Not all RPGs have an alignment system, but the classic nine alignments are a traditional part of D&D. I think alignment is a crucial aid to role-playing that gives players a quick thumb-sketch of how their character might react in a given situation.
One of the oft-overlooked changes that 4E brought to D&D was a very soft, toothless use of alignment. The nine-alignment system (various combinations of Good, Neutral, Evil, Chaotic and Lawful) was stripped down, and an unaligned option was offered. It was the gaming rulebook equivalent of the terse head nod. “ ‘Sup.”
In my early years of playing D&D, I remember my friends and I making new characters, and the second-most important thing after the rolling of the D6s was the choice of alignment. We’d read over the alignment descriptions in the 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook and try to decide what kind of character we wanted to play.
That’s sort of the key right there, for me. We weren’t experienced enough to be very good at role-playing, coming up with character concepts and personality traits and all that. We tried, to some extent, but the alignment system was incredibly helpful. It defined a lot of our characters’ actions and helped us with our role-playing.
You might be saying, “That’s lame, I create awesome characters with rich backstories, I don’t need a stupid alignment system to tell me how to role-play.” Well, sure. Maybe you do. I try to, myself. But one thing I’ve learned over years of playing RPGs is that role-playing — actually thinking about how your character would react to a situation, how she would interact with the other characters – is not easy.
For one thing, there may be people at the table who are just not interested in role-playing. It does make you wonder why they’re playing a role-playing game, but the fact remains, they play. If the other players are trying to do some interesting RPing, an alignment at least gives you something to base reactions on for those characters who otherwise seem to turn glassy-eyed and limp, like a deactivated droid, until it’s time to roll a D20.
Even for people who are good at role-playing and fully invested in it, it’s not easy. We talk about hooks in RPGs as things that pull you into an adventure, but I think a more important kind of RPG hook is the kind you can hang a character on. Alignment is a hook. You have a character, but you’re not sure how he feels, what motivates him or what he’s inclined to do. Hook that character upon an alignment, and now you can start weaving. He’s Chaotic Good? Ok, why? What makes him shun authority, yet work selflessly for the benefit of others? It can be hard to paint on a blank canvas.
The other reason I’m in favor of alignment systems is what tends to happen when you don’t use one. All characters eventually default to a cynical, mercenary attitude. The only motivation becomes getting more loot, finishing the adventure the quickest, easiest, bloodies way possible, and making off with the maximum possible XP and coinage. I call this alignment, “Neutral Asshole.”
I’m not saying that the callous mercenary isn’t a valid character archetype (it’s a great character archetype!), and I’m not saying all role-players are assholes. But it just seems to happen that, over time, role-playing gets lazy and characters take the path of least resistance. I’ve done it as much as anyone in any of the groups I game with. That’s just how it goes. But it gets boring after a while, not to mention kind of depressing, playing an endless series of hollow-eyed, jaded bastards who drink and stab and stab some more.
Alignment helps keep you off that path. It keeps you from always taking the easy way out. You can’t go back on every promise, break every deal, and hang out in the moral grey area without breaking alignment. And when you break alignment, the DM can bring consequences down upon you!
And don’t think you’re going to use True Neutral as a loophole. You want to play TN, fine. That means you’re the Gemini, the agent of balance, the truing weights upon the cosmic scale. There are no easy answers in the center of the spiral, my friend.
Now that I’ve got that out of my system…alignments! They’re great! Try one out some time. Build a character with some flaws, one who makes bad decisions, or good decisions fraught with self-sacrifice. Or Lawful-Neutral decisions fraught with pedantic certitude. Or Chaotic-Evil decisions fraught with mustache-twirling.