Alignment is a common system in many games, thanks to the design of the first RPGs; the idea of codifying a handful of concepts into a matrix to codify your actions and present an objective moral-ethical framework for the purposes of the game works well enough, as long as no one pushes on it too hard. Naturally, there’s usually someone who wants to push on it too hard – most often the person trying to claim a Chaotic Neutral alignment while following any whim in their head, but sometimes the person who tries to claim a Good alignment and pass it off with subjective morality to justify whatever functionally evil act they perpetrate. Most of us are familiar with arguments about things like the question of whether or not paladins can be assassins, I think, and how ridiculous those arguments get.
Later systems either tried to simplify things – distilling alignment down to a single continuum of a character’s humanity, for example, or just getting rid of the concept entirely – or tried replacing alignment with the idea of allegiances. Rather than being a Lawful Good paladin or a corrupt Lawful Evil customs official or whatever, characters were devoted to specific things. A paladin had an allegiance to his faith, a corrupt official to wealth, a vigilante to justice. The more complex versions usually had players pick one to three of these allegiances, ranked in order of importance in case of conflicts. It’s a fairly good system for the most part, but it tends to remain ultimately simplistic.
Then there’s my favorite system answer to the question of how to show what drives a character’s ethics and morals while providing hooks for game mechanics, the Motivations from Eclipse Phase. In it, players choose three motivations that drive their character – but those motivations come in positive and negative formats. A character who has a positive motivation toward Personal Freedom is going to see their interactions with a controlling corporate organization in the light of what advances those freedoms best, while one who has a negative motivation toward Authority will interact with them with an eye toward harming the organization without worrying if it hurts others.
It works perfectly well for any game genre and provides a significant level of complexity, where players who agree one one motivation – like a positive toward a shared faith – being at odds on some other concept. One might be positive toward wealth, another positive toward asceticism, and a third negative toward the wealthy, creating a case where all of them have strong and opposed views on a single subject without any of them being able to claim that they’re being ‘good’ or ‘evil’.
This system works fairly well in almost any framework – in traditional D20-derived fantasy games, references to good, evil, law, and/or chaos simplify down to ‘detect aligned/opposed motivation’ – a group of goblin warriors who have a negative motivation against humans and other typical allied races would show up as ‘evil’ in the context of a human priest or holy warrior to detect it – but the same would be true for a goblin priest casting it in respect to humans. Holy weapons would work equally well for either side – or you could treat the weapons as having a special purpose, as per intelligent weapons, dedicated to specific motivations.
Even outside of that framework, the motivation system works magnificently, as you can hook any in-game rewards you want to players striving to fulfill their character’s motivations; Eclipse Phase rewards players by letting them regain Moxie, which essentially serves as a kind of luck, and there’s no reason similar ideas can’t be tied elsewhere. In games with Hero Points or Action Points or the like, fulfilling a Motivation can award one or more points; in games that simply have XP, the motivations can be worth XP if actively pursued.
Combined with the depth the system encourages players to give their characters, the benefits of using motivations instead of alignment or allegiance is fairly significant. I encourage you to give it a try the next time you have a downtime game between longer campaigns to see how it works and decide if it works for you and your group.