Falling from Grace

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.


5 thoughts on “Falling from Grace

  1. I haven’t had a paladin player in my GM career of over 12 years yet, but alignment, like you say, is there for other classes as well, and even for classes not restriced by alignment, like fighters.

    There sure are ways for a MG to build a “Kobayashi Mary” (unbeatable) scenarious for paladin players. But thats not interesting. More interesting is watching how players claim being ‘good’ and ‘lawful’ and then seeing them keep doing ‘questionable’ things. Blackmailing, threatening prisoners, no quarters given after battle turns. ‘Solving competing business problems with fire’.

    The fall from grace – in most cases, its not one moment of burning like a falling meteor. Its more like getting there step by small step. A tiny distraction here. A small misstep there. Kicking an annoying beggar in ribs. Demanding that trader with objectionable motives pay up, or else… That robber guy who mistook your caravan for easy prey, now has to serve you without a pay and under a threat of execution of his family.

    And well, i need admit, im devlous a bit. I know my players, despite taking ‘good’ and ‘neutral’ as alignement, are not the ‘white fluffies’. They already left the Gulthias tree stand in ‘Sunless citadel’ to return for harvesting apples later. Now they are in beginning of the Bastion Press module ‘Bandits’ (Players can acquire devilous ‘slave collar thingies’ there, that keep NPC under their control). Im afraid, even before it is over, some forced alignment changes may be in order… As that will be too tempting thing for my party to destroy as evil.

  2. The big moral choice with no right answer is often done and pretty tired. I am more a fan of the warnings from your deity due to continuing transgressions. If a paladin has been straying from the path then maybe when they prepare spells it doesn’t work or their highest level slot doesn’t work. It isn’t instant (fairly crippling) loss of all powers that an alignment shift would inflict but shows their deities disfavour. This can be a once off in reaction to one event or a continued degradation of powers depending on the way the game is going. I think it ultimately feels more natural and does make the Paladin seem a little less rigid.

    I had fun a few months back when some me and some of the guys discussed “The Paladin Problem” on our podcast. This was more aimed at people having a problem with the black and white morale code but slipped into some of what you discussed above. http://theadventuringparty.libsyn.com/downtime-february-2014-the-paladin-problem

  3. “Saving the billions of people at the expense of one child is ASSUREDLY a good thing.”
    So, so WRONG. Slaying an innocent is an evil act. Failing to save billions is not an evil act. The end. Even assuming the Paladin had concrete proof that this outrageous scenario could be set up, manipulated and come to pass this is still not LG behaviour. Playing the numbers game with lives is LN behaviour at best.
    This is why Paladins are so hard for people to play- because Paladins may NEVER use the ends to justify the means. Every time they do so, they risk sliding further towards evil, for whom the ends always justify the means. If you are going to advise people on LG morality, please have some understanding of it yourself.

    • Devil’s Advocate: “All Evil needs to triumph is for Good men to do nothing.” If you are Lawful Good and have the means of saving a billion lives and choose not to act, you allowing Evil to triumph and therefore are committing an Evil act yourself. If a billion people die and we say that of those billion, one-third are Evil, one-third are Neutral, and one-third are Good then you are still allowing over 300,000 Good people die. Choosing one person over the masses is playing a numbers game with lives and is probably Neutral at best.

      Choosing to save a billion people instead of one child is not using the ends to justify the means. It is making sacrifices; hard ones at that. And sacrifice is something that Good understands all too well. Making sacrifices for the Greater Good is not Evil, especially when your choose benefits one billion people. As I said, its how you follow up on those sacrifices that determines your alignment. Good characters are humbled and mournful of the sacrifice of others and are haunted by it for many years to come. Evil characters step over the bodies of the sacrificed without thinking twice about what others have given up.

  4. There is a vast gulf between doing nothing, doing evil and doing good. Saving billions instead of saving an innocent child appears to be an easy choice, though the Paladin may always regret not being able to save the child. It may be a much harder choice, however, if the child is “The Chosen One”(TM). Likewise, saving strangers over a single loved one would be an agonising choice for a Paladin to make. But killing an innocent to save others or committing an evil act for a greater good is an easy choice for a Paladin – NEVER.
    The so called Paladin Trap relies on the premise that doing evil is justified, or that X lives are more valuable than Y lives or that one good is better than another good. Even worse, the Paladin Trap is essentially forcing the Paladin player to abide by the GM’s morality and this is another reason why it is so wrong.
    Paladin’s are easy to play because they follow the rules their God has laid out for them. Don’t do evil. Ever. Even in situations where the GM tries to create doubt, the Paladin can just use a Phylactery of Faithfulness.
    Paladin’s are hard to play because players have different ideas of morality and the GM actually has more power over the game world’s morality than the Paladin’s player. If you get a player and GM with the same morality then there’s rarely any paladin issues.

    For some morality exercises-
    Do you kill the innocent child or let billions die? How about millions? Thousands? Hundreds? Dozens? A couple? Now, what if the child is the prophesied “Saviour of the World”? Why?
    Does the Paladin who does the absolute minimum to be a Paladin fall? Why?
    Is the Truest Paladin Ever allowed to commit more evil acts before he falls than other Paladins? Why?

    Apart from your example, I pretty much agree with the entire article. 🙂

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