tiamat the Ummu-hubur is Chaos, the primordial saltwater ocean; Apsu the Cosmic Waters is Law, the primordial freshwater ocean (aquifers). The Young Gods who took Apsu’s power and reside in the Apsu Waters are Lawful, and the very concept of human civilization they ultimately created is Lawful; the Chaotic monsters, beastmen and cultists who seek to overthrow civilization are all ultimately followers of Tiamat. (I’m a bit undecided on the Underworld Gods; probably Neutral, maybe Chaotic, maybe a mix of both.) Humans ally with one or the other by their choice of worship, but only priests, leaders, and champions are really Lawful or Chaotic.

In my as-yet-unnamed original setting, Law and Chaos are (for the humans of the campaign area, who are the primary frame of reference) defined by the two deities, Light and Dark, the Creative Urge and the Destructive Urge (comparable both to Eros and Thanatos of psychoanalytic theory and the Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu of Zoroastrianism). Neither side is evil (although the Universal Church of Light holds that the Dark is), although a hefty portion of the Dark cults (all of which are illegal in the lands dominated by the Church) are nihilistic to the point that they encourage or embrace amoral or downright evil behavior; but at the same time, plenty of priests of Light are corrupt and venal, some even downright twisted and evil. Law and Chaos have fairly little meaning for non-cleric PCs, though, partly because there is no concrete or independently active divinity in the setting, just systems of belief.

The last bit was all written around the central concept of “I want clerics and anti-clerics” (to accommodate classic D&D villains like Lareth in T1, and the “EHP” - Evil High Priest), bundled with “but I want venal and corrupt priests, too.”

If you can be bothered to wade through old Grognardia posts, especially regarding the Dwimmermount campaign, you can find a good deal of very old-school thinking on Law and Chaos that I like.

Fantastic, thank you! I think I can see the distinctions you’re making here. (Though I find it interesting that you put Conan on the side of Law and thus civilization, when in much of Howard’s work “civilization” is almost a dirty word.)

Ha! Yeah, for sure. But the way I figure it, ultimately Conan slays monsters and sorcerers, and as a king (Phoenix on the Sword, Hour of the Dragon) he’s all about establishing stability and peace and a legacy and so on. Even in Beyond the Black River, he’s helping the settlers (a force of Law; in ACKS term, they’re carving out a domain from the wilderness) against the Picts - who are not exactly Beastmen, but in effect, they’re on the side of Chaos, pushing back against civilization, worshipping strange gods like Jebbal Sag, and championing a return to savagery.

As a contast, Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion novels focus less on the “indirect” Law and Chaos (civilization, disorder, etc.) and more on the actual machinations of the personalized Lords of Law and Chaos, with champions who are in personal contact with these powers. Admittedly, in prominent cases, the heroes aren’t trying to help either side, and ultimately they’re supposed to be on the side of Balance. I guess Hawkmoon is more about the indirect stuff, although I can’t recall if Granbretan is on the side of Law or Chaos… also, Neutrality in the Moorcock Multiverse is the active force of Balance.

I’m actually curious what, exactly, Alex’s approach to Law and Chaos is in his own campaigns - are they active forces, are the gods personalized or abstract, etc.

One of the questions I ask is where someone’s going to be in “the final battle.” And that can be anything from a literal final battle, Ragnarok or equivalent, to a beastman horde showing up on the borders of civilization. If our hypothetical barbarian stands between decadent civilization and the horde, from whatever motivation, then he’s Lawful. If he slips away for greener lands, then he’s Neutral. And if he sees his chance at last and joins the horde, then he’s Chaotic.

Sometimes you just don’t know until the day comes, in which case Neutral is a perfectly acceptable answer. If his only qualification for Lawful is hacking Lizardmen, I think I’d actually keep a character at Neutral longer than Rhynn would. Although stipulating “in the name of the Empire” makes it fuzzier. Flag of convenience, or is he actually protecting the Empire or advancing its settlements?

Law and Chaos in my own campaigns are much closer to their portrayal in Three Hearts and Three Lions than to their portrayal in the Eternal Champion series.

Premises in the Auran Empire setting are:

  1. The nature of man means man flourishes in a civilization
  2. Civilization must be forged by struggle against uncivilized forces
  3. Civilization is inherently fragile because the flourishing life enjoyed by the citizens of a successful civilization erodes the virtues which give the strength needed to defend the civilization against uncivilized forces.

Civilization in this context means “rule of law” in the sense that term was understood in classical Greece and Rome, medieval England, etc. - as compared to the despotic rule of god-kings or the capricious rule of a bandit chief.

300 is an example of Law (the free Greeks) opposed to Chaos (the despotic Persian God-King).

