Gamers who dislike D&D often bring up alignment as evidence to back up that dislike, and it is certainly true that alignment debates have a tendency to be long, sticky, and argumentative. On the other hand, I have spent many an afternoon in a game store, whiling away the hours arguing about whether it was lawful good for the paladin to punch the dryad in the face. My weekly group got two new players last night and, as often happens, differing play styles prompted an alignment debate. In this case, I exacerbated the situation by throwing a Moral Dilemma (tm) at the players.
The makers of 4e have gone to great lengths to minimize the potency of the "I hate alignment" argument. (Perhaps we should call them "alignment-deniers.") Alignment has no effect on your powers. There is no way to detect alignment and no spells which target foes of a particular alignment. Clerics and paladins have some alignment requirements when the character is made, but the character can then change his alignment. The only requirement in the Player's Handbook is that player characters not be Evil or Chaotic Evil; D&D is at its heart a game of cooperation and heroism. Both of these things are inimical to the Evil and Chaotic Evil alignments.
The goal here is clear: to make alignment a very broad roleplaying tool with no game effect whatsoever. I think it succeeds at that, but then I never had much problem with alignment in the first place. I've generally been successful at explaining the difference between alignments by using famous examples from film or books. King Arthur is Lawful Good while Robin Hood is Chaotic Good, for example. (Superman/Batman is another useful tool, for those who prefer the movie version.) But last night and this morning I have been thinking of a new way to explain alignment, through the use of a very simple thought experiment.
* Let's say there's a guy. His name is Joe. He has a gun. (In honor of the presidential election, I suppose we must call him Joe the Shooter.) He is pointing his gun at another guy, whom we will call Jeff. Jeff is my friend. I have a gun. To protect Jeff, I draw my gun and shoot at Joe.My alignment is ... Unaligned. I am attacking Joe out of personal loyalty to my friend Jeff. Note that Jeff may be an ass; he may be a saint. In this case, these possibilities are irrelevant. I'm attacking Joe simply because I like Jeff better than I like Joe.
* Same situation, except now Jeff is a stranger to me. He's not my friend; I don't know him from Adam. Joe threatens to kill Jeff, as before. I draw my gun and shoot at Joe to defend Jeff. Now I am risking my life for someone I don't even know. My alignment is ... Good.
* Same situation as before. Jeff is a stranger. Joe has a gun and is threatening to kill Jeff. I have a gun. But I do not use it. I put it away. I approach Joe peacefully and try to talk him down because I don't want anyone to get hurt. I negotiate a hostage swap with Jeff, so he goes home and now Joe is pointing his gun at me. I still have my gun and I will use it on Joe if I must, but I do not want to hurt him even though he is threatening to hurt me. My alignment is ... Lawful Good.
* Now that Jeff has gone home, let's go back to Joe and I. Joe has a gun. I have a gun. Joe points his gun at me. I shoot Joe. I am fighting in self-defense. My alignment is ... Unaligned.
* Take away Joe's gun. Instead, Joe has a shiny new watch. I have a gun. I shoot Joe and take his watch. Maybe I give it to one of my friends. Joe is weak and has what I want. My alignment is ... Evil.
* Finally, there's poor Joe. He has nothing, and is a complete stranger to me. I have a gun. I shoot Joe. Die, Joe, die. My alignment is ... Chaotic Evil.
In my recent story, the mother of one of the player characters assassinated the Duchess of a distant land in order for the local Baroness, whom the mother was sworn to protect and who is the target of a local assassination plot herself, to get out of the country and ascend to the throne of that Duchy. She murdered Duchess Meralthea to get that Duchy for someone else. The only difference between this and mugging Joe so I can give his watch to my buddy is one of scale.