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I'm running a game of D&D. One of the players made a very devout, snobby and self-righteous Paladin who is the last heir of a lesser noble House. He doesn't take kindly to threats or insults and he considers anything less than blatant "ass-kissing" to be an insult.

I'm looking for advice on how to introduce to him the idea that he can very easily get in over his head without just throwing him a high level NPC that can easily defeat the paladin because he would just suicide trying to "respond" to the NPCs challenge and in the process he would most likely drag the party with him.

I'd hate to punish him (through unwinnable battles) for playing the character he likes. I feel like him maturing from the cocky paladin who can't do anything into a badass paladin, being able to finally rise up to the people that he previously was forced to treat kindly would be a great service to his character and a great personal arc throughout the campaign. I'm afraid that I can't capitalize on what he has given me.

I am not looking to change his character, far from it, only to create realistic enough consequences for a lv1 weakling acting tough, as well as demonstrate the clash between his morals and the world.

How do I balance out a challenge with enough repercussions that he wouldn't want to go through it again, without destroying the rest of the party with it?

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    \$\begingroup\$ The discussion around what My Guy syndrome means has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Feb 14 '18 at 21:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ What is his alignment? And does he want to change? In other words, is his attitude a plot hook for you as a DM or is he set on playing his character as is throughout the campaign? \$\endgroup\$ – Tenryu Feb 14 '18 at 22:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm left with one question, which I think is rather major. "He doesn't take kindly"... who is He? Are you referring to the Paladin, or the player, or both? If this arc is forced upon the Paladin character, is it also being undesirably thrust on the player (who you hope will learn through some personal development), or is the player "all in" on this 'venture too? Glancing at some of the answers, it looks like both perspectives may have been seen, but to best help you with better-focused answers, it may be best for us to know which situation you're actually dealing with. \$\endgroup\$ – TOOGAM Feb 15 '18 at 9:48

10 Answers 10

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Does the player want that character to grow in the direction you outline? You should discuss their aims and goals for the character instead of simply trying to take the reins.

Case 1: This Paladin serves a deity

That being said... since they are a Paladin, and most of them have a deity or religion they've sworn to uphold, that is probably your best angle of "attack." Introduce fellow worshipers, priests, or other paladins. Have a lowly priest of a desecrated shrine demand (in no uncertain terms) that the PC do their bidding and hunt down those responsible, as a sacred duty.

You could also have the world react organically to having a (by the sound of it) very shitty representative of a religion (and a representative they are--it's not as if paladin powers are handed out like candy in most settings).

As word of their deeds spread, their religion could lose reputation and followers. After all, a divinely-empowered character is effectively a very small proxy for a deity. Every individual word and deed reflects on the larger whole.

Case 2: This Paladin does not serve a deity

If the Paladin's oath doesn't involve religion, look at setting up scenarios where the paladin stands to compromise their oath unless they swallow their pride, even if temporarily. You should not set up lose-lose scenarios, or false dichotomies, but rather scenarios where to get the 'carrot', the PC must avoid using his stick.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In D&D 5e, paladin powers come from their oath; having a religion is not required. (Though it is common). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 14 '18 at 15:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hm, I must've missed that--my experience with 5e is only as a player, and I haven't tried out the Paladin class yet. My answer is conditional on their oath involving a shared belief structure, then (except for the lead paragraph). \$\endgroup\$ – mech Feb 14 '18 at 15:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ You can revise your edit to flesh out your thoughts, and from my experience some players go with a deity, and some don't. It really depends on the group/table. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 14 '18 at 15:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ I am really timid about guiding any PC, the direction I was offering was an example of growth that I could see happening under a more experienced DM. Having him face the reality that the people might lose faith to his deity would be probably a very easy idea to implement, we have a bard in the party who loves to RP, he is always interested in hearing NPCs stories. \$\endgroup\$ – Ingolendil Feb 14 '18 at 15:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you could offer an example for case 2, I think that would help. (I edited in a few format upgrades, some flow, and clearly identified the two cases you are addressing). Please review edit to make sure you are good with it, and edit again as needed. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 14 '18 at 15:33
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Work with the player

The player has made this character. Maybe the character doesn't work as-is, maybe it's already causing tension within the playgroup or you don't think he would be compatible with the direction you anticipate for the story. Identifying that is a good step.

However, this line from your post sticks out to me

I feel like him maturing from the cocky paladin who can't do anything into a badass paladin, being able to finally rise up to the people that he previously was forced to treat kindly would be a great service to his character and a great personal arc throughout the campaign.

