A character's Alignment is a rough indication of his moral/ethical views. Many roleplaying games have alignment as an explicit game-mechanical property of a character. This always comes with (general) descriptions of what matters to such a character and what kind of behaviour is and isn't appropriate, but often is also accompanied by actual in-game consequences; alignment affects available character options and the effectiveness of some magic effects, and sometimes can be directly detected through magic. This gives debates about just what the alignments stand for and which alignment most accurately describes a given character extra significance. Such debates are very common on rpg-related internet sites.
Alignment in popular RPGs
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Classic Dungeons & Dragons invented the idea of an alignment system and based its on two scales: Good vs. Evil and Law vs. Chaos. Thus, a Good character could be Lawful Good, Neutral Good or Chaotic Good; and an Evil character could be Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil or Chaotic Evil. A character could also be Neutral in terms of morality, either Lawful Neutral, Chaotic Neutral, or "True Neutral". Alignment is a palpable and real thing within the D&D cosmos - there's spells and powers that detect, change, or trigger based on alignment. Sadly, the actual conduct required for any given alignment is not consistently defined anywhere and tends to be "much debated".
Dungeons & Dragons 4.0
The Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons jettisoned a couple alignments and streamlined the alignment chart. The new system has five alignments: Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil and Chaotic Evil
Kevin Siembieda's Palladium system divides the moral spectrum differently. The Palladium alignment system has three broad categories: Good, Selfish and Evil; which are broken down into sub-categories: Good into Principled and Scrupulous: Selfish into Unprincipled and Anarchist; and Evil into Miscreant, Aberrant and Diabolic. In the system, each category is given a list of qualities to help define it; how the character regards things like lying, violence, and situational ethics. The list allows the GM and the player to compare the different alignments and get a better feel for them.
Other takes on similar concepts:
In Erick Wujcik's Amber DRPG system, alignment goes beyond just a description. It's given the underspoken name "stuff", and a character can be a "good stuff" character, a "bad stuff" character, or have "zero stuff". Stuff can be sort of be seen like Karma, or establishes the characters role in the narrative. Good things tend to happen to good people, bad people tend to get betrayed. Within this system, the GM is encouraged to use Stuff to influence character perspectives. The bad stuff character will see things from a cynical, pessimistic, or paranoid world view, so the GM colors descriptions with hints of this. The good stuff character is ever the hero and optimist, and so finds themselves in situations where this behavior is encouraged. Bad things can still happen to good people, but the same calamity befalling an NPC may be presented differently two characters with different stuff - one sees an opportunity to save a damsel in distress, the other sees that the lousy trollop deserved what she got. Beyond this, stuff factors into character creation and advancement. A good stuff character has good stuff because they spent less than their allotted character creation points - that naive optimism makes them a little weaker. A character gets bad stuff by overspending during character creation - because a bad stuff character is the one who's likely to have striven after personal power no matter what the cost. Unlike D&D's alignments, stuff is mostly invisible to the characters, even while it's informing the GMs narrations.
Vampire: The Masquerade
This also applies to other World of Darkness games from White Wolf as well, but I know Vampire - The Masquerade best. These games don't seek to pigeon-hole any particular type of behavior into categories, but have a "Humanity" stat that tracks your remaining morality, and how well you control the beast within. To a certain extent, this is like combining the concept of Alignment with the notion of a Sanity Trait like they have in Cthulhu. As your Humanity lessens, you don't necessarily go crazy, but you do become hardened, jaded, and violent. In this case the causality goes from the character to the alignment, not the other way around. You can make a character with a high humanity but play them as evil - their stats will quickly adjust to match it. Conversely, you can make a low-humanity character and play them as a saint, but they may find it mechanically difficult to stick to their moral code when faced with temptations such as vampiric bloodlust. Some Vampire supplements included other Morality Paths than Humanity, which could be viewed as Alignment Categories, though most were more like belief systems. While a low humanity character was often a disturbing individual, only the most heinous sins left recognizable marks, unlike the "detect evil" paradigm of D&D.
GURPS somehow manages to do without alignment - the PC acts as the player intends, unless they have bought a disadvantage which obliges them to act in a specific way. These disadvantages could be be anything from bloodlust or drug addiction to pacificsm or honesty - anything which restricts the player's freedom to control his character - and at least at generation they are all paid for with points that can improve the character in other areas. Individual GURPS settings may have specific mechanics in which good and evil (or blue and orange for that matter) are tangible, supernatural forces but Steve's team have not hard wired anything of the kind into the game.
Game and Story Use
- For other ideas of how to handle or depict alignment and morality, see Morality Tropes.
- Values Dissonance is only to be expected.
- Quite a lot of the detail of your setting may depend on how much mechanical reality the alignment system has in it. Where alignment is simply used as a summary of your character's morals (as in Siembeida's multiverse) it will probably have far less of an impact on play that - for example - the Gygax/Arneson model wherein Alignments are objective forces that can be detected and targeted by magical effects … and have their own languages … . A trait based system such as GURPS allows players to model a character who sometimes acts against their own best interests but also allows a hard limit to the baggage the character must carry. The worst of all possible worlds is probably one in which alignment has mechanical consequences … and these are unpredictable or inconsistently handled.
- Excessive "in setting" awareness of alignment may be somewhat dissonant … unless, of course, it's one of those settings where alignment is used as a proxy for religion.
- One alternative to poorly written systems may be: Good v. Evil being "puts others first vs. puts self ahead of others" whilst Lawful v. Chaos being "has a set code of conduct that they put ahead of their own judgement vs. does what seems right at the time" with neutrals falling between the two stools in each case.
- Some versions of "neutral" have its adherents deliberately seeking to balance out the universe, doing evil if they perceive an excess of good and vice versa … this can lead to a schizophrenic characterization which can be very hard to carry off…