A Paladin’s Fall

Stephen Colbert: Paladin

My paladin had taken a vow of celibacy. Not the feat from the “Book of Exalted Deeds,” mind you. It was simply something my character had done in-character, with no mechanical benefit. The villain in this particular campaign was an enchantress. It was a lame self-insert character by our GM, but the group tried to put up with it. In our last session I got separated from the rest of the party while we were hunting the enchantress. She jumped out at me, and cast Dominate Person. Once I failed my saving throw, and was under her power, she tried to seduce me. I told the GM that, since this was against my nature as a celibate man, I ought to get a new saving throw at a +2 bonus to resist. Do you know what she said to me?

“Deep down, all men just want to have sex with women, no matter what they say.”

She denied me the right to a new saving throw, and went on to describe my character and her’s having sex. Once she was done, she said that since I had broken my vow of celibacy, I lost all of my paladin powers.

So how can I get back at her for this?

-Paraphrased from a tale told by one of the Anon’s on /tg/.

Every gamer knows the rules. A paladin swears an oath. That oath demands that they do good, and fight evil. Any paladin who willfully breaks their oath will be forsaken by the gods who grant them their holy might. Their powers will be stripped from them, and they will go from being one of the most powerful melee combat classes, to being a fighter without any bonus feats. This fall from grace leaves the Paladin next to useless; worse than that: it represents a fundamental failure of the paladin to uphold the ideals to which they’ve committed their lives. It’s the kind of life-shattering failure which might actually make a person consider becoming a blackguard.

Paladin by H MinusPlaying a paladin means holding your character to a higher moral standard. Those who play the class take on an additional challenge for themselves. Not only must they survive the dungeon, save the captives, defeat the villains, and recover the treasure; they must do it all without compromising an ironclad code of ethics. I’ve written in the past about how I believe a Paladin should be played. In my next two posts, I’d like to discuss how I believe a game master should handle a paladin character. Because, after all, what is the purpose of a GM if not to challenge his or her players?

It’s always dangerous to generalize, but I think it’s safe to say that most players who play paladins want to feel noble. They want to feel as though they are the righteous fist of their god, meting out justice one moment, and mercy the next. In other words, people who play paladins want to feel like they’re playing a paladin. And as GMs, it’s our duty to facilitate an environment where they can feel that way. But we can’t simply hand it to them, any more than we can hand out free experience or treasure. We can try to, but when we hand rewards to our players for free, all we accomplish is diminishing the value those rewards have in our players’ eyes. If being an upright defender of all that is good and true is never difficult, then how can it be interesting?

But there is a danger in constructing this manner of challenge. Far too many GMs approach it as a question of how they can make a paladin fall, rather than asking how they can challenge their player. The example at the start of this post is obviously an extreme case. That GM is not only a bad at running a game, but is a pretty awful person to boot. It’s not an isolated case, though. If you’ve spent any time on gaming forums I imagine you know what I’m talking about. Complaints of game masters who force a paladin character to fall are disturbingly common. Sometimes spells such as Dominate Person are involved. Other times, the paladin is put into a situation where they’re forced to commit an evil act by circumstance. Still other times, a paladin falls for doing something the player didn’t even realize they could fall for—something a strict interpretation of the rules would not indicate they should fall for. Regardless of the exact method involved, all of these cases have the same root cause: a really terrible game master.

So the question becomes, “How do we challenge a paladin’s morals, without crossing the line into shitty game mastering?” And for that, I’ve come up with four possibilities.Paladins - Lawful Good doesn't always mean Lawful Nice

Make evil the most obvious option. For any given problem, there are numerous solutions. But there will always be on solution which is most obvious. Someone without imagination might not even be able to think of another solution—but a paladin does not have the luxury of lacking an imagination. When the mind-controlled peasants have the players cornered, the rest of the party may give up and choose to kill the poor dominated folk. But the paladin must stand firm, and notice that the wall is weak enough to smash through, or that the second floor balcony is within jumping distance, or that the gem hanging from the chandelier is glowing the same color as the villager’s eyes.

WoW Paladin Tier 2: Judgement by peetietangMake evil the easiest option. Even when non-evil options are apparent, they may not always be easy. When the chaotic neutral bandits surrender, it would be easy to simply slay them, or to bind them and let the wolves have them. But a paladin cannot injure a foe who has yielded, not even indirectly. The paladin must make some manner of accommodation, whether it be taking them all the way back to the last town to face judgment, or placing a Mark of Justice spell on them.

Make evil the recommended option. Most often, the options available to a group of characters are implicit. The GM describes a room filled with monsters, and the players figure out for themselves what their options are. Sometimes, though, the players receive directions from NPCs, or even seek out NPCs to give them advice. If this advice requires an evil act, then it’s up to the paladin either to figure out alternatives on their own, or to find another source of advice. For example, if the destruction of an evil artifact requires it to be submerged in the blood of babies, a paladin might choose to instead seal the artifact away, or to seek another sage who knows an alternative method for destroying the item.

Make evil a Justifiable option. A paladin who is lax in their pursuit of justice may be led astray by small evil deeds with appear to serve the cause of righteousness. If a blackguard infiltrates the party disguised as a paladin, the villain may be able to convince the paladin to commit larger and larger evil deeds, all in the name of the greater good. The trickery is in convincing the paladin that the evil deeds are justifiable, rather than in convincing the paladin that the evil deeds are good.

