Alignment systems are one interesting way of adding player choice and consequence to a game, in addition to a bit of a role-playing factor.
The typical structure of an alignment system is a scale: “Good” on one extreme, “Evil” on the other, and “Neutral” resting in the middle. Your actions, good and evil, push you toward one end of the scale or the other. In this way, the sum of your actions end up defining who you are in the game’s world.
This also typically comes with quantifiable consequences – some factions in the game’s world may support your actions while others condemn them. Some perks and abilities are only available to a particular alignment, and sometimes the path the story itself takes can be dramatically altered by your actions.
How alignment shifts is also a variable – some games operate off a point system, where you gain “good points” and “evil points” and whichever is greater dictates your lean toward one alignment or the other. Some games operate purely off of choices, where performing a specific action (usually scripted into a significant scene) sends you down a particular path befitting that alignment. Others eschew the “good and evil” rhetoric in favour of a more clan-based system where your relationships with specific factions dictate how the world treats you, not the morality of your actions.
But where this admittedly simplistic framework for a player choice system gets interesting is when the implications of your actions are played with.
As previously stated, alignment systems are typically based on concepts of “good” and “evil,” which makes them a matter of morality and not of pragmatism. Pragmatism is introduced when you consider a secondary axis – “law” (or “order”) and “chaos.”
Some editions of Dungeons & Dragons actually take this axis into consideration, allowing you to assume one of nine different combined alignments – either Lawful or Chaotic in addition to being Good or Evil, Neutral to one of the two axes, or Neutral to both (“True Neutral”).
What’s interesting is that games which don’t take this nuance into account often consider lawfulness to be virtuous and chaos to be vile. Being a good citizen and following the rules, staying in line, upholding honourable ideals – these are things which a typically “good” character might be believed to do. Rejecting authority, acting out of turn, and otherwise working outside of establishment therefore becomes “evil.”
This is actually supported in the Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which reduced the nine alignment system to a five alignment system and turned it into a scale. The more Good you become, the more Lawful you become. And as you might expect, the more Evil you become, the more Chaotic you become.
Thankfully, since this made basically no sense, the system was scrapped. But it’s still technically the system we see in most games with an alignment system despite it not making sense.
As I said before, introducing the axis of law and chaos introduces pragmatism into an alignment system. Good and evil are moral concepts – they represent what a person believes in. Law and chaos represent means to achieve what a person believes in.
A Chaotic Good person might reject authority in favour of an idealistic society where freedom allows similarly Good-minded individuals to express themselves equally and freely. Meanwhile, a Lawful Evil person might use the concepts of law to create an authoritarian society where people who dare to step out of the boundaries they’re given are punished severely.
These are both perfectly valid viewpoints and demonstrate that, while it’s understandable to view an orderly and peaceful society against a destructive and anarchistic one and consider these “the two extremes,” the nuance goes much deeper than that.
It also raises the interesting point that law and chaos are not virtues. Each asks “how,” not “what” or “why.” Neither concept has a sense of purpose, which is what morality is for.
This is also what leads to the possibility that two good characters, one lawful and one chaotic, can be opposed over matters of conduct. It leads to interesting questions of both moral and pragmatic natures – is it evil to break a law and hurt some people if doing so benefits another group of otherwise morally-white individuals? The classic example of Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor is an action that could be considered chaotic (unlawful), but also good, because it benefits a group of people who need more support even though it hurts others who are still well enough off to survive.
Why, then, with so much nuance to explore in this system, do alignment systems typically fall into a simple battle of “good vs. evil” – and why, also, if law and chaos are acknowledged, do they typically carry similarly good and evil connotations?
A game where the player character fights an authoritarian regime for more reasons than “they’re the evil empire” would be interesting. A game where the player character ultimately makes the world a better place through pragmatically dishonest means would be interesting. A game where the player character is simply dropped into the world and doesn’t care about anything by default, one where the player’s actions and their actions alone determine how their character develops – from world-saving hero to criminal with a heart of gold to destructive force of evil, and anything in between – would be interesting.
Perhaps such a world is simply too nuanced for most game designers to conceive of, as it would be a massive undertaking. But I think these are ideas worth considering solely because that nuance does exist and has the potential to carry a narrative.