Paladin 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Divine Justice

The paladin knelt down in the middle of a battlefield. The sounds of warring orcs and humans dulled to a muffled hum beyond the edges of his holy aura. A young boy lay in the mud before the holy knight; he couldn't have been more than eight years old. The paladin wiped blood and grime from the boy’s face with his steel-plated gauntlet, and removed his helm to get a better look. The boy’s hair was jet-black, and his eyes were slanted and lightly lidded, just like his own. Sorrow tugged at the corners of the paladin’s mouth. He was no stranger to grief, but to see a child caught up in this vicious war… it reminded him too much of a battlefield forty years ago. One he remembered too well. One he recalled in sleeping and in waking.

The paladin placed his first two fingers upon the child’s forehead and his thumb upon the boy’s temple. “O Tyr,” the paladin whispered. His words were completely subsumed in the sounds of clashing blades, rending flesh, and howling that surrounded him, but he knew that his prayers would still be heard. “I present to you a life that hangs upon a thread. By your divine justice, let it not be untimely severed.”

A golden light shone from the paladin’s hand and flowed like liquid gold from his fingertips and across the boy’s body. It surged through his bloody wounds and knit them shut in an instant. The knight withdrew his trembling hand, tears welling in his eyes. “These wounds will heal, son,” he said. The boy shuddered and coughed as life returned to his small body. “These wounds will.”

A roar broke the paladin’s reverie. An orc, larger than the rest on this blighted battlefield and dressed in spiked regalia, hefted a serrated axe and charged towards the knight, bashing orc and human alike out of his way in his fury. The paladin glanced down once more at the boy and stood. He fitted his helmet once more around his head and drew his sword and shield. He squared his jaw and stepped before the slowly waking child. This life would not be ended. This innocent would not suffer unjustly today. And if even one life could be saved, it would change the world for the better. 

You are a paladin. You are a warrior who fights against evil in the name of a sacred oath you are sworn to uphold. The most iconic paladins are devoted to the service of justice and the protection of those who cannot protect themselves, but some paladins are committed to delivering vengeance upon the enemies of their god or protecting the natural order of the world. Your oath grants you powers beyond mortal ken, allowing you to fight with blade and sacred spell in tandem. While fighters and barbarians may outclass you in terms of sheer combat prowess, your ability to heal, smite, and magically manipulate the battlefield makes you a warrior of truly epic power and versatility.

This guide will walk you through the decisions that you will face in your first five levels of playing a paladin, and offer suggestions on how to make the best choices for the kind of paladin you want to play. When roleplaying your holy warrior, you will find that every paladin has a different personality and sense of decorum. Likewise, all paladins fight in a way unique to them, using different weapons, spells, and even tactics based on their sacred oath. This guide will show you a few iconic options that make the paladin stand out from the other classes of Dungeons & Dragons, while showing you a few places where you can make choices that will help make your paladin uniquely yours.

Quick Build Expanded: Building Your Paladin

This isn’t a character optimization guide, but the first step in playing your class effectively is building it effectively. The Quick Start guidelines in the Player’s Handbook are a good start, but don’t go far enough for most new players. Here’s an expanded Quick Start guide. This guide assumes you’re using the D&D Beyond Character Builder, which includes helper text for new players.

