What is a Sacred Oath, and why does it matter?
A Sacred Oath is key to the paladin’s identity and source of their divine power. The act of swearing the Oath is what turns an already devout warrior into a full blown paladin, a blessed champion of their cause. No matter the wording or specifics of the Oath, it is usually a solemn vow to stand against the forces of evil in all its myriad forms. However, there are some paladins who strive for ideals of power, conquest or sovereignty above the virtues of righteousness and justice. There are several Oaths your paladin can take (more on these later), but all Oaths have Tenets for their sworn disciples to follow.
What Are Tenets?
These are the defining parameters of the paladin’s sacred duty. They define the values which the paladin is expected to exemplify and uphold. Tenets are a fantastic tool for roleplay as they give you a ready made list of your paladin’s core values and beliefs.
Tenets are intentionally restrictive. While any character can adhere to a moral or ethical code, those characters typically don’t have an external power enforcing those beliefs. The Tenets of a paladin’s oath bind the paladin’s actions, making it difficult for them to compromise their beliefs for momentary convenience; this imposed stricture is part of what makes your Sacred Oath so interesting.
Most paladins swear to uphold the causes of justice and righteousness, giving their all to repel the darkness while standing alongside the good and just things of the world. The PHB states that “Although many paladins are devoted to gods of good, a paladin’s power comes as much from a commitment to justice itself as it does from a god.” Furthermore they are loyal to the cause above all else, including personal allegiances. Thwarting evil is their main motivation and they are duty bound to go and find it.
So how does all this fit into roleplay? Well, first and foremost your paladin should be dedicated wholeheartedly to actively seeking out and defeating evil. This is your key motivation and whenever you get stuck it’s a solid base to come back to. When your paladin has to make a decision ask yourself one question: How will this serve my tenets?
Your Holy Quest
“Are you a devoted servant of good, loyal to the gods of justice and honor, a holy knight in shining armor venturing forth to smite evil? Are you a glorious champion of the light, cherishing everything beautiful that stands against the shadow, a knight whose oath descends from traditions older than many of the gods? Or are you an embittered loner sworn to take vengeance on those who have done great evil, sent as an angel of death by the gods or driven by your need for revenge?”
Another pillar of your paladin roleplay is your holy quest, the nature of your paladin’s role in the cosmic battle between good and evil. Take some time to think about your paladin’s personal quest and how it affects their actions. If you’re a holy knight dedicated to destroying the scourge of undeath in your land, that plays very differently to a righteous avenger hunting down the crime syndicate who slaughtered their parents. Both tip the scales in the cosmic balance but go about it in very different ways. Work with your DM to get the most out of your holy quest in your game. If they know the score, they can tie it into the story!
The Call To Serve
Another important aspect of your paladin to consider is how they were called to serve. Did you hear divine whispers compelling you to a greater destiny? Perhaps you got lost in the local woods, stumbled upon a magical sight of unparalleled beauty and felt called to protect such places. Take some time to consider this aspect and, once again, work with your DM to fill out this key piece of the roleplaying puzzle.
A Note On Alignment
Alignment can be a millstone around the neck of players who see it as a restrictive box their character has been crammed into, limiting their number of choices and interactions based on an arbitrary grid from the 70’s, but it doesn’t have to be this way! I encourage you to view your paladin’s alignment as “guidelines” for roleplaying, a kind of moral framework providing a springboard for more nuanced and detailed interactions at the table.
For example, A Lawful Good paladin might balk at the idea of stealing from the dead on principle, but if that treasure can be put to good use elsewhere (like the local orphanage or temple) then perhaps they can stomach it. The trick with alignment is not to let it restrict roleplaying, but rather to flavor it in such a way that fits the character.
What If I Mess Up?
Paladins might be divine warriors, but they are still fallible mortals who make mistakes like everyone else. If you ever get in a situation where you feel the only acceptable course of action is against the Tenets of your Oath, then you may want to break it. This does not damn you to some inscrutable hell.
Think of it more like a setback on your road to righteousness, one which can be forgiven with acts of penance and contrition. This can be a great opportunity to roleplay as you work with the DM to decide how your paladin will make amends. A paladin only becomes an Oathbreaker by being totally unrepentant about their choices, choosing to throw their lot in with the immoral and dishonest instead. More on this later.
“The Oath of Devotion binds a paladin to the loftiest ideals of justice, virtue, and order. Sometimes called cavaliers, white knights, or holy warriors, these paladins meet the ideal of the knight in shining armor, acting with honor in pursuit of justice and the greater good.”
The classic paladin, a staple of the fantasy genre for decades, and crusader for honor and justice. Roleplaying this type of paladin can be deceptively simple, but actually has more nuance than one might think. The typical Lawful Good paladin is set in their ways (for good and for ill), and this is the key to effectively role playing these characters: you stick to rules.
It’s critical you decide what your code of honor is and also why you follow that particular set of rules. Were you brought up in a chivalric knightly order? Do you follow a sacred text detailing the teachings of your God? Did you have a beloved mentor who taught you right from wrong? Take some time to consider this important question during character creation as it is a pivotal aspect of deciding how to apply your tenets.
Once you have decided on your personal code you also need to think about the scope you apply to it. Do you only hold yourself to the most rigorous moral and ethical standards, or do you impose your values on the world around you too? If it’s the latter, how does this manifest in your roleplaying?
