The inital spectrum of alignment, Law-Neutrality-Chaos, probably stems from Moorcock’s Elric books, although Zelazny’s Amber novels came out starting in the early 1970’s, so it’s entirely possible that Gygax et al were influenced by that as well. (I don’t recall ever seeing him asked where the idea of an alignment system came from; if he answered it on a Q&A message board thread, I’d love to see it.) From there, of course, it was a natural step to expand the system along another axis, thus giving us the familiar good/evil law/chaos grid seen in AD&D. The notion that the Outer Planes follow the same system, seems to flow naturally (at least in retrospect).
From the standpoint of a wargame, whence the original D&D game comes, having “law” and “chaos” makes perfect sense. One side of the battle represented the forces of law, the other the forces of chaos. They could just as easily be “red” and “blue”. But in an RPG setting, what purpose does alignment serve?
On one level, alignment is a quick-and-dirty way of encouraging role-playing. It gives an instant motivation and the beginnings of a sense of morality and ethics for a character who might otherwise be nothing more than six stats and a name. When that same character has an alignment, he has guidelines. Goals. A modus operandi. When you don’t have a ton of time (or motivation) to develop a full-blown history and personality for a character, alignment is a convenient way of doing so, albeit in a very perfunctory manner. The same goes, of course for NPCs; alignment makes the game master’s job a lot easier.
On the level of the campaign, alignment can be used to create conflict on a metaphysical level. This is best seen in Gary Gygax’s “Gord the Rogue” novels, where the forces of the Lower Planes are very clearly delineated by their (AD&D) alignments. It is also possible to use alignment as a shorthand for the behavior of entire kingdoms, as when we see in the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting that, for instance, the Theocracy of the Pale is predominantly Lawful Neutral. Personally, in my own AD&D campaign, I use alignment to influence the general types of tactics that different types of humanoids employ. Orcs, being lawful evil, attack and defend in very well-ordered ranks, deploying pole-arms, using shield walls, orderly retreats, etc. to great effect. Others of chaotic evil alignment attack in less organized fashion, tending to attack in hordes.
However, there are downsides to alignment as well. It is all too easy to turn alignment into a straight-jacket. “You can’t do that, you’re lawful good” is something that we heard all too much of in my younger days, and in retrospect it was the worst possible way alignment could be interpreted. That said, if one can simply trip merrily from one alignment to another without consequences, then what’s the point in having an alignment system in the first place? (This doesn’t include the obvious cases such as paladins etc. for whom specific behaviors are required to maintain certain powers and status.)
AD&D did have a system for such consequences. Training to The original AD&D rules regarding alignment and its impact on training and level advancement are a logistical nightmare, and I’ve never heard of anyone actually using them (photocopy the alignment chart and plot each player’s behavior in each adventure???).
In some ways, even the ninefold alignment system is too simplistic to accurately plot behavior. Each individual approaches the sorts of moral questions covered by alignment from a standpoint of relativity. It is entirely possible to self-consistently behave “evilly” (in game terms) to outsiders and “good” (in game terms) to members of one’s family, clan, tribe, or species. From the standpoint of defining objective behaviors, the alignment system seems doomed to faiure.
That said, is there a way to capture the handy shorthands that alignment gives in terms of being able to paint PC and NPC behavior with a broad brush where needed, while at the same time allowing for a more realistic portrayal of human behavior? Your thoughts on the subject are welcome.