|Source, I think?|
That said, I feel like it's necessary to distinguish between Alignment, Character Traits, and Sanity Systems. People often conflate the three because they're so interwoven - they're all linked to behavior. When trying to nail down a useful way to describe alignment, apart from those other things, I run into difficulty.
So hey, let's try and work it out, from the top.
So what is Alignment?
Morality? Ethics? Character Traits? Sanity? Metaphysics? Cultural Behavior? Allegiances?
I mean, sure. Probably all of those things.
But if we want to think about outside-the-box Alignment alternatives, maybe it's easier to define its boundaries first.
There is a non-zero possibility that I am talking out of my ass here. Criticism appreciated.
First, an Alignment System is all-encompassing. There is no going out-of-bounds. To be a proper Alignment System, anything a player-character could be must fall somewhere in said Alignment System. This is why most systems adopt a "Neutral" state to try and sweep up anything that isn't incorporated into the binary modes frequently used.
Second, it's Categorical. The entire point of an Alignment System is that one can categorize different character possibilities. Knowing where something lies along a spectrum is pointless if one cannot put that point into a categorical context.
These categories must be defined. They don't need to be very well defined - doing so is a difficult task, particularly if alignment regards morality. Nobody wants to read a lengthy dissertations about how killing the orc babies is Evil with a capital "E" to play the game.
Tied into this, Alignment Systems are Rational and Discrete in the mathematical sense. Like, knowing you're 666,666 points of Evil and 0.568171 points of Candy Corn is pointless unless there is some kind of quantum/indivisible amount in which a categorical distinction could be ascertained.
It's meaningless to be pi Chaotic, unless irrational units themselves fit into a distinguished category.
Third, it describes a relationship. Specifically, the relationship between the character and... something, or some things. Could be metaphysical laws. Could be moral/ethical stances. It could be certain gods. The point is that the thing is aligned. To be aligned implies that something is facing a direction with other things, with the possibility that it can't or won't.
Alignment cannot exist in solitude. It requires disparity. The Pre-Creator, alone in the universe, cannot have alignment because there is nothing to align with. It's gotta, like, split into four pieces or have some sort of rival, or something to break monotony.
And... is that it? I would add Mutability, but I'm sure you can design a Calvinist Alignment System where people are predestined to be Good/Evil. I'm sure there's something else to it, but this feels like a flexible enough springboard to dive into the next part.
This has gotten me thinking about alternative Alignment systems. This post comes to mind. Take these proposals with a grain of salt.
1) Language as Alignment
When we take the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and apply it in an Alignment-style system. Imagine we take every linguistic language family in your campaign world and make it an Alignment. Alignment is then defined as the mode of thought whose boundaries and mechanisms are defined by the evolutionary (or destined) functionalities of the Language.
In this case, a person is literally confined by their language. It's like their operating software.
Your character starts out in one (or however many they grow up with), and for each new language they learn it slightly shifts their Alignment towards other languages. People fluent in one language are the extremes, people fluent in multiple languages exist between these.
You can have more fun with this if certain language families can produce different spells, or grant supernatural abilities. One must cast demon-binding spells in Latin, for instance; however, it's not enough to merely read the words, you must fluently understand the language. Spells from thought, not sound.
The 2016 movie Arrival also comes to mind. Won't discuss that because Spoilers.
2) Consciousness/Biology as Alignment
I'm looking at a two axes thing here.
On the one, Consciousness: how aware something is of its surroundings.
Not Conscious <> Partially Conscious <> Fully Conscious <> Hyper Conscious
On the other, how many Distinct Units this Consciousness is comprised of.
One Unit (Unicellular) <> Multiple Units (Multi-cellular) <> Multiple Multiple Units (Hive Minds)
So you've got Human Beings, who by default are Fully Conscious x Multiple Units alignment.
Bugs/Most Animals and such are Partially Conscious x Multiple Units.
Oozes (we're saying, for the sake of this fiction) can range from Not Conscious to Hyper Conscious x One Unit.
The Empath is Hyper Conscious x Multiple Units.
Plants can be anywhere in either spectrum.
The Viral Nanomachine Plague is Not Conscious x Multiple Multiple Units.
There's a hierarchical group structure built into it. Because a Fully Conscious x Multiple Units human is made up of many Not Conscious x One Unit cells. The Consciousness axis reflects on the Distinct Units axis.
To make it fun, it should also be mutable. People can change their alignment on these axes.
In gameable terms, this could be useful in a Science-Fictiony or Weird Fantasy setting. Protection from Hyper Conscious x Hive Minds or Awaken Limb as a spell. It's also fun to think of ways to screw around with it, like human beings with every one of their cells conscious, or frighteningly calculated and singular hyper-conscious single-celled organisms. Or Unconscious Hive Minds, like a Stand Alone Complex.
3) Calvinist Predestination Alignment
Your character either randomly rolls an alignment or given one from the DM. This determines what afterlife your character goes to after they die. Alignment is literally just the eternal destination, the way the soul faces before being rocket-shot to Hell or Heaven or Limbo or elsewhere at death. Character behavior has exactly zero impact on it.
No Evil or Good or any of that. Just paradise, eternal torture, and everything in between. Nothing you do changes this. It's been determined before the character was even born. Reincarnation can fit into this, too.
You can play knowing this from the moment of character creation, or you can keep it secret and reveal it at death.
I'm interested to see how this could effect play. There's a certain freedom and a certain imprisonment in it. You can have confident paradise-destined people committing atrocities because there is no consequence. You can have hell-bound saints. Nobody is obligated to give a crap, but there's plenty of incentive for characters to change the world.
Dark Fantasy/Grimdark, all the way.