Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Paladins I’ve Known: Sir Alexander

Not be raised on OD&D has been in a boon in some ways and a bane in others (which, I suppose could be said for everyone regarding every edition). The main “bane” for me has been, that I have much less historical knowledge upon which to draw for my musings and rambling analysis of all things D&D…sure I have a copy of the LBBs, but have neither owned (nor perused) any of the original supplements, and the information I have on them has been scantily gleaned through on-line reviews and other folks’ blogs.

Which makes it tough when I’m trying to create something that wants to be at least semi-true to its roots.

Now having said all that, let’s get down to brass tacks and talk about the paladin class. Frankly, I’m surprised this guy keeps coming up in my posts seeing as how I have so little actual, visceral experience with the dude. But maybe that IS why I keep bringing him up…this blog is for the most part ephemeral and somewhat theoretical…why not analyze a character class with which I’ve had no direct experience.

Now, granted, much of my “D&D career” has been spent in the DM’s chair, but I went through a pretty long stretch (more than a couple years) as a player, and never once did I pick up the spurs and the Holy Avenger. Thing is, though, neither did the players in my game. In fact, it wasn’t until 1998 or so that I actually had an honest-to-goodness Paladin sitting at my table.

That was a one-off game, and one that ended prematurely I’m afraid, and the character was played by my good buddy, Alex. Let me wax on a bit about this guy:

Alex and I actually met at work and started hanging out…well, I don’t really remember why. We probably got introduced at some work party and hit it off; we’d sometimes go out for a beer and a game of pool after work. He was a good guy with a good heart and I was heavy into my New Agey stuff back then and would share my philosophy with him and provide romantic advice to him from an astrological perspective.

I don’t remember how I learned he was a gamer…I think he was over at my apartment one time and saw an old gaming book and told me he played a lot of D&D…and that’s why we decided to get together and try a game (which unfortunately terminated early due to another player’s abrupt departure).

Now Alex’s gaming experience was a little different from mine. For one thing, he was raised up on 2nd edition AD&D and this was his game of choice (and I ran our game using 2nd edition books). For another thing, Alex ALWAYS played paladins, as he readily admitted.

And if you’d ever met Alex, the paladin thing would come as no surprise. The guy DID have a big heart…not that he didn’t do selfish of dimwitted things sometimes AS WE ALL DO, but for the most part he always tried to do the right thing for the right reason. He didn’t drink much, and smoked even less (I was a chain smoker at the time, and he had maybe one puff off a cigarette the whole time I knew him). He worked out every day and was tall and VERY muscular/fit…handsome, too, with a chiseled jaw, blue eyes and close-cropped receding blond hair…kind of a younger, buffer Daniel Craig. In addition to looking good, he was also very charming and (as one might imagine) a hit with the ladies. Yet he was also a serial monogamist, generally in long-term relationships (or no relationship at all) the whole time I knew him.

In other words, the kind of looked and acted like the knight in shiny armor. It was hard not to say, ‘okay, yeah, you can play a paladin.’ I mean, that class was practically MADE for Alex!

Contrast him with my earliest 1st edition AD&D group and we seem like downright miscreants. I mean, we weren’t above some “power-gaming” back in the day (see, for example the female drow cleric-assassin played by a male member of the group) and the paladin class has some nice bennies associated with it. But the main thing that kept our players away from it was the damn alignment restrictions.

Now folks like Alex, who started off with 2nd edition AD&D telling him that he was playing a game of heroic adventure, probably don’t get this. For us that started with the earlier edition (and as kids) we had no illusions about our role in the D&D game world: there are dungeons with monsters and treasure. Your characters are “adventurers” (i.e. tomb robbers, mercenaries, n’er-do-wells) that go into said dungeons to kill monsters and take loot. Try not to get killed.

For us there were no great plots, no over-arching story-line (save what we created with the soap opera melodrama of our own character’s bickering, politicking, and in-fighting), no “dragon high lords” to bring down. And the paladin’s alignment restrictions were a real hindrance to anyone trying to live the life of a career adventurer.

And RESTRICTIONS IS the key word here. Maybe because we were kids when we started playing, we took the rules very seriously…as in, to the letter. Even though D&D extolled us to change rules as we saw fit to make the game “fun” the only thing we did was ADD rules when no rules were present to govern a particular system. Our “tweaking” of the system was additive only…we never dumped “broken” rules (if the rule was present in the system it was sacrosanct). For example, we were so downright GRATEFUL when the Unearthed Arcana came out with a much less complicated, more streamlined unarmed combat system, because FINALLY we could put it into our games. Prior to UA, we avoided unarmed combat like the plague, because whenever someone tried it we’d have to haul out the bulky-weird system in the DMG and try to work it out using the “official rules.”