I don't have all the information here, but that sentence sounds to me like you dislike his character and want to force the character to change into a character you like. It doesn't seem malicious, and you also stated that you're not trying to "punish" the player for his character, but trying to decide character development for the player seems like overreaching the DM's role. That doesn't mean you're wrong about this, but if you feel that the Paladin with his current personality will be detrimental to the campaign then I think the correct solution, and especially the correct first step, should be to discus your concerns with the player. Maybe he even already has plans for how the character develops to fit in!

All things considered, I think that trying to plan how a player's character develops without having that player involved in the planning will at best lead to the player ignoring your plans (since he doesn't know them) and continuing to play his character how he chooses, and at worst instill resentment and harm everybody's enjoyment of the game. Let him know your concerns, offer suggestions for how they could be resolved, but the player needs to agree for it to work out.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe I am subconsciously trying to change him, I am as a personality the polar opposite after all. However I only offered a possibility however, of a growth that could occur under a capable DM who can easily build around and for his players. The example I mentioned wouldn't be against his character however, I don't want him to turn altruistic all of a sudden, what I offered was a growth of his ability to be cocky not his motivation. I have now edited my post to clarify that. \$\endgroup\$ – Ingolendil Feb 15 '18 at 12:02
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Why would it be "suicide"?

D&D 5e makes it realy easy to beat someone up without killing them - when you make a melee attack that reduces the target to 0hp you can choose to just render them unconscious. Even if you make a missile attack, they still have at least 2 rounds of death saving throws.

So, he meets an older man in the tavern who says:

"Son, you're a young man with your whole life before you so I'll be kind. Just apologize for your behavior and we'll say no more about it."

When the paladin behaves as you expect:

"OK, we'll do it your way - let's take it outside."

The man then beats ten kinds of snot out of the paladin and drops him in the cesspool while the rest of the village cheers on because, you know, the paladin is an a-hole.

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I feel like your solution can be summed-up in the phrase "Consequences," and these consequences don't have to be entirely combat-oriented. There are plenty of ways to humble the self-righteous without resorting to the trope of getting their rear end handed to them on a silver platter in a fight, and one in particular that's my favorite as long as it's well-executed. In fact, feel free to do this for the whole party based on each character's weak point. Remember, it's not Trauma, it's Character Development!

Give them the Apollo Diomedes Treatment

This is based on the plot-arc of the Space Marine campaign of Dawn of War II: Retribution.

Let's say you have a Good or Neutral-aligned Paladin of the Oath of Vengeance. Take the Tenets of that Oath, to avenge the Innocents who die wrongfully, and twist it: make this character, through his pride and vanity, responsible for the deaths of the Innocents he was sworn to protect.

  • Be Harsh: Don't hold-back at making this character responsible through negligence or otherwise indirectly. Make them directly responsible for the events which have transpired. Even if this Paladin is Neutral in alignment, you want the results of their actions, and their involvment in them, so blatantly and horrifically Evil that they can't stomach the reality.
  • Be Manipulative: Target this Character's weak point, his pride, and then use that to wrap him around the finger of an very evil villain. When they first meet this tyrant, make them seem "Good," or at least "Neutral," and have the party perform an innocuous quest or two. Then, have the villain character praise the Paladin, and praise him specifically. Stoke that overactive ego and let it distract that character into blindly agreeing to shadier and shadier actions. You can do this with the rest of the party as well.
  • Be Smart: Give the Paladin and the party hints that they aren't working for angels as they thought they were, but don't make them so strong that they overpower the manipulative hold the Villain has on them. The Villain is trying to turn them against Good and, eventually, each-other. Use whatever you have, such as Party Rivalries, secrets, and, of course, weak-points, to play on this.
  • Be Patient: Slowly lure the Paladin into shadier and darker quests until they reach a the climax. Perhaps the Villain has been having a problem with "cultists" (whom are actually monks who have been supporting rebellion against the villain), and has located one of their encampments, and have him instruct the Paladin to leave none alive. Justify it with accounts of horrendous acts or evil sorcery. The Paladin (and whomever else you decide to twist this way) should get a vague sense that what they are doing is wrong, but they should be so blinded by their ego or other weak-point that they ignore it up until it's almost too late. And if the player starts objecting or trying to meta-game, remind them to think in terms of what the Character knows, not what they as a player know. The Character is too blinded by their weak-point to realize that they are being used.
  • Allow them to Atone: After the Party neutralizes the armed resistance, give some inter-party conflict: the rest of the party goes to stabilize the dying to bring them back to see trial, but the Paladin tries to get in their way, arguing that they're just scum whom everyone would be better off without. Allow this to escalate a little, but not too much before your Villain interrupts, congratulating the Party and ordering them to kill the survivors. When they refuse ("They need to stand Trial"), have the Villain hesitate, then indifferently dispatch his own guards to bind the survivors, saying something like, "Don't you realize? I am the Law! But you're right, perhaps Public Execution would be more fitting for these scum. It would surely keep the other peasants in-line." Yes, this is the Villain's "Grand Reveal." As to why the Villain is revealing their plan now, thats up to you. Perhaps they wanted simply to corrupt the Paladin so that a Devil that sponsors them can collect their soul, or just because they think its fun. Perhaps they want to take the Paladin as an evil apprentice. Perhaps they are secretly a Hell Knight or Fiend Pact Warlock and wanted to use his primary resistance, the Party, to accomplish their evil ends for them while distracting the Party from their secret machinations. The choice is yours. But give the Paladin and the Party a chance to at least partially atone for their actions, first by rescuing the survivors, and next by fighting the Villain.

