Sunday, January 9, 2022

Oath-breaker Paladins – The Problem with Character Advancement in D&D

I’ve recently been taking a harder look at some enduring features of D&D that can be traced back to game’s original edition (OD&D). My goal is to run a campaign that moves its centre of gravity away from the characters, shifting it instead onto the game world. My last post looked at how such a “materialist” approach to gaming could be applied to ability scores. Here I will look at D&D’s approach to character advancement under a similar lens.

In D&D character advancement, along with character creation, is something that traditionally lies firmly in the domain of the players. Players select a path of advancement at the point of character creation in terms of choosing a class. While the game world partly determines the speed of this advancement through opportunities to gain experience (XP), the direction of the path rarely changes except at the player’s own instigation.

My issue with this is not that these decisions are in the hand of the players, but that they are made largely in abstract from the game world. At creation, characters occupy a strange state of being, with no active involvement in the world. Yet decision here will go on to determine much of the character’s interaction with the world thereafter. Death is generally the only impediment the world presents to completing the life path set by the player.

The Oath-Breaker Paladin

There is an example that sticks with me from 5e D&D of a subclass of paladin named “oath-breaker paladin”. A paladin is one of the classes where you would think factors in the game world would most impinge on the character’s advancement. This is both acting in accordance with the prescriptions of their church/temple, but also authentically reflecting the will of their deity. But what if the player doesn’t feel like roleplaying this way? 5e D&D gives them a handy escape clause.

The concept of an “oath breaker paladin” feels like it should be a contradiction in terms. It amounts to ditching the duty to follow a code, ignoring this defining feature of being a paladin. Yet the character still gets to advance in the paladin class, gaining just a different set of spells and abilities. A case of “damned if you do” and it doesn’t matter if you’re damned anyway.

This general attitude towards character advancement seems to go right back to the original edition of D&D (OD&D). In OD&D, a cleric who does not want to heal people can just be an evil cleric, with special reversed spell versions to accommodate this. B/X edition D&D does have wizards engaging a mentor to acquire new spells. But they remain very much self-made individuals, pulled up by their bootstraps, not required to heed the tenets of a magical college.

There is something almost transactional about the above approach to character advancement. XP is awarded through the game world, and then becomes a universal currency for use at the player’s discretion. There is “work” that has been done in clearing the dungeon which demands payment in XP. Being told you can’t spend it on the class you want because of your actions in the world is like going into a shop and being told your money is no good. Even gangsters get to buy diamonds, without the shop clerk asking how they got the money. Levelling up in D&D can feel a little like this.

A Materialist Approach to Character Advancement

There is a subset of OSR games, where it is largely physical objects like armour and weapon in the game world that determine your character. I’ve reviewed Into the Odd (ItO), which has no classes. What amounts to “advancing” in this game is collecting better equipment or more powerful magical items.

The ItO approach is one way character advancement can be made more materialist. Advancement becomes dependent on the game world in terms of the items that are available to find. Yet our experience of real life tells us that it is more than just physical objects that determine our capacities in the world. The requirement to find objects also places no restrictions on a character’s behaviour, in a way that might be appropriate for character types like the paladin.

I’ve referred to ItO as a basic materialist RPG, due to its focus on physical objects. The thing to understand about materialism is its premise that everything can be reduced to the material. The idea of the game world “shaping the character” can therefore be taken to mean everything in this world. This includes things we wouldn’t automatically think of as having physical being, including economics, religion, structures of power etc. A fully materialist RPG would incorporate such factors too – not just objects you can physically grasp.

The theatre maker Augusto Boal wrote a book aimed at encouraging a more materialist approach to drama, which seems relevant too for RPGs. There is an example he gives with reference to the Vietnam war, which evolved under four different presidents. Kennedy was the president when the invasion of Vietnam began, while Nixon, perhaps the most morally dubious of the four, ended up making the peace (p81 Theatre of the Oppressed).

Boal’s point is that the individual will of the president determines very little. Despite being the most powerful job on the planet, the actions of those who occupy it become shaped by material factors such as economics and geopolitics. We can also think of a soldier in the US army, with access to and training in using some very advanced weaponry. Ostensibly, we could think of this making them powerful individuals, when in reality they have very little agency over how such weapons are used.

In a fantasy setting, knowing the spell fireball isn’t far off from walking around with a rocket launcher on your back. Yet players face very few restrictions in the use of such spells. In a low magic RPG setting, spells are sometimes outlawed. But it is not just laws that prevent a soldier going rogue with a rocket launcher. To use such weaponry, their actions much first become aligned with the agenda of an institution, in this case the army. It is this dimension that is typically missing from RPGs.


I’ve previously suggested that materialism is a philosophy that underlies much of “Old School” gaming (OSR), in its concern with equipment and the objective independence of the game world. This deferential attitude towards the game-world feels like it should extend to character advancement. Yet this is something the OSR has never really embraced. My next post will look at attempts to do this in the 1st edition of Advanced D&D, and the challenges of integrating such rules into RPGs.


  1. I think the oathbreaker paladin is a distant evolutionary descendant of the Blackguard in the D20 system, which in turn came from the Anti-Paladin in 1e, the idea being that the forces of evil, delighted at seeing such a paragon fall, would invest him with a portion of their might, granting him powers that were a mockery of that of the formerly honorable paladin. 5e screwed this up mightily by adding a big fog of ambiguity to all of its character concepts.

    Food for thought. I am unsure if the treatment of character advancement in the OSR is considered a problem until I see your proposed solution for it.

    1. Thanks, it is useful to have this context. I guess the Anti-Paladin should be following their own reverse code really, but 5e seems to have left this part out. I intend to come back to this theme soon. The solution is definitely the tricky part!