Alignment as Attitude
Fortunately, there's another system you can turn to if what you want is a simple system that can differentiate between, e.g., Superman and the Punisher without requiring an understanding of Kant. If last installment's system was "alignment as philosophy," explaining the differing D&D alignments as different moral frameworks, this system could be called "alignment as attitude" and it appears in all the Palladium Books Megaverse RPGs. By virtue of the great popularity of Palladium's Rifts and its ilk (Robotech, Heroes Unlimited, etc.) these rules are probably the second-most popular alignment system in tabletop gaming, and even more probably the closest in practice to how players actually think about and use alignment in play.
Rifts and its relatives describe alignment as the characters' "attitudes and moral principles." These alignments are organized along a single axis, good/selfish/evil, with 2-3 alignments of each type. Each alignment is assigned a highly descriptive names: The good alignments are "principled" and "scrupulous," the selfish alignments are "unprincipled" and "anarchistic," and the evil alignments are "aberrant," "miscreant," and "diabolic." Each of these alignments is further defined by a short set of guidelines that describe the habitual behavior of its adherents. For instance, both principled and aberrant characters "always keep their word" while anarchist characters "may keep their word" and diabolic characters "rarely keep their word and have no honor." Miscreant characters "will betray a friend if it serves their needs" while diabolic characters "will betray a friend because you can always find another friend." Anarchistic characters "do not work within groups and tend to do as they please despite orders to the contrary," while unprincipled characters "work with groups, especially if its serves his needs, is profitable, and/or he's in the limelight."
Because the names are descriptive and concrete, and the guidelines are so clear, players can instantly grasp what it means to be "principled" or "anarchistic." It's much easier to grasp a concrete set of guidelines than to try to grapple with what it means to be "lawful good" or, god forbid, "chaotic neutral." It's also much easier to assign famous characters into this alignment system (i.e. without much debate one can see that Superman is "principled," Batman is "scrupulous," and The Punisher is "aberrant"), which is helpful both in gaming in popular settings and also in generally setting expectations. So if the approach to alignment from my prior column strikes you as too abstract and philosophical, the Palladium Games' system is a fast, simple, and effective alternative.
The downside to the Palladium approach is inherent in its strength; the alignments really are just habitual behaviors. It removes the metaphysical meaning of the alignments entirely. It is hard to envision heroes rallying to the cause of Principledness in the way that we imagine the heroes of Law doing. Nor is there a sense of metaphysical karma: Nothing in the Palladium system marks out a Principled character as anything other than a schmuck who lets the bad guys take advantage of his honor and gentleness.
In practice, you can overcome this if you're willing to "hack the system" and correlate the Palladium alignments with the D&D alignments:
- Principled - Lawful Good
- Scrupulous - Chaotic Good
- Unprincipled - Neutral (with good tendencies)
- Anarchistic - Chaotic Neutral
- Aberrant - Lawful Evil
- Miscreant - Neutral Evil
- Diabolic - Chaotic Evil
You can tinker with the specific behaviors for each, and add new ones to fill in the gaps ("Bureaucratic" for Lawful neutral, for instance), and otherwise flesh out the system to your taste.
What Would You Use?
Given that I've presented three different alignment systems for your campaigns, I'd love to hear which system is closest to what you currently use, and what you might use for your next campaign.