The 5 Awful Paladins You Will Meet in Your Gaming Career
The Harbingers of Headache
The paladin. Originally a term used to refer to the 12 Peers of Charlemagne (more on that in What is a Paladin?), the idea of these characters has grown and changed in our stories over the years. Whether we see them as shining knights on white chargers, leather-clad monster hunters protecting the populace, or as gruff warriors with a heart of gold beneath their beard stubble and growling voices, paladins take many forms.
And if you've been playing fantasy RPGs long enough, you have probably encountered at least a few of the following horror stories at your table.
Before we go any further, I'd like to direct readers to my 5 Tips For Playing Better Paladins if you want to avoid falling into any of these broad archetypes... or if you know someone that needs a hand up out of the hole they've dug themselves into. And for more gaming content, make sure you check out my full Vocal archive, as well as my gaming blog Improved Initiative!
Now, onto our list...
#1: Sir Killjoy
Paladins are bound by oaths, and strict codes of conduct. It's where this kind of character draws their power, reaching all the way back to examples like Lancelot and Gawain. Their oaths are, in a way, the sacrifice they give in exchange for their powers; a bargain with the divine forces that strengthen their sword arms and give them use of their holy abilities.
For Sir Killjoy, however, if he swore an oath, now it's everyone else's problem, too.
If Sir Killjoy's oath demands that he only eat plain food, and not indulge in spirits or substances? Well, now he's going to pompously act like this applies to everyone else. He swore an oath of celibacy? Well, now nobody is getting laid! His oath demands that he give away any money he doesn't need for the bare essentials of living? Well, it seems the party just became a charity as far as he's concerned.
While this is a stereotype of paladin characters, a genuine Sir Killjoy is actually rarer than most people think. Because while it's one thing to sigh dramatically to try to guilt the party into doing the right thing, or to have a frank, in-character discussion over how they should use their powers and responsibilities, it's another thing entirely to attempt to enforce your oaths onto the rest of the table. While the former behaviors can be annoying if handled wrong, the last one is what officially makes this paladin awful.
#2: The Hall Monitor
Paladins are, generally speaking, supposed to be agents of righteousness. They are intended to be heroes standing up for the weak and defenseless, and they are supposed to do what they can to keep people safe.
The Hall Monitor (less favorably referred to as the Cop) is generally more concerned with policing the rest of the party than in actually helping keep the peace, enact justice, or fight tyranny, though.
The Hall Monitor is the sort of character who decides that, because the rogue is a rogue, they need to be constantly watched, and warned to be on their best behavior. They are the sort of characters who will turn in the villains for human trafficking, but also sell out the barbarian to the authorities because he kicked in the door to stop the bad guys, and that destruction of property was also a crime. In some extreme cases they'll even try to put the arm on the bard if he didn't pay taxes on his earnings from singing in the tavern.
What makes the Hall Monitor so irritating is they're clearly more interested in controlling the actions of the rest of the table than they are in actually helping people, or fighting the bad guy. It's why they often make up arbitrary rules based on their own ideas of right and wrong, rather than ask the game master what their code dictates they do in a particular set of circumstances, or what the laws are and aren't in a particular part of the setting. Because a paladin should step in if one of their compatriots wants to murder an innocent, or torture a prisoner for information. If they have a personal objection to the rogue sneaking around to do reconnaissance on private property, even knowing that it's the best way to move the plot forward while minimizing harm, that's the time to suddenly take an interest in the singers at the other end of the tavern and claim you didn't hear that part of the plan.
#3: The Grim Dork
The Grim Dork is perhaps the easiest member of this list to spot because they tend to look like something off of a heavy metal album cover. Their armor will be black, and likely have spikes adorning it. Their weapon will be black, and probably something nasty. The character themselves is likely to have some sort of strange curse, to be a "monstrous" species (orc, tiefling, etc.), or both. They tend to be brash, brutish, and abrasive, often to the point that you begin to question if the player isn't staging some kind of elaborate joke, or playing a parody character.
The most telling sign of a Grim Dork, though, is that they will engage in moral relativism debates at the drop of a die. Cut some guy's throat even though he was an unarmed bouncer? This place is a criminal hideout, he probably did plenty to deserve a death sentence. You caught a thief and cut off their hand? Hey, that's the law where I'm from. A villain throws down their weapon and surrenders? Kill him. It's clearly a trick, and since this is not an honorable surrender I don't have to accept it.
Grim Dorks tend to be the sort of players who left huge screeds in the comments on my post The Punisher is Evil.
In short, a Grim Dork paladin is one that wants all the power of the paladin, but has no interest in actually being a heroic character or doing good deeds. The bait-and-switch of playing a paladin who doesn't look like a paladin is perfectly fair game... but when they don't act like a paladin either, and they are constantly trying to justify how what they're doing shouldn't cost them their powers, it is clear that the player doth protest too much.
#4: The Chaotic Lawful
To re-iterate, paladins are characters that abide by a strict code to determine their actions. Violation of this code is a serious offense, and it can often lead to their patrons withdrawing support, leaving them without the unique abilities that make them so effective in the face of evil.
The Chaotic Lawful is a character who totally has a code of conduct that determines their actions. The problem is that no one seems to know what it is, and what they say in one session seems to completely contradict what they said in a previous session.
Just how the Grim Dork doesn't really have an interest in being good, the Chaotic Lawful is usually playing a shell game to avoid having to actually be a lawful character. Even if their character's code is written down and submitted to the GM (a step I recommend for any paladin), the Chaotic Lawful is capable of turning some rather astonishing feats of mental gymnastics to justify behavior that goes directly against what they're supposed to be following.
You are most likely to find these characters in the hands of very fresh players, or in front of anyone who actually wears a Deadpool hoodie zipped up over their faces when it isn't ten below outside.
#5: Lord Entitlement
The traditional image of a paladin is as a knight in shining armor. However, Lord Entitlement is the sort of player who assumes that playing a paladin confers more than class abilities onto their character. They feel that paladins are people with authority, and that when they say something people are going to obey them.
Because they are a paladin, or so the reasoning goes, they must be a member of a noble family, or a knightly order. Therefore they should be recognized as an authority figure, not just by peasants, but also by other authority figures. This should allow them to demand an audience with the duke, commandeer militia forces to serve their ends, and to generally be treated with deference by a majority of the population who recognizes them for the holy warrior that they are.
As I said way back in You Don't Have Any Actual Authority, Just Because You're a Paladin, this is a fundamental misreading of the class features and abilities. Just taking paladin levels confers no more authority or position in the game than taking levels of cleric, fighter, wizard, or barbarian. Some GMs might house rule this, or do it differently in their own personal settings, but it isn't there in the text of the game itself.
Try telling that to Lord Entitlement, though, and prepare for a snit fit. Because this player isn't interested in playing a divinely inspired warrior, being a hero, or acting as the righteous shield against evil; they picked the class because they thought it gave them a position that would be above others in the social pecking order. Something that would default them to the party leader at least, if not making them the campaign's main character by dint of their class choice.