Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Law vs. Chaos, Man vs. Faerie

To the best of my knowledge, Michael Moorcock was the first to recast the age-old battle of good vs. evil as law vs. chaos, stability vs. growth and change. The way he went about it, however, basically boiled down to good and evil all over again: The Lords of Law were beautiful, noble, and distantly caring, while the Lords of Chaos were demonic monsters. There really wasn't much room in his stories to sympathize with chaos or question law.

In D&D, this problem is resolved by having two axis, giving us the possibility of chaotic good Robin Hoods going to war with the lawful evil Sheriffs of the world. Indeed, the Forgotten Realms was practically made of this distinction, with the chaotic good hippies of Shadowdale holding off the lawful evil tyrants of Zhentil Keep. I'm not disparaging Ed Greenwood's ethos here--neither Elminster nor Gandalf were willing to force their will on free peoples--but I'm also student enough of history to know why that chaotic good ideal exists so seldom in real life: For every cheerful commune of free love there must be a thousand lawful knights willing to lay down their lives to defend it.

James Maliszewski has posted a couple of articles discussing alignment in OD&D. In particular, the second article is interesting because it picks up on a theme that was never fully developed, that of the "godling" as the exemplar of chaotic good:
[G]odlings are a kind of non-evil "demon." That is, they're Chaotically-aligned supernatural beings created as an unintended consequence of the gods' meddling with Nature. This is the origin for all the "little gods" I drop into my campaign, as well as oddities like the Horse Lords the steppe nomads accept as their aristocracy or the Amazons that threaten the lands of civilized men. Godlings are thus a catch-all for any kind of aberrations, freaks, and weirdos that don't have any other obvious origin or connection in the world. Being Chaotic, they are generally destructive and unpredictable, but they needn't be malicious, since demons already have that niche covered. Of course, godlings can be quite unpleasant and many of them are, but it's more because of their whimsical self-absorption than malice.
In truth, there is already a mythological idea that covers this alignment, and that is the realm of Faerie. In Faerie, whether we call it Tir Na Nog or Underhill, the normal rules of the world do not apply, and the Fey can reshape reality at will.

Some time ago, I saw a blog post I've not been able to relocate in which the author pointed out that in OD&D, there was an underlying assumption that the "wilderness" of the game which the characters explored, was itself a kind of Faerie, which is why it was full of mythic monsters and was tamed only with great difficulty.

Bring these ideas altogether and you have the premise of my Asryth campaign world:

Long ago, the realm of Law--that realm of Man governed by the normal laws of nature--and the realm of Chaos collided. What has since followed is the ongoing warfare between Law and Chaos that is described in Keep on the Borderlands. In this scenario:
  • The forces of Chaos are kept away from "civilized" lands by the power of the Immortal Empress (to be described later). However, even in the Realm of Galadan, there are pockets of Chaos hidden away that pose dangers to those who go wandering.

  • Moreover, there is a definite borderland between the lands of Men and the lands of Chaos, a borderland that calls those who seek to escape the oppresive order and protocol that governs the Realm and find their fortunes. This will be the central area of the campaign.

  • There are both good and evil people and beings on both sides of this war. Elves are aligned with Chaos, being creatures of Faerie, but they are still essentially good, while the templarish tactics employed by many of the Empress's lords and agents easily falls into lawful evil territory. Adventurers may choose their side or may try to walk a fine line between the two for their own advancement . . . and risk being crushed in the middle.

  • Magic is essentially learning to control the stuff of Chaos and bend it to one's will by the Words of the Law. Magic functions best on the borderlands, losing its potency as one draws closer to the Imperial City and becoming wild and dangerous (for mortal Men to use, at least) further into the realms of Chaos.

  • Clerical magic, on the other hand, is the embodiment of the Law of the Most High, and as such clerics must be lawful and/or good. Fallen clerics do exist, of course, serving evil and/or chaos, and having powers opposite those of the good cleric (harming instead of curing).
  • The Dungeon (that is, the mega-dungeon of this world, not simply any underground structure) is a mythic underworld, embodying the worst qualities of Chaos, and seeking to ensnare the foolhardy by greed.
In this setting, I don't really have any need for planes, and most "gods" will be creatures of Chaos who feast on the worship of foolish mortals, as fitting in a pulp fantasy setting. There's the beginning of a consistant framework here which will make for plenty of good settings and scenarios, I think. Time will tell.

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