No More Overzealous Paladins

Eddard Stark is a God Damned Paladin

Life isn’t straightforward. It isn’t black and white. The stories of vile villains and righteous crusades that we were weaned on are fairy tales. But heroes? Heroes are very real. They’re not perfect, and there’s no army of them, but they exist. They are the naive idealists without any grasp of how the world works. They are the battle hard cynics who fight on to keep the darkness from encroaching for another day. They are the unknown soldiers who die alone in the dark, with nothing to comfort them other than the knowledge that they have done what is right. Heroes fight losing battles, they are manipulated, and too often receive nothing–not even success–for their trouble. Yet heroes fight on, because some battles need to be fought.

These are the incorruptible, the charitable, the fearless. These are the paladins.

-Anonymous /tg/ contributor

I am tired of seeing paladins consistently portrayed in an un-paladin like manner. In recent years, I don’t think I have seen a single paladin–either in a game or in some other media–who didn’t suffer from a painful overzealousness. Paladins are played as assholes who object to the very concept of tolerance. They look down on anyone who doesn’t adhere to their strict (often arbitrary) moral codes. And even a slight suggestion that laws are being broken or evil acts committed will cause such a paladin to react with force. A sizable portion of the time, the paladin is so over zealous that he or she serves as an antagonist to good characters. In other cases, paladins grow so overzealous as to be actively evil according to any rational definition of the alignment.

It’s not that I don’t get it. We’ve all dealt with this kind of paladin in real life. The door to door religion salespeople, the condescendingly self-righteous believers, the snarling fundamentalists demanding that one group or another be denied civil liberties on the basis of a religion. In the real world, people with an absolute sense of right and wrong based on their religious beliefs are often brutish and unkind. Those willing to go out into the world and ‘fight’ for their religion often choose to do so by trying to bring everyone who doesn’t agree with them down. I am an Atheist, I have no reason to defend religion whatsoever. But the needless association of in-game religion to real-world religion needs to stop.

Pathfinder and D&D are games of magic and monsters. Games where gods actually exist, and frequently interact with the material world in obvious ways. In real life, a woman who kills 10 people and claims god told her to do it is crazy. In Pathfinder, the authorites would find out which god the woman is talking about, find a cleric of that god, and have that cleric ask their god why those 10 people deserved to die. If the woman were, in fact, crazy, then the cleric could use the powers granted them by their god to simply raise the dead. Whether you are religious or not, I think we can all agree that religion in a fantasy world is fantastical. Not only does it grant magical powers, but the gods who head fantasy religions are beings which can be reached and spoken to with even low level clerical spells.

Paladins are Heroes. God damned heroes. Like the religions they serve, paladins are fantastical. With the rare exception of those who have fallen, paladins are paragons of virtue. They never walk past a person who is hungry without stopping to feed them, nor could they walk past a person who was cold without giving away their cloak. This is not a matter of duty–though a paladin might disagree. Paladins act always to help those in need because they want to soothe every iota of suffering possible. And when a paladin stands to fight, it is not simply to defend their honor or that of their god. Paladins do not fight for kings or queens, nor do they fight for money or prestige. When a paladin draws steel, it is because they believe they stand between innocents, and evil. It is because the only way to soothe suffering is to defeat that which causes it–be it man or beast.

I think the best way to demonstrate this point would be to relate a story of a paladin played correctly. This story has been floating around the 4chan sub forum /tg/ (for Traditional Games) for a number of years now. It is one among many such stories, though for the life of me I cannot find any others which I want to share. I’ve edited the story to work in a non-image board format. I believe it demonstrates the paladin archetype with actions better than I can demonstrate it with words.

My Warforged paladin was alone with the villain atop his tower. The villain had wings, and could fly away at any time, but since I was alone he chose to taunt me.
“Have you ever stopped to think about why you protect others?”
“On occasion, why?” I replied.
“It’s all programmed in, you know. You care about humans because you were built by humans and programmed to care about humans. You believe in everything you do because they chose for you to believe it. Look at yourself! They made you so that you like being helpful and protective, and it’s all a lie! Join me, and I can free you from it all. From the shackles they put on you. You can be a pure and perfect being, immortal and superior, with all the power you’ve ever wanted.”
“Yes, but isn’t that desire programmed in, as well? Even if none of my emotions are true, they feel true. Even if my cause isn’t really mine, it feels just. All you can do is exchange one lie for another. I’ll keep the one that makes everyone else, the ones with real emotions, happiest.”

With that, my character leaped forward and grappled the villain. I knocked him from the tower and rode him down to the rocks below, using my weight to prevent him from flying.

Just thought I’d share my characters last moments with you.

-Anonymous /tg/ contributor

Paladins are not self righteous. They are not over zealous. They are not eager to spill blood for their gods. They aren’t perfect, but nor do they suffer from the weaknesses which often characterize the “forcefully religious” in the real world.

What paladins are is goodly and just. They are heroes, and I would like to see them portrayed as such.

