When Your Paladin Goes Rogue: Common Problems When Playing Paladins

A lot of players hate paladins. And that hatred isn't entirely unwarranted. But when played properly, a paladin is actually an excellent class with a lot more versatility than one would expect. The key is in the roleplay. Paladins are excellent damage dealers and defensive tanks. But the core of being a paladin rather than being a fighter lies in their devotion.

What Exactly is a Paladin?

Paladins are different depending on system, but what is common is that a paladin is a holy warrior that draws their strength from a god, system of law, or ideal. This is important: in most systems, the paladin themselves is a fighter who does not, in and of themselves, have holy ability. Rather, that holy ability is transferred to them by the grace of their god and through their faith. If the paladin strays from that system, they may "fall," losing access to these special abilities (but still remaining a competent fighter in their own right).

How Do Paladins Deal With Alignment?

Knight with sword.In early editions of DnD, paladins were forced to be lawful good. That meant that they were a force for justice, righteousness, and valor. But for most systems today, paladins simply need to be the alignment of their God. If they follow a lawful evil god, they must remain lawful evil. When your alignment strays from your God's, you have "fallen."

Talking about alignment is difficult, because most people agree that the lawful/chaotic, good/evil system is a fairly poor simulation of, well, anything. Alignment is, in many aspects, up to interpretation. So we must say that in general:

  • Lawful: adhering to the laws of the land, governing of a higher authority, or an established set of rules and creed.
  • Chaotic: choosing personal choice, freedom, and goals over the goals of the common authority.
  • Good: helping and aiding others, being charitable, and putting the needs of others before your own.
  • Evil: sowing pain and misery, being selfish, and putting the needs of yourself before the needs of others.

And, of course, there's neutral: not caring much one way or another, but instead making decisions based on the situation, your background, and personal ideals and goals. Lawful Good is what people traditionally think of as a paladin, but there can also be Lawful Evil paladins in most modern systems. 

What's the Problem With Paladins?

So what makes paladins so annoying to play and so annoying to play with? It mostly has to do with the roleplaying. 

  • People can overdo it with paladins. A traditional "lawful good" paladin may interrupt at every turn, talking constantly about their God and nitpicking every minorly "chaotic" or "evil" thing that their party does -- to the point of being disruptive. They may drag their feet during the plot because they need to be "convinced" to do a thing, because they don't believe their God would approve. In this situation, the paladin is playing it dumb. Being "lawful good" doesn't mean that a character would, say, let someone choke to death because to enter their house would be trespassing.
  • People can misunderstand what a paladin is. Many people play paladins as "a fighter with a glowing sword," never mentioning their God and calling upon their "divine smite" just like any other ability that they might activate. 
  • People can use alignment incorrectly. As mentioned, alignment is in a gray area. But many paladins will, say, justify anything that they do on the basis that "it's still lawful because it's my personal code." If following a personal code meant that you were being lawful, nearly every character would be lawful. Chaotic doesn't mean "internally inconsistent" (which is another issue entirely), it means valuing freedom and individuality as an ideal over society and law. Nearly everyone has a personal code.

That's not to say the paladin is always wrong. If a good-aligned party is being called upon to do evil things, it only makes sense the paladin would interject.

Paladins Gone Awry

A paladin of Kelemvor had just accepted an important mission from his God to reach the frontlines of a battle. His first action: to steal a horse. Though he was Lawful Neutral, he argued, his God's law was actually death. Therefore, he could do anything that he wanted as long as he did not upset the balance of life and death. But Kelemvor is also a God of fairness, and though he was a mercenary, he did believe in righteous causes. Even if Kelemvor did not particularly care about the theft of a horse (which he very well may not have), the local guards certainly would. Being a paladin of a Lawful Neutral God does not grant you invulnerability from consequence. 

At the other end of the spectrum entirely, we asked another paladin "What God do you follow, anyway?" He responded, "Oh, I don't have a God. I'm just good." A paladin is not just a fighter who believes in good or who fights for a cause of righteousness. A paladin does have to have some external source of holy power, even if (in some systems, or as a homebrew setting) it can be an abstract ideal.

How Do You Play a Paladin Properly?

There are a few things that people may want to think about when playing paladins. For the most part, people need to remember to play their paladins as real characters, who are reasonable and functional. Too often, paladins become a one-dimensional caricature of the embodiment of evil or good.

  • Remember that "lawful good" doesn't mean "lawful nice." Being a good character doesn't mean that you're locked into being sweet or polite. 
  • Don't try to weasel your way out of consequences. The point of playing a paladin is to adhere to a certain code or to the values of a specific God. 
  • Being a "lawful evil" or "chaotic evil" paladin can be interesting, but it isn't a way to sow arbitrary discord and destruction. Again, a code is needed.
  • Falling or changing alignment isn't necessarily bad. If you think it's right for your character, it may be exactly what your character needs.
  • Protection from your God does not mean protection from all consequences. Other people, town guards, and other paladins may question you.

Paladins aren't exactly a complicated class. They are a fighter with special divine abilities. But because the stereotype and narrative of a paladin has been so thoroughly embedded in the roleplaying zeitgeist, it can be difficult to create a character that truly feels to be "your own." 

How Do You Deal With a Paladin Gone Rogue?

The easiest way to think of a paladin's powers actually isn't in terms of alignment, but instead their God's favor. Rather than getting into the minutiae of "was that an evil act?" it can instead become a question of, "is that an act that Tyr would approve of?" Because ultimately a paladin's powers come from their God, this is a relevant and easy shorthand for determining whether the paladin is acting in alignment with their creed. 

Though the paladin can justify anything they want to themselves, you as the DM are actually the one in charge of the world, the Gods, and, ultimately, the paladin's powers. If you don't think the paladin's God would approve of their actions, there are a few things you can do:

  • You can begin to interfere wth their powers. If their God no longer supports them, you may make their paladin powers a little weaker, or erratic. There may be times they call upon their God for power and they find no answer.
  • You can deal with them through reputation. If word gets out that a paladin of Tyr is murdering people, for instance, the knights of Tyr may take exception to it. They may even hunt them down for justice on their own.
  • You can simply follow your story out to a natural consequence. A paladin of Kelemvor killed someone in righteous combat, but, it was still a murder in a bar. They're arrested by the town guard.

When paladins go rogue, it's normally because they are able to justify to themselves why they can take a particular action. They can "break the law," because it is not their law. But the thing such players frequently understand is that they can choose to do whatever they want to do, but they are in a living world that has consequences. Sometimes it is better to show these consequences than attempt to correct the action.