  • Under “Character Preferences,” turn off “Playtest Content,” “Critical Role Content,” and “Eberron Content.”
  • Choose your Race. While characters of any race can be a good paladin, most paladins tend to hail from naturally strong or charismatic races. Strength and Charisma are your most useful ability scores, as the former allows you to deal more damage with your attacks and Charisma improves the power of your divine abilities. It also helps you live out the fantasy of being a knight in shining armor, sweeping lords and ladies off their feet, or the proselytizing holy warrior, swaying the common people to your divine cause.
    • Dragonborn are ideal paladins, as they gain a bonus to both Strength and Charisma. Their primordial link to the dragon gods Bahamut and Tiamat invokes a powerful story of good versus evil that any paladin would want to explore.
    • Humans make for iconic paladins as well, especially given that the Twelve Peers, the legendary Knights of Charlemagne, were history’s first paladins. Their well-rounded ability scores and early access to a feat (if using the Variant human) are useful to any paladin.
    • Aasimar (found in Volo’s Guide to Monsters), also make for excellent paladins, especially if you are focused on healing and general party support thanks to their bonus to Charisma and powerful racial traits. Their celestial heritage also aptly befits a paladin.
    • Any race with an inherent bonus to Strength or Constitution, such as dwarves or half-orcs, make for good warriors. While such paladins may lack Charisma, their physical might will more than make up for it.
  • Choose paladin as your class (obviously).
  • Choose skills that fit the character you want to play. Many paladins are the face of their party, thanks to their high Charisma score, and investing in the Persuasion or Intimidation skills will help you navigate challenging social situations.
  • Consider what role you want to fill in the party. Let’s take a closer look at this.

What Kind of Paladin Are You?

When building your paladin, you should think about how you will contribute to your party. If you want to smite evil and focus more on dealing damage, you will want to build an Offense-focused paladin. If you would rather deal less damage but have more staying power, consider a Defense build instead. Lastly, if your mission is to protect your allies from harm, your best choice is to choose abilities that make you an effective Tank.

Even though you don’t choose your Sacred Oath (hereafter referred to as your subclass) until 3rd level, your Fighting Styles, choice of weapons, and spell selection will still give you a way to find a niche in the party at low levels. Once you do choose a subclass, your role in the party will become even better defined. That said, you can use the first two levels of play to decide what path you ultimately want to go down for the rest of the campaign.

(Note that I’m using Offense, Defense, and Tank as shorthand. The D&D rulebooks never refer to characters using these terms, but they’re an easy way to discuss the different roles characters serve in the party.)

Offense

Paladins who seek to focus on delivering divine judgment would do well to use two-handed weapons like greatswords, choose the Great Weapon Fighting style at 2nd level, and follow either the Oath of Vengeance or the Oath of Conquest (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything) at 3rd level. The latter is best suited for paladins of lawful evil or lawful neutral alignments, as their oath commands them to wage war and brutally stamp out their enemies.

Defense

Paladins who seek to protect themselves on the battlefield would be wise to use a one-handed melee weapon and a shield, choose the Defense style at 2nd level, and follow either the Oath of Devotion or the Oath of the Ancients at 3rd level. The former oath makes it easy to play an iconic knight in shining armor, whereas the latter allows you to easily play a green knight or fey-touched warrior.

Tank

Paladins who value the safety of others’ over their own focus not just on defensive tactics, but on ensuring that monsters attack them instead of less durable targets. If you want to be a Tank for your allies, you should choose a one-handed melee weapon and a shield, choose the Protection style at 2nd level, and follow either the Oath of the Crown (Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide) or Oath of Redemption (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything) at 3rd level. The former oath makes you a sworn knight in service to a liege-lord, while the latter is perfect for playing an idealistic defender who would rather sway the heart of a foe with words than pierce it with a blade.

Quick Build Expanded (Part 2)

  • Place your highest ability score in Strength. Your next highest score should go into Charisma. Generally, paladins need to be strong of arm first and strong of spell second, but if you want to focus on spellcasting instead of swords, you can reverse this order.
  • Choose any background that fits your character concept. This is a chance to be creative! How did you become a paladin? Were you an acolyte trained from birth as part of a religious order? Were you a hermit that heard a god whisper a secret in your meditation? Or were you a folk hero driven to pursue vengeance by a grievous murder committed in a village you were protecting?
  • Finally, determine your equipment. For an easy selection, click on “EQUIPMENT” when prompted to “Choose EQUIPMENT or GOLD”.
    • Given the choice between a martial weapon and a shield or two martial weapons, a Defense or Tank paladin should pick the weapon and shield, whereas an Offense paladin should pick two martial weapons, preferably a two-handed weapon and a ranged weapon like a heavy crossbow. A paladin that wants more flexibility could pick a shield and a longsword, because the longsword’s Versatile trait lets you use it in one or two hands, depending on the situation.
    • Given the choice between five javelins and one simple weapon, the javelins are almost always the better choice, unless you want to pick a simple weapon to fit your character concept.
    • Paladins that focus on their religious nature or who spend lots of time in cities may want a priest’s pack, while paladins with a warrior or traveler’s mission prefer the explorer’s pack.
    • The shape your holy symbol takes is an opportunity for you to make a character decision! How do your wear the symbol of your god, and what does it look like? Remember the final scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: do you pick the humble wooden symbol or the ornate golden one?

