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Monday 25 January 2016

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WFRP, like most RPGs, is ultimately presenting a world that may have more or less elements of historical reference to our own world (WFRP's setting has a few more than, say, Greyhawk), but that is viewed from a moral/philosophical lens totally rooted in our own 20th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


  1. Excellent, thought provoking article!

  2. Great post. Tobacco connoisseur, history enthusiast, rpg aficionado. We may have been separated at birth. Off to purchase this book. Thanks.

  3. Also you linked to a Johnny Cash song, which is fantastic!

  4. Good read. I found your opinion on post-modernism very interesting. Perhaps that's why I find the current novel-based sci-fi scene a bit dull; every other book is either a dystopian hell or a nihilistic "nothing matters" space horror...

  5. "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."

    This is such an clear observation and succeeds to sum up the current state of our culture that it really depresses me to read a sentence like this on a blog entry about Warhammer instead of articles in newsweek oder time magazine.

    Excellent text! Thx for sharing!

    1. Well thank you! If you like that insight, you'll probably dig my articles about politics on, where I write as "Kasimir Urbanski".

    2. My new article comes out some time today, in fact.

  6. I love dark and gritty, but that's how I usually run Cthulhu-type and Mideval-type games.

    1. monotheism (at least for the good guys);
    2. bad guys will win if you do nothing;
    3. bad guys are mostly motivated by traditional moral failings;
    4. what you do matters - even in Delta Green.

    Works fine for me!

  7. I don't know, Pundit, I live in the world of today and everything has meaning in my world. I walk in beauty, and my actions have profound effects and consequences on those I interact with.

    Your sentiment about a generation of spoiled self-hating Westerners was echoed well before you were born. By the Wehrmacht officers on the eve of D-Day. Germans, and many conservatives in Europe, UK, and elsewhere, firmly believed that the spoiled and undisciplined youth serving in the Allied armed forces will be defeated in war and in combat by the stronger (physically), more disciplined youth raised with a sense of honor and brought up with values in places like Germany, Spain and other places under the Axis occupation.

    Neocolonialists (Nazis) and Conservatives were wrong. It was just the opposite. Western youth showed better initiative, more flexible thinking, and superior motivation to fight when faced with its German counterpart. There was a brief moment of time, when cut off from communications, the German soldiers led by the company grade officers could have counter-attacked, seized the initiative, and turned the tied of battle. Instead they remained in their defensive positions awaiting instructions from above, until the Allied forces rallied and overrun them.

    And speaking of Chaos, to equate chaos with evil is a reactionary position. Chaos means change. Renaissance came to the West as a result of chaotic economic change. Industrial revolution made West supreme, and also came as a result of chaos that fundamentally changed the way people lived their lives. United States is the trend setter of the world, because changes that occur in Europe once every 60 years, occur in the US every 20 or so years, leaving in its wake proportionately more people who lost their dreams, hopes and livelihoods it takes a lifetime to accrue, than any other society in the world.

    So, Chaos in itself is not evil, but an opportunity for growth.

    Why didn't you use Good vs Evil (and Christianity) in your game and veiled it behind Law and Chaos instead?

    1. Wehrmacht officers didn't think the allies were self-hating. The difference is looking outward vs looking inward. Disrespecting others vs disrespecting your own.

    2. Bear you are a ridiculous fucking shitstain. And I think that claiming I'm a Nazi has us about done here.

    3. He didn't actually call you a Nazi...

      At worst he just compared your banal generation hating to something Germans did during that era. Probably a bit pedantic though.

    4. He's been posting inane, offensive, and incoherent comments on every blog entry I write. He is either a masterful ill-intended pundit-hating troll, or he's severely mentally ill. Either way, I don't need that.

      And the comparison is absurd. You know people who BELIEVED in something? People like my Grandfather, who FOUGHT the Nazis. Who risked their lives to help Jews escape from occupied territory. So fuck him for trying to compare my contempt for the current amoral decadence of a generation of narcissistic spoiled children who demand censorship with that.

      You know which University Students demanded censorship for their safety first? MOTHERFUCKING NAZIS.

      So fuck him. He's done here.

    5. How exactly is he done here, oh pundit?

    6. Oh, thats right. You've censored him! The hypocrisy, it burns!

      Have the courage of your convictions man!

    7. Ah, and now we see who the sockpuppeteer was.

    8. Nani? Maybe you wanna stop with the wacky baccy. Paranoia and all that.

      Look, this little sub-thread has been a perfect example of your modus operandi.

      step the first: Ad Hominim attack, in this case, you called Mr. Bear a "ridiculous fucking shitstain". Assuming for a second that Mr. Bear is the nastiest troll in the world, who like literally destroys peoples lives, that fact has nothing to do with the validity of his point.

      Step the Second: Strawman argument, in this case you accused Mr. Bear of calling you a Nazi. He didn't. I mean, it really is that simple. He compared your acceptance of myth of decline bullshit to their acceptance of myth of decline bullshit, but that is not the same thing.

      Step the third, pretend that the challenge never happened. In this case, and in this case you are using censorship.

      How is that whole being a free speech advocate going for you pundit?

    9. The amusing thing is that Bear's arguments tend to be laughably weak. You in fact could literally ignore him and the problem would be solved, but you just don't seem to be able to help yourself.

    10. I'm sick of his trolling my every blog entry. Like I said, there's only two possibilities with him: He's either someone like you, sockpuppetting to disrupt my writing, or he's just plain mentally ill.
      In the former case, he has no legitimate claim to contribute here, because he's not acting in good faith.
      If the latter, it's probably not in his own interest to be here.

