What alignment is Rome?

ACKS is a system that provides for political rules supporting levels of civilization all the way up to an empire. This has somewhat confusing implications from the standpoint of alignment, at least for me. Whichever political entity that grows large enough to become “the Empire” (or at least, one of them), seems like it automatically becomes “Lawful” by the book definition regardless of what it does, just by virtue of the way that lawfulness is defined. I mean, unless it were actively suicidal, it must have a commitment to its own existence, and thus be Lawful.

But that seems to conflict with the secondary idea of lawfulness being something that relates to morality with respect to military and social ethics. Any empire is going to be forged by repeated campaigns of self-interested expansion that don’t feel ethically defensible. It’s hard to visualize a process for creating an empire that doesn’t involve military aggression against other civilizations, which seems itself deeply Chaotic.

For example, Julio-Claudian Rome seems like the epitome of book-definition lawfulness, even though the latter emperors were regarded as little more than selfish despots by (admittedly biased) biographers like Tacitus and Suetonius. The ACKS Campaign rules, in particular, emphasize that any society that relies on slavery must be Chaotic. Caesar’s conquest of the civilized and prosperous regions of Gaul (while taking hundreds of thousands of slaves in the process) feels more like the behavior of a D&D evil overlord than a crusading hero.

I honestly have no idea whether Rome (or a fictional analogue of Rome) would be best implemented as Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic. There are cases to be made for all three. Does someone feel like this is an easier question to answer than I do?

Rome at its best, as embodied by Cicero or Marcus Aurelius, is Lawful. The following thoughts, from a forum post some years ago, will help clarify…

Law and Chaos
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 godkings 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.

Nature, Law, and Chaos
I thinqk law, neutrality, and chaos would all claim “nature” to be on their side, but in a different way.

Law would claim that “natural law” exists, that humans are born with an innate moral sense, that by nature, humans are social animals designed to live in civilized polities, and that as such we should claim and tame wilderness as a moral good. "I have built a city on this mountain top because it is right and proper that the domain of man conquer and tame the frontier. It is a grand accomplishment testifying to the power of civilization.”

Neutrality would claim that while there is “natural law,” it’s look out for yourself; that nature is amoral, and dangerous, and that whether you think wilderness should be claimed will depend on whether you enjoy living in the wilderness. "I built a city on this mountain top because I like the view. If you enjoyed skiing here, too bad.”

Chaos would claim that nature is red in tooth and claw, violent, and that the supreme destructive power of nature shows that what Law considers “the proper order of things” is an aberration. "Your city on the mountain top exists only because you were strong enough to build it. But when an avalanche destroys your little city, you’ll see you weren’t strong enough to keep it.”

The idea of “druids versus wood cutters” is not something that the Auran Empire setting concerns itself with. The idea of progress versus environmentalism is a very modern idea. Of course Modern ACKS (MACKS!) might have an “alignment system” of “techno-capitalists” and “environmentalists” as the two opposed factions…

Let me address two other points of likely contention. First, for various reasons, slavery today is viewed as a social horror, man at his utter worst, in a way it simply was not in the past. To keep the Auran setting somewhat more compatible with modern ethics, Aura does not have slaves (it has indentured servants instead) but in an authentic historical setting, I would not say that slaveholding and Law are contradictory.

Second, late modernity and postmodernity tends to deny the existence of human nature and natural law, and deny that there is really any such thing as civilization versus barbarism. Without entering into the merits of this contemporary debate, I will simply say that the Greeks and Romans took concepts such as natural law, man’s nature, and the civilizing mission as real, and I have adopted such notions as the moral basis of ACKS.

It seems like ultimately it’s best to acknowledge that Law/Neutrality/Chaos doesn’t hold up under modern philosophical scrutiny. For my part, I don’t think any game based on your characters killing enemies and taking their stuff is going to produce moral ideas that you could take with you to the real world.

Perhaps for some people that kind of game is fun, but for my part I don’t particularly find this: http://existentialcomics.com/comic/23 an especially fun way to blow off steam.

In fact I’ve had a player like this. She created a character that was mostly an extension of herself, as she had done for all of the MMOs and other video game RPGs she’d ever played. Unfortunately, a game where the enemies aren’t always highlighted in red and impossible to negotiate with proved a bit much for her. It wasn’t long before she wanted to negotiate with every single group they encountered if they didn’t strike first without talking (which, rules-as-written, is impossible if your party’s face has at least +1 to charisma). I have no beef with her playing that way, but she eventually complained most of the stories seemed to revolve around the other players. Not surprising, it’s really hard to motivate a character with external threats when they refuse to accept that even gnolls committing human sacrifice to summon demons might not be inherently evil, and think that human society is just as barbaric.

