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According to PHB p.82 the Oath itself is a source of power for paladins (emphasis mine).

Whatever their origin and their mission, paladins are united by their oaths to stand against the forces of evil. Whether sworn before a god’s altar and the witness of a priest, in a sacred glade before nature spirits and fey beings, or in a moment of desperation and grief with the dead as the only witness, a paladin’s oath is a powerful bond. It is a source of power that turns a devout warrior into a blessed champion.

The same is stated in Magic section on page 205:

The spells of clerics, druids, paladins, and rangers are called divine magic. These spellcasters’ access to the Weave is mediated by divine power — gods, the divine forces of nature, or the sacred weight of a paladin’s oath.

According to other answers here there is no direct requirement for a paladin to have a god or any deity that can oversee the fulfillment of the Oath: Are paladins required to follow a god?

More than that, an Oathbreaker can, in fact, deliberately deny the authority of any Oath or god over their fate and still use magical abilities: What is the source of the powers of an oathbreaker?

That being said, we can create a completely valid Paladin character without making them following any god whatsoever, because Oath itself (or "anti-Oath" in case of Oathbreaker) can serve as a source of superpowers. So, the question is, why can't absolutely any kind of strict code provide divine or magical abilities to its follower, effectively making them a Paladin of sorts? Why does it have to be a VERY specific set of rules that "triggers" magic to reveal itself within this character? What entity in DnD universe has control over exact wording of the tenets and decides, which ones are the real ones, and which ones are just a random set of ideals with no underlying sacred power?

Example: a lawful evil person can swear to themselves they would stick to a clearly stated path and ideals in order to achieve "the ultimate bad evil" or whatnot. They may have a very strict code in their evil guild that might as well serve as tenets and an Oath. Yet for some weird reason it doesn't work.

--

Clarification: it is clear that a set of Oaths is not a bounded set and can be expanded by DM or even WotC official extensions. This is totally fine and is, in fact, irrelevant to the question. The premise of the question is not that "there are X rules from PHB that works, why other don't?". The question is more general: "considering that not ALL oaths in DnD universe work, who decides which ones do?". I think it's quite obvious that not all oaths grant paladin powers and there are many guilds and orders in DnD universe that have 'non-working' codes, otherwise all their devout members would've gained at least a tiny fraction of paladin powers.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you asking why more choices aren't presented, or have you read something that says "only these paths count"? \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Aug 31, 2022 at 17:17
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    – Someone_Evil
    Aug 31, 2022 at 20:36
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    – V2Blast
    Sep 1, 2022 at 0:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri I guess it's more like "what/who in DnD lore decides that only these paths count", but yeah, pretty much this. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 1, 2022 at 6:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Aren't you basically just talking about multi-classing into Paladin? Can you come up with a specific example that wouldn't mean that? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 2, 2022 at 15:06

11 Answers 11

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A Paladin can serve the universe, not the gods

According to PHB class description:

... a paladin's oath is a powerful bond. lt is a source of power that turns a devout warrior into a blessed champion.

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.

A paladin draws strength from an oath, an oath can be a connection with with some abstract aspect (justice, revenge, etc.). What they serves is strictly regulated by some fundamental laws of the universe, in fact, a Paladin does not have to be a fanatic - their belief in their ideals is constantly being challenged, which is the whole point of following an Oath. But they must always act in accordance to be able to draw power from it. That is why any strict set of rules will not work here, it is not a set of principles, but an impersonal representation of only one of them. There is simply no abstract aspect called "John Smith's idea of justice", but at the same time, as with spells, in agreement with the master, you can come up with any aspects, as long as they fit into ENT and common sense.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer and Mythopoeia theory from KRyan's answer make more sense to me, rather than implying that there are infinite amount of Oaths that can actually work as long as you are devoted enough. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 1, 2022 at 10:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer could use some citations backing it up. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 1, 2022 at 10:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov The first statement is clarified in PHB: "paladin’s power comes as much from a commitment to justice itself as it does from a god". The "justice itself" part kind of implies there is such an aspect in DnD worldbuilding, hence this answer seems quite legit. I'd like to hear your opinion on this. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 1, 2022 at 10:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer has poor grammar and I genuinely have no idea what it is talking about. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2754
    Sep 1, 2022 at 23:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Beyond the grammar issues, I'm not sure how this answers the question. "Oaths don't need to be to gods" doesn't address "why do non-paladin oaths not grant powers." \$\endgroup\$
    – Shivers
    Sep 2, 2022 at 1:02
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Let's look at the Paladin class description:

It is a source of power that turns a devout warrior into a blessed champion.... a paladin’s power comes as much from a commitment to justice itself as it does from a god... [few] people can claim the true calling of a paladin...

