When It Doesn't Matter and Yet Does.
When I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons the only consequence for doing an evil act was the empty threat of an alignment shift that would never come - and on the few occasions that it actually happened there was no meaningful change in the game for me or my character. Non-player characters didn't become more adverse to dealing with me. Magic didn't stop working for me. There was literally no reason, other than my own personal preference, for me to worry about being a terrible bastard in the game world.
|The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix|
The alignments that we were playing, and the actions that we performed in the game worlds that impacted those alignments and the game's denizens, held no meaning. We may as well have played without the alignments and just simply gone through the game without them - yet that would have been a mistake because we agonized over what alignment we were going to play. And when the threat of an alignment shift was made it often resulted in a change in the player's behavior to avoid the shift.
Clearly the alignments mattered to us in a meaningful way but it was how they were reflected in the game world that was causing the problem. So how do we fix that? How do we make our actions have a meaningful response in the game that not only rewards the choices of a character in the game but that provides them with consequences that feel appropriate to their actions?