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tl;dr: How do I handle a fallen paladin?

I have a level 6 player who wanted to play a lawful good aasimar paladin (Oath of Devotion). There have been several events which I believe have led to their fallen state.

The player agreed that they're ok with not being a paladin anymore. So I think that most paladins can either choose a new class or become an oathbreaker, if they break their oath. This character does not want to become an oathbreaker. They want to take a new class. The player doesn't want to change characters; I already suggested that.

How should I handle a paladin who wants to take on a new class?

For example, should they lose all their paladin benefits (skills, proficiencies, spells, etc.) and come in as a level 1 character of the new class? Or should they come in as a level 6 character (their current level) of the new class? Or should they just be a level 6 paladin who can't do magic, and then they are forced to multiclass?

This is also a notoriously stubborn player who likes to disregard rules that they don't like and make up new rules that fit them. But I also can't kick them from the campaign so I'm trying to be flexible.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related question: What happens when a Paladin falls from grace? \$\endgroup\$ – Sdjz Oct 22 at 16:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just a note to potential answers: If you are going to recommend a specific direction, please back it up with experience on how it went. This can easily fall into idea generation, so please support your recommendations if doing so. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Oct 22 at 17:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ How does the player think it should be handled? Do they just not want to be called a Paladin? Do they want to keep all the cool Paladin feature but not limited by an Oath? Do they suddenly want to be another class but at the same level of experience? I think if we knew more about the motivations and intent of the player, we could decide on a course of action. As it stands now, the only RAW is DM discretion. \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott Oct 22 at 18:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Do all characters level at the same pace or do they need to keep track of XP independently? \$\endgroup\$ – Bernat Oct 23 at 13:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ We need more information from the player other than "I don't want to be a paladin". \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk Oct 23 at 15:49
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There are (currently) no rules in any 5e book for retraining or changing any class features that a character already has. This means that you're in very definite make-it-up-as-you-go territory.

What To Do

  • Work with this player. Talk to your player and make sure they're OK with you changing their character. Listen to their ideas about how it could fit into the story and become part of their character's development and growth.

  • Be fair to your other players. Be open with the other players in that game so that they know what's happening, and make it clear that this is just how you're running the game, and not any kind of pandering to this player who likes to bend the rules. Let them know that the same sort of thing is available to them, if they wish.

  • Let them rebuild in whichever way fits the theme. Work out what they want from their class. Do they want something similar to a paladin? Do they want more martial? More magic? A different playstyle? Look at the other classes to see which ones provide options that interest and excite this player. When you find something they're happy with, simply swap the character to a different class at the same level and XP as they were. Basically, you're building a new character, but using the same name and backstory - and probably the same ability scores, but that's up to you.

  • Consider all the options. In particular, decide whether you're OK with multiclassing. Multiclassing lets you build more complex and varied characters, but it's also harder to keep a track of, and there are numerous pitfalls with it that result in the character being significantly less powerful than the average single-class character of equivalent level. Decide whether both DM and player are OK with the increased complexity, and if so, decide whether you're confident that you can competently build a character that keeps pace with the power level of the other characters in the party (or else that you don't mind this character being a little weaker, perhaps because you're more of a roleplay-heavy group).

    Also think about letting them change their ASIs (ability score improvements) and feats around a little to help with the flavour - perhaps in their old build, they chose a +2 to strength, but now they want to retain a little bit of the paladin feeling, so you let them drop that +2 and take Ritual Caster instead, picking up a few cleric ritual spells for that divine-magic-user feeling. You can explain it away as the ASI being their Oath empowering them, and without the Oath, they are physically weakened (or whatever).

What Not To Do

  • Don't make them start at level 1 again. A 1st-level character cannot keep up with a 6th-level party. Either they'll spend every combat hiding and fleeing, or they'll be continuously knocked down until misfortune and unlucky dice rolls kills them off. Any encounter that will challenge a party of three-to-six 6th-level adventurers is quite capable of outright killing a 1st-level adventurer in a single blow... at which point they have to start again as another 1st level character, who will die even faster as the rest of the party continues to level up and seek tougher challenges.

