There is no class more stereotyped and pigeonholed than the paladin. They are, after all, iconic. Noble defenders of good, they are the men and women through whom true divinity shines. They serve as a shining force for all that is just and right in the world, and almost universally we picture them as chivalrous knights in gleaming armor. Part of the reason for that is the word ‘paladin’ refers to one of the 12 Peers of Charlemagne, some of the most legendary knights outside of Arthur’s round table. The other reason is that, more often than not, we simply accept that the iconic representation of a class is the way it’s supposed to be.
However, what if I told you a paladin didn’t need shining armor? That your champion of good might choose to wield a rapier and a dueling cloak, instead?
Paladins, mechanically, are fighters with perks. Their smite ability allows them to gain a significant advantage against evil foes, adding to their attacks, damage, and Armor Class. They become immune to disease, they gain spells, and they add their Charisma modifier to all their saving throws. Although paladins can choose to stomp around in heavy armor while carrying a slab of steel as a shield, nowhere is it written that they have to do this.
At its most basic, these dexterous paladins utilize speed and skill over brute force. That may mean taking feats like Weapon Finesse and Slashing Grace to add to your attack, and feats like Dodge and Mobility to increase your Armor Class. A paladin relying on Dexterity may also find that building up to Spring Attack is useful, allowing the paladin to charge in, smite a creature, and then leap back out of its threatened area. Fast, high-crit weapons like the rapier or the scimitar can pay off big when it comes to damage as well, multiplying damage from Smite, or even Power Attack, allowing your fast-moving paladin to deal truly crippling blows before dancing out of reach once more.
You can also dip into other classes to add abilities to your daredevil. The swashbuckler is perhaps the most appropriate, since panache is also based off your Charisma modifier, and even low-level deeds can be life-saving in combat. The rogue, or even the slayer, can also put an additional edge on a paladin who relies on precision and skill over brute force. The condition you have to watch for when multiclassing, though, is that many of a paladin’s abilities are based on the character’s paladin level. So while 2–3 levels of another class can be helpful, more than that may be a bigger hindrance than it is a help.
We’ve all seen paladins before. They come from the church, and they’re typically a part of that church’s martial branch. They were trained with other holy soldiers, and sent out into the world as knights errant to combat darkness wherever it rears its head. They’re Knights Templar, without all the baggage.
Sure, that’s one option. But what about others?
Say, for example, your paladin lives in a city. That would explain why impractical armor and a heavy shield aren’t something he or she would carry. After all, in the narrow confines of back alleys, speed and skill often count for more than a steel shell. But what is the urban paladin’s calling? Is he a member of the city watch, pledged to help defend it against enemies from both within and without? Or is this paladin not associated with any organization? She might be a neighborhood champion, standing up for what’s right on a small-scale by dealing with street toughs and crime lords instead of fighting demons and battling lich kings.
Other locales lend themselves to the daredevil paladin. For example, paladins who lead a seafaring life may need to depend on their reflexes instead of armor, particularly if they’re swinging on ropes or swimming to safety. The same is true of paladins from the desert or the jungle, who might find the elements tax anyone who insists on wearing anything beyond light forms of protection. Traveling paladins may also forego the heavy protections found on organized battle fields, simply because hauling around and caring for such a weight of steel is a great burden to someone constantly on the move.
Lastly, some paladins may embrace a more acrobatic fighting style out of a cultural preference instead of sheer practicality. For example, does the paladin come from a place where braggadocio is more than just social posturing? In that context, would someone wearing armor and hiding behind a shield be considered a coward? Alternatively, is the paladin from a place where steel has not been readily available, and thus fighting styles have evolved in such a way that fighters are assumed to be wearing no more than light forms of protection? Samurai, for example, wore lacquered wood, and even the infamous katana was forged from pig iron, because that’s all that was available to the smiths. Or, for those who want to keep a paladin’s faith first and foremost in the character concept, has the character foresworn armor as a symbol of faith, showing that they are armored in righteousness?
You can weave this concept a lot of different ways, but all of them will make for a memorable take on what so many players consider a boring class.
For more unusual character concepts, check out Neal F. Litherland’s gaming blog Improved Initiative!