The class description repeatedly emphasizes that becoming a paladin requires an unusual and rare devotion to one's oath, a serious and deep commitment. Based on the text you've linked to, it's clear that there is no necessary divine requirement for the oath, but it requires commitment. Even the answer you linked to about the source of an Oathbreaker's powers says

their dedication is to betraying the lofty ideals they once held

implying they are still deeply dedicated to...something.

The 5E mechanic for a character committing sufficient energy, time, and belief into their oath for it to give them powers is taking a level in Paladin. We can infer this from the game...not granting Paladin powers for free to anyone who takes any oath.

What oaths are valid?

The rules contradict themselves considerably, and it's unclear as a result.

The class description discusses "justice," "devotion," "righteousness," and "rarely evil," but the presence of the Oathbreaker subclass subverts all of those, and provides a clear RAW contradiction of that text. Given that some rules say "committed to justice," and some rules say "pursue some dark ambition or serve an evil power," there doesn't seem to be any way to tell which rules are actually binding on all Paladins and which simply represent a "traditional" paladin.

The ultimate answer will inevitably be "DM ruling."

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    \$\begingroup\$ This certainly makes sense, but unfortunately it doesn't explain why some extremely devoted characters gain powers and some don't. Who decides or at which point does it happen that a devotion of a person materializes itself in a form of divine powers? Can we somehow measure the devotion and define a threshold after which your commitment makes you a Paladin lore-wise? My point is that we probably cannot... \$\endgroup\$ Sep 1, 2022 at 10:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ To clarify, imagine a monk who's living a life in monastery following and believing in a very strict set of rules of their order. They commit sufficient energy and time into it, but they are still a monk, not a paladin. So devotion itself might not be that source of power, at least not devotion or commitment alone. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 1, 2022 at 10:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user2851843: Yeah. Perhaps being a paladin is also about being willing to do something about promoting that oath in the world, by force of arms if necessary? Your beliefs have to be of a nature that justifies Divine Smiting some creatures in their name. Mechanically, a paladin level also comes with martial abilities and weapon/armor proficiencies, which most monks or priests aren't into. If you want divine casting without martial abilities, look at Cleric, with domains such as City which don't draw their power from a deity. Not quite the same as drawing cleric powers from an oath, though \$\endgroup\$ Sep 1, 2022 at 15:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user2851843 The true answer, as this answer makes abundantly clear, is "5e paladin mechanics are ridiculous and make no sense, so trying to make sense of them is futile." \$\endgroup\$ Sep 1, 2022 at 16:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ If we want to be picky, those that represent a traditional paladin are those that mirror the oaths of the original Twelve Peers from the Carolingian cycle (where the name actually comes from), possibly somewhat skewed by romanticized tales of Christian military orders such as the Templars, and indirectly influenced by some more modern fantasy works (such as Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, which is also often cited as original inspiration for the Law vs. Chaos dichotomy in D&D). \$\endgroup\$ Sep 1, 2022 at 17:22
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Meta: these just happen to be the things they’ve written

These oaths produce paladins because these are the oaths that Wizards of the Coast has written up paladin abilities for. As soon as they—or a DM, for their particular campaign—write up paladin abilities for other oaths, those oaths will also suddenly also allow someone to become a paladin.

And, of course, in order to get any powers, you have to take the appropriate game-mechanical options, which come with some opportunity cost appropriate to the power you get. That is, you have to take paladin levels to get powers from an oath because that is you “paying” for those powers by not taking, say, barbarian at those same levels. Giving those powers away for free would be unfair.

Narrative: Mythopoeia, probably

The short answer is that you can’t be a paladin of some other oath because (enough of) the people of the Multiverse don’t believe in paladins of that thing (strongly enough). You need their belief to fuel your divine abilities. And you can’t tap into the power of that belief without the right spiritual preparation, which requires paladin training.

Evidence from D&D 5e

This interpretation suggests that the paladin’s oath doesn’t produce power—it allows the paladin to tap into an existing reserve of faith and belief, a sort of divine power not attached to any single deity. The descriptions of the oath in the Player’s Handbook seem to back this up: they emphasize the oath as a thing between the paladin and the divine power they wield:

Quote PHB Page Commentary
“a paladin’s oath is a powerful bond,” 82, paladin intro Implies a connection to something else.
“the oaths that grant them power,” 82, paladin intro Only says the power comes through the oath, not where the power comes from.
“[Paladins’] access to the Weave is mediated by divine power—[…]the sacred weight of a paladin’s oath,” 206, sidebar: “The Weave of Magic” Positions the oath as “mediator,” not the ultimate source of power.

