Monday, 22 February 2010

Law vs. Chaos, versus Good vs. Evil

Law vs. Chaos is an interesting concept - it reflects something about the nature of the universe which the Good vs. Evil dynamic doesn't, in my opinion. Good and Evil may or may not exist, depending on your worldview, but there's nothing particularly profound about the opposition between the two; it's essentially QED. Law vs. Chaos, on the other hand, hits on something deep and true about the lives of human beings.

That is, our lives as we live them are to all intents and purposes governed by Chaos. In the naivest terms, we never know, when we get up in the morning, what is going to happen that day; in the more complex sense, the world is governed by a multitude of random factors and quasi random factors (like the weather, which may not strictly be random because there is some method behind the system even if it is beyond our ken, but which is random in the only sense that matters - we can't really predict it) which make it impossible for us to adequately understand as a whole. This is true for the most banal situations (my train may be late tomorrow but I can never know in advance, and if nobody tells me why, it may as well have been because somebody rolled a dice and decided it should be so); it's also true for the most important ones (the economy, your own physical and mental health, earthquakes; we don't know why earthquakes happen when they do and we don't know why one smoker will develop lung cancer where another doesn't, so the reason may as well be randomness).

But the universe itself is a profoundly Lawful place; indeed it is the very essense of Lawfulness - this is why we talk about The Laws of Physics when we discuss the fundamental nature of things. Again, this is true in both very banal and very important senses. If I drop an apple and there is nothing to stop it, it will fall to the floor. If you add two to two you will get four. If you mix sodium and water you will get an explosion.

This dynamic - the interplay between Law and Chaos, Predictability and Randomness, Known and Unknown - also has more interesting philosophical dimensions than Good vs. Evil, because Law and Chaos are both neutral propositions. It doesn't make sense to say that Chaos is Bad, just because a sudden snowstorm delays your flight and makes you late for a meeting, because next year a sudden snowstorm might delay your flight and lead you to meet the love of your life. Similarly, it wouldn't make sense to curse the laws of physics and call them bad if somebody dropped an anvil from a sixth floor window onto your head - Damn you, Gravity! - because the laws of physics, indirectly, might be what save your life; knowing about them is what allowed human beings to construct the combustion engine and thus the ambulance that takes you to the hospital.

The idea that there might be Gods of Chaos and Gods of Law and that they are locked in conflict therefore doesn't strike me as a preposterous notion - it makes sense in my gut, because it reflects the nature of life as we know it. (To make it clear, I don't actually believe it to be the case; just, if somebody told me that people in Timbuktu did, I wouldn't find it counterintuitive.) There is such a thing as Law and there is such a thing as Chaos and they interact in all manner of ways, and it is a short step from there to the preposition that they are in dynamic conflict.

Good vs. Evil is a different kettle of fish. We know that we like Good better than Evil. More importantly, we also know that Evil is always what the other person is doing. I'm of the opinion that, objectively, some acts are Evil, but the perpetrators of those acts never think in those terms. The Final Solution didn't come about because the Nazis wanted to be Evil. It came about because the Nazis thought that Jewish people were Evil. The act itself was an Evil one, but it didn't arise from any diametric conflict between two fundamentally opposed philosophical schools - it wasn't about the Nazis fighting for the cause of Evil against Good. In their own twisted logic it was the opposite.

The idea of an explicit Good vs. Evil conflict in the world, then - that there are Gods of Good and Gods of Evil and that they battle for the cosmos - seems fundamentally ridiculous and unbelievable in a sense that Law vs. Chaos doesn't. Because what God, and what follower of a God, would explicitly campaign for the cause of "Evil"? It makes no sense; it's artificial; if you think about it for even a second it just doesn't seem like anything approaching a fit for how the world works and what motivates people.

