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My friends are planning a game with a group of paladin characters. One of my friends is interested in the Oath of Devotion, which has the following tenets:

Honesty. Don’t lie or cheat. Let your word be your promise.

Courage. Never fear to act, though caution is wise.

Compassion. Aid others, protect the weak, and punish those who threaten them. Show mercy to your foes, but temper it with wisdom.

Honor. Treat others with fairness, and let your honorable deeds be an example to them. Do as much good as possible while causing the least amount of harm.

Duty. Be responsible for your actions and their consequences, protect those entrusted to your care, and obey those who have just authority over you.

However, he doesn't want to have to actually do any of these things when he takes the oath. Does he have to keep these vows to have his paladin abilities and spells, or can he ignore them?

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A paladin must adhere to their oath, although they don't specifically need to be lawful good.

Before it was edited, this question asked if the paladin has to be lawful good. It was later clarified that they want to take Oath of Devotion, whose ideals suggest lawful goodness. It's worth noting that you don't actually have to be lawful good to be a paladin in D&D 5th edition, and technically you don't actually need it to take Oath of Devotion.

A paladin in D&D 5th edition takes the Sacred Oath class feature when they reach 3rd level. The fact that it's called sacred oath strongly suggests that it's meant to be taken seriously.

The penalty for disobeying an oath, and determining when you have disobeyed it, are largely up to the DM. According to Player's Handbook p.86, sidebar "Breaking Your Oath", you might lose your paladin status if you wilfully violate your oath and show no sign of repentance. (Carcer's answer covers this scenario very well, and deserves your upvotes.)

Oath of Devotion requires you to adhere to the tenets of honesty, courage, compassion, honor, and duty. Breaking any one of those directly (i.e. lying, being cowardly, failing to show compassion, acting dishoborably, and shirking duty) is a violation of your oath. You don't strictly have to be lawful good—perhaps your character focuses on some of the tenets over the others—but it's right there in the rules that you have to adhere to the tenets of the oath you swear to.

If you don't want to follow this oath, there are others in the Player's Handbook, in the Unearthed Arcana documents, and in other sourcebooks. The core rules include:

  • Oath of the Ancients: This is explicitly good (it refers to mercy, kindness, and forgiveness), but not lawful. In fact, chaotic good would work well for this.
  • Oath of Vengeance: These are called dark knights, and don't even sound necessarily good aligned. They destroy their enemy by any means necessary. It sounds like they can even commit evil acts as long as it's in the greater good.
  • Oathbreaker: An explicitly evil paladin in the Dungeon Master's Guide. Although you don't automatically become an Oathbreaker when you break your oath, it does note that a paladin can fall from grace, and that you can become an Oathbreaker if you break your oath in order to deliberately serve evil. It's also unlikely for an Oathbreaker to work well in a party with other lawful good paladins.

Unearthed Arcana also has the Oath of Heroism, Oath of Treachery, Oath of the Watchers, Oath of Conquest (updated in Xanathar's Guide to Everything) and Oath of Redemption (also updated in Xanathar's). Further sourcebooks may provide other options, but a complete list of all Paladin oaths is beyond the scope of this question.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for the answer @Quadratic Wizard I will tell my friend tomorrow.😁 \$\endgroup\$ – Crimsonfuri Jan 19 at 22:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ You may want to update your answer since the question has been substantially edited... But you may want to wait until OP confirms that the new form of the question matches their intent first. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 20 at 0:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is being lawful good really relevant to the question? The OP asked about following the Oath of Devotion, not alignment. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jan 20 at 13:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor as comments note the question has been significantly edited (by me) - QW's answer is entirely germane to the question's original revision, and we're still waiting to see if the OP clarifies this is or isn't appropriate! \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Jan 20 at 14:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, an 'oath' is something you swear, to swear is to take on a solemn promise which there will be consequences of breaking. And while you could ignore this, as player and DM if all you're interested in is hack and slash, I strongly suggest that you get a great roleplaying experience by apply the oaths strictly to the characters. In this case, he can certainly play someone who doesn't want to follow his oaths, but then the game will probably revolve a lot around dealing with the consequences of that, for him. But that can also be good roleplay, everyone just had to be on the same page \$\endgroup\$ – rasmus91 Jan 21 at 11:24
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Paladin Oaths are meant to be taken seriously

The choice of oath is a significant part of the paladin class and it is meant to be a serious choice. The PHB suggests that even before reaching third level and choosing the oath as a class feature, you should probably have read ahead and thought about which choice to take depending on the nature of your paladin. Furthermore, the sidebar BREAKING YOUR OATH states that:

A paladin tries to hold to the highest standards of conduct, but even the most virtuous paladin is fallible. [...]

A paladin who has broken a vow typically seeks absolution from a cleric who shares his or her faith or from another paladin of the same order. [...]

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.

If your friend's paladin chooses an oath but disregards the oath's tenets and has no intention of adhering to them, I think that would be fairly described as wilfully, unrepetantly violating the oath, and so that paladin's continued paladinhood is called into question - the DM can force them to change class based on their behaviour.

This is a quite watered-down version of rules from prior editions - 3e strictly stated that a Paladin who transgresses against the class's vows loses their paladin abilities and must atone in order to regain their powers. 5e is less strict about this, placing the matter at the DM's discretion; however, it is still clearly intended that the Paladin is meant to stick to the vows of their oath.

If your DM and your table don't care about the tenets of the various oaths, that's entirely your business. If your group doesn't find worrying about paladin oaths to be any fun and you'd rather just keep the mechanics and abilities but play differently, that's fine, and that's a valid way to play.

However, the default assumption is that oaths are important, and people on the internet who don't know your group can't tell you whether your friends think differently! If I were a paladin player taking my oath seriously, I would be very annoyed if other paladins got to break their vows with impunity, and if I were a player ignoring my oath I would not enjoy the DM unexpectedly telling me that I needed to change my character.

Ultimately, the discretion lies with the DM, and your friend needs to talk to them about whether or not they can play this way. Ideally they need to make sure that everyone playing is on the same page about this, especially if they're all playing paladins.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Does an oath only count as broken if someone other than the DM notices it though? In terms of the consequences, could a Paladin get away with breaking oaths in secret? Meaning no other players or NPCs notice, only the DM would know. \$\endgroup\$ – MetaGuru Jan 21 at 2:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ In the PHB, p.82 under Cause of Righteousness, it states that the Paladin's power comes largely from their commitment. From that perspective, witnesses should not be a factor. The Paladin-ness of a character is a function of their relationship with their oath, not their companions. \$\endgroup\$ – Zimul8r Jan 21 at 4:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @metaguru Bear in mind that "an oath sworn between the Paladin and their God" takes on an entirely different context when said god is 1) undeniably real and 2) actively the source of the Paladin's supernatural abilities. Their god would absolutely know that a Paladin isn't living up to their ideals and could very well decide to take any action deemed appropriate, starting with revoking their Paladin Privileges... \$\endgroup\$ – Shadur Jan 21 at 10:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Shadur And if you are a paladin serving no god, the only thing giving you power is your commitment to your oath. If you aren't commited to that oath any more, what gives you power? \$\endgroup\$ – Pilchard123 Jan 21 at 12:00

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