    11. False dilemma. Those are not the only two possiblities.

      Or you know, he just expresses himself poorly, because he doesn't write much? Or English is his second language, or maybe he has a learning difficulty that make it hard for him to express his ideas. Or any one of a hundred other possibilities as to why his points arn't great.

      As for his reasons for posting. Sure, maybe he, like me, is in someway ideologically opposed to your nonsense. But he could be infuriated by the lack of logic in your responses, or just think your a dick, heavens knows you behave enough like one that, that is, a reasonable assumption

      He might be a sockpuppet, but it is far more parsimonious that Bear is just the chosen identity of a single person, not a way to hide the identity of one of your many critics.

      Why do you have such an obsession with binary possibilities?

      While we are at it, what is your obsession with bad argument? Your every statement and response is filled fallacy. Why is that?

      Why do you feel the need to attack those who question you?
      Why do you feel the need to lie about the positions of others?
      Why the false dilemmas?
      And so on and so forth.

    12. I don't attack those who question me, I attack those who attack me. There's a big difference. People who have no intention of actual discourse deserve no effort toward the same.
      Case in point, your ridiculous and partisan "argument" above. It's character assassination masquerading as pretending to be impartial; and that's what I despise most of all.

  8. WFRP reminds me of TMNT. Or other comic book bubblegum card mass-produced happy meal toys. If only it came with Lego pieces as well. Your book is more like a historical record of an alternate universe Europe.

  9. *Scratching head*.

    Truth be told, your depiction of WFRP matches Call of Cthulhu, or (arguably) Ravenloft. Old World, and let's not forget there are 2 editions, each describing slightly different setting... Well, three, but no gentleman bothers his mind with that silly abomination that is supposed to be 3rd ed.

    Anyway, while the fight against chaos never ends, it's also far from being lost and there's plenty of room for hope. Each official campaign features "good ending", where forces of evil are brought to knees, beaten and their plans - thwarted or at least postponed. Across adventures players meet helpful allies, forge alliances, and sometimes find that even forces of darkness (like Skavens or vampires) are far from being unreasonable and uncooperative.

    Same might be told about "winning". One of my most favorite moments in WFRP is the adventure that allows players to face Drachenfels - hardly a chaos' agent, but one of most powerful foes in the Old World nevertheless - and, providing they have enough luck, beat him.

    All this hardly counts as "just nihilistic" and doesn't make chaos gods that "cool" and actually worth supporting.

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  11. Except that while the machinations of the corrupted burgomeister matters a lot for the players at the time, in the cosmic sense it really doesn't matter because it is the unstoppable power of chaos over law that will ultimately triumph. In the bigger picture, the hordes of beastmen and skaven and undead and demons matter way more than whatever Herr Schmidt does or doesn't do.

    In Dark Albion, it's the opposite.

    1. Thing is, it may be pessimistic, but nihilistic? Why that? There's a difference, a huge one.
      Some characters are nihilistic that's a fact, even in 40k there are nutjobs that could release the Exterminatus on dozens of human planets without any bad feeling. But the whole situation isn't presented as worthless; while it seems that in the very end dark powers will win, the fighting of the forces of mankind and the likes is never presented as worthless. They're showed saving lives, sacrificing some to save even more, and help their people prevail for a bit longer. As dark as it is and no matter the flaws the good guys have, it ain't nihilistic.

      Plus, when you say that in those universes the bad guys are cooler, it's totally subjective. I always found the forces of "relatively good" cool as hell and chaos never really interested me

    2. It may be subjective, on that last note, but it's a subjectivity that the majority seem to have. The thing that made Warhammer popular was the bad guys, not the good guys, and of course that even their good guys are monsters.

      As for nihilistic: to me, if you are told that what you are doing is a meaningless holding action, and that in time you are absolutely doomed to extinction with complete certainty, that's nihilistic. It means the good guys are ultimately doing useless things, and they're fools. The mad cultists are right.

    3. Unknown,

      In 40k the Imperium is entirely amoral, completely consumed with holding off its own destruction, while factionalism eats away at its faltering stability. The fact that the Inquisition spends more time trying to prevent a specific faction from resurrecting the Emperor than almost anything else the Humans have to worry about in that craptastic galaxy, while it could make peace with the Eldar and Tau at any moment and possibly solve the problem of Chaos at its root, which is the Warp. There may be a high density of heroic figures in the Imperium, but in comparison to the higher density of losers, scumbags, and madmen, the Imperium cannot make the best use of its resources, it cannot even identify what is good in its midst, because it is inherently amoral, signified by the double headed eagle of the Emperor.

      What RP has described in this blog post is fundamentally different; it begins with the premise that Good comes from Order, and that Chaos only brings with it Evil. If one wants to divorce capital E evil from Chaos, then all one needs to do is see how uncoordinated alteration, innovation, divergence, change of PoV, and social strife is a negative to the successful tending to an increasingly urban population. Even in a wilderness, lack of order causes massive disruption, leading to extinctions, and these without the rationality of the fit surviving a changing environment, because the environment will never settle, there will only be losers until nothing survives.

  12. Excellent article! I've been thinking about running a Sword & Sorcery RPG setting, and you've helped me articulate why the metaphysical ideas of that genre (cosmic horror, ambivalent contempt for any higher power, and existentialism) won't work for me.

    How would you run an rpg setting where cultures with incompatible metaphysics, like paganism and monotheism, are in the process of clashing? That would seem different to a law/chaos split where chaos believes in similar cosmology but just takes the opposite side. Should the DM decide which cosmology is objectively correct and tell the guy who wants to be a cleric of mars to get bent? Give adherents of both systems some kind of divine magic and leave it ambiguous? Something else? Interested to hear your thoughts.