The oath is a connection to people’s belief in that which was sworn—there is power in making that connection, but most of the paladin’s abilities come from the belief.

Evidence from the wider D&D canon

This is also consistent with how divine power generally works in D&D—the entire theme revolves around tapping into something greater than yourself. (Manifesting power purely from one’s own personal determination and will is usually more in line with what D&D calls psionics.) It’s also consistent with how belief generally works in D&D—while the subject has never been covered specifically for 5e-style paladin oaths, plenty of other things work in a similar manner, right up to the gods themselves.

D&D is a partially mythopoetic setting, meaning that belief has real, tangible effect on reality, and certain things are what they are believed to be, because that’s what they’re believed to be. The Outer Planes are literally made from solid belief, and wouldn’t exist without that belief—that’s why they’re aligned, because the alignments are major groupings of belief that have coalesced into various planes.¹ Celestials, fiends, and other denizens of the Outer Planes—who have been known in earlier editions of D&D as “outsiders,” referring to their Outer Plane origins—are belief incarnate, as in fiends as “evil incarnate.” D&D’s gods take this to a logical extreme—they need people to believe not only in their portfolio, but also to believe in them, personally.

Nothing in 5e discusses this to any significant extent, to my knowledge. The Player’s Handbook mentions the Outer Planes as being “of thought and spirit,” which roughly means “belief,” but it isn’t explicit. The complex ways in which belief shapes the Outer Planes, such as the Knights Harmonium making an entire layer of Arcadia slide into Mechanus by being so lawful (and so distinctly not good), or parts of the Gate Towns around the Outlands shifting off into their respective planes and back as attitudes in the town get closer or further from that plane, goes unmentioned. These things are—presumably—still a part of the setting, but 5e hasn’t mentioned them (yet?).

This matters because 5e has changed the way paladins work; while paladins always involved oaths, in most editions of D&D, there was just one paladin oath, which all paladins took—and all paladins upheld as paragons of lawful goodness, specifically. Their power seemed to come from “the cosmic force of Good,” rather than any individual being. The Forgotten Realms had different oaths for different orders of paladins, but that’s because it—unlike most settings—required all paladins to be members of a knightly order sponsored by a specific patron deity, and then the paladins’ power came from that deity (so Mystra sponsored the Knights of the Mystic Fire, Tyr sponsored the Knights of Samular, etc. and to be a paladin you had to join one of these orders). But since 5e hasn’t talked about the effects of belief on reality in D&D, and has changed how paladins function, this answer necessarily requires a bit of synthesis.

Oath-breakers (and the Oath of Vengeance)

Oath-breakers deserve some special mention here, but mostly to just say they’re not actually all that special. Holding to one’s vows was, in antiquity, a primary virtue, and one that the paladin is largely based upon. This is part of why oaths have such power. It also means that there are strong beliefs about those who would break an oath. Breaking an oath isn’t just a betrayal of that specific thing, it’s a betrayal of all that is right and good. Plus, oath-breakers can likely still tap into the divine power that they once swore by, corrupting and tainting it.

(OP has also brought up the Oath of Vengeance here, but I think this is a more straightforward case: even if people at large don’t necessarily care—or even know—about whatever you’re seeking revenge for, they certainly have some very strong beliefs about the concept of vengeance, itself, and those who are driven by it. Those are the beliefs that such paladins tap into.)

Changing beliefs change the reality of D&D

This approach does mean that, in theory, if you got enough people to believe in your oath as something that one could be a paladin of, then you would be able to tap into that divine power and be a paladin of that thing. The rules, obviously, don’t discuss such a thing, since at that point you’re necessarily talking about a very custom thing that the DM is going to have to handle.

Narrative, alternate or addition: Overdeities, maybe

There are also some hints that paladins may—as in, it is possible—act differently in different campaign settings. This could be explained mythopoetically (local belief counts somewhat more than extraplanar belief, perhaps), but there is another force within D&D canon that might fit the bill better.

Overdeities: an overview

The Material Plane is divided into separate regions—we know them as campaign settings.² Each region has—presumably—an overdeity. We know that the Forgotten Realms’ overdeity is Ao, for example. We know much less about the overdeity for Dragonlance, but the High God is known to exist from their singular intervention in Krynn during the All-Saints War.

