Why D&D 5e is Awesome — An Example (The Paladin)

It would take pages and pages of text to share my thoughts on the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. In short: I’m a fan. I love the books, I love the new systems, I love the new takes on old systems. I’m a gushing starry-eyed fanboy, despite what this old blog post about it would have you believe.

In case you don’t want to read what Old-Bitchy-Brickroad-From-2012 has to say, here’s the teal deer: Wizards of the Coast made some silly claim about how D&D 5e was going to appeal of fans to all previous versions, and I found that claim to be ludicrous. My feeling was that the history of D&D was too big a thing to condense into a single ruleset. All four editions (really six editions (but really nine or more)) of the game had dead ends and failed experiments which couldn’t be excised without losing something important. You had 2e with its motley of mechanics and dice systems (perfect for nerds who love fiddly numbers!). You had 3e with countless feats, skills, prestige classes and magic items (a min/maxer’s dream come true!). You had 4e with its tactical grid combat and ECL rules (everything a wargaming lootmonger could desire!). There was a lot of crossover between these wide and disparate systems, but I was of the opinion that they each had their niche. I was very skeptical of WotC’s “all things to all players” claim because I didn’t see how you could unify the things that various edition purists enjoyed under a single ruleset in a meaningful way. I figured the new edition would be a mishmash of redundant rules, vestigial mechanics and pages upon pages of optional minutia.


But 5e won me over! I could go on and on about how brilliant I think it is and how elegant some of WotC’s solutions wound up being. Indeed, if you’ve been watching my streams lately or showing up to our weekly gaming sessions, you’ve probably already had your fill of that. So instead, I’m going to narrow the focus a bit and talk about just one specific example of something 5e did very, very right: the Paladin.

A Quick Note About 3e

This document mostly references the Paladin class from second, fourth and fifth editions. There are two reasons for this. First, as we’ll see, I tend to define 2e and 4e at being at two different extremes of the tabletop spectrum, and 3e falls somewhere in the middle. So it’s somewhat less useful as a comparison to the new ruleset. And second, I don’t actually own a copy of the 3e rules, and in fact have never read them! I’ve played in many 3e games, but never run one, and I can’t remember anyone in our group playing a Paladin in one. I have vague ideas about their place and function in the game, but no firsthand knowledge and no reference material.

In other words, I’m sure there’s a lot to be said on this subject in regards to third edition. But I’m not the guy to say it. Sorry, 3e fans!


Second Edition Paladin

What you’re looking at is a badly-cropped photo of pages 27 and 28 of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook. It looks positively dinky compared to the class descriptions in later editions, but keep in mind that each of 2e classes were part of larger “class groups”. The Paladin shared some rules in common with the other two classes of the Warrior group, notably the Fighter. Most of the class description, as a result, can be summarized by “here’s how Paladins are better than Fighters, and here’s the price they pay for getting that way”.

And make no mistake, Paladins are better than Fighters. I don’t mean that in the sense that the game was poorly playtested or had terrible balance issues. I mean they were specifically designed that way. Nowadays it is considered a mortal sin to have huge power gaps between character classes, both in tabletop and video games. To do it on purpose would be unconscionable. But that’s how 2e is designed, honest injun! If we’re talking straight up game mechanics, there is no reason whatsoever* to play Fighter when Paladin is on the table

So to understand the 2e Paladin, we have to understand some reasons why it might not be on the table.

The answer lies in all the red blocks in the image above. Paladin is, by a very wide margin, the most heavily restricted class in 2e. It has the highest ability score requirement of any class and the narrowest range of race and alignment options. If you tell me you’re playing a Paladin in a 2e game, I already know 1) you’re a human, 2) you’re lawful good and 3) you managed to roll a 17 in a system where “4d6, drop the lowest” is a variant and not the standard.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Much has been made about how Paladins must be lawful good, but even in 2e there is lawful good and there is lawful good. Paladins are expected to be absolute paragons of law and good, impeccable in word and deed. Lawful good is already a challenging alignment to roleplay properly, and Paladins in particular are at the very extreme end of that challenge. One slip-up towards evil and the Paladin loses all his class abilities, reverting to a Fighter of his experience level. This change is immediate and irrevokable, unless the Paladin acted under magical duress; in that case, he may have his class returned to him if he completes a dangerous quest of atonement.

On top of all that, the Paladin labors under some pretty severe loot restrictions. He cannot own more than ten magic items. He does not attract followers. He may keep only enough wealth to pay his debts; everything else goes to the church. He isn’t even allowed to bestow this wealth to the party. You’re reading all this correctly. Paladins are expected to ignore the primary reason for adventuring! He’s simply not allowed to partake in the standard kill/loot/kill/loot cycle most people play Dungeons & Dragons to enjoy!

