Class Acts: Paladins
There are few classes in Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder that come saddled with the amount of dread and misunderstanding as the Paladin; a class of righteous warriors that have devoted themselves to a cause they regard with unshakable faith. They were pillars of virtue once upon a time, a class to aspire to, but as the decades rolled on, it was the opinion of the paladin, not the paladin itself, that fell. Like the legendary Knights Templar, the paladin largely fell out of favor, carrying with it a stigma that almost washes away their great deeds and accomplishments.
But, my friends, the paladin endures, and is even thriving. The years have drawn on, and the holy knight has adapted to the times. Is it for the better, or will they never attain the heights they once knew as paragons of righteousness? By the end of this article, it is my hope to answer that question for you, and perhaps even persuade you to give the mythical warriors a shot at your gaming table.
Today, let's kick some ass for the Gods!
A Brief History Of The Paladin
The paladin, as we know it today, was first introduced in Dungeons & Dragons Supplement 1 - Greyhawk in 1975. Back then it was a subclass for the Fighting Man, which would eventually evolve into what we know as the Fighter. The paladin drew influences from Poul Anderson's "Three Hearts and Three Lions" as well as the tales of King Arthur... you know, in case that wasn't obvious.
"King by way of some watery tart throwing a sword at him."
It eventually showed back up three years later in the original Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook as subclass once again.. You know the one, with the demon statue with the ruby eyes holding the big brazier? That iconic little book. The paladin was immediately hailed as the go-to class. And why not? It was hard as hell to get into!
The paladin required a 17 Charisma. That doesn't sound so bad by today's standards, but back in the days of 1st edition, the OGs (Original Gamers) were hardcore. Today we have cute things like point buy systems and rolling 4d6 and dropping the lowest. OD&D only used 3d6, and rolled them in order. That's right kids, back in the day your stats appeared as you rolled them. No switching them around in whatever order you want. Top to bottom, as they appeared. That meant that if you wanted to be a paladin, you needed to roll between a 17 and 18 at the very end of your rolls. That is less than a 2% chance you are going to play the old holy roller (technically 1.85%). The only thing harder to get into was Monk, but that is another blog.Further requirements demanded you be lawful (which is a given), and human.
"Yes, kids. Sensetive female armor IS a thing."
The paladin would spend much of its life being lumped in with the likes of the less than righteous fighter, got a little recognition in The Complete Paladin's Handbook in AD&D 2nd Edition, and wouldn't see much of the modern take until its inclusion into 3rd Edition D&D.
The 3rd Edition paladin was a bit more accessible to the average player... sort of. You see, they did away with the prerequisite ability scores, which was good, but instead they made the paladin rely on four separate ability scores to be even worth playing. You needed a high Charisma bonus, since it was key for fun things like the paladin's Lay On Hands (pally heals!) and Smite Evil (bad guy go ow) abilities, as well as Divine Grace (save vs bad magic) and as the power behind Turn Undead (go home undead, you're dead).
"Looks like these poor fellas are... boned."
Oh, but the fun didn't stop there. The 3rd Edition paladin also needed a decent Wisdom score if they wanted access to all those pretty divine spells... because a divine spellcaster that operated off of Charisma was a silly notion (until Pathfinder). But we're not done. You were a holy warrior, so if you wanted to do anything in combat, you were going to need a respectable Strength score, and if you were going to be anything more than a brief memory, you were going to need a Constitution score that allowed you to be something more than a shiny glass cannon.
"Not as effective as you think."
And this was about the time that the stigma of the paladin began. Eith everyone's best scores going into four stats, that only left two dump stats; Dexterity and Intelligence. Dexterity was a no brainer. More often or not you were safe inside a gleaming can of "can't touch this", and more often or not the average paladin was toting around a shield. A metric butt-ton of steel draped over you does not make for the most dexterous person. However, thanks to a low skill selection, many people decided that Intelligence was not becoming of a saintly knight, and so the term Lawful Stupid was born.
Years went by, and tales of clutzy, idiot paladins running about the countryside became rampant. They had new abilities like detect evil at will, immunity to fear and disease, the ability to cure said disease, and the ability to wield the legendary Holy Avenger (a badass weapon for badass paladins). They also had a few tenents they were required to follow, like
- You gotta be of Lawful Good alignment (Not so bad).