It is generally assumed among D&D lorists that each other campaign setting has their own overdeity—it allows for a simple, consistent explanation for why things are different from one campaign setting to another. Since even the few overdeities we know are extremely aloof from the settings they are ultimately in charge of—they take no worship, they espouse no beliefs, they intervene rarely if ever—it’s just assumed that the other overdeities are just a little more so and so we have no historical incidences of their interaction with the setting.

Thus, for example, we might assume that Eberron’s overdeity has some extremely strict rules about divine intervention—which leads to the difficulties being sure that deities even exist in that setting. This isn’t so different from Ao’s known rules about divine avatars, for example.

(To shift back to a meta view here for a moment, part of the reason why overdeities are so little-seen in D&D canon is because, on a meta level, they’re supposed to represent the DM, and D&D tries not to tell the DM what to do too much.)

Overdeities and paladins

Anyway, one of the things that could easily be within an overdeity’s purview is how paladins work in their setting, and what oaths can be a source of paladin power. We don’t have any examples of them doing so, but we do know that Ao could mess with how spells work in FR, requiring everyone to go through Mystra and the Weave (remember the Weave was an FR-only thing until 5e). Overdeities definitely mess with how belief works for the gods—cf. FR’s Wall of the Faithless as that pantheon’s answer to Ao’s rules on that subject. So they can probably tweak things for paladin oaths as well.

The reason I prefer the mythopoetic explanation, though, is that we have paladins outside of the Material Plane—and all evidence suggests that overdeities only exist for Material campaign settings, and that outside the Material Plane, no single god is above all the others. That makes it impossible for an overdeity to control planar paladins’ oaths. That said, it’s definitely plausible for an overdeity to modify—or even replace—the multiversal, mythopoetic rules within their own setting. We don’t really know the full details of what an overdeity can or can’t change (though again, to the extent they represent the DM, it might be anything), but most of what we know they have influenced has revolved around faith and the divine, so it’s reasonable to conclude that paladins are likely in their wheelhouse. So if an overdeity wants to let just anybody swear any oath and get divine power, that could very well be a thing they could do—but this requires a DM who makes that choice and is willing to support it by making the rules for it.

Planar Travel

A question was raised about how these things affect planar travel, and/or are affected by planar travel. The answer is, by and large, that there is no interaction. Belief transcends planes: after all, the Outer Planes are literally built from—made of—the beliefs of those on the Material. Divine power tends to pool in the Outer Planes naturally—sometimes as planes, sometimes as celestials, fiends, etc., sometimes as gods—and sometimes as more nebulous things like whatever it is paladins tap into. (The Weave is probably involved, though how is anyone’s guess, since pre-5e the Weave was only in FR, and 5e doesn’t have a lot of detail on it.)

Even a paladin who never walks the planes is probably tapping into the beliefs of people from across myriad different worlds—and when one does planewalk, nothing much changes since that belief is everywhere. The published Oaths, at least, are presumed multiversal, i.e. sufficient belief exists to power them everywhere.

Overdeities can change things somewhat (probably). It’s probably within an overdeity’s power to just cut off extraplanar belief, meaning that any paladin who expects to get power from their oath better be sworn to something this world believes in. We don’t know of any worlds like that, and most likely Wizards of the Coast will never publish one because it might arbitrarily shaft some player characters and thus make players uninterested in going there (clerics, in particular, would have a very hard time, since the gods are almost-always extraplanar). But it seems plausible that such a world could exist, within the lore.

It’s also very likely that overdeities could choose to empower some oath that isn’t widely believed—on their world or any other. Whether or not that power reaches a paladin who planewalks, though, is pretty much up to the overdeity in question—they could allow the paladin to tap into that power even while on another plane. Or they could choose to block that. There’s no precedent for this, and at this point we’re basically talking about the DM-as-overdeity making up their own new campaign setting/premise; anything goes.

  1. There are 17 Outer Planes despite there being only 9 alignments because there are Outer Planes “between” each of the non-true-neutral alignments, but these planes are still “aligned” even if, say, Pandemonium’s “chaotic-by-chaotic-evil” isn’t an actual alignment so much as a melding of CN and CE.