Lawful characters are those who struggle to build or sustain civilization* against uncivilized forces.
Neutral characters are those who seek to enjoy the fruits of civilization, and have no wish to see it torn down, but do not personally struggle to support it, though they might admire those who do.
Chaotic characters are those who actively struggle to tear down man’s civilization, either because it will benefit them personally, because they are innate enemies of man, or because they just want to see the world burn.

Law, as a metaphysical force, explains why the world follows natural laws; why man has a nature; and because that nature is reasonable and social, why he flourishes in a society of reason. Lawful gods are gods of civilization, nobility, knowledge, reason, justice, etc. It is theistic humanism.

Chaos, as a metaphysical force, appears in the unpredictable randomness in nature (fire, earthquakes, storms); and in those personal vices which destabilized civilization. It also encompasses all that is alien and inimical to man. It is nihilism in its original sense - “no being”, constant change.

The Auran Empire is the most successful polity in the world’s history, and as such represents what is best in Law. However, its very success has corrupted it - soft senators and ruthless merchants indulge in idle luxury in Aura while the borders grow weaker. Scions of noble houses prefer to watch the chariot races than become cavalry officers. Chaos seduces from within (through vice) while menacing from without (through physical destruction in the form of beastmen and similar creatures).

All of this is a simplification of the classical thinkers like Aristotle in the Ethics and the Politics, much of Cicero, and Machievelli’s Discoures, combined with Anderson’s explanation of Law and Chaos.

Alex’s phrase “to tear down civilization because it would benefit them personally” made me think of Kerrigor from Garth Nix’s Abbhorsen trilogy.

The character is essentially a lich in a world where magic comes in two types; he uses one type of magic (Free Magic) and the other type (Charter Magic) is powered in large part by physical stones. The areas within the Charter Stones weaken him, and so his great goal is to destroy the master stones leaving only the one kind of magic.

Regardless of what his other goals are, having that goal makes him Chaotic. If he wanted to do it because he genuinely believed that it would be better for the world, he would still be Chaotic. The fact that he has to slaughter the entire royal family to do it, and that he wants to kill the majority of the population to raise them as his undead servants, makes him no more Chaotic.

In my own campaigns, I would be a little looser on the definitions because I like undead, and I don’t think it’s necessary for anyone who creates undead to be a megalomaniacal monster. However, even with my looser definitions, a Chaotic character still needs to believe, at the very least, that the rule of law does not apply to him. He might believe that it’s a useful construct for keeping other people out of his way, and thus not actively tear it down, but he will ignore it.

For me, it’s a lot like an amoral high-level wizard and a building. Buildings are fine. They keep you out of the rain. But if the building is in the way, I hope whoever owns it has insurance. (Side note: I wonder if you could make a profitable business selling wizard insurance. Wizards are rare, high level wizards are even rarer, but on the other hand, they are capable of quite a lot of property damage.)

Thanks for this. I think I’m getting it. I’m more of a Beowulf guy than a classicist, so in that world Beowulf is pretty much a paragon of Law and the monsters are Chaotic. I might also toss in as Chaotic some of the terrifying Swedish kings or the Heathobards who end up burning Heorot…

But it seems like most people in the world would be Neutral, perhaps until push comes to shove. So if I’m planning a not-particularly-heroic kind of character (like a freebooting mercenary adventurer), it might be best to start him out as Neutral until he’s faced with making a decision. Like Han Solo - Neutral until the end of Episode IV, when (spoiler alert) he comes charging back in to help the Rebels, at which point he becomes Lawful. Of course, Clerics would need to make such a decision sooner (or decide to stay Neutral, I guess), but then they would surely be thinking about such matters anyway as part of their career choice. For everyone else who isn’t a moustache-twirling arsonist or a dedicated defender of civilization, I think it’s great for them to be able to start Neutral and then shift as appropriate.

Man, Alex, I will snap up the campaign setting book as soon as you guys get it out there! :slight_smile: The more I hear about it, the more I like it.

That sounds like a very good approach to me, spot on about the clerics (of course, whether neutrality is an option depends on the setting; I’m not sure if the Auran Empire has neutral deities?) - and Han Solo is a brilliant example for modern geeks!

I doubt you would have the minimum client threshold for a truly healthy liability pool. A direct system where mages directly invest portions of the wealth and time into various projects being run by other wizards might be a slightly more sustainable model. This idea is loosely based on insurances predecessor in the shipping industry where some merchants would buy partial stakes in one another’s ventures so that when one inevitably went down the losses weren’t born by a single party; essentially just an informal insurance market without the benefit of economies of scale.

Thanks for the kind words! Um… someday, after Dwimmmerlairs & Encounters, Dwimmerdomains of Warmount, Dwimmerguns of Warmount, Dwimmerstone of Sakkara, and some other projects, I’ll get to it!