Now, I can sense some of you forming an argument in your mind that goes something like this: "Good and Evil can still exist even if they don't have explicit proponents. Maybe Sauron doesn't believe he's Evil and thinks he's Good; that doesn't preclude the existence of Evil and a conflict between it and Good - Sauron is just mistaken." You're right of course. But I think you'll recognise my fundamental point, which is that followers of Law and Chaos (if they existed) would be able to announce, outright, that they are a Follower of Law or a Follower of Chaos in a way that makes sense, whereas nobody no matter how steeped in sin would ever be able to openly claim themselves a Follower of Evil and be believable as a person. This in my opinion makes Good vs. Evil a weak and artificial conflict of forces for a fantasy cosmology, and Law vs. Chaos a compelling and believable one.


  1. I sense a flurry of posts far less philosophically subtle than what you just wrote coming on.

    Verification word:

    an object that is a result of the interaction of order and chaos. Practically speaking, all things are exentomps.

  2. A lot of the older RPG writings about Law and Chaos seemed to match Law with (human) Civilization, and empire. Chaos on the other hand was more in line with Barbarians, outlaws, or smaller groups that were otherwise not part of the civilization / empire (Elves).

    Law vs Chaos could work well in a campaign themed around Ancient Rome, the Colonization of the New World, the Wild West, Cyberpunk, etc.

    Although this view of alignment says more about which group your character is "aligned" with, rather than what sort of personality they have. That might be a good or bad thing depending on your point of view.

  3. Outstanding post, thanks. It helps clarify some muddled thoughts on the topic that I was having.

  4. I struggled with this idea not long ago on my blog; I hope this train of thought brings you to a more gameable conclusion than mine did.

  5. Awesome, refined post!

    I also think you pointed out one of the biggest flaws of Warhammer. Most of the time Chaos is just synonymous with Evil and I think it's a horrible mistake.

  6. I agree about good vs. evil as fundamental moral mechanics - to my mind the quintessential paladin has always seemed a lot more evil than good. This segues nicely into your goblin massacre post too, doesn't it, with the general "they're evil so we can exterminate them" ideal underlying that kind of gaming.

    However, as a statistician I have to resist your chaos vs. law dichotomy. The chaos you describe is largely a set of quite predictable conditional probabilities and the more we know about the laws of the universe the better we can predict the chaos (weather is a good example of this). So there isn't really a chaos/law dichotomy (though I suppose you could argue that the conditions are law triumphing over chaos).

    Anyway, law and chaos in the original D&D sense fell approximatlye in the pattern of chaos=evil, law=good. And the evil in the classic references (like LoTR) makes for a fun gaming world in any case.

  7. To be fair to Warhammer, it's not quite that simple. Chaos is against civilisation and order, which is why it comes up against the player characters. There is also plenty of discussion of the gods of Law and how they may actually be the very same entities as the gods of Chaos.

    In 40K, there is no real Good in the setting (except perhaps the Tau). It's all about a battle to maintain order, albeit a scummy, horrible kind of order, in the face of extinction.

    All that said, Chaos does tend to get lumped in with the Evil side of things, especially in the tabletop game, which I would indeed consider a... "unsubtling" of the setting(s).


    Anyway, excellent, cogent post. I'm not sure I fully agree, as I can see room for self-declared servants of Evil, if only at the more pulpy end of the spectrum where the cackling villains dwell, but if we're there, we're not concerned with realism. But yes, the other 98% of me agrees with your point.

  8. faustusnotes: As the son of an engineering prof, I reject your statistical analysis and counter with the Laws of Thermodynamics, which state quite explicitly that, yes, there is chaos and it is winning! ;)

  9. This is a very elegant summation of the Tekumelani worldview, insofar as the Gods of Stability and Change are concerned. You are now ready to play Empire of the Petal Throne (despite the use of "Good" and "Evil" in the original game) :) .

  10. I've always felt that Good and Evil were simply different manifestations of self-interest. Where self-interest starts to harm what was recognised as society is where evil starts (c.f. self-interest of the Nazi party) and good is all too often done for the doer's benefit (c.f. charity donations) or to uphold a status quo in which they have some stakeholding. You don't have to look far to see the multitude of religious abuses committed because the abuser thought he was being right and proper.