  2. Prior to 5e, each region of the Material Plane—each campaign setting—was a “Crystal Sphere,” with the space between filled with phlogiston and plied by spelljammers. The recent Spelljammer: Adventures in Space book has ret-conned this by putting spelljammers in the Astral Plane—and offered zero explanation for how all of this works out. It’s unclear how the Material Plane is subdivided, whether there is any space between settings, or if there is any way to travel from one to another. (It’s also unclear why spelljammers are used in the Astral, which isn’t particularly dangerous or difficult to travel and has no need for the expense and complexity of a spelljammer.) But we’ve still got campaign settings, so the parts of the Material Plane are separate somehow. Or maybe there are many separate Material Planes—alternate Material Planes actually did show up in older material, but rarely.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Sep 1, 2022 at 0:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ I really like your Mythopoeia idea, but there are some caveats: I'm not sure this principle applies for Oathbreakers and Vengeance archetypes as there can be no common belief in such aspects. Not to mention that believers in one plane can differ from believers in other plane, yet I see no rules that limit Paladin power while moving through realms. Still, you grasped my question very well and your answer is very educational, thank you. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 1, 2022 at 10:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel this answer could use a few Terry Pratchett quotes on the power of believe. ;-) \$\endgroup\$
    – Martin
    Sep 1, 2022 at 12:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user2851843 There certainly are common beliefs in oath-breaking and vengeance. Just look to real-world myths: oath-breaking is a huge theme, and oath-breakers are some of the most vilified characters. You see this in all kinds of classical myths—which, remember, weren’t myths back then, they were religion. (Also, oath-breakers can, most likely, still tap into—and corrupt—the belief in the oath they have broken.) Vengeance is, if anything, even bigger; characters driven by thirst for revenge are everywhere. People believe these things are important and powerful. I’ll add to the answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Sep 1, 2022 at 14:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user2851843 For a within-game example, belief in Vengeance is what powers the spontaneous creation of Revenants \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Sep 1, 2022 at 14:56
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A paladin is a guy with an oath in the same way a fighter is a guy with a sword.

Plenty of commoners or guards can use swords proficiently, so why do they not get seconds winds and superiority dice? For the same reason people with basic codes don’t become paladins. To be a paladin you need class levels. You will either need class levels to become a paladin, or class levels to multi class into paladin.

With this rule, you have the option of gaining a level in a new class whenever you advance in level, instead of gaining a level in your current class.

https://5thsrd.org/rules/multiclassing/

This is out of the range of commoners, guards, and most NPCs. They can't gain class levels, so they don't get the option to be a paladin. A random commoner might be on the path to being a paladin if they have a good code, in the same way all guards are on their way to being a fighter. However the vast majority of people will never reach those heights and don’t become paladins. Even if they do get class levels, they still have to choose to become a paladin because again this happens when they level up.

With this rule, you have the option of gaining a level in a new class whenever you advance in level, instead of gaining a level in your current class.

https://5thsrd.org/rules/multiclassing/ emphasis mine

Most people won't do that because:

Compared to a single-class character of the same level, you'll sacrifice some focus in exchange for versatility.

https://5thsrd.org/rules/multiclassing/

While it is technically possible to have NPC paladins, these are stat blocks. As such you can add abilities and attributes that don't match up with the original classes. therefore you don't have to grant paladin abilities to everyone.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Fair enough, this explains why there are no thousands of paladins - most people simply don't go that far in their training. Unfortunately it does not explain why many qualified or even overqualified characters (monks, priests, lawful good knights of sorts) don't get at least a fraction of paladin's divine power, even though most of them have extensive training and follow strict code, so basically do what 1st level paladins do. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 1, 2022 at 14:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user2851843 Well, you'd also have to consider why paladins don't get monk powers or fighter powers, and why monks don't get fighter powers. At some level the answer is that it's because the game works this way. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 1, 2022 at 15:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't think "you typically require a large amount of time, effort, and skill." is supported. You can get XP for things that don't take time, effort or skill in-game. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 1, 2022 at 15:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AncientSwordRage technically the only requirement to go up in level is to either close to a group of 2-7 people who are doing something important or to stand next to a large amount of monsters who die. I presume that is not the intended as the explanation of how you level up. \$\endgroup\$
    – user71562
    Sep 1, 2022 at 16:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user2851843 at first level, fighters gain second wind and fighting style, but paladins gain lay on hands and Devine sense. Time, and levels, spent honing your Devine senses and healing hands is time spent not perfecting your fighting style and constitution. A high level monk or fighter could spend time to learn the ways of a paladin instead of continuing down the path they are on. However that would mean losing the high value options of the higher levels in their first class. You don’t get a level in paladin for free, so most people either go only paladin, or not paladin at all. \$\endgroup\$
    – user71562
    Sep 1, 2022 at 16:19
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You're lifting the covers off and assuming the game just runs on narrative.

D&D is a game where the mechanics or rules come first. Sometimes the rules self-justify themselves with narratives, or they leave mechanical gaps to be creatively filled by the GM (and she is free to rely on narrative to do so). Or the rules text suggests breaking the rules if it fits your narrative. But it's first and foremost a mechanics focused game.

