Law vs Chaos in D&D/Pathfinder

The Good vs Evil and Law vs Chaos principles in D&D/PF have been beloved alignment configurations for years, but it’s always been somewhat challenging for me to consider Law vs Chaos as profound a basis of conflict as Good vs. Evil. “Lawful” and “Chaotic” are really adjectives describing the structure and society of Good and Evil communities, and are gospel concepts to the game as opposed to “Good Lawful” and “Evil Chaotic.”

When Gygax and co. were first developing D&D, they were obviously influenced by Tolkien chiefly, and to a lesser degree by Michael Moorcock’s Elric books, which had the gods and their heroes standing with either Law or Chaos. It’s based on order vs. chaos, which incorporates a philosophical approach to the forces of nature. Structure and security prevents destruction from random environmental forces like hurricanes. Strength in numbers and disciplined tactics effectively prevent bloodthirsty predators from feasting on the vulnerable.

But as far as I’m concerned, the forces of Good aren’t going to care if their members are lawful or chaotic if there’s a big Evil invasion coming their way. Both Lawful and Chaotic Goods would consider murder, slavery, theft, torture, and oppressive subjugation to be bad. I can’t think they’d go to war with each other because the lawfuls showed up on time for a meeting while the chaotics were late.

Granted, there are creatures and races in these games that fall under the Lawful Neutral and Chaotic Neutral alignments, and the underlying reason is the LNs promote efficiency over morality, and the CNs don’t give a fuck altogether. However, I’d think LGs would be likely to consider absence or non-reliance on morals to be evil (for example, conservative Christians vs Evolutionists). LEs would probably think the same thing, and be happy with it instead. Maybe they’d chide the LNs for not finding cold oppression enjoyable, but that’d be the worst of it. Chaotics would fight each other constantly because they’re chaotic, regardless of moral feelings or alignment differences, as the strongest usually survive. Hah! I got in an argument with my best friend and beheaded him! It was AWESOME!

Does it help to think of a conflict between Conservatism and Liberalism in a society like our own?

I, too, have trouble thinking of Law and Chaos as being in fundamental conflict the way Good and Evil are, but I think that’s okay: I don’t think we’re necessarily supposed to think of them that way.

It’s been a long time since I’ve played (A)D&D, but I appreciated its two-dimensional alignment system. I think it helped me to keep in mind that, in the real world as well as in fantasy, individuals, groups, and societies can be oriented differently in ways that are orthogonal to good vs. evil: conservative vs. liberal; collectivist vs. individualistic; highly structured vs. loose and disorganized; playing things by the book vs making it up as you go along.

Or the distinction between Chaos Muppets and Order Muppets.

You’re right that Lawful Good and Chaotic Good will generally cooperate in the face of Evil of any sort. And that’s the one real advantage that Good has over Evil, and it’s a big one. The eternal cosmic war is between the demons and the devils, which keeps both in check. The archons and the eladrin might have spirited debates over their philosophies, but they won’t resort to violence over them.

Generally D&D worlds don’t have forces of Law and Chaos in opposition, they have forces of Good and Evil opposed (or background alignment entirely). For the Law-Chaos axis to work the way the Good-Evil axis does, you need diametrically opposed forces of Law and Chaos, and you need people for whom the ‘Law’ or ‘Chaos’ part of alignment is the major difference but in most D&D they are absent or tiny, and your fights are about good vs evil (or, again ditch alignment entirely). It doesn’t help the the definitions are pretty muddled, I’ve seen people argue that fictional characters who completely ignore the principles behind law, authority, and order and just break the law as much as they can get away with while using the law to their advantage when they can’t get away with breaking it as ‘lawful evil’ alignment, for example, which I don’t think really works well.

Yeah, even at their cosmic extreme – say Lawful Good angels and Chaotic Good fey – they aren’t in conflict, they just disagree about the best way to be “Good”. Lawful Evil devils and Chaotic Evil demons may fight, but it’s not about law/chaos, it’s just evil dudes trying to wrest power from a weaker opponent.

LE devils vs. CE demons is about law vs. chaos-- They both hate each other much more than they hate those of their own kind. And Asmodeus (Lord of Hell)'s entire reason for existence is to fight demons: According to some versions of the lore, it was his zeal to destroy demons by any means necessary that caused him to become evil in the first place.

And yes, the law-chaos conflict works very differently for good than it does for evil. It’s a common mistake, with the D&D alignment system, to assume a false symmetry that isn’t actually there. Good and evil are fundamentally not alike. Alignment isn’t just like choosing which sports team you’ll root for.

I know most of the posters here have seen this already, but Rich Burlew’s headlines for each of the Outer Planes alignments might be of interest to those who haven’t seen them:

If you like D&D/Pathfinder, you’ll probably like his webcomic too.

Lawful Evil is Lex Luthor. A person who works within and uses the structure of society for their own selfish ends. Chaotic Evil is The Joker. Someone who wants to burn society down and hurt people in the process.

Two Face is Chaotic Neutral.

I’d call Mr. Freeze Neutral Evil. He’s obsessed with restoring his dead wife and does whatever he can to achieve those ends, morality be damned.

I think it’s more a conflict between “peaceful reform via the system” and “direct action”. As such I typically have a hard time understanding how any typical murderhobo, I mean player character, can really ever be Lawful since breaking & entering, slaughtering the private militia of Known Bad Guy and so on are basically Tuesday for them.

Sure, Lawful characters work within The System, but which System? The “adventurers” involved in the bin Laden raid were probably Lawful, even though the raid was clearly illegal by the laws of Pakistan.

Basically Lawful vs Chaotic and Good vs. Evil are two different axis. L vs. C is how much the character respects (or takes advantage of) society’s laws and rules. Exactly what rules depends on where and when you are. Good vs. Evil is a character’s morality. Whether they think of themselves vs others, whether they help or harm etc. If the law is corrupt then “good” will tend to be chaotic. For example the Sheriff of Nottingham would be Lawful Evil (he was corrupt and greedy but he was in charge) while Robin Hood would be Chaotic Good. He worked outside the law but did what he did to help the weak and poor.

Starting with 3rd Edition, they changed that.

Lawful no longer necessarily meant society’s laws. It meant following a code. One of the reasons they did this was to remove the artificial restriction on Paladins when they had to juggle their having to follow the law with having to be good, when the law itself was of questionable use. In 2nd edition, violating your alignment could cause XP penalties, and in all editions Paladins lose their powers when they violate it. It created a meta-alignment issue where a Paladin who violated what the DM thought were just laws could lose their powers, even if it could be argued that the laws were unjust or evil. So with the following a code idea, it changed the Law/Chaos axis to value consistency in actions and personal convictions rather than following some arbitrary rules set down by society.

I don’t know where all of y’all are getting this “LG and CG don’t fight” stuff from. They threw down all the time in my Planescape campaigns.

Mostly because LG shouldn’t care if you’re good or evil when you break their laws. Punishment is punishment.

Any character who acted like that, I would consider lawful neutral. They put following the law above doing good. Lawful Good characters are those who have a moral code they follow, while Chaotic Good characters are those who just do what feels right. Following existing laws has little or nothing to do with it.

That sounds like 3E talk… I only play 2E

Planescape was saturated with that type of 90’s “edginess”. Bunch of berks, really.

Yeah I was kind of saying the same thing. It is Codes and Structure vs. Whims and Anarchy.

Wouldn’t a Lawful Good creature recognize that their laws don’t apply to another plane under a different sovereign ruler? I mean, if they want to arrest some pixie for jaywalking in Celestia then, sure, but how often does that come up?