Morals, ethics and character development

Right from its start, Dungeons and Dragons introduced the concept of Alignment - a bench mark of your character's moral and ethical outlook. By assigning an alignment to your character, you were making a statement about the sort of person that character was, morally and ethically - rather than simply having your character take whatever action seemed optimal.
Arguably, without this innovation, D&D would just have been an adventure game, with no in-built role-playing requirement.
(Would our hobby have developed differently without this role-playing rule? We'll never know.)

Alignment is described in Pathfinder and 3rd Edition D&D as a "creature's general moral and personal attitudes". Other games have similar concepts: World of Darkness has Virtues and Vices, for example.
I'm going to use the term alignment to refer to all such moral and personality traits within RPGs. I won't get bogged down in discussing the meaning of alignment systems of different games - you can use the links to look at the examples above.
However, in this article, I'll concentrate on the D&D alignment system, as it's the one system that comes in for the most criticism.

What alignments do for us, is they provide us with a short-hand term to describe the usual behaviour of our characters and creatures in the game. D&D goes on to describe alignment as "a tool for developing your character's identity." If your character is Good, that means something about the way she acts in response to critical situations. D&D says that "Good characters make personal sacrifices to help others." So you've got a handle on at least one part of her behaviour just from that single word.
That seems worthwhile - after all, if we have nothing to set our characters' personality apart from our own, then we could just be playing an adventure game, and not playing a role at all.

Search through almost any role-playing game forum, and you'll quickly find that many people don't like the use of alignments in their games. I asked around on some forums again, to find out what the common objections were.

Nearly a quarter of the negative remarks were to do with the bad role-playing that alignment can produce: dumb and goofy role-playing by some players has been excused by reference to the character's alignment. "I'm supposed to be totally random, innit? Chaotic Neutral For the Win!"
I'm not sure that this is really the fault of alignment systems. Bad role-players will use any excuse.
Interestingly, as we'll see from the positive comments below, the role that alignments play in fostering role-playing was raised as a positive point as well.

Over a quarter of the responders said that they didn't like the poor definitions of the alignments. "Good" and "Evil" are hard to define when confronted with complex examples - is it evil to kill hostage-takers, putting the hostages at risk? - is it evil to kill the non-combatant members of a tribe of orcs?
This is levelled squarely at D&D's alignments, and in particular, many of the comments mentioned that the definitions had changed markedly over the editions of the game.
To me, that isn't a helpful thing to raise: each edition of a game supersedes the previous one - you shouldn't try to mix rules or alignment definitions.

On the topic of slaughtering helpless orc children - the idea of species that are "always chaotic evil" took a fair bit of flack. The generally allowed exception was angels and demons and other inherently magical creatures - it was agreed that these sort of otherworldly creatures can embody an alignment.

About a fifth of the negative comments were that alignment is restrictive. Interestingly, D&D and its derivatives specifically say that alignment "is not a straitjacket for restricting your character". So how is alignment restrictive? From reading between the lines of these responses, it seems that the restrictive comment includes worries about the fixedness of alignment, rather than the narrowness of the alignment. (We'll see that this is supported by some of the positive comments, below.)
I'll add comments about "lack of nuance" to this section, as well - taking the total share of negative comments up to nearly half. This addresses the narrowness of alignment, and the perceived inability of alignment systems to reflect characters who display complex moral and ethical behaviour.

On the other hand, there were some very positive responses about alignment systems in my survey.

The most common positive response (at 50% of the positive comments) was that alignments promote at least basic role-play. That ties in with what I've said above - alignments build in role-playing, by making you think about how the alignment affects your character's behaviour.

Roughly equal shares of the positive comment pool were given to a few innovations in alignment systems from various games. I found that people liked alignment systems that allow change, that base alignment on reputation, and that reward the playing of the alignment.

Lastly, a few respondents said that they liked alignments because they promote team play. If all of your adventuring group share a moral outlook, then the group is able to pull together. Players are less likely to screw over their fellow players' characters if they are working towards a common goal.

Embrace change
So we can see that players don't liked fixed alignments, finding them restrictive, and some have said they like alignment systems which allow change.
This makes for good drama and verisimilitude. People rarely have fixed moral attitudes throughout their lives. Some of the most interesting characters in fiction have changing ethics through their stories.
In the hero's journey, characters often reject the heroic quest to try to carry on with their comfortable existence - behaving in a Neutral manner: avoiding hardship and risk, perhaps while advocating that someone else should take on the burden. Later, however - because they are heroes, of course - they accept the quest, and become Good - actively pursuing good despite the risks and hardships.

