Gaming Tonic

The Paladin Is Here, The Party Is Over

The KnightIt never fails, everybody is sitting around talking about what characters they want to play and somebody says they are going to play a paladin, and the game begins to shift in an unexpected direction.  The directional shifting is taking place even before the game has started.  The proposed character that begins the shift doesn't have to necessary be a paladin like in Dungeons & Dragons.  The character could be a Jedi in a Star Wars campaign, or Captain America in a street level Marvel Knights style game.  It doesn't really matter what the class, build, or scheme is called, what does matter is the character with a belief in a set of morals that is absolutely uncompromising, and whether the rest of the group is willing to have their characters be respectful of the "paladin" style character's ideals or whether we are going to have conflict in the group on a fairly regular basis.

If the other characters in the party are respectful of the "paladin" will the game go in a direction that puts that character in the center of the game, and shifts the game from what the Game Master thought the game was going to be about and instead becomes focused on the "paladin" character? Some readers may think,  "Hey you're the GM, the game is what you want it to be!"  While they may seem true it is a recipe for a short lived game as if the players are not interested in what is going on, and then the GM will have a hard time propelling their characters forward in the story.  In part this will be because if their characters exist in a bubble then the players will quickly realize that no matter what actions their characters take they have no effect on the campaign world, because they are supposed to be following this predetermined course.  This may work for a mega-dungeon crawl adventure where the characters need to find their way out but in shorter, less locked adventures you can't always railroad the party in the direction you as the GM want them to go.  What is worse is that the "paladin" character is usually held in some sort of high esteem, enhanced position, or heightened level of wonder and awe, and the other characters will be drawn to them.  Anyone who sat down to play Edge of the Empire hear the phrase, "Why play Star Wars if their aren't going to be any Jedi?"  I am not saying anything about the "paladin" style character as far as viable choice in a game, just perhaps not in every game. In more than three decades of role-playing I have seen a lot of this style of character and since they all have some sort of code that they must follow they can be problematic at best and downright silly at worst.

The "paladin" character can have  a difficult time co-existing or because their specific ideals just took over the rest of the party's minds, goals, and desires, and therefore the direction of the game.  It doesn't help that in some systems these characters have powers and abilities that are different from most of the characters and in a lot of instances are a lot tougher.  For those of you who were around for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st Edition), nobody could roll a paladin by the rules and if they by some miracle managed to, then they had access to a character build far tougher than the other characters, plus the high ability scores.  Then came Unearthed Arcana and the paladin was then allowed to raise their Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma every level.  So the tough kid got to make the rules on the playground. What if the party doesn't play along with the code and agenda of the "paladin" character?  Well depending on how they choose to have the characters act you can have party conflict.

Some conflict between party members can be a great thing which enhances role-playing and allows for players to really define what their characters are about.  If the party rogue filched a ring from the duke and the paladin later sees the ring and recognizes it as belonging to the duke, you may have a bit of drama with the paladin insisting the rogue return it and the rogue insisting that the party needs the wealth the ring will fetch to complete their mission.  The theft of the ring benefits the greater good.  The more clever your players, the better the chance that a situation like this will enhance your game.  We don't always have a player or two that can help the game in a morally questionable situation.  A trusted NPC or henchman that is attached to the party can serve as a delivery device if the DM would rather smooth the situation over, although that might not always work.

The other way the party can all get along with the paladin character is when the player who is playing the paladin doesn't call the other players out on their characters questionable shenanigans.  I ran a game once where such shenanigans took place.  The paladin character, with his high Charisma and Diplomacy skill handled every social interaction for the party but would absentmindedly wander off whenever the other players were about to get over on a shopkeeper by magically enhancing themselves before selling him goods.  In this sort of situation it is up to the DM to see that the "not noticing" behavior doesn't become a regular thing.  If the lone character who walked around the corner is confronted by party enemies while out of earshot or the character soon finds their holy powers waning (take away just lay on hands as a warning), then the player will probably change their character actions.  The player will probably not see the lack of power for a few extra coins as advantageous.  When it comes to the "paladin" character looking the other way, remember that the gods see all.

The worst offending "paladin" is probably the one that is the most honest.  I don't mean never telling a lie, but playing the paladin character as the unwavering pillar of virtue and idealism.  This player will not allow his character to allow the other characters to do anything that go against the paladin's sense of ethics at all.  Even when the other players are trying to be subtle, sneaky, and covert, the paladin character will try to muck up things for them.  Even things the character would have never been aware of.  This sort of "paladin" character might meet a quick end at the hands of the other player characters and a little PC vs. PC violence is not always a bad thing for the game.  If you have one of these paladins in your game just let it play itself out and hope for the best.

