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D&D General How do YOU flesh out a chaotic society?

Redwizard007

Explorer
Living in a modern 1st world country, I have some difficulty conceptualizing a truly chaotic society. That's not to say it is impossible, but I find that my Orcs, Gnolls, Bugbears, etc tend to feel too similar. How do you make them feel different? What sources do you pull inspiration from? What are some examples of fiction or world building that I can see of chaotic societies done well? Do you have any success stories?

Thanks for the help.
 

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First off, I usually prefer to think of characters exhibiting alignments to different degrees (from mildly aligned to strongly aligned), so even a Chaotic society might not be strongly Chaos-aligned. Second, I prefer to define Law as prioritizing the removal of uncertainty, while Chaos is against limitations in general and is less concerned with uncertainty.

With that quick, personal definition out of the way, I'd generally say that a Chaotic society is one with little to no codified rules. In a Good or Good-leaning society, those rules that do exist are enforced by popular consensus rather than an authoritative body. In an Evil or Evil-leaning society, those rules are enforced by threat of violence from whoever has managed to intimidate others into submission.

Wikipedia has a list of articles related to former and current anarchist communities that could be good for reference: List of Anarchist Communities

I'll also add the caveat that I'm more selective when assigning alignments to characters, societies, or whatever. A society having plenty of laws doesn't necessarily make it a Lawful society; what matters is if the people in power and the public at large believe in and follow the laws without corruption or favoritism (basically, a Lawful society would be one in which bureaucracy actually functions the way it was intended to by no one trying to be above the law).
 
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Living in a modern 1st world country, I have some difficulty conceptualizing a truly chaotic society. That's not to say it is impossible, but I find that my Orcs, Gnolls, Bugbears, etc tend to feel too similar. How do you make them feel different? What sources do you pull inspiration from? What are some examples of fiction or world building that I can see of chaotic societies done well? Do you have any success stories?

Imagine a world where societies are ruled by divine right. The gods grant power to the leaders, who pass their power to their offspring. Families stay in power for generations, maintaining consistent law and order for years at a time. This is a standard fantasy-book lawful society.

Now imagine a world where they deny the power of the gods to rule. Imagine the ruling family changes twice a decade, trading between opposite political factions, each setting their own laws and priorities. Imagine a world where you have one set a local laws, but when you travel for an hour, the details of the law are changed; travel half a day and the laws change more; travel a full day and you have a completely different set of laws you must learn to follow. Imagine a world where the laws guarantee freedom above all else. In a fantasy book, that's a chaotic society.

That second society is the story-book version of America. We elect different leaders every X years. Laws change constantly. There are different laws in different cities, counties, and states. Our constitution guarantees personal freedoms above consistency or community needs. Compared to a standard fantasy setting, we are chaos. You are having trouble conceptualizing a truly chaotic society because, assuming you're American, you're in one.
 

To expand on my previous post, here's an example from that Wikipedia list I linked about a group in the 1600's called the Diggers.

Diggers
  • The Diggers tried to reform the existing social order with an agrarian lifestyle based on their ideas for the creation of small, rural communities. They were one of a number of nonconformist dissenting groups that emerged around this time.
  • The Diggers' beliefs were informed by writings which envisioned an ecological interrelationship between humans and nature, acknowledging the inherent connections between people and their surroundings; "true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth".
Unfortunately for the Diggers, authorities in England at the time weren't about to respect the independence of their communes.

There were apparently a number of dissenting groups in England at the time that seem interesting, such as the Ranters.

Ranters
  • They held that believers are free from all traditional restraints and that sin is a product only of the imagination.
  • “...for indeed sin hath its conception only in the imagination; therefore; so long as the act was in God, or nakedly produced by God, it was as holy as God...”
  • They denied the authority of the church, of accepted religious practice and of scripture. In fact, they denied the power of any authority in general.
  • A leader of the Diggers commented on Ranter principles by denoting them as "a general lack of moral values or restraint in worldly pleasures".
So the Diggers sound like they trend more closely to Chaotic Good, with the Ranters being perhaps more prone to Chaotic Evil.
 

Dausuul

Legend
IMO, a Chaotic-aligned society would be one that values individual rights over community needs; innovation and change over tradition and stability; diversity over unity. It would be constantly riven by conflict, many people would be left out in the cold, and it would struggle to come together in common purpose. On the other hand, it would be vibrant with innovation and artistry, and it would be quick to adapt and change.

I don't want to go over the "politics" line, so I won't give specific examples, but I think there are quite a few modern nations that meet this description. No need to venture into obscure subcultures or centuries-old societies; examples are all around us. Many of us live in them.
 
