The Paladin Class, Part Six

In last week’s article, I talked about the 4e Paladin, where magical power takes center stage in the class and distances Paladins from the strictly chivalric-warrior-on-horseback roots. I also covered the 4e Blackguard, a Paladin build for tormented anti-heroes, tragically flawed heroes, and outright villains. In 5e, we see theme take center stage over mechanical differentiation, and this extends to the Paladin; we also see a meaningful exploration of a new Paladin theme for the first time since… ever. I’ll also be contrasting the Paladin to a 5e multi-class Fighter/Cleric of various level ratios.


(Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five)

The Paladin writeup includes three different character descriptions, pointing out the variety available within the class. The text describes a human, a dwarf, and an elf, while the art depicts a half-orc – a nice move in itself. The text describes all paladins as crusaders for justice and righteousness, which is interesting now that there are no alignment rules anywhere in the class. At all. There’s clear room for paladins of evil alignment, who nevertheless espouse goodly moral tenets. (Paladins can still fall from grace, though; I’ll get to that.)

Overall, the style of the class, much like the edition itself, looks more like 3.x than 4e – no surprise there. Most of the features are recognizable from 3.x, if you squint a bit…

  • One of the first surprises is that paladins are not proficient in Constitution saving throws, but in Wisdom and Charisma. Divine Health and Aura of Protection take a lot of the sting out of that. (But then, various other abilities make paladins and their nearby allies immune to a lot of causes of Wisdom saving throws.)
  • Two picks from a pretty good skill list. You may find yourself taking a closely related Background (such as Acolyte or Soldier) to cover your archetype, but keep in mind that a good Charisma and no proficiency stays perfectly good for many levels.
  • Divine Sense replaces Detect Evil, and it has nothing to do with alignments – just things that are foreign to the world in a way that is specific to the paladin’s mission: celestials, fiends, and undead. I like that paladins can potentially recognize an angelic or hallowed presence, not just their enemies. (Though evil angels can definitely be a thing in some settings.) Also, there’s a daily usage limit.
  • Lay on Hands is now 5 hit points per paladin level each day, and curing disease or poison draws from that pool. It cannot be used to harm undead; I don’t know about everyone else, but I won’t notice the absence of the ability to harm undead with Lay on Hands.
    • All throughout 5e, healing does not harm undead. It doesn’t help them, either; I can’t think of a place where it’s described as “positive energy.” 5e has completely adopted 4e’s use of “radiant” and “necrotic” energy over “positive” and “negative” energy. Undead are often vulnerable to radiant energy.
  • Fighting Style is here to remind paladins that there is some Fighter knocking around in there. They have access to four of the six Fighting Styles fighters can pick. Personally, I would be fine with supporting a two-weapon-fighting or archery paladin. If you’re serious about TWF or archery, you can just pick up Defense style – it’s not like +1 AC will ever be bad to have.
  • Paladins now start casting spells at 2nd level, which I’m sure comes as a surprise to people who gave 4e (and my article) a miss. On the other hand, spell slots are how 5e handles smiting, so 5e had to deliver this feature early. Paladins learn all spells of available spell levels like clerics, and prepare spells like clerics (of half their paladin level). If a party is careful and the paladin is comfortable not doing any smiting to speak of, the paladin can probably cover the primary healing role.
    • This is really missing out on what makes the class work, though – because of the more limited spell slots, the paladin is making much more painful choices between healing and dealing really good damage.
    • The paladin spell list is pretty robust. Beyond smites and healing, let me point out Compelled Duel as a replacement for 4e’s Divine Challenge. Of course, spending a first-level spell slot for every foe you want to lock down to fighting only you has limits, and that’s as much as 2d8 of smiting damage you’re not doing. Assigning a Concentration duration to a spell that literally guarantees you will get attacked… that’s more of a problem, all the more so for your lack of Constitution saving throw proficiency. War Caster is your friend, paladins.
    • Unlike 3.x Paladins, Charisma is the casting stat of record, so paladins don’t also need a very high Wisdom score – a very high Strength, Constitution, and Charisma more-or-less suffice.
  • So about Smites. Divine Smite lets you turn spell slots into radiant damage, declared after a successful hit. The damage is 2d8 for a first-level slot, up to 6d8 for a fifth-level slot (another 1d8 if it’s a fiend or undead). Alternately, you can cast an actual smite spell as a bonus action, which gives you a Concentration effect that sticks around until you hit an opponent; the smite spells deal less damage than Divine Smite, but grant some kind of additional effect. Paladins do completely crazypants amounts of damage when they’re willing to spend spell slots freely.
  • Divine Health, the classic paladin immunity. Oddly enough, in 5e, harm is a disease for some reason. I’m not checking right now, but I suspect a decent number of monsters rely on diseases to provide a threat. Immunities are like little traps for an unwary encounter designer.
  • Sacred Oath is the point at which you become a “real” paladin and take holy vows, gaining your subclass. I’ll come back to each subclass, but this is where 5e introduces new themes to the Paladin.
  • Extra Attack: okay, you’re a little bit fighter. There’s another damage kicker coming for you later on, though, to remind you that you’re also a cleric.
  • Aura of Protection is 5e’s answer to OD&D’s +10% bonus to all saving throws. Here it grants a bonus of at least +1, or greater if you have a decent Charisma score, and it shares that bonus out to 10 feet, or 30 feet once you hit 18th Non-proficiency in saving throws suddenly almost doesn’t matter.
  • Aura of Courage grants immunity to the frightened condition. This immunity is a really big deal, because a lot of spells and monster abilities involve inflicting fear. As with Aura of Protection, it extends to 10 feet until 18th level, at which point it increases to 30 feet. That’s a mostly-immune party.
    • For my own 5e campaign, all player-side immunities have been downgraded to advantage and +1d4 to the saving throws. Monsters may still sometimes retain immunities, but some monster immunities will also get downgraded in this way.
  • Improved Divine Smite is the cleric-like damage kicker I mentioned. You always deal an extra 1d8 damage. Every class increases damage output as they go in some way, and every strike dealing some radiant damage meets with theme reasonably well. It wouldn’t have worked for the lower-magic paladin of OD&D through 2e, but it works here.
  • Cleansing Touch lets the Paladin purge unwanted spells from herself or others. I take it as a nod to OD&D’s dispel evil and the special power they gained from a holy sword, even though in 5e dispel evil and good is an extant spell, and holy avengers grant attunement powers in a paladin’s hands. Double-dipping with powers that point to the same traditional through-line is fine, as long as you don’t overdo it.

