Truth, righteousness, honor… all are most definitely words. If you’re a paladin, they may or may not be the only words you actually know.
Is it a good idea to have a self-avowed rogue write a post about paladins? Sure! I promise I’ll be (mostly) fair and even-handed. After all, who better to hang out with than the Paladin?
Pretty much anyone, actually.
Remember, if it doesn’t have the words “justice” or “glory” it’s probably a fighter feature!
On the Origins of the Paladin
At their core, paladins are a class of restrictions. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise – the perfect stereotype of a paladin is just a stuck-up jerk (or, if you’re being less subjective, an iron-willed juggernaut of devotion).
In the first editions of Dungeons and Dragons the paladin was most often a subclass of the fighter (or “fighting-man”). Funnily enough, paladins have had more iterations than any other class except bard (as far as I know). They’ve gone from a subclass of fighter, to a full class, then back to a subclass, then the subclass of a class that was, itself, just a paladin.
That last one, just for those who are curious, is AD&D‘s rather weird Cavalier class. It was introduced in the original Unearthed Arcana supplement (namesake for the current 5e homebrew subreddit, r/unearthedarcana, as well as Wizards of the Coast’s series of test material articles). The class was pretty much a paladin, but minus the religious trappings.
That brings us to the historical aspect of the paladin. Don’t worry though, it isn’t too complex.
Paladins are modeled off of the knights of Arthurian legend. Classic plate-armor wearing warriors who quested for what was Right and held themselves to a high standard of honor and chivalry. The less religious cavalier takes its inspiration from what these Arthurian knights were themselves modeled on – common medieval knights.
They rode horses, used lances, and had ridiculously expensive plate armor. They were chivalrous, but not especially religious. Most of all, though, they were noble. This is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, their nobility shines through in their politeness, respectfulness, and steadfastness. On the other, they tend to be rather dogmatic in their thinking, and very divisive when it comes to who is and who isn’t worthy of their notice.
A Paladin’s Features
Next, lets run down the basic features of the paladin. The table below breaks down the base class features and the levels you earn them at – we’ll look at subclasses in a moment.
|1st||Divine Sense, Lay on Hands||11th||Divine Smite +|
|2nd||Fighting Style, Spellcasting, Divine Smite||12th||ABSI|
|3rd||Divine Health, Sacred Oath #1||13th||–|
|4th||Ability Score Increase (ABSI)||14th||Cleansing Touch|
|5th||Extra Attack||15th||Sacred Oath #3|
|6th||Aura of Protection||16th||ABSI|
|7th||Sacred Oath #2||17th||–|
|10th||Aura of Courage||20th||Sacred Oath #4|
So, what makes a paladin, truly? Besides annoying the rouge, that is.
To be frank, what makes a paladin is Divine Smite. In this edition, paladins have rather the reputation as burst-machine monsters – they can three-turn K.O. a boss encounter just by blowing a couple of spell slots of Smites. But lets not metagame too much, shall we?
The paladin excels at two things – offense and defense. Its the way in which they excel that leads to the most interesting facts.
In terms of offense, paladins are very burst-y. This means they typically do mediocre damage, then suddenly explode with power, and then are dry for the rest of the day. They do this through Smites, which is the only damage feature the base class has. Without those, a paladin is limited to simply making two weapon attacks per turn, no Sneak Attack, no bonus Rage damage, nothing. The best they get is an extra d8 of radiant damage at 11th level – by this point, the rogue has 6d6 Sneak Attack damage and the barbarian has +3 bonus rage damage. A fighter, meanwhile, can just attack three times so who cares.
In terms of defense, however, paladins are very enduring. While their main active ability, Lay on Hands, can quickly run out of juice, their far more powerful Auras are simply… there. All the time. They never fade, they never run out, and they never stop. That extra +5 to saving throws near the 20 Charisma paladin? You will always have that, provided your’re nearby. And getting frightened? Simply won’t happen. Ever.
In my mind, this is a good fit for the paladin. They’re capable of putting out some serious damage potential, but the wrath of the heavens only lasts for so long. Meanwhile, their protective and stalwart defending is, well, inexhaustible. They are relentless in that they literally never relent.
Every class has a weakness though. For paladins, it’s their limited spellcasting. Their spell slots are best used as smite-fuel, so they’re heavily encouraged to not really, y’know, cast spells with them. So their utility suffers a lot.
Plus, the paladin spell list isn’t great. Sure, there are great spells available, but most don’t do things that the paladin can’t already do without spell slots. Sure, you can get cure wounds, but you could also just heal with Lay on Hands. And the various smite spells all sort of pale in comparison to the true Divine Smite feature.
And, finally… they don’t have a lot of spell slots. Divine Smite is one of the most amazing features, and they don’t really have the resources to use it heavily. That’s a pretty hefty downside, especially if the scarcity of spell slots makes you try to save them for later.
Oaths and Promises
So here is where I would normally go into detail about the subclasses of the paladin. However, after my recent druid thinkpiece on Circle of the Land, I’ve realized something – I don’t know everything.
Needless to say, this was more of a shock to me than it was to anyone else in my life.
In any case, I don’t know everything about every class, every subclass, and every character option. So instead of trying to pretend I do, I’ll substitute something I do know instead – narrative.
But lets start with mechanics. Paladin subclasses are in a weird middle ground between those subclasses that don’t add much, and those subclasses that form the entirety of a class’s identity. In terms of features, they don’t get a lot.
The most important thing the Oaths get is their Oath Spells. This expanded spell list helps shape how a paladin will use their spell slots when not burning them on smites. Similarly, the Channel Divinity options tailor how the paladin functions at a basic level as well.
From there, most of the features are most similar to the base class’s Auras. Different subclasses get different choices – the Oath of Divinity gets extra auras that benefit those they protect, while the Oath of the Ancients gets extra protection from supernatural threats. The Oath of Vengeance is a bit of an outlier because most of their features are self-focused, but of course that fits their aesthetic as lone-wolf avengers.
It’s the capstone of the subclasses that really interests me. This is the only class who has their 20th level feature as a subclass feature. Thus a 20th level paladin will vary immensely based on their Oath choice, as that choice has determined what their most powerful feature is.
Now, to narrative. All of the Oaths in the Player’s Handbook share one constant – motivation. The main theme behind the subclasses for paladin seems to be exactly that. The subclass is defined by what that paladin’s motivation for being a paladin is.
The Oath of Devotion is defined by a desire to emulate the gods and famous heroes of the past. It’s about doing what’s Right and fighting for Truth and Justice.
The Oath of the Ancients is defined by their drive to protect what is beautiful and wonderful in world. Rather than emulating other heroes, they use the same things they seek to protect as their weapons.
The Oath of Vengeance is a bit of an outlier. Rather than a ideal, they have a concrete goal – murdering all evil. It’s an interesting distinction, because ultimately both they and Devotion paladins work against evil, and the Vengeance paladins are only different because of why they fight evil. Devotion does it out of idealism, while Vengeance does it out of, well, Vengeance.
This is a bit different from my prior class posts – after the druid, I realized that a change might be in order. Hopefully this was useful in some capacity, and I’d love to hear thoughts on it.
For all of my joking about the paladin, I actually really like the class. The whole rogue persona makes me snark about it of course, but as a player and a DM I think the class is really fun, interesting, and a great part of the game.
In any case, let me know what you think! And look out for next time, when we go back and look at the Circle of the Land one more time, post all the learning I got last time. Then, after that, we’re on to… the Ranger!