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Order and Chaos: a Physics Approach

My personal interpretation of the original alignment axle.

Order and Chaos, side by side. Feature image from: Kempf EK / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

Alignment is a controversal subject in D&D, and their biaxial (law and chaos, good and evil) implementation even more so, to the point of many groups choosing to hack it away from their campaigns. I’m not fond of the good-evil axle in particular, although I can see its appeal in situations where exploring the existence, and metaphysical implications, of absolute good and evil is an objective. Thus, as I like relative morality in general, I defer to the original options of alignment: Order and Chaos (and Neutral between them).

But vdoughnut called my atention to a problem they noticed: how Chaos and Order got, respectively, bundled with Evil and Good, in many settings – which reminds me of 4th Edition, when it went away with some alignment options, in particular Lawful Evil and Chaotic Good. Of course I lament that this conflation exists, since even from the first time I’ve heard about alignments in D&D, I’ve been presented to many examples of characters that can be associated with those often excised combinations, such as one of the iconic Chaotic Good characters, Robin Hood.

I left a comment on vdoughnut’s post, about how I like a more “cosmic” interpretation of the Chaos-and-Order conflict, and how I like when both sides can be antagonistic or not, and even giving an example of media that presents this multifaceted portrait, the Megami Tensei franchise. But what do I mean by “cosmic”? It’s something that have been on the back of my mind for quite some time, but after checking the aforementioned post, as well as this discussion on r/odnd about Wisdom, I’m finally putting my thoughts into written words.

Law ≠ Order

Before going into the main idea, an aside – Law and Order aren’t necessarily the same! Laws are usually seen as collections of inviolable rules, “set in stone” as it is said. But in truth, societal laws are guidelines that, well, guide a person’s actions for them to live amicably among their fellows. Even the laws of nature, often talked about as if they have an otherworldly, “mystickal” aura, are merely proposed principles covered by mathematical models, intended to express proven scientific theories (that were once hypotheses) and to explain and predict phenomena, which are complemented by more-encompassing theories as the old ones are shown to be unfit to proper depict events beyond their scope. (For example, the theory of classical mechanics opens way to relativity theories as speeds become closer to the speed of light in vacuum, and to quantum mechanics as the dimensional scale becomes closer to the Angstrom.) And of course, laws made by humans are flawed, biased by our limited perception of the universe. And I’m very aware that this last observation includes the following proposal.

A possible version of the Chaos and Order alignments

“As above, so below”; Order and Chaos are opposed in any scale, large or (in this case, involving nanowires) small. Image from: DrHughManning / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

According to the 2nd law of thermodynamics

The second law of thermodynamics is perhaps the most important of physics. It can be written in many ways (such as S = kB ln W), giving emphasis to different quantities such as temperature, energy and information; the second law also introduces a new quantity – the entropy –, showing how it interact with the others, and in which possible ways we can interpret these relations. Many concepts can be related to entropy, like the irreversibility of physical processes, the acessibility of states in a system, and the treatment of transmitted information. For our “cosmic” interpretation of the Chaos and Order alignments, we’re going to borrow some of these concepts and offer a fantastic rereading of them.

General Panorama

Chaos and Order are interpreted as unseen forces (or fields, perhaps) that shape the Cosmos through their eternal clash. Their agents are the Lords of Order and the Lords of Chaos (the idea of there being both groups of Lords was shamelessly copied from Elric, I admit) which are, in this panorama, the equivalent to deities, immortals (in the BECMI/RC sense), or similar beings, personifying parts or subsets of their inspiring elements. Whenever Chaos and Order are present in a given world or plane, the local Lords are the ultimate champions of their paradigms, and their clerics are faithful followers, each devoted to their Lord’s beliefs, helping them to advance their Lord’s plans or to reach their Lord’s goals.

Note: despite the use of the term “Lord”, they can be of any gender, orientation, etc. you wish for them – please feel free to use “Lady”, use another term, or keep degendering the term as I did here, as long as whatever you do also instill a vague sense of self-proclaimed superior hierarchical position (yeah, even for the Lords of Chaos, which is seen as hypocritical by some Chaotic groups).

Alignment by itself, in this panorama, is also less of a strict set rules (or even loose guidelines) on how a character should behave, and more of a spiritual attunement to these unseen forces (see more on the Cosmic Wisdom section below). Sure, in general characters of a given alignment may have similar beliefs, philosophies and practices (for example, Chaotics in general hold a disdain for hierarchical structures), but for those following (or opposing) the Lords any action is justifiable as long as their wills are done (or not).

