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In every edition of D&D before 4e, Paladins are required to be Lawful Good. If they stray from that, they are completely stripped of their powers. This means that evil deities can't grant powers to paladins or if they do, they go into a new class (e.g. Anti-Paladin).

My question is: why? Why was it designed that paladins have to have such a strict alignment? It seems to me that it unnecessarily pigeonholes the character types and doesn't make sense in D&D world. After all, couldn't evil deities have (un)holy warriors?

I also don't understand the mechanical decision about why was it designed that an evil Paladin has to be a different class. Wouldn't this create a problem if you wanted to redeem an evil Paladin into a good one? This never really made sense to me until 4e where they just dropped the Lawful Good restriction entirely and let you have a Paladin of Vecna (or have that Paladin of Vecna become a redeemed Paladin of Pelor without having to switch classes).

I'm especially interested if the D&D designers ever wrote anything about their decision to make it this way.

I'm mostly looking for an answer on why the rules were designed this way, not reasons for why non-Lawful Good paladins can't exist in the rules as they have been written by the designers.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, answers that digress into arguments about alignment will be deleted. This is a question about the history of gaming as design decisions informing rules. Not alignments. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Apr 11 '13 at 2:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Isnt this just a matter of definition? Gygax (presumably) defined a Palidin as a LG Holy Warrior. If one is a Holy Warrior of some other alignment, they arent, by defintion, a Paladin... they are something else. Is the question here really 'why isnt there a more generic Holy Warrior type of class'? I suspect because early on thats largely what a cleric was originally intended to be. \$\endgroup\$ – GrandmasterB Apr 11 '13 at 16:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ There are published rules for paladin's of any alignment in Arcana Unearthed (for 3.0 iirc). So it is clearly a option (some) designers considered \$\endgroup\$ – Lyndon White May 15 '15 at 0:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also keep in mind that since 2013 we’ve gotten more strict about designer-reasons questions, as in they need some actual designer reasoning and not just unsubstantiated opinion or guesswork. I’ve adde post notices as a first step towards deletion on the answers that don’t do that. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil Dec 9 '17 at 14:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because designer reasoning has been deemed off-topic since this question was originally asked. \$\endgroup\$ – Purple Monkey Aug 1 '19 at 23:43
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Since Gary Gygax was the original "designer" let's look at what inspired his version and hence D&D's version of the Paladin.

This is from a Collection of "Sources for D&D" that was compiled by Aardy R. DeVarque, who draws his source directly from the original 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide.

Paladin Class

Based largely on the character of Holger Carlson from Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, as well as Anderson's original sources, Charlemagne's paladins in the medieval French chansons de geste ("songs of deeds"), particularly The Song of Roland and Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. The paladin's tie to a special war-horse is also from Three Hearts and Three Lions.

I do not mean a saint, but a warrior whom God gave more than common gifts and then put under a more than common burden. —Martinus, Three Hearts and Three Lions

So a lot of what the Paladin class is, seems to come from Three Hearts and Three Lions.

The main protagonist of the novel plays a crucial role in an epic struggle between Law and Chaos (this is also where the D&D alignment system came from). In the book, law and order are represented by Christianity, which was also considered a beacon of hope. This is, I think, the basis for the Lawful Good requirement and code of conduct that Gygax attached to the paladin class.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Whether DeVarque's widely-accepted assumption that the paladin derived from Three Hearts and Three Lions is accurate or not, it seems to have caught on with the current D&D design crew at WotC. Here's Mike Mearls: "Writers like Poul Anderson (trolls, paladins), Roger Zelazny (planar travel and worlds), and Michael Moorcock (law and chaos as opposed forces) all played big roles." Source: amazingstoriesmag.com/2013/03/… \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Schmidt Apr 11 '13 at 5:49
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In 2E (and maybe 1E - not sure, I don't have the books handy at the moment), the Paladin is specifically a specialist Fighter, much like how the Druid was an "example" of a specialist Cleric.

The paladin is also less defined by his religion (not just a holy warrior) and his alignment, and more defined by his required code of conduct. Alignment is a guideline - any other Lawful Good character can bend the rules from time to time, but the paladin's code of conduct is a hard and fast rule - he breaks it, he's no longer a paladin.

The design decision was less "hey lets make a holy warrior, and only the good guys would have those" and more of a "lets create a class based on this example of the knight in shining armor, with an uncompromising dedication to the ideals of good".

