The paladin is one of the iconic figures of fantasy RPGs. Stalwart and noble, these knights in shining armor are conduits to the divine, and sources of hope and goodness in a world often plagued with darkness. At the same time, though, they are uniquely mortal, and just as their strengths are magnified, so too are their weaknesses. A paladin who loses her way is cut off from the power of the gods, and has to climb up the mountain to once again redeem herself. Some paladins take the divergent path, though, and reach out to the forces of evil instead, becoming perverse reflections of what they once were. Bloody warriors who inflict cruelty and death on all those around them, and whose black-stained hearts give even true fiends pause.
Paladins, when put in the hands of an experienced, skillful player, are compelling characters. Martial champions, trusted confidants, and spiritual leaders, paladins can often be the heart of a party, bringing out the best in their companions. Unfortunately, we've all heard stories about what happens when the wrong player gets a paladin, or about Dungeon Masters who single out paladins for particular hate. This class, almost more than any other, is a lightning rod for controversy.
If you're a Pathfinder player, these 5 tips should make it a lot easier for you to enjoy playing a paladin, and for you to sidestep the traps waiting for you. Players using alternative systems may still find these tips to be of use, but remember that this is by no means a universal guide.
Let's get started, shall we?
Also, I've written one list for each of the core classes! If you're interested in checking those out, simply go to 5 Tips For Playing Better Base Classes (The Complete List).
Lastly, if you're looking for more great gaming insights, check out my blog Improved Initiative!
Design A Specific Paladin Code
The paladin's code, mentioned on page 63, states that paladins must retain a lawful good alignment, and act honorably. And while the book gives some general examples, like respecting legitimate authority, helping those in need, and punishing those who harm innocents, it's important to talk to your DM and nail down the specific tenets of your code before the game gets started.
This might sound unnecessary, but it's important to make sure you and your DM are on the same page regarding what standards you expect to be held to, since your code essentially decides whether you get to keep your powers. For example, you are supposed to respect legitimate authority. You are also supposed to punish those who harm innocents. What happens if you are in another nation, and you see a lord beat a slave for no reason? Do you respect his right to do that, because the laws of this nation declare it is legal, or do you take the lord to task, and free the slave of the inhumane bonds he was put under?
There are all sorts of ways you can look at this situation, but if you nail down the specifics of your code beforehand, complete with order of importance for each vow, then there will be no argument. For example, your paladin might have a descending order of priorities, with, "protect the innocent," at the top, and, "respect those in authority," somewhere near the bottom. In this case you, and your DM, have agreed that protecting the innocent, and freeing slaves from their bonds, take priority over following the laws of a nation.
There are dozens of ways you can do this, from creating your own code based on the gods or philosophies your paladin follows, to taking real world codes of conduct like chivalry or bushido and applying them to your PC. Whatever you choose to do, though, it needs to be done in concert with your DM so you are both on the same page regarding what rules you have to follow.
Decide Your Temptation
Part of what makes paladins so compelling is the ever-present risk of the fall from grace. While you can lose your powers thoughtlessly, it's a good idea to know what would tempt your character into forsaking his vows.
It's important to remember that this temptation could take a variety of forms, and that they often start small. For example, say your paladin enjoys drink, and will indulge whenever he thinks it's safe. A glass or two of wine gets more out of hand, and begins to cause problems. Finally, you get too drunk to stand watch, and fall asleep at your post. At which point your companions, who depended on you, are attacked and killed in an ambush. Your dereliction of duty when others depended on you can have serious consequences.
Other times, though, your temptation might grow out of small personality flaws, or yearnings. For example, you have always been a model student, and a fair judge. You have stood for the common people, sacrificing your blood, your sweat, and your life in their service. All you ask in return is thanks, and acknowledgment. A simple pat on the head, and recognition that you're doing the right thing. But when it isn't given to you, your pride may override your vows, and your judgment. Resentment grows, until one day you beat someone senseless for spitting on your symbol. You can feel your connection to your god shaking with every fall of your fist, but you just can't stop until you've broken it.
No one is perfect, paladins least of all. They need to be aware of their flaws, and to guard against them. It's also a good idea to disclose your paladin's flaws to your DM, so that you actually have to face them in your story line. Because a weakness that never shows up on screen isn't much of a weakness.
Are You An Organic, Or Sworn Paladin?
When people picture the paladin, they tend to imagine the knight in shining armor. And, because our image of the paladin is so closely tied to crusading knights, we tend to assume they have similar backgrounds and training. Years of practice with sword and shield, devotion to holy principals, and they have been anointed by priests to act as the hands of the church.
That is one way to play the class, but it's far from the only way.
Nowhere in the paladin class description does it state that you must be a member of a holy order. It doesn't say you have to even be a member of a church. While you're capable of wearing heavy armor, you could just as easily wear studded leather and fight with a longbow. The assumptions we have about the image, and the origin, of the class tend to narrow our focus so that every paladin looks and sounds like a Templar.
However, it is possible to play an organic paladin. These are people who have not been officially recognized as an agent of a church. They are adventurers who simply choose to do the right thing, to fight for righteous causes, and they have been selected by the divine as the carriers of power. In many cases, these characters may not even think of themselves as paladins; simply as blessed warriors who are doing their best to fight for what's right.
Decide Your Duties and Authorities
Too often, paladin players assume the class entitles them to secular authority. The issue is discussed at length in You Don't Have Any Actual Authority, Just Because You're A Paladin, but the gist of the post, and this tip, is to talk with your DM and to ask if your status as a paladin has any meaning within the game world. Is the fact that you have paladin levels simply a meta concept, used out of game at the table the same way other players have 8 levels of rogue, or 7 levels of fighter, or is it something recognized and acknowledged within the game world? And if it is, does that confer any benefits or duties onto you?
For example, say you go the sworn paladin approach, meaning you have officially taken vows before men and gods. Does this mean you are officially a part of a given church? Or did the church simply recognize you, the way they might recognize a marriage, or a child's birth? Alternatively, are you a part of the army, or are you a member of the city guard? If so, what is expected of you, and how far does your authority extend?
This is not something you want to make assumptions about. Because if you assume that you have legitimate authority that everyone recognizes, and your DM is not operating under those same set of assumptions, then you may find yourself in conflict with town guards, army officials, and a lot of other people who view you as a dangerous, armored vigilante claiming the gods are telling him to do things.
What's Your Relationship With Religion?
It's important to remember that, while paladins draw their strength and power from a source of goodness, that source can take a lot of different forms. A paladin can worship any deity she is within 1 step of on the alignment chart, as long as the paladin remains lawful good. However, paladins (like clerics) may also follow the very idea of goodness and law, as concepts. Then, of course, there's the question of whether the paladin is a member of an organized church, or if she is a lone wolf style follower, acting on the urges and portents placed in her path instead of on the orders of other followers.
Additionally, if your paladin is a member/practitioner of a certain faith, how does the character display that faith? The paladin prays for spells (assuming, of course, you are playing a version of the class which gets spells, as many archetypes don't), but what does he do other than that? Does he prosthelytize to other people about his faith, or keep it to himself? Does he observe certain religious strictures at meal times, or during combat? Does he leave offerings in holy places? Does he have animosity towards other faiths, or does he accept that others may follow their own gods, as long as it does not bring them into conflict with his own?
The divine is a huge part of the class, and it's important to know how it affects the decisions the paladin makes in all aspects of her life.