You can drag this arc out however long you want to. Perhaps you let the Villain escape to set-up some out-of-conflict scenes that lead-up to a Final Battle. Or perhaps you let the party kill or capture the Villain in that battle, but still have to deal with the consequences, not the least of which should be their own troubled souls. Let the Paladin have a final role in this: he was the one who led the Party into Darkness, he should be the one to at least start to pull them back out.

This gives you not only a potent story arc, but also allows you to have an "insurance" whenever they or anyone else in the party gets cocky; simply have someone, particularly influential NPCs, bring this up and lightly mock them.
"I think I have heard about you. You were they guy that got used by [insert villain name here], right? Yeah, go tout your morality and importance, big fella. I know some other tyrants who could use a pawn like you." laughs mockingly

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  • \$\begingroup\$ In the last step, "Allow them to Atone", how would the OP as DM "give some inter-party conflict"? It seems to me that this is something the players have to initiate. \$\endgroup\$ – Serpentine Cougar Feb 15 '18 at 15:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ I already lead-up to that: the Villain instructs the Paladin, and the Paladin alone, to leave none alive, and makes the Paladin believe it. The other (Good -Aligned) party members think they are going out to capture these people, so when the Paladin refuses to spare them or attempts to hinder them, that alone would give some conflict. \$\endgroup\$ – SeraphsWrath Feb 15 '18 at 19:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ -1 Making a campaign in which your goal, as the DM, is to force the players to act in evil ways when they want to be the good guys is adversarial DMing. It is likely to make the game very un-fun unless you let the players know ahead of time and explicitly get their permission. It's one thing for the DM to hold the players accountable for their actions, but deliberately setting them up to fail is something else altogether. \$\endgroup\$ – Kevin - Reinstate Monica Feb 15 '18 at 20:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kevin Have you ever played Delta Green, or games similar to it? The story will evolve as you play, and if the party or a member thereof is being adversarial to the DM and/or the rest of the party, which is what it seems, to me at least, is happening in this specific situation, then it is fully within the DM's right to humble them. RPG plots aren't only hack-n-slash happy-fun times where the party gets to kill all the bad guys and be zealous little Templars; I feel like saying that this is how an RPG plot should be is very narrow-minded and significantly limits the story that can evolve. \$\endgroup\$ – SeraphsWrath Feb 15 '18 at 21:11
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Non-combat punishments

Obviously this will all vary based on your specific campaign, but here's my two cents.

Depending on exactly how he is acting, and to whom he is acting that way, being punished by higher level guards or mercenaries in combat would be one way to show it, although that would just be an "unwinnable battle."

Perhaps he is faced with another noble or lord who is extremely disrespectful to him, goes against his morals and insults him freely. The lord can do this because he has a small army of guards and strong political sway. He threatens the paladin with slander and arrest if he is to make any sort of wrong move. This lord doesn't even have to be evil, just rude. For a devout paladin, murdering characters for rudeness would be a huge breach of oath, so he has no recourse but to take the hit to his pride.

As another alternative, you could introduce a more high-ranking member of the paladin's order who scolds the Paladin for his thin skin. The Paladin could not retaliate without repurcussions from his order and maybe even his deity.

Basically, introduce characters who have different sorts of power and penalties for being outright killed.

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NPCs have memories and egos. Some of them have long memories and large egos.

This sort of thing is common enough in real life-- here in my local pond of the United States, we have no royalty or nobility, but we still have no shortage of people who think they're better than other people and can, for a while, get away with it-- because of money, or family connections, or position, or whatever.