  • Don't force them to change characters. Their current character has shared experiences with the party, has gained their trust, met their NPC acquaintances, and become invested in the plot. A new character has to do all that again from scratch, which means that this player might be sidelined for a while (because they're not invested in what's happening) or might hog the spotlight for a while (because you have to do things to bring them into the party properly), and you don't want either of those. There are also all sorts of loose ends left when a character exits - quests they'll never complete, backstory hooks they won't get to explore, promises made to NPCs that won't be kept, etc. Much better to keep the character around so that their story can continue.

  • Don't just take away some of their abilities and make them keep playing like that. This will leave them with a character who basically can't do anything interesting, which is very boring, and also means that they'll be significantly weakened and at risk of dying in combat. Even if they can start taking levels in another class from here onwards, multiclass builds are often weaker even when you have full access to both classes; taking away their paladin features and making them multiclass from here onward would basically put them 6 levels behind the power level of the party on all measures except hit points.

  • Don't let the player force you into something more complex than you're comfortable with. Multiclassing adds complexity, as do feats - there's a reason that these are both optional rules, and it's the DM who decides whether to use them. Similarly, don't let them push you into letting them use Unearthed Arcana or homebrew unless you're absolutely sure you're comfortable having those things in your game, and you're confident in your ability to keep things balanced.

  • Don't let frequent character rebuilds become the norm. As much as it's nice to let players rebuild their character in response to big story events that have a profound effect on them, do remember that events of this magnitude are rare - and that frequently rebuilding characters like this is going to take a lot of time and effort, and will seriously complicate your life as DM. It's hard enough already to keep track of all your player characters and what they can do; if your players can turn up with a new character build every week then it becomes near impossible.

Anecdotal Case Study

I had this same situation happen to me: I was playing an 8th-level Paladin who discovered that they had been thoroughly manipulated, and what our party had been doing was actually helping the villain. My oath was a large part of what had convinced me to do what we'd been doing, so in anger at being deceived, I renounced the oath and chose another path. After a chat with my DM, I rebuilt the character with two levels of Paladin and six of Warlock, taking Pact of the Blade, and the Fiend as my patron. Warlocks use Charisma for their spells, and so do Paladins; I had access to the Fighting Style and the paladin's armour and weapon proficiencies, which makes sense, because those things come from training and you'd probably remember them. I still had a handful of 1st-level Paladin spells, as well as Divine Smite, which left me with a little bit of that flavour of a former paladin.
However, I lost access to Channel Divinity, which is key, because that's very much linked to the Oath and its power. Instead, I had Warlock's Pact Magic, choosing spells that fit a fire-and-brimstone theme to show that anger that led me to renounce the Oath. I also found that the spell vampiric touch, as well as the feature Dark One’s Blessing (gain temporary hit points on slaying an enemy) are both great options for a character who learned how to Lay On Hands before leaving the path of pure good and maybe starting to think about ways that the manipulation of life force could be applied offensively.

Conclusion

As with many things in D&D, this is something for you to decide yourself, and as a result, your best option is to talk to the player in question - and probably the others too - and figure out what works best for the kind of game you want to play.

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It’s a situation that has to be worked out with the DM; there aren’t hard and fast rules for it. Even what it means to “abandon” a class is unclear—that could mean the ex-paladin can’t take more levels, but keeps the ones they have (in full, not missing some features), or it could means they lose the paladin levels they have and replace them with the same number of levels in something else.

But the most important part is that no one should be playing a character with half a class. Losing the oath and spellcasting features of the paladin class would be just that—so that’s not an option. If swapping paladin levels for wizard levels makes sense in the story—perhaps the paladin had always had a scholarly interest, or some such—then that can happen. Wizard is an unlikely choice, though—a paladin’s ability scores and feats are unlikely to work very well for wizardry. A more likely option would be fighter, or warlock. Possibly sorcerer or even bard. Or oathbreaker, of course, though in this context we’ll stipulate that option isn’t of interest to the player, or isn’t on offer by the DM.

