I have a confession to make: I have never played a Paladin. At least, not that I can remember. I played mostly Magic-Users in AD&D. I skipped 2nd Edition entirely. I mostly ran 3/3.5. When I did play, I came fairly close in the shape of a Crusader in a long-running campaign. When 4e came around, I popped a giant chubby for the Warlord, which occupies a similar design space for me (armored melee that can heal) and haven’t gotten around to trying the class..
I have watched Paladins be a problem, however. In AD&D, they were basically Fighter+, supposedly balanced by racial level caps and attribute requirements. The big thing, however, was that damned Paladin’s Code.
Code of Conduct
A paladin must be of lawful good alignment and loses all class abilities if she ever willingly commits an evil act.
Additionally, a paladin’s code requires that she 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.
Source: d20 SRD
It would have been one thing if the code was just a set of guidelines and there wasn’t any mechanical consequence to breaking it. All too many bad GMs took the code as license to create unwinnable scenarios. Personally, I don’t miss it.
If you played a Paladin in a previous edition, but haven’t yet in 4e, there are three things you need to know:
- A Paladin can be of any alignment, but it has to be the same as their deity.
- Once you’ve undergone the rite of investiture, nothing can take away your powers (except the direct intervention of your patron and if your god is that pissed at you, you have bigger problems).
- The “Paladin’s Code” is gone. There are certain expectations based on your deity, but no ironclad rules.
This means that it’s no longer possible to corner a Paladin into ruining his character. It also does away with most of the “but your character wouldn’t do that!” commentary, which is a very good thing. How you play your character is still heavily influenced by your choice of deity, however, so you should spend some time looking over the various gods. You should talk to your GM about the roleplaying considerations involved, as well.
It’s not easy to give simple examples of how to build a Paladin, because so much is derived from the deity it serves. A Paladin of Kord might have a fair bit in common with a worshiper of Bahamut, but not as much with someone who reveres Erathis or Asmodeus. If you want to get the most out of your Paladin, you really need to decide on a philosophy or agenda that sounds interesting. Paladins tend to be proactive: they believe things, so they do things. “I blow shit up” might work as a concept for a Rogue or Sorcerer, but it will often leave your Paladin feeling flat. When I play characters with faith, I have three questions that I ask myself:
- What is wrong with the world? In real life, defining yourself by what you are is generally healthier than defining yourself by what you are not. In a RPG, however, focusing on the negative can help give your character direction and definition. It’s easier for your GM to create stories where you’re fighting against the slavers or demons than where you’re building an utopia.
- How far will I go? How a thing is accomplished is often more important for the faithful than for those with other motivations.
- Who is with me? In the real world, the significance of whether or not you share a religion tends toward the extremes; either it’s completely meaningless to the relationship or it defines it. Neither of those expectations is helpful in a RPG.
In combat, the Paladin is the “old reliable” of defenders, especially since their mark always hits and does a fixed amount of damage. They’re one of two classes that start with both plate mail and heavy shield, plus they have access to a large number of heals, saving throws and defensive boosts. They also can take a fair number of debuff powers. 4e Paladins come in two types: the traditional strength-based version and a new, charisma-based version. The strength Paladin works pretty much as you would expect – it’s a high defense sack of hit points. The “charismadin” is more tricksy and complicated.
At my table, we often discuss “what else” a defender can do. A Fighter, for example, has access to powers that make it more like a striker and a Swordmage can build to become more of a controller. Under this concept, a 4e Paladin is generally built as a hyper-defender or defender+leader. Both of these conceptual roles are places where the Paladin stands out amongst defenders. A 4e Paladin can also be built as a defender+controller. This build is especially effective, so much so that it has become a problem in my group. It’s very spammy and often unfun, so we have a gentleman’s agreement for it not to appear.
Divine Challenge and Divine Sanction
First off, Divine Challenge has changed since 4e was released. You no longer lose access to the power for a turn if it falls off. Now, you are limited to one a turn, which can be problematic if you mark an enemy and then kill him with your attack – many of which are more effective against targets you have marked. The requirement to “engage” remains if you want to sustain the mark, you just aren’t punished for choosing not to.
Divine Sanction was introduced as a way of shoring up the Paladin’s ability to multi-mark, which was weak compared to the Fighter. It is important to remember the differences between the two features:
- Divine Sanction is only applied by powers and lasts only as long as the power says it does.
- Feats, class features, etc. that mention one of them do not affect the other. Specifically, none of the feats that improve Divine Challenge work with Divine Sanction.
Powers that apply Divine Sanction allow you to influence more enemies. You should look for them if too many of the monsters are running around in your backfield. If nothing else, marking as many enemies as possible earns you some free damage and imposes a to-hit penalty.
In terms of story, it can be helpful to keep your deity in mind when using these powers. No one wants to hear, “by Pelor’s light!!!” thirty times a session, but you are invoking the wrath of your deity. I’ve found that it’s often more interesting when monsters base their decision on whether or not to break the mark on their feelings for the god in question.
