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Musings on the "Lawful Jerk" Paladin


Fortunately for me, all the paladins I've dealt with have been great characters. But I've been thinking about the problem of the "lawful jerk paladin" lately, and I thought I'd post my somewhat rambling and definitely incomplete thoughts to test them out.

I think the problem arises largely from a mismatch between the player and the GM about a couple of things: first, about what constitutes goodness, and second, on the ideal tone of a campaign that includes paladins.

On the one hand, you can hardly blame a player for wanting to use the paladin's powerful abilities to smite evil. It's fun to roll dice and use your powers, so the player looks for chances to do that.

On the other hand, sometimes GMs want a nuanced world where there are no truly good choices. This doesn't make it impossible to play a paladin, but it does render certain types of paladins difficult and potentially unsatisfying to play. And it requires more mental work than some players may want to put in (which is not a criticism; sometimes you just want to sling dice and have an adventure, not engage in painful ethical dilemmas).

And sometimes GMs want to play "gotcha" with their paladin players.

And sometimes players of paladins can only conceive of "goodness" as a repressive, hollow virtue that seeks to stamp out anything fun.

I think if you find you have a self-righteous paladin player, the best thing to do is have a talk with the player. Figure out why (s)he wants to play a paladin, what the player thinks a paladin is fundamentally, and how that meshes with your game world. You may need to tweak either the character or the game if they're fundamentally incompatible.

You might try telling your player that some of the requirements for being truly good are humility and mercy. Maybe try offering XP (or granting inspiration, if it's 5E) for showing those traits?

Alternatively, consider tweaking your campaign to be a little more black-and-white? A paladin who goes smitey on evil that really is evil shouldn't be much of a problem.

Also, if you're playing 5E, the "classic" Oath of Devotion paladin isn't your only choice. Oath of the Ancients is a good option for someone who wants to play a more relaxed paladin, for example.

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Magic Wordsmith
I think D&D 5e paladins are more about their oaths than they are whatever nebulous thing they imagine alignment means, which is often in my experience colored by how they did things in other games or how alignment was explained to them by their older cousin in 1985.

"Lawful good" means "can be counted on to do the right thing as expected by society." "Lawful Neutral" means "act in accordance with law, tradition, or personal codes." But this just describes "typical behavior." In addition, "few people are perfectly and consistently faithful to the precepts of their alignment." There's a lot of wiggle room here. Not to mention, there is no default incentive for playing to alignment at all, unlike playing to one's personality traits, ideal, bond, or flaw which can net the player some sweet, sweet Inspiration.

So, given that paladins are more about oaths than alignment, alignment only "broadly describes its moral and personal attitudes," and playing to alignment isn't worth Inspiration except with a house rule, anyone trying to use alignment as an excuse for play that is not fun for others really has no leg to stand on, especially since, in order to achieve the goals of play, a player is required to pass all choices through the lens of what is fun for everyone and what helps create an exciting, memorable story. To do otherwise is to lose at D&D.

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
Why is no other class persecuted for being tied to an alignment or particular behavior? Has no one beef witht the chaotic backstabbing rogue? The cantankerous neutral bard? The incospicuous unaligned druid? And what about the damn elf?! He thinks he's better than everone!! And would it kill the orc to bathe?? He says it might..


D&D is an RPG - a role playing game. Characters play a role in a story. Make it a good story.

There are a lot o great stories that can be built around a lot of different types of paladins. The DM should sit down with every player and have a conversation about how their character fits into the wold - and then should try to use that information to craft a game that uses what the player offers. And, a great DM will factor in the player's views as well as the character, writing a narrative that really serves the player's story delights.

For example, let's say that we have a 'traditional' LG paladin character that believes in the black or white view of good and evil. However the player is a philosophy major in college and is not a moral absolutist by any fashion. As a DM, I'd be salivating. A character that sees orcs as inherently evil in the hands of a player that believes in a more complex world? Well, that paladin is going to face off against a series of challenges that test his beliefs. The goblin stealing to feed his children. The orc that is resisting the humans that are invading his land. The red dragon that built his hoarde via sales and bartering, not plundering. Two LG faiths at odds over a difference of opinion on how to handle a murky issue.... I'd love to see how that player navigated those waters.

