Characters with Class: Paladins

King Arthur. Aragorn the Ranger. Joan of Arc. The Twelve Peers of Charlemagne. These are paladins—knights sworn to uphold a particular cause, holy warriors devoted to a deity or virtue, and the shiniest of shiny knights.

In D&D and other fantasy RPGs, paladins tend to be a hybrid warrior/priest class. Big swords, thick armor, loud boasts about good and justice. All that sort of thing.

Look at that posture. Clearly a paladin.

ABILITIES

Throughout the editions of D&D, paladins have been defined by:

1) Their divine abilities, which are similar but not quite the same as those of clerics. They tend to have a much more specific, restricted spell list. Paladins tend to be more specialized as healers (lay on hands, cure disease, etc). Sometimes they’ve been able to turn undead, sometimes not. 5e has made an effort to create paladins of distinct types, which has been largely effective (see archetypes, below).

2) Their fighting ability, which is higher than that of a cleric but not as high as that of a pure fighter. In 2e, paladins had full attack progression (better than clerics) but couldn’t specialize in weapons (as fighters could). Paladins are typically considered front-line fighters and off-role support, as their magical abilities aren’t quite up to being a dedicated support caster, let alone a designated controller.

3) Their smite ability, which has taken on various forms throughout the editions. In early editions, it was a limited # of times per day to gain a bonus to attack an “evil” creature. 3e broke it into more specific smites (smiting evil, smiting chaos, etc), and then 4e turned the smites into various encounter/daily abilities that could be used on any target (going along with the graying out of the alignment system). 5e has paladins sacrifice spell slots to cause additional damage on a smiting attack (any target), and paladins can also cast specific smite spells for specific effects.

4) A strict code of conduct…

So Lawful Good I ride a UNICORN, n00bs! (art by sandara.deviantart.com)

TO GOOD LAWFULLY OR NOT TO LAWFULLY GOOD

In the earliest editions of the game, paladins had to follow a very specific, very restrictive code of conduct and alignment. They had to be lawful good. They had to vow to support charity and smite evil and defend the weak and helpless and, well, be lawful good. And depending on how draconian your DM felt like being at the time, if you stopped being lawful good for as little as ONE SECOND–if you took one wrong step or did one wrong thing–then BAM, all those fancy paladin powers were out the window. You might be able to atone with a quest (story hook, anyone?) or you might just be a mediocre fighter for the rest of your gaming life. (Sucks about all those missing feats, brah.)

And as long as people have played with Truth, Justice, and the Faerunian Way sorts of Paladins, gamers have loved the concept of the EVIL paladin. The anti-paladin. The blackguard. The chaos paladin. The dark paladin. The death knight.

Some of them used to be paladins, and lore abounds with this “fall from grace” sort of story: paladins who made a mistake that cost them their powers, and they became twisted champions of evil. Lord Soth from Ravenloft, Scyllua Darkhope from the Forgotten Realms, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader from Star Wars. (Um, spoiler alert.)

Some, however, were always evil—were anointed by a dark god or swore their service to a foul depravity, rather than a virtue. And so was born the concept of the blackguard. The blackguard was a prestige class in 3e, which was mechanically similar to a paladin but evil—all their powers reveled in darkness, rather than good. 4e removed the alignment restrictions altogether, so you could play a paladin of any alignment—a holy warrior sworn to any cause—and produced the blackguard base class. 5e also has no alignment restrictions.

Lord Soth, for when Lawful Good just isn’t LAWFUL enough…

ARCHETYPES

At first, when D&D was young, the “knight in shining armor” sort of paladin was your only option. You had high strength, decent wisdom, and a punishingly high charisma requirement (2e required you to have a charisma of 17 to play a paladin). And then your character was basically a shining example to the world. Many people played paladins like self-righteous jerks who eventually crossed the rest of the party ,but a paladin doesn’t have to be that, even while being lawful good (see my post about Lawful alignments for more on this subject).

3e broadened the paladin’s horizons with an official blackguard prestige class, which is mechanically linked with paladins (basically, they have almost identical abilities, but themed for causing harm and evil, rather than healing wounds and good, down to a Smite Good ability). The rogue/paladin Shadowbane Inquisitor (ahem, gee, wonder if *that* was a coincidence) prestige class from Complete Adventurer also showed us that paladins could be something other than straight up fighters, while the Grey Guard from Complete Scoundrel gave gamers an avenue to bend the inflexible moral requirements of being a paladin in pursuit of a greater good.

I feel like he’s trying to tell us something here…

4e allowed paladins of any alignment, allowing holy warriors of various causes, and also produced the Avenger base class, which is similar to a paladin in many ways (more like a rogue/paladin). 4e produced the Blackguard base class, which is kinda like a paladin, but different—more of a striker than a defender, an avenger rather than a protector.