Alignment was a RULE, and we adhered to it closely. There were no restrictions on which character classes or alignments a player could have for his or her character (often there would be at least one assassin accompanying the party), but most player characters gravitated towards a chaotic, neutral, or evil bent as it was far less restrictive for the (adventuring) work at hand. The point was to pick an alignment that BEST DESCRIBED the character’s personality…and then play that. And as I said, I suppose we had a bunch of thuggish players in our group based on the usual alignments.

Scott’s magic-users and illusionists were always Chaotic Neutral; other characters (elven and half-elven thieves) might be Chaotic Good. Of course, he DID play a (male) Drow cleric of Lolth (Chaotic Evil) and a half-elf magic-user/assassin (Evil of some sort). Matt usually played a Lawful Good cleric (because he was a cleric of Athena), but he often got subordinated to a lesser (support) role unless he was solo-adventuring; he also played the female Drow cleric/multi-something, a regular human assassin (evil), an insane Healer (Chaotic Evil; from a Dragon magazine), and a Chaotic Neutral Archer (also from Dragon, I believe). Jocelyn would have sweet little Neutral Goods or Chaotic Goods, but her badass fighter Bladehawk was Chaotic Evil (as a follower of Ares); however, earlier BH had been Neutral (in Basic D&D), and Chaotic Neutral (in her 1st incarnation as an AD&D character). Jason played thieves of miscreant alignment, and my brother’s characters (barbarians and fighters) were generally Chaotic Good to Chaotic Neutral; Alejandro was the latter. Crystal’s fighter was Chaotic or Neutral, and Rob…well, he always played a “good” guy and generally paid the price for it; he should have played 2nd edition.

As I’ve mention before, I generally played a bard, originally Neutral Good but eventually Neutral Evil. That’s just how we rolled…as I said, we were a bunch of miscreants.

Anyway, the rules were THE RULES. There is nothing in AD&D that says you cannot play a Chaotic Evil assassin, for example (so long as you roll the required ability scores), but there ARE pretty explicit descriptions of what a Chaotic Evil person is. And there is even more restrictive prose regarding the paladin class, not just the Lawful Good alignment…apparently too restrictive for my players’ tastes.

Hell, we didn’t even (that I recall) institute “level reduction” penalties for playing out of alignment. If a person wasn’t playing their alignment correctly we DMs simply said, “bam, your character’s alignment is changed.” If someone did something murderous they were evil; if they routinely broke the law they were NOT “lawful.” The only time alignment mattered was if you played a class with an alignment restriction (a ranger, a monk, a cleric of a particular deity). THEN sudden alignment changes might have an actual in-game penalty (losing one’s abilities). Otherwise, it still HURT…it was a blow to one’s ego when you had created a character of a particular alignment and your DM changed it on you. Basically, you were being called out for “not playing right.” I know, ‘cause it happened to at least one of MY characters…and damn straight I deserved the chastisement!

Anyway, as an older, more mature role-player I LIKE the idea of the paladin for the role-playing challenge it is (or maybe I just feel more heroic myself these days!). I like the Holy Avenger sword (though why they bothered to add a +6 version in the Unearthed Arcana, I can’t begin to justify), and think it could be used as an excellent “quest” treasure or basis for a plot arc of some sort.

Heck, I know I’ve written many times that I enjoy the whole “fall-from-grace-and-redemption” story line; to really make it work though, I think you’d have to make the paladin restrictions even more restrictive. Make them live a life of poverty and chastity and then cause them to fall through simple temptation (O foul wine, women, and song!). Man, if I was running an AD&D campaign again (something I do NOT plan on) I’d do it…hell, I’d let anyone play a paladin that wanted to (auto-raise that Charisma to 17 if too low) provided they live by the strictest of strictures (and should he/she fall, lose that bonus Charisma as well! Ha!). It would be fun to see just how long an “adventurer” could walk the straight and narrow. ; )

Two last notes: it seems weird that the “heroic divide” SEEMS to be between 1973 and 1974, as far as birth dates of players. Alex, Rob, my buddies Mike, Michael, and Ben (the infamous “god squad;” a bunch of atheists playing lawful good paladins, clerics, and rangers…weird). All these folks were born in ’74. Me and my miscreant 1st edition friends were all ’72 or ’73.

Last note: my buddy Alex got a job with Wizards of the Coast eventually and then got out-sourced to some baseball card manufacturer (don’t ask) eventually moving to California for work. I haven’t seen him since (though I “friended” him on Facebook). I miss the guy, 2nd edition or no. : (

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