If that same paladin were in the hands of a player that was a bit more like his character and was uncomfortable witht the grey.... well, I wouldn't entirely avoid it, but I would use less of it. The goblin would steal children. The orc would be the invader. The red dragon would offer to buy and sell... but would use his fearsome presence to get what he wants. And if the deal isn't to his liking he'd take what he wanted.

It can all work... you just have to build on the foundation that comes to the table.


Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
There's a fairly clear line which has nothing to do with being a paladin.

As long as everyone (all players and the DM) are having fun, play your character how you like.

Inter-character drama, as long as the players are all into it, is fine. Paladin ideals vs. an unbending world is fine as long as players and DM are on the same page.

I don't see any incompatibilities of world/paladin. Mind you, the REST of the world may think your paladin as nutty as Don Juan tilting at windmills, but there's plenty of great drama is trying to play black&white in a world of grey (like Inspector Javert from Les Mis) or a nuanced shade fo grey in a world with a lot of black and white. When paladin directions are not in tune with the setting you get zealots, you get tortured souls who can't make it all come out okay, you get those seem as unbending above and beyond the reasonable - in other words you get a lot of memorable characters.


Rotten DM
Please note most of the rulings are way out of date for 5E. Just a humorous example on GOOD AWFUL paladins and how dms reacted.
I really really need to update this for 5E.
Jasper Paladin thoughts
DMs must come up with a code of conduct for paladins. And allow the player to make adjustments. This needs to be done before the character is created.

The Detect Evil ability of paladins is not a problem. Detect Evil targets creatures, objects and spells. Humanoid are classified as creatures. A character with an evil alignment at tenth or lower level would have a faint aura of power. Up to twenty-fifth level a moderate aura. A priest of evil god who class level is one has a faint, second to fourth a moderate, strong at fifth to tenth, and overwhelming after that. Detect Evil is divination with V, S, Df, how ever it is spell like ability which has no components. Can the detect evil spell like ability be detected? It depends on the Dm handles spell like abilities, and if there are any spells up on the patrons.

So Paladin casts a spell in crowded bar and in eighteen seconds knows at table four there is one overwhelming aura, and three faint traces. He charges! After slaying the evil he is beheaded for murder. It is time for player to roll up his next paladin. A paladin is just another adventurer who can be cast into jail for violating the local laws.

However paladins are not cops.
Ex. Lawyer, Excuse me Bucky the Wonder Paladin, did you say halt I’m a Paladin before you attacked Orcus in the town square.
Bucky, No he was EVIL!
Dm, Boom There it is! No more paladin powers for you since you violated the law.
If this were to happen in a game, the dm does not understand paladins.

Also a paladin is not smite on sight sword slinger.
Ex. Bucky the Wonder Paladin while giving a class on justice, decides to detect evil on the Springfield Elementary fourth grade class. Suddenly he rushes over and starts choking Bart Simpson. With the aid of Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner was able to subdue Bucky. Bucky is now doing five to ten in the local pen. Hey that is it. Sideshow Bob is a paladin.

A paladin liberally using his Detect Evil every five rounds isn’t smart either and he is being tacky. Bucky the Wonder paladin arrives on noon stage coach to Tatoonie. He wanders into Jabba’s Bar and Grill (slogan you kill we grill for a small fee). Bucky starts detecting evil. He draws his sword. (sfx of mass blaster fire). A small droid rolls out of wall and vacuums up the ashes. The bartender adds another hash mark to paladins’ wasted wall.

What Bucky should do is something like this. Bucky the Wonder paladin and party are stop by Mr. Haney the road side vendor. While Mr. Haney goes into his pitch, Bucky detects evil and receives a faint aura. Bucky, “It sounds like a good deal on the +3 vorpal Ginzu set but I do not trust Mr. Haney. Mr. Haney are you sure this is a good deal?” etc. Bucky then notes Mr. Haney as a person to keep an eye on in the future.