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11 thoughts on “No More Overzealous Paladins”

    1. –This is an imported comment from the old blog–

      Name: LS
      Date: Dec 14, 2011 12:42 PM

      @Lord Gwydion

      I’m glad you liked the post, and thanks for the mention on your blog! I really appreciate both the feedback, and the traffic. =D

  1. –This is an imported comment from the old blog–

    Name: X
    Date: Dec 12, 2011 03:24 PM

    Not a fan of the mindless paladin, for a couple of reasons.

    Primary reason is that playing a character based entirely around the subtype of alignment is pretty much a massive cheat, and I don’t like using it. It’s one thing for a monster to be “pure evil” – for example a vampire or a demon. You don’t really need a magic ability to verify that. (In the case of some creatures, like the aforementioned vampire, werewolves, rakashas or dopplegangers, knowing that they’re evil through magical means invalidates the entire premise of the archetype.) With ordinary human beings though, things get weird. You can be “good” and participate in the wholesale slaughter of innocent beings. You can be “evil” and not even commit an obvious evil act because it goes against the master plan. What makes you evil should be your choices, but D&D completely destroyed alignment as a Roleplay trait right at the beginning by treating it as a “subtype” like an elemental attribute (+5 vs. fire creatures!) And then on top of this the paladin is given the ability to know if something is inherently evil, and do extra damage to it.

    Detecting evil at will leads to the second major issue that I have with Paladins, which is that the natural philosophical struggle of “What’s the right thing to do?” goes completely AWOL. The entire question can be solved with a magic power, and poof, your choice is made for you.

    The third major issue is that if alignments are even close to equally represented in the game, which the laws of balance insist, and then lawful good gets a paragon of its alignment archetype, then where are all the rest of the alignment paragons?

    Of course it was never intended that way, it was designed top down after our ideal of what a Paladin should be – a St. George-like figure who would never willingly do wrong.

    Take away detect evil (like in 4e) or alignments entirely, and all of sudden the Paladin archetype takes on a whole new meaning. Players have to actually use their intuition, ask questions, engage NPC’s selectively, judge precisely. This is more along the lines of reality and makes paladins more three dimensional. They become men of faith, or the very least, men of ideals.

    To illustrate, I recently played a charisma based Paladin in a 4e campaign one-shot. I have never been one to push the LG aspect in any case, and so the way I decided to play him this time was as man who is going through a crisis of faith. This didn’t affect his powers in the slightest. For him, it wasn’t that he doubted what his deity stood for, but more the suffering that he had witnessed in his years alive. If his deity claimed goodness, then why allow people to suffer? If he was meant to change things for his deity, then how could his deity allow him to fail? His abilities were as as strong as ever, but he also felt that he was the wrong pick, the wrong person to carry them. So he was going through the motions a bit. He certainly wasn’t fervent, and when he realized a member of the party was evil he let that person be, because he didn’t feel that he had any right to judge or to execute punishment. After all, the evil party member hadn’t threatened the party, quite the opposite.

    I think opening up the paladin to situations where they can misjudge, and that they are ultimately responsible, just allows for better roleplay, and makes Paladins more believable as a class.

    One thing I did do to clarify his position was to write up a code of chivalry that he abided by. Paladins (of any potential alignment) are ultimately about standing for something, and I think that part should remain consistent.

    1. –This is an imported comment from the old blog–

      Name: LS
      Date: Dec 14, 2011 01:02 PM

      @X – You say a lot of stuff, so let me address it piece by piece. Hope you don’t mind.

      -Nor am I a fan of mindless paladins. Mindlessness often leads to the same overzealousness problem I described above. I suppose it could also lead to a “good deed dispenser” type character, but I’ve never actually seen that happen. Players are usually more self interested.

      -I don’t think you *can* be good and participate in the wholesale slaughter of innocent beings. Unless you were mind controlled, or legitimately fooled into what you did, I wouldn’t allow a player to maintain their alignment after killing even one innocent.

      Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you’re reading into my post things which are not there. I’m not attempting to argue that Paladins should somehow be creatures of pure good and law. Celestials fill that role. However, Paladin is a class which attracts only the most good and most lawful. In other words, a character isn’t LG because they’re a paladin, a character is a paladin because they are LG.

      -Detect Evil is a problematic spell. As are many divination type spells. I may address that at some point, but that’s not what this post was about.

      You do make a very good point, though. Paladins are more interesting characters if they can’t auto-detect who they should be fighting.

      In fairness, though, “what is the right thing to do” can’t always be answered with detect evil. Sometimes the choice isn’t whether to fight evil, the choice is whether to DO evil. And that’s the kind of thing GMs can use to test a paladin’s commitment.

      -To be clear, I have no problems with testing a paladin. Part of the fun of playing a class with an absolute moral code is testing that moral code. Though I think there should always be a solution to allow a paladin to make the good & righteous choice, even if it maybe costs them a little more.

      Thanks for the feedback! I always appreciate it.