- You can't willfully commit an Evil act (keyword; willfully).
- You can't associate with any character who persistently commits acts which would cause the Paladin him/herself to fall - notably, Evil creatures (or the rogue, as they came to be known).
- You have to tell the truth at all times (a tenent that has killed more than one party).
- You have to give fair warning and due quarter to enemies (Mercy for the necromancer).
- You can't be stealthy, use subterfuge, attack from the rear (also known as flanking), missile weapons (arrows) and especially poison as weapons of last resort (Because fuck tactical advantage, evil deserves every opportunity it can get).
Sure, some GMs were lenient in the way they handled the vows, allowing minor infractions for the sake of the greater good, but a lot more enforced these to the letter. If the GM didn't get the paladin to fall, annoyed players would go out of their way to make the player that choice the holy roller to regret their decision. It was a dark time for the paladin, where a mix of bad GMing, poor player behavior, and badly played examples of what a paladin should be like nearly ended the long and admired career of the pinnacle of heroism. Even a few revisions in later splatbooks couldn't quite wipe off the stain.
Even the Pathfinder paladin, which introduced the ability to remove conditions like fatigue and sickness, and another that bolstered their weapons and armor could not wipe away the shame. Still, they took steps to at least make them much easier to play, amending the restrictive code to allow paladins to associate with and work with less than savory characters for the sake of a greater good or as allies against a greater evil.
And then came 4th Edition. A lot of people had a problem with 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, from it's MMO feel to the strange card dynamic. Don't get me wrong, I am one of those people. I gave it a fair shot, but it just didn't feel right. That being said, there were a few things that 4E did get right. The paladin was no long just a righteous knight, they were the champions of their Gods. In fact, every God could have a champion. And so you saw a strange new breed a paladin. No longer the "Lawful Stupid" dunderhead with the restrictive code of goodness for goodness sake. Now you had paladins of chaotic elven Gods. You had neutral paladins with a very Judge Dredd sort of feel. You had paladins that championed the ideals of evil gods. You even had paladins of death, which is about as badass as it sounds. But strangest of all was that now the paladin could not fall.
Think on that for a moment.
Once the oaths were taken, and the paladin was imbued with their God's power, that power could not be stripped away. This meant that the paladin was no longer the babysitter. They no longer needed to be the fun police, wagging a finger at the naughty party members. Sure, if the paladin worshiped a good God, it was encouraged to keep your friends from burning down orphanages, but somewhat innocent stuff like picking a pocket, or raising a zombie to save some children wasn't a smite-worthy offense.
Speaking of smite evil, it no longer needed to function on the "evil" spectrum. If the paladin swore someone an enemy, their ass was getting smote. But it wasn't all sunshine and daisies. If the paladin screwed up, and I mean really screwed up, they wouldn't fall. The church would just send out a paladin death squad to make you pay. That seems like a hell of a better incentive to walk the straight and narrow.
"I've got your deterrant against evil right here!"
Most recent was 5th Edition D&D, which continued in the same vein as 4th Edition, but included the new Oath system. Oaths were, well... oaths that the paladin swore. Similar to the old tenents of 3rd Edition, oaths served as a guideline for paladin behavior, giving them motivations and boundaries, though they are pretty lax in means of interfering with other players playing their characters. This time, they didn't fault the paladin if they screwed up. After all, everyone is human... and elf... and dwarf. You get the picture. The paladin was no longer punished for accidents, or things beyond their control, but rather for willfully breaking their oaths by committing an act they know to be wrong. These paladins are known as oathbreakers, and a finer villain is hard to find.
Which iteration of the paladin was your favorite? Leave your answer in the comments below.
A Cut Above The Rest
Paladins are considered to be something more than your average, ragtag adventurer. They exist as an example, the pinnacle of what one can achieve in respect, prowess, and morality. While it is true that paladins walk a very straight and narrow path without ever seeming to falter, the truth is altogether more heart-wrenching.
They are everything I just mentioned, and not always because they want to be, but because they have to be.
