Well, perhaps more a “different” system than a “better” one. The 3.x alignment system has a lot going for it — the two axes help to cover a lot of ground, and on the surface, at least, it’s fairly simple, but contains a fair bit of depth and subtlety for those who really want to dig into it. On the downside, its ambiguity is sometimes a weakness. Also, there are at least two or three of the alignments that real-life humans simply never hold to. (Seriously, there isn’t a person in the world who is Lawful Neutral. Javert is a caricature, not a character.)
The problem I have with 3.x alignment is twofold — one, that there isn’t really a matter of scale. A Chaotic Evil barbarian reaver is “just as evil” as an actual, literal demon. Okay, not precisely true, as the demon has the “evil” subtype and the barbarian presumably doesn’t. So this is a minor complaint. The real issue I have is that the alignment definitions are really very unclear. Distinguishing between Lawful Good and Neutral Good, for example, can be quite difficult — both are definitely in the “good guy” camp, archetypically, but … one is more concerned with being law-abiding than the other? I mean we all know that those Chaotic Good types will happily flout any laws that get in the way of their own fun, so long as nobody is getting hurt in the process (making CG the “philosophical hedonist” alignment), but where’s the line between Lawful and Neutral Good? I don’t have a good answer. Ditto True Neutral — there are quite a few different ways to interpret TN, and none of them make sense for a creature with moral agency. And then there’s the question of just what it means to be Lawful, in general — the hallmark of Lawful is obedience, but obedience can take many forms. Monks, for example, have to be Lawful because of their personal discipline, but does this mean that a monk can’t be a bandit? Why not, as long as he stays disciplined? Good question, but I don’t think any self-respecting DM would okay the idea of a Lawful Good bandit. On the other end of the spectrum is the paladin — obedient to a lord and the law of the land, but could a paladin also be a slob? Completely personally undisciplined, equipment in poor repair, etc?
In my view, the alignment system could stand a bit more transparency and simplicity. In addition, I tend to think of alignment as more like “roleplaying notes,” or something more similar to the Nature/Demeanor system of World of Darkness. If alignment is going to have any in-game effect then it should be rewards along the lines of Willpower or FATE points or the like, not XP penalties and vulnerability to certain magics.
I’m not in favor of scrapping subtypes, since those are useful. In fact, I’d support expanding the system — give me a good reason why paladins shouldn’t have the “good” subtype. Holier-than-thou is basically their entire character. But in general I’d limit them to beings that are defined by their goodness or their evil — humans, no matter how Hitleresque, simply can’t be evil the way a demon can be evil.
An unstated premise here is that humans, and moral agents in general, always believe themselves to be acting rightly. Even when they’re doing something they know is “wrong,” they don’t generally actually believe they’re doing evil — they’re simply indulging a part of themselves that they know doesn’t toe to the societal “party line.” An orc is just doing what orcs do — this doesn’t make them any less of a threat to medieval “law and order,” but it does differentiate their brand of “evil” from that of beings that are literal embodiments of the very principle of corruption.
Bearing all that in mind, I’ve come up with seven new alignments that I think pretty effectively cover the full range of realistic human attitudes. And that’s what these are — attitudes. Ethoi. Moral philosophies, rather than metaphysical keywords. Most people in the world will fall under one of these seven categories, to wit:
Valorous: Concerned with doing the right thing, obeying just laws, and keeping to an explicit code of ethics. Disciplined, obedient, respectful, chivalrous. The alignment of knightly ideals and bushido. It is a high bar to clear, requiring a good deal of self-examination. Valorous characters will frequently spend time reflecting on their past behaviors, always seeking to act more in line with their personal philosophies.
Honorable: Honorable characters keep their word and help those in need. They pay their taxes and obey the law. In their day-to-day behavior they might appear virtually indistinguishable from the Valorous, and indeed there are many similarities between the two. The difference comes in their degree of self-reflection and self-discipline — Honorable characters simply aren’t as concerned with the ideals of virtue and self-mastery. For the Honorable, it is enough that they are upstanding citizens — they leave the navel-gazing to the philosophers.
Dominant: Into power, generally for its own sake. Likes being in charge of any given situation. Pays a lot of heed to social convention, particularly where power structures are concerned. Ambitious, seeking to climb to the top of whatever hill might present itself. May or may not be concerned with the needs and wants of political, social, or economic inferiors, but in the end, those with the Dominant alignment will always sacrifice questions of the “greater good” for the sake of more personal power.
Selfish: Makes decisions primarily based on personal gain. Holds little concern for rules and restrictions unless paying heed to such rules is absolutely necessary. Might care about others, but self-interest always comes first. The Selfish person is greedy and generally cowardly, though if he craves glory then he might seem reckless. If he seeks power, it is as a means to an end. A Selfish person is driven by his appetites over and above all else.
Libertarian: The Libertarian is where the Honorable and the Selfish overlap. His moral philosophy can best be summarized as, “an’ it harm none, do as thou wilt.” The alignment of thieves with hearts of gold, the Libertarian is generally anti-law, anti-restriction, and anti-authority. Flouts social convention and societal expectation. May still hold to a personal code, but that code will be deeply personal. Does genuinely care for the well-being of others, but may or may not take risks to protect said well-being.
Savage: Respects strength and nothing else. Follows leaders he perceives to be stronger, attempts to dominate those he perceives to be weaker. Quick to indulge in threats and violence. Not necessarily “evil,” or otherwise cruel, but definitely not what polite society considers “nice.” Typically has no regard for law and order, and little use for civilization. May or may not harbor protective feelings for those weaker, particularly if they openly recognize him as the stronger.
Amoral: Probably the trickiest alignment for a human to play, it nevertheless deserves a place on the list. The truly amoral character makes all decisions based on non-moral criteria — physical needs, logic and reason, relative difficulty of the respective choices, whims, anything that doesn’t involve a conception of “right” or “wrong.” Acts out of need and typically ignores or actively rejects notions of authority. By definition, has no concern for the well-being of others — or possibly even himself.
As far as use in a game goes? Well, as I said, these alignments are primarily intended to be roleplay notes. Yes, there is significant overlap between many of them, but that’s by design. In a sense, a person’s alignment is meant to be a representation of their moral sine qua non – whatever the one thing is that is most important to their moral identity. But wanting power above all doesn’t mean you’re generally dishonorable or lacking compassion, just as wanting to be a good person doesn’t mean you don’t break the speed limit from time to time.
So, did I forget anything? What do you all think?