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No need to venture into obscure subcultures or centuries-old societies; examples are all around us. Many of us live in them.
True. I myself decided to cite the Diggers and Ranters because they were societies living in a time period closer to that we assume with fantasy.

In real life, anarchist societies haven't really worked out too well for a number of reasons, including both internal conflict and external pressures from larger states. In a fantasy context, though, beings more conducive to Chaos such as elves might have a better track record with such societies.
 

Imagine a world where societies are ruled by divine right. The gods grant power to the leaders, who pass their power to their offspring. Families stay in power for generations, maintaining consistent law and order for years at a time. This is a standard fantasy-book lawful society.
One of the primary architects of bureaucracy, Max Weber, would probably strongly disagree with this.
  • In monarchies, where kings, queens, sultans, and emperors ruled, and patriarchies, where a council of elders, wise men, or male heads of extended families ruled, the top leaders typically achieved their positions by virtue of birthright. For example, when the queen died, her oldest son became king, regardless of his intelligence, experience, education, or desire. Likewise, promotion to prominent positions of authority in monarchies and patriarchies was based on who you knew (politics) or who you were (heredity).
  • Rather than ruling by virtue of favoritism or personal or family connections, people in a bureaucracy would lead by virtue of their knowledge, expertise, or experience.
  • In a bureaucracy, each position or job is part of a chain of command that clarifies who reports to whom throughout the organization. Those higher in the chain of command have the right, if they so choose, to give commands, take action, and make decisions concerning activities occurring anywhere below them in the chain. Unlike in many monarchies or patriarchies, however, those lower in the chain of command are protected by a grievance procedure that gives them the right to appeal the decisions of those in higher positions.
  • Because of his strong distaste for favoritism, Weber believed that an organization’s rules and procedures should apply to all the members regardless of their position or status.
Personally, I think most real world societies would trend closer to Neutral in practice because it's really hard to get people on board with actually following the rules laid out. Weber's vision of bureaucracy is a more idealistic version that is free of corruption and favoritism and consistently rewards merit, unlike what is actually seen in the real world. A society whose members actually faithfully adhered to Weber's vision, though, would be a truly Lawful society.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Democracy is the rule of the Mob, Democracy is Chaotic, like sending farmers to sail a Trireme to Samos in a storm.

Generally though I look to biker gangs for models of how Orcs organise themselves, my Orc society is divided by gender though with the Maternal clans being relatively stable nomadic hunters but male whelps forced into the wilderness where they have to survive by raiding or as mercenaries in the service of Dark Lords.

Gnolls I base on Hyaena clans - fission-fusion societies with nepotistic rank and dominance aggression

Bugbears live in small territorial family groups like gorillas, they will interact with related troops but will be aggressive to (and eat) strangers.

Goblins are individualistic scavengers spawned as carnivorous tadpoles who have no loyalty and will even kill their own mothers
 

Aging Bard

Canaith
I posted a thread similar to this. Let me just leave this comment on how I worked out a specific question I had.

My biggest question was how would you define a Chaotic Good society, which has been canon for elves since 1e? It would have to be very strange, one that a human society could probably not replicate. I decided that elves do not coerce each other to act against their personal code (which is still Good), but rather elves had to be rallied to back causes by sheer force of will and persuasion. Thus, elves appoint champions of high charisma to rally their people to a cause, and send out speakers of high charisma to rally non-elves to the cause if needed. This works for elves because they have high degrees of kinship and trust with other elves, enough to grant each other divergent personal code and trust that Good mediates this.

This also answers the question why elves are canonically "attractive" to many other races. The answer? Because most elves that interact with non-elves are these high-charisma speakers, or their minions. The average elf is average charisma, but most non-elves don't see them!
 

A "caothic" community couldn't survive a serious crisis like the showed in the action-live serie "the walking dead". My homebred version of "caothic" aligment is to be attuned to nature or primal forces, or behavior not linked with the allegiance (tribe, family, clan, brotherhood, religion, country, personal code of honor).

Other house rule is magic with aligment key can hurt enemies with same one but different allegiance. For example an orc shaman vs a drow cleric.
 

Dausuul

Legend
On this subject, a mistake I think a lot of folks make is starting from an absolutist position: A Chaotic society is totally shaped by Chaos with no shred of Law, and a Lawful society is Lawful in every way and stamps out any hint of Chaos. This makes it impossible to a) find real-world analogues or b) design a workable society.

In practice, both Lawfulness and Chaoticness are matters of degrees. As stated above, I think a lot of modern societies are built on Chaotic ideals (individual rights and freedoms, diversity, innovation and change), and those ideals shape the societies to varying extents. But even the most Chaotic nation still has plenty of Law in its makeup--a nation with no Law at all falls apart immediately. Likewise, even the most traditionalist, communitarian societies have plenty of Chaos bubbling under the surface, with individual desires and conflicts and factional rivalries behind the facade of order.
 