5e has really delved into what a paladin could be other than the knight in shining armor and the dark champion of villainy. You can certainly play the classic, protector, valorous paladin, or you can play the paladin whose powers come from the land and who has sworn oaths to protect the ways of the ancients, or you can play a gritty, obsessed with vengeance upon their enemies sort of paladin. The archetype system in 5e is really a powerful tool for both mechanical and roleplaying opportunities.

The Paladin: calm, serene, noble–can kick your ass twelve ways to Sunday.

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Facets of Alignment: Lawful

Caveat: This is a topic that has been, is being, and will be argued for time immemorial. So YMMV, of course.

I think of “Lawful” as a pattern of behavior that is organized and relies upon rules and systems to make things work. Discipline and “the rules” are how lawful people live their lives. Lawful people tend to be methodical, rigorous in sticking to a routine, and follow a very specific pattern of how they do what they do. Sometimes this makes them predictable, though sometimes they are very adept at outside-the-box thinking that can surprise opponents. While that may seem like a fundamentally chaotic thing, it only appears that way to an outside observer: a Lawful Neutral bounty hunter’s MO, for instance, might always include finding new and innovative ways to surprise a mark.

I’m going to give examples from comics, video games, and my own books to exemplify these alignments–note that these aren’t necessarily perfect examples, as many of these characters have had countless iterations and visualizations and you can argue lots of exceptions. A lot of these characters (particularly the LN ones) have good or evil tendencies, and that’s fine. In the case of Geralt, for instance, choices you make while playing the games he’s in can push him in a good or evil direction–he isn’t strictly neutral. These characters are sentient creatures who aren’t uniform in their behavior. Alignment isn’t a straight-jacket–it’s a general tool for describing behavior and outlook.

Lawful Good

A Lawful Good person believes in law and order being tools for the benefit of all, and will follow the laws of the land so long as the higher ideal of justice is served. A Lawful Good person has a strong sense of compassion and prioritizes helping those in need, even if it’s dangerous to do so. They are often extremely driven people, unable to tolerate injustice or stand by and do nothing.

Lawful Good types will be extremely uncomfortable with the very concept of bending the rules, much less breaking them, even if it’s for the greater good, in a way that a Neutral Good person would not mind as much, while a Chaotic Good person would advocate for breaking oppressive rules as the best course.

Superman, Defender of Truth, Justice, and the American Way

Examples: Superman is Lawful Good. Obi-Wan Kenobi is Lawful Good. Daredevil is Lawful Good. Triss Merrigold is Lawful Good. Kalen “Shadowbane” Dren is Lawful Good.

Lawful Neutral

A Lawful Neutral person believes in law and order for their own sake, basically “those are the rules and we should obey them because they’re the rules.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that a LN person always obeys the laws of the land they’re in, particularly as a traveler, but they always have a set of strictures or a code that they follow to the letter, and generally they default to a basic respect for the laws of the land, as in “those are the rules that others follow, and they follow them for a reason.” They are often thought of as mercenary or “just following orders” types.

There is a hierarchy of rules: a Lawful Neutral person will only violate an existing law if it comes in conflict with a more important law, and then usually with great discomfort. They may or may not put on the appearance of being good and are sometimes described as being amoral or unfeeling (which is sometimes accurate).

A True Neutral person doesn’t cleave to the law in this way, while a Chaotic Neutral person may have similar priorities to a Lawful Neutral person (getting paid to do a job, for instance) but goes about it totally differently, ignoring or violating rules and expectations as a matter of course.

Geralt of Rivia, Witcher

Examples: The Punisher is Lawful Neutral. Mace Windu is Lawful Neutral. Dexter Morgan is Lawful Neutral. Gerald of Rivia is Lawful Neutral. Levia Shadewalker (Shadowbane 3) is Lawful Neutral.

Lawful Evil

A Lawful Evil person believes in law and order as a means for securing their own power and dominance. The rules are important, primarily because they can be exploited to disadvantage others. A Lawful Evil traveler pays only lip service to the laws of the land that conflict with their own personal code and set of strictures, and will ignore those laws they consider to be weaker than their own or worthless. A Lawful Evil person seeks power through organization and alliance, relying upon others to provide them the support they need to achieve their goals, which involve crushing their rivals.

Neutral Evil people may take advantage of laws but don’t feel much compunction about violating them or working outside them at the drop of a hat, while Chaotic Evil people usually revel in defying laws and rules and will gleefully shirk them whenever possible.

Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith

Examples: Lex Luthor is Lawful Evil. Two-Face is Lawful Evil. Ra’s Al Ghul and his daughter Talia are Lawful Evil. The Red Skull is Lawful Evil. Doctor Doom is Lawful Evil. Darth Vader is Lawful Evil. Vengeance (from Shadowbane 3) is Lawful Evil.