Lay on Hands
The 4e version of Lay on Hands is very powerful. To begin with, it can be used on allies who are out of healing surges, as you spend the surge, not them. Yes, you have to be able to touch the target, but this is a defender frame, not a leader. The characters most often in need of an emergency heal are usually the defenders and the melee strikers, which are both groups that you’ll tend to be near.
Virtue’s Touch is one of the powers that can replace Lay on Hands. I find it very difficult to give advice on this power because it is so situational. Most of the time, Lay on Hands will be more useful, but in those uncommon encounters that center around one of the crippling debuffs, Virtue’s Touch is amazing. This is one of those choices that has to be determined by the style of your GM.
I’m glad that Ardent Vow exists as an option for Paladins that worship the more violent and selfish deities. My only concern is that it scales poorly. Lay on Hands and Virtue’s Touch are always good, but the extra damage from Ardent Vow stops being relevant sometime in the early Paragon tier. At least it has the added benefit of allowing all your attacks to apply Divine Sanction. I would like to see a variant that adds ongoing 5/10/15 damage (probably radiant, but maybe of a type determined by your deity) after a hit.
Racial choices for Paladins can be problematic because they have the most multi-attribute dependency (MAD) of any 4e class. If we want the greatest access to power options, we need both strength and charisma. As defenders, we shouldn’t ignore constitution and Lay on Hands, a quintessential Paladin ability, is limited by wisdom. It also wouldn’t be terrible to have a decent dexterity for the initiative boost. This means that Paladin design is about priorities and compromises in a way that other classes are not. It also means that you run into a lot of stupid Paladins.
Dragonborn are one of two races with access to a strength and charisma combination – the other being the Vryloka, which feel wonky because they’re a vampire race. This leaves them as generally the only race that can be both types of Paladin simultaneously. This makes sense, given the racial penchant for honor and attention to duty, at least if they’re going to serve good gods. Combine this with their racial bonus to healing surge value and access to the Dragonfear racial ability and you get the gold standard for 4e Paladins. In their own way, Dragonborn Paladins have become just as iconic as Halfling Rogues and Elf Rangers.
Past those two races we’re basically just shopping for our preferred attack stat + constitution, wisdom or dexterity (probably in that order), which opens up a lot of possibilities. Tieflings, for example, make excellent evil-themed charisma-based Paladins. Halflings, Half-Elves, Pixies and Satyrs also have potential as charismadins. If you’re willing to forgo the constitution bonus entirely, give some consideration to Deva. I would heartily recommend them for the incredible story potential alone, but they also are very strong mechanically. Scaling necrotic resistance for a class that traditionally fights the forces of darkness? Yes, please!
The strength races are slightly less muddled. Dwarf Paladin is a plug-and-play concept, but Goliath, Half-Orc and Warforged are not. Don’t be afraid to play with concept, however, because most of these races have strong synergy with the class. A Half-Orc Paladin, for example, has an extra “get there” in its bonus to charge and what defender is going to turn down temporary hit points when they’re getting railed?
I don’t know of any hybrid that has received as much development as the Paladin/Warlock and it all starts with Eldrich Strike, a power that was ill-considered from the moment it appeared. A Tiefling Paladin/Warlock can do striker level damage and tank from range, all while maintaining a decent defense line. The only consideration is just how ridiculous you want to get and, in the Paragon tier, it gets pretty ridiculous. If Witchknight wants to post some of his concepts, he’s more than welcome, but the somewhat toned-down version he plays on Mondays hits for 2d8+4d10+25 with an at-will at level 21. If we treat him as a brute, he would have to be a 36th level monster. (Yes, I’m aware that the damage numbers for PCs and monsters are different. I’m just pointing out that this kind of damage potential on a defender frame is somewhat scary.)
After that, we go back to combinations suggested by your choice of deity. Paladin/Cleric hybrids work, as do Paladin/Sorcerers.
I would generally stay away from the feats that add an additional penalty to your Divine Challenge, as you’re not going to have much control over when monsters break your mark. I would also reconsider feats that require you to be adjacent to an ally. Most of the time you’ll be avoiding area effects and looking to provide flank. Certain party compositions, especially those that include a Runepriest, are the exception.
Devoted Paladin is just fine for a charismadin. It’s not amazing, but it’s also often overlooked.
Mighty Challenge: Yes, I know that I told you to avoid this sort of power, but Mighty Challenge is the most straightforward way to increase your challenge damage, assuming that’s something you want. If you go with the 18/18 Dragonborn build, your challenge at level 1 does 11 radiant damage.
Radiant Touch: If your campaign regularly includes undead, having a minor encounter attack that deals a boatload of damage can be very strong.
Virtuous Recovery: You’ll have to build your Paladin for wisdom, but if you’re already stacking it to maximize Lay on Hands this shouldn’t be too much of a burden. Don’t take this feat if you’re likely to forget it, as its real strength lies in a small, consistent benefit.
