Monday, November 24, 2008

Paladin, a Love Story

I have always had a love-hate relationship with paladins. It was one of those "I hate you I hate you I love you" romances, where the two of us spent years at each others's throats, until the day we fell on each other's lips and declared our undying affection.

Let me explain: in the old days, I used to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd Edition - please, I'm not that old). One of the game's persistent concepts was of the paladin, a sort of a holy warrior, empowered by the gods, but not a priest. Paladins needed to live by a strict code of law and good, acting with kindness towards all, comporting themselves with dignity and respect, and obeying the letter and spirit of the law. Sure, a paladin could disobey bad laws, but she had to do so in a bold and open manner. A paladin could employ tactics, but she had to fight fair. A paladin could look the other way while her friends used stealth and deceit to achieve good ends... but she couldn't.

Of course, there were benefits to balance out these restrictions. Paladins had nearly all the benefits of a warrior, in addition to a limited ability to use magic like a priest, heal and dispel disease with a touch, and an inherent immunity to all fear, natural and otherwise. If they lived long enough, they got the service of a magical, super-tough horse (in later editions, a magical super-tough horse from heaven).

At the very beginning, my thoughts were "who the hell wants to play that?" Such a limiting code of behavior! Such goody two-shoes self-righteousness! I wanted a roleplaying experience that was freeing, not restrictive. I wanted to play characters that had some darkness to them, not four-color heroes.

It didn't help that a lot of the people I roleplayed with used 'paladin' as a code word for 'asshole,' or knew too many people who had. They liked to take advantage of the paladin's code of honor as an excuse to ruin other people's fun. "I'm sorry," they'd say, smirking, "it's not my fault my character just totally stepped all over your thief's efforts to sneak/your wizard's efforts to be clever/your bard's efforts to fast-talk - I'm playing a paladin! It's in my code of honor that nobody but me gets to have any fun my character can't tolerate that sort of thing!"

Over time, however, my antipathy began to transmute into curiosity. What would it like to play a character who was religiously obligated to care about the things that got glossed over in most roleplaying games: the cleanliness of his clothes, arms, and armor, the quality of his pipe tobacco? What would it be like to play someone who had a firm moral code? Could I find a way to play a character who was deeply, truly good, but also had a dark side to explore? What kind of dramatic tension was inherent in a character who partook of something pure and otherworldly in a deep and inherent way, living in a world full of cruelty and doubt?

Yeah, I was hooked.

Before I go any further, let's take a moment to explore just what a paladin is.

Wikipedia (ah, thank you, Wikipedia), claims that the the title 'paladin' comes from a group of knights also known as the Twelve Peers, "the foremost warriors of Charlemagne's court, according to the literary cycle known as the Matter of France." They also appear in the Song of Roland, an example of early French poetic literature, as warrior-paragons who exemplified Christian martial valor in the face of Islamic expansionism (or in the name of Christian expansionism - it depends on who you ask). The word itself apparently has its roots in Latin - 'palatinus' refers to a high level official of the Roman Empire associated with the Imperial palace. Later on, the word became associated with a high level official in any imperial or royal court, and later, to the warrior-paragons of Charlemagne. From there, the word spread to encompass any group of noble knights: the Knights of the Round Table, for example.

When Dungeons and Dragons came out in 1974, they adopted the word 'paladin' to refer to their holy warrior class. The rest, as they say, is history. Like the lich, the paladin entered our fantasy consciousness by way of Dungeons & Dragons and has now become a staple of fantasy everywhere. An entire roleplaying game - White Wolf's Exalted - now exists that explores themes of chosen-ness and divine favor, albeit in a much more cynical and morally ambiguous world.

I first experimented with paladins in my freshman year of college. Of course, I couldn't just play a standard paladin. I had to mess it up a little, see how far the trope would bend before it broke. I played Sir Glypharous Fleckeren, a half elf (by now D&D 3.0 had come out, and were liberated from cruel restrictions regarding race and class) paladin who had been raised up from life as a street rat by a noble knight who was inspired by his pluck. Sir Glyph was noble and good, with a healthy respect for the law, but he also had a mischevious streak and a 'live and let live' attitude towards his fellow adventurers. He would be a good example, but he wouldn't preach and pontificate. He knew how much people hated that.

The goal was to play a paladin who stressed the 'good' half of the 'lawful good' equation. My feeling was that most people stressed the 'law' half, making paladins who were sticks-in-the-mud (and sticks-up-the-ass!), at the expense of the 'good' half. It seemed just as fair to make a paladin who thought it was more important to be good, but still obeyed the paladin's code to the letter.

The experiment failed. In part, it was a weakness of the game - among the best Dungeons & Dragons games I've ever played in, but certainly far from my finest roleplaying experience to date - but in part it was a weakness of the character. I was simply inverting the concept, producing a character who was as much a failure at being a paladin as the assholes I'd played opposite in high school.

