I just want to start off by saying that there are very few wrong ways to play an RPG. If you and your players are having fun and everyone is comfortable, you are doing it right. From hack and slash dungeon delvers to in depth method acting role players, its all valid. Its a game. Have fun.
That said, I’ve often seen people talk smack on alignment. They find it limiting and hindering to their role playing. If their character wants to save a town and then kidnap its children all in the same day, than by Rerox’s beard, they should be able to do it. Who in this life can really just be summed up by two words?
There are a good many RPGs I play that aren’t D&D. I don’t knowa single other game that has alignment as a factor, and I’m perfectly okay with that. Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of doesn’t bother with such things and the moral ambiguity really works in that world. There is something about alignment, however, that just fits so well with D&D’s mood for me. Reading some of the old classics novels that gave birth to the game (particularly at the moment, the black company series), there is this feeling of peoples of different moral fiber working together to achieve their goals. I’ve also been delving back into Dragonlance as of late, and its like you can tell each characters alignment by reading.
I’m certain that was by design and it does not feel in anyway limiting to the characters. They are fleshed out and whole, with Raistlin in particular even going through an alignment change during the course of the books. While it might have been easier to make that character arc without the confines of alignment, it made it feel like a huge deal. The mage had to give up on things he believed in to make this change.
I like to think of it this way: culinary history is the history of scarcity. Most of my favorite dishes illustrate this well. Take Vietnamese Pho, for instance. It was created in the north of Vietnam during french colonization. Food was scarce so the native Vietnamese would take the cuts of beef the colonizers didn’t want at their table. From this, a masterpiece was born. Simple, warming, flavorful, and delicious: Pho exists because it had to.
The same thing can happen for characters. That “restriction” can also help inform some awesome role-playing. Before the introduction of bonds and flaws in 5E, alignment was your role-playing connection to the world at large. It not only gave an idea of who you are, but what you would sacrifice. A lawful good character might sacrifice other bonds to do the right thing, where a neutral evil one might do the same for power.
The above examples are slightly problematic. An evil character is likely more concerned with personal gain than actually just willy nilly spreading evil. Every evil character isn’t just waiting to betray their companions at any turn. Think of the long game. How much more useful are they to an evil character over the spread of time? Having built in body guards and a buffer from the over zealous forces of good in the world can be quite the advantage.
The same can be seen with a good character. Dragonlance was excellent with this. The Kingpriest, while good, managed to bring the cataclysm to the word due to his arrogance and unyielding nature. Sturm Brightblade was consistently sad and unsure as he battled against the edicts of his own knighthood, all because he believed he was doing the right thing. There is so much difference and nuance between the characters, despite them both being of good alignment.
Alignment, if nothing else, gives a character a code or lack there of. Make it interesting. Let it guide you to figure out what they will die for and what they will kill for. Alignment doesn’t have to be a crutch of a chain. Let it be your wings.