The Paladin’s Oath, and GM Clarity

Order of the Stick by Rich Berlew Miko's Fall 1After purchasing the first book recently, I was prompted to re-read The Order of the Stick by Rich Berlew in its entirety. Odds are that if you’re reading this site, you’re at least somewhat familiar with the comic. If you’re not, go ahead and leave. Just click over to the and start at the beginning. Reading Order of the Stick is a far better use of your time than reading my half-assed ramblings is. Don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you’re done.

The story of one of the comic’s characters, a Paladin named Miko, got me thinking about how game masters should handle the unique challenges presented by a paladin character. I had already written a piece a few months back concerning how I believe a paladin should be played, but I realized that the way the GM treated the paladin mattered at least as much as how the player played their character. That prompted this past Order of the Stick by Rich Berlew Miko's Fall 2Monday’s post on how to provide ethics based challenges to a paladin. So now I’ve covered both how players should enact a paladin’s morality, and how GM’s should challenge a paladin’s morality, but I still haven’t covered the element which makes a paladin’s morality worth talking about in the first place: the code of conduct itself. The paladin’s oath which, when broken, causes the paladin to fall. (Which is precisely the event which makes Miko’s story so compelling.)

The oath is the central element of a paladin’s morality, which makes a thorough understanding of it essential to the task of testing a paladin’s morality. I’ve also got a few ideas on how to make the oath a bit more interactive and engaging. But before we explore those ideas, I think it’s essential to define unequivocally what the Paladin’s oath actually is. Because I don’t think we’re all on the same page here; that page being number 63 in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. It reads:

A paladin must be of lawful good alignment and loses all class features except proficiencies if she ever willingly commits an evil act.

Additionally, a paladin’s code requires that she respect legitimate authority, act with honor (not lying, not cheating, not using poison, and so forth), help those in need (provided they do not use the help for evil or chaotic ends), and punish those who harm or threaten innocents.

Associates: While she may adventure with good or neutral allies, a paladin avoids working with evil characters or with anyone who consistently offends her moral code. Under exceptional circumstances, a paladin can ally with evil associates, but only to defeat what she believes to be a greater evil. A paladin should seek an atonement spell periodically during such an unusual alliance, and should end the alliance immediately should she feel it is doing more harm than good. A paladin may accept only henchmen, followers, or cohorts who are lawful good.

Order of the Stick by Rich Berlew Miko's Fall 3That is the extent of what the book states explicitly about the Paladin’s oath. (If I’m missing anything, please let me know.) Oftentimes the meaning of these relatively simple sentences can be a source of great contention, so lets examine them more closely before moving on. Note the wording of the sentence which makes reference to a paladin falling (there’s only one):

A paladin must be of lawful good alignment and loses all class features except proficiencies if she ever willingly commits an evil act.

It doesn’t say “A paladin loses all class features if she ever willingly commits an unlawful act.” Nor does it say anything about a paladin losing their powers for breaking their oath. Using a strict interpretation of the rules as written in the book, most of a paladin’s code of conduct is fluff. There is no mechanical penalty for using poison, or lying. Doing so would not be very paladin-like, but the rules don’t state that such actions should be punished. It seems unlikely that this is unintentional, since the Pathfinder entry is identical to the entry in the 3rd edition rulebooks. They’ve had plenty of opportunity to clarify things if this was not the intended reading.

Continuing on the assumption that we’re abiding by a strict understanding of the rules, what constitutes an evil act? Page 166 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook states:

Evil implies hurting, oppressing, and killing others. Some evil creatures simply have no compassion for others and kill without qualms if doing so is convenient. Others actively pursue evil, killing for sport or out of duty to some evil deity or master.

Order of the Stick by Rich Berlew Miko's Fall 4Hurting, oppressing, and killing others. That’s what evil is. Those types of actions are, according to a strict interpretation of the rules, the only actions which should cause a paladin to fall. And unless you’ve had some conversation with your player about an extended list of fall-worthy actions, then you should abide by a strict interpretation of the rules. For the sake of clarity.