That’s it for core class abilities, but of course we’re far from done with the Paladin. There are three Oaths in the Player’s Handbook, and an option for Oathbreakers in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The Paladin falls into the category of classes with fewer customization options, along with the Cleric, the Rogue, and others. I’m not going into minute detail on each Oath feature, but here they are in more general terms.

The Oath of Devotion is the paladin that the five prior editions of D&D have prepared us to expect. They might be more defensive, with a weapon and shield, or more offensive, with a two-handed weapon, but they’re the classic knightly paragons of virtue. Of all the oaths, this one is the hardest to twist toward evil, but a paladin who took a particularly ironclad approach to the tenet of Duty might feel obligated to serve a lord who had fallen into cruelty. That paladin would suffer terrible guilt for the callous actions that said lord requested and required. The tenet of Compassion also involves wiggle room that could lead a paladin into darkness in wartime.

The Oath of the Ancients is for Green Knights (Undying Sentinel is a little on the nose, but may he be shamed who thinks badly of it) and Faerie Knights, and for those with a primal dedication to life and light. Not gonna lie, I really want to play one of these on theme alone. It’s also very hard to twist toward evil, though I think “classic” elven arrogance is a pretty workable angle. Equally plausible is treachery in the service of preserving life, possibly leading the paladin to do evil in the short term for long-term gain, or vice versa. It becomes a question of when the Gods or the paladin feel that the Code has indeed been broken – but then there’s still room for atonement in 5e’s paladins. The sidebar on breaking your Oath and falling from grace takes a pretty enlightened view of sin, penance, and redemption, which also makes me happy. This Oath points back to the Warden of 4e, the Primal-source defender, especially in its bonus spell list and its 20th level transformation power, Elder Champion.

The Oath of Vengeance is the darkest of the Player’s Handbook oaths, in a “grim avenger of the night” way. It points back to the Avenger of 4e, the Divine-source striker, in both thematic and mechanical terms – the Vow of Enmity is a straight lift aside from its usage limits. It isn’t a cloth-wearing class, though, so they’re a lot less like Assassin’s Creed knockoffs. (I’m a little conflicted about that, because I loved Avengers.) Thanks to their bonus spells and their Oath features, the Oath of Vengeance is one of the top damage-dealing subclasses in the game, especially against single enemies. It takes… basically nothing… for the Oath of Vengeance to slide into evil, since their Oath allows them to ally with lesser evils to take down greater ones, they have no obligation to show mercy, and they specifically have no boundaries to the means they may use to complete their mission. If that’s not a little chilling, you may not be paying attention.

