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In the 5e rules as framed (not based on your own personal philosophy or opinion), are Paladin tenets, like the Oath of Vengeance's Fight the Greater Evil, meant to be subjective or objective (or is that not defined and left up to your personal beliefs)?

Using said tenet as an example, if I belong to an order of Lawful Neutral paladins that believe the greatest threat to the multiverse is chaos, would upholding the laws of a Lawful Evil society in order to reinforce said lawful and orderly society be considered a violation of said tenet? Can we conclude that all Paladin tenets have some measure of subjectivity?

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Figuring out the answer to your question has to start with examining the intent of the authors of D&D 5e. When we look at the paladin one of the first statements we find is this.

Whatever their origin and their mission, paladins are united by their oaths to stand against the forces o f evil.

The author then go on to explain that paladin uphold a cause of righteousness.

paladin swears to uphold justice and righteousness, to stand with the good things o f the world against the encroaching darkness, and to hunt the forces o f evil wherever they lurk.

These are both in the initial flavor text which applies to all the listed variants of paladins.

The different Paladin Oaths are focused on motivation. Why does the paladin act as he does while pursuing a cause of righteousness.

Does he love the ideals of justice, virtue, and order? Then his motivation is likely a Oath of Devotion. Do they love life and the beauty of living things, then he is best taking the oath of the ancients. Does the paladin view himself as the instrument of punishment against evildoers, then the Oath of Vengeance is suited for the character.

D&D 5e has the ninefold alignment system. Good and Evil are clearly different things especially in terms of the cosmology. A Lawful Neutral Paladin may view order and rules vastly more important than justice but as a Paladin his primary focus is still the Cause of Righteousness as stated in the description of the class. Where the Lawful Neutral Palaadin differs from the Lawful Good, Neutral Good, Chaotic Good, and even Chaotic Neutral paladin is in what should be emphasized and focused on while pursuing the various missions in support of Righteousness. But none of this will lead to a Lawful Neutral paladin to support the cause of Evil even when it is Lawful Evil.

To recap, the paladin's oath speaks to the paladin's motivation. The paladin's alignment speaks to paladin's focus and means.

What is subjective is the referee's definition of good and evil for his campaign. Individual referees will set the lines between good and evil in different ways. But once it set for the campaign then those are the lines that a even a Lawful Neutral paladin will not cross lest he becomes an oathbreaker paladin.

Evil Paladins

In creating a paladin we get this statement.

As guardians against the forces of wickedness,paladins are rarely of any evil alignment.

So how could a paladin that is any of the three evil alignment be pursuing the Cause of Righteousness.

Remember earlier I said that for Paladins, alignment speaks to focus and means. A Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, and Chaotic Evil paladins will likely have an attitude of the ends justify the means. In their minds they separate the world into innocents and evildoers and anything goes against the evildoers including methods that paladins would find abhorrent. The line for these evil paladins would be whether their actions effect innocents. Anybody straying across that line is in their mind fair game.

A Lawful Evil paladin would not uphold the laws of a Lawful Evil society that promote tyranny and injustice. Instead they would view that order and discipline are vital tools in combating those who do evil, however the campaign defines it. They themselves would resort to torture, lies, enslaving and manipulation of evildoers to achieve their destruction.

To use examples from comics book think of the differences between Marvel's Punisher, DC's Batman, and Superman.

I will end by saying that it is definitely a challenge to roleplay a evil paladin but still uphold the cause of righteousness. But the RAW rules do not but a restriction on it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ FWIW: On page 96-97 of the DMG is the Paladin: Oathbreaker, which is this edition's form of an Antipaladin (it's even in the index as such). \$\endgroup\$ – Cthos Dec 17 '14 at 0:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ So, by your interpretation, the Cause of Righteousness and the different Oath's Tenets are absolute, but the best means to execute said tenets is left up to the paladin's best judgement? So, while a lawful neutral paladin might think "I am willing to do evil only when absolutely necessary", a lawful evil paladin might think "I am willing to do evil because it IS absolutely necessary. The only way to effectively fight evil is through evil means"? \$\endgroup\$ – user3735278 Dec 17 '14 at 1:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user3735278 yes, and the text is quite clear that paladins can be of any alignment and quite clear about what the cause of righteousness. Also understand the referee still have to define the philosophy behind what is justice, good, and evil in his setting.The text says nothing about that. \$\endgroup\$ – RS Conley Dec 17 '14 at 7:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is why I lean toward it being somewhat subjective. It really depends on the philosophy that the DM allows for that scenario by requiring them to define the philosophy behind what justice, good, and evil are in the setting. As I stated, only demons, angels, and undead are clearly defined. \$\endgroup\$ – Aviose Dec 17 '14 at 14:56
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There is an inherent contradiction in any Paladin fighting evil wherever it is, as a basic world view, and consistently performing as an Evil player character. It will or would take considerable gymnastics by both the GM and the player to establish an environment wherein the oath keeper fights his own nature.
In the case of the Lawful Neutral confronted with supporting the rules of a Lawful Evil society, what's the rest of the story? What's the context? What's the greater threat to both societies? (Consider alliances in history: in the 1930's, Red Baiting and Anti Communism was rampant in America. In the following decade, an alliance was made with Communist USSR, a totalitarian society, to fight another totalitarian society. That didn't make America oath breakers, nor totalitarian).
Further example: if your Lawful Neutral Paladin is human, and the Lawful Evil society is as well, and the threat to both is from Hobgoblin hordes from the Western mountains, what's the greater threat? What's the common bond?

