Last week’s article dealt with playing a paladin. This week, we’re going to touch on the thorniest mechanic of paladinhood: falling. A paladin who willingly commits an evil act falls, losing his divine goodies in the process. He can’t cast spells. He can’t smite evil. He can’t summon his magic horsie. He can’t lay on hands. In fact, he can’t even level up as a paladin until he finds a cleric willing to cast atonement on him.
Since falling is such a big deal, it produced quite a bit of consternation. Back in the days of yore, on the Wizards of the Coast community forums, there was at least one hotly-debated paladin falling thread a week. Topics varied from “Should this character fall?” to “Should I punch my jerk GM for putting my paladin in situation in which he automatically falls?” This is what happens when you give the DM a stick (carrot suspiciously absent) and no guidance. Not to mention the alignment system that mixes ethics (law/chaos) with morality (good/evil) and tries to slot everyone into one of nine categories.
Fun fact: The word paladin stems from the Latin palatinus, which refers to an officer of the palace (in reference to the Palatine Hill of Rome). The Italians changed it to paladino, and the French shortened it to paladin to refer to heroes (the Twelve Peers) of Charlemagne’s court.
As an aside: it is fascinating to me that clerics seem to have fewer problems with falling than paladins. After all, their class description notes that any cleric who “grossly violates the code of conduct required by his god loses all spells and class features.” However, I’ve infrequently seen the topic of clerics falling as opposed to paladins falling. Although the cleric’s relatively lenient requirements (within one step of his deity’s) give him more freedom, I think it’s because the rules dictate so many ways for the paladin to fall, which encourages DMs to push the paladin to fall.
Paladin, Wear Your Magic Box
If you’ve ever played The Temple of Elemental Evil PC game, there’s a drinking contest in the village of Hommlet. If there’s a paladin in the party and someone enters the drinking contest, he falls. From being in the same party as someone who drinks beer. That’s stupid, and it shows how arbitrary interpretations of the paladin’s code of honor are. The phylactery of faithfulness is an attempt to “hotfix” these sorts of situations.
The phylactery is
a small box containing religious scripture affixed to a leather cord and tied around the forehead. There is no mundane way to determine what function this religious item performs until it is worn. The wearer of a phylactery of faithfulness is aware of any action or item that could adversely affect his alignment and his standing with his deity, including magical effects. He acquires this information prior to performing such an action or becoming associated with such an item if he takes a moment to contemplate the act.
Despite its usefulness, the item is bad for four reasons.
The inanity of frightened paladins consulting their phylacteries every few minutes aside, the phylactery fails to address the underlying problem: the disconnect between player and DM expectations.
A Little Preparation Goes a Long Way
You set the table before dinner, so why aren’t you setting expectations before the game? Start doing it. As with clerics, paladins can presumably service a Lawful Neutral god–after all, it’s one step away from Lawful Good. But some of the Lawful Neutral deities are a little…unconventional. Cyndor, god of time. How about the Ruby Sorceress? How does a Lawful Good god of dragons (Bahamut) differ from a Lawful Good god of humans (Heironeous)?
You, as the DM, must determine this…and then you must communicate it clearly to paladin’s player. Because the definition of Lawful Good in the player’s mind is not going to be exactly the same as the definition of Lawful Good in your mind. Set aside some time and write out a code of conduct with the paladin. However, don’t be stupid about it. It’s a D&D game, the paladin is going to be killing things. Demanding that he take prisoners instead of killing things is not viable.
Bring on the Divine Telepathy
As a last resort, if the paladin is about to take an action that is going to cause him to fall, the DM should communicate this clearly. Repeat after me: “If you do that, you will fall.” It’s not hard to do. As the DM, you’re not there to “punish” the paladin for misdeeds, you’re there to (a) make sure everyone is having a good time, and (b) adjudicate the rules fairly.
Let’s go a step further, though. Let’s give the paladin a direct line to his deity’s mind (that would be your brain, DM). If the paladin is about to do something that will cause him to fall, you should alert him of this, and then you should provide an alternate course of action. Part of the fun of moral dilemmas is watching the players hem and haw over what they should do, and part of the fun is throwing a gear in the works. Sometimes, you need to tell the paladin what his god wants him to do. When you do this, make sure it complicates things. Sometimes, the Lawful Good god wants you to take your enemy prisoner and give him a fair trial, but sometimes he wants to sever his head. Deities have plans and goals. Maybe their long-term goals conflict with the paladin’s immediate goals.
Consider the following: the paladin of Pelor has a vampire in his clutches and is about to deliver justice to him. Pelor abhors the undead as unnatural abominations and wants them destroyed. The vampire, however, wants to seek a cure and restore himself to living. The paladin decides he’s going to spare his life, but then Pelor demands that he kill the vampire because he is an affront to the living.
What does the paladin do?
All this aside, the most important thing is making sure everyone’s having fun with it. If the game stops being fun for the paladin because he feels “cheated” by the DM making him fall, there’s a problem. Work together to make the game fun again.
If you have any particularly gruesome, funny, or downright nasty stories about falling paladins, we’d love to hear them!
Really a great look at the need for clarity between players and the GM. I tend to flip character concepts around but if the GM isn’t on board and I don’t know it, I’m going to have a problem.
I realize that you wrote this over 3 years ago but since I stumbled upon this article I believe others can find it quite easily too. There’s a Paladin archetype in Pathfinder’s ‘Antihero’s Handbook’. Obviously you would have never seen it when you wrote this piece since the book was written in 2017.
Anyway the archetype is called a ‘Vendictive Bastard’ and is only available once the Paladin has fallen. It adjusts the class into a Warrior who is more concerned in the wellbeing and synergy of his companions rather than a divine call to arms. This character can continue to earn XP and level up, allowing for some pretty awesome role-playing. In a nutshell this archetype gives the Paladin abilities similar to those of the Inquisitor. The book offers additional archetypes for other classes who would otherwise as well.
Second up is the ‘Channeler of the Unknown’ for Clerics who have lost the connection to their God yet still find they wake up each morning with spells, abilities to channel energy and so on.
The third archetype is for Druids who are no longer neutral in either morals or ethics called a ‘Planar Extremist. Their alignment must be LG, CG, CG or CE. They trade out the naturalistic aspects of their class in exchange for the ability to summon outsiders from the plane associated with their new alignment. Just as the fallen Paladin gains abilities akin to an Inquisitor, this Druid gains the ability from the Summoner to summon an eidolon from plane associated with their new alignment. This Druid also trades out their wild shape to be able to emulate a Bloodrager’s Abyssal, Celestial, or Infernalbloodline power.
Finally the last archetype presented here is the ‘Sin Monk’. These ex-monks have given into one or more of the seven deadly sins. Instead of gaining a ki-pool they use a sin-pool. Each of the seven deadly sins gives unique abilities such as minor healing immediately after their melee attacks, increasing the DC of their stunning fist, gaining the benefit of Vital Strike, etc. They also are able to inflict a minor curse upon the targets of their attacks.
Phew! I know that’s quite a bit of info, but now you know :)
You can buy the book here:
And you can view the archetype information here in the PF SRD:
Very cool! Thanks for bringing it to our attention!