    Good proper and evil proper only really works in a black hat/white hat setup - so is ideal for Space Opera. But even Star Wars's black hat/white hat setup bothers me - surely a lot of Imperial citizens would have thought "Empire good - law and order and they build hospitals and schools, Rebellion bad - terrorists" even if only because the Empire writes the news broadcasts they see.

    The beauty about Law/Chaos is that it creates ambiguity. The ultimate victory of Law would be as fatal to humanity as would be that of Chaos, something Moorcock always went out of his way to lend weight to.

    Kelvin - The Tau aren't good either, it's just that their Soviet propaganda machine works a lot better than the real one did!

  11. It seems to me one of the good post on Laws....

  12. Zak S: There is some confusion among philosophers as to whether law and chaos themselves are exentomps. Some argue that since law is the antithesis of chaos and vice versa, the two do not interact and hence are not exentomps; others argue that since they both rely on their opposition to each other for their existence, this is a form of interactions and hence they are indeed exentomps.

    Stuart: I'd be more inclined to see the dichotomy not between civilisation and "the wild", but between the natural world and the physical world - human and animal life is governed by chaos; the world itself (e.g. seasons) is governed by law.

    Jayson: Thanks.

    Blizack: I think the gameable conclusion for me is that alignment works well on the Law-Neutral-Chaos axis but not on the Good-Neutral-Evil one. So a bit like OD&D, really, except OD&D always seemed to falsely equate chaos with evil.

    Squidman: Yes, although the followers of Chaos in Warhammer do seem to have a lot more fun than the followers of Law.

    faustusnotes: As I said in the post, a lot of what we might see as "chaotic" and random is really quasi-random - the weather is not actually governed by random factors. But the point is that for all intents and purposes it might as well be. Just like the train - there was a reason why the ticket office at my local station was unmanned this morning so I couldn't buy a ticket, but because nobody has told me why, the reason may as well have been random variance.

    Which is to leave aside thermodynamics. ;)

    Kelvingreen: Yeah, you always have to draw a distinction between gaming with one's thinking cap on, and with it off.

    Trollsmyth: "There are many planes of existence. In some the Lords of Chaos are strong. In some they are weak. In some, I have heard, they do not exist at all."

    Victor: I did play it once or twice. Maybe this entire post arrive in my mind through a process of osmosis from MAR Barker's ideas.

    Coopdevil: The beauty about Law/Chaos is that it creates ambiguity.

    Quite right, A star for you.

    Divorce Solicitors Liverpool: It seems to me one of the crap attempts at spam.

  13. The Final Solution didn't come about because the Nazis wanted to be Evil.

    Are you sure about that? I mean, black hats and trenchcoats, skull and lightning bolt insignia, imperial eagles, atavistic torch-lit parades, book-burning, the loony political platform (basically: "let's go be b*st*rds to the Slavs and Jews" + blood purity myths). They were over-egging the bad guys pudding, even by grand guignol standards.

    on-topic: Moorcock would approve. As, I suspect, would Lovecraft.

  14. I wouldn't call "Good vs. Evil a weak and artificial conflict" per se.

    I see it a little differently, in that the Law-Chaos points of view are 'objective' (outside of personal references, and therefore axiomatic), whereas the Good-Evil axis is 'subjective'.

    Instead of seeing that as a flaw in the design of RPGs, I would prefer to see it as an extra layer of philosophical richness, if you can play out that subjectivity not only in your fluff but also in your crunch.

    Unfortunately, franchises like D&D, that advocate the whole double axis alignment system, fail to do just that. Instead of keeping the Good-Evil axis interchangeable, depending on whose point of view you take, they artificially pinned it down saying that 'the good guys' are always Good, and their opponents are always Evil. They hardcoded it in the rules when they started creating spells around the concept where being Good or Evil were prerequisites.

    Now, wouldn't it be fun if you could turn that whole thing around? Spells like Detect Evil, for example, don't really detect 'Evil' but rather the people or objects that you perceive as being adversary to yourself. Two people trying this spell on the same person might get different results. That could spark some interesting roleplaying opportunities within a group of mixed characters.