Monday, February 1, 2010

Elric Explored - Part 3: Law vs Chaos

One of the central themes of the Elric saga is the constant battle between Law and Chaos. These two forces are personified by various Lords of godly power.Their push and pull causes the friction which turns the wheels of the worlds and keeps things in motion. In re-reading these stories I find I like this as a backdrop.

Michael Moorcock credits Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword and Three Hearts, The Lions as the inspiration for the forces of the Higher Worlds that inhabit the Eternal Champion's multiverse. In these stories Chaos is more than just evil and Law is more than just the good guys. These are primal forces at work.

It helps that Swords & Wizardry uses Law and Chaos as the default alignments. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with its nine different alignments seems to be too much over thinking. There is a beauty to the simplicity of the Law vs. Chaos dichotomy. And yet, it's not just a morality play. By taking the ideas of Good and Evil out of the equation, Law and Chaos achieve and almost elemental aspect.

And while they battle it out, it is not anything that one side should ever win. If either side wins it could be the end of everything, as put so well but Orunlu the Keeper, minion of Chaos, in The Weird of the White Wolf:

"We exist only to fight - not to win, but to preserve the eternal struggle."
Orunlu may actually be more astute than the higher Lords of Chaos which seem determined that this is a war to be won. Which just goes to show that even gods look at things through a lens colored by their (warped) perception.

Which brings us to the concept of the Cosmic Balance. Some would argue this is simply the Neutral alignment, but I don't think so. Neutral is just coasting along, neither caring nor worrying about the struggle. Being committed to Balance takes work. Sadly, Balance doesn't get a lot of screen (page) time in the Elric stories, but that's ok, because the real action is between the two big guns.

Finally there is the question of freewill. Elric feels that he doesn't have such a thing. He labors under a destiny placed on him by his patron deity in addition to his mantle as the Eternal Champion. If he had his druthers, he would be back in the palace with Cymoril leading a 'normal' existence as king of his people. That doesn't make for good fiction, so I'm glad things turned out the way they did, because I really enjoy the stories as written.

So what does this mean for Icosa? Well, since this is an Old School Sandbox setting, it is important for the PCs to feel free to go wherever they wish and follow what ever path they desire. This doesn't sync well with the notion put forth in the books about a hero's destiny. Heck, we don't even know if the PCs will be heroes. So how to reconcile the two concepts?

In Icosa, all PCs will start 1st level as Neutral, or to put in it in 4E terms, Unaligned. A PC may choose to align with Law or Chaos at any point after completing first level. This works on a couple of levels. First Clerics (not sure what form they'll take in Icosa, but for now we'll assume that it is as written in SnW) do not get any spells at 1st level. They must prove themselves to their deity to gain the spells and thereby lock in their alignment. If they do not act in accordance with their intended alignment, they may stay Neutral and progress in hit points and such, but not gain spells until they are able to show their commitment.

Second, there is no pressure to play a certain way. The players make decisions for the characters and these decisions will slowly accumulate over time to reveal a tendency toward one or the other alignment. Also, this process will lead to consequences based on their choices. A player may not believe that his character is Chaotic, but he may sit up and take notice when he is visited by a demon to be recruited into the ranks of Chaos.

This is all still very sketchy. I'm toying with the idea that characters that summon demons must be Chaotic, but that is still a little ways away. Ultimately I want the process of Alignment to be organic not something that gets locked in and seen as a limit on play. For those that think this approach ignores 'plot' in Old School settings I think that James Maliszewski of Grognardia fame says it best here.

Another thing that this struggle implies is that the Lords of Law and Chaos are involved in the affairs of men. At the very least they will be providing spells to their Clerics and dreams and portent to their followers. If the PCs play their cards right the Lords may even put in an appearance. That's something worth looking forward to.

Follow Your Bliss,


  1. I really think I would never play a 1st level cleric in this game.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. I know this class won't be to everyone's liking. Part of my purpose for designing the background was to give a reason in the setting why Clerics don't get spells at first level. This lack of spells at first level is true of all Clerics in Original and Basic D&D. It was not until Advanced D&D that Clerics were granted spells at first level.

  3. Frankly, that approach to the Cleric sounds a lot more logical than being a miracle-flinging neophyte right out of religious academy. It gets trickier after they've achieved levels/spells, though, if you take them away as that means robbing the class of its punch. Maybe they get an effective level -1 or something if they really go against their stated alignment. If they truly violate their alignment, however, yeah, in that case take all the powers away.

  4. Yes, there is definitely room for a spectrum of responses by the god for slackers and transgressors. The point is there has to be a strong commitment evident on the character's part. Elric goes around sceaming 'Blood and souls for my Lord Arioch' EVERY chance he gets. He continues to do this even after Arioch has shown how fickle a Lord of Chaos can be; that's commitment.