A Paladin in Combat

As warriors clad head to foot in shining armor and armed with a mighty blade, paladins are primarily front-line warriors who can also use their powers to beguile enemies and heal allies when needed. Similar to a cleric, paladins know all of the spells on their spell list, but can only prepare a certain number of them per day. You can change your prepared spells whenever you complete a long rest, but it helps to have a basic loadout of spells you can rely upon when you don’t want to spend time and energy hand-tailoring a spell list to the day’s unknown challenges.

You can only prepare a number of spells equal to your Charisma modifier plus your half your level in this class. (See the “Spellcasting” section of the paladin class in the Player’s Handbook if you need more information.) This spell selection sheet assumes you have a Charisma modifier of +2 at 1st level. If it’s +3 instead, you can prepare an extra spell of your choice (or more, if it’s even higher)!

Finally, if be aware of the Oath Spells granted to you by your subclass starting at 3rd level. These spells are always prepared, and can help round out your arsenal. If this list suggests that you prepare a spell that you already have as an Oath Spell, just pick another spell to prepare instead.

All Paladins

At 1st level, you gain the Divine Sense and Lay on Hands features. The former allows you to detect supernatural good and evil, which can help you prepare effectively for battle and suss out the true nature of duplicitous creatures—such as a vampire pretending to be a regular human. Lay on Hands is a powerful and granular feature that allows you to heal wounded allies with a touch. It’s always worth hanging onto a few points of Lay on Hands healing just in case your party’s main healer falls unconscious in the middle of a fight.

At 2nd level, you can choose a Fighting Style and gain the ability to cast spells. More details on these in the specific roles they serve. You also gain the ability to use your Divine Smite to bring down the wrath of your god upon your foes, dealing major damage when you hit with a melee weapon attack, especially against fiends and undead.

At 3rd level, you choose your Sacred Oath! More details on the benefits of this oath below, based on the roles they enable you to fulfil. You also gain the Divine Health feature, which makes you immune to disease.

At 4th level, you gain an Ability Score Improvement or a feat! Most paladins want to maximize their Strength or Charisma scores as quickly as possible to be better warriors or spellcasters, but some may wish to choose a feat based on their role in the party.

At 5th level, you gain Extra Attack, allowing you to attack twice whenever you take the Attack action instead of once. This marks a massive increase in your potential damage, especially in combination with Divine Smite.  

Offense

Paladins’ spells are primarily geared towards either dealing massive damage or mitigating damage. Since you have so few spell slots (and can only prepare a few spells), it is usually best to lean hard into your offensive role rather than spreading yourself too thin. However, you are the final arbiter of your spell selection, and you should pick spells that help you based on the content of your own campaign!

At 2nd level, pick the Great Weapon Fighting style. This allows you to reroll low rolls on your weapon’s damage dice, making it easier to deal massive damage with a large weapon.

Also at 2nd level, you can prepare a number of 1st-level spells equal to your Charisma bonus plus half your paladin level rounded down (minimum of one). If your Charisma bonus is +2, this means you can prepare three different spells at 2nd level. Three offensive spells include divine favor, searing smite, and thunderous smite. If you can prepare more than three spells at this level, consider rounding out your arsenal with utility spells of your choice.

