Pathfinder - The Paladin Code Of Conduct
This isn't technically a character optimization article, but for lack of a better and more obvious place to put it, I've included it alongside my other articles relating to the Paladin. This article will touch on game mechanics, but will also delve into a bit of semantics and whole lot of philosophy and ethics. At the end of the article, I'll propose an updated version of the Paladin's code which is hopefully clearer and more realistic.
The root question that this article seeks to answer is "How restrictive is the Paladin's code of ethics, and what will and what won't it allow a Paladin to do?" The answer is complicated, as under any sort of serious examination the code of conduct leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and crucial bits of text are hidden away in the Attonement spell. The intent of the whole system is that Paladins must always strive to be good, righteous, and just, and stepping from that path leads to immediate consequences. However, under the existing text, being pushed from that path without any action on the part of the Paladin will also suffice.
The Code of Conduct
The code of conduct is somewhat complicated, so we'll break it down one piece at a time.
A paladin must be of lawful good alignment
This is pretty easy. You're locked into an alignment.
and loses all class features except proficiencies if she ever willingly commits an evil act.
This is the biggest restriction in the paladin's code. Any evil act will be met with loss of your Paladin powers. However,
Additionally, a paladin's code requires that she respect legitimate authority, act with honor (not lying, not cheating, not using poison, and so forth), help those in need (provided they do not use the help for evil or chaotic ends), and punish those who harm or threaten innocents.
The Stuff Hidden in Attonement
Two lines of the Attonement spell pertain to the Paladin's code of conduct, and we'll examine them individually. They both have implications for the Paladin's behavior, and hiding them in the Attonement spell description makes the whole discussion that much more complicated.
The creature seeking atonement must be truly repentant and desirous of setting right its misdeeds.
If you committed an evil act, you need to feel bad about it. This one isn't too bad for most Paladins, especially if you're still lawful good. Feeling bad about kicking a puppy is pretty easy. However, if the act is less clearly wrong, you may have trouble feeling bad about having done it. That gets into defining evil, which we will discuss below.
If the atoning creature committed the evil act unwittingly or under some form of compulsion, atonement operates normally at no cost to you.
This is perhaps the most unfair part of the Paladin's code of conduct, which is especially egregious since it's not even included in the text. If you commit an evil unwittingly or against your will (mind control is a thing), you are still punished. Innocent person illusioned to look like BBEG? Kill them and lose your powers. Button that says "release innocent prisoners" actually burns down an orphanage? Push it and lose your powers. Enemy casts Dominate Person and forces you to go on a puppy kicking spree? Lose your powers, then go right back to being dominated until the effect ends.
This requires the Paladin to be omniscient. You must immediately know, at all times, exactly what you are doing and the consequences of those actions. In a game with illusions, bluff checks, riddles, traps, and all manner of nefarious villains this is a hill that no one could possibly climb. While Paladins set themselves up to walk a difficult path, the path should be difficult, not impossible.
The Cost of Attonement
The Attonement spell is 5th level. Casting it requires a 9th level cleric or druid or 10th-level oracle, which is in itself a significant hurdle in many games. Assuming that you have one in the party or can find an NPC, paying an NPC to cast it costs 450 or 500 gp, depending on the class of the spellcaster you found, and assuming that your GM is nice and allows the spellcaster to already own the focus.
If you committed the evil act unwillingly (see above), the cost stops there. If you comitted the act willingly, you need to pay another 2500gp for material components. That's the cost of an expensive +1 weapon just to say you're sorry and get your powers back. If you transgress at low levels before you can throw that sort of god around, congratulations! It's time to make a new character.