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It all started when we were going through a premade adventure's flavor text and got to the bit when the party walked into the town of Night Falls. One PC, a paladin, used his class ability to detect evil before entering town. Well of course he was outside the gate so there was nothing. The party went in and flavor and plot ensued up to the point that a NPC, Harken, walked up to the party after being introduced. He is a Guildmaster and well known community member so I didn't think he would have statistics but he did and they showed his alignment to be NE. I alerted the Paladin that there was evil afoot and he instantly initiated combat with Harken, knocked him out, tied him up, and asked him a single question: What Did you do?

The PC assumed he had done something to earn his evil alignment like kill people or something. (He was a greedy man and a necromancer, although most of his spells prepared and in his spellbook weren't necromancy.) He technically was in league with the bad guy but they didn't know this.

In response he cried out, calling the Flesh Golem he was watching, and they killed it and him. In killing the necromancer who was so far helpful and polite to them I believe it violated the paladin's code in the class description (after a few days' thought on my part.) The excuse the player gave me was that his actions were sanctioned by the paladin's code. I don't agree by my reading of the code. So now that he has violated the code:

How do I break it to him that he has lost his powers without making the player think I am out to get him or being a mean GM?

To be honest, I was angry at the time. The local judge(added to the campaign.) is a cleric and has atonement and so the paladin will have a nearby chance to atone, possibly after doing some deeds for his deity.

The adventure I'm running is Lest Darkness Rise, available for free on the Wizards Web site.

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@Novian I find often that if you're worried the person will see this revenge because you're angry, you can pretty simply defuse that by saying "I'm worried you'll see this as revenge because I was angry, but it isn't." –  Jonathan Hobbs Nov 11 '12 at 14:45
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Remember this isn't a discussion forum - the question isn't "does this violate a paladin's code" or anything related to that situation, it's strictly "How do I tell a player about a negative consequence to their character, especially when there's heightened emotions involved and it might seem unfair?" –  mxyzplk Nov 11 '12 at 15:17
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OK, now no one knows what the hell question they're answering. Strongly recommend to Novian that he either open this up to "what should I do about paladin codes" or restrict it to "how do I tell this guy what I've decided as a GM without him getting all agitated," as they're completely unrelated but both in scope in the hash this Q has become. –  mxyzplk Nov 12 '12 at 4:46
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As mxy says, can you refine this to either be a "how do I communicate an infraction to the player?" or ask a new question to deal with the horrific mess that is paladinage? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 12 '12 at 5:06
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I like that this question is the former with the latter as a concrete example. I voted to reopen. –  okeefe Nov 13 '12 at 17:48
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closed as not constructive by Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 12 '12 at 5:05

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5 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

You have a few options, basically, depending on your style of DMing, setting, meanness, desired player reaction, and plot-appropriateness.

1: Narrative Just tell the player that he feels his chosen deity turn their back on him, an overwhelming sense of guilt or doubt stops him calling on it, or something to that effect. You may do it immediately after he does something that voilates his paladin code or later, like when he tries to pray and prepare his powers.

2: Sudden When he tries to use his powers next time, he simply can't. He goes through the usual rituals, opens the usual channel for the power - but it won't flow. Or have the next ability have the minimum possible effect (Such as laying on hands healing one hitpoint an dissipating) as the paladin uses up his last remaining reserves of divine power, and cannot seem to gain any more. You should make it fairly obvious that there's no barrier or anything of the sort preventing channeling, but the channeling itself doesn't work, unless you want the player to get paranoid and start lashing out looking for whatever might be causing it.

3: Direct If he's a powerful enough paladin, have a messenger of his deity, or the deity itself, make contact with him and explain to him how he's wrong. Have it in a dream if you don't want to alert the others.

4: Through others Give the information to other players, but not the paladin. "You feel Sir Suchandsuch's aura fade". If you have any recurring NPC's, you can have them remark on that.

5: Gamist "Your attacking and directly harming a friendly character unprovoked has caused you to lose your paladin powers. You must atone to restore them".

Modify and combine as you see fit, of course.

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This is a good answer, but doesn't cover approaches out of character. –  Phil Nov 11 '12 at 15:35
    
Then I don't quite understand the problem. What's wrong with simply informing him that you consider his actions a violation of the code, which therefore causes him to temporarily lose paladin powers, if the player is not satisfied with the in-character information you provide? –  Pvt. Grichmann Nov 11 '12 at 16:06
    
I dont want him to get angry and quit on me or something to that effect. I am quite new at DMing and don't wish to alienate my players. –  Novian Nov 11 '12 at 16:10
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@Novian: Honestly, if you're new to DMing, your best bet is to just pretend there are no rules about alignment. –  Oblivious Sage Nov 11 '12 at 16:17
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Okay, there's a lot of variables here preventing us from giving a direct answer. How experienced is the player? How long has the game been going on? What were they expecting when they started playing? How close are you? In general, a direct and honest approach is usually much better than any type of trying to be subtle, scheming about it, or trying to sugar-coat the news. Aside from that, make it obvious, in-game, that this is an opportunity for a side-story and character development, and not you being a dick and crippling his character. Obviously, this might not work if the player's a gamist. –  Pvt. Grichmann Nov 11 '12 at 16:47
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Warn the player before they have their character take an action that would contravene their character's in-game belief system to drastic effect. In fiction, the character would know that an action would have consequence, so it's only fair that you as DM relate that to the player. The player should know what they're getting into, not stumble upon it.

