Another Rant About Alignment
My perspective on the most steadfast rule of D&D that isn't used anywhere else.
I was cleaning my house this afternoon, and thinking about the Top Secret game I'll be running tomorrow at a local con. For those that must know, I've started running games that were forgotten in the 80's. I know that there are some games that are still being played but some of them have had massive rules changes, D&D for example. Others haven't changed much except possibly to update technology to keep it two steps ahead of reality (You hear me talking Shadowrun?)
So there I was vaccuumming, and thinking about character creation and I start thinking about bureau. This is not the dresser in my son's room, but which department the agents in this Top Secret adventure will be in or why they have to choose at all. I'm tempted to say phooey and not make them choose, because all the rule requiring a bureau actually does is change the rate at which characters advance. For those requiring clarification, characters must belong to one of 3 bureaus, Confiscation (taking stuff), Assassination (taking lives), and investigation (taking information). There's a fourth, administration, but only certain GMPCs get that. During the adventure characters from any and all bureaus partake in whatever mission the GM has created. It is possible that 19 assassins will go on an intel mission, it doesn't matter for play. But at the end of the session, when experience points are doled out, everyone gets points for everything done, but different amounts depending on their bureau, and the classifications require different amounts for level advancement.
Now, my thoughts leap to, how can I tell them to ignore it when there's a big spot on the character sheet asking for it? I consider saying that it's like alignment: That it's really just sort of a flavor thing that isn't really important except to keep all the characters from being the same, but that nobody really uses it or cares.
Skipping along merrily, my mind now asks if really nobody cares about it. It is one of the few things that remains entirely unchanged from the first edition to the 3.5 edition of AD&D. Yet everybody's understanding of it is somewhat different, few people think that it adds to the flavor of the game and (almost) nobody thinks it adds to the fun of the game. Additionally, why is it the only game that uses it, at least in its unintelligible enduring form. Villains & Vigilantes has alignment in the good or evil sense, but primarily so heroes can tell who the villains are. A few other games have it primarily as "side", but the fact remains that even in its heyday, TSR did not use this concept in any of it's other games such as Boot Hill, Star Frontiers, Gangbusters, Gamma World, or Marvel Super Heroes.
My take on alignments
Good vs. Evil
This is the easier axis to define, so I'm starting here. I think the axis is misnamed. It's actually the Society or Me axis. Basically, if doing or not doing a certain action is beneficial to myself but not to society in general or the other way around it's a all vs. me decision. This is illustrated by the noble sacrifice. If the hero dies, the world is saved, but if the proto-hero runs, his life will be relatively unchanged (or improved) at the cost of suffering for the masses. Soldiers put their lives on the line so that a society may have (in theory) a better life. The same applies to fire-fighters, police, and emergency medical staff. Sometimes the sacrifice is less, second and third shift workers sacrifice day-shift convenience so that others have greater convenience.
Inversely, most of the characters perceived as evil are really more selfish. The slum-lord does not WANT to see widows and orphans suffer, it's just that he wants the rent more than he wants them to not suffer. A mean act is only evil if the villain doesn't gain from it. All of the mean things committed by Boss Hogg (Dukes of Hazzard) were done so that he might have more wealth. In Wayne's World, Rob Lowe did not set out to destroy Wayne and Garth, but to make money.
In between the Society and Me positions are choosing between 2 bads or 2 goods which really come down to value judgement. Which good is greater, which bad is lesser. This is a giant gray area and different aspect of the good or bad will carry different weights with different folk, and any that disagree will say the decision was evil, and those in agreement will applaud.
Law and Chaos
This axis is only half misnamed. The choice ought to be Law and Anarchy. To go further than anarchy away from law (into chaos) requires intentional constant law-breaking, that is murder, rape, theft, and arson with every breath. Not happening. Shooting sprees are about the closest one can get.
Law is adherence and obedience to the law, even the stupid, pointless, or arbitrary laws. At the other end is anarchy, which contends that any law is bad because it restricts freedom of choice. As an example, I submit myself. I am basically lawful. I pay my taxes (and don't gripe too much), don't use illegal substances, and pretty much don't kill or steal. On the other hand I think the freeway speed limit ought to be as fast as your car can go, and as a result, tend to get places quicker than the law allows.
Neutral with respect to the law/anarchy axis is not really possible. It would essentially mean that you'd favor laws that favored you or your causes. I do think you can be somewhat lawful, such as my case, but that's not really neutral, at least not be the D&D definition.
Applying the new definitions
Instead of a square alignment map with each side defined by one of the alignment definitions and the corners by the combinations I see more of a half ovoid. The horizontal axis would have Me at one end, and Society at the other. Anarchy would be the horizontal axis and Lawful would be the upper vertical limit. Ideally the top edge of the mapable area would be a half circle with the tangent directly above the center of the Me/Society axis. Because no society's laws are perfectly neutral with respect to that axis, the area will be lopsided, usually toward good in a democracy and toward me in a dictatorship. The flaw in this model is that the laws in a dictatorship favor HIM, rather than ME, but they are still individual-centric. In this situation the degree of lawfulness will generally be less.