At 3rd level, you vow to follow your Sacred Oath, choosing between the Oath of Vengeance and the Oath of Conquest (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything). These oaths both grant you Oath Spells and two Channel Divinity options at 3rd level; you can use either Channel Divinity option only once per short rest.

If you follow the Oath of the Vengeance, you can use your Channel Divinity to use Abjure Enemy, which allows you to frighten a single creature of your choice as an action, if it fails a saving throw. While frightened in this way, it is immobilized with fear; a great option to prevent a foe from fleeing! You can also use it to declare a Vow of Enmity, which grants you advantage on attack rolls against a single creature for 1 minute. The latter option is usually stronger, but having both options is nice.

If you follow the Oath of Conquest, you can use your Channel Divinity to use Conquering Presence, which allows you to force creatures of your choice that can see you within 30 feet to make a saving throw or be frightened of you. If this seems like a straight upgrade to the Oath of Vengeance’s Abjure Enemy feature, note that these creatures get to repeat that saving throw at the end of their turns, and are not immobilized while frightened. You can also use it to make a Guided Strike, which grants you a +10 bonus to hit on your next attack roll. This is great if you need to land a Divine Smite to finish off a slippery enemy.

At 4th level, you should either take an Ability Score Improvement or choose the Great Weapon Master feat. This feat allows you to do massive damage at the cost of accuracy, but the tradeoff is usually worth it.

Also at 4th level, you can prepare an additional spell per day. If you increased your Charisma score with an Ability Score Improvement at this level, you can prepare two additional spells! It may be worth rounding out your spell selection by choosing a utility spell or a healing spell like cure wounds, just in case things go sour in a fight.

At 5th level, you gain the ability to cast 2nd-level spells. You may wish to stop preparing some of your less useful 1st-level spells (based on your experience in the campaign thus far) and select one or two powerful 2nd-level spells like find steed or magic weapon.

Defense

As a defensive paladin, your traits and spells will be geared towards keeping yourself alive at all costs, even if it means sacrificing a bit of your damage potential to do so.

At 2nd level, pick the Defense style. This grants you a +1 bonus to AC whenever you’re in armor; that’s essentially equivalent to a rare magic item!

Also at 2nd level, you can prepare a number of 1st-level spells equal to your Charisma bonus plus half your paladin level rounded down (minimum of one). If your Charisma bonus is +2, this means you can prepare three different spells at 2nd level. Three defensive spells include bless, cure wounds, and shield of faith. Protection from evil and good is a powerful choice too, but is a more situational pick than the others. If you can prepare more than three spells at this level, consider rounding out your arsenal with utility spells of your choice.

At 3rd level, you vow to follow your Sacred Oath, choosing between the Oath of Devotion and the Oath of the Ancients. These oaths both grant you Oath Spells and two Channel Divinity options at 3rd level; you can use either Channel Divinity option only once per short rest.

If you follow the Oath of Devotion, you can use your Channel Divinity to make your blade a Sacred Weapon, improving its damage (and causing it to deal magical damage!), and also causing it to shine light in a radius around you. You can also use it to Turn the Unholy, which forces all undead and fiends within 30 feet to make a saving throw or flee from your holy presence. This can allow you and your allies a turn to heal or recover your strength in a particularly challenging fight—or even flee yourselves!

If you follow the Oath of the Ancients, you can use your Channel Divinity to call upon Nature’s Wrath, which causes vines to spring up from the earth and restrain a nearby creature of your choice. You can also use it to Turn the Faithless, which allows you to turn fey and fiends, not unlike the Oath of Devotion’s Turn the Unholy option.

At 4th level, you should either take an Ability Score Improvement or choose the Heavy Armor Master feat. This feat reduces the damage you take from nonmagical damage, allowing you to survive longer on the battlefield, especially against swarms of weak creatures.