That being said, we can create a completely valid Paladin character without making them following any god whatsoever, because Oath itself (or "anti-Oath" in case of Oathbreaker) can serve as a source of superpowers.

This is a false premise. The way the game runs requires you to take Paladin levels to be a Paladin. You cannot create a 'completely valid Paladin character' with 'Oath itself'. Now, there's no reason you can't explain the mechanics of any character, even say a Barbarian by saying they swear an Oath to Getting Mad. But an Oath does not make the Paladin. It's still mechanics first.


Why can't absolutely any kind of strict code provide divine or magical abilities to its follower, effectively making them a Paladin of sorts? Why does it have to be a VERY specific set of rules that "triggers" magic to reveal itself within this character?

As above, a 'paladin' of sorts is fine, but an in game 'paladin' needn't have Paladin levels. The class levels come first, then the narrative explanation of oaths etc. come second.

What entity in DnD universe has control over exact wording of the tenets and decides, which ones are the real ones, and which ones are just a random set of ideals with no underlying sacred power?

The GM does. There's no reason you and the GM of your game can't work together to change or add different oaths. The narrative of the oaths in the Paladin section of the PHB has no bearing on the mechanics provided by the class levels. It's all just flavour.


I say this with all respect, there are other games where the narrative is put first, or abilities are divorced from anything like class levels. This would follow your assumption that we can create a completely valid Paladin character [with] Oath itself [...] as a source of superpowers..

For instance, various flavours of Fate let you define 'Aspects' as part of your character, one of which could cover that they have sworn an oath, regardless of whether they are a classic Paladin, a warrior, or a janitor!

In Chronicles of Darkness you can buy Merits which work outside of your 'class' (loosely speaking your species or allegiance in game) any of which could be justified as part of an 'Oath'.

The list goes on, and there are probably plenty of games which follow the pattern of D&D, where a mechanic is 'justified' by narrative, but the narrative alone won't justify the mechanic.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You suggest that paladins exist because there are rules for it and not because narrative drives their existence. That is a meta-take on how the universe works. But I'd argue it's not meta enough. It wasn't even the rules first. D&D strives to represent existing fantasy archetypes. One such archetype is a devout warrior. And that is then encoded in the rules as "a paladin". Furthermore, the archetypes are filtered to only some which are for protagonists - wizards, warriors, paladins. There is no reason you cannot have a fisherman, tavern keeper, or art student on an adventure, yet that's not \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Sep 14, 2022 at 7:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ what D&D focuses on, so it does not provide explicit rules for playing such characters. It doesn't fit the type of story it tries to portray - brave and noteworthy heroes. The very rules are lopsided to focus on only certain archetypes and certain kinds of story. Yes, you can run other types, when needed, but the point is that by default, the version of fantasy D&D tries to represent is different. So, the rules for paladins are there to support D&D's vision of them. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Sep 14, 2022 at 7:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @VLAZ I can't tell if your supporting my answer, speaking against it or using it as a springboard for further discussion? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 14, 2022 at 10:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's a suggestion that the answer doesn't step back far enough to properly examine the concept of "paladin" (more generally "classes"/archetypes). \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Sep 14, 2022 at 10:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @VLAZ I've deliberately only stepped back as far as the rules, and no further, because that's the crux of my argument. My answer is opposed to the notion that "D&D strives to represent existing fantasy archetypes." at least not this edition, D&D has created it's own archetypes, perhaps once based on prior work, and 5e represents those as classes. To step back further is to answer the question fundamentally differently. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 14, 2022 at 14:50
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Whether sworn before a god's altar and the witness of a priest, in a sacred glade before nature spirits and fey beings, or in a moment of desperation and grief with the dead as the only witness, a paladin's oath is a powerful bond.

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.

Fighters are rare enough among the ranks of the militias and armies of the world, but even fewer people can claim the true calling of a paladin.

The most important aspect of a paladin character is the nature of his or her holy quest.

Or you might have known from your earliest memories that the paladin's life was your calling, almost as if you had been sent into the world with that purpose stamped on your soul.

-PHB, pages 83-84.

A paladin's oath is a powerful bond. But a strict oath is not a paladin. The exact source of paladins is quite vague and somewhat contradictory even in the adjacent sentences (as is normal for 5e fluff), however one thing it is clear on is that paladins are somehow special. Whether it's the gods doing, or their commitment, or something innately special about them.. that's left vague, and heavily implied that there are multiple causes.

