Thursday, January 15, 2015

This Paladin Thing

Moments when I'm drenched with cold water:
"The best explanation [for changing systems] I can really give is simply that I, and my players found it so much fun because the rules don't fight you when you try to roleplay, but they seem to support you far more. I'm not talking about the mechanics, the roll d20 to hit, d whatever to damage, I mean those background rules that are so easily overlooked or forgotten - a prime example being the paladin. 2nd edition straightjackets a paladin, punishing him for arbitrary, yet hardcoded into the rules, deeds. 5e simply points out that your neutral evil paladin may aspire to be a lawful good hero but hasn't attained the standards expected of him by his God. One system punishes the imagination, the other prompts it and myself and all my players have leafed through the books and found stuff that has sent our minds racing!"

The above is taken from a warm, genuine comment left by William Jones yesterday, giving an explanation of his path towards a better campaign.  It reminds me how far removed my contentious, rebellious iconoclastic nature is from the average role-player, particularly in how willing I was at the start of my gaming to smash things that were dictatorial in their design.

Around the time I began playing D&D, I was also reading Hermann Hesse.  I don't know how many readers here have heard of him; he was very popular in the 1970s, particularly among those chafing against the boundaries of societies and rules, who were seeking an explanation for solitude in the unhappy ennui of the deep Cold War.  I was only 15 or 16, I didn't really get that until later - as a young man, I was merely interested in explanations for my boundless anger.

Dear reader, you think I am terrible today!  I am so much calmer it is difficult for me to grasp sometimes - but then I find the following description and I am compelled to smile:
"Tegularius was a willful, moody person who refused to fit into his society. Every so often he would display the liveliness of his intellect. When highly stimulated he could be entrancing; his mordant wit sparkled and he overwhelmed everyone with the audacity and richness of his sometimes somber inspirations. But basically he was incurable, for he did not want to be cured; he cared nothing for co-ordination and a place in the scheme of things. He loved nothing but his freedom, his perpetual student status, and preferred spending his whole life as the unpredictable and obstinate loner, the gifted fool and nihilist, to following the path of subordination to the hierarchy and thus attaining peace. He cared nothing for peace, had no regard for the hierarchy, hardly minded reproof and isolation. Certainly he was a most inconvenient and indigestible component in a community whose idea was harmony and orderliness. But because of this very troublesomeness and indigestibility he was, in the midst of such a limpid and prearranged little world, a constant source of vital unrest, a reproach, an admonition and warning, a spur to new, bold, forbidden, intrepid ideas, an unruly, stubborn sheep in the herd."
- Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

There I am. I find myself reading these words for the first time in more than two decades and there isn't a thing there that isn't still - fundamentally - true.  Except, perhaps, a better perspective on the whole mess.  Not quite enough perspective, however, and that is why I describe William's comment on paladins as cold water.

Can anyone imagine the contentious lout Tegularius accepting any of that crap about what paladins are entitled to do or believe?

This paladin thing.  I just don't know.  The fanciful idea of knights being upstanding, stalwart protectors of the faith just goes on and on.  Despite evidence to show that the crusaders, upon which is based the classic paladin 'look,' were butcherous, drunken gang lords with the right blood.  Despite the brutal, castrating domination of the Teutons, Hospitallers and Knights Templar over their respective lands.  Clearly, the explanation for 'lawful good' is in the phrase, "The only good Maltese is a dead Maltese, and that's the law."

It all has something to do with Don Quixote, jouster, sword fighter, beating recipient, deluded nut-job.  Mad Dreamers are popular, difficult to understand but easy to like, while representing some weird compulsion to simultaneously admire their vision while recognizing its idiocy.  The original creators of the paladin heaped all this power on top of the basic fighter skills with the rationale, "We will make it almost impossible for this character to act free-handed, period."  They then foisted this balance on the role-players at the time and - somehow - the argument of balance has retained its legitimacy to this day.

I contend that DMs hate paladins.  The bonuses to save and armour class and the immunity to disease and evil, plus the tank-horse, are only the beginning.  There's nothing worse than a correctly behaved paladin, barking orders at other players, refusing to take part in adventure hooks, the endless bleating, bleating, bleating for a holy sword that absolutely no one wants the paladin to have . . . it all adds up to a motivation on the DM's part (subconsciously or otherwise) to kick that puppy at the first opportunity.  The paladin's place in the game is, let me see, what was the line?  ". . . a willful, moody person who refused to fit into his society."  Hesse was right.  Paladins are loathsome critters.