Order

Order is about knowing things are always the same, with no distinction between before and after. When the universe was born, created or what have you, it was an ordered paradise, where every little thing was in its rightful place; but, for reasons unknown to the Lords of Order, this perfection didn’t last, and what was once well defined started to morph into untidy, unquiet forms. At first the Orderful tried to reverse the changes and return the universe to its pristine state, but they learned that, once loose, the Arrows of Time cannot be turned back. Now their ultimate goal is to stop time altogether, freezing everything into stifling Stasis, thus making the universe their second paradise. However, as the Lords of Order, unbeknownst to themselves, unwillingly shifted in subtle ways, each of them have slightly different reasons and methods about how to bring their desired Stasis to fruition.

Note: one of the open questions of physics is why the universe, under the Big Bang model, was at the beginning in an ordered, low-entropy state.

Chaos

Chaos is about change and freedom, about not being forced or restricted, which is why the first Chaotics rejoiced at the boundless potential presented to them when the universe unchained itself from the tyrannical rule of the Lords of Order. Chaos is also about not following patterns, which is why despite being opposed to, and by, the Orderful, the Chaotics try to not be defined by this relationship. It is ironic, though, that some powerful Chaotic beings proclaimed themselves the Lords of Chaos, considering other beings their lessers and demanding obedience from them. The Lords of Chaos are trying to make the universe change, faster and faster; their reasoning is that, in a “hotter” universe, the more options and possibilities will be available to everyone, and the less constrained they’ll be – thus, their chief objective is to make the universe reach its Heat Death (and, some of them believe, a glorious rebirth free from the shackles of Order) sooner than soon!

Note: the “heat death of the universe” is a proposed scenario about what will happen to the universe in the distant future, as entropy increases and less work can be obtained from it.

Neutrality

Those of Neutral disposition – as in, the ones who aren’t unaligned (i.e., simply disinterested from the whole conflict) – argue that both extreme prospects (Stasis and the Heat Death) are unreasonable; they postulate that people and life need both the comfort and safety of repeating patterns, and the improvements brought by adaptation and changes; they posit that one should be versatile like liquid water: nor rigid like ice, neither fleeting like vapour. (A.N.: a metaphor that makes less sense at water’s triple point, I suspect.) Some Neutrals even elaborate that the marvelous complexity of life, and many other natural phenomena, are only possible when Order and Chaos are in balance.

As expected, Neutrals are opposed by both Orderful and Chaotics, but the latter two most often figure it’s easier to find common ground with Neutrals than with each other. As an aside, Neutral Clerics (if a Cleric is allowed to be Neutral in a given setting, i.e. if they aren’t restricted to be either Orderful or Chaotic) don’t follow the Lords, but either the old, chthonic gods from the times before the Lords first appeared in the world, or some new deities that ascended without swearing allegiance to either pantheon, or even once Lords that debanded their associates in favor of Neutrality.

Personal note: this is why I like to depict some druids (well, at least the most avant-garde ones) as wannabe system theorists.

“Chaos”, by Ei-Kyu. Image from: Wikimedia Commons. (public domain)

Divergent factions

Obviously, Orderful don’t all agree with each other, and the same is also true among Chaotics and among Neutrals. Some Orderful, for example, try to convince others with logic and reason, while others appeal to force; meanwhile, some Chaotics act quickly trying to induce drastic changes, while others act with caution to make gradual steps towards their goals; some Neutrals only react when they believe there is a lack of balance betwwen the other two alignments, while others take initiative to bring this balance on their own volition. Even the Lords of Order don’t agree with each other, same with the Lords of Chaos; and the same can be said of their clerics.

Therefore, we can’t consider all Orderful as “good”, or all Chaotics as “bad”. First because, as said above, not all Orderful (or Chaotics) agrees on goals and methods: someone who tries to threatfully enforce the rigidness of a corrupt society of closed castes, for example, is (imho, ymmv) an Orderful antagonist. Second because each one is their own individual, with their own beliefs, values, etc., regardless of alignment. And third because this conflation eliminates interesting nuances; the extremes presented here are fun endgame scenarios, but they’re more impactful when compared to a possible spectrum of actions and behaviours, not only with each other.

Cosmic Wisdom

But why have I been calling this version of the Chaos-Order alignment axle “cosmic”? Well, remember the discussion on r/odnd I’ve mentioned at the beginning of this post? It answers why Wisdom is the prime requisite of the Cleric class – because it refers not to common, worldly wisdom, but to Hagia Sophia or Holy Wisdom, a spiritual connection with the Divine. And, since my interpretation of Order and Chaos here presented are related to physics concepts with cosmological implications, a cleric attuned with either of them isn’t relying on common sense, but on (scientifically inspired) otherworldly, cosmic Wisdom; they’re connected with powerful beings (the Lords of Chaos and Order) which are themselves personifications of the unseen forces of Chaos and Order.

By ashzealot

Tabletop roleplaying games are my main blogging interest... for now! Primarily posting in English, but will sometimes do it in Portuguese. I'm also: Brazilian (and I voted for Haddad), very leftist, white cishet (but count me in as a bipoc/lgbtqa+/queer ally). Pronouns: he/him (ele/dele).

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