On this subject, a mistake I think a lot of folks make is starting from an absolutist position: A Chaotic society is totally shaped by Chaos with no shred of Law, and a Lawful society is Lawful in every way and stamps out any hint of Chaos. This makes it impossible to a) find real-world analogues or b) design a workable society.

In practice, both Lawfulness and Chaoticness are matters of degrees. As stated above, I think a lot of modern societies are built on Chaotic ideals (individual rights and freedoms, diversity, innovation and change), and those ideals shape the societies to varying extents. But even the most Chaotic nation still has plenty of Law in its makeup--a nation with no Law at all falls apart immediately. Likewise, even the most traditionalist, communitarian societies have plenty of Chaos bubbling under the surface, with individual desires and conflicts and factional rivalries behind the facade of order.
I agree with this and would really like something along the lines of the Piety system from Mythic Odysseys of Theros to help better represent that alignments exist on a spectrum. Even back in the 3E DMG (and probably earlier) the outer planes were described as being mildly or strongly aligned with various alignments.
Each part of the moral/ethical alignment trait has a descriptor, either “mildly” or “strongly,” to show how powerful the influence of alignment is on the plane.

I also like to think of alignments in terms of yin and yang; that is, seemingly opposites that may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. For example, Chaos provides possibilities, and Lawful organizations prune those possibilities into a shape they think is best, but different Lawful organizations may have different ideas for what is best, leading to conflict between them that invites Chaos. Similarly, there's a lot of real world debate over whether certain actions are Good or Evil. Plus, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions".
A common meaning of the phrase is that wrongdoings or evil actions are often undertaken with good intentions; or that good intentions, when acted upon, may have unintended consequences.
 
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billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I think too many people tend to think too extremely with respect to Chaos or Law when it comes to behavior either personal or societal. It's worth noting that no society is going to be too extreme along either line aside from utter paragons of the alignments that you might see in an extraplanar society.

In general, I'd expect a society that tilted Chaotic would be relatively flat in structure compared to a more Lawful one that would build in more hierarchical structure. Members filling the various roles in society would tend to be mutable and people would hold them more based on individual, personal characteristics rather than by some kind of hierarchical structural qualification like a hereditary aristocracy. India's caste structure indicates a Lawful bent, as does Rome's aristocratic/plutocratic/paternalistic structure or Feudal Japan's social hierarchy. Celtic societies mix in a bit more individual focus, probably quite enough to pull them well into Neutrality between Law and Chaos.
A society that trends Chaotic will have stronger elements of individual worth and value with the collective units shrinking in size from highly structured castes or clans down toward the nuclear family and individual.
I try to keep these sorts of things in mind when I'm describing towns and societies of relatively Chaotic cultures.

(wow, ninja'ed a bit by Dausuul)
 

aco175

Legend
I too agree with @Dausuul in that lawful societies have some chaos and chaotic societies have some law. The amount of law is the argument. I think we all think of elf kingdoms being different than orc kingdoms. It could be more good vs. evil that separates them. When talking about differences between 'monster' groups like hobgoblins, gnolls, and orcs, I try to place these groups in separate locations so they do not fight over the land available.

I tend to picture orcs as having clans with verbal laws that may change with a new leader. The leader is generally chosen by might and challenges are a normal way to advance. A strong leader can hold onto power for longer. There are some traditions and norms that stay around and may be close to what others call laws.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
So... how about this one:

A Society of abject Self-Reliance. Where everyone is incredibly, fiercely, independent, and only works with others because it -has- to be done, not because they wish to work with others.

It's how I do the Orcs of the Ashen Lands.

There, an orc who is 6 years old is old enough to walk, to talk, to learn. So they're immediately apprenticed in a trade. They're taught the trade until they're old enough and capable enough to do it on their own, and the whole time from 1 to 6, and then 6 to 16, they're also learning how to do EVERYTHING ELSE for themselves. How to cut and shape wood into simple forms (Like those needed to build your own small home), how to kiln pottery, how to make simple tools for themself, things of that nature.

When they hit 18, they're married. Marriage exists exclusively for children. If you're in love with someone, marry them. If not. Marry whoever else turned 18 recently. Bang it out and have a kid. For the duration of the pregnancy both parents live in the same home, each helping the other to do the chores, gather food, and generally survive. Once the child is born, they do more of that -with- the child, until the child is 6.

Then the Marriage ends, the child goes to a trade, and that's it for the family life.