It's not about just swearing an oath. There's more to it, although, what that is is not fully explained. All that is explained, funnily enough, is that it's not just about the oath. It is heavily implied that being a paladin leads to an oath, and not the other way around - or at the very least, having the potential to become a paladin.

So the reason why someone swearing a strict oath and sticking to it does not automatically become a paladin is that there is more to it. What more there is to it is not fully explained. The gods are mentioned, as is commitment, dedication, will, a soul destiny, even luck. Could be any of these things, all of them, or even some specific combination. It's not spelled out, and thus is up to the DM to decide.

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It can, if you write a subclass for it

Your question is about what an oath can be based on. As you point out, even though they are called "Sacred Oaths" which points to something beyond mundane expression of will, the way oaths are described in lore this might be any strong belief and strict set of tenets, no gods needed. So yes, anything could serve as an oath. The deciding factor is the utter dedication or commitment to such a set of beliefs, whatever they may be.

However, from a game mechanics standpoint, oaths are subclasses or paths, a collection of special features and powers gained as long at the oaths tenets are not violated, just like schools are subclasses or paths for wizards and colleges are for bards. There is only a limited number of them that has been published, and therefore those and the underlying beliefs are the only oaths that are eligible to confer powers from a rules perspective. And there is only one way to demonstrate the dedication needed to get these powers, which is to take levels in that class.

You can come up with additional strict belief systems and associated rules, the Oath of Hate, the Oath of Passion, the Oath of Mercy. That should be entirely fine as far as it fits to the lore, but to confer mechanical effects, such paths or subclasses would be homebrew, just as additional bard colleges or wizard schools would be. Likewise, Wizards may come up with Otto's Almanac of Everything and publish a couple more paladin oaths, which then would become official. If there was anything in the in-universe lore in the PHB precluding this, they could not publish any more, and could not have published the ones in Xanathar's or Tasha's, either.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure I understand how this answers the question. The question seems quite clearly to be asking an in-universe lore question, which I can't tell that you have touched at all. OP seems well aware of the basic rules for paladins, which is really all this answer provides. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 31, 2022 at 19:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this answer (which is my favourite) is basically saying there isn't anything controlling it, because the question is based on a false premise. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Aug 31, 2022 at 19:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin Again, I think we're looking for an in-universe explanation, so explaining it using the words like "subclass", "class level", and "mechanical integration" doesn't really make sense to me. Your answer is still very focused on the rules, and still doesn't approach an in-universe explanation. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 31, 2022 at 19:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ If your claim is something like "Actually yes, any person sufficiently devoted to some any strict code will gain special powers", then you need to support that claim. I can't tell that is what you're claiming, much less demonstrating it from the source material. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 31, 2022 at 19:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this answer for its idea that as a player you can "purchase" or "demonstrate" the strength of their commitment with paladin levels. This is purely mechanical explanation, but it can easily be adapted to in-lore: a character focuses their training and growth directly towards mental and physical practices that enhance paladin abilities. Unfortunately, this explanation can hardly be applied to NPCs. There are many creatures who live by the code and who qualify for at least level 1 paladin, but for some reason they still don't get divine powers, not even a fraction of it. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 1, 2022 at 14:15
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There is nothing to say why only certain oaths work - because that isn't actually correct.

What you seem to be doing is seeing the few published Paladin paths, and assuming that other oaths don't count. However just because they haven't published every possible oath doesn't mean other oaths don't grant power, it just means they haven't been published.

The key here is what makes a Paladin Vs someone who just swears a general oath.

The difference here is the sheer commitment to that oath, they have a devotion to their words and beliefs as deep as it is possible for a mortal to the point where that belief can actually manifest. Most people might hold things to heart, but that still isn't deep enough.

Just like if you want a wizard to cast ice ball instead of fireball the game encourages you to let it happen, so if you want a character who swears a different oath then do so, and either pick the closest matching powers, or homebrew something.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think you're making a lot of assumptions about why OP is asking this question and what their goal is. This doesn't really answer the question, but instead attempts to guess at what they're asking - and I'm not sure it's right. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Aug 31, 2022 at 21:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch if there is ambiguity in what the OP is actually asking, maybe the question should be closed. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave
    Aug 31, 2022 at 21:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch the title is the answer, the rest is just my best attempt to help. The question is entirely wrong. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Sep 1, 2022 at 6:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user2851843 so are you basically asking for free Paladin levels? You seem to be asking a mechanical question under the guise of lore. If they are dedicated, they swear an oath and take a Paladin level. If they don't take a Paladin level, then they aren't dedicated enough. That's not a lore thing, it's a meta choice. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Sep 1, 2022 at 12:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user2851843 because whoever wrote them didn't want them to be Paladins, it's not a case of "is my oath good enough?". If they want Paladin powers they need to take a level in Paladin, otherwise what you are asking for IS free Paladin levels, even if it isn't for your own character. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Sep 1, 2022 at 15:28
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It can

Mechanically, you implement this by multi-classing into Paladin. Just like if you want to model your character learning to cast spells you multiclass into Wizard, and if you want to model you character doing sword drills all day you multiclass into Fighter, etc.

