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Thursday, 19 April 2018

Classic Rant: Chaos vs. Law in Dark Albion (as Opposed to WFRP)

Some people have criticized Dark Albion for not being 'chaos-threatening' enough.  Sure, there's an entire kingdom of chaos monsters in control of a major area just across the pond from Albion, but (according to these people) chaos seems too distant and/or too manageable.

Their argument is that Chaos should be more like it is in Warhammer: this vile insidious force that inexorably pushes against the realms of Law, that is almost destined to consume the world, against which nations of Law (and the PCs) can only at most fight a holding action.  The Call of Cthulhu school of cosmological disaster, I guess.

(look at this cover: this is supposed to be the cover of the holy warriors and good guys. Seriously)

But it's true. Albion isn't like that. Chaos is different in Albion, the balance of power between Chaos and Law is different. And I'll explain why:

Dark Albion tries to be a medieval-authentic RPG.  WFRP does not. 

Dark Albion is simply better at representing the world as it was back then, and not just because Albion's "the Continent" is closer physically to historical Europe than WFRP's "the Old World".

No, I'm talking about differences in the Moral Universe here.

WFRP, like most RPGs, is ultimately presenting a world that may have more or less elements of historical reference to our own world (WFRP's setting has a few more than, say, Greyhawk), but that is viewed from a moral/philosophical lens totally rooted in our own 20th century viewpoints.

D&D's is one of a highly modernist, relativist, baby-boomer hippie type of view of some kind of cosmic balance around which the 9 alignments are all completely evenly matched.

WFRP's is a more post-modernist, post-hippie and utterly cynical viewpoint that dominates our current paradigm. You could call it 'apocalyptic' but in fact for reasons I will bring up later that'd be totally wrong. It's just nihilistic. It is the view that is left to us when we are taught that nothing is actually true, nothing is actually worthy of being maintained, nothing can be held up and only naive idiots think anything is worth fighting for, except maybe for tearing down and destroying everything.  In WFRP you play the 'good guys' but you actually root for the bad guys. The lords of Chaos are the cool ones, as everyone knows, but more importantly they're the ones who are RIGHT. Law is a sucker's bet. It's doomed. And so all the paladins and heroes who fight for law are basically morons, and this is part of the (civilization-hating) joke.

It's not in any way a medieval view. Or early-modern, or enlightenment, or Victorian. It is a moral paradigm that can only possibly exist in this utterly spoiled generation of self-hating westerners.

But I'm not here today to rant about post-modernism. I'm here to explain what's different in Dark Albion.  In Albion, the moral universe itself is MEDIEVAL.  It is based on a world-view, and I'll note that this is the ONLY way that you can effectively roleplay a culture that would be medieval-authentic, that holds that Law is actually much more powerful than Chaos.

Chaos wins when it manages to subvert or undermine Law, or when people who serve Law turn away from it. Or when they fight amongst themselves, as is happening in Albion during the setting period (where Chaos creatures, sects, and dark magic that had not been seen in Albion proper in centuries are coming back to infringe upon civilized lands because of the Chaos being generated by the Rose War).

But as a cosmic force, Law is supreme. Chaos is legion and divided; so in my game you never see the various agents of Chaos really co-operating as it's just not in their nature (and likewise, what this means is that no two demons are quite the same, nor are any two chaos cults the same).  But Law is only ONE. There is only one true God of Law; on the Continent he's the Unconquered Sun, in the lands of the Turk he's the Crescent Moon (though the common folk don't realize it's the same deity), and in other places he may have other names but he's really just a single force.
It was very important to me, even if I didn't want to use Christianity as such for other reasons, that the setting be MONOTHEISTIC.  You can totally have a medieval paradigm with or without many things, but you can't take out the monotheism and still really be anywhere near the mark.

Part of the medieval paradigm is triumphalism: God will win over chaos. Even the apocalyptic movements, preaching disaster and lamenting the growth of evil in the world, are all ultimately prophesying  a time when The Man Comes Around and there'll be trumpets and pipers and a hundred million angels singing and the Righteous will be Righteous still and the filthy will be filthy still. That's why I say WFRP is NOT 'apocalyptic' in the medieval sense, because it is a nihilist apocalypse of Chaos consuming everything, not a true Apocalypse in the religious sense where Law triumphs and establishes a Kingdom that will Reign Forever.