One of the parts of ACKS I’ve appreciated is the explicit explanation that Law vs. Chaos does not equate to Good vs. Evil as well as the note about chaotic creatures still loving their children, etc.

For my own part, when designing campaigns and factions, I see Law as being about civilization and the natural order, chaos being in defiance of these things and embracing entropy (the closer you get to extremes), and neutrality as more of a balance between rather than an apathy toward the two.

For example, I have a chaotic god of war whose clerics embrace war’s destructive capability and a lawful goddess of war whose faith embraces the idea that war is a cornerstone of civilization - you must bring order where there is none - and war is can be a structured activity when done with skill (very greek, I know).

My goddess of the sea and storm though is neutral. The sea has cycles, rhythms, patterns and currents which can be relied up and harnessed (order) but it can still be unpredictable and destroy with no concern for where the wreckage of your little ship ends up.

These faiths shape the attitudes of the common folk through the evangelic practices of clerics and thus shape attitudes in civilization. That’s how I see the great cosmic wheel turning in the mortal world. Adventurers fit neatly into this because they are agents of change and (usually) agents of civilization (pushing back the borderlands and establishing domains) which ultimately makes them potential allies to either alignment’s agenda unless they are careful in considering their actions.

Consider, a strong thieves’ guild has the potential to be a stabilizing influence in a large population with lots of criminals despite the more chaotic nature of the thieves’ individual actions.

Overall though, I try not to consider the alignments too strongly in the day-to-day interactions of most folks. The majority of the populace is likely to be some flavor of neutral and work toward what they believe is in their best interests. And that can vary wildly.

I’ve written extensively about alignment here.


I do think it’s possible to develop a nuanced philosophical position on alignments, but the payoff is not ultimately worth it. One of the reasons I adopted the Law/Chaos axis is that I think it is much easier for people to swallow the suggestion that “Rome is Lawful” then to swallow the notion that “Rome is Good”. I also found that “Good” and “Evil” are words that people associate with their contemporary morality, whereas “Law” and “Chaos” are not.

I’ve had players such as the one you described above, but I no longer play with them in my own campaigns. Their moral views are simply a bad fit for a game designed around the violent accumulation of power, military conquest, and monarchical rule.

Absolutely! Glad the system is working for you.

When I explain ACKS alignments to new players, I often use the example of World War II. The US and UK are Lawful, while Nazi Germany is Chaotic. There may be some unpleasant, violent warmongers on the side of Law (such as Curtis LeMay or the Inglorious Bastards) and there may be some noble soldiers with honor on the side of Chaos (such as Erwin Rommel) but at the end of the day when the fighting starts you help the Allies and you kill the Nazis.

[quote="Alex"] I've had players such as the one you described above, but I no longer play with them in my own campaigns. Their moral views are simply a bad fit for a game designed around the violent accumulation of power, military conquest, and monarchical rule. [/quote] Alex, what is best in life?

Violent accumulation of power: crush your enemies
Military conquest: see them driven before you
Monarchial rule: lamentations of their women

“It seems like ultimately it’s best to acknowledge that Law/Neutrality/Chaos doesn’t hold up under modern philosophical scrutiny.” It shouldn’t necessarily. The B/X / BECMI version of Law/Chaos is definitely Andersonian rather than Moorcockian, that is, based on Three Hearts and Three Lions rather than Eternal Champion. It’s a simpler world view that feels somewhat based on the old chansons de geste, with the emphasis on the hero as part of community and their role as champions of their people, as opposed to the romances of the time that focused on the heroic deeds of individuals being heroic for the sake of heroism. This can be toned down as needed to fit the game and the group, but the heroes of the chansons are on the side of Law - they’re building up their country, defending it, and fulfilling noble destinies. Their enemies are Chaos, trying to tear down the country, whether through the use of sorceries and mythological monsters from the outside or by treason from within. Such a simple (dare one say, medieval) philosophy isn’t going to replace Hegel or Kierkegaard in the philosophy textbooks, but it’s perfectly practical for promoting both community and teamwork - Law means protecting your people, and it’s easier to carry that goal out when working with others who share similar goals.

It is possible I may have read a little too much Conan and Nietzsche as a child.

The WW2 analogy actually does a good job of underscoring the tension between the “alignment as ethics” and “alignment as allegiance” interpretations. The Communist governments under Stalin and Mao were clearly despotic and used fear to control their populations, which would make them Chaotic. But they fought on the side of the Allies, making them Lawful. Or you could interpret them as pragmatically opposing whichever ideological faction is currently the greater threat, as suggested by the emergence of the Cold War, which would make them Neutral.