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From the Player's Handbook:

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.

From Xanathar's Guide to Everything:

A paladin is a living embodiment of an oath—a promise or a vow made manifest in the person of a holy warrior who has the skill and the determination to see the cause through to the end.

"Why can't absolutely any kind of strict code provide divine or magical abilities to its follower?" Because following any strict code isn't the same as becoming the living embodiment of that code.

It's the difference between a no-name vigilante saying they serve "vengeance," and Batman saying "I AM vengeance!" Even someone who believes in an oath or code might not believe in it to the degree that a true paladin does. There's no entity signing off on these things, because the power doesn't come from a god or entity, it comes from the strength of the paladin's conviction (even if that conviction is weakly or strongly associated with a god).

Sure, your run-of-the-mill fighter might believe that "might makes right" in, like, a general sense. But an Oath of Conquest paladin growing up in a gladiators' pit, thinking each day might be their last, being constantly reminded of their own weaknesses and shortcomings until, finally, rising up to defeat the pitmaster and freeing their fellow gladiators—THAT person believes in "conquest" in a way that "dude who's been in a few fights before" can't. That's the sort of person who swears an oath to the concept of conquest.

All that said... from a character creation standpoint, almost any kind of code imaginable might produce a paladin. It's not so much the nature of the code as it is the strength of the paladin's belief in that code, and the 5th edition oaths are written such that they can accommodate a range of archetypes and beliefs.

An Oath of the Crown paladin might be a tax-collector who really believes in the power of fiscal oversight to honor the sovereign. An Oath of the Ancients paladin might seem superficially similar to a bard, though their commitment to (and relationship with) art and entertainment would be on a higher level. The archetypal Oath of Conquest paladin is a master of battlefield tactics and wartime strategy, but a political operative vying for an important government position would be equally valid—their "battle" becomes politics, and "strength" in the poetic sense can refer to mental qualities just as readily as physical ones.

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I agree with other answers which say there can be a wide variety of beliefs / oaths for paladins, not limited to the currently published ones. But there are some limits we can infer on which types of beliefs are compatible with being a paladin.

Their beliefs have to be of a nature that justifies Divine Smiting some creatures in their name. And believing that it was the right thing to do, not just a compromise or a means to an end.

Perhaps being a paladin is also about being willing to do something about promoting or defending that oath in the world, by force of arms if necessary. And the force of personality (Charisma) to back that up, and truly believe they are right and justified in their beliefs and actions, with a scary amount of moral certainty.

why many qualified or even overqualified characters (monks, priests, lawful good knights of sorts) don't get at least a fraction of paladin's divine power, even though most of them have extensive training and follow strict code, so basically do what 1st level paladins do.

Mechanically, a paladin level also comes with martial abilities, 1d10 hit dice, and weapon/armor proficiencies. Most monks in monasteries or priests in temples don't train for that. (Monks as in the 5e Monk class do train for battle, but we're talking here about monks like real-life western monks, who spent many of their days copying religious documents by hand and living peacefully in a monastery.)

If you want divine casting without martial abilities, look at Cleric, with domains such as City which don't draw their power from a deity. Not quite the same as drawing cleric powers from an oath, but a DM could flavour it that way if they want to patch up this perceived inconsistency.

As for "lawful good Knights", sure, if you think it makes sense for some of them to be paladins instead of fighters, give them that class. But it's a rare individual with enough force of personality and moral certainty to be a paladin, not just following a cause they think is right; following a cause the know is right.

I think the combination of these factors goes some way to explain the rarity of paladins.

5e doesn't have a way to model the game mechanics of devoted but non-martial people gaining powers like Lay on Hands. That might be more of a meta problem, that all the 5e classes are designed for adventurers. People who have magic powers because of their belief, but don't want to leave their monastery or fight people about it, aren't traditional D&D characters and fall through the cracks in the system. You could make up an NPC statblock with some paladin abilities if you though it was appropriate, like if you wanted your campaign setting to have people like that.

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