Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Paladin Problem, part 1

Over at theRPGsite the subject of Paladins in D&D came up. Settembrini, the coolest Prussian I know, suggested that Gary Gygax was quite clear on the proper adjudication of this oft-controversial class, implying that any lack of clarity was the result of the reader's own muddle-headedness. I've never been particularly found of the Paladin class, having played but a single member of that class that I can recall. (Mochimoto Tojo was his name. He was a particularly devout samurai loose in the World of Greyhawk.) Unlike some, my main problem with the class has never been the Lawful Good alignment. Indeed, one of my alltime favorite PCs was a LG ranger. But rather I felt burdened by a vast body of expectation regarding the behavior of members of the class. At Settembrini's suggestion, I went back and reread the Old Books, to see how much canonical support existed for that expectation.

Even though my own experience with Paladins only goes back to 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, I decided to go back to the original Little Beige Books as a starting point. For two important pieces of this puzzle, let's talk about alignment in OD&D. First off, OD&D (as well as later Basic/Expert versions of the game) used a three-fold alignment system of Law/Neutrality/Chaos, as opposed to the current two-axis, nine-field system. So all good guys, whether they valued a strict hierarchy or personal freedoms, fell into the Lawful camp. And all bad guys, whether they are diabolical bureaucrats or anarchic demons, fell into the Chaotic camp. This system gives the designation "lawful" a much different flavor than it means nowadays. There is no implication that a lawful character necessarily has a bug up his butt.

The second thing you need to keep in mind is that originally, the alignment system didn't have any metaphysical implications. The nine alignment oriented planes came much later and there wasn't much in the way of alignment-based spells or other mechanical effects. Instead, alignment referred to simply what team you played for. Elves and unicorns and such are "us" while red dragons and orcs are "them". It was as simple as that. In fact, the spell detect evil existed from the beginning of the game and had no connection to the alignment system whatsoever. Think about that for a moment. Whatever alignment was about, it didn't really have anything to do with metaphysical evil.

Enter Supplement I: Greyhawk and with it, the Paladin. I think it is worth mentioning that the Paladin was the original Prestige Class. You got into the class by meeting the following qualifications: your PC must be a Fighter, have a Lawful alignment, and at least a 17 Charisma. This is the first time in a D&D book that a stat requirement is set on a class, and boy is it a doozy. These were the days when 3d6 in order was the default method of stat generation for new PCs, so a 17 or 18 Charisma was nothing to scoff at. That's someone with rock star level personality.

For treading the path of the OD&D Paladin, the character would gain most of the powers we would later associate with the AD&D version class. The "lay on hands" hit point healing and disease curing is there, as is the +2 saving throws. Paladins are immune to disease. At 8th level they can dispel evil. The ability to call a magical steed is there at the beginning. And while holding a 'Holy Sword' the Paladin is "virtually immune" to magical attack. That's a pretty sweet set of special abilities, especially when you consider that the Paladin continues to use the same experience point chart as the regular fighter. That's right, the Paladin abilities are essentially free bonuses with no XP cost.

The only thing a Paladin has to watch out for is 'chaotic acts'. Should a paladin commit a chaotic act, they lose their special abilities immediately and forever. No take backs. Like many things in OD&D, 'chaotic act' remains an undefined phrase. One DM could read this rule as broadly as "if you continue to ally with lawfuls and oppose chaotic monsters, you're aces" while another one might say "a grossly evil act will cost you your paladin status. Then there's this paragraph:
Paladins will never be allowed to possess more than four magical items, excluding the armor, shield and up to four weapons they normally use. They will give away all treasure they win, save for that which is necessary to maintain themselves, their men, and a modest castle. Gifts must be to the poor or to charitable religious institutions, i.e. not to some other character played in the game. A paladin's stronghold cannot be above 200,000 gold pieces in total cost, and no more than 200 men can be retained to guard it. Paladins normall prefer to dwell with lawful princes or patriarchs, but circumstances may prevent this. They associate only with lawful characters.
That last line about only adventuring with fellow lawfuls looks to me like the hardest part of the Paladin gig, but with only 3 alignments (and no Chaotic Good or Neutral Good PCs) that's probably a lot easier to cope with in practice than it looks like on paper. Especially when you consider that the Gygaxian model of the D&D campaign differs significantly than the modern tight-knit group I'm used to. Gygax and Arneson and Dave Hargrove and many other early DMs ran a much larger and looser sort of game than most folks today. That's probably another post for another day, but it suffices for now to say that the model of the same 4 to 6 players sitting down with the same characers to adventure together for the 20th session in a row is a relatively new development that postdates OD&D's development.

So looking over the OD&D Paladin I come to this conclusion: if you can qualfiy there is little reason in the book itself to dissuade me from playing an OD&D Paladin. The mechanical perks are pretty sweet, especially in those days where 1st level magic-users could cast exactly one spell and magic items that gave a bunch of powers were in short supply.

In the second part of this article I'll examine the development of the paladin in 1st edition AD&D.