Ultimately it should be a discussion between the DM and player for resolving the situation. The DM should be working to make sure that the player is happy with the resolution—after all, they’re going to be playing the character—but the DM needs to understand how the narrative is going to work and how it’s going to be explained in-character, so that means that the player and DM should discuss and work out any problems the DM has with things. What that means will vary significantly from campaign to campaign, which is why there aren’t any rules for it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The Paladin hasn't ever had a scholarly interest and doesn't have great stats for a wizard. Ok stats, but they would be a weaker wizard. Oathbreaker is a choice but they don't really want to be a paladin anymore. \$\endgroup\$ – HumanHickory Oct 22 at 16:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HumanHickory Well, when dealing with a difficult player, your choices are to compromise, or not. If you don’t, you can’t have them in the game—no one can play until you’ve agreed to play (and agreed to play the same game), which is what a compromise is. If you “can’t kick them from the table,” (which is, to my mind, a bit dangerous, but I presume there actually is a line somewhere, this just isn’t past it), then you compromise. And that can be anything you both agree with—new class, new stats, new backstory explaining it, even a ret-con if that’s what makes everyone happy. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 22 at 17:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ "A more likely option would be fighter" - This is exactly what I have done in the past. A Paladin without a valid oath is mechanically little different from a Fighter, but they will get new options to take over for the missing oaths to maintain balance. This answer is worth a +1 for that alone. \$\endgroup\$ – Michael W. Oct 22 at 17:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri Let’s avoid false dichotomies and derogatory language—and yes, “rollplay” is widely considered derogatory. I certainly do. RPG SE embraces all playstyles, and there are many, many “roleplay” reasons why a fighter might have low Charisma, and in such an extreme situation—difficult player that “can’t” be removed from the game—having a character with better stats may be better for the game than being “true to the story” which we are already, apparently, not really being. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 23 at 19:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @kryan in that case I sincerely apologise! Never realised there was anything derogatory about it! But I stand by the point, which was that a fighter can have charisma if it fits the character concept. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Oct 23 at 19:42
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So most paladin's can either choose a new class or become an oathbreaker, if they break their oath.

Well, there's the problem right there. That's just not how the class is written. Oathbreaker Paladins are just an example class for homebrew classes given in the DMG, there's no rule that'd cause a Paladin to change their class to Oathbreaker if they break their oath (yes, I know "oathbreaker" is in the name).

In fact, there aren't any rules for what happens if a Paladin breaks their oath at all.

As far as the rules are concerned there's little guidance about this situation. Now you could add houserules about what happens if Paladins don't really feel like playing Paladins anymore and what not - but there's a much simpler solution: If a player doesn't like the character they're playing anymore, just have them retire the one they're currently playing and let them make a new character.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The player doesn't want to change characters. I already suggested it. This is a notoriously stubborn player who likes to disregard rules that they don't like and make up new rules that fit them. But I also can't kick them from the campaign so I'm trying to be flexible. \$\endgroup\$ – HumanHickory Oct 22 at 16:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Given that OP has added that rolling a new character isn't on the table, you may want to remove that. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Oct 22 at 16:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch, I would contend that even if it isn't the answer for this one specific player, it is a valid avenue to take and therefore should remain in the answer. It could be phrased to say, "even though your player doesn't like it, X is still an option" \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott Oct 22 at 18:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MivaScott: A useful phrase around things like that is "other future readers might do XYZ", to let everyone know you're writing for the general case, ignoring some of the specific details or arbitrary restrictions in the specific question. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Oct 23 at 2:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Oathbreaker Paladins are just an example class for homebrew classes given in the DMG" - this is incorrect. The Oathbreaker paladin and Death Domain cleric are listed as "villainous class options" that can be used for evil NPCs, or for PCs at the DM's discretion. They are not presented as examples for homebrewing. (There are, however, an example aasimar race and an example eladrin subrace for elves that are presented as examples for homebrewing in a much later chapter.) \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Oct 23 at 7:36
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It's going to be a discussion between you and the player

To clarify, the sidebar in the PHB (page 86) states (my emphasis):

If a paladin willfully violates his or her oath and shows no sign of repentance, the consequences can be more serious. At the DM’s discretion, an impenitent paladin might be forced to abandon this class and adopt another, or perhaps to take the Oathbreaker paladin option that appears in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

The key phrase here is at the DM's discretion.

