Play Paladins with Problems, Not Problem Paladins

Ask any given sample group of D&D/pathfinder players which character class they dislike the most, and there’s a good chance the Paladin will be mentioned. This stems from the fact that Paladins are such an easy class to play badly, and many of us have one or more stories about a Paladin in the party that ruined the fun for everyone else.

Historically Paladins were required to be Lawful Good and had a strict code of conduct. Failure to adhere to that code could, at the DM’s ruling, lead to the loss of the Paladin’s powers. To avoid the risk of that, many Paladin players would be completely anal in the service of their Faith and alignment, leading to the creation of the term “Lawful Stupid”. As a term, this is more disparaging than it is useful. It also assumes that the problems inherent to this sort of character are only present when a character’s alignment is Lawful, which while quite likely, is not necessarily true. Let’s use the term “Problem Paladin” instead, with the following definition:  a Problem Paladin is a character that sticks to their principles/code/religious tenets (often the absolute pursuit of their moral and ethical alignments) without any consideration for nuance or common sense.

Lawful Stupid
“Lawful Stupid”

When a paladin is not a Paladin

Okay, before I continue, I want to acknowledge that although this article is framed as advice for the players (and DMs) of members of the Paladin class, the points I’m making here can easily apply to a host of other characters. Because while “Paladin” may be a literal class in the D&D/Pathfinder games, the term “paladin” is an archetype—more generally, a “paladin” might be any character that serves some kind of higher power with loyalty and passion. That higher power could be a god or spiritual cause, as in the case of the Paladin class, or it could be something else: examples might include an individual, a bloodline, the throne of a nation (as opposed to whoever currently sits on it), a personal mission (such a quest for vengeance, peace, or anything in between), or even unusually high commitment to a personal code of honour.

Whenever a character (who may be of any class) serves a cause with fervour, possibly even fanaticism, then they are an example of the “paladin” archetype, and this article is about them too.

It’s not all on the Players

Another quick sidebar: most of the advice in this article is directed towards the player of a paladin. But to all the DMs reading right now, this advice only works if you agree with it and are equally on board. I can make recommendations about how a nuanced paladin might be played until I’m blue in the face, but if you don’t give the paladins in your party any leeway to make mistakes or bad choices without constant punishment, you reinforce the lesson that the paladin must be perfect, and perpetuate the issue of the Problem Paladin.

What actually is the Problem Paladin?

You might have a Problem Paladin in your party if you notice any of the following:

  • They always have to be right, and refuse to allow the possibility of compromise.
  • Every morally grey choice becomes an onerous argument with the paladin on one side and (usually) the entirety of the rest of the party on the other.
  • They actively prevent (or attempt to prevent) other characters from doing things that displease them.
  • The rest of the party actively attempt to keep the paladin out of the loop so they can get things done without the paladin blocking them.

At its least serious, Problem Paladin behaviour can derail a game and tie the party up in pointless arguments, usually repeatedly. A Problem Paladin might wants to punish every pickpocket, even when it would be a pain to turn them over to the authorities right now or their fellow party members are advocating mercy. They might refuse to release a prisoner taken during an adventure, even though it’s impractical to deal with the logistics of having a prisoner alongside. Problem Paladins typically “win” every argument they get involved in, not necessarily because they are right, but because they are most stubborn. They expect the other characters to act in accordance with their beliefs, but won’t offer their allies the same willingness to compromise.

At their worst, Problem Paladins bring harm or even death to other characters, not just themselves. A Problem Paladin might be so uncompromising against evil they attack the level 20 campaign villain, even though discretion would be the better part of valour. They might try and stop the party rogue from doing their job (and even threaten them with violence, jail time, or other repercussions), resulting in a divided party.

The most recent edition of Dungeons and Dragons has taken steps to ameliorate this problem. Alignment requirements are gone, and there are no longer strictly codified rules about what happens when a Paladin breaks their code. Like so much else, Fifth Edition leaves it up to the Dungeon Master to decide what happens. And this is why the first step to avoiding a Problem Paladin is the DM’s to take. When running the game remember that Paladins aren’t even required to be the ultimate boy scouts/girl guides any more.

Still, even if the rules and the DM are flexible, it’s still easily to overplay a paladin-type. Concepts like “unyielding exemplar of justice” or “no one will stay me from my vengeance” might sound fun in theory, more fun than they’re likely to be in practice.

