Paladins in TTRPG, can they be Evil?
My view on Paladin Class in TTRPG
This is one of those topics that keep coming back like a boomerang, and fans of 5e will have different opinions than AD&D fans. Can Paladins be Evil? The first thing that comes to mind is no; Paladins are champions of justice, they can’t be evil – and that is Old School thinking, and they are right. But let's dig deep into the matter of why Paladins need to be Lawful Good and why “Paladins” can be Evil. To do that, we will ask questions that will dissect weaker cousins of Clerics – Paladins.
First of all, we need to ask the question: “What is Paladin in Humanity’s History?” The term "paladin" originates from medieval European literature and history, specifically associated with the court of Charlemagne, who was the first Holy Roman Emperor. Paladins were considered among the foremost knights in Charlemagne's court, celebrated for their exceptional valor, loyalty, and adherence to chivalric code. These knights, often depicted in epic poems and tales like the Matter of France, were renowned for their prowess in battle as well as their commitment to virtuous conduct. The most famous paladin is often said to be Roland, the hero of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, whose deeds are chronicled in the medieval epic poem "The Song of Roland." The idea of paladins became deeply ingrained in medieval literature, symbolizing the epitome of knightly virtue and honor. Over time, the term evolved to represent the idealized image of a noble and gallant warrior, embodying the values of courage, justice, and selflessness.
In that description, there is no place for an Evil Paladin; a Knight who would commit an evil act would not be called a Paladin, so being a Paladin is, in fact, the “Way of Life.” Obviously, that changed in modern times with pop culture; Paladins become less Knights with a strict code but more Champions of the Gods. So, let's ask another question: “What is Paladin in Dungeons and Dragons and other TTRPG’s?”
In the realm of role-playing games, especially within the fantasy genre, the term "paladin" often refers to a specific character class with distinctive traits and abilities. This archetype is deeply rooted in medieval and fantasy literature, drawing inspiration from the chivalric ideals of knights and the concept of holy warriors. Paladins in RPGs are characterized by their unwavering commitment to a code of ethics or a divine cause. They are often associated with religious orders or serve as champions of a particular deity. The key features of a paladin class typically include proficiency in both martial combat and divine magic. This combination allows them to function as versatile characters on the battlefield, capable of healing allies, protecting others through defensive abilities, and dealing damage to foes. The moral alignment of paladins is crucial, and they are often required to adhere to a strict code of conduct. Commonly, paladins are portrayed as defenders of justice and goodness, standing against evil forces. This moral aspect adds depth to the character and can introduce interesting role-playing dynamics within a game. Despite variations in specific game systems, the overarching theme of the paladin class remains that of a virtuous and mighty hero, using both martial skill and divine powers to combat darkness and uphold the forces of light. The archetype of the RPG paladin has become iconic and continues to influence fantasy storytelling across various media.
As we can see, the concept of Paladins evolved from Chivalric Knight to Champion of God. It is still often depicted as a “Champion of Good,” but the older editions of D&D, the more grey Paladin becomes. In fact, in 5e, there is a version of Paladin called “The Oath Breaker” that is de facto an evil version of Paladin. But why does that not make sense? I will explain a bit later. With the evolution of Dungeons and Dragons, we are starting to see more and more “evil” races show up as player options. Orcs, Goblins, Drows, and many more have been published in official material, going away from the initial idea of Gary Gygax of D&D being an epic adventure of champions of justice. In that initial vision, Paladins were rightly there, a champion of honor and chivalry as players supposed to be heroes fighting Evil. And here we encounter a problem; with the evolution of D&D, all classes could be played by anyone. Paladins could be played by evil races, and what if a Paladin committed an evil act? In my opinion, the biggest issue with Paladin in D&D is Paladin itself, and more precisely, the Paladin name. Imagine, there would be no issue if that class would be called “Knight” or “Crusader,” but Paladin indicates that they need to be Good. Trying to preserve history, the TTRPG creators shot themselves in the foot.
So is there a solution to this problem? Yes, there is, and I will upset a lot of Old School D&D and AD&D fans, but 5e had a good idea. The Oaths are a clever way to allow Paladins to be something else, but let me explain. First of all, Paladins get their power from Gods; by praying, they commune with their chosen God and make an Oath. Each Oath is different for each individual, but it's up to a God if that Oath will be accepted, and commitment to it is strong. That “Oath” is a contract between God and Knight. The thing is, in most fantasy worlds, there are Good Gods and Evil Gods, and there is no rule preventing an Evil God from making a contract with a Knight. So a Knight is making a pact with an Evil God; he makes an Oath to spread nastiness in the world. That person is not a Paladin, but like a Paladin, he is a champion of the God. The first step in any TTRPG would be to ditch the name “Paladin”; just dump it, rename it with “Knight.” This Knight, after forging his Oath, will become a Paladin if he becomes a champion of a Good God, or a Dark Knight, Tyrant, or whatever when he becomes a servant of an Evil God. Hey, if he became a Champion of the God of War, he can be a Crusader – Why not?
Now I said that “Oath Breaker” is a dumb idea in 5e; let me quickly touch on that. So, Paladin has power from God due to Oath; if a Paladin breaks an Oath, he should lose his Power, yet he keeps his power. Why? If that power came from God and a Paladin broke his Oath, then he should not have any power; he should be a bloody Fighter now. Oath Breaker is a dumb way of making the concept of an Evil Paladin. Though, the name is amazing.
To sum up all views on Paladins: Paladin cannot be evil; Paladin is a stupid name for a Champion of God class, call him Knight and make Paladin a Knight Sub-class. Problem solved; you are welcome.