Yet what DM wants to say to a party, "I've eliminated the Paladin option"?  Players dream of paladins, of the day when they will finally roll both a 17 and a natural 18 in the creation of their characters (or whatever the hell the numbers are for 5e), so they can PROUDLY write the words, "First-Level Paladin" at the top of their character sheets.

There the dance begins.  The first act opens as the character consciously discovers that the paladin can't win every battle while walking on water carrying Jesus in a baby carrier.  Those first agonizing battles where the paladin gets slapped around like a bitch by a few goblins - goblins! - who know how to use weapons.  That first horrifying disbelief that the villagers aren't willing to hand over their animals and all that they own just because the *!PALADIN!* (insert triumphal music here) "needs" them.  The astonishment when the rest of the party soon sickens of the paladin's goose-stepping around in jackboots, petulantly dominating every parley with the words, "I'm a Paladin!  Need I say more?"

When the sweetest, most generous and experienced players are somehow transformed into the worst insufferable bastards by the mere adoption of a character class, you know there is something wrong with the game's philosophy.  What DM doesn't lie in wait like a snake in the grass, waiting for the moment this detestable prig makes the tiniest error, justifying a flat, across-the-board removal of all the paladin's powers in order to smack down the player's pomposity?

That, unfortunately, only initiates Act Two, in which the paladin grieves endlessly and monotonously for his or her lost powers, dragging the whole campaign into a grim, solemn death march to return the license to be an utter douche-bag to the character everyone has long-since agreed to despise.  More campaigns, I feel, have died on the way back to a paladin's powers than have died from edition-death.

It isn't that the powers are too much - they're really not.  Nor is it that the paladin really needs a set of rules to follow.  I've been playing since my first campaign without any dictatorial rules about paladin behaviour; I've never found it over-balances the game.

The real issue, I think, may be that a paladin is hard to get.  Actually, its quite easy, if the character is willing to do without the constitution and the strength.  But characters won't choose a paladin unless they also get high rolls in those two abilities, so that paladins on the whole tend to be characters with a lot of high level stats.  Those characters tend to be jerks anyway - but there is something about being a paladin that seems permissive of bad, self-righteous, magniloquent behaviour.

Here is my suggestion.  Rather than insisting that the paladin act according to the dictates of some god or cultural rule-making, simply issue everyone else in the party an 'anti-paladin' bat.  Let the players all know that when the paladin acts like a fucking tit, the magic in their bats gives them both initiative and an automatic hit, which causes the paladin's nervous system to shut down irrevocably for five bliss-following rounds.

That ought to shut them up.


James said...

The paladin tale is never as interesting fleshed out as it sounds sketched out.

On a completely unrelated note, I wanted to thank you. I decided to really put in the work and create proactive systems, rather than reactive ones, and the results have been promising. Your discussion on the sage abilities and why they are important to not only inform players but spur creativity was enlightening, and has become something I strive to do in my creations from now on.

So yeah, thanks. My game has improved immensely, and me and my players are much happier for it.

Kyle said...

I played a Paladin(incorrectly, it seems according to the PHB) in my first and only D&D 3.5 campaign. I think we played 4 sessions, and I made it most of the way to level 3, if i recall correctly, before we stopped. My stat roles with him were lucky, 18,17,15,15,12,10, if memory serves.

I played him a little bit towards chaotic from lawful, because I think in the back of my mind, I saw him as a Fighter with some holy powers. He was a bit haughty and commanding, but for the most part, I wanted him to look out for the party. I was the tank, up front doing tanky things, trying not to die.

Enough rambling, what I am trying to get around to is that I don't like the total self righteous portrayal that the PHB calls for. As much as the Paladin is the holy knight of their chosen god, adventurers are jerks and murder hobos, with a lust for the better gear and grander adventures.

Matt said...

Don't forget that 3rd edition did away with ability score pre-requisites for base classes. It was actually pretty much assumed that you picked your class first, then rolled your 4d6, drop the lowest, and assigned stats where they were most useful.

Except that for me even that only lasted through a few scattered games and short adventures until it became apparent that the unlucky weren't having fun, because while classes may have dropped prerequisites, feats embraced them fully, and if you didn't have a 15 where it was expected you were going to miss out. I also realized that the lucky people were more than likely fudging their stats.