The loophole to all of this is the "greater evil" theme.

For a campaign it amounts to a limitation on the viability of the character: once the greater evil is defeated, he has to confront the lesser evils, which will eventually include the evil within himself. (See Elric of Melnibone as a modest example). Paladins fight evil, wherever they find it. If it is resident within the Paladin, he has to take on that struggle.

This appears to have a game play limitation that has to be resolved by ... alignment change, oath breaking, or hanging up the cleats and retiring from the profession.

Suicide is also a valid resolution to this internal conflict, but I doubt that makes for satisfying role playing, nor is that likely the direction the game's authors intended to go with Paladins.

I will ask this question of those trying to create a Paladin with evil alignment:

Why are you going out of your way to create a self-contradictory character? Why are you making this hard on you and on the GM? Think of the other players, perhaps.

The new rules seem to be an effort to get away from the old "lawful good equals stupid" paradigm, and also tries to make the Paladin a better role for a mixed class/mixed motive/mixed alignment party without becoming an oath breaker over one of a hundred little details that come up when parties go on quests or adventures.

Focus on The Party or The Group: the D & D model is built upon a band of adventurers, each with something different to offer, putting their efforts together (hopefully achieving synergy) to overcome a series of challenges.

As a Paladin might tell you: it's not all about you.

It's about fitting into, and possibly leading, the party or the group. Remember our basics about Paladins from the very beginning: high charisma is a requirement. That is force of personality, leadership, etc.

Back before 1st edition AD & D, when the Paladin was introduced in the Greyhawk supplement, and in 1st Edition, a core problem with role playing a paladin is that a Lawful Good Paladin was stated to not generally hang out with anyone of evil or chaotic alignments.
It is good to see that the framework in 5e has overcome that Game Play (meta) problem.

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As far as the specific case of the Oath of Vengeance, I would rule that the 'greater evil' is subjective to the character. The descriptions of the Oath of Vengeance state that the oath is sworn to defeat a specific enemy. The further descriptions depict the target of vengeance to be the great evil that the paladin is attempting to thwart.

The way it is written, to me, translates to mean that this paladin will allow injustice and evil to exist (even within themselves) as long as they push toward the destruction of the target of vengeance (the greater evil).

This is primarily my own subjective opinion based on my reading of the paladin oaths. The Oath of Vengeance seems geared toward allowing for evil paladins, just as the Oath of the Ancients seems to be a great asset in providing a Chaotic Good outlet for an Elven Paladin that fits their concepts while not destroying the valiant warrior of justice.

A non-subjective portion of the paladin are the tenets, however. These are laws of the paladin (regardless of alignment) that they have to follow or risk betraying their oath, and descending down the path of the Oathbreaker Paladin.

As far as objective good and evil, the only entities that 5e appears to deem as black and white in this regard are angels, demons, and undead. Everything else is not guaranteed to be evil or good, and may even change alignments over time. This is evidenced by the detection spells/abilities and their role in this new edition.

Conflicted Characters

Note, this means a paladin of Vengeance could technically swear an oath to eliminate an iconically good faction (or at least specific members of it) as a means of destroying corruption within it or due to differences in socio-political ideation. This would create an extremely conflicted character when they later discover that what they thought was a simple crime of hatred, for example, was actually an attempt to root out a demon-lord. This is very likely to lead the paladin to become an Oathbreaker, and force them to seek atonement, changing the target of their vengeance upon redemption.

It's an amazing possibility for a robust character that would be remembered, and the stuff legends are made of.

LE Society Backing

Using said tenet as an example, if I belong to an order of Lawful Neutral paladins that believe the greatest threat to the multiverse is chaos, would upholding the laws of a Lawful Evil society in order to reinforce said lawful and orderly society be considered a violation of said tenet? Can we conclude that all Paladin tenets have some measure of subjectivity?

Yes, this means that a Lawful Evil Paladin of a Lawful Neutral (or even Lawful Evil) order/society could say that Chaos (or more likely, Chaotic Evil) is the ultimate problem because of the benefit of law and order, and thus fight actively for the Lawful Evil society in order to defeat the 'greater evil'. The problem would come in either when everything changes, or when the greater evil is destroyed. Who do they fight next?

Once again, many things can lead toward an Oathbreaker.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ With your reasoning, I could build a character whose father, an evil necromancer, was killed by Tyr paladins. My character loved his father and therefore hates Tyr paladins. So he becomes a paladin himself, killing Tyr paladins and allowing undead as the "lesser evil" over Tyr paladins. Would such a character really be a paladin in your campaign? \$\endgroup\$ – nvoigt Dec 16 '14 at 19:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't doubt that that's a great backstory, I just doubt that that is what the designers had in mind when they wrote "hunt the forces of evil". \$\endgroup\$ – nvoigt Dec 16 '14 at 19:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Cleaning this up, but elaborated a bit on the overall problem after thinking about it some more. Please give me your thoughts on the new information in my answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Aviose Dec 16 '14 at 19:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ For a better character, I would likely state that the character may not have known his father was a necromancer, or was raised so surrounded by it, he didn't realize it was evil. Later finding out that his father's undead plagued an entire kingdom, what would happen to the soldier of 'justice'? How would it change him? \$\endgroup\$ – Aviose Dec 16 '14 at 20:01

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