Welcome to the Gibbering Mouth article for March 5th, 2014. Today’s article is a Wednesday Rave; the topic is the paladin code of conduct.
Discussions about alignment almost always revolve around one specific class: the paladin. Paladins are hardly the only class in the game with alignment requirements: barbarians, clerics, druids, inquisitors, monks, and the soon-to-be warpriest also have similar requirements placed upon them. Maybe its because most of these classes have a one-step leeway or something, but it seems like no one is complained about more than the paladin. Heck, you see more “falling paladin” threads and discussions than antipaladins, that’s for sure. Monks have an alignment requirement that is almost as strict as a paladin’s, too.
So why all the fuss about paladin alignment?
Falling as a Goal
For whatever reason, this idea that all GMs should be testing their paladin’s morality (translation: trying to get them to fall) is as old as the paladin class itself. Likewise, the player sentiment that all GMs are trying to make their paladins fall has existed for just as long. Last week we talked about trusting the GM, and this is certainly an example of a place where there is a noticeable gap in player-to-GM trust. For this reason, I feel obligated to say this to all my GMs out there. Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t lord over your tables. But please remember this #1 rule of being a decent GM: it is not your job to screw over your players. Your players are more than capable of screwing themselves over; they don’t need us working against them too!
A perfect example is the “Satan Spawn” scenario. This is a somewhat famous “paladin trap” where the GM places a demon-possessed child before the paladin with some sort of MacGuffin that will kill billions of people or something silly like that. The idea of the “trap” is that the paladin falls no matter what he does. If he ends the threat by attacking the child, he falls for attacking an innocent person who was under the control of something else. If he does nothing, billions of people die and its all his fault, so he falls. The fallacy in this thinking is the idea that this is an interesting moral choice. It is not. Saving the billions of people at the expense of one child is ASSUREDLY a good thing. It could be good for a good personal dilemma, but it is not something that the paladin should have any chance of falling for. The obviously “good” thing to do in this situation is to slay the kid, save the world, bring the kid’s body back to her family, apologize to them, grieve with them, and help the family find peace. Telling the paladin that he falls for doing what’s right is NOT a moralistic decision: it is a GM being a twat. End of discussion.
Falling for Story Purposes
Some GMs have this idea that a paladin falling from grace makes for a dark, gritty, and interesting story. Because of this, you’ll sometimes see GMs who go out of their way to try and create situations for their players to fall (see above).
Let’s set the record straight: yes. A paladin falling and subsequently atoning for his crimes and redeeming himself (or transforming into an engine of destruction and evil) can make for a very interesting story. But generally speaking, those stories are better told with NPCs, not with players. That is, unless the player WANTS to fall. In any case, falling is not fun or exciting for players who do not want it. Because of all of the negatives that are associated with falling, players feel like their character FAILED when he or she fell. The paladin fantasy for players is not about atonement and redemption: it is about being a knight in shinning armor. A hero. This is why the fallen paladin works better as an NPC for the players to observe: everyone recognizes the fallen hero and it makes for a good story to interact with.
Am I saying that players should never want to fall? Nope. If you want to fall, good. Tell your GM that its what you are interested in. But GMs, do not decide for your players that they ARE going to fall. Let them make that decision on your own.
Breaking the Code
Paladins get a bad rap for having the strictest code of conduct of any class in the game. For whatever reason, our generation feels as though it must punish any transgression that is in violation of a set of rules with the upmost prejudice. But the fact remains that people are mortal: they make mistakes. And a single misdeed should not cause you to fall unless it is BIG; a truly repulsive act of upmost evil and chaos. But making small mistakes here and there? That shouldn’t destroy you.
For an excellent way to determine alignment change, check out the scaling slider in Ultimate Campaign: not only is it an awesome tool if tracking alignment is your thing, but it also gives tips on how certain deeds might affect your alignment. But always remember, folks. Alignment is an agent of communication: players and GMs need to talk about alignment before radically changing it from someone’s perceived notion of misconduct.
And that about wraps up my thoughts on paladin codes of conduct for this installment of the Wednesday Rave. What do you think? Have you ever played a paladin who was unfairly punished for something you did? How did you handle the situation? GMs, have you ever ran games for paladins that you have decided fell from grace? Why did they fall, and how did you handle it? Leave your questions, comments, and stories below and come back next week for more thoughts from my Gibbering Mouth!
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune paladin, though he’s always wished for an Eastern “divine warrior” archetype that allows the paladin get proficiency with some eastern weapons.