So it eventually ended up that we did a point buy for stats so that everyone was treated fair and everyone was able to have the character they wanted. Sure, this made character creation into a 2 or 3 hour agonizing process of reworking calculations and pouring over options. The Point-Buy method was standard in 4th edition, where a class with the wrong stats was even more completely boned.

Somehow, even in these systems, the Paladin was picked on. I don't think it is all for game mechanics either. The 3rd edition Paladin is more powerful than a Fighter (but so is everything) but still a poor choice when stacked against a Barbarian or Cleric. The 4th edition Paladin is one of the more lackluster classes in the base set.

By now though the idea of the Paladin has become self referential. The modern RPG Paladin has nothing in common with a medieval crusader, but instead everything in common with this mythological "God Warrior Protagonist" character that has been created by RPGs. Cheap fantasy novels and videogames have created this new archetype that is one part romanticized knight, one part Van Helsing-esque monster hunter, one part Jedi-Knight (especially the prequel depictions), and one part space marine.

In short, "Paladin" has become shorthand for "You know, like the main character of such and such," and a gaming group is not kind to a player who thinks they are the main character.

Anti-Paladin bats should also effect any other show-stealing tit.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Sigh. With every new edition, I grow more anachronistic. But so does everyone.

Tim said...

I did find it odd how the only base class you have no information about on the wiki is the paladin (the bard's status has at least been discussed on the blog).

For my first AD&D game I rolled up everyone's stats and made the character sheets myself to randomly distribute (for some added fun as it were). One lazy (according to the background generator), human lady happened to just make the various stats for a paladin so I chose that one's class as such (she has a 9 constitution though). The man who received that character was not told he had to be a righteous prig (nor had he been told that for the paladin character he had played in 4e), and did not act as such: in fact, at the first major city the characters reached, he decided to hook up with someone at a bar (lucky for him, I didn't have a pregnancy system yet: he doesn't risk it anymore).

He has yet to tithe or even visit a church, but it certainly doesn't deteriorate the paladin experience for him. The point being that nothing should say how you should play your character, because the character is not a role in a play. The paladin is not the protagonist or the goofy sidekick or the mad dreamer, they are a person in the game. People never follow roles exactly, unless the role is based off that particular person; so why should we ever tell a player, "That's not what a paladin would do," like they've fucking killed the suspension of disbelief? As long as it's what a human would do, it seems good enough to me.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I so agree, Tim.

The reason the paladin has no entry in the wiki is due to my having made no changes to the class described in the player's handbook, and because it uses the same weapons as the fighter. I will be working on the paladin when the sage abilities come around to that.

William Jones said...

I feel honoured!! I have to tell you the story of what my group feel is one of the most memorable nights of my campaign. The party had been on and off pursuing a vampire across the world, they weren't really focused on it, but put enough work in to stay on the creatures trail. At some point during this chase, a character had died and when that happens, we like to meet early to, well really just watch the creation of a new character. This time it didn't happen for whatever reason, the player rolled up a paladin and I was the only one there.

Of course, predictably, he began to wind up the others no end, from defending the poor innocent goblins the others were determined to murder, threatening to fight them if they tried right through to dragging the party's thief down to the sheriffs office when he saw him pickpocketing, which resulted in a day and a night in a stockade, all the rotten eggs and mouldy veg you can eat.

They were very unhappy (characters, the players understood!) and so at the start of this session, they decided, the only thing they could really focus on was this vampire hunt. They started to hit up their contacts for clues and discovered that the vampire had not moved on from the town they were in. (This was actually a false clue). The party searched the town with their usual lack of respect for the locals, which resulted in them being run out of town, while the paladin smugly followed, catching up to the party and lecturing them on how to respect the dignity of the less fortunate.

I can't quite remember what happened next, I usually sit back and let the players RP among themselves, but someone raised the idea that the paladin may be the vampire. The clues all started to, in their heads (confirmation bias) all support this fact, and in a metagamey way, their suspicions were heightened in that none of them had been present for character creation.

What followed was three hours of silence from me as the players experienced an intense session in which they accused, tried in the best way they knew how, prosecuted and executed the paladin for being the vampire - and for them, killing a "non-monster" race was a huge deal, it made them, in their own consciences murderers and caused the retirement of another character who was unable to live with what he had done.

I remember so distinctly, when it was all over, with a dry cracked throat to a room full of my friends, all silently contemplating what they had just experienced, saying "Well, the bathrooms free" to watch them all scramble to their feet, slightly unsteadily, as they had not even stopped for a break the entire session!

