Thursday, December 7, 2023

Chaos are the bad guys

"A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners... many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses' ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse's whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen's faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.” Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

“'Those two worlds — and many more for all I know — are in some way the same. The same fight was being waged, here the Nazis and there the Middle World; but in both places, Chaos against Law, something old and wild and blind at war with man and the works of man. In both worlds it was the time of need for Denmark and France.'” Poul Anderson, Three Hearts and Three Lions

“Brigands are loosely organized outlaws and renegade mercenaries who live by raiding towns and robbing caravans and travelers.” Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Adventure Game Expert Rulebook

A big reason why some elfgamers reject alignment is that they feel it's limiting. I disagree. Alignment can be a generative force in a campaign, because at its core it's about conflict

Frankly, D&D shat the bed on alignment when good and evil were added, and shat it again when articulating alignment as personal morals instead of distinct factions, or whatever was going on in OD&D. A lot of people recognize instinctively that these are overly simplistic ways to frame personal ethics (and if you don't, here is a solid summary), but alas we persist in the shadow of this twice-shat bed. With that being said, I'm going to be a shooter for Gygax et. al for a second and explain why the classic perspective of alignment-as-ideology is actually (kinda) an effective formulation of the central tension of D&D's implied setting, working backwards from the assumptions the game gives us. 

There's a lot of talk about what's "implied" about the world in old school D&D editions but tiptoeing dancer-like around the discussion of to what extent D&D can be perceived as colonialist fantasy etc. predicated on assumptions of untamed wilderness and savage others etc. and to what extent this is problematic etc. the most compelling interpretation of D&D's implied setting (meaning what is communicated through the descriptions of monsters, wilderness, and so on) is not some new-world myth of untrammeled wilderness, as many presume, but rather a post-collapse dark age—hence all the dungeons and bizarre magic and treasure for us to find. The dangers that lurk outside of the little bastions of civilization are a direct result of overlapping cultural, economic, and infrastructural breakdowns of a past supercivilization.

Some historians say the fall of the Roman Empire was such a catastrophe that archaeological evidence suggests people in Britain lost the ability to make wheel-thrown pottery. The scale of catastrophe would be indistinguishable from a slow apocalypse to the people living through it. Total bummer when it happens in real life, but ripe territory for D&D: imagine a Mad-Max-style landscape of lawless territories and hard-bitten settlements, with roving warbands of ruthless warriors bearing a motley patchwork of armor and weaponry salvaged from a lost civilization. But in a fantasy setting: less football pads and flamethrowers and more gothic plate mail and halberds (and also maybe flamethrowers).

Where does alignment come in? It's deciding what to do now that the old world has ended. Law and Chaos are not (solely) found in the quasi-religious spiritualism of Moorcock's or Warhammer's cosmic conflict, but in the choices people are confronted with when humanity is driven to the edge. Does one try to preserve what is left and rebuild amongst the ruins, or do take what they can and burn the rest? Both endeavors have their appeal, and more importantly, both have their place within a campaign world. But when perceived through the framework the game offers us, chaos is the anti-human impulse. 

When the brigands take up arms and raid the village, they are not doing so out of any specific malice to the townsfolk but rather pure self-interest and a straightforward disregard for the wellbeing of those they deem lesser. Chaos is the rule of might making right, it's the sentiment that the world can burn as long as I get mine. When you understand chaos through such a lens it makes a lot more sense why Poul Anderson identified fascism as an ideology at odds with the works of mankind in Three Hearts and Three Lions, the book that gave alignment to D&D. In terms of societal structure, alignment can be looked at as the difference between relational and coercive hierarchy. Lawful societies may be strict and repressive, but chaotic societies are ruled purely through the use of force and subjugation. Skulls for the skull throne. 

I am sympathetic to attempts at rehabilitating chaos. The instinct to invert the conventional morality of law and chaos is an understandable one, especially considering how many real-world institutions of authority benefit a privileged few at the expense of everyone else. But while this approach offers a compelling alternate perspective on chaos as a defiant and liberatory counterpoint to law's oppressive authoritarianism, it relegates chaos to that of a response to a status quo; any competing viewpoint is secondary to resistance against the current thing. Instead, I feel that alignment offers more when law and chaos represent their own sets of opposing principles that are in dynamic competition with one another. Of course, this ultimately comes down to personal preference and what kind of narrative you want to engage with.

In this way, the lens of alignment-as-ideology can also be applied to orcs and the age-old issue of "evil" races. Forget about trying to untangle the fraught presumption of monstrous humanoids being objectively evil—they are just in competition with everyone else. And they're doing well enough to pose an existential threat to humanity. Our peak has come and gone. Now it's their turn. Gothmog put it best: "The Age of Men is over. The Time of the Orc has come." 

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