Paladin as an Example
Consider this story from the Giant in the Playground forum:
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.
[the paladin’s player steps outside for a break, and returns to discover the party found a way to save him.]
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.
Paladins and Faith
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.
Paladins and Falling
There are a lot of ways to handle Falling. Personally, I tend to abolish it from the mechanics entirely: a Fall occurs only when narratively appropriate, and this is done in consultation with the Paladin’s player. A Fallen Paladin is always picked up by some other great power, typically the Evil that corrupted him.
But that’s not the only approach. Another that I rather like, though it’s never happened in one of my own games, is Falling as going-for-broke. The Paladin is, by definition, holding himself back, and Falls when he stops doing so: but when he does, he is a terrible thing to behold.
For example, another Giant in the Playground post. A cult was unleashing a vile plague, they had captured the head cultist and needed to know where the ritual was to be completed, but could not get it out of him, not even when they began to use torture and the paladin stormed out. When he returned and found they still had not gotten the information, he took over the interrogation:
"Ha! I know who you are, Sir Peter Fairgrave; kingdom breaker, runaway child, father slayer. You can't threaten me: I know what you are. Your order, your God won't allow you to lay your hands on me, otherwise you'll fall, and you won't be able to help a soul."
sighs "You seem to be under the misconception about what I am, what I do. I am a paladin, that is true; but as a paladin I don't fear falling... I look forward to it."
The cultist shot a nervous look at the rest of the party, we were all looking at each other, not sure what was about to happen. The cultist opened his mouth to speak, but Sir Peter cut him off.
"As a paladin, I walk on a razor's edge. Not between good and evil, I could never be something like you, but between "law" and "justice". The "law" I follow doesn't permit me to harm you, but I could be "justified" in anything I did to you in order to save innocent lives. ANYTHING!"
"You don't know what it is like to be me. You don't know the pain of having to store all your anger, all your fury, all your sense of justice, and hold it inside you, all day every day for the rest of your life. Doing the right thing doesn't mean I get to stop all evil, I just get to trim it when it becomes overgrown. The path I walk is not about vengeance, or what's right; it's about moderation in the face of power, restraint and compassion for scum like you.
"This is why paladins don't fear falling. We don't spend all day looking for ways to prevent ourselves from doing evil and giving in to the darkness -- we actively seek it out. Every time we face evil, we ask ourselves, 'Is this the threat that I'm going to give it all up for? Is this what I am going to give up my ability to help others in the future, in order to bring it down now. Is this the evil that I am willing to forsake my God and my power to stop?!'".
At this point, he stands up suddenly and swings his arm against the chair he was sitting on. Sending it flying and shattered against a wall, he then kicks over the chair the cultist was sitting on, he leaps and straddles his chest, flinging him about for a few seconds in pure rage, before calming once more.
He looks the cultist straight in the face, both their noses just inches from each other.
"What you should be asking yourself now, what you really need to be thinking about, is: 'Is what I'm doing something that will make this guy want to fall?' Because you should know that once I fall, all those rules which protect you from me are gone. No longer will I be able to be stopped by you, or by my order, or by my God. If I give everything, and I mean give everything, I will never stop. If you escape me today, I will hunt you down and grab you into the pits of hell myself. Even if that means that I have to invoke the wrath of every demon in creation, just so they throw open a pit and drag me down where I stand, because when they do drag me down, I will make sure that my fists are wrapped firmly around your ankles and you go down with me. I want you to listen to me now, and I mean really listen, because Hell truly hath no fury like a paladin scorned."
"So I ask you, one last time: tell me where the other rituals are being held, or I swear to all on high that I will fall, and fall hard, just so I can show you what it is that paladin truly keeps his code in order to hold back..."
At this point the player, Chris, just stops talking and looks at us. We are all kind of stunned by his speech, naturally.
He just picks up a D20, looks at the DM and says "I wish to roll intimidate."
The key is that Falling is not a trap and it is not a punishment for bad roleplaying. The Fall is a narrative construct that is supposed to be the height of drama. It needs to accomplish something big: stripping a PC of his ability to do anything does not accomplish that. This is one of the biggest failings in 3.5, in my opinion, and you should talk to your DM about how to rectify that.
Speaking of your DM...
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.