Playing Paladins: Knights, Gods, and Broken Promises

This is the second in a two-part feature on Paladins. This part is meant to cover character options, adventure hooks, and roleplaying advice. The first part, Swear to God, covered the class’s origins, potential role in relation to other classes, and how they might fit into a setting.

Playing a Paladin says something not only about the character you are playing, but the world in which your character exists. It says that your character is martially skilled, but has devoted a part of themselves – maybe the best of themselves – to a pursuit beyond deadly skill. It also says that there is a difference between being a devout warrior (Fighter), a priest in heavy armor (Cleric), and the divinely gifted champion of a sacred oath (Paladin).

Whether that division makes sense to you at first glance becomes irrelevant, though I previously attempted to explore those dividing lines, because once the world has Paladins in it there is a difference.

The question then becomes, “How do we make that difference interesting?”

The Crucible

Why are some people touched with divine purpose and not others? By default, without the structure of a specific setting or organization, the oaths that the Paladins swear can be seen as intensely personal even if they follow a pre-existing set of tenets. It would seem to be a pretty simple matter: idealistic hero swears upon being knighted that he will always be true, wandering soldier lost in the forest is struck by a vision he pledges his soul to protect, grieving daughter vows to hunt the creatures who killed her family.

But then why doesn’t every knight who really means it, or vengeance-filled warrior who can think of nothing else, become a Paladin?

Below are a few possible reasons, which can even be combined if you’d like, for DMs to work into their games or characters to work into their histories. For fun, a player might decide that a character that is not a Paladin attempted an approach appropriate to the setting at hand.

You Cannot Lie In Your Heart – It really is ephemeral, an alchemical miracle that happens only when the right mindset and purity of purpose line up precisely. It’s not exactly fair and it’s not anything that can be rigorously tested, because it is just that rare and powerful. Much like the comic book superhero Thor’s hammer may only be wielded by the unspecified “worthy,” to the point where the same characters have been able or unable to pick it up at different points in their lives or perfectly heroic individuals just did not qualify, it is a unique but outwardly arbitrary measure. Taken a step further, it may mean that Paladins are extremely rare.

• The Words Were Already Here The universe – or gods, or ancient heroes, or primordial forces – is structured in such a way that the formation of certain bonds is SERIOUS BUSINESS and gets recognized as such by whatever the origin of the Paladin’s power is. In this scenario it is not enough to have sincere intent, but a particular form must be followed. This approach can either be presented as something similar to religious rituals, in which case a would-be Paladin may need to convince those who are responsible for carrying out the ritual or passing on the knowledge that he is deserving, or almost like a Warlock’s pacts (though it is less a contracted exchange than a statement of intent or pledge of loyalty to a shared cause).

Fire Walk With Me – In order to even be considered the individual has to undergo some test of their character or soul in order to be in the right frame of mind to truly bind themselves with such an oath. A little bit different than a ritual or a quest, this usually involves a mystic or mental test; the metaphorical weighing of the supplicant’s heart, the vigil where they are beset by phantom enemies, the vision quest where the decisions they make reveal their true nature, or reacting to a scenario that pits them against their greatest fear. This approach could also just mean that the powers granting the gifts don’t even pay attention to just anyone.

• By These Labors You Will Know Me – This is very similar to the one immediately above, but involves a pilgrimage or series of trials instead of a more mental or spiritual exercise. In the Poul Anderson work that inspired much of the D&D Paladin class it was completing his quest for a specific sword that triggered the main character’s moment of clarity and power, allowing him to use the power of Law to dispatch Chaos, and many other heroes throughout history have faced similar challenges. Maybe the necessary lessons are learned in the journey, maybe it’s about demonstrating that the investment of power will not be wasted, and maybe it is just about needing to be in the right place (like an Oath of Vengeance needing to be sworn on the grave of a distant ancestor).

One thing to note is that, while it is not an angle I often take, all of these could also be applied to a version of the class where the faith or devotion of Paladins alone is what fuels their abilities.

Shaped By A New Purpose

Even though the class does not officially take their oaths until 3rd level, the individual members are already on the path to those words the minute they take the 1st. What put them there? What pointed them in that direction?