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    \$\begingroup\$ If we're looking at restrictions, they are also human-only and lawful good only and really stupid high stats only. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Aug 1 '19 at 22:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Steve, while your guess isn't a bad one, hey lets make a holy warrior, and only the good guys would have those is very much what was behind that class when it was first introduced. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 29 '19 at 2:20
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From a gaming perspective, I see two points in favor of the initial alignment restriction :

  • consistency with existing stereotypes : assassins are evil, paladins are ultimately good, and so on. So that was not shocking for players
  • Paladins was the most powerfull class available. Alignment restriction was a good way to prevent abuses and make is also somewhat not easy to play. Playing an overtly evil is less restrictive and may have cause trouble all the time, in my opinion.
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Short answer: they didn't originally have to be Lawful Good

The original Paladin as published in Greyhawk was aligned as Lawful. Full Stop.
(This is a very minor frame challenge).

The alignment matrix in Men and Magic (TSR, 1974, Gygax Arneson, p. 9) showed three:
Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic. That's it.
The two-axis system was first shown in a Strategic Review article (SR #6, Feb 1976) then in the Holmes "Basic D&D" before AD&D hit the streets but after the original Paladin was published.

Greyhawk (TSR, 1974, Gygax/Kuntz, p. 8) says this about Paladins:

Charisma scores of 17 or greater by fighters indicate the possibility of paladin status IF THEY ARE LAWFUL from the commencement of play for that character. If such fighters elect to they can then become paladins, always doing lawful deeds, for any chaotic act will immediately revoke the status of paladin, and it can never be regained. The paladin has a number of very powerful aids in his continual seeking for good: He can "lay on his hands" to cure wounds or diseases in others (two points of damage for every level the paladin has attained, one disease per five levels, either function performable but one per day). Paladins are not themselves subject to disease. They have a 10% higher saving throw against all forms of attack (excluding melee). Paladins of 8th level and above dispel evil (spells, undead, evil enchanted monsters, and the like) simply by ordering it hence, and they detect all evil at a range of 6". Paladins with any form of "Holy Sword" are virtually immune to all magic (see MONSTERS & TREASURE, MAGIC & TREASURE, Swords)

I bolded the "lawful deeds" and "any chaotic act" but the rest is original emphasis by the author.

In Play: we were a typical adventurer party in a large group in the late 1970's, and had a paladin who was lawful, and who in play was pretty much an example of the lawful good you'd see in AD&D 1e requirements by his own choice to play the knight in shining armor. We ran into paladin NPCs led by a Lawful cleric (but in our eyes, not quite particularly pleasant and for sure not good from our PoV) who came to our town and laid the law down on us, the adventurers. My druid in particular was cited as being an undesirable, since I was a heretical Neutral nature cleric. Our Paladin was criticized for associating with us. (We have a few thieves and a few multiclass X-thiff characters).

Lawful was the overriding consideration: that alignment restriction (which carried over into the Lawful Good later) was a cost for the benefits of the class. You could not just choose to be a Paladin: you had to qualify for it, and you had restrictions (also mentioned in Greyhawk) (1) on treasure and (2) the number of followers you could attract and of course (3) you can't change alignment.

Lawful Good happened originally in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 1e

Note that it says, in the original version of the class, that the paladin "is seeking for good." That germ of an idea that Lawful and Good would be married up came to fruition in the AD&D 1e PHB. The stat requirements also increased: Strength 12, Wisdom 13, Constitution 9, Intelligence 9: these were minimums along with a 17 Charisma (rolled up) or you could not qualify for this Lawful Good Paladin sub class of Fighting Man/Fighter.

While the citation of Three Hearts and Three Lions from the accepted answer shows some valid sourcing (no real disagreement) there were additional inspirations that can be seen in the selected entries for the AD&D 1e Gods, Demigods, and Heroes section covering the Arthurian Legends. Galahad and Lancelot figure prominently. If you look at the original Paladin from Greyhawk: the Paladin's laying on of hands can be traced in mythology and literature to be a reflection of Mallory's Morte d'Artur scene where Lancelot revives a knight he has slain. This makes a vivid impression on Queen Guinevere.

Other literary inspiration for the knights in shining armor trope can be found in OD&D and AD&D 1e inspirational reading lists offered by the author. There is a nice summary here in an interview with Mike Mearls where he discusses the roots of D&D in terms of short stories, novels, Moorcock's conception of Law vs Chaos, and more. One of the more interesting tidbits one gleans from the interview with Dave Arneson is that his favorite class to play, in terms of challenge, was the Paladin, but how much input he had in that class, and its final form, may be lost to the ages.

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