I’d lean toward saying that Stalism is Chaotic, due to the horror of the purges. There’s no reason to be surprised about two Chaotic regimes fighting one another, and the fact that this was happening at the same time as the Fascist powers were in a second-front war with the Lawful democracies is immaterial. But this does emphasize the extent to which hard cases get decided in favor of the ethical interpretation, regardless of formal alliances.

To be fair, under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviets were quite prepared to divide Poland with Nazi Germany and then engaged in extensive trade with them in 1940 and early 1941. The Soviets were also friendly to the idea of joining the Axis, but negotiations in Berlin in November of 1940 fell apart, as Hitler was unwilling to offer the Soviets concessions in the Balkans and had already issued orders to begin planning Barbarossa. Russia joined the Allies not because Stalin was lawful, but because he had been betrayed by a chaotic power with whom he had thought to ally.

(Although if we’re being totally fair, it was probably a neutral population ruled by a chaotic regime that had proven resistant to overthrow)

I concur with all of these sentiments and will incorporate them into the ACKSis & Allies WWII supplement.

That gets me wondering how would Finland’s participation in World War II would be considered. During the Winter War with the Soviet Union from '39-'40 it seems clear that Finland would be considered a Lawful society fighting a Chaotic opponent. Finland has to sue for peace giving up territory on its eastern border, but manages to stay an independent liberal democracy unlike the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

However, after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 Finland joins in attacking Russia in an attempt to regain the territory it lost. Finland is still a democracy, but it is on the side of the Axis. Finland never officially joins the Axis, never enacts anti-Jewish measures. Several hundred Jews serve in the Finnish army leading to the bizarre scenario of Germany attempting to award some Finnish Jews the Iron Cross (they refused the award) for actions they took that wound up saving German soldiers. But they did cooperate with the Axis war effort and German troops were stationed in Finland.

It seems to me that Finland doesn’t switch from Lawful to Chaotic between 1940 and 1941. As a society they remain who they were before allying with the Axis, and therefore remain Lawful. But they did wind up allying with a powerful Chaotic force. This causes me some difficulty with using a society’s allegiance to world forces in determining alignment.

Argh. My head hurts.

This is an inevitable consequence of thinking too hard about alignment in my experience :stuck_out_tongue:

Bingo. It’s a fantasy game construct, and most real world constructed categories break down under careful thought. The map is not the terrain.

Let’s define alignments as follows:

  • Lawful countries seek to uphold the liberal international order
  • Neutral countries seek to increase their sovereign power within the limits of the existing international law
  • Chaotic countries seek to increase their sovereign power and subvert the liberal international order

E.g. a Lawful nation is willing to go to war to defend a member of the League of Nations. A Chaotic nation would launch a war against a member of the League of Nations.

[Note that Chaotic does not imply “evil” necessarily. The liberal international order might be unfair, for instance - that was how the Japanese saw it.]

By this standard:

  • Lawful: UK, France
  • Neutral: Italy, China, Finland, Poland
  • Chaotic: Germany, Japan, USSR

The war begins when Germany (Chaotic) and USSR (Chaotic) invade Poland (Neutral) and Finland (Neutral). UK (Lawful) and France (Lawful) declare war on Germany in response to defend Poland. Germany then attacks USSR. USSR changes alignment to Neutral and teams up with UK. Finland remains Neutral and teams up with Germany.

Oddly enough, under the above framework, the real open question is what alignment to assign the United States, which DIDN’T get involved to defend China or Poland, and instead waited until it was attacked. But when it did get involved, it liberated other countries rather than subjugate them or colonize them. So this suggests a Neutral alignment, changing to Lawful.

Sounds about right to me (and not to start any flame wars, but I’d say we’re still waffling between the two).

Probably cause we’re lead by variable leaders: “We should enforce the rule of law in iraq,” vs. “that’s a hell of a lot of oil.”

I suppose I can see the argument for Finland being of Neutral alignment instead of Lawful, but I find it hard to see Italy as such. Italy’s fascism, invasions of Ethiopia and Albania before WWII even started indicates a Chaotic alignment to me. Maybe Italy wasn’t as insanely crazy as Germany, but it might be setting the bar too high if you have to run death camps to the degree of Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union to be considered Chaotic. Italy wasn’t a “bad guy” just because of a formal alliance it had with Germany. Mussolini’s Italy was bad on it’s own.