Quick fix to give alignment a little more nuance – use upper and lower case letters to denote personal significance. Broadly speaking, lower case represents an inclination while upper case denotes an ethos.
If an alignment is all lower case then it’s descriptive, but doesn’t particularly introduce conflict into the person’s life. Lots of people who might flinch away from describing their character as LAWFUL GOOD might be of with “lg” rather than “LG”, since LG is the classic paladin, but lg is more “I like that laws protect us and I like to treat people well.”
When an alignment is mixed case, that reveals that one serves the other. An lG character wants the greatest good, and feels that law is a tool to that end, whereas an Lg character might feel that maintaining order is the most important thing, and good things will come of it.
A simple breakout might look like:
LG – Law and good are both VERY important to me!
Lg – I am a champion of law, because I think it is good
lG – Law is the means by which I pursue my good ends
lg – I am basically nice and follow the rules but it’s no big deal
One issue that I think this addresses nicely is neutrality, which can be reasonably interpreted as “indifferent” and “actively seeking balance”. In this case, those are “n” and “N” respectively (and even allow a neat trick with true neutral including things like “Nn” – for ‘I’m indifferent to good and evil but highly invested in balancing chaos and order’).
It also leaves space for little-e-evil, so there’s a bit of a moral difference between street thugs and cultists of Orcus, which I think may be a bit more playable in a number of ways, since I think one of the common problems with “dark” campaigns is that it’s not always clear if the players want to be big e or little e evil. (And, as Glen Cook and others have shown us so well, there is a lot of really great conflict to be had between little e evil and big e Evil).
Anyway, this trick doesn’t require any mechanical changes. If a GM wants to I suppose you could have capitalized alignments carry a bit of metaphysical weight (so they interact with detect and protection effects, and might be required for certain classes or items) but that’s a lightweight tweak.1
Also, it functionally means there are now 36 possible alignment combinations, so there’s a lot more room for nuance without changing the underlying structure.
Edit: Fixed the rogue “N” in the chart.
- If you are feeling really invested, add one more level where it’s capitalized and underlined or bold – Lg to reflect an axiomatic connection to the principle, as might be appropriate for extraplanar beings. This becomes the indicator for whether magic interacts with the target as Lawful or Evil or whatever. It can be up to the individual table whether players can adopt these “true” alignments (probably based on class, possibly level). ↩︎