Of course, there is one final element which is important to keep in mind when GMing: never, under any circumstances, try to force your players to take a certain kind of action. No matter how cool you think it would be. No matter how important it is to your ‘story,’ it is never acceptable for a GM to attempt to force a choice. We control the entire world. The demons and the devils, the celestials and the very gods themselves bend to our whim. The only thing the players control is the choices their own characters make. If you really want to make those choices yourself, then maybe you should be writing fiction, rather than running a game.

On Wednesday I’ll write in greater detail about what a paladin’s oath entails. Let me know in the comments if you can think of any more more good ways to test a paladin’s moral convictions.

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9 thoughts on “A Paladin’s Fall”

  1. I like what you have to say. I started to follow you recently and the timing is great. I am running a game myself and a player wants to come in and wants to play a paladin. (Granted this is an older version of the game, a 1E game.)

    I am about to check out your older linked post and waiting to read what you have to say further on Wed.

    Thanks for the post.

    1. Glad to know this was useful for someone! It’s something I’ve been mulling for awhile now.

      Hopefully your player rolls their stats high enough to be a paladin. =P

  2. Very mature and well thought-out response to an often tricky situation? You could also use Pazusus as written in the original Monster Manual 2nd edition: granting wishes and aid to any who call on him but requiring “insignificant” acts of evil in response in a manner similar to Stephen King’s “Needful Things.”
    “Take this letter and leave it on the mayor’s doorstep and I will (tell you the assassin’s location; tell you how to stop the war; hide the village from the dragon)” The mayor finds the letter, stating that his wife was cheating with the cooper, he confronts the cooper, it gets ugly, and someone dies. If the PC KNOWS he is helping further an evil agenda, even if the act itself is insignificant, and compounds it by doing so for selfish reasons, is that not evil?

    1. I like that idea! I hadn’t read that Pazusus bit before.

      One thing I think is very important, though, (which I’ll go into greater detail on in Wednesday’s post) is clarity. A paladin should never fall without realizing that she was pushing her boundaries. I would worry that if a GM is hiding the fact that a deed is evil from the Paladin, that they are not giving the paladin a fair chance to avoid falling.

      1. I completely agree with that statement. In the above scenario, I would *hope* any self-respecting player, let alone someone playing a paladin, would recognize that Pazusus is pure evil and that any request he makes will be for evil ends. ‘I am in serious doubt as to the rightness of my course, therefore it is sin.’
        Sometimes players do the work for you. The only campaign I ever ran with a Paladin featured two, nonetheless. Another player actually enjoyed playing devil’s advocate and constantly suggested unsavory solutions to see if he could catch either of them commiting an evil act. It might seem odd, but that was our group’s dynamic (out of play as well; he was always looking to stir up a little trouble)

      2. If I was a paladin, I would *so* take that deal.

        The deal exactly requires me to deliver a letter to a doorstep, right?
        Not to any one person?

        So after I do that, I burn the letter.
        Then, like a good citizen, I clean up the ashes.
        Littering is an evil act, and I don’t want the GM to get any ideas about me falling.
        (My reflex save is bad enough as it is.)

  3. My favorite one is them having to ask a necromancer who either gets his corpses via statues turned to flesh and/or is studying necromancy to prevent it being used againat his village for help. It creates a very interesting moment especially if the necromancer is of good alignment. Stuff like that can really create drama and can really shock a player who plays the overzealous paladin (case-in-point: Kore from the goblins comic).

    RogueMG

  4. Let me necro this for an example of a paladin’s fall that didn’t happen… And most of the party disagreed with it, except me, the GM and the paladin’s player (in this case, the people on the game who actually like roleplaying with paladins for more than the class being easy to make op).

    This paladin was going to have to be in an arranged marriage thing for political reasons. It turned out great for him and the cleric he was marrying, since they were actually already in love with each other when promissed. Except that before it actually happened, the rest of the party figured out there was a conspiracy by their church, to which he was still loyal but she was not, that needed this to happen. Everyone kept him in the dark about it out of not trusting he would side with them because of loyalty to his church.

    When the cleric found out some very dark stuff that was behind it all, she was cut off from the rest of the party, and only really had contact with him and people even more likely to be involved. So she told him. Explained and presented evidence of it all. He immediately took her to safety and went to confront his order about what he found. When confronted, they turned on him, there was a huge fight and he ran away for days before finding a shelter.

    Went to an enemy of his church for protection for himself and the cleric, sent for the rest of the party to meet them there. They married in secret and it was all almost too cheesy.

    Every one of the other players was very angry when they found out this wasn’t a paladin fall plot because he had fought other paladins and betrayed his church, and they make a point to complain every time he uses his class stuff because “oh right he’s doing that thing he technically can’t anymore”. We stuck to the point that he did follow his paladin expectations with that because it was \the right thing to do\. I mean, seriously, they expected the paladin to actively help evil win because evil had a title, wrote laws and wore his justice god’s symbol on their shields.

    It’s like people see a paladin and start snickering and “this is all very nice, we can’t wait to strip you from it and leave you broken and useless”.

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