A lot of RPG systems have an Alignment System of one sort or another. Some of them are fairly light and fluffy, others are more in depth. Either way, they do about the same thing: they tell you, and others, about how the character acts. We have different expectations for a "Lawful Good" character than a "Neutral Evil One" in D&D, just as we have different expectations for a "Survivor" nature character in World of Darkness than for one with a "Altruist" nature. However, Alignment Systems get a bad rap as confining and tend to start a lot of arguments around the table. Today I want to talk about them, and hopefully provide a view point that will calm some of those arguments down.
Baselines Are Important
To stop arguing about alignment you need to have baselines. Arguments start because people have different expectations. You think it is out of character for me to take back the bread from the starving orphan and make him work for it with my Lawful Good Paladin, where I think it is perfectly fine. We can argue about it, but ultimately, what we have here is that our expectations for what Lawful Good means are different.
The only way to solve this is to talk about it. When a question of "is that in alignment" comes up, it can be good to talk about how you - as the GM - see things and to clear up confusion. This is also good for other systems where people may doubt why a "Survivor" character would put themselves in danger to help another person, or whether a character with Honor 4 would actually do that thing you want to do.
Of course, even with the baseline these arguments are often irrelevant because...
It's How You've Acted, Not How You Act
Alignment is ultimately a reflection of who your character has been up until now. This means that having an alignment does not restrict you from "out of alignment" actions, but that those actions have the chance of shifting your alignment. Does that make sense?
To put it another way, Superman is Lawful Good because his actions have been both Lawful and Good so far in the story. This doesn't mean if Joker does something horrific (like trick him into killing Lois) that he can't just murder Joker (i.e. the beginning of the Injustice story line.) Superman is still free to act how he wants. However, if Superman were to start going around executing criminals and setting up his own personal brand of marshal law in the world, his alignment would shift from Lawful Good to Lawful Evil.
Why We Have It
If Alignment doesn't confine you, and represents how you've acted, why have it? I mean, surely we know how you have acted because it happened in the game. This is true. However, having alignment written down also serves as a reminder for us - the players - and as a guide if someone else had to play the character.
For example, if Jake isn't sure how to react to a situation, and he has four options, he might look down and see that his character is Chaotic Good. This means that he doesn't care about rules or the big picture, he cares about the specific situation that he's in and the people involved. Because of this, Jake may be able to discard several of the options and find the answer that rings more true to how he's been playing his character.
In another example, let's say Jake misses a session but for whatever reason his character is still present. With permission, another player is making the decisions for Jake. In this case, Jake's alignment serves as a guide for that new player to do their best in keeping Jake's decisions consistent.
A Change In Alignment Is Not A Punishment
The big place where people argue about alignment is when it changes I feel. This is partly why I explained the previous point first, but it goes hand in hand with that. Since Alignment is just a reflection of who you have been, your alignment changing is not a punishment. Going from Chaotic Good to Chaotic Neutral is not a punishment, it's updating the character record to show that your decisions aren't always about the moral good in the moment and sometimes are driven by selfishness. Objecting to that - if it is true - is like objecting to writing down that you picked up 6 arrows, or that you bought 4 gold worth of coal.
Now, in some old editions of D&D and in some games, your character does lose perks with alignment shifts. Paladins, for example, can lose their powers if their alignment strays from their god's alignment too far. However, this has less to do with the alignment shifting than the actions that caused the alignment to shift. If your Paladin of Justice is making unjust actions and decisions, you should know about it long before your alignment shifts, and it shouldn't come as a surprise when your god finally pulls the plugs on your perks.
However, in some games Alignment changing can be a punishment, and this is important to note as a GM. L5R for example has "Honor" as it's alignment system. Honor is a source of mechanical power as every PC can "Honor Roll" any failed roll once per session, and your honor adds in as a static modifier for fear tests. Honor also keys into several school's techniques. That means when you dock someone honor - deserved or not - you are also making them weaker. It can also cause lots of arguments about what honor levels mean, made even worse by the fact that honor in L5R is both your internal self and how you are viewed by others. In cases like this, I'd recommend talking it out before the game just so people know where you're coming from before it causes problems.
Needed Or Not?
Ultimately, whether alignment is needed or not in your game is up to you. I think my favorite alignment system is in the Palladium game system where you choose from categories, and each one gives a list of actions a character with that alignment will or won't do in various circumstances. The alignments then are less about how good/evil you are, and more about how Principled, Scrupulous, or Abberant/Diabolical you were. I liked it because it had clear cut expectations, but also the divorce from "good vs. evil."
What about you? Have a favorite? Something to add? Sound off in the comments.