Also at 4th level, you can prepare an additional spell per day. If you increased your Charisma score with an Ability Score Improvement at this level, you can prepare two additional spells! It may be worth rounding out your spell selection by choosing an offensive spell to increase your damage potential, just in case. Good offensive spells include searing smite and thunderous smite.

At 5th level, you gain the ability to cast 2nd-level spells. You may wish to stop preparing some of your less useful 1st-level spells (based on your experience in the campaign thus far) and select one or two powerful 2nd-level spells like find steed or lesser restoration.

Tank

Tanking paladins gear all of their options towards mitigating damage they take and keeping themselves alive while keeping their allies from taking damage. This generally comes at the cost of offensive power, but you want to maintain a threatening presence on the battlefield so that creatures feel pressured to attack you instead of your allies.

At 2nd level, pick the Protection style. This allows you to impose disadvantage on any attack against an ally within 5 feet as your reaction, as long as you’re wielding a shield.

Also at 2nd level, you can prepare a number of 1st-level spells equal to your Charisma bonus plus half your paladin level rounded down (minimum of one). If your Charisma bonus is +2, this means you can prepare three different spells at 2nd level. Three good tanking spells include bless, compelled duel, and heroism. Cure wounds is always a good option, but hopefully you will have a dedicated healer that will help keep you alive instead. If you can prepare more than three spells at this level, consider rounding out your arsenal with utility spells of your choice.

At 3rd level, you vow to follow your Sacred Oath, choosing between the Oath of the Crown (Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide) and the Oath of Redemption (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything). These oaths both grant you Oath Spells and two Channel Divinity options at 3rd level; you can use either Channel Divinity option only once per short rest.

If you follow the Oath of the Crown, you can use your Channel Divinity to issue a Champion Challenge, which compels creatures of your choice within 30 feet of you to stay within 30 feet of you. This allows your weaker allies to flee to safety, or continue attacking from range. You can also use it to Turn the Tide, which allows you to use your holy presence to heal nearby allies with fewer than half their hit points remaining.

If you follow the Oath of Redemption, you can use your Channel Divinity to make yourself an Emissary of Peace, which grants you a +5 bonus to Charisma (Persuasion) checks for 10 minutes. You can also use it to Rebuke the Violent, dealing radiant damage to an enemy that wounds one of your allies.

At 4th level, you should either take an Ability Score Improvement or choose the War Caster feat. The War Caster feat allows you to more easily maintain concentration on your powerful support spells while still taking damage.

Also at 4th level, you can prepare an additional spell per day. If you increased your Charisma score with an Ability Score Improvement at this level, you can prepare two additional spells! It may be worth rounding out your spell selection by choosing an offensive spell to make yourself a more credible threat. Good offensive spells include searing smite and thunderous smite.

At 5th level, you gain the ability to cast 2nd-level spells. You may wish to stop preparing some of your less useful 1st-level spells (based on your experience in the campaign thus far) and select one or two powerful 2nd-level spells like find steed or aid.

Making your Paladin your Own

Paladins are a class uniquely tied to a code of honor (or dishonor) and carries the baggage of decades of moral quandaries. Depending on the campaign you’re playing in, you and your Dungeon Master should talk privately and figure out if you want your paladin to have strict black-and-white morals or find a more nuanced world view. This discussion will help you pin down the tone of your campaign and exist more authentically within the game world—that is to say, to have more fun while roleplaying your character.

Paladins are my favorite character class. They seamlessly blend roleplaying and combat, and come pre-packaged with interesting character choices. Their versatility in combat is rivaled only by the diversity of ethical codes presented by their six sacred oaths. No matter how many different paladins I make, I can always find something completely unique in my latest character. That’s not even getting into the Oathbreaker paladin, an option for evil characters presented in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for use at the DM’s discretion. If you betray your holy vow in the middle of your campaign, that decision could completely change your character’s destiny!

No matter what choices you make as a paladin, be sure to make them big and bold. Paladins are many things, but subtle is never one of them.


James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of  Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and is also a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his two divine warriors of Bastet, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.

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