In your situation, you've got a player with a paladin whom you (the DM) believes has broken their oath. At this point, it is entirely under your direction as to how to handle it. The choices are literally yours to make - except for the fact that the player needs to go along with the decision :)

You'll need to think about what options would work for you as well as what they might be interested in doing and then come up with something that both of you are okay with. There might be compromise required on both sides in order to achieve this.

Picking a new class mechanics

At this point, it's also still 100% up to you as the DM. There are no rules around in any of the books, so it's still up to you and the player to come up with something that works for the player, the story, and you as the DM.

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Obviously, you need to talk to him like an adult and see what he wants to do. That being said, some classes fit better for a Paladin without Paladin powers than others. The most obvious choice is Fighter, because it shares most of the same proficiencies, fighting styles, and powers, with some mundane powers of its own. There are other options, however, with varying levels of work on your end. However, the work can be very rewarding. Personally, I would lean heavily on a homebrew solution.

I regularly homebrew just about everything. For example, in the last year, I had a PC warlock sell their soul to several different demons. In times of severe trouble, she could pull a Shonin Anime trope and call upon the demon for superpowers (immunity to non-magical weapons and a bunch of resists, bonus damage, flight, etc.), but her body would be twisted by the demon and there was a chance that the demon would take over entirely. She started getting powers at Level 3 (5e DnD) and even changed her race. Her demons got jealous of each other, impacting on her class abilities. Part of the journey was figuring out how many demons were possessing her, and how many were a figment of her imagination (insanity is a possible side effect of overuse of the demon's powers).

Basically, I suggest using this as an opportunity to introduce interesting mechanics and role-play opportunities.

Option 1: You're a Fighter, Harry

We have a class that's a catch-all for a fighting person - the Fighter. If a fallen Paladin doesn't go Oathbreaker, you might want to transition them to straight Fighter 6. This would give them Action Surge, Second Wind, a Feat, and access to a fighter subclass. I would suggest a non-supernatural subclass as that would be easier to explain. Ask him and see what he wants to do.

Option 2: Transition

Another option that might be less jarring is to make him a fighter (or another class), but give him access to his class features over several levels. This will likely make him a bit weaker than he would otherwise be, which may make him feel like his character sucks. Give him something in-character to make up for it (a cool ability, a title, a magic item - make it interesting) and make him feel special.

Maybe he let a demon or spirit into his soul, and it's eating away at him. Give him some cool powers that he can use when the going gets tough... that he can use at a horrible price. Maybe this is a good time to infect his character with Lycanthropy, or to be chosen as a saint of a god of murderhoboism, or what have you (with corresponding long rest abilities). Go nuts.

Falling shouldn't be a punishment for the Player, it's a punishment for the Character. Use it as a narrative tool intended make his character's journey feel awesome and immersive.

Option 3: Create a Custom Class

A third option would be to keep the Paladin template, but swap out the essential "paladin-y" stuff in conjunction with your player for some homebrew stuff. Maybe he can no longer cast paladin spells, but he can do other stuff instead. This is definitely more work, but can be rewarding under the right circumstances.

Maybe he gets half-caster progression as a Warlock instead of a Paladin? Maybe he can get appropriate daily abilities to fit his character?

It's probably easier to do this as a fighter subclass IMO, but it's definitely an option that would be less jarring than just making him a L6 fighter, subclass and all.

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You have the final say

As the DM, you have the final say, not the player. If the player in question has broken his oath and refuses to repent, I would strip of all their class features via some narrative, but let them keep any martial abilities. For example, the Extra Attack feature of the paladin but not their Spell Casting feature. At the next level up, the player can take up a new class at level 1 and be a multiclassed character. I would not reward them the benefit of becoming an equivalent leveled character (ie: swapping 8 levels of paladin to get 8 levels as a fighter).

Apply it to similar classes

I would also apply this to Clerics and Warlocks that willingly go against their patrons/deities.

If the player does not agree to it, then either they make a new character from scratch or they're welcome to leave. You have stated he's stubborn and likes to bend/make up rules to suit his narrative. Remember that you are the DM and it's your narrative for the players to shape with their actions... actions that have consequences.