"Lonely paladin is lonely."
When a paladin is chosen by a God, swears their oaths, accepts the tenets and commits to following their code, few are ever prepared for what that really entails. Most have their heads filled with tales of valiant fighters and righteous warriors sweeping across the land with gleaming armor, punishing evil and making the world safe for good, honest folk. That kind of imagery can inspire people to reach for the unattainable, the very thing a paladin represents. Some even make it there to stand as one of these bastions of holy power. It is only after they have accepted the duty does the frightening reality set it.
The world is not a good place, true evil is never quelled, and the choices a paladin must make can lead countless lives to ruin. Each day their morality, ethics, and convictions will be tested. Endlessly tested. Their faith may even waver. They may ask themselves if it is all worth it, if they are in fact making a difference, or if they are simply playthings of the Gods, going through the motions in a chess game between the forces of light and darkness that has no end in sight.
It is the kind of life that can hollow someone out and leave them a husk of the person they were before. It can harden a soft-hearted individual and make them like unrelenting armor in the face of love, hate, good and evil. But most crushing of all is the expectations laid upon the paladin. The world expects everything from these holy knights. They expect the shining hero. They demand the pillar of justice. They need the unattainable goal to aspire to.
So the paladin plays the part. They believe in it. They follow their codes and tenets, suffer through church politics, do everything that is demanded of them and beyond, not because it is something they want to do, bit rather it is something that they must do. The cause is bigger than they are. They are but a small speck in the larger picture, but even a floating speck of dust can reflect a small amount of light.
Such demands would crush lesser people. Paladins, true paladins, are not lesser people. Through their life and experience, they become the unattainable. What choice do they have?
Why Do You Want To Become A Paladin?
But if the life of a paladin is so hard, why would anyone want to become one? Why would someone want to basically sign away the rest of their life in service to a God or Goddess, where a brutal death at the hands of something truly evil is almost guaranteed?
That is the big question you need to ask yourself if you are thinking about picking up that longsword and smiting something nasty. What would compel your character to want to abandon their old life to give what is left of it to the cause of the paladin?
- Redemption: You were not always a nice person (hell, you might not be one now). You did terrible things for terrible reasons. You could have been a bandit, a corrupt official, a cruel noble, or even a murderer. At some point, you had an epiphany and the weight of all the awful things you had done came crashing down on you like a tsunami. You have resolved to make amends for past wrongdoings by walking the path of light, leaving your life of sin and evil behind to become something better than what you were to stop those just like you.
Perhaps the deeds were not yours, but those of a friend or family member. You may feel responsible for whatever heinous acts they performed, and so you shoulder the burden of ensuring that their steep debt is paid in your blood, sweat, and tears.
- Revenge: You lost someone or were wronged by some creature of pure evil. Whatever the case, the life you once knew was over, and someone or something would pay dearly. Evil has caused a great deal of suffering for a great many people, and you think it is about time you brought the suffering back to the source. Evil must pay, and you are the collector. You take the paladin's oaths and resolve to fight and destroy villains wherever you find them. There is a storm coming, and you are a tempest of unforgiving justice.
"Lawful Good does not always translate into Lawful Nice."
- Protection: You want to help people, to keep them safe. This drives you, down to the very core of your being. Your soul aches watching others have to suffer, and so you wish to take that suffering away and bear the brunt of it. You are selfless. You vow to keep evil from bringing harm to others, an impossible task, and yet you will do it. You are an immovable wall, stemming the tide of evil. It may crash into you, but it shall break upon your resolve.
- Keeping A Promise: You were once saved by someone or defended someone before they took their final breath. Whatever the case, you made a promise to that person, be it a family member, a good friend, or even a total stranger. That promise has lead to walk the bright but lonely path of the paladin. The promise is the driving force behind your every action. It is the first thought in your mind when you wake up and the last one before you slip into slumber. The promise is up to you, and may never be able to be fulfilled. That isn't the point. The point is that you are going to see it through to whatever end it leads you to.
