There is an idea in language theory that assumes two major forces at work for every change that a language goes through: those that try to conserve it and those that actively seek to change it. A third group accepts every change as a natural occurrence. The actual changes are the result of this dynamic and one could go as far as stating that they are necessary to facilitate those changes.
With those three you see the full spectrum of the three-folded alignment. Chaos seeks change, law protects the status quo and neutrality sees change for what it is.
This rather light interpretations have some strong implications for what alignment could really mean in the game. But let's first try this idea with some concepts we have about alignment.
If you'd actually use alignment languages ...
Take alignment languages for instance. The idea of alignment languages was always an odd bird. Most don't like it and won't use it.
Seeing it like I described above doesn't mean that there are any additional living languages at work here, but that the opinions connected with the alignment are in direct conflict when used in communication. Every possible issue could be argued from an alignment point of view, resulting in imminent disagreement as soon as entities with different alignments talk about it.
An example might be in order.
The good citizens of the city state Thralksis have always tolerated humanoids living in their city. But those humanoids didn't have any rights. Lets say the city quite recently came under new management and has now a very powerful and progressive (which would mean chaotic) leading figure with some new ideas. One of them would grant humanoids living in the city full citizenship. You'll generally have three possible opinions. Those that will cling to "what has always been", those that welcome the change and those that say a change like this needs to be considered carefully, but is not without merit.
Which could translate into something like:
Chaotic parties will go for a complete new interpretation of that law with huge implications, like, for instance, allowing humanoids seats in the city council or leading positions in the military, etc..
Lawful parties will try to protect their idea of what the original law means, with the new law mirroring that. They'll most likely propose something like humanoids have to live in the city for at least three generation to vote (if at all) or maybe that those humanoids need to be married to a citizen. Stuff like that.
Neutral parties will go the middle road, allowing votes, but not full citizenship.
Now, depending on the ratio of alignments present in Thralksis, changes will happen slow or fast. In any case, the following will produce a new law and with that some change. Maybe not what the chaotic citizens had in mind, but more than what the lawful ones tried to do.
Extremists and Revolutionaries?
Chaos is actively seeking change.
Neutrality is going with the flow.
Law is actively containing the status quo.
Reality is the result of the struggle between those forces.
This will, interestingly enough, lead to the conclusion that if change happens to fast (that is, "chaos" manages somehow to get through with it's ideas), those still hanging on the old but obsolete ideas will be regarded as extremists, while those actively seeking change in a strictly lawful environment will be considered revolutionaries. Add good and evil to the mix and the 9-folded-alignment is explained.
So far I'm quite happy how all this comes together.
It's true enough in history, but does it work in D&D?
The way I see it, yes. Well, partly. Why are those lizardfolks in the swamps chaotic? Change would mean a better living for them. There is even some precedence in D&D where monster variants that are remnants of lost civilizations are considered to be lawful instead of chaotic (although I can't for the life of me remember where I did read that ...). Animals are neutral most of the time, which also fits the bill.
It could give a new spin to immortals or gods. The chaotic ones are those eager to get more powerful, neutral entities have their niche and are content with it and the lawful ones are the most powerful, constantly defending their status.
So, following this line of thought, one could say that alignment is more like a condition. It might even change, on occasion.
But here is the tricky part. Of course, described like this the three alignments also read like an adventurers CV. The beginning adventurer wants to challenge the world and get rich (chaos). With enough money and experience, he'll settle down and take care of his own land (neutrality) until he is powerful enough to protect not only his realm, but will have the obligation to protect a lot more than that, maybe even spreading the culture by occupying other countries (lawful).
Problem is, a character gets only one alignment. here are the huge implications I was talking about earlier. Changing this according to ideas worded above would mean slaughtering one of the holy cows of D&D. Alignments would never be the same. At least in my game.
The next problem is how it could be done.
Two different proposals are in order ...
1. Plain and simple: change it. Beginning characters are always chaotic, will become neutral with name level and lawful when achieving level 18. Elves are always chaotic, dwarves and halflings always neutral and become lawful when reaching name level. Alignments might decline back to a lower status if circumstances indicate it (lawful king Gregnarz looses his kingdom but manages to survive and now leads the resistance as Gregnarz the Chaotic, etc.).
Monster alignments stay as written, but might be subject to change by the above mentioned reasons (cultivate some goblins and they will become neutral and maybe with time even lawful, defending the Shire and all that jazz).
With gods alignment also shows a hierarchy, with chaotic being the lowest and lawful being the highest (this pretty much explains what could motivate a god deep down ...).
A cleric won't loose his powers if his alignment changes (I believe it's much more plausible that churches have the same internal dynamic as described for politics above).
2. I always wanted to steal that idea in Runequest where they give characters a cultural background (2e, I believe). This is my chance. In this version characters are free to choose an alignment (or determine it randomly), but to explain the attitudes associated with the different alignments, different alignments also mean a different cultural background. Like this:
Chaotic - Barbaric (as in striving for a "better" place)
Neutral - Nomadic (as in going with the flow)
Lawful - Civilized (as in preserving and spreading a culture)
"Barbaric" doesn't only mean Conan and his friends, it could just mean a bad social background or fugitives. With "Nomadic" I had the American Indians in mind, but it could just as well work with immigrants that try to integrate. Nothing else changes.
Bonus (1.+2.): Number 2 might work well with number 1 as a random result during character generation, with a high emphasis on chaotic as a result. Like this:
Random Alignment Table (1d12):
1-9 Chaotic (Barbaric)
10-11 Neutral (Nomadic)
12 Lawful (Civilized)
Those are my thoughts so far. I wanted to close with a funny picture illustrating the alignments somehow, but that turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. Most of the google results were not thought through, the rest were not that funny and all of them go with the 9-folded version. Anyway, in the end I decided to go with this one:
|Still: Best. Show. Ever! [source]|