Are paladins the law, Judge Dread of the land? Ask your Dm. IMC it varies with kingdom whether they are the law enforcement office. Now I once had a Paladin chase the party half way across the continent. Once she caught up with party and learned the facts of jail break, she charged them with the jail break. Fined them and made them pay the wergild for the slain guards. Then cut them loose since the party was fighting greater evil than the violation of kingdom laws.

Would Bucky the Wonder Paladin back stab Orcus in the back, when Orcus is shopping at Wal-Mart? It depends on the level and code of conduct of paladin. At first level just as he was going for his sword his cell phone would beep.
Bucky, “Hello, Bucky speaking.” Voice, “do not do it. You are not good enough yet.” Bucky, “but he is EVIL!”
Voice, “the boss does not employ stupid paladins. Help is on the way so just sit still and don’t get yourself nuked!”
Bucky, “What’s a nuke?”
Voice, “Never mind that!” click.
Now if Bucky was twentieth level, and Bucky was shopping for some new Underroos and spied Orcus in the shoe dept and he did nothing. His cell phone would beep.
“Bucky here. How may I help you?”
Voice, “Clean up on aisle five.”
Bucky, “Can’t you see I am shopping in peace here?” Voice, “Clean up on aisle five, now.”
Bucky, “Hey I am on vacation! Can’t you get someone else?”
Voice, “Clean up on aisle five, right now! Or how long can you tread water!”
Bucky, “Ok I’m going. You can’t take a little joke.” Click.

I allow paladins to drink, smoke, flirt etc depending on their CoC. Hey they can have gas if they want to. The CoC for each god is not necessary the same to give each religion and paladin some style. Also the player decides on how evil aura appears to the paladin. One player uses the taste of crisp bacon for faint, to burnt bacon, to spit it out. Another uses smell and still another uses color yellow, orange, then red.

A dm must never set up a no win dilemma for paladin. So no coming to intersection and having to choose between saving Grandpa Jones from the wolf or running into the burning hut to save Baby Huey.

A dm should give a clear warning that a propose action will result in lost of paladin hood. Either Bucky the Wonder paladin gets a cold shiver as he starts to plan the bank robbery. Or the dm speaks, “Jasper I will pull the paladin status of Bucky if you keep it up.” The warning should be clear enough for player to take five and decide to continue with the action or not.

A player needs to clearly understand how the dm views the CoC. Accept the fact that some players do not get along the dm’s views and play another class.

Now to srd
A Willing commit an evil act.
Respect legitimate authority. I sorry of Great Evil Mucky Muck but I must respectfully ask you step down from the throne. I have to lop off you head to pay for the thousands of people your secret police assassinated on your orders. No problems with this one.
Help the needy in good ways.
Punish those who harm others, or threaten harm.

Act with honor (No lying, no cheating, no poison use, insert dm views here). Ok here is where you need your dm’s input. Do I tell the border guards the truth, I here to toss Orcus off his throne or just say personal business? Is a bluff a lie?
Can I cheat a con man and win back the orphanage’s Christmas goose fund?
Can I use sleep poison to bring in Bad Bart Simpson for trial, or do I just hack him up when he is down for the count?
the end


Fortunately for me, all the paladins I've dealt with have been great characters. But I've been thinking about the problem of the "lawful jerk paladin" lately, and I thought I'd post my somewhat rambling and definitely incomplete thoughts to test them out.
Is this a cousin of the "Awful Good" paladin? :)

I certainly do – any behavior that creates disharmony amongst the PCs is anathema to a good campaign (unless the campaign is built for infighting and PvP). And don’t get me started on unaligned (and CN).

But I think why the Lawful Stupid Paladin stands out is that it's destructive behavior masquerades as good and righteous. Which to me is pretty darn evil.

On the subject at hand, I’m lucky in that I haven’t seen an LS paladin in about 25 years. I can’t say I was particularly kind in the way I handled them.