Contention is Fun… Up to a Point

Party Conflict
“Party Conflict”

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I’m not advocating for all player characters in a campaign to be perfectly sympatico. Interpersonal drama between player characters is interesting. Characters should argue sometimes. But not all the time, about every minor thing. And they should be able to reach compromise… from both directions. The main thing DM and players all need to keep in mind is that regardless of any moral and ethical disagreements they may have throughout a campaign, a party of heroes needs to function. And when they do have a break down in communications, they should usually be able to solve the issue swiftly. If they can’t get a single thing done without someone throwing a spanner in the works and digging in their heels then the question ought to be raised: why do these people continue to work together when they are so clearly incompatible?

If you look at your party and can’t see a good reason why one or more characters wouldn’t either be kicked out of the group or leave of their own volition, it’s time to re-examine the social dynamics of that party. The players of such a dysfunctional party should consider making minor adjustments to how they play their characters to make them more open to compromise.

“Lawful Good” versus “lawful good”

I’ve already said it’s not always the Lawful Good paladins, but it can’t be avoided that they are likely to be the worst offenders here. Neutral, Chaotic, and Evil characters have more latitude. It can be harder to see how the Lawful Good character justifies making difficult choices.

I’ve talked before about my issues with D&D’s alignment system, and one of the issues I raised is that there is no gradation between the extremes of a being that is the exemplar of its alignment, such as a Celestial, and the far more fallible nature of a mere mortal. You can see what I have to say on that subject by visiting The best things about 4th Edition that never should have been rolled back and scrolling down to the section titled “Alignment Simplification”. You can also take a look at The Why and How of a Celestial Warlock for an illustration of how the unyielding Lawful Good can, in its own way, be quite harmful to mortals.

The point here is that celestials, devils, demons, and other outsiders from the aligned planes are the very avatar of their alignment. They simply cannot be any other way. Mortals occupy a space in the middle, and can choose who to be. But that freedom of choice is not a one-time deal. A mortal constantly chooses, in every moment, with every decision. And sometimes they choose differently to how you would expect.

One way to illustrate this key difference might be to capitalise the alignments of outsiders (eg. “Lawful Good”) but treat the alignments of mortals as though they are lower case (eg. “lawful good”). The former represents an absolute. The latter is merely a strong pattern of behaviour.

As I put it in The Why and How of a Celestial Warlock, “Alignment Extremes of any kind are anathema to life as we know it”. By the same token, alignment extremes in a player character can be anathema to the effective functioning of a player character party. The Paladin played as an extreme Lawful Good becomes “Lawful Stupid”, and ends up being a Problem Paladin. A lower case lawful good Paladin is freer to make compromises, and take actions even when those actions leave them filled with doubt.

Imperfection is Interesting

As mentioned, the lower case lawful good Paladin acknowledges that there aren’t always perfect answers. They are also prepared to accept that sometimes other characters have more expertise, and take what those experts have to say under advisement. They are willing to reach compromise when they cannot see a practical and better way forward.

They might feel that they have failed the tenets of their code when they have done so, and question their own commitment and faith. This is fine—actually, it’s downright desirable. When a character fails to be perfect in their own estimation, they embark on an emotional and intellectual journey of self-reflection. It’s good storytelling. I’m sure you enjoy reading about a character’s personal demons in a novel or watching them go through these issues on screen. It’s just as good in roleplaying, too. If you’re playing a paladin-type who’s as rigid as the stick up their rear end, ask yourself why you’re trying to avoid these kinds of interesting personal developments.

Conflicting Loyalties

A paladin is most loyal to the higher authority they serve. But is that their only loyalty? Don’t they also have family, friends, and maybe even additional causes that they come to value? Hopefully, the other player characters also count as friends, or the paladin at least feels some sort of mutual respect or sense of debt toward them.