Then there’s the Oathbreaker, found in the DMG. This is how 5e handles the anti-paladin, the blackguard, the WoW-style death knight: by letting you change your subclass in the course of play. Mechanically, it’s a damn sight more graceful than the 1e or 3.x iterations of the concept. The oathbreaker is a bit more powerful overall than the Oath-bound paladins, but then I’d be sad if the dark path weren’t the easy way to power – I’d go so far as to say it could use just a little more destructive potential.

Here’s the single most important thing: paladins don’t become Oathbreakers on incidental violations, or anything short of conscious embrace of evil. Since I’ve talked at great length about how paladins in many editions cause fights between the player and the DM where interpretation of good and evil are involved, I deeply appreciate 5e addressing this. Oh, sure, players who want a reason to argue with the DM, or vice versa, will still find it. No mere rulebook can stop that! But the text doesn’t frame the DM as the heavy-handed arbiter who punishes players who get out of line, nor as the one-strike-and-you’re-out judge.

Another thing I love about the Paladin: the Oaths present three conflicting worldviews that can bounce off of one another really wonderfully. I would love to see someone run the Pendragon Great Campaign using 5e, but allowing only Paladins for PCs. That could be a lot of fun. (To make it a little more like the run of the Great Campaign that I played, you could allow one party member at a time to be a Barbarian, Druid, or Wizard. I love that it’s a setting where Druid and Wizard are externally indistinguishable.) In any other campaign, paladins are rare, and you’ll almost never see two in the same party; flipping that assumption would make some really interesting things happen. Also, the class is well-rounded enough that they shouldn’t have any major problems other than rogue skills… which are beneath their honor anyway.

Other than some concerns about just how good the smiting damage is (especially as the most comparable class, the Ranger, is underperforming), the Paladin is a great class in 5e. It resolves many of the issues of previous editions: narrowness of theme, unavoidable and irresolvable conflict with other players and the DM, and so on. More subclasses should supply as much roleplaying grist as Oaths.


The Fighter/Cleric

What if you’re playing in a 5e game with only the Basic Rules PDF, except that one player has ripped off the multi-classing rules and maybe also the feats? (I don’t know your life.) Can you make something mechanically tolerable to resemble the paladin?

It’s convenient that Basic only includes the Life Domain, because it’s the one we want. The Cleric class is so heavily shaped by Domain features that we barely need to discuss anything else about it, but you’ve got Turn Undead and Preserve Life, which are close enough to the Oath of Devotion’s Channel Divinity and Lay on Hands that we’re going in a good direction.

If you’ve got a solid Strength and Wisdom, plus at least a decent Constitution, one really good paladin lookalike is Fighter 5/Cleric Everything Else, because at least you got that Extra Attack. In combination with your Divine Strike from the Life Domain, there’s a real resemblance to the Paladin’s combat routine taking shape, though you can’t dump spell slots for damage. Your spellcasting will far outstrip a paladin’s over the long run, as a 15th level Cleric has 8th-level spells, but holy aura does a surprisingly good imitation of the Oath of Devotion’s Holy Nimbus 20th-level feature. Everything else comes down to spell selection.

If you want a balance of spellcasting and combat that is more like the Paladin class, though, you want Fighter 11/Cleric 9, giving you fifth-level cleric spells and the Fighter’s Indomitable ability, which broadly resembles the paladin’s ability to succeed saving throws (but doesn’t share that ability with allies). That third attack per round would be quite enjoyable alongside Divine Strike, though you wouldn’t get that full combination rolling until 19th level at the earliest.

Another mechanical way one could present a paladin in 5e, without all of this multi-classing, would be a divine-casting subclass along the lines of the Eldritch Knight. If they hadn’t done so much to expand the Paladin’s themes, I would have expected WotC to do just that. Replace the Eldritch Knight’s protective and damaging spells with healing, protective, and damaging spells, and change Arcane Charge to some kind of Aura, and Bob’s your uncle.

If you’ve done all of that but you really miss the roleplay of Oaths, that’s some feat design waiting to happen. Just create an Oathbound feat that lets the player choose one of a few different codes, and as long as they faithfully keep its tenets, they get a modest benefit. If they break the tenets with malice aforethought, the feat flips to Oathbreaker, and gives different benefits, of a more unsavory nature, and draws the attention of the Dark Powers.

Having said all of that, I am sold on the Paladin justifying its existence in 5e, and it’s better represented here than in any prior edition. I know you’ve all been worried that this would bring an end to the series on the Paladin class – but no! There will be a bonus article next week, examining the Paladin class in the Rules Cyclopedia, Pathfinder, and 13th Age. They all have interesting things to contribute to the conversation.


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Brandes Stoddard enjoys games of many kinds: video, tabletop, board, card, and live-action games. He runs Dust to Dust, a fantasy LARP in Georgia, and works in freelance game design and writing. He blogs about games at