To be sure, tradition has played a part in alignment’s longevity–but that’s not all.
Alignments are a quick and easy way to generalize a character’s world view. If I want to run a typical D&D campaign, I tell the players “no Evil characters,” and they immediately have a rough idea of the kind of campaign I’ll be running. Conversely, if I don’t mention any restrictions, the players might all write Evil or Neutral on their sheets; this immediately cues me to write adventure hooks that don’t assume PC heroism. This ability to generalize is especially useful for convention adventures.
When I open a monster manual or a published adventure, alignments are a quick reminder of how monsters and NPCs are likely to act. When a minor NPC or monster has to make a decision, its alignment narrows down its likely choices.
Alignments also help cement that fantasy feel. One of the most common tropes of fantasy is the presence of absolute morality. A great many fantasy characters can be described as heroes, antiheroes or villains–which are literary words for Good, Neutral and Evil. Even when a fantasy story doesn’t outright define Good and Evil, like Star Wars, these ideas are often hinted at. The morality trope in fantasy is as common as the ‘protagonist overcomes overwhelming odds to save the day’ trope. (AKA, ‘the unseen force of Goodness guides the hero to defeat Evil with a twist of fate.’)
“But no three-dimensional character can be defined with just one [pair of] words!” You might say, and you’re absolutely right. Nobody is absolutely Good or Evil–except maybe gods and whatnot.
“Therefore, alignments create one-dimensional characters and punish roleplaying” is often the follow-up conclusion I see on internet forums. Well, maybe you’ve played with gamers who used their alignment as a personality stand-in; maybe you’ve played under DMs who said “that action doesn’t match your alignment, so you wouldn’t do that.” If you ever hear anyone say that, tell them “no real person acts in-character all the time.” If they insist that alignment dictates in-character action, they haven’t got a clue.
I’m not going to preach to you about what alignments should be, or how you should use them. If you’ve had a bad experience, nothing I write is likely to change your view. If you really don’t like ‘em, don’t use ‘em. But if you’re still reading, I’ll dispell some of the myths that insistently float around the internet:
Alignments are just rough categories, like personality types. They’re not neat little boxes meant to categorize whole personalities. In fact, real psychologists use categories that aren’t much deeper than alignment; check out the myers-briggs types for example. If you try to treat personalities as objects that can be scientifically defined by any set of categories, you’ll only end up disappointed.
Heroes often do Good things, and villains often do Evil things, but alignment doesn’t dictate action. In fact, it’s the other way around: actions dictate alignment. Your alignment is a reflection of your past actions. If you’ve done a lot of good things in the past, you’re more likely to make a morally-responsible choice in future situation situations–just as in real life.
Alignments are not permanent though. Heroes can do bad things, and villains can do good things. If a hero does enough bad things, he becomes an antihero, and then a villain–and vice versa. So you’re not stuck with the alignment you start with. A good DM might give friendly reminders like “killing innocents is a big step toward Evil,” but any DM who says “your character wouldn’t do that” doesn’t get it.
Now that you know what alignments are to those of us who use it well, I’ll take a few moments to ramble about my particular opinions.
I’m into Good and Evil, but not Law and Chaos. Maybe because I didn’t watch enough karate flicks and westerns as a kid, I dunno. In any case, I use three alignments: Good, Evil and Neutral. Sorry, I mean “Unaligned.”
If there’s a disagreement, the DM makes the final call, just as with every other aspect of the game. If you don’t agree, just move on for the sake of playing the game. If you feel strongly about something, talk to the DM after the session as you would about any other complaint. If I’m the DM, I’m not trying to make your life hard or to make your character fall. I have pretty loose standards about morality, as I like to think the metaphysical forces of fantasy do. For example, moral catch-22s have no ‘pull’ on a character’s alignment–if you’re forced to do something evil by circumstance, Goodness knows it.
Some editions and classes actually do punish PCs for changing alignments, and I frankly don’t care. As a DM, I ignore alignment-change penalties, class restricitions and codes of conduct. The occasional exception being divine PCs, who may start smiting good instead of evil, or start inflicting rather than curing if they change radically. As a player, I simply avoid onerous restrictions.
I think 4e sanitized alignment too much. It doesn’t do anything. I’m glad paladins are holy [or unholy] knights rather than Galahad clones, and I’m glad the PCs can’t identify villains with a simple Detect Evil spell, but I do miss things like Smite Evil. As a 4e DM, I don’t use any alignment-related house rules currently, but I’m tempted.
So, to paraphrase Merkuri of ENworld, “Do I need alignment? No. Is it worth arguing over? Probably not. But in its simple low-maintenance form, I like it.”