When serving their higher cause conflicts with one or more secondary loyalties, it goes without saying that the paladin should lean towards the higher cause. If they were a perfect, unfeeling avatar of that cause they would do so one hundred percent of the time and without compunction. But that’s the path of the Problem Paladin. The mortal, imperfect paladin weighs their options with more care. If the ideal interpretation of their tenets means rejecting the other bonds in the paladin’s life, it makes sense that they would be more open to the idea of finding a third path. It’s not always possible. Sometimes, after weighing those options, you’ll find yourself deciding to have the paladin stand their ground, no matter the cost to them personally, the same way a Problem Paladin might. But there’s a big difference—when the conflict your paladin feels comes out in your roleplay, you show a thought process beyond “I’m Perfect McPerfectson.”, and your fellow players know they’re not just being a stubborn ass.

Consequences of Failure or the Third Way

When paladins do choose to compromise, or even choose to go completely against the tenets of their belief system, should they suffer consequences?

The answer is “yes” and “no”. There should always be some sort of roleplaying consequence. When a paladin makes a questionable choice, they should question it. The doubt they feel, and their reactions to the in-game consequences of the decision, are great material.

There’s a tendency for DMs to be more punitive towards Paladins, Clerics and the like than towards members of other classes. When characters commit to belief systems, particularly when those beliefs are tied to all-powerful beings in the sky who can throw thunderbolts, it’s tempting to dole out consequences for breaking faith. In truth, though, we DMs should be wary of giving these characters such a negative special treatment. Sure, it’s appropriate for a deity or sovereign to show their displeasure, but it doesn’t have to happen every time. Sometimes, the higher authority can recognise the need for the compromise and accept it as the best choice that could be made in the moment. Other times, they might simply encourage their servant to do better. When they are genuinely angry, it can usually be limited to a dressing down and metaphorical slap on the wrist. Steer away from stripping class powers away, or taking back story-based rewards. Usually, that is. Rarely, it’s good storytelling material for a character to be stripped of titles, powers, or possessions. Sometimes, players pick classes like the Paladin partly because they are open to these sorts of hardships. Even so, it shouldn’t happen very often, and there should generally be a way for the character to earn their way back into good graces.

It’s worth remembering that the character’s god or other patron knows they are mortal and fallible. They are also a precious resource. Some higher authorities are more forgiving than others, true, but it is generally bad practice to severely punish one’s most loyal servants for lapses in judgement, or they may not remain loyal much longer.

Example Paladins

Okoye, an archetypal Paladin

I polled twitter and asked for some example characters from popular culture. I got a large number of responses, and added a few of my own! Take a look at this list of wildly different characters: at least one person out there thinks that each of the characters on this list fits the mold of the greater “paladin” archetype and therefore has something to teach us about playing strongly characterised, interesting paladins. Note that few of them are without character flaws and/or complex relationships and conflicting loyalties. Some aren’t even heroes!

  • Angel (Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel)
  • Aramis, Athos, D’Artagnan, and Porthos (The Three Musketeers)
  • Beric Dondarrion (Game of Thrones)
  • Boromire (The Lord of the Rings
  • Brienne of Tarth (Game of Thrones)
  • Brynden Tully/The Blackfish (Game of Thrones)
  • Captain Ahab (Moby Dick)
  • Captain America (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
  • Carrot Ironfoundersson (Discworld)
  • Eli (the Book of Eli)
  • Evelyn (Dice, Camera, Action)
  • George Bailey (It’s a Wonderful Life)
  • Harry Dresden (The Dresden Files)
  • Heden (PRIEST)
  • Horatio Hornblower (Hornblower)
  • Huma (Dragonlance)
  • Jim Gordon (Gotham)
  • John Hobbes (Fallen)
  • Kambei Shimada (Seven Samurai)
  • Lancelot (and other Knights of the Round Table)
  • Luke Skywalker (Star Wars)
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars)
  • Okoye (Marve Cinematic Universe)
  • Oliver Cromwell
  • Paksenarrion (The Deed of Paksenarrion)
  • Paragon Commander Shepard (Mass Effect)
  • Saito Hajime (Rurouni Kenshin)
  • Sam Vimes (Discworld)
  • Shepherd Book (Firefly)
  • Steel Brightblade and Sturm Brightblade (Dragonlance)
  • T’Challa/Black Panther (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
  • The Doctor (Doctor Who)
  • The Operative (Serenity)
  • The Punisher (Marvel)
  • William Wallace (Braveheart)
  • Winston Churchill
  • Wyatt Earp (Tombstone)

Over to You

How do you like to round out your paladins? What are some of your paladin success stories? What characters or persons would you add to the above list of inspiration?