Law versus Chaos: Why it matters.

A couple things before I start my rambling on the topic of alignment. I’ve been binge watching Vikings and this post is inspired by some recent events in the series that made me think about alignment. I’ve also bloviated on this topic many moons ago and I do not want to rehash those arguments again…and my opinion has changed, albeit slightly, since then. (I no longer believe an unaligned character is possible, for example). What I really want to do is to address a common argument against using alignment: that alignment hinders role-playing. That being “forced to play your alignment” can keep you from making interesting 3-dimensional characters. That argument is bullshit and the events of Vikings Season 4-5 is proof.

One more thing…I loved the first few seasons of Vikings. I thought it was neat in the sense that it tried to be somewhat historically accurate. I also appreciated the use of of the character, Athelstan to juxtapose Christianity with the Nordic mythos. There is a reason why the vikings eventually converted to Christianity…but that is a discussion for another day.

Sadly, Vikings started to suck around the time (SPOILERS!) Ragnar Lothbrok died. It think the show tried to be like Game of Thrones which was a huge mistake. Then Bishop Heahmund showed up. He was placed as the opposite of Ivar the Boneless. I got interested in the show again and a recent scene got me thinking about the difference between Law and Chaos as worldviews in an RPG setting.

In this scene, despite being crippled and knocked off his chariot, he stops an army of Christians by screaming his name at them. The Christians are too terrified to act.

For those not in the know, Ivar the Boneless is the son of King Ragnar and he was born a cripple. He is cruel and ambitious. He is ruthless and, eventually, takes over. (Apparently, he was a real guy…my focus is how he is depicted on the show, however). His cruelty is born from his disability. Ragnar wanted to leave him to the wolves shortly after his birth. However, before he died, Ragnar taught his son to use his defect as an advantage. He implores him to “be ruthless.” Ivar is taught the ways of the vikings at a young age, including the nordic mythos. In the show, despite his inability to walk, he comes off as more sterotypically viking than the rest of his brothers: violent, impulsive, and conquest driven. Indeed, when his eldest brother desires to settle down on land taken from England, Ivar mocks him for his cowardice and then manipulates events to take over “The Great Heathen Army” that is ravaging the English countryside. Enter Bishop Heahmund…

Bishop Heahmund of Sherborne was also a real guy. He is a warrior priest. In the show, he arrives on scene with what appear to be knights templar. Bishop Heahmund appears to be unwaivering in his Christian faith and a near flawless warrior. His sword is pretty badass too. Ivar was convinced it was magical…probably because it was made from steel. Anyway…

Bishop Heahmund’s very first scene, however, involves him…*ahem* consoling a greiving widow with sex, and we ain’t talking missionary either! He’s a flawed man who constantly struggles with his sin and his obligations. Indeed, later in the show, after he is captured by Ivar, and eventually taken by an enemy of Ivar, Laegertha, he becomes more conflicted in terms of his obligations to God. He has fallen in love with Laegertha a heathen woman who demonstrates strength and goodness. Through all of it, he remains a man dedicated to God and his duty to protect Christendom…even if he is a poor example of a Bishop.

A good part of the show is dedicated to illustrating two very different worldviews and the characters aligned to them. With Bishop Heahmund, we have a Christian. He is dedicated to a philosophy and worldview that stands for the proposition(s) that there is an established order derived by God, and through that order, there is peace. Salvation comes from giving one’s self wholly to the cosmic order.

In contrast, there is the viking way (for lack of a better term): it is war, combat, and domination. There is no peace, only a dedication to naked ambition and exaltation of the self as a great warrior and conquorer over the weak to secure one’s place in Valhalla.

I think you might be seeing where I am going with this…If you have seen the show, then you know exactly where I am going with this.

In the same scene with Ivar scaring the shit out of Christians, Bishop Haemund uses his sword as a cross in an attempt to exorcise the demonic force laying low his army. How fucking cool is that!

The scene that inspired this post is the scene where Heahmund is atop his horse (elevated, closer to God), looking down upon the crippled and bloodied Ivar (laid low, away from God). Ivar is screaming his name “I am Ivar the Boneless!” He is unafraid, full of rage, and scaring the shit out of the Christians. Bishop Heahmund realizes who is enemy is and he tries to exorcise the demon that is Ivar by invoking God. Heahmund is unafraid and tries to be an instrument of God while chaos reigns around him. I had chills…it was fucking awesome.

So clearly we have an epic story going on with The Great Heathen Army laying waste to English Christendom: Two cosmic forces going head to head. Who will triumph? Does it matter? Because, on a character level we have two individuals dedicated to one side or the other and they are fully fleshed out, three-dimensional characters who are both badass and fun to watch.

Moreover, there are other christians and vikings in the show (obviously) and each one is unique, despite their allegiance to one worldview or the next. Bjorn Ironside, for example, is the first son of Ragnar Lothbrok. He too is dedicated to the viking mythos, but his focus is on exploration, love of his mother, Laegertha, and the legacy of his father. He is a far-cry from his crippled half-brother, Ivar the Boneless.

In this wonderful exchange, we see the two have switched places: the man of God is bloodied and driven by rage; the viking is in control of his emotions and offers mercy.

The complexity of these characters goes much farther. As noted previously, Ivar is a bit of a dick. But there are moments where he shows tenderness, such when he learns that he may be a father. He also tells Heahmund that he envies him because Heahmund is a whole man and a great warrior. He is not a one-note villainous type. Ivar is driven because of his disability. Ivar may be crippled, but he knows what he wants and he knows who he is.

In contrast, Bishop Heahmund is a flawed man. His flaws come from his doubts about who he is and his own lacivious appetites. Opposite of Ivar, we have a man whole in body, but crippled in spirit.

Nothing about the wolrdviews adopted by these characters stopped these characters from being complex and compelling. Indeed, their complexity emerged because of the worldviews held by these characters.

I think doing away with alignment is a huge mistake. It sets the metaphysical groundwork for character development. It orients the players in how their character may react to certain events in the campaign. There is nothing about alignment that stops a player from developing a complex character. In fact, doing away with alignment just may generate a bland campaign with no thematic elements and a set of characters that are bland, one-note, and not worthy of writing a 1298 word blogpost about them.

One thought on “Law versus Chaos: Why it matters.

  1. There are 2 different issues.
    Ways to tie character motivations, principles and other important mental traits into mechanics are desirable.
    For the same reasons various “Lifepath” systems are popular enough that they are house-ruled in when absent: spell things out, tie background and mechanics together, allow circumstantial adjustments (double edged, at that) that actually make sense without necessarily powering up or crippling the characters a whole lot. The way Inspirations and Stunts work in Spellbound Kingdoms (“For the King!”), or even more limited version of Fate Points from FATE/FUDGE.
    But “alignment”, first 3-state with side notes and then 3×3?
    It’s very clumsy and not very useful for RP on its own. This was obvious for the core developers (certainly Grubb, probably even Gygax), and tacitly admitted in AD&D* era — which is why cosmology de facto went beyond 3×3 grid before Planescape was a setting, and alignment became “must be adhered to, but also only very general guidelines” in AD&D2. It ends up as an excuse for railroading, but does not blend into other mechanics more smoothly than “Detect X, Smite X”.
    Attempts to refine alignment, alas, usually boil down to “let’s dumb down Moorcock some more!” and/or weird rants of personal theology. So far none of these improved the situation or was widely accepted.

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