But while you can force a person (or an NPC) to eat garbage for a while, you can't force them to like it or to forget it.

So just go ahead and give them enough rope to hang themselves, putting them in front of NPCs that they might be able to abuse in the short term, but who can withhold critical resources, or even actively oppose them, in the medium and long term. And make sure they know about it. Worse, make sure the other PCs and other by-standing NPCs know about it. There is simply no end to the amount of trouble other people can cause if you, the GM, decide to make an issue of it for the long term.

Some of these can involve combat indirectly-- some NPCs don't like to get their hands dirty, but are perfectly willing to pay some thugs to get their hands dirty.

Some of these can just make existing fights harder-- it would be a terrible thing if someone withheld support from a town garrison because they viewed Sir Gothsmacked the Self-Righteous as an unreliable idiot and the town fell.

Some of these can be totally unrelated to combat-- whisper campaigns, interdictions, banishments, etc.

And some of these might require public, even humiliating apologies to take the heat off.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "Give 'em enough rope" is a tried and true technique. +1. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 15 '18 at 13:57
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First things first: Don't discount the role the rest of the party will play in the paladin's character arc. They will be the ones with the most interaction with the character and their reaction to being together with a person who is liable to get them in hot water at the drop of a hat should be considered. Now to the actual part:

An unwinnable fight might not have to end in death. In fact it shouldn't end with certain death unless it is clearly labeled to characters. An experienced warrior beating the cocky newcomer to teach humility is a trope for a very good reason.

"Rule number one"

Or "Do not act incautiously when confronting little bald wrinkly smiling man". This solution is very cliché, but most campaigns have a place for a powerful, benevolent NPC who helps/employs/directs the party sometimes. Introducing him/her as an unassuming, smiling person who lays a smackdown on the mouthy paladin without killing him should be fairly simple. The reaction of both the paladin and the party could give some interesting opportunities for roleplaying and character growth, from swearing bloody vengeance to the rest of the party conspiring to keep the paladin away from social interactions.

Pride goeth...

If honor duels are a thing (and why shouldn't they be a thing) they are a perfect opportunity for non-lethal battles which will not involve the rest of the party. You don't even have to make the enemy more powerful than the paladin, just make sure that he is not really in the right. Make the offense minor, maybe even forgettable. If he bites, he gets to deal with the effects (some will dislike him for maiming a young scion, some will like him for the same reason etc.), if he doesn't he learns a lesson about self-control.

Those who stand with me ...

The age old classic of battle forged bonds. It is not easy to be dismissive of a guy who saved ones life several times. It is also hard to discard somebody as unimportant, after he/she did something you never could. And if he does, that is also character development. So engineer a fight where survival hangs on an edge, where the paladin can't shine (or do much) and see what happens.

Some people are just not for this world

Ultimately the goal of the game is for everybody to have fun. If you feel like the rest of the party and you enjoy having the paladin being himself around them, use the character of the character to its full effect while you give opportunities for change. Having a good IC lever on the party makes GMing much easier. If however they or equally importantly you feel like it detracts from the game, and if after repeated attempts to teach the paladin a lesson in humility it doesn't stick, don't be afraid to talk to the player about his character and the your problems with it.

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This isn't about combat necessarily. This about introducing morally "grey" NPCs that have a point that he can see. It's about breaking down his pride a bit.

Noble House
He's the last heir of a noble house--but there's no way his house is blameless. If he's got a moral code that he follows, introduce someone that's been wronged by his house in a way he wouldn't forgive if he were not part of that house. In fact, you can introduce a plotline wherein he has to right the wrong done by his own house. The grey character through circumstance (a crumbling cliff, lava, whatever) might end up having to let him go, but the incident, and finding out about what's been done should be a blow to him psychologically. Alternatively, he'll win the fight, but now he's got questions about his family's honor. Further, his house might not be the only one involved in this horrible thing--that's when you present another, still powerful house that's involved or was involved in the past. Maybe, if he kills the grey character, there'll be clues to that effect on the body.

The other house worked with his for generations and together they did the horrible thing (this can be slave trade or anything else you can think of). But he's known these respectful, noble people for a long time. Some members of the house don't know about it (especially a younger daughter or son) or have felt powerless to stop it. After all, patricide isn't a noble thing to do...ruining your own house isn't either. Maybe the reason his own house is gone is that someone in it developed a conscience, and he's just discovering that now.