Only when the player knows and consciously chooses to take a defiling action should their character receive the penalty. That sort of decision creates a great roleplaying opportunity, but springing this on a player is just going to cause resentment.

For your situation, I would tell the player, "Hey, I should have warned you this action would break your paladin code. Next time, I'll warn you before it happens." I wouldn't further penalize the player.

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This can work if it's a first offense. However, it runs the risk of spoiling your players: they may begin expecting you to warn them before any decision. Again, depends on your players and style of game. Of course, the player should be able to predict consequences of his character's actions, but that should be through knowledge of rules (The ones in the books, your modifications to them, and rules of the world that the DM has established), not an explicit out-of-character warning. –  Pvt. Grichmann Nov 11 '12 at 18:45
    
This is basically a correction for the DM. If the players start making wild assumptions, talk to them about it. –  okeefe Nov 11 '12 at 20:37
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Ignore the Code entirely as the stupid, archaic, and terrible design it is, and treat Falling as a purely narrative construct when a character truly and intentionally abandons his cause. When a character does Fall, replace his powers immediately with those of a Paladin of Slaughter or Tyranny as appropriate. Leaving a character crippled derails the story, prevents progress, and frustrates players when they are supposed to be having fun.

Basically, to me, it doesn't matter who is right about his violation: the Fall as written in the rules is always a bad idea. You're worried that you will be perceived as singling him out or punishing him: that's because you are. Just because the rules sanction it doesn't mean you should do it.

In novels, fallen paragons of good rarely become useless, they become some of the most terrifying agents of evil. The Blackguard class is supposed to do this, but it takes far too long to fit the narrative well at all. After all, meeting the prereqs of Blackguard as a Paladin is almost impossible, and then only when you were planning to Fall in the first place.

Ultimately, the player should not be punished for the character's sins. In the same way, a sacrifice by the character should not mean a sacrifice for the player. This is a major part of the problem Vow of Poverty, for instance. An Ex-paladin is literally crippled, an average of 1 HP/HD better than an NPC class. Such a character cannot continue to contribute in a meaningful way to the situations he could have before – and that the rest of the party expects as a challenge for PCs of their level.

The reverse is also true. In-character punishents are not appropriate responses to out-of-character behavior. That only leads to escalation and an arm's race. If there is an out-of-character problem, then discuss it out of character.

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When you are a holy warrior, sometimes the best choice you can make will still damn your soul, and sometimes following the Code requires breaking the Code, yet that does not excuse breaking it. The Gods use their chosen champions hard.

(Gods also expect their champions to not be whiners when they have to atone for something. There are extra lightning bolts for whiners who disrespect the will of the Gods in such matters. The Gods are especially unforgiving when their champions try to ruleslawyer the Holy Word of God back at God.)

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"When you are a holy warrior, sometimes the best choice you can make will still damn your soul, and sometimes following the Code requires breaking the Code, yet that does not excuse breaking it. The Gods use their chosen champions hard." It kind of sounds like the gods commissioning paladins are on the Lawful Evil side of things doesn't it? Sometimes the logical consequences of the mechanics have more interesting implications than the fluff part of the setting. :-) –  Joe Bedurndurn Nov 13 '12 at 12:59
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Congratulations, you've fallen into one of D&D's philosophical traps. Roll versus Will or be discussing alignment and its enforcement for 1d8 days.

This is a question of the social contract and the intentions of the player. If the player is intentionally exploring the boundaries of evil-called-good acts, excellent. Then play through that story. Ask him if that was intention.

If the player is using Detect Evil as a shortcut for thought... things become more complicated. It therefore becomes a question of what does the god think about evil, and how is evil operationalized in your setting?

Setting aside the problem of paladins, blackguards, and all the other nonsense, this is where the double-illusion of transparency tends to bite gamers. Player 1 says "Oooh, Evil. License to kill because I'm good!" ... which is a traditional construction of the term Good. Player 2 (in this case the DM) says "That act was evil because you had no evidence." Which then creates an argument of the admisability of detect evil as evidence.

If the Paladin's God is lawful, then a court should be convened. This conflict should be explored in game as it's a central tension of the paladin's character.

If the paladin's God is Good, then the god should explain why it is displeased, and give a chance for atonement.

In either case, epistemological confusion should be explored out of character first, and in-character second. I do recommend operationalizing the terms of what Evil and Good mean before game though. Read the Tome of Fiends for some possible constructions.

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Dude, this is all already water under the bridge - the question is just how to communicate the consequences to the guy in a non-conflicty way. –  mxyzplk Nov 12 '12 at 4:45
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But that's the problem. The consequences have no substance behind them. In order to communicate consequences, you need to be able to identify where the infraction occurred. If the parties do not agree on the infraction, feelings of "unfairness" will be generated. Only by creating the social contract, then exploring the in-character consequences as a function of a good or lawful god, –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 12 '12 at 4:57
    
Indeed, that'd be good general advice: agree to what can happen in the game before you start playing. Things like character death, any darker themes, degree of seriousness/humour and so on. Helps avoid a lot of inter-player tension when someone incorrectly assumes that something is not (or is) possible. –  Pvt. Grichmann Nov 12 '12 at 7:37
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