In return for these huge restrictions, the Paladin enjoys many bonuses over the standard Fighter. Not the least of these are a straight bonus to all saving throws and innate protection from evil creatures. They have a class-specific magic weapon, the fabled holy avenger, whose might is as awesome as its name. And they get a warhorse buddy they can call to their side like that guy in Shadow of the Colossus. Oh, and healing, undead turning, and spellcasting abilities.

That may not sound like fair compensation for all the weight the Paladin has to carry. After all, every class in the game except the Fighter has cool features that make it unique, and they (mostly) get to keep their loot. So what does a Paladin player really get for picking such a difficult class? You’ve already guessed the answer: the class is its own reward. The roleplaying opportunities of the Paladin are endless. Simply having one around creates interesting conflict that often demands resolution outside of “kill all the orcs”. The Paladin often becomes the villain of the group as he seeks to hold the other members — even lawful good ones — to his impossible standards.

That’s why the Paladin isn’t balanced with the rest of the classes in 2e, and why it doesn’t need to be. It’s a class that demands far, far more of its player than “learn how to use your class abilities”. It’s not a class everyone is intended to play.

That sounds unfair and elitist to the ears of many modern gamers. Perhaps it is. But that’s where we start.

*No, weapon specialization is not why people play Fighters.


Fourth Edition Paladin

Here we have pages 89-91 of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook: Arcane, Divine and Martial Heroes, or the 4e PHB. Allowing for the larger print in the 4e books, the actual description of the class is about the same length. Not pictured are the eight pages of individual Paladin class powers, twenty of which are “Something Smite”. Huge lists of powers are nothing special in 4e though; every class has those. The more notable difference is the lack of any restrictions or bonuses in 4e’s ruleset. The only limiting factor in playing a 4e Paladin is your desire to do so.

In fact, there are no rules at all regarding your Paladin’s behavior, save that his alignment must be the same as his deity’s. The Paladin is never in danger of losing any of his class abilities, regardless of how chaotic or evil he acts. From the PHB:

“Once initiated, the paladin is a paladin forevermore. How justly, honorably, or compassionately the paladin wields those powers from that day forward is up to him, and paladins who stray too far from the tenets of their faith are punished by other members of the faithful.”

This makes sense though, right? Unlike in 2e, there is no “base class” for a fallen Paladin to revert to. In 4e, Fighter is a unique class unto itself with powers all its own. It would be ridiculous to tell a 4e player, “Since you raped that orphanage, you lose all your Paladin powers. You’re a Fighter now. Pick out all your new Fighter powers.” Rather than losing something special, that player just replaces all the useful powers he had with different-but-equally-useful ones.

This is the reason there’s no red or yellow in my terrible 4e photo. Since there’s no sense of one class being better than any other, there’s no reason to hold a player of a particular class to higher standards. Nor is there any sense of penalizing that player should he fail. Instead of being rare and notable characters, Paladins are just another option on the menu.

This is starting to get a bit whiny, so let’s focus on all the reasons this is a good thing. For one, not having a “base class” is a great thing! Fighters in 4e get cool attack powers and fun mechanical bonuses for a variety of different weapons. There are lots of reasons to pick Fighter over Paladin outside of “I don’t want to be lawful good” or “I didn’t roll a 17”. It also means the player who picks Fighter isn’t made to feel redundant or useless in a group that also has a Paladin, since they’re providing different functions in combat.

It also means there are no tiresome debates about whether a particular course of action will or won’t be acceptable to the party’s Paladin. The party isn’t required to throw one-fifth of its treasure into a black hole just so one guy can keep turning skeletons and laying-on-hands. The group can engage in stealth and subterfuge without the Paladin poo-pooing or sitting out.

There’s a more important benefit to this design though: World of Warcraft had redefined what the Paladin was in the fantasy genre. It still had connotations of being the incorruptable paragon of justice, but to many players he was now a combination between fighter, tank and buffbot. The value of a Paladin was measured less in how he behaves and more by how much damage he soaks up and whether he can get his allies cleansed of debuffs.

The shift in tone makes perfect sense for a more mechanically-oriented game like 4e, then. A new Paladin for a new age. Now everybody gets to play them, not just the elite few who roll really well and can stomach a bible full of caveats.

Guys like me, though, who liked the way 2e handled its stronger, rarer, more challenging classes couldn’t help but feel something had been lost. We gravitated towards Pathfinder instead.