And to this day, the party, two of whom were characters who did that, will not interact with paladins they meet. I don't think they remember, at least it's not at the front of their thinking, but I'm sure it's in their sub-conscience.

Warren Abox said...

In the real world the knightly idea was of upstanding, stalwart protectors of the faith, but the reality was a bunch of loudmouth bastards that took advantage of their position. Whereas at the table the paladin idea is of an upstanding stalwart protector of the faith, but the reality winds up being a bunch of loudmouth bastards that take advantage of their position?

Sounds to me like D&D nailed it.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Quite frankly, the knightly idea had nothing to do with the real world, ever.

The fact that knights through history used bullshit to justify their actions does not sound like anything that the makers of D&D (not the game, and we shouldn't get them confused) should ever be praised for.

I know, I know, you were trying to make a joke, Warren. It was a bit clever clever for me.

I think what got nailed was the game's reputation.

Blaine H. said...

You are right, Paladins are almost a universally detested class in all it's flavors, both good and evil. For all the reasons you listed, absurd bonus and the ability to thanks to 'RP' guidelines... the near guarantee that they will be a detriment to any form of player ambition or the GM's desire to actually run an interesting story that is more than chasing windmills. When the average GM cabal (the little hole in the wall pub down the way from the gaming club) usually has a portion of it's drinking night spent bitching about the current paladins in play and almost invariably like detailed, the GMs are trying to find ways to make him or her fall without letting them become the terror that is the anti-paladin... yeah, there is something annoying about them to say the very least.

That is not to say that there have not been good paladin players... it is just that most players do not have the right mindset to be them. From what I have put together over the years, the only good paladin players are the ones who don't have the 'I am the main character' or self righteous personalities. The ones who quietly support from the sidelines, plugging holes in the adventure and campaign while others do the heavy lifting with the story.

Sadly, they are the rare exception to the rule.

Most are just content to be the biggest jerks at the table where the bulk of the rest of the group is trying to figure out how to do anything interesting without alerting the paladin while keeping them around as a veritable walking passport stamp... 'See, we can't be the assholes you are looking for, we have a paladin in the group and if we have one of those who hasn't fallen, we can't be the bad guys!'

Overall... it is a waste of space of a class and a detriment to the sanity/quality of the campaign to GMs everywhere.

Alexis Smolensk said...

If you remove the role-play restrictions, the holy weapon bonus and the idea that the paladin's deity gives a rat's ass, the paladin just becomes a very tough fighter that needs a lot of experience to level.

Doug said...

One of the players I run for is playing a paladin, and there have been no problems. One time (the first game, first time the kid played), I had to remind him what a paladin was. That's been it.

I've come to the conclusion that the players (DM included) are the problem with paladins.

If other players allow their own prejudices to interfere, to purposefully make decisions to make the paladin's life difficult, then the paladin will not fit well. For example: "We kill all the prisoners. What are you going to do about it?" A DM who dictates the paladin won't let that happen then adds to the toxic mess. The player will become frustrated and cease to have fun.

I've found many gamers to have a problem with organized religion, and a paladin in their midst allows their worst biases and prejudices to come to the fore.

Now, the group I DM for also has a sneaky-bastard who does things the paladin doesn't approve of. But the players know not to mess with each others characters. The paladin gets to be the upstanding moral stalwart, while the other guy gets to, in effect, be his evil twin. I believe it works out because the players are mature enough (even for teenagers) to understand what role religion plays in their lives. And I'm a good enough DM to not dictate to a player how he should play his character.

Spazalicious Chaos said...

With all the anecdotes I have heard from both "paladins suck" and "paladins are not that bad" groups, could it be possible that paladins are something of a litmus test for your group dynamics? Are groups that have issues with paladins "acidic" with caustic relations to one another, and okay paladins "basic?" Or hell, maybe the paladin is just a litmus test for the individual player, with acidic paladin players that ruin everyone's perceptions of the class and basic paladins who leave the people they play with scratching their heads when they read an article like this one.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Some paladin ethics may be inherent to the individual, Chaos, but on the whole I think it is trained, permissive behaviour brought on by a culture that encouraged alignment-based thinking and mechanics.

NO ONE should be surprised that the creation of a poorly constructed ideology (alignment) produced at least two generations of warped human behaviour.