Saturday, April 27, 2019

Law v Chaos (2)

Darkseid by J.G. Jones, from Final Crisis published by DC Comics

Over in Gallant Knight Games' first Tiny Zine Compendium there is an essay by me about the forces of Law and Chaos in fantasy role-playing games. It serves as an early promo for my Demon Codex fantasy role-playing game (still in development/writing).

I am going to go back over some of the basics from that essay here, but I'm going to also talk about the inspirations that have helped develop my take on Law and Chaos in my gaming. Click on the link above and get a copy of the Compendium, there's plenty of cool stuff in it to balance out what I wrote. Yes, that is an affiliate link.

I am a fan of Michael Moorcock. He is one of the few writers whose works I have carried over from having read when I was a kid. The influence of his writing and universes upon tabletop gaming is a fundamental one, although you tend to see the more overt representations of it in games like Runequest (not surprising that Chaosium would go on to produce a line of licensed RPGs based in Moorcock's worlds) and Warhammer. While you still see Moorcock's influences on creatures and the approach to how a multiverse works in the D&D game, the greatest vestige of his influence upon the D&D game is in the alignment system. Alignment is also the thing that D&D broke as it tried to change it over the years.

At first, alignment was not a system to gauge the morality of your character. There was no good, nor evil, just the conflict between Law and Chaos (and the buffer of Neutrality between them). It was more of an allegiance system, but in the earliest editions of D&D there wasn't much mechanical bite to alignment. Of course, there wasn't a lot of mechanical bite to a lot of things in the earliest D&D editions either.

Over time, and across editions, the alignment system developed into what we see now, an attempt to give some mechanical power to morality within the game. This ends up causing a different set of problems in a game that stakes advancement upon killing things and taking their stuff. The designers of recent editions have tried moving the mechanics around this, which is why you see things like milestone advancement.

The trouble is that the original approach gave you a richer tapestry to play your games against. War is hell, and it can be used as an easy way for a GM to kickstart conflict in a campaign. You have to balance things carefully, because you don't want the big story of this cosmic conflict to overwhelm what the players are doing with their characters, either.

This likely won't be my last essay on this topic, and that means that we can talk at length about more gaming specific topics over the course of them. Right now, I've thrown a lot of words at the internet and haven't gotten to that picture of Darkseid at the top of this post.

In case you don't know, Darkseid is a great cosmic villain, a New God created by Jack Kirby to serve as the primary antagonist for his "Fourth World Saga" at DC Comics in the Seventies. Unfortunately, the Fourth World books didn't last as long as other of Kirby's works at the time but other creators since then have taken the threads of Kirby's story and woven them deeply into the fabric of the DC Universe. And, while he didn't explicitly name it as such, the conflict between Law and Chaos was an important part of Kirby's mythos.

Characters like the Hairies in Kirby's run on Superman's Pal Jimmy Olson, and the Forever People in their own eponymous book, showed Kirby's ideas about Chaos. These characters were young, rebellious against authority figures and creative. The Hairies came up with incredible scientific leaps and created technologies far beyond anything available on Earth at the time of the stories. The faction of New Gods that populated the world of New Genesis were the good guys of the Fourth World, and they were the exemplars for Chaos. They fought against oppression and worked to evolve humanity into godlike figures such as themselves.

Representing Law in Kirby's mythos was Darkseid and his elite warriors of Apocalypse. Darkseid sought the Anti-Life Equation that would unite the universe under his will. All sentient beings would serve one mind: Darkseid's. I don't think that there are many characters that encapsulate the concepts of Law outside of Moorcock's works themselves as well as Darkseid did.

The one "problem" is that they still show a morality to Law and Chaos, something which is absent in Moorcock's works. The interesting thing about Kirby's works, when viewed through the Law v Chaos filter, is that they flip the script on how Law and Chaos as morality are typically viewed. Law is usually the "good guy," because of the whole "law and order" thing being good. It was probably because of how Kirby viewed the youth movement of the 60s that he flipped the script and made Chaos, the change agent, into the force for good in his mythos. Of course, you can trace these ideas back to his work on books like Thor for Marvel Comics.

For Moorcock, the principals of Law and Chaos are more akin to cosmic horror. The two principals are eternally at conflict with one another, not really knowing (or caring) why they fight each other. More importantly, neither Law nor Chaos really cares about the impact that their battles have on lesser beings. They only care about the conflict, and being the side that wins. This is more along the lines of my handing of Law and Chaos in Demon Codex. Alignment is a part of the game, but it shows a character's allegiance to one side or the other, rather than the ideas of good or evil. Picking an allegiance, which isn't a requirement, means choosing a side in a conflict that, if it comes to the world of your characters, will most likely ultimately destroy the world. Law and Chaos are like Godzilla and Mothra. They are much more focused on fighting each other than they are worrying about the people from Tokyo that they trod upon during their fight.

Going back to Kirby's Fourth World before I finish up, there was an interesting change that happened to the concepts of the New Gods when DC Comics rebooted their universe for the New 52. In this interpretation, the New Gods of New Genesis became less aligned with the principal of Chaos, as their own eternal war against Darkseid and Apocalypse made them more regimented and governed by rules and law. If you haven't read the Godhead mini-event that ran through the Green Lantern related books from a couple of years ago, it makes for an interesting read. Eternal conflicts can change those with even the best of intentions, grind them up and spit them out on the other side. Sometimes this comes with the realization that you're better off without that conflict guiding your life, while other times you double down on it and let it consume you.

Either way it becomes less about morality and more about survival almost. But, they call it dark fantasy for a reason.