Clarity is one of the most important skills for a GM to have. It is the ability to communicate with your players effectively. To communicate in a manner which gives your players a solid understanding of what the consequences of their actions will be. Clarity is always an important skill to practice, but this is doubly true when the question of whether a paladin falls comes into play. If your player does not feel they were given a fair chance to avoid losing all of their class skills, they will be justifiably upset. If you’re in doubt about whether or not you’ve been clear, there’s nothing wrong with simply letting your player know explicitly.

“Do you realize that if you kill the city’s lord, and he is not in fact evil, your paladin will fall?”

It’s as simple as that. And if you’re worried about giving anything away, consider the possibilities of obfuscating your tells through volume.

Now, having discussed clarity, lets return to the oath itself. As discussed above, the rules state explicitly only that evil actions can cause a paladin to fall. But the rules also describe a number of other actions which a paladin “cannot” perform—though it describes no specific punishment for performing them. There’s no reason these can’t be included on the list of fall-worthy actions, so long as the player is made aware of it. In fact, there’s no reason any number of actions can’t be included in a paladin’s oath. Which leads me to wonder: what if a player could select from a number of different oaths, each with their own specific requirements, and benefits.

Order of the Stick by Rich Berlew Miko's Fall 5Dungeons & Dragons played around with this in the 3rd edition “Book of Exalted Deeds.” That book included a number of “Sacred Vow” feats. The idea was that your character took some manner of ascetic vow—such as a vow of abstinence—and so long as the vow was kept, the character received a mechanical benefit related to that vow—such as a +2 to resist charm effects. The vows were not specifically for paladins, but they functioned in a similar manner to the paladin’s oath. I always thought it was a great idea, save for the fact that it falls prey to my problem with feats.

So what if the paladin’s oath was extensible in a similar manner? At first level, a paladin could choose to add a vow of abstinence to their oath. So long as they kept that vow, they would receive some type of benefit. It could be a +2 to resist charm effects, but it need not be mechanical. There are already a lot of mechanics involved in each of the Pathfinder classes, and none of them needs to be made more complicated they already are. Instead, a paladin who takes a vow of abstinence could gain access to the services of certain monasteries scattered throughout the game world. And, of course, if this vow is broken, the paladin would fall. So the Paladin can exchange greater restriction on their actions, for greater power.

It’s an idea I find intriguing. What are your thoughts?

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3 thoughts on “The Paladin’s Oath, and GM Clarity”

  1. I like the idea, especially eschewing the “mechanical” bonus. However, I do think something can come up in play that would cause a “fall” of a paladin. There is a VERY long example of a 1E game in Greyhawk which I will set up as a link. It is towards the end of the story. Yet, I think the GM was well within his rights to cause the paladin to fall and then give that paladin a way to redeem themselves.

    Here is the link:

  2. In general I agree. I like to be explicit with my players about direct consequences, even sometimes to the extent of telling them probabilities. For example: “Are you sure you want to go close to the ledge? It looks slippery and there will be a 2 in 6 chance of falling.”

    But Lon makes a good point: “… and then give that paladin a way to redeem themselves.”

    In some ways, the paladin’s fall is not much different than having an NPC steal a PC’s item. Both could be fair or unfair in the sense of allowing player agency to prevent the theft or fall. But if you’re playing a campaign where it’s okay to steal a PC’s items it seems like a fall should be okay too. I could see a pretty good scenario arising out of the quest to regain the paladin status. You need a group that is extra mature and on the same page, so I would not recommend this in general, but I think it could work work.

    It does seem like it would be hard to adhere to the Pathfinder paladin code and still play a D&D game. Avoiding hurting and killing others? That definition, at least the part you quoted, doesn’t seem to give an out for hurting evil others. Hurting and killing any others seems to be proscribed. Am I reading it incorrectly?

    Ian also has an interesting take on the paladin derived from OD&D:

  3. As fare as small breaches of the paladins code (like using poison or not trying to talk an other pc out of an evil act) i would be tempted to take next time the party rests take them out of the room and take them through there action as a dream/nightmare them give them a small -1 penalty (in spirit this penalty should not be removed before the next day starts)

    for greater breaches other punishments may be good but small things Will be noticed

    It may be worth saying that this is not divine intervention but a guilty mind

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