Something makes them start to take the tenets, maybe even before they know what the tenets are, into their hearts before they fully bind themselves to the words. Here are some thoughts on why:

Oaths of Vengeance – This one is first because it is maybe the easiest one to imagine being the result of an event in the character’s life. Luke Skywalker finding his aunt & uncle’s burned bodies, young Bruce Wayne crying over his parents’ bodies (an example I like because it’s often said Batman is driven by a desire to prevent that from happening to anyone else), and John Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards discovering the wreckage of his brother’s family are just a handful of moments that might create a future Paladin of this type. It is also possible that it wasn’t one single act, of course, though deciding after a lifetime of slavery that he will destroy an empire carries the same sort of weight.

Another approach entirely is that there is an organization that gathers and trains those prone to this particular sort of zealotry. An order of knights made up entirely of those orphaned by orc raids, or wars against the elves, who will not rest until the evil their enemies commit is stopped for good.

Oaths of the Ancients – The most common origins for characters of this mindset will be cultures that dwell in or value ancient places of nature, and of all the oaths it is the one most likely inspired by moments of awe. While those who swear to uphold this brand of tenets tend to wear the trappings of the wild, and it is easy to see them as nothing but knights of nature, it is important to remember that ultimately the oaths are about declaring oneself for the side of Light in a far greater cosmic struggle. There is room here for anyone who might be struck to the depths of their heart with joyful love of beauty or hope, who defends growth and the spread of kindness, above all else.

Organizations, and even secret orders considering the focus on good over law, could certainly be central to the development of those who choose this path. Another tact entirely is someone who in a moment of need or doubt or facing an overwhelming manifestation of evil could stumble across a sacred place that provides a life-changing – or life-saving – moment of inspiration.

Oaths of Devotion – I saved these for last simply because they have been the default in the history of Paladins for so very long that many of the more obvious variations, and edgy reactions to those variations, have been explored time and again. The classic form is that of knights and their squires, taking oaths upon knighthood that hold them to a high standard while always striving to be greater, or monastic orders of holy knights who seek to hew ever closer to the perfection of (or the impossible ideals of) their divine inspiration. My previous post went on a bit about where such tropes come from and how they can be adapted to this class. There is also the possibility of divine inspiration, in the form of visions or dreams, leading someone to hold to the high ideals of an oath like this in the hopes they could one day be worthy.

However a more unusual twist would be to reverse that perspective, to imagine how someone who has witnessed wrong action again and again – perhaps targeting themselves or loved ones – might devote themselves more and more fully to becoming the opposite of what they have experienced. Where they have seen corruption they will bring justice, where they have been the victim of hate they will bring compassion, and where they have felt the sting of betrayal they will speak only honest words.

Plot TwistA character who was set on the path to eventually take one sort of Oath but abandoned that path early on, or has a powerful change of heart due to events in-game during the first two levels, could make for a good deal of gaming fodder. What do their former compatriots think about this? What do they think of who they used to be? What sort of “bad” behavior are they now forced to unlearn? Think cold knights who have had their hearts melted by the majesty of the old places, or the keeper of an ancient grove who has seen it burned to the ground by foul powers.

If Everything’s Made To Be Broken

Breaking the Oath is fine.

It’s the source of the Paladin’s power, it is the anchor of their daily life, it may even be all that holds them back from becoming someone they don’t want to be. How can it be fine?

This seems counter-intuitive from a character point-of-view, and it may be scandalous for some groups that have had bad experiences, but hear me out.

Remember the Knights of the Round Table? These men were not flawless pillars of chivalric perfection, they were morality plays! Lancelot was ostensibly the greatest knight in Christendom, and he couldn’t keep true to his pledge of loyalty. King Arthur is the hero king who founded a dream kingdom, but between his lust and his pride he sewed the seeds of his own downfall. Sir Gawain is known for his courage and self-sacrifice, but is often portrayed as more prone to violence and as someone who chose to keep a powerful gift rather than keep his word.

And sometimes they were put into positions where there was no right answer, like swearing an oath to obey or assist a party whose history and goals were more complex than they appeared.