So what does this mean in actual play? Doesn't it make actual play more lame? After all if you are playing in a universe where Law is way more powerful you know that ultimately the Unconquered Sun will triumph and set things right so why fucking bother?

I think you have to look at it the opposite way: in WFRP, nothing you do matters. In the end you know Slaneesh and Nurgle and company are going to end up devouring everything and any effort you make is for nothing. You will die sooner or you will die later but eventually everyone loses.  It is naive and stupid to serve Law in that setting.

In Dark Albion, the tragedy is that man falls to Chaos. It's not a tragedy in WFRP, it's just a foregone conclusion and probably the smart bet. In Dark Albion, the fact that it doesn't actually have to happen makes it MUCH MUCH WORSE that the Frankland Kings were so weak and decadent that they let their lands be taken away from them by the Frogmen. It makes it so much worse that Vlad Tepes, who was hailed as the greatest living hero of the Unconquered Sun by the Pontifex, would (as he lay dying following betrayal at his own brother's hands) not look up and be ready for Union with the Sun but instead whisper a prayer of revenge to dark forces that they might make him their champion all so that he could, in his pride and wrath, slaughter and feast on the blood of those who betrayed him and his land.  It makes it so much more awful that in Albion, cousins are engaging in brutal war with each other and bringing the land into anarchy so that Goblins and elves and the living dead begin to come back from the lonely places and infringe on the work that ages and great kings had wrought to push Chaos back.

In WFRP, any of the above would just be par for the course. It would just be what should happen, cosmologically speaking; what makes sense in that world.  In Dark Albion, it's horrific because it is an anomaly and an abomination against Law.

(In WFRP, the Chaos menace is from an army of 20000 beastmen or something; in Dark Albion this moment right here is the 'chaos menace')

The menace of Chaos in Albion isn't that it is way more powerful than Law, it doesn't immediately threaten to overwhelm us all. The menace of Chaos in Albion is found in the weakness of men, and the tragedy of failing to live up to duty. The worst kind of tragedy is the preventable tragedy. This is Sin, in the especially medieval pre-Luthor view; the world is not inextricably evil (like the Gnostic heretics would have you believe), but rather the kingdom of god we could make here on Earth is thwarted by that weakness within one's heart that rejects virtues and falls to vices.
Defeating Chaos means doing that which is hard but which is right.

And in actual play, your characters can of course end up being killed by Chaos. At the skirmish level Chaos is incredibly dangerous. If you play an Inquisitor group and go looking for Chaos the assumption is you won't get to be an old man who dies in his bed. But (unlike in WFRP) what you are doing ACTUALLY MAKES SENSE. It actually MEANS something. There's actually a point to it. You are agents of Law out to set things right.
Of course you can still be mercenaries in it for yourselves in the game, but even there it is also made more significant by virtue of the fact that what you do totally matters more. Even if you choose to play a servant of Chaos it matters more (because there should be a bigger reason for siding with Chaos, or a more significantly personal one, in a setting where Chaos is not actually the stronger power).
What you do has MEANING, in the medieval paradigm. You are tremendously important because the world itself is infused with meaning. Whereas in WFRP (and most RPG settings) what you do has no real meaning to the larger cosmos. In games like Greyhawk or the FR, it all just balances out; whereas in WFRP (like in CoC) the universe is utterly meaningless.

The medieval worldview is a world where things matter. It is a world where everything has meaning. It makes individuals living under that paradigm much more significant and conversely much less self-centered than in our post-modern paradigm that says nothing at all is meaningful except your most immediate feelings and impulses.

So this is the difference. WFRP is a 20th century setting in renaissance drag. Dark Albion is a medieval/early-renaissance setting for reals.


Currently Smoking: Neerup Bent Billiard + Image Latakia

(Originally Posted January 25, 2016)


  1. WFRP needs its world view to justify chaos ARMIES and undead ARMIES and chaos dwarf ARMIES and chaos elf ARMIES. Thats great for a wargame but not really survivable for a role playing game. Although I do love borrowing bits and pieces of their stuff.

    1. Yes, sure. I'm not saying WFRP is a bad game.

  2. Great article. What about Chaos in Runequest, WFRP's mechanically superior parent?

  3. A very interesting, and relevant point. The idea of Law/Good being triumphant over Evil/Chaos is a very medieval veiwpoint. I think I might have known that, but I too am mired in the sludge of modernity and didn't. So excellent article/post! You've earned yourself a new reader.