This week I’m taking it old school, focusing on the depiction and potential of paladins in tabletop RPGs and beyond.
Me? I always play the paladin. Even in games that don’t specifically have a paladin class, I play a paladin. Unfortunately, it seems that paladins get a bad rap in the gaming universe. Labeled everything from “Lawful Stupid” to prissy “Policemen”, paladins are largely perceived to be dim-witted goody-goodies, more invested in throwing themselves at lost causes and upholding the letter of the law than with doing actual good or maintaining certain principles.
History vs. Fantasy
From the Scholae Palatinae, (whose creation has long been attributed to Emperor Constantine) to the Twelve Peers of Charlemagne, the idea of the paladin, a righteous and high-minded knight, has long held a place in human imagination.
According to the 2nd Edition AD&D Player’s Handbook:
“The paladin is a warrior bold and pure, the exemplar of everything good and true. Like the fighter, the paladin is a man of combat. However, the paladin lives for the ideals of righteousness, justice, honesty, piety, and chivalry. He strives to be a living example of these virtues so that others might learn from him as well as gain by his actions.”
That’s all well and good on the surface, but it’s colored by Victorian interpretations of both chivalry and courtly behavior that persist to this day. Romantic notions to be sure, but notions that bear little resemblance to the living, breathing people upon whom the ideal is based. And what’s the point of an RPG if one is only role playing a shallow, cardboard cut-out?
Character Class vs. Character Development
In all fairness to AD&D, the Book of Exalted Deeds does try to debunk some of the more cartoonish interpretations of the paladin class. Whether they actually succeeded, however, is debatable.
Beyond that, what no rule book will tell you is that alignment and character class are just the beginning, not an end in themselves. They’re the scaffolding upon which we build our fictional lives, not the final word on how those lives play out.
A friend’s mom once described RPGs as, “A cross between group storytelling and improvisational theater.”
And while no reader or audience would expect every character of the same profession to behave exactly the same way, that’s what many of us have come to expect of characters that share this particular class. What a pointless and tragic waste of potential! Yet I’ve seen DMs nearly go apoplectic over players asserting unique personalities for their paladins (or, in some cases, priests.) Anything that deviates from the boilerplate armored ivory tower, the sighing and affected meathead that wades eagerly into violence and blood, yet shuns “the pleasures of the flesh”, is looked at by many as some kind of abomination. Again, I blame the Victorian interpretation of chivalry, with its particularly repressive notions of what constituted both purity and piety.
But who says we have to accept that model? Who says we have to craft our games, our shared stories with such a limited toolbox?
It’s not as if most of us don’t already use/ignore certain rules to suit our own group’s needs and views, so why not extend that customization to the fictional people we become when we play?
Lawful Good vs. Lawful Stupid
When did striving to be a living example of one’s virtues turn into, “runs into any and every battle no matter how hopeless”? When did it become, “attacks all evil creatures, even if they’re minding their own business”? When did purity of spirit or intent come to mean, “doesn’t have sex, or thoughts of sex”? When did nobility of purpose replace mortal frailty?
Currently I’m playing a Drow paladin of Osiris. She’s devout and pious, with a tendency toward eye-rolling and sarcasm. She’s flawed and not always very nice. She’s bookish, but enjoys the occasional barroom brawl. You know, for fun. None of these things mesh with the Victorian hand-me-down image of the paladin, yet all of them go to make up a complete and well-rounded character.
What I would love to see in both RPGs and fiction, is a reinvention of the paladin for the 21st century, a paladin renaissance.
Forget bloviating about righteousness, show me a paladin who’s painfully shy or socially awkward, quietly doing good works when no one is looking. Forget baseless vows of chastity, how about a paladin who is also a charming, disarming lover at large? How about a paladin scholar, engineer, mother of three or captain of the debate team?
Think of it, modern paladins in the mold of say, Korra, The Green Lantern, The Doctor, or Hermione Granger. (Though, I would argue those characters are already paladins, even without the arms and armor.)
Being Lawful Good does not mean one has to sacrifice depth, or individuality.
So tell me of your paladins! Take a minute or two and describe him or her in the comments!
And now, a few responses to last column’s comment thread:
Maplestone said: “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.”
Itchmon said: “This is probably a topic that could hold a weekly column down on its own for a long time.”
That’s an idea! But who would write it? *looks at Itchmon significantly*
jesad said: “A prime example of this is the use of the Swastika in many Japanese games. In Japan that symbol stands for something completely different, but the moment an American lays their eyes on it the first thing that pops into our head is "HITLER!".”
Exactly! The swastika is an ancient symbol seen all over the world, in Hinduism, (symbolizing Vishnu or Kali, depending on its direction) Buddhism, (symbolizing good fortune) etc. It can also be found in the works of the ancient Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Celts, Native Americans, and Persians. What a pity it now has such a bad reputation in the western world.
Until next time, may your escort missions be few and your drops plentiful.