Swear To God: What You Need To Know About Paladins

This is the first in a two-part feature on Paladins. This first part covers the class’s origins, potential role in relation to other classes, and how they might fit into a setting. The second part, ‘Playing Paladins: Knights, Gods, and Broken Promises’ will include character options, adventure hooks, and roleplaying advice.

The hero in heavy armor, who carries a weapon like it was second nature and moves with a confidence that can only come from absolute certainty of purpose. They can be deadly combatants, expert strategists, and the most dedicated of companions.

But am I talking about a particularly dedicated Fighter, or your average Paladin?

And where exactly does the Paladin’s extra mojo come from, anyway?

Determining what it means to be a Paladin and how they are different from Fighters – or even particular flavors of Cleric – is more important than most other types of character overlap, because the Paladin’s required adherence to their oath becomes sticky when everyone is coming at it from a different context.

So, let’s begin with some context that will shed light on where they stand in relation to their sibling classes.

This Is My Sword, There Are Many Like It…

The origins of the Paladin in Dungeons & Dragons lie primarily in the novel Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson. In that story a man out of time finds himself in a version of Europe straight out of folklore; the legendary 12 Peers (also called Paladins) of Charlemagne are living heroes, the Faerie realm of Chaos threatens mortal kingdoms of Law (who are themselves in combat over Spain), while the man’s own companions are a swan maiden and a dwarf.

At the climax of the story the man discovers he is simultaneously himself and another legendary figure, a champion of Law who is part of the 12 Peers, before vanquishing the forces of Chaos before finding himself in the present (WWII for him) where a burst of supernatural strength saves the day there as well.

Right here we have the first inkling of what makes a Paladin more than a Fighter, different than a Cleric; he has the trappings of a knight, but stands for more than his lord by becoming a force of Law over Chaos. To put it another way: it’s not enough to be the best with a sword if you are not the one who can wield it at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons.

So where did that idea come from? Because, while an individual knight or lord may get all philosophical about their role in the grand scheme of things, a knight wasn’t by nature anything quite so poetic. The requirements for the title changed somewhat depending on the time or place, but at its core knighthood was a title granted by a ruler to individuals who were willing and able to provide high-end military service in exchange. In Europe the common gear a knight was required to own themselves was heavy armor, appropriate weaponry, and a good horse.

High ideal, romantic notions of knighthood came from stories, like those of King Arthur.

Which were in turn inspired by the chivalric orders.

Which were probably ripping off the monastic military orders.

None of whom were just scary men with swords and armor.

The Holy Man In A Tin Can

But why not a Cleric?

A Cleric is defined by his relationship with the object of his devotion; whether a traditional priest who has been given a great honor or a simple follower whose connection exists on a fundamental level, the Cleric fights or heals or preaches as an extension of a higher power. Maybe his god assigns them duties from on high, or maybe following an ancient wisdom lets him feel the cosmic satisfaction of a right action, but his remit is generally a very broad one.

If they have to fight, then they will fight, so they’re not bad at it.

A Paladin is defined by her oaths, and those oaths come from a tradition of people dedicated to fighting.

In the history of the real world the military orders were created by would-be monks who did not wish to be the weapon of a noble lord but also felt that violent action on behalf of their fellow believers was necessary, and so the Knights Templar were founded to protect pilgrims traveling through dangerous areas. The vows commonly associated with monks – poverty, chastity, obedience – had one more, dedicated to taking up arms on behalf of the order’s purpose, added to their list (though some did have non-combat focuses, nuns, and even non-martial members). These warriors answered to their Church and some powerful rulers, but were only loosely aligned with any chain of command other than their own.

Armed, and armored, men of piety who (ostensibly) cared more about an ideal of Good or Order than more mundane concerns. Sounds familiar, right?

After the general success of the military orders, nobles and kings got the idea of creating chivalric orders. Membership to these orders was sometimes treated as a prestigious award, and the oaths they swore or names they took often related somehow to an ideal or higher standard of behavior. Which was quite the clever move, if you think about it; previously the knights in a realm might care only about their own honor, or the needs of their lord, and could end up doing serious damage with rivalries or in-fighting. Now the other knights were not just dangerous individuals you might have to kill some day, they were your sworn brother as part of an elite club which was led by one man. Courtly love, perfect religious devotion, and sometimes impractical codes of martial conduct in the service of being a “true knight” were the order of the day.