Fifth Edition Paladin

Finally, let’s look at pages 82-85 of the D&D Player’s Handbook for fifth edition, and delve into why it’s so brilliant. Superficially, the spread looks pretty similar to 4e. Like its predecessor, 5e is a game where all classes are unique and ostensibly balanced. The Paladin is therefore defined by its features and abilities rather than its roleplaying restrictions.

But good golly! Look at all that real estate! Each class in 5e gets at least a full four-page spread, and many (such as the Paladin) get considerably more when you delve into the nuts and bolts of the class. Unlike 4e, where these pages were just naked lists of powers broken up by level, the 5e character options are split into broad sub-classes called archetypes. And here’s the first stroke of brilliance: only one of these Paladin archetypes is the 2e-style paragon of justice. From the PHB:

“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.”

Sound like anyone we know?

If that’s not to your liking there are two other Paladin archetypes you might try, one of which (Oath of Vengeance) is much closer to the 4e-style Paladin in terms of smiting darkness and meting out justice to evildoers. The idea here — and I’m certain this is not coincidence — is that 2e veterans look at this verbiage and think, “The Paladin is back, baby!” while 4e newcomers look at it and think, “Phew, I can still be a Paladin without having to act like a self-righteous prick!” The PHB also gently nudges players towards designing their own Oaths, giving them permission to work with their DMs to customize the character so he is challenging and satisfying to play.

Even better, a brand new 5e player doesn’t have to decide right away what kind of Paladin he wants to be. Most 5e classes don’t choose their archetype until the third experience level, so the average player will have two or three game sessions to try the character out and see how it feels. Imagine a player who starts out with lofty goals of playing the perfect lawful good character, but loses his taste for it after a couple encounters. In 2e this player is cursed to play an average Fighter for the rest of the campaign, no takesie-backsies. In 4e this player doesn’t actually exist, since nothing in any of the class descriptions rewards or restricts behavior. 5e provides the perfect, elegant solution: the Paladin takes a different Oath. A roleplaying opportunity is created as the character questions his ideals and comes to respect new ones. And the player gets to keep all his cool Paladin stuff, just pointed in a bit of a different direction.

Ah, but there’s a masterstroke. You knew there was going to be a bit of red ink in the 5e book, didn’t you? Well here it is:


These are the rules for Paladins who wander from their Oath, whatever that may be. They’re clear enough that Paladin players know what is expected and what to do if they falter, but they’re vague enough that it’s easy to rationalize not bringing the hammer down. They also give two possible outcomes for a Paladin who goes too far: he either loses his class features, or gains new ones as befitting his newly-evil status. These fallen Paladins are called Oathbreakers, and the rules for them are in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Paladins are, in fact, the only class that has rules to change archetypes. Rather than being penalized by losing powers, a creative player may consider becoming an Oathbreaker a sort of weird reward for taking his character in a new direction.

Paladins in 2e were rare and special because of their roleplaying restrictions, but that meant not every player could enjoy it. In 4e the option was available to everyone, but the class lost what had made it unique. 5e elegantly allows either style of Paladin, and many degrees in-between. And it does this without requiring house rules and without introducing the drawbacks of either of the older editions we’ve looked at. Wow!

What It All Means

The treatment of the Paladin is just one example of what 5e means when it says “all things to all players”. Similar examples abound in all other aspects of the game. There will always be edition purists, surely, but it’s very difficult for me to imagine an open-minded person looking at the 5e rules and not finding them better than what they’d been using.

Back when 5e was still in development, when Wizards of the Coast was using ridiculous internet polls to ask players what they liked about each edition of the game, it was very easy for me to simply declare my lifelong devotion to 2e and then drop the mic. Lots of players were likewise disappointed in the direction 4e took the game. I wasn’t disappointed, per se, but I was vocal about the game not being a good fit for my group.

The game had to work very, very hard in order to soften my coal black heart. The Paladin is one of the reasons it succeeded. A great deal of care and attention was paid to make sure fans from 1979 would feel as comfortable picking it up as fans from 2010. The class works whether you last played one in Toril or Azeroth. That was not easy, and it’s just one of a hundred things that had to go right. I applaud the effort as well as the result.

If you’ve been skeptical about trying out the new edition of D&D, consider this an endorsement. If you want to see the game in action, drop by my Twitch stream on Sunday afternoon to see it in action. Thanks for reading!

6 comments to Why D&D 5e is Awesome — An Example (The Paladin)

  • Merus

    I read the 5E sorcerer rules and smiled, because they somehow managed to square the circle: keep Vancian-style spell levels, move to a mana point system like 95% of magic system design in games these days, and make a sorcerer that felt like it belonged in the same game as a wizard, but didn’t feel like a modified wizard.