I think a rigid paladin can work in a nuanced grey-shaded world. If both the player and DM are up for it, and the PC isn’t going to try to wreck the campaign, and the DM isn’t going to try to wreck the paladin. One of the characters I play is an LG paladin, who is utterly kind, optimistic, and thinks the best of everyone. It’s been great exploring what happens how that sort naivete hits up against a world that doesn’t match.

Why is no other class persecuted for being tied to an alignment or particular behavior? Has no one beef witht the chaotic backstabbing rogue? The cantankerous neutral bard? The incospicuous unaligned druid? And what about the damn elf?! He thinks he's better than everone!! And would it kill the orc to bathe?? He says it might..


First Post
There are, in my opinion, three reasons why "The Lawful Jerk Paladin" is a thing: Alignment Is Stupid, Gygaxian Mechanical Flubs, Hack DMs.

Alignment Is Stupid: There is no subject in D&D more divisive than "what is the definition of (X Alignment)?" Defining what is Lawful, what is Good, and what is the median intersection of the two values has seen more ink (physical and virtual) spilled over D&D's history than anything else. No two people honestly believe the same way, which is why it's problematic for any class to rely on it as integral to its identity. The fact that Paladins rely on a single specific alignment (vs the Any Lawful, Any Chaotic, Any Neutral, Any Good, Any Evil classes) is a particular hinderance to it - druids used to be just as bad for alignment-based quibbles in 2e, when they were Must Be True Neutral.

Gygaxian Mechanical Flubs: The alignment issue was problematic enough. But, the paladin's problems go beyond that. In addition to mandating a required alignment, paladins originally had a huge laundry list of Do Not Do This, any one of which could see them stripped of their powers. And most of these items were based on being present when the party did things or just existed, depending on the character; associating with Rogues, for example. This meant that paladins could not only lose their powers because of stuff they did, but because of stuff the other players did, which encouraged paladin players to "police" the party. This was made worse by the sheer difficulty in qualifying for the Paladin in the first place, the fact that falling was permanent, and the fact you became an inferior Fighter if you fell.

Hack DMs: Not every DM is as good a storyteller as they think they are. More importantly, not every DM is wiling to listen when a player is not interested in the story the DM wants to tell. If a DM wants to tell the story of a Paladin's fall from grace, that's problematic if the player doesn't want to partake in such a story. In fact, I rather doubt many players choose Paladins because they want to struggle with crises of faith or have themselves fall from grace - many paladin players legitimately want to be the Knight in Shining Armor, the Holy Champion, the literal White Knight that can revel in simply being on the side of good and fighting the good fight, and find DMs insistent on trying to pull them away from that to be just plain irritating. This would be bad enough, but D&D's wargame roots bred a "player vs. DM" mentality during the early editions of the game, one that's still going strong in some circles. A lot of Lawful Jerk paladins are acting that way to try and cut off DMs they suspect might be trying to push them towards falling.

Now, I'm not saying that there aren't players who take the paladin as an excuse to be self-righteous or so they can bully the rest of the party. But, the bad decisions in the paladin's theme and the mechanical enforcements of that theme, alongside bad DMs, have given Paladins a stigma that they are still struggling to shake off, even after everything that three editions have done to try and scrape the gunk of AD&D away from the class's workings.

From my experience the Lawful Jerk Paladin is generally a new player or a lazy role player, taking any stereo type and playing it to the max is often something 'a rookie' does, and the rookie may even be an experienced player playing their first Paladin - as it was in a game I was in last night - the righteous, non thinking jerk. Often the player does this once and soon understands its not that much fun especially if annoying the other players (though not always) and tones it down or changes character.

Why is no other class persecuted for being tied to an alignment or particular behavior? Has no one beef witht the chaotic backstabbing rogue? The cantankerous neutral bard? The incospicuous unaligned druid? And what about the damn elf?! He thinks he's better than everone!! And would it kill the orc to bathe?? He says it might..

I think they are less tolerated because we know people with the holier than though attitude in real life and the annoy the f out of us (or at least me), so the chance to get back at them at the table is just too tempting to ignore.

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