In the grand scheme of things, whether you "play your alignment" or just leaving it by the wayside will not have any profound effect on gameplay, but it is probably one of the best ways to improve roleplaying skills, and to bring your characters to life, so I think it's worth discussing.
The typical strategy most DM's use is to award good roleplaying with small sums of experience points. I've found that this works well and highly suggest it. My intentions in writing this post are to explore some of the finer points of alignment, add a guide for those who want to incorporate it more, and delve into some of the typical "issues" that new roleplayers face.
First, let's approach the idea of something we'll call Player Alignment. Player Alignment is a classic pitfall that people stumble into, where they use their own personal morals, beliefs, and personality, to guide that of their characters. This most commonly happens if someone does not have a lot of experience with roleplaying, or who is new to D&D and much too worried about learning all of the rules. Player Alignment usually comes in two forms.
1. It's just a game: Yes, it's true, you're playing a game. The characters don't really exist, the world is just in your imagination, and D&D is sometimes nothing more then a glorified choose-your-own-adventure book. People who aren't skilled roleplayers generally play D&D just to enjoy the game and good company - rather then to make any great effort to bring their characters "to life". They approach D&D much like someone might approach a board game. They feel no need to give their Scottish terrier figurine a reason for buying Marvin Gardens - they just won a beauty pageant after all, and that money's doing nothing but burning a hole in their wheelbarrow.
But I digress.
As an example, when people approach D&D as nothing more then a game, they get angry when their characters die just like everyone else, but it's more of the that-guy-must-have-used-hacks-to-get-that-headshot Halo 3 kind of upset, rather then the sadness one might feel when their favorite book series character finally bites the dust in volume 7. So what does this have to do with alignment? Well, when people see D&D as just a game, rather then a story, their character acquires the personality of someone playing through their life as a game, usually with fairly lucid concepts of HP and experience points.
The gamer cleric might walk up to their party's fighter and ask him "Hey buddy, how many hit points are you missing?" Or perhaps a better example, gamers will cast spells like suggestion, or try to influence their enemies with diplomacy and intimidate checks, but they won't actually talk to them. If you've ever had a player say "I'm going to intimidate him," and then roll the die, or "I cast suggestion to make them stop fighting," without actually offering them any kind of suggestion, then there's a good chance they have It'sJustAGame tendencies.
If the lawful good cleric of hope, love, and pretty flowers thinks that breaking a prisoner's fingers is a good tool of intimidation - they're looking at D&D as a game. They know that no one's fingers are really being broken, and that they can walk away from the session in a couple of hours without the slightest of regrets. All that matters, is getting past the encounter and of course, gaining experience points.
2. Me, Myself and I: People who want to roleplay, but have no concept of how generally fall into this trap. They have difficulties creating personalities, or don't understand how they can us alignments as a foundation for their characters, so they use the only personality available to them - their own. Rather then having their characters act as a players in their own life with no distinguishable personality, they insert themselves mentally into the minds of their characters. The everpresent question then becomes "What would I do in this situation?" It doesn't matter if they are the most righteous and exalted of heroes on their character sheet - when it gets down to roleplaying they are themselves.
DM: "Why did you run away from the dragon?"
MeMyselfAndI: "Because that's what I would do! Dragons are scary!"
DM: "But the dragon is killing babies, dancing on your father's grave, and consuming priests of your god one at a time!"
It'sJustAGame: "How many hit points does the Dragon have?"
In the end, with people who take on this modern-day human personality, they always fall into the neutral category. In this day and age, I would probably classify 99.99% of the human race as neutral. OCCASIONALLY, in one instance or another, someone might lean towards good, evil, law or chaos. Only in very extreme cases however are these positions permanent. Think: Ghandi or Mother Teresa. Stalin or Emperor Zurg.
When you approach D&D with this modern day alignment, if people want to be "good" they generally play their characters as Neutral Good, regardless of what it says on their sheet. If they want to play an "evil" character, they generally turn out to be more Chaotic Neutral. In Dungeons and Dragons, the adventurers you play are supposed to be the Heroes and Villains of the world - not the college students and cubicle workers of today.
Dungeons and Dragons is built to give you the chance to play the Mother Teresas and the Ghandis. It gives you an opportunity to become the individuals who battle the greatest evils of the world. In D&D the villains worship gods of death and destruction. They torture, kill, laugh maniacally, and occasionally monologue. They are evil.
To really excel at roleplaying you can't just play your character through your own personality, because in the real world you would never find yourself in a position to be chasing after these villains. The characters you are playing should be a step outside of yourself. The judgments and decisions you as a person would make should rarely influence what decisions your character would make. You're heroes. Start acting like them.
Having said that. I personally think that the alignment system really adds something great to the game. When I make characters I hold it as high in importance as skills and save modifiers. I see alignment as how you become a hero, and how you leave your own opinions and actions at the door to take up a unique character in a fantasy world. If you are looking to expand your character, or to take on a new roleplaying challenge, I highly suggest taking some time to meditate on what your character's alignment really means, and to build a personality around that. Make a bullet-pointed list of your characters morals. Jot down a list of what your character would never do. This way, when faced with moral decisions in game, you can be consistent.
Next time on The Good, The Bad, and The Neutral, I'll take a look at each of the alignments and try to give players a better idea of what they mean.