    I suspect that a lot of 5E’s genius comes from when they decided to roll out the advantage system they invented late, late into 4E’s life into the heart of 5E.

    (The only difficulty: our mini-campaign to try it out was the Starter Set’s campaign, set in Forgotten Realms, and we lost basically everyone, including the GM, because Forgotten Realms is boring.)

  • Mike

    The system can best be described as such.
    3.5 had a problem with Magic vs Might. Magic had the advantage in every field (Yes, even physical strength. Break down a door, Mighty Fighter? Step aside, I have a Stone Golem to do that. Or maybe just cast Shatter, or Warp Wood, hell walk THROUGH it with Passwall.)

    4e solved this by making everyone the wizard. Everyone does cool crazy flips-in-the-air things. Fighters hit like trucks and leave enemies reeling, Rangers make that impossible shot like it was nothing, Rogues twirl through the air and leave a knife in an enemy who never saw them, and Wizards run cleanup by dropping a cloud of fog that finishes off stragglers and strays.

    Meanwhile, 5e did this the opposite. Everyone is a fighter. No one has any cool tricks they can do, and even Magic is reduced to little more than “I cast Ray of Frost for X damage.”

    I don’t think 5e is BAD, however. I enjoy it, but it feels more…low fantasy. Which is great for those who like it. But it’s Dungeons and Dragons. It’s one of the perennial High Fantasy magic games. Hell, it gave us Eberron which probably had more than a little influence on some of our favorite stories and games growing up (Final Fantasy 3/6 being one example).

    But one of the biggest things I LIKED about 4e was, despite all the vocal nonsense to the opposite, it was much more focused on YOUR story. It didn’t tell you that your Monk was too much of a wild card to punch someone. It never said that your Blackguard couldn’t be some kind of Shadow Ops soldier for Pelor. You wanna roll up a Warlock who cheated a Fey creature, but don’t like playing evil characters? Roll up that Lawful Neutral! Not to mention Paladins it made MORE sense, not less. Bahamut is not like the Abrahamic God of Christianity. Nor is Pelor. They cannot simply BE at all points in history. They are actual beings with immense power. They cannot spend 10 minutes of their day reprimanding me for not helping the town guards persecute an old woman because she stole something. But your church might be willing to have someone speak to you about how they’re not sure what part of your crusade of slaughter really evokes Pelor’s light of justice.

    If you want to fight waves of monsters and be an epic hero? 4e is the way to go.
    If you want a few orcs guarding a castle to be the type of “all day affair” your high level group tangles with? 5e is right up your alley.

    And if you got bullied a lot as a kid and want to make anyone with a physique that can be described in words OTHER than “frail”, play a Wizard in 3.5.

    • Merus

      Mike, you’ve got your chronologies all tangled. Eberron was first published as part of 3E, in the 2000s. It was late 3E, too, which probably explains why 4E was much higher fantasy than 3E was. (Also: it was taking big design cues from games like MMOs, which are usually high-magic settings.)

    • Destil

      Eberron is actually not really a high magic setting. It’s broad magic. Level 1-2 spells are somewhat common, level 3-4 spells are rare and level 5+ is basically outside the grasp of nearly everyone aside from a number of NPCs you can count on one hand and the PCs at high level.

      Greyhawk, has access to more powerful magic than Eberron if we go by Gygax’s old musings on how many spellcasters of level X there are in the world. So do random settlements designed using the rules in the 3E DMG as long as you include large cities. Eberron is just a world where the spells low level adventurers see all the time are well understood and put to use by society. What city wouldn’t light its streets with continual flame in nice areas?

      All the spells/day chart for a high level spell-caster is my favorite part of 5E (in fact I wish there were a few more, the progression from 18-20 looks a little off to me).

  • Treble

    3/3.5 D&D is a less harsh version of AD&D 2nd edition. Paladins must be of lawful good and lose access to their class abilities (Spells, Lay on Hands, Warhorse, etc…) if they “…ever willingly commit an evil act.”

    Paladins are required to “…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.”

    Paladins are also not allowed to associate with known evil characters.

    If they break the rules they aren’t permanently shunted to being a fighter. They become a *weaker* fighter, but they can atone for their transgression by seeing a cleric of the same god and getting them to cast the Atonement spell on them.

    The PHB talks about how most clerics will Geas/Quest the one looking for atonement with a task to prove they are actually repentant.

    That is Paladin in a nut shell in 3rd/3.5.

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