Personal Experiences

I personally do not let players multiclass into Sorcerer past early levels, unless the player at the start of the campaign expressed that as their goal for later levels and provided some backstory that I can weave into the campaign.

I can give you an anecdote from a campaign I am currently running with new players. The CG Warlock (Celestial Patron) likes to screw with NPCs and in a friendly competition (a series of skill challenges), he decided to KO 2 of the NPCs with his Eldritch Blast. During the next long rest, his patron 'visited' him warning him he could be reprimanded for wounding innocents. The player took the hint and while he still likes to mess with NPCs, he hasn't been malicious. If he had continued, after a few more warnings, I would have stripped him of all his Warlock abilities and he'd just be a guy who once was favored but is now scorned by his Patron. I would also note that the only reason he was punished by the local law enforcement was thanks to the party's combined high rolls on persuasion and a using Friends.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Oct 23 at 8:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ -1; this is a too hostile for my liking. It also fails to make some important character/player distinctions. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Nov 18 at 18:46
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There are no rules as written that state what mechanically happens if a paladin breaks their oath, and only makes a few suggestions. Since your player is not willing to take the Oathbreaker class as suggested, you are left with a few options.

The options below can be used for paladins who follow a god.

No further paladin levels.

Let them keep their levels and powers they've earned, but disallow them gaining anymore levels until they repent with the deity. The deity is simply not willing to give this paladin anymore of their power, and may take steps to reclaim what was already given.

Let them continue playing unhindered.

Perhaps the original deity has abandoned this paladin and another deity has stepped in and continues to foster this paladin, unbeknownst to the paladin. This would allow him to continue to play as he is now, and you can incorporate it into the story.

Rob Him of Power

The paladin's deity has left and taken their powers with them. Next time he tries to cast a spell, nothing happens. Next time he smites, nothing happens. The character slowly realizes that the deity has withdrawn all favor. Let the player decide what happens next, and if he gets stubborn, calmly explain that he needs to either find another class to play or take in-game actions to repent.

Consider Stopping the Game

You previously mentioned that you cannot kick this player out, you cannot convince him to reel his character in, and he refuses to follow the rules. It is a hard decision for a GM to make, but sometimes not gaming is better than gaming with a problem player who won't be fixed.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you tried these things out or seem them used? Providing input on how those choices/options went would vastly improve this answer and give some better guidance to OP. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Oct 22 at 17:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I disagree. I have never played a game with OP's problem player, I don't see how my personal experiences would be applicable to his exact situation. \$\endgroup\$ – JRodge01 Oct 22 at 17:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also I don't see anything in the question about god's, the Paladin oath is more abstract than that in 5e. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Oct 22 at 18:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ From the PHB: "Although many paladins are devoted to gods of good, a paladin’s power comes as much from a commitment to justice itself as it does from a god." It is possible this is a godless paladin, and that'd be up for the GM to handle. My options can be molded to fit his exact situation. \$\endgroup\$ – JRodge01 Oct 22 at 18:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ FWIW, this edition's paladins do not require a deity. Since the OP didn't include any deity material (you may want to ask in a comment under the question) this anwer makes some assumptions that don't fit the situation in the question. I suggest that you either clarify with the OP author by asking about this in a comment under the question (deity stuff), or edit out your deity-centric bits to fit the oath as power source issue. Some food for though here \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 23 at 14:26
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Have him choose a new deity that better fits his beliefs and have the in-character actions taken to transition smoothly, soul searching, praying to different gods, so on.

Now you said, he is "OK" with not being a paladin anymore.

If that means he is ok being a paladin still and is also ok with not being a paladin, then let him pick a new deity and continue as a paladin or pick a new deity and then continue as a multiclass.

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    \$\begingroup\$ this answer could use some support. Give us an example of what you did in a similar situation and how it worked out for you. \$\endgroup\$ – Gwideon Oct 23 at 15:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ The question is tagged as D&D 5e. In this edition, the paladin class is not tied to deities or worship in any way, and you can't multiclass paladin with another kind of paladin, which means that this answer isn't really applicable. \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Oct 23 at 23:00

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