George Lucas wrote Star Wars with the Hero's Journey in mind, and so provides us with some clear examples. Here we go:
At first Luke Skywalker refuses Ben Kenobi's quest (to go with him Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force), only later going when his adoptive family are killed. Even then, he doesn't appear to be particularly motivated - until he's exposed to what the Empire are doing, and meet people he cares about who are fighting against it. 
So in alignment terms, we could say that Luke goes from the human default of True Neutral, towards Good, through a series of attitude changes.
Changing personalities in RPGs therefore should not merely be catered for, they should be encouraged. Exploring how adventuring and heroism changes your character's attitude, or the villain's personality, is an exciting and interesting thing to do. Static, unchanging characters are dull.

Making alignment dynamic

Over the years, I often tried to think of ways to make alignment dynamic and flexible - to let characters move between alignments, and give players consequences to their role-playing of their alignments.
Even before I started working on this post, I was trying out some ideas.

What the research I did for this post has taught me is what people want from alignment, and what they want to avoid.
I've pinned down the goals to the following:
Alignment should be rewarding, changeable and nuanced, and promote role-playing.
I toyed with the idea that as your drift from your moral compass points,  you become more susceptible to magical coercion, possession and so on, and less able to produce magical effects that rely on dedication to an alignment.
Mechanically, this would be through gaining misalignment points - inspired by the Dark Side points system of the various Star Wars RPGs.
Several things made me give up on this idea - it would be hard to implement, for a start, but mostly because it punishes characters for role-playing.
So, I discarded it.

Reputed alignment
After discarding misalignment  as a bad idea, I thought about rewarding alignments - granting special abilities or bonuses based on alignment. This idea was prompted by a relatively new player who said that he didn't see the point of alignment, as it didn't gain you anything, except maybe some experience points rewards.
At first, I thought these benefits would just be connected to your normal alignment - but it gradually dawned on me that your reputed moral and ethical outlook would have at least as much effect on the world than your true morals and ethics.
This then led me to think about having two alignment systems, running in parallel - letting you play characters who were hiding their true nature, or acting against their true type.
There are so many examples of this in media - Bruce Wayne isn't the self-centred playboy he pretends to be,

In summary, what I came up with is this: 

Your moral and ethical outlook makes a difference to your understanding of others.

It is easier to understand creatures and people who are similarly aligned to you.
You gain a +1 alignment bonus to Sense motive checks against targets with any shared alignment axis.
 It is hard to understand people and creatures that are utterly opposed to your way of thinking.
You take a -1 alignment penalty to Sense motive checks against targets with an alignment on the opposed alignment axis.
 The GM applies these bonuses secretly, without revealing the alignments of NPCs. 

Heroes become more well-known as they achieve memorable actions - this is reflected by an increasing reputation bonus.

Your reputation bonus is equal to 1/2 your level (rounding down, to a minimum of 0).

Additional reputation bonus rewards may be granted by the GM. Characters doing conspicuous deeds may gain increased reputation. Generally, such reputation bonuses should be no more than +1 / level.
The reputation bonus sets the level of fame for your character. If NPCs have heard of you, then you gain modifiers to certain charisma-based checks, depending on your alignment. A successful check means that your reputation modifier is applied to certain social skill checks.
To determine whether any particular NPC has heard of a character with a reputation score, make a reputation check, DC15.

A reputation check is 1d20 + reputation score + NPC's INT modifier

The GM may substitute a Knowledge skill bonus for the Int modifier if he decides the character’s past activities apply to a particular field. For example, if the character were a cleric, Knowledge (religion) might be appropriate.
Reputation acts as a penalty to Disguise checks.
Applying reputation
Your reputation modifier is applied differently depending on your alignment.

All alignments gain their reputation score as a reputation bonus to Diplomacy checks with targets having the exact same alignment. Reputation bonuses stack.

Good alignments grant a reputation bonus to Diplomacy.
Evil alignments grant a reputation bonus to Intimidate.
Chaotic alignments grant a reputation bonus to Intimidate.
Lawful alignments grant a reputation bonus to Bluff.
These rules fulfill my aims of making alignment attractive, flexible, and nuanced.

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