The 12 Peers and Knights of the Round Table were inspired by these groups.

What do they have in common? They were both about applying oaths, shaped by a greater purpose that usually takes the form of religion, to the deadly matter of battle.

Whisper Words of Wisdom

With all that talk of high ideals and religion, there’s an obvious question: “Where does the power of a Paladin’s oaths come from?”

There are a few potential answers, and each carries its own interesting implications:

1) The Gods: If being a Paladin means being the military arm of a religion, or the church of a particular deity, then it may seem natural to have the power of the oaths be an extension of that. Maybe just by swearing a particular sort of oath they summon a little bit of divine favor, a blessing they wrap around themselves for as long as they remain true, and the god in question is the final judge of a Paladin’s faithfulness. If not a god per se, any sort of patron spirit or intelligent power would fill the same role.

2) Primal Forces: A god might be happy to have a follower with so much fervor sworn to their cause, but what if the Paladin is actually tapping into larger powers when they devote themselves to a particular philosophy or ideal? In a world where Good and Evil drive entire realms, or Chaos struggles with Law in the hearts of the gods themselves, maybe the gifts these warriors are granted come from being chosen as champions in that struggle. A deity or a spirit might act as a guide, but the only true standard is dedication to the cause.

3) Fate: If it is a world where words mean things and a properly witnessed oath is sealed with a power of its own, sincerely swearing your entire life in service of a great cause under a relatively harsh code would perhaps have a power all of its own. Making a vow, then, is a promise to the universe itself that creates for the Paladin a new destiny. Or maybe it’s the potential of all that the Paladin will one day accomplish, evil undone and souls saved from ignominious doom, flowing back into him for as long as he stays on that path.

Whatever the case, one thing a DM should always remember is this: Breaking the Oath is ok. I will talk about this more in the next post, but (unless a character is walking away from their vows with no intent of looking back) framing the breaking of an oath as an opportunity for character growth or time in the spotlight – rather than as a punishment to player and character alike – is always the better option. Especially because breaking the oath, which pretty much no one in the world should know more about than the Paladin, should never come as a surprise.

Moments of doubt, situations with no easy answers, wavering faith, misplaced guilt, and even full on redemption stories? These are chances for good gaming, good on a player who wants to explore them, not an excuse to make someone wait until their character is “fixed.”


4 thoughts on “Swear To God: What You Need To Know About Paladins

Add yours

  1. By the way: Thoughts and feedback are very welcome! I’ve seen a number of interesting comments and I want more before I make my next post! 🙂


  2. I’m enjoying posts like these because a paladin can be a very complex creature, but they’re often seen as plain, and simply “goody-two-shoes” characters. There’s a lot to be explored, I think, in where they draw their power and you’ve brought up solid direction to look.

    I wanted to touch on something I always think about when looking at a paladin, and what I find is commonly missed. An oath is personal, it’s not just an oath to something, some god, or some ideal, it is of course, but it’s also an oath to yourself. You have vowed to BECOME the ideal, not simply uphold it and persecute others for breaking it. You will be the gold standard, the icon, the image, you are an example to everybody that despite the darkness, despite the overwhelming odds you can stand true. You are proof.

    A vow, the oath, is the strongest part of a paladin, he will give anything, even his life to uphold it. That’s why breaking an oath is so strong, and so meaningful. It’s not simply going against your god while he’s not looking, or getting away with something just this once, it’s choosing to do the right thing in the face of everything you have ever sought to accomplish and achieve. By extension you are choosing somebody else over everything you’ve ever done and possibly your future. That small unhonest act another party member does isn’t a big deal for him, but a paladin doing the same thing is, it’s a chip in his vow, a crack in his courage to stand forever indomitable. That doesn’t mean a paladin can’t do something unhonest, it depends on the oath, his beliefs, his own personal ideals.

    It sounds like a huge deal, maybe like I’m painting this with slightly stronger strokes then I need to, but I feel that’s what a paladin is about. If she wasn’t riding that line between breaking her oath and keeping it, she wouldn’t be a true paladin, if she wasn’t on the battlefield, facing great evil or overwhelming odds she wouldn’t be perusing her oath to the fullest possible extent.

    I especially like your closing paragraph and I agree that taking pali powers away is simply unimaginative, there’s so much to explore in breaking an oath. I, for one, greatly appreciate not alignment locking the paladin, which is why I love the concept of an oath.

    I await your next installment!

    Liked by 1 person

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