Loving couples, of course, often choose to remain together. And often wind up having more children, getting married, again, each time one of them becomes pregnant.

But you can also just go about your life, alone. The only time marriages happen is when someone gets preggies and the baby needs caring for.

This is because babies and children in general CANNOT DEFEND THEMSELVES. They can't support themselves. They're helpless. And thus Orcs take care of children. And if an orc finds a child under 6 years old alone in the wilderness they're going to watch out for that child until the parents return... and if they don't return. Well.

Now the orc has a child. Many humans consider this "Kidnapping" and "Wrong", but to an orc it's just good solid community effort to ensure children are -properly- raised and sheltered until they can take care of themselves. The Orc will get married to someone else who doesn't have a child and they'll work together to support this one 'til it's old enough, regardless of the race of the child.

This also breeds a strong sense of Self-Reliance in Orc-Kind. Socially it is almost -unthinkable- to offer help to an Orc 'cause you're basically saying "Oh, look, you're a tiny baby who can't move a log out of the road by yourself. Do you want help little baby baboo gootchie gootchie goooo?" which really angers them. And it's even WORSE if you don't -bother- to ask and just freaking HELP them.

This has lead to many conflicts between Orcs and Humans, as humans are often eager to help strangers in simple ways.

Now this isn't to say that Orcs don't love their families. They just generally don't -live- together. They visit, they game, they laugh and talk and eat. But everyone buys their own meal and their own drinks instead of sharing or letting the "Head" of the family pay for everyone else.

Though, of course, when those who can't pay, and can't hunt, or can't do for themselves (The disabled, the elderly, the infirm) the community pitches in tiny bits from each member to take care of those who can't take care of themselves. Such things are considered Gifts with no expectation of repayment, and Gifts are the only way to give something to an Orc without incurring their wrath. Gifts are emotional offerings, not practical ones, within Orcish society.

Never. EVER. Give an Orc money as a gift. Pay them in gold, but give? No. Gift an Axe. A beautiful sweater. A lovely pair of gloves. A painting or a book. But never money.
 

Sithlord

Adventurer
I think bad laws can create chaos in society. And are an example of how manmade laws are not the same thing as lawful alignment. Different definitions for the same word.
 

J.Quondam

90% grunts. 10% thews.
No fleshing out here yet (sorry), just a brainstorm of possible broad starting points...

I'm ignoring what the word "chaotic" may or may not mean in D&D, and just thinking about it in terms unpredictability, instability, and/or lack of codification. I'm also focusing on how it's perceived, rather than the underlying reasons for the chaos. (That allows cases where there are strict laws, but the society still feels chaotic for whatever reason.)

Putting those sorts of things together in various ways, i'm imaging a few categories of ways a society might appear chaotic:
No rules.
violent, mob-rule-style anarchy
sparse, small peaceful anarchist communities

Rules have been erased, or are meaningless.
"survival of the fittest"
disaster areas, war zones

Rules are little more than ruler whim.
the capricious monarch
"jealous gods" trope

Rules frequently change.
the governing authority always in flux, such as by coup, election, etc
external condition imposes different rules at different times? (eg, weather-based governance? omen-based laws?)

Rules are unreliably/unequally enforced.
run by criminals or corrupt politicians
occupied lands?

Rules are secret.
no one knows what is/not legal (eg, secret police; frequent disappearances; paranoia is rampant)

Rules are nonsensical or "weird"
alien logic that cannot be understood (eg, "fairy logic")
"outsider looking in" trope

Too many rules.
the vast, unfeeling, pointless bureaucracy (eg, "Sir, you need Form D2-1; this is Form AA." "You told me yesterday I needed Form AA." "Sir, this is today, not yesterday. Form D2-1, please.")
I suppose some of those might technically be considered D&D "Lawful"? But the end result of a lot of those would probably feel chaotic.
 


King Babar

Adventurer
So this is my take on a "chaotic good" society.

For my setting I think of elves as essentially being utopian anarchists (hippies, basically). They don't have kingdoms or empires, nor do they have lords or nobles. Authority and anything approach political organization is based on mutual consent and consensus, so an individual enclave may look chaotic and "flat" to an outsider. An elf is free to live as they will, as long as they don't bring harm onto others. That's the one rule, more or less. But it works for them, because as long as the enclave is safe and everyone is happy and healthy, well, what more do they need?

It all sounds very peaceful and kumbaya, but interfere with them and don't be surprised if you get an arrow in the eye and a spear in the stomach.

And since they live for centuries, they're willing to humor other races when out in the world, humans especially. "Such a nice kingdom. Yes, such very beautiful castles. Reminds me of that other kingdom from two centuries ago."
 

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