These are people who may not be fun to play to their tragic ends, though that is always an entertaining option, but who show that the pursuit of perfect dedication can be made more interesting when doing so is a struggle.

Similarly, the historical knights of the monastic orders were blooded warriors who were trying to keep to their idea of virtue in the midst of incredibly nasty wars and often-dubious actions on behalf of their cause. The person of faith who is haunted by guilt, whose belief falters in the face of despair, or who must weigh what they believe is just versus what they believe is due? These are amazing opportunities.

The problem is when they become traps for the player, and not just moments of drama for a character. A Paladin is going to understand their oath as well as almost any other being in the setting, though a Paladin who is explicitly granted power by a deity they come to disagree with about the meaning of the tenets could be a fun turn, and if the DM thinks a player is walking their character over the line then the player should absolutely get a clear notice to that effect.

Players should definitely have an opportunity to lay the foundation of these struggles for themselves, with the DM getting fuel to burn in future scenarios, so that everyone is aware of what might happen once the Shield-Maiden of the North gets put in a spot where her Compassion is pitted against her “A lifetime of betrayal has made me distrustful of strangers.”

There’s also the fun that can be had when the characters are given more to lose; a Paladin might have a Duke they have sworn to serve in war, or a Church that expects absolute obedience, and when reputation or prestige is also on the line things get more interesting.

And, of course, some people want to play Captain America in full-plate – planting themselves like a tree by the river of truth and staring evil/temptation/society in the eye without a moment of doubt even if it costs them everything – which is fine as long as everyone is on the same page.

When trying to decide what form reconciliation or absolution should take, consider the method of becoming a Paladin, the source of the Paladin’s power, and the nature of what set them on that path in the first place.

As long as it’s remembered that sometimes falling or getting back on the path, whether it’s a short scene of reconciliation or a small quest, can be damn fine gaming.

Variant Rule: Oath Characteristics For Paladins

Characteristics – Ideals, Bonds, Personality Traits, and Flaws – are usually either developed by the player or selected from appropriate lists during character creation based on a given Background. In the case of Paladins, however, their origins and oaths are often presented as transformative experiences that may change how they behave or see the world.

For that reason, and because adjusting the amount of struggle an individual Paladin might have with the oaths can be very helpful, Paladins should look through the suggested characteristics from the various Backgrounds and take one of two options:

1) Reinforcement – Use the Personality Trait as an opportunity to show some of who your character was before they became a Paladin, a quirk or sign of what their life was like before they were put on the path they’ve chosen now. The Ideal and Bond should tie directly into the Tenets of your character’s Oath, while the Flaw relates to ways in which your character’s attempts to follow those Tenets cause him problems in a world that might not share the same values.

2) Balance – This is similar to Reinforcement, with two major differences. The Bond should tie into some aspect of the character’s personal life or history, which is not opposed to the Tenets but is seemingly unrelated. Then either the Personality Trait or the Flaw should actually be something which you can easily see running counter to one of the Tenets of the Oath under certain conditions. If your character’s time as an Urchin means they “I tend to answer questions in a roundabout way” or “When under pressure I lie for more time” these might be impulses which the character suppresses most of the time due to their pledge of Honesty, but could crop up at an opportune moment.

3) Conflict – In this case the character’s Personality Trait is an opportunity to show some of who your character was before they became a Paladin, a quirk or sign of what their life was like before they were put on the path they’ve chosen now. The Ideal should tie directly into the Tenets of your character’s Oath, while the Bond nshould be a tie to the world that presents a strong opportunity for future conflict with the nature of the character’s Oath (an example might be “I will always take my sister’s side against any opposition” or “I have sworn to bring my lord’s killer to the King’s justice” when either of those could bite the character at a future date). The Flaw should be something that represents ways the character’s nature makes it difficult for them to follow one particular Tenet, like a Paladin of Vengeance who has “I tend to view people in bad situations as somehow responsible for their lot” even though they’ve sworn to provide Restitution when appropriate.

This will help signal to the DM what approach to the potential breaking of an Oath you would prefer to take, in order of degree, as well as give you handy incentive to pursue character traits that reflect those choices long after character creation has faded from memory.