Perhaps you give sermons in every town you visit espousing the virtuous path you follow, or maybe you lecture your companions regularly about their misguided actions and offer to show them the way. In any case your actions are always guided by the Tenets of the Oath of Devotion.
“The Oath of the Ancients is as old as the race of elves and the rituals of the druids. Sometimes called fey knights, green knights, or horned knights, paladins who swear this oath cast their lot with the side of the light in the cosmic struggle against darkness because they love the beautiful and life-giving things of the world, not necessarily because they believe in principles of honor, courage, and justice.”
Paladins who follow this path are more concerned with their own morality and actions in the eternal battle against the darkness than with codes of honor and duty. They follow their gut and let their conscience guide their actions at an instinctual level, revering the divine splendor of nature above all other facets of reality. In practice, this means that they are generally more flexible than their more chivalric compatriots with regard to things like stealing and socially dubious actions. However, they may be much harsher when judging those who commit harmful acts–even if they were not deliberate (like woodcutters harvesting a sacred forest for lumber).
A key aspect of this character is their reason for choosing this Oath. Did they make a conscious choice to dedicate themselves to this cause or was their dedication more gradual? Perhaps they frequented a local beautiful spot before their adventuring days and were humbled by the magnificence of the natural wonders there. Whatever your paladin’s reason, make it compelling!
Another key consideration with this subclass is their devotion to the concept of Good vs Evil above all else, including societal laws. Why would your paladin care that the town received permission from the King to build a sawmill here, when their duty is to protect the sacred grove? When roleplaying this paladin, consider how they might view a situation purely from the Good vs Evil axis and consider how that would color their decisions. If in doubt, consider the Tenets of the Oath of The Ancients.
“The Oath of Vengeance is a solemn commitment to punish those who have committed a grievous sin. When evil forces slaughter helpless villagers, when an entire people turns against the will of the gods, when a thieves’ guild grows too violent and powerful, when a dragon rampages through the countryside — at times like these, paladins arise and swear an Oath of Vengeance to set right that which has gone wrong. To these paladins — sometimes called avengers or dark knights — their own purity is not as important as delivering justice.”
The “Batman” of paladins, here to ruin the day of evildoers throughout the land with a divine smackdown. This type of paladin is all about punishing wrongdoing with everything in their power, as opposed to being a source of light or joy in the world. They value the pursuit of justice above all else and will stop at virtually nothing to achieve their retribution. When roleplaying this type of character don’t let them be an anti-social loner!
Batman and his ilk do not make good ttrpg characters because they are not cooperative, they pull focus from the rest of the story, and they can actively hinder the group’s fun with their reckless behavior. Instead consider why your paladin values their companions and the skills they possess, and how that fits into their pursuit of divine justice.
Maybe your paladin is fantastic at interrogating bad guys but lacks the social nuance to coax information from people in subtler ways, or perhaps they are a gifted warrior but need someone to patch them up when they inevitably take on more than they can handle. This character might have no fear of death, but that doesn’t mean they have a death wish. Afterall, who’s going to avenge things if you’re dead in a dungeon somewhere?
This can be a fun character to play when done with consideration for your fellow players and their characters/world. If in doubt, allow the Tenets below to guide your actions.
“An Oathbreaker is a paladin who breaks his or her sacred oaths to pursue some dark ambition or serve an evil power. Whatever light burned in the paladin’s heart has been extinguished. Only darkness remains.”
Your paladin has turned from the light, embraced the darkness, and given themselves wholly to darker powers. So now what? Consider whether or not your DM will allow you to play such a character because they are irredeemably evil and therefore quite difficult to fit into a plucky band of heroic adventurers. If you do get permission to play out some grand story arc of your paladin’s fall from grace, then you must tread lightly.
What Becomes of Oathbreakers?
The first question to ask is why your paladin has forsaken their Sacred Oath and, more importantly, why they are unrepentant about doing so. Did you encounter a darker, more powerful deity and decide to worship them instead? Did you lose something so irreplaceable that it fundamentally broke you as a person leaving only a shattered husk? (This type of roleplaying can be very fraught and traumatic so make sure you’re using safety tools and regular check-ins) Did your god perhaps ignore your call for aid when you needed them most–to devastating consequence? Why your paladin turned is fundamental to understanding the Oathbreaker. A good example of an Oathbreaker mentality (but not stat block) is that of the Death Knight Lord Soth in the Dragonlance setting for D&D.
Roleplaying a Fallen Paladin
You have to walk a fine line to play this type of character, and you likely won’t be playing them very long before one of two things happens;
- They meet a dramatic end
- The DM takes control of the character as an NPC villain
This is because the Oathbreaker’s journey naturally pushes them one way or the other in a game of D&D, and they are not about to have a happy ending running a tavern somewhere. No, for the Oathbreaker there is only pain: their own and the suffering they cause others. So, when roleplaying an Oathbreaker, take some time to consider how they see the world and its inhabitants: through the lens of someone so jaded, broken, and angry that it has consumed them utterly. Most importantly, do not allow your paladin to disrupt the fun of the table! No one is here to indulge your personal Greek tragedy after all.
The key to roleplaying any kind of paladin well is to let the Tenets of your Sacred Oath guide your actions in everything you do. Paladins can be great fun, and they are packed full of wonderful opportunities to work with your DM to enhance the character in significant ways at the table.