Light of Order: Another overlooked feat.
Versatile Channeler: If you’re not using Divine Mettle or Divine Strength often enough, you can use this feat to get to other classes’ Channel Divinities. As long as you have a decent wisdom, Rebuke Undead is the strongest anti-undead tool.
These are Channel Divinity feats that any divine character can take based on either their deity or the domains of their deity. You should avoid feat powers that are ranged only, as most of the time you will be coughing up an opportunity attack (or two) when you use them.
There’s no real reason to try and optimize around the divinity feats: most of them are just bad… really, really bad. I would never pick a deity on the basis of a divinity feat. Instead, take a quick look at the divinity feats you can take and if any of them tickle your fancy, try them.
Arawai’s Abundance [Arawai]: Arawai is from the Eberron setting, but if you can find a way to get this feat, it’s very good.
Chauntea’s Blessing [Chaunti]: Another campaign-specific deity, this time Forgotten Realms.
Covenant Eye [Vistani Bloodline]: This makes Evil Eye of the Vistani, an already solid power, even better.
Death Knell [Death domain]: This feat is surprisingly fun. It feels like more work if you actually take it seriously.
Divinity’s Shield [Paladin]: +2 to my non-AC defenses for doing something I would have done anyhow? How is this a bad plan?
Glittergold’s Gambit [Garl Glittergold]: A Forgotten Realms deity, but having a party-wide reroll is nice.
Lolth’s Cruel Sacrifice [Lolth]: You know those strikers that cry when they take any damage, despite the fact that they have a ton of hit points? This power will show them! (Seriously, though, it has all sorts of weird, fun applications.)
Melora’s Tide [Melora]: Just remember that it’s ranged.
Moon Touched [Moon domain]: Mechanically, this feat is stronger in groups that don’t freak out when someone is bloodied. The real trick here is that this (potential) heal can get to someone you might not otherwise be able to reach.
Path of Destruction [Destruction domain]: Wheeeeee!
Path of Freedom [Freedom domain]: If you have a spare feat, this is a great trick to save for a special occasion.
Path of War [War domain]: Having an untyped to-hit bonus is almost never bad and the drawback here is probably worth it.
Pulse of Life [Life domain]: Remember that the rule about being able to spend a healing surge triggers off having a 20+ result on your death save, not on rolling a natural 20. You might be tempted to use this power to prevent a failure, but it’s much more powerful when you can use it to stand up an ally.
Raven Queen’s Blessing, In Death, Life [Raven Queen]: The Raven Queen seems to think that healing is a nice reward for whacking people. A surprisingly effective way to take some of the heal pressure off your leader.
Solar Enemy [Sun domain]: Pelor says hi! This is one of the very few noteworthy divinity feats. It’s especially effective against the occasional undead that isn’t vulnerable to radiant damage.
Sudden Strife [Strife domain]: Tactically, this feat is very good. Qualifying for it is another matter entirely…
Creation Secret [Creation domain]: If you’re lucky, this feat can be really good.
Vigilant Blade: If you’re playing the 18/18 build, this weapon will allow you to pick freely from strength and charisma powers.
Mirrored Plate: This armor is a beating, as it neuters a monster when you are most likely to be reeling. The static bonus to Diplomacy is a nice plus.
When looking at special materials for your armor, if you are going full defense, stay that way. If you are looking to do more damage, however, consider the armors with resist. (This is based on the theory that, if you’re going to get hit more often because you’re choosing things other than defense, generic resistance amounts to free healing.)
Shield of Deflection: Again, not super exciting, but very reliable.
Suldyn – Options upon options.
I don’t consider this character to be especially exciting, but it does illustrate just how easy it is to create a Paladin that can choose pretty much any power that interests you, with the notable exception of powers that require Wisdom. I would only really suggest the 18/18 build to someone new to the class wanting to explore as much as possible.
Dustin – “Can’t touch this…”
A very simple, effective build. This character is hard to hit – 13+ vs. AC for at-level monsters, 14+ vs. Reflex and Will and a whopping 16+ vs. Fortitude. Just remember that Divine Sanction does not benefit from Mighty Challenge. That’s okay because those powers are on this character to splash -2 hit penalties all over the place.
Paziah – “I am the light…”
A Charismadin build like this is good for someone that wants to explore playing a Paladin without following the “I’m just a brick” trope. At first, this character may seem weaker than its high-defense brethren, but don’t be fooled. It shapes the fight in a different way.
Bogdan – “Who wants some hamburger?”
This character was built for me by my friend, Whitchknight, who has more experience with Essentials classes than I do. It’s not a complex character, though. You pilot it much like you would a Rogue. It will do a little less damage, but will be more consistent.
I’ve had mixed experiences with the 4e Paladin. The Enfeebling Strike spamfests were very unpleasant for everyone involved. On the other hand, I’ve seen some incredible stories told by their players and they are one of the cleanest 4e classes mechanically. Go strike fear into the hearts of your foes!