Alignment is one of those things that I’ve thought of as broken for a long time. I’ve talked about it before, though the thinking didn’t really go anywhere at the time. The best use of it alignment, to me at least, was in the original Dragonlance setting (and it still left something to be desired). That is one setting that left a mark on me in my formative gaming years during early adolescence, and it made alignment overt through two basic means – the Towers of High Sorcery and the Holy Orders of the Stars.
In the original AD&D campaign guide for Dragonlance, the one with Tanis on the cover having just killed the Dragon Highlord and taken his crown, there was actually a sort of chart that the DM was to use to track alignment changes. At the left-hand side was Good and on the right-hand side was Evil, with Neutral in the middle. Between each range was a grey “Transition” area. Each major act a PC committed would either keep them where they are or move them in one direction or another. When in the Transition area, the DM was supposed to give hints that they were slipping – toward a fall, or perhaps redemption.
The reason this mattered was that for Wizards and Clerics, alignment was key. Wizards had three orders, one committed to Good, one to Neutral, and one to Evil. The gods of Krynn were the same way – Good, Neutral and Evil sub-pantheons. The Krynn setting was all about balance, and Neutral usually functioned to throw its lot in with either of the moral poles when the other one became too powerful to be balanced.
Anyway, to make a long story short, that’s as good as I’ve seen for alignment. Aside from that, players don’t take it very seriously, except for the occasional jerk who wants to sandbag your game by playing Chaotic Neutral all the time, or the other kind of jerk who frustrates everyone by playing a Lawful Schmuck Paladin. (It doesn’t have to be bad, but it usually is)
In 4th Edition D&D, the alignment system has been pared down to five options – Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil and Chaotic Evil. Not having their rationale in front of me, my first reaction to this is that it is, how do you say, “stupid“. They have turned a weak-but-traditional alignment system into a weaker one that is a break from D&D’s past. In fact, it seems to frankly be double-stupid.
No freedom-loving Chaotic Good heroes? No tyrannical Lawful Evil villains? No disciplined Lawful Neutral monks? No Chaotic Neutral lunatics played by obnoxious players? It seems like they have taken a weak system and hamstrung it.
They could have gone with what they have instituted with the Minis game, where there are Good, Unaligned and Evil alignments for each card, and you can’t mix Good and Evil in the same army. That’s simple, basic, and it makes some kind of sense, and it serves as a counter-point to the faction system they’re using, of Civilization, Borderlands, Wild and Underdark.
From their description of the reasons for the change, I get the impression that Good has swallowed up Chaotic Good and Evil has swallowed up Lawful Evil. This just doesn’t make sense, however. I like alignment better, if there must be a spectrum, as a double-spectrum of Good-Evil and Law-Chaos. It just has more potential to be descriptive and interesting.
The only good thing about the change is Unaligned. I like that idea, though in play so far, the players of Unaligned characters are basically treating it like Chaotic Neutral used to be – the quintessential alignment for doing random things and pretending that they make sense because they’re ‘in character’. In theory, however, I like the option of just being someone who doesn’t have strong moral commitments either way – unlike True Neutral, which is often depicted as a commitment to balance of some kind.
I think that with this change, I’ll feel more inclined to jettison the ‘official’ take on alignment entirely, and replace it with something else. What I’m thinking of is to have your “alignment” be the thing which is most important to you. Then, once you’ve said what that most-important thing is, I want to use an indie-game trick and reward you for putting that thing in jeopardy or putting it at risk in some way. That could be the way to earn a little bonus XP maybe, or perhaps the way to earn Action Points (which I’ve long used as a reward rather than a boring rechargeable point-pool). It is also a good way to find out, in a single word, how you might get the player’s and character’s attention in the game early on. You know where to start pushing at least, and that’s an improvement on the system 4th Edition presents us with.