But, despite whatever evil house 2 has done, they are part of the community, a vital part, and they do good throughout the land. If said evil thing is known, it will result in the house's death. Include adorable toddlers in house 2, and maybe even an eager squire that copies everything your paladin does. Basically, make sure that the children, and his being treated oh-so-well and honorably by this other noble house is laid as the ground work before. Make sure he has relationships with these people and likes them.

This scenario is much more of a gut punch and will lead to more maturity than just, say, a powerful, unbeatable foe. Although, you can also introduce that--the patriarch or matriarch, if he confronts them, should be powerful. And, once they put him and the party down, but not killing them, they should say something like "I will not kill the last of your house here today. But consider deeply the consequences of your actions. You've done much good, but the past is in the past." The noble can lie about not doing the horrible thing anymore, of course, and that they've killed the rest of his family. Evil can have a code, and not seem all that evil. Seriously, have noble family 2 treat him respectfully and give the party good and noble missions.

Repercussions should be clear, and they should not just be combat-based. Losing that noble family might clear the way for a take over from a more evil set of nobles near by. Peasants might depend on their charity and so on and so forth. The telling of this tale might lead to the disgrace of the paladin's house.

The above is just an example of what you could do to foster character development. Basically, a paladin might see in black and white, but they have to know that they live in a grey world, where even the right thing might not be a good thing.

Other things you can do to drive the message home is:

  • Have a character they admire, for example a legendary paladin, who is much more tolerant of the foibles of others.

  • Have characters that aren't "good" do good things. "World I live in you don't survive by folks seeing you nice."

  • Take a part of the concept of honor and the system that's in place. The simplest person should have something to teach him. A thief should have something to teach him. In fact, you can have a thief rob him and also help him. Lovable rogues and all that.

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Talk to him to see where he wants to take his character. Do not force him to go one way, but you can put him in situations where he has to re-think his approach, where his obvious actions do not match up with the obvious result. This is what I call "the samurai's dilemma," where you oppose "Right" and "Good".

Right off the bat, I can imagine a number of scenarios that can force the PC to confront the challenge of his way of life.

  • The PCs escort the kid of a higher-ranking noble (like a prince) from A to B. The kid is a total brat and does "typical stupid kid things", which includes stealing, lying, and acting out. How does the PC react when the prince says "He told me to do it!" The kid is not evil, but definitely mischievous.
  • The PCs meet an [opposite gender] version of the PC. They could both unite their small houses into one, but neither will move out of the way for the other. A mirror is a good way to induce reflection. (oooooooooh see what I just did?)
  • The PCs come into a town ruled by a beggars' guild. I mean come on, he's a big paladin and they are beggars... what can they do to him? Yes.
  • One of the party's allies gets beaten up in a case of "we can't defeat this paladin, but we can beat up his buddies." After some NPCs try to warn the PC from his path, or at least think and review his ways somewhat, one of the higher-levels guys will come and take action.
  • The classic Jean Val-Jean problem of someone who insults him (from what I see, it can be easy to do) but does so for the greater good (JVJ stole bread to feed his family). He can follow his code rigidly or he can be forced to evaluate.
  • The PCs get a mission where they are not allowed to fight (at least not against intelligent creatures). When someone insults him, what does he do?

I tried to lead him to re-evaluated some elements of his behavior to transform into something else. Not lead him to the final decision, but to the point where he has to re-think himself. I presented them as a party thing, but they really should affect him, and having him simply outvoted would not lead to the decision point.

If he doesn't get it, some NPCs should remind him "I heard what you did to the Prince, that will not be tolerated here."

Who knows, he may consider himself justified? That's a possibility.

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I like some of the other answers but would suggest an alternative that is likely a trope of some kind.

A character like the one in question is probably prone to snap judgements based on outward appearances and inherent stereotyping. Use that to your advantage and introduce characters that break the mold like: a friendly/helpful goblin who shows up at just the right time to help the PCs out of a jam, a weak and cowardly opportunist who overcomes his general nature to help out someone less fortunate in a manner that the PCs couldn’t, or you could go the opposite direction and have someone the paladin trusts end up being secretly corrupt and hiding behind a false front.

These are the sorts of things that typically happen to humble characters in fiction. Perhaps one or more of these happening will help the character to grow or perhaps the character might stick to their path in a manner that could affect them in ways they didn’t imagine, such as when the Paladin shows contempt for the suggestions of a fellow traveler who ends up being a higher ranking noble traveling in disguise who decides that the party is not to be trusted and acts accordingly. Either way, The player gets to make the choice and comes to understand that all behavior has consequences that can be good, bad or in between.

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