- Living Up To A Legacy: Heroism is in your blood. Your family has secured its place in history as defenders and punishers of evil. A lot is expected of you. The deeds of your parents, grandparents, of however many generations you line goes back are legendary. They are the stuff of bardic tales of daring and danger. You have long stood in their shadow, but now it is your time to step into the light and make a name for yourself. Will you be able to live up to the expectations?
The World, The Law, And The Paladin's Perspective
This prospect has crushed more than one paladin's spirit. But those that can endure this realization come out stronger for it, because they realize something most don't. Something that gives them hope in their darkest hours and forces them to fight harder than they ever thought possible. They come to understand that while evil will always be a thriving entity, there are those who are good and just that will always stand against it. Even if they are outmatched and hopelessly outnumbered, good people will always answer the call to beat back the darkness.
You are such a person.
One of the most common misconceptions about paladins is that they never falter. Nothing could be further from the truth. Paladins, at least any decent one, struggle with hard truths and harder choices of morality. Some of those difficult choices have a good deal to do with the law.
The laws of the land vary from place to place. With each new land and kingdom come new societies, new customs, and new interpretations of the law, and what is considered good. In some lands it may be perfectly legal to own slaves or for knights to cut down peasants that get in their way. To those who have sworn to uphold the laws, this can be frustrating, especially when a law doesn't fall into the paladin's purview of good, or conflicts with their personally held ideals and morals.
In those instances, it is easy for the paladin to look the other way. But you are a creature with an unprecedented conviction. You would not have chosen this path unless you had a good understanding of what was right and what was wrong. What is important is knowing the difference between what others find just, and what you find just. This could lead to some uncomfortable situations. You could become the target of powerful people. You could become a criminal.
Stand fast. Stick to your convictions. A great paladin once said, "Doesn't matter what the press says. Doesn't matter what the politicians and the mobs say. Doesn't matter if the whole country decides something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all others: Stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant your feet like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world -- 'No, you move.'"
"Also, Hail Hydra... I guess?"
Death, And What It Means To A Paladin
Everyone dies. It is no different for the paladin. In fact, believe it or not, being a righteous pillar of good tends to make you a target for... well, all evil ever. That shining armor, white cape, and heroic stride might as well be a bullseye. Killing off paladins makes more creatures happy than I am sure you'd be comfortable knowing. Suffice to say, the mortality rate and turnover for the defenders of the faith tends to leave a constant amount of key positions open.
Yes, adventurers don't often make it to retirement age. Paladins, though... oh man. They get destroyed on a daily basis. Usually in a series of bizarre, horrific, and occasionally comical ways, and more often than not at the hands of outsiders like devils and demons who are at best the physical embodiment of pure evil, and at worse all that but on fire.
But while the rest of the world may be collectively shitting themselves in terror, the paladin draws their sword, strides ahead without an ounce of fear, and says to the manifestation of their inevitable demise, "I'm going to make you pine for the pits of hell before I'm done with you."
Is it because they are badasses? Sure. But mostly because they do not fear death. Why would they? They are fighting the good fight in service to their God. Do you think said God is just going to turn their back when a Balor tears them in half? Hells no! They will pump enough divine power into that holy knight to turn it into an a-bomb of justice, and after they've exploded on evil, they will welcome the paladin home. After a hard life, countless struggles, and unwavering devotion, a paladin doesn't fear death, they welcome it like one welcomes an old friend, because now, finally they no longer need to bear the burden of holding up impossible expectations.
They can finally rest. That is the final reward of a paladin.
So, do you think you can do it? Can you wear the mantle, shoulder the burden, and play a class which, let's face it, comes with more restrictions than any other (and for good reason)? If you want a challenge, with a milt-layered character with a lot to prove, a lot to endure, and a lot to live up to, all while trying to remain that untarnished example that inspires children to become heroes, then try the paladin on. But be warned, it is not for everyone. Before you decide, remember that it's not just the paladin swearing the oaths, it is the player too.
Disclaimer: You may be wondering what happened to the evil paladins. The chaotic paladins. The anti-paladins and gray guards and the never-ending gobstoppers. I chose to exclude them this time around to focus on the more classic incarnation of the paladin. If you are really interested in hearing about the rest, let me know and I will give them a treatment of their own.
Roll well, my friends,
+Ed The Bard
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