Here we have another contribution from Editorial0, with some minimal editing and an afterword.
Paladins have always encountered a lot of hostility. Whether you liked them or hated them, they were just plain weird. As a class, they were Fighters, except they weren’t. They were Clerics, except they weren’t. In 3rd edition, they were really more of a Prestige Class, except they weren’t. They were ridiculously brave good guys, except they (sometimes) weren’t. They were incredible dicks who messed up everyone’s fun, except they (usually, hopefully) weren’t. People tended to view Paladins strongly, for good or for ill. Some wanted them to be special and others didn’t.
Paladins were simply outside the norms of the game. The Ranger’s code of conduct didn’t amount to much (and vanished in 3rd edition), while the Paladin’s was strict and omnipresent. The Paladin has a scattered selection of odd abilities and had some unique tools, which potentially made them almost invulnerable. They almost required evil enemies. They got a special magical horse. They seemed to have special duties, although many gamers simply ignored that.
They probably sparked half the alignment debates, and what a Paladin could and could not do got a look-in in most of the rest. Variants for other alignments appeared in second edition, and – in third edition – they inspired the creation of dozens of similar classes or Prestige Classes to fit other roles.
Let’s step way back. Gary Gygax had something to say about it. If you look, you’ll note that originally Fighters had no advantages over Paladins and Rangers except for a slightly cheaper XP table. Paladins, however, received plenty of goodies. This wasn’t an accident. Them as has (lucky attribute rolls) gets (better class abilities). If you didn’t get them, then your story will be tougher but possibly more fun. To the extent that “class balance” (as opposed to “game balance”) played a role, Paladins paid for their awesomeness with lots of duties, periods of introspection, and a life of self-sacrifice. Every other character could effectively give up adventuring, but Paladins were pretty much expected to live in the saddle forever. They could return home, but they always had to leave again, never to simply *enjoy* wealth or success.
Paladins were dedicated selflessly to the ideals of Good and Law – Justice incarnate. Remember, too, that in the original alignment system Lawful Good was simply better than anything else.
From another perspective, Paladins were special because of the nature of Law and Good. The Paladin was abstractly, selflessly, and personally devoted in mind, body, and spirit. Other good characters care, but they’re not devoted in the same way. Good people don’t usually burn with a zealous devotion to perfection. Lawful characters may be devoted, but they don’t *care*. They intellectually affirm that things ought to be a certain way, and even work towards that, but it doesn’t deeply affect their spirit. And while evil or chaotic characters may champion some wicked or personal cause, they’re by definition thinking about themselves first – or, sometimes, not thinking about much of anything. Even loyal and brave evil characters generally do evil out of devotion to a person or a duty or their own wealth, not a holy cause.
So the Paladin is, or was, unique.
However, things got a lot… looser in 3rd edition. This is where the people demanding more flexible Paladins are right. If you don’t allow special champions for other causes, you need to explain why, and the writers never really did. Of course, this feeds into the whole alignment controversy, as the writers never clearly explained whether good and evil were relative terms, or absolute forces, or whether people could actually be good and evil per se, or if it was all just flags in a war of meaningless and mindless cosmic forces.
I definitely don’t like the solution which, ahem, evolved*. Now we have Blackguards (a very silly idea which we won’t explore here), and dozens upon dozens of variant classes and PrC’s for holy warriors. Most of them are cheap Paladin knockoffs designed to get you everything good from the Paladin class without actually requiring anything. And of course, the Paladin himself has dropped most of those pesky restrictions and duties.
*In every sense of the word, including the notion of emerging from the muck and mire to fill a variety of tepidly specialized niches with ugly diseased mutants.
Over the years, we’ve had a number of possibilities. Eclipse shows how to build any such characters, including the aforementioned endless PrC’s. You could hand out alignment-based magic and let people play whatever class they wanted as Paths of Power does.
But maybe we’re all just trying too hard. There’s something fun about the old Paladin. He’s still over there, looking a little grizzled and worse for the wear, but still hefting his Holy Avenger to smite evil, still giving away his treasure, and grinning like a maniac over his lucky attribute rolls. I say we let him do what he does and let the idea alone. You can always make a cheap copy, but nobody ever quite measures up.
And that’s fine by me.
Personally, back in the days of first edition, I was always of the opinion that a Paladin got special bonuses because their various codes made their lives a lot more difficult – preventing them from employing strategies and items that other characters could and forcing them to stay out of some adventures.
Besides, in a world overrun with vicious monsters, you needed some sort of counterbalance. Ergo, those poor, weak, humans got Paladins – and no one else did.
That, of course, was sabotaged by players who tried to impose their characters limitations on the rest of the party, instead of dealing with the fact that their special powers had a price.
Finally, of course, quasi-paladins of other alignments popped up, and the anti-paladin put in an appearance – and quite a few of those alternative classes suffered from few limitations of any kind except the one limitation that any player-character always ignored – “NPC Only”.