Alignment in Dungeons & Dragons often provokes arguments. Can PCs play evil characters? What is “evil?” Aren’t the PCs murderous thieves anyway?
Doesn’t the real problem lie with the alignments’ assumptions?
D&D started with three alignments: Law, Neutrality, and Chaos. This was soon expanded to the classic nine alignments, but they’re all based on assumptions about the kinds of characters native to the setting.
In a standard D&D Points of Light world, “good” and “evil” usually mean “selfless” and “selfish.” A “good” character protects others, throwing herself into fights with monsters to prevent them from threatening innocent villagers. An “evil” character pursues his own gains, possibly adventuring alongside “good” characters, but primarily to accumulate wealth and powerful items.
Now imagine a mixed party of “good” and “evil” characters in the intensely moralistic worlds of The Lord of the Rings or Avatar: The Last Airbender. Imagine a resource-scarce world like Dune, Dark Sun, or Fallout. How do the alignmens map there?
Of course, these alignments can map to various worlds, but are often mapped differently by different people. Ay, there’s the rub.
This can be remedied: make alignments part of each setting. A setting should explain all available player alignments (which may be along several axes).
Here’s one suggested alignment set to demonstrate how this might work:
Alignments in Dark Sun: Independence vs. Social, and Savage vs. Calculating
An independent character prides himself on extreme self-reliance, avoiding others’ help and undergoing rigorous training to be as self-sufficient as possible.
A social character has learned that Athas devours those alone. One must use others to survive; otherwise, why would cities exist? Even the Sorcerer-Kings need their subjects.
A savage character does not concern himself with questions of morality or humanity. To a savage character, life is about satisfying basic needs and impulses. Higher values are luxuries one can ill-afford on Athas.
The calculating character knows that blind pursuit of base impulses eventually leads to death. The animals live quick and die young, because they lack one thing: intellect. A shrewd mind will keep one not just alive, but long-lived.
What alignments might exist in your favorite setting?