I just want to respond with an example of a Paladin done right:
Due to setting off a trap, my paladin/crusader and some his comrades were trapped in a solid wall of force that was filling up with a mist that was causing us drowning checks. Our DM was being nice and making it a flat DC 16 fort check instead of a steadily rising con Check, and it took two failure to drop us unconscious.
Through trial and experimentation, we discovered that my crusaders Foehammer and Mountain Hammer maneuvers would crack the shell long enough to get one person out. So, every turn, I cracked the wall, and one person would squeeze through the opening. First out was the wizard, who had failed two saves and had to be thrown. Then the cleric, to whom the same thing had happened. Because they were lying there inert, I sent the monk (trained in heal) out there to help them. At this point, the fighter who was in there, helping me, dropped unconscious due to failed saves. The DM was not being nice to me…I made save after save trying to figure out a way to strike the wall and hurl the fighter out. It ended in me managing to put the fellow on my shoulder, slam the wall with a warhammer, and toss him out. The round I did that in, I got my first failed fort save, upon which my DM said I could feel my lungs filling with water. Still, I was able to hurl my friend out of the wall of death and pick up the gear I’d dropped. Armed and ready, I make my next fort save.
Nat 1. I drop unconscious. IRL, the group panics. And I mean they PANIC. I have been playing the laid-back moral compass of the group…My paladin didn’t police, but he was kind and noble and to many of them, a bit of an innocent…he was a farm-raised boy and it reflected in the way he treated things and people. They didn’t want him dead. Well, the rogue did, but that’s because the player hates me IRL (he’s the person my inevitable conflict thread was about). The swashbuckler’s player almost started crying. And then we switched to the portion of the party that was pursuing a hag coven.
I sat back and actually smiled, because you know what? How much of a better death can a Paladin 5/Crusader 1 with an utter devotion to his friends and his god ask for? I saved every single person in that orb with my conviction and devotion to my god, hurling a fully armored fighter to safety with my lungs filled with water before giving in. My friends would have seen nothing more than me hurling our friend to safety before the wall closed in and then…nothing but silence. The wizard player gave me a back-thumping man-hug, saying that this was the first time he’d seen a paladin played as he imagined it instead of a fighter with a superiority complex. The monk-player who plays a paladin in another game gave me a salute. All in all, I was proud. In game, enough time had passed that the monk was now flailing at the wall in a panic (his character had grown very close to mine, due to mine saving his life, trusting him, and backing him up in matters of honor) and trying to figure out if he could leap the wall and rig up a pulley system.
I stepped outside to call my girlfriend in our downtime and we talked for a while. When I returned, I was greeted with triumphant shouts of joy and given a beartackle hug by the swashbuckler. They saved me. Thanks to some shenanigans with an elixer of firebreathing and the cleric, having been healed up via wands, charging through the flames to drag my unconscious body through the opened up hole.
The party was ecstatic, I was happy, and the DM gave me a giant grin and a handshake. I was simultaneously ectstatic about this and a little sad. I felt cheated of an amazingly poetic death…while I wasn’t even there. But the party seemed so very happy I didn’t want to say anything about it.
Still, it allowed me to have a bit of a moment of badass. While the cleric and monk and wizard are all thanking me, we hear the swashbuckler’s character scream in the distance. Having recently regained consciousness, I hit myself with lay on hands, charges of a cure mod wand, and start running. The cleric catches up to me and says
Cleric: “Haven’t you done enough heroics for the day?”
Paladin, stonefaced, with water dripping off his face and still coughing up liquid as he runs: “Nope. Paladin.”
That “Nope. Paladin,” to me captures everything a Paladin should be. A Paladin isn’t about forcing his comrades to conform to his oaths; he is not an evangelist or demagogue. He is an example. An example of everything Law and Good can do for the world. He can respect allies who use other methods to achieve Good; he can respect allies for whom Good isn’t their first goal in life so long as they are not Evil. But for himself, he is the unrelenting, unwavering bastion of Good. He tells you he is coming, he plays with all his cards on the table, and he never, ever quits.
And ultimately, Paladins are not beholden to any organization, faith, or even god: they may join with others that they find like-minded, they may worship those deities they think are going to achieve the most Good, but ultimately they answer to Goodness itself. If they discover corruption within their church, or secret evils in their god’s plan, they are beholden to leave that church, forsake that god, and continue to pursue Good.
That’s the ideal, anyway. That is what a well-played Paladin should strive for: and he should not, at least initially, have attained it. A Paladin is only interesting if he falters, second-guesses himself, and so on. To bring up another quote:
Book: I've been out of the abbey two days. I've beaten a lawman senseless. Fallen in with criminals. I watched the captain shoot the man I swore to protect. And I'm not even sure if I think he was wrong.
Inara: [softly] Shepherd...
Book: I believe I just... I think I'm on the wrong ship.
Inara: Maybe. Or maybe you're exactly where you ought to be.
That’s pretty much how your Paladin should be on a bad day. And if he’s doing things right, there will be bad days.
My last piece of advice is, make sure your DM is on-board with this. A lot of DMs have very narrow pre-conceived ideas of what makes a Paladin. Some DMs won’t let you avoid being a stick-in-the-mud. I’d strongly recommend avoiding the Paladin class with such DMs. Actually, I’d probably avoid their games entirely, personally.