This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.
After reading DnD 4th Ed Alignments over at tenletter, I felt inspired to comment a bit on my own experience and opinion of alignments and related concepts in RPGs:
What I’m Doing with Alignments:
Right now, I’m running a D&D 3.5 game (plus house rules) with standard two-axis alignments. When you make a character, you choose one from Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic, and one from Good/Neutral/Evil. I just went with the traditional choice that has existed since the dawn of Advanced Dungeons in Dragons in the late ’70s.
I think, in my next campaign world, I’m going back to having the single-axis Law/Chaos alignment system that existed in the original D&D before AD&D came up. Good and evil are choices, and not defining characteristics, for members of PC races. Law and Chaos, on the other hand, will be the only alignment deities and supernatural beings really have, and PCs can subscribe to one or the other. Most members of PC races would either be neutral in the “unaligned” sense or choose either Law or Chaos because they equate one or the other with Good, but the truth is that both contribute to Good and Evil pretty much equally.
I don’t think a character should be locked into Good or Evil, ever. Law and Chaos, on the other hand, could be literal alignments — you choose to dedicate, to align, yourself with one or the other for some reason. Thus, you might have anarchists versus totalitarians, with both sides holding to their ideals for “the good of the world”. Meanwhile, you could have two Lawful gods that are allied against Chaos, one disapproves of the other’s methods even if their ends are the same, while the other disapproves of the first one’s squeamishness and unwillingness to do what needs to be done to assure victory over the forces of Chaos. The same might exist in reverse on the Chaos side of things, of course.
Ultimately, what it all boils down to is that there is a mystical, metaphysical True Law and True Chaos, while Good and Evil are defined more by what you do in any given moment, and are a matter of choice rather than absolutes.
Then again, in another campaign world at a later time, I might try using only the Good/Evil axis. We’ll see.
Other Games and the Alignment Issue:
Rifts and other Palladium Books games have an interesting alignment system, which doesn’t specifically rely on any particular axes. Instead, each alignment is simply its own description of underlying, somewhat archetypal motivations, including options like Scrupulous, Unprincipled, and Miscreant. It works well.
Old-school Vampire: the Masquerade, meanwhile, was more personality-oriented; you’d choose a couple of personality descriptors that do things for you like define circumstances under which your character might regain Willpower points for successfully pursuing personal core motivations, and different types of vampire character would have different moralities, each with their own virtues and sins defined for them. The implication in V:tM was that one could easily create a new moral system like the others just for one’s own character, suggesting a very relative nature to morality. Other World of Darkness games didn’t have the same codified systems of morality, however — that was a uniquely Vampire-oriented thing, and tied in with the vampire character’s fight against the complete takeover of the Beast within (or the attempt to reconcile oneself with that Beast, to make peace with it, in some cases). I don’t really know what’s happening on the “alignment” front in the rebooted World of Darkness, and don’t particularly care, having chosen to boycott White Wolf years ago.
Star Wars games have had an interesting time trying to work with the Light Side and the Dark Side of the Force, since it’s all part of a canon created outside the realm of roleplaying games, George Lucas isn’t involved in RPG design (probably a Good Thing), and nobody really seems to want to agree on what the Light and Dark Sides of the Force actually represent. While the prequel trilogy sucked in too many ways to count, they did introduce some good, interesting new ideas, including a weird kind of sense that the Light Side is basically just Law and Community, while the Dark Side is Chaos and Individuality. The fact that the representatives of the Dark Side are, for the most part, bad people seems in some respects to be more of an accident than any intrinsic characteristic of the Dark Side itself. Remember, Darth Vader was the realization of a prophecy that Anakin would “bring balance to the Force”, implying that the ascendancy of the Jedi order, and its domination of all things Force-related, was in some respects a sickness.
There are, naturally, games that eschew the concept of alignments entirely, for whatever reason. The Price of Freedom and Cyberpunk come to mind.
My Opinions on Alignments:
I don’t know that there’s any such thing as a One True Alignment System. Different worlds can benefit from different alignment systems, even within the same game. Alignment systems affect the flavor of the game so strongly that limiting oneself to the specific alignment system presented in a Player’s Handbook in all its particulars, with no willingness to alter it to suit your particular campaign setting, strikes me as foolish and unimaginative. Some games are better off with no alignment system equivalent at all, of course — like The Price of Freedom or Cyberpunk.
What I do know is that I find the bizarre limitations of the 4th Ed alignment system, complete with its very authoritarian worldview that implies a strictly Lawful philosophy is Extra Good, and the less dedicated you are to Law and Order the more Evil you must be, pretty damned ridiculous.
As for the problem of multiple interpretations of different alignments, I don’t see a problem with that. Several people can be Good People in the real world and yet have incompatible moral codes. Let the interpretation of the alignment depend on the individual, rather than expecting everybody in the world to have the same exact notion of what an alignment means. If you want your Lawful Evil character to be a power-hungry would-be dictator, while someone else wants his Lawful Evil character to be a petty bureaucrat who delights in meting out punishments to those who disturb the order and tranquility of her life, I don’t see why that has to mean someone’s “wrong” in his or her interpretation of what Lawful Evil means.