Sir Glyph produced two more characters before the experiment was over. One of them was a fun-loving pathological liar Changeling who wanted to be a noble knight just like his adoptive father (check out this post for more teasing details and stay tuned for a more full explanation when I finally get around to posting about the joys and challenges of playing kids). The other was Sir Imaz Aronide, the Red Prince, the Flame of the North. Imaz was the son of a border lord, vassal to a dying empire, who had, after a fight with his father, decided to go see for himself if the empire's decay had reached the point that breaking their oaths to the empire and striking off on their own was the lesser of two evils (the other potential evil being sticking with the empire and risking being dragged down with it).

Imaz was fun. He had issues. His honor caused him problems. Imaz had all... um... needs of any young man, but he didn't do anything about it. He didn't want to lead any women on, since he knew he would have to make an alliance marriage for the good of his father's kingdom. Imaz couldn't let his friends kill prisoners who had surrendered in good faith, so he took personal responsibility for making sure they didn't escape and cause trouble. The Empire needed to be warned about the monsters swarming through a misfiring magical gateway, so Imaz was the one to give up a chance of honor in battle and ride his horse nearly to death so that reinforcements would arrive in time. Imaz made sure his (and his friends) had the best gear they could find and the best food they could get, because dignity is important - and yes, Imaz worried about the quality of his pipe tobacco.

That game didn't last (or my involvement in it didn't last - I can't remember), but I really got a handle on the concept. I reprised the character once more, in a BESM-powered fantasy game, but after that, I realized that I had learned what I needed to, and I could let the concept go.

I realized that I was right. There is fun tension inherent in a character who is otherworldly, connected to something pure and good, but living in and a part of a world that is venal and cruel. There's something interesting and challenging about playing a character who holds himself (and, to a lesser degree, others) up to unrealistic standards. It's fun to play someone who wants to do the right thing, even when it's at odds with his desires. Especially when it's at odds with his desires. Most importantly, I learned that there is a place for fear, doubt, ambition, and darkness even in a paladin's story.

So, I get paladins: tension between the faith and corruption, the problematic consequences of honor, being the kind of person who doesn't settle for less, check, check, check. What do I do with it now?

I want to try writing some fantasy stories centering on this trope, but stories like that are a dime a dozen. Paladins are a fantasy trope, and just repeating a fantasy story about a fantasy paladin might be fun and easy to right, but it doesn't really fire me up.

The idea that I've had living in the back of my head for a while now, though is to try writing a modern take on the paladin trope. The setting: typical urban fantasy, a world where magic exists in hiding, waiting in the shadows. I'd probably want to make the world a little darker than average, a little more corrupt, so the main character would have more to push against. And then, there's lightning and thunder, and someone who was just your run of the mill decent dude is chosen.

I don't know exactly where I want to go with this next, but the idea is living in my head. It's been there for a few years now and it won't go away. I don't know what I'm going to make of it, but I'll keep you posted.

* * *

In the meantime, here are some questions for you to consider:

  • When have you explored the trope of the paladin in your writing?
  • When have you tried playing a paladin and how did it go?
  • Have you ever played opposite a particularly inspired or particularly obnoxious paladin?
  • Where in fiction have you found the trope of the paladin taken into a new context, updated, inverted, explored, or otherwise rendered more exciting?


Scattercat said...

Have you read Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series yet? They're good fun and quite tolerably well-written. One of my favorite characters is Michael, who is functionally a modern paladin who wields a holy sword (Amoracchius, one of a trio of which the other two are Fidelius and Esperacchius.)

As the series progresses, Michael has to deal with several rather nasty moral dilemmas, most of them hinging on his loyalty to his calling conflicting with his loyalty to his family or friends. Actually, it's pretty close to precisely what you described. (Butcher steals all the best ideas.)

Anonymous said...

I hate when he does that.

I have been thinking of checking out The Dresden Files. Now I'm even more likely to. That way I can steal the best ideas back!

Scattercat said...

On topic, one of my favorite recurring characters (who was in three campaigns, two of them GMed by Thomas via PBEM, which was not his preferred format) was Sir Rodney the Paladin. I, too, was disappointed by the tendency to portray all paladins as stick-up-arse walking annoyances.

Peter did something similar, with mixed results, when he ran Sir Gram, the Lawful Neutral paladin of Kelimvor, God of Death. It was pretty much Peter as a paladin, and at one point involved a memorable argument in which he tried to present a case that we, the party, weren't under any particular obligation to go and save the Lady of Silverymoon (after a side effect of one of our actions had rippled out and resulted in the bad guys kidnapping her. Yes, we weren't *directly* responsible, but still...)

Gamercow said...

I've played a paladin several times, and have gotten the hang of it, I think. I see the Paladin as a sort of crusader, out adventuring to stop evil, and at the same time, advance his faith and spread it to those around him. Most of my paladin characters will overlook the little evils of the rogues as long as it brings about a greater good, or brings us closer to our goal that serves a higher purpose. I'll let them beat up, and even torture the evil warlock to get information, because he is an evil warlock, and brought it on himself. On the other hand, he did not approve of any pickpocketing, whoring, or other such evils. He was Lawful Good, but the law was his interpretation of his faith, rather than the law of the land.