Sunday, January 8, 2012

"Evil will always win. Because good is dumb."

Dark Helmet just hates paladins.
OK, I had this long, pissed-off and kind of boring rant written, but I deleted it and wrote this instead.

I've been playing Temple of Elemental Evil for PC recently and barring a few irritating bugs I'm having a great time with it. One of the dudes in my Friday night Warhammer Fantasy RP group recommended it to me, saying it was the best D&D computer game he'd ever played. I wouldn't go that far (I'm all about Planescape: Torment) but I'll give it 2nd place with confidence.

What initially bothered me was my Paladin character. I had a long rant written about the bizarre morality and 'paladin code' of the game, but what it boiled down to was this:

Anyone evil basically gets told to fuck off and I can't interact with them, but it's OK to kill them without a conversation. I thought it was odd that I can kick in the door and kill everyone I see with no 'Paladin Code' violation, but if I accept a quest from one Evil Temple leader to kill another Evil Temple leader, I'm now Fallen. It's not as if I was going to leave any of them alive anyway. I know, I know: it's in the Paladin code! But it didn't make much sense at the time.

This bugged me until yesterday when I was reading Chretien de Troyes and of course remembered that the Paladin class is rooted in chivalric legend. In the stories of Arthur's knights some of these idiosyncratic traits exist. Brutal battles are fought against evil, but nobody considers trickery, strategy, divide-and-conquer tactics or the like except in extreme cases. Siding with one evil man to destroy another is unheard of; a knight simply runs through the first evil man before moving on to the next.

This is combined with the traits most lacking in most D&D paladins: politeness & courtesy. Even the most evil knight is treated with mercy until he has proved several times over to be unrepentant, and finally might lose his head (in De Troyes' version, Meleagaunt duels with Lancelot three times and imprisons him by trickery before Lancelot will finish the job). Most villains are allowed to say their piece and argue with the knight before they decide to do battle. These traits don't combine well with a group of various roguish dungeoncrawlers looking over their shoulders for gelatinous cubes while scooping treasure into a sack, so the result (the D&D Paladin) is a fusion of differing genre expectations, history, myth and pragmatism that can stumble in practise.

Too cool to be a PC.
"I say you sooth, said the damosel, for ye were this day the best knight of the world, but who should say so now, he should be a liar, for there is now one better than ye, and well it is proved by the adventures of the sword whereto ye durst not set to your hand; and that is the change and leaving of your name. Wherefore I make unto you a remembrance, that ye shall not ween from henceforth that ye be the best knight of the world. As touching unto that, said Launcelot, I know well I was never the best. Yes, said the damosel, that were ye, and are yet, of any sinful man of the world."
-Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D'Arthur

This reading and thinking on Paladins in the Arthurian canon gave me another idea. In any one knight's story, barring a few exceptions he is the best, strongest, toughest of all knights he meets in his travels. During Tristram's tale he beats all comers except Lancelot and when it's Lancelot's turn in the spotlight he can't lose. The stories are structured so the better knights come later in the saga and each can have his spotlight as the best while his story is told (Arthurian power creep!).

This fits in well with the harsh ability requirements for Paladinhood in 2nd edition D&D: Str 12, Con 9, Wis 13, Cha 17. Back in my 2nd ed days, I don't remember anyone playing a paladin over almost 10 years. Even with 4d6 drop the lowest and arrange as desired, what kind of fool frontliner puts a 17 into his *charisma*? One who wants a certain flavour of class, obviously, but no one I knew rolled rich enough stats to gamble survivability like that.

The Arthurian term for Paladin is "The Best Knight In The World," but it amounts to the same thing. A man endowed with strength, skill at arms, grace, beauty, chivalry, chastity, mercy, piety, all the virtues of knighthood. Only with his death or fall from grace can another knight assume Paladinhood.

In other words, there can only be one Paladin in the world at a time. Sir Lancelot is The Paladin for most of the Arthur stories, but his adulterious relationship with Guenevere causes his Fall, and opens the spot up to his perfect son Galahad (in the Malory version, Galahad is taken to heaven by Joseph of Arimathea before he can get old and lose his edge like Elvis). Lancelot can still beat most of the other knights, but he's just a very good Fighter from then on and everyone knows it. He fails to reach the Holy Grail and can't stop Mordred from tearing the Kingdom apart.

I don't know if this idea will fit into my Pathfinder game - the players get upset if they see something in the book and they can't have it. I like to indulge them in this, like a loving parent indulges their simpleminded child, so denying Paladins as unique in the setting won't work in that game.

However, I'm working on a fun one-shot for my Friday group which I hope to develop into an ongoing game - and there will definitely be only one Paladin at a time in this world.


  1. This may seem totally irreverent and/or irrelevant, but the role of the Pokemon Champion seems oddly similar: they're not necessarily the greatest, unbeatable fighter in the game (that's the PC's job) but all their supporting text is about how virtuous they are and how the PC must likewise be virtuous to have got to the point of fighting them. I don't know if a single kid playing the game actually buys into all that "friend of Pokemon, champion of harmony" stuff, but the writers never tire of pushing it.

  2. the differing genre expectations bit hits the nail on the head of this issue precisely.

    Really Paladins should not be a character class. To me this seems like a concession made to players for concept and ease of integration for a popular type of character. In my own opinion, A paladin is better represented by a character (maybe even not a fighter!) taking on a template which grants them seemingly miraculous abilities as an agent of their god, like a divine calling, joan of arc, h:tr imbued, etc. A favour of the gods in recognition of purity and acknowledging the righteousness of a given cause or task for a period of time, before fading.

    of course this kind of powerful token is a little bit harder to grant to one PC without others getting jealous, or having to engineer similar rewards. So the class is the easiest 'core' solution.

  3. richard: Actually I've never managed to play a Pokemon game very far, but a lot of Japanese anime seems to play this angle up - righteousness leading to superior strength or skill. I think it's a holdover from the Samurai (or a romanticized idea of them), very similar to our Chivalric stories in the west.

    4th: glad to hear you're liking the stuff. I'd say that looking at paladinhood in this way as a short-term "imbued" ability would explain the severe moral restrictions imposed on the PC. If you're only going to be a Paladin for the duration of your quest, it's OK to be a dick to some people, or boss around non-Lawful characters, or the other problems that D&D Paladins indulge in. Because afterwards you say "wow guys, I really acted strange when I was on that holy quest. Well, let's get back to normal."