If you have these sort of "paladin" characters in your game I would love to hear what you do to deal with them.  Do their codes of conduct and beliefs take center stage in your game or are they a minimal part that is not called to the center stage too often?  How do your other characters deal and get along with the "paladin"?  If you have an example, or a story feel free to leave it in the comments section and, until next time, Roll Hard!

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  1. I’ve rarely had a problem with paladins in a party because the rest of the party rarely has a problem with the paladins. Usually the other characters are Good aligned, including other Lawful Good types. In fact the problem is usually the other way around, with that one Chaotic Neutral jerk who is constantly bringing trouble down on the party with their “fun” or “clever” ideas (like stealing a ring from the duke). As a DM the main problem with paladins is the Detect Evil ability at will. It’s pretty much impossible at lower levels to have an evil type try to trick the party because of it.

    • Thanks for the feedback. The Chaotic Neutral jerk is a great idea for a blog and I agree that they cause their fair share of problems. Detect Evil is a huge problem and always has been at low level. I have a suspicion that in D&D Next the designers will get this right by tweaking it considerably.

    • Depending on what ruleset you’re using, you maybe are too generous with the detect evil. In Pathfinder and, I believe, 3.x, enemies must be mid level or clerics of an evil god to even detect as evil. Evil intent will also show up, but you have to decide if the NPC’s intentions are evil (murder the party) or just chaotic (steal from the party).

  2. The Captain America character being disruptive to group dynamic isn’t as big a problem as something else: protagonist-centered morality.

    We see this in fans of shows of “Breaking Bad,” where people who oppose the often pretty evil Walter White are generally hated by the fans, including his ex-wife, who is actually a decent person who wants to get away from Walt, who pals with drug dealers.

    The Captain America character can be a very helpful role in getting people away from that. The Game Master can have an even bigger role by emphasizing consequences, creating the moral heart of the game. For instance, most superheroes have a “Thou Shalt Not Kill” rule. In the game, you can make that stick by expressing horror, emphasizing the seriousness of a death.

    This gets to the heart of why people play roleplaying games, and sometimes it’s not for a very wholesome reason: they want to indulge in very sociopathic fantasies.

    I run a regular Champions game, but for a change, I wanted to run a miniseries based around villains. A few people at my table loved that idea – I mean, really loved it! And when talking to them, I started to see why: in the regular Champions game where they had to be good guys, they didn’t get to kill enough people and bust loose and be big jerks.

    (This was not my group but a couple people, just so you know.)

    I think indulging in that kind of desire is a real danger that is actually pretty harmful. To be clear: I am not saying the game itself would be harmful, but appealing to that desire would be.

    I think it’s possible at some point to say that RPGs like this are about challenge, about engagement, but not about indulging.

    There was a story a while ago about people who added into a video game (Skyrim, I think?) the ability to kill children, because “that’s something you can’t do in the game.” Well, sure, but why add that in? “Because you can’t do it and I want to.” Well, that’s not good enough of a reason!

  3. Also, for group dynamic purposes it’s never a good idea to have characters of VASTLY different alignments. Most GMs insist everyone has to be of “Good” alignment.

    This just makes sense. In Spy Games, most characters should be on the “same side.”

  4. Why is the paladin always, so to speak, “the bad guy”? I’ve heard the answer before, and I think it’s bogus. Supposedly, the problem is that with paladin “we can’t play the kind of characters we want to!”. Yes, and everyone should get to play the kind of character they want to — unless that kind is the paladin kind. It seems like when there’s a style of play conflict within a group, a double standard has grown up into RPG culture against the heroic type. That is sad.

  5. I’m currently in a game where I’m playing a Paladin and the leader of the group. Most of the morally dubious activities of the group happen when the other party members actively seek to avoid my character knowing their deeds.

    On one occasion, our DM rules the thief contracted an STD from a 2 copper hooker. When the rogue came to ask for my paladin to remove his disease, I refused to do so until the end of the adventure (and after giving him a righteous sermon) if he expressed remorse for his actions. He said he wouldn’t do so again, which lasted a few months in game time before he just decided to go see more expensive escorts which were less likely to spread disease.

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