  2. I haven’t played a paladin in a long time, but I’ve been the DM to players who have played paladins poorly. I am in a campaign now playing a paladin from another realm. My take on it is being strict in regard to laws against the gods and keeping to the “spirit” of the law rather than the word. I play him as devout rather than zealous. He is battleworn and somewhat cynnical. He refrains from sharing his beliefs outright because he understands that not everyone shares it; instead, he prefers to lead by example in order to win others over. Yet, he still understands that party members (et. al.) have the right to choose for themselves whether to serve god or not.

  3. Sorry for jumping in over a year after the fact … hope you’re still monitoring this thread.

    This is the most well-thought-out Paladin critique I’ve ever read. In our campaign, we had a big bad fighter who was always after the paladins in our group because … let’s face it, they’re jerks if you play them the way the rule book tells you you’re supposed to. We actually played AD&D 1E with some 2E thrown in for spice.

    So my wife figured out a “cure” for this. She decided she was going to be a paladin of Freya. Freya is a love goddess, and though she’s neutral good, the 2E Deities & Demigods claimed she could have clerics of lawful good alignment, so why not a paladin? Of course, a paladin of a love goddess is going to have a bit different agenda than those self-righteous war gods paladins. In fact, as she grew beyond the low levels, she was having a pretty tough time even getting training to go up levels.

    This was so cool it actually changed the entire track of the campaign. The Norse pantheon became much more involved in our story, and we had to divide them up into the warlike Aesir that included Thor, Odin, Tyr and all those other war gods and Freya and Frey with the other more gentle/magical/sensual Vanir. The paladin started being able to avenge battered/abused women, put those self-righteous male chauvinist paladins in their places, and build temples to Freya preaching love and understanding with the spoils of our war. Our DM encouraged her with quests designed to let her shine in these situations, while also pointing out that nothing is purely good or evil … some of the bad guys were doing good things for their communities at the expense of just SOME of the population, while some of the “good guys” didn’t look so good upon closer examination of their motives. It allowed us to play the letter of the rules for the paladin while also turning the whole thing on its head and giving it a feminist spin. It was cathartic for my wife, and I think the old-school gamers even got some new things to consider.

    The opening paragraph attributed to anonymous is wonderful. One day I’d like to write the story of our scenario into a book. I’d love to use this as the preface. Is there anyone better I can attribute it to than “anonymous”?

    1. Thank you for your kind words, and the interesting story. I quite enjoyed reading that, and would love reading that more detailed retelling you’re thinking of writing.

      Regarding the quote used at the top, the author wrote it on /tg/, where everyone is always “Anonymous.” So while I’m afraid I can’t give you a better name to use, I can confirm that the original author is anonymous, and not simply unknown.

  4. Sorry for the necro but I wanted to say that I really enjoy when someone is will to give paladins more depth than just making them “Lawful Stupid”. Sadly it isn’t just people playing paladins that give them the bad name.

    I have played a paladin many times and with most of my DMs the hardest part of the game becomes explaining to them (often repeatedly) why I don’t have my sword drawn and soaked in blood every time we enter an area with lots of evil characters around. In the end I fall back on Joss Whedon’s “If you can’t do something smart, do something right.” as the basis for playing a good paladin.

    You can’t help anyone if you are dead and if you make bystanders fear your god you just did half the work for your enemies. On the other hand if there is no way for everyone to walk away then it is your job to make sure that there is a long line of souls to be judged ahead of yours and that none of them are innocent ones.

  5. I love this critique of the paladin. It is a class I have flirted with, but never played. I thought it would be fun to play a paladin with ranks in Profession (Gambler) – a holy warrior who enjoys a good time and enjoys the game for the joy of playing. Someone who never cheats, is always willing to play with any class of person even for coppers, and who always gives away his winnings either to a charitable group or by paying for the food and drink of the other folks at the table.

    The best paladin I’ve ever seen at the table was played by a find of mine. It was a 3.5 game, and he played a half-celestial paladin/sorcerer (I think – may have been favored soul). In that campaign I was playing a Chaotic Good fighter/rogue/shadowdancer. My character started out thinking the petulant angle child was a complete ponce, but by the end of the campaign, the paladin’s constance and complete selflessness had directly affected my character. I ended up taking levels in the Unearthed Arcana variant class Paladin of Freedom – a CG reskinned version of the LG paladin even though it cost me a non-favored class XP hit. It was really inspiring to play a character so inspired by the actions of another PC. I would love to be that for another player in the future.

  6. I find it sad that the pathfinder paladin really only mentions their god giving them the power in 2 of their abilities (the mount and the capstone). Even the “Ex-Paladin” says nothing about losing faith or betraying their god, just as long as they do no evil. This isn’t a paladin, its just a champion of good. A paladin of a god is a champion of that god’s ideals, or it should be. A paladin of Lolth should NOT be LG! Our house rule for paladins works similar to the way clerics work. The paladin must be the alignment of their god (since he is the champion of that god’s ideals). A good paladin gets healing touches, whereas the evil ones get the harming touches (like the fallen paladins get), and neutral ones can pick at creation. The “code of conduct” that must be followed is no longer just don’t be evil, it is now determined by the chosen god. And yes… almost ALL their abilities are provided by the god.

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