Gnomish Workshop: Oathbreaking
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Sixty Six on 19 May 2021.
Lennon: All right, I’ve got it!
Ryu: For the last time, you cannot make a flumph your patron.
Lennon: No, no, no, I’ve got all that sorted. See, I’m just going to ignore my patron.
Ostron: I’m sorry, what?
Lennon: Yeah. See, I’ve been looking into it and, as far as I can tell, there’s no downside.
Ostron: How is that possible? Your patron is why you have all your abilities. Don’t they go away?
Ryu: Well that’s not fair; Paladins and Clerics have to follow their god and everything or they get slapped, why do you get a free pass?
Lennon: Actually, they don’t have to do anything either.
The premise behind Clerics, Paladins, and Warlocks in lore is that their power is not their own. Where Alchemists, Wizards, eldritch knights, and arcane tricksters study to learn magic, druids and rangers draw from nature, and Sorcerers are just born with it, the three other classes receive their magic and abilities from an alternate source. Paladins get the abilities from their extreme devotion to, and belief in, an ideal, Clerics are bestowed with the gifts thanks to their god, and Warlocks get it direct from the source after signing the licensing agreements.
Because of the way all that is structured, some people are of the opinion that Clerics, Paladins, and Warlocks are able to, and possibly more likely to, lose their abilities by defying or abandoning whatever their starting philosophy or patron is.
While some of this sentiment is borne out of interpretation of the D&D lore, there are some historical precedents for it.
The Paladin class was solidified as a standard class by the time of D&D 2nd edition. Some reminder for perspective; at that time in D&D, alignment was a big deal; it was one of the defining characteristics of a character in conjunction with their race and class. Paladins were a class that was required to be lawful good and follow a god who exemplified the same alignment. If a paladin committed a chaotic act, or were forced through domination or other brainwashing to commit an evil act, they would lose all of their paladin class benefits and count as a fighter until they found a cleric of the god they followed who was 7th level or higher. Once located, they needed to seek forgiveness from the cleric and then perform an assigned penance before they could regain their powers. If they willfully committed an evil act, it was game over; they lost all of their paladin abilities and counted as a fighter from then on, and there was no way for them to regain their original class.
Clerics in 2nd edition were under similar restrictions, but it was less codified. Partly this was because while the class was devoted to a god, it did not necessarily have to be a good or lawful one; the cleric could be a devotee of a neutral god. The base rules for 2nd edition assumed players wouldn’t willingly make a cleric devoted to an evil god, but there were actually no written restrictions.
Unlike the list of conditions for the Paladin, the rules only noted that Clerics’ powers came from their chosen god and if the Cleric abused them they could be removed, so the decision was largely left up to the DM if a Cleric had strayed from their path and what they might have to do to regain their powers.
We’d tell you what the requirements were for warlocks in 2nd edition but…there weren’t any.
Lennon: I’m liking that system better already.
Lennon: Right, never mind.
By the time you get to edition 3.5 life is a little easier for the divine adventurers, although paladins still have a harder go of it than clerics. Alignment at this point was still very much a central part of the rules and character identities, so mechanics and rules were still based on what alignment a character had. In this case, Paladins were only allowed to be lawful good and any actions or patterns that strayed from that too far were grounds for the paladin to lose their shiny toys.
Clerics, as mentioned, had a little more leeway. Their alignment was supposed to be the same as whatever god they devoted themselves to, which allows for them to start anywhere on the grid. The rules stated that from there, the cleric can only drift one level away on the 3×3 square. So if a cleric is pledged to a neutral good god, they can do chaotic good or lawful good things without really worrying about it, but chaotic neutral might be a problem. There was also the caveat that clerics could not drift into true neutral and maintain divine favor unless the god was also true neutral. Yes, there is a loophole there, but we’re talking about the system where it was possible to multiclass four classes together, grab three magic items, and end up with a character that could do 9 unarmed magical attacks in close combat each turn and have access to a full range of spell slots up to level 9 with everything based on the Int mod, so it’s hardly the only one.
So what happened if you did drift too far and no longer presented the kind of persona your god approved of? All class abilities, including spellcasting, were no longer available to you, so you essentially just became a well equipped and highly skilled commoner with no special abilities. Good news though; they got rid of the irredeemable actions; all a cleric or paladin had to do was seek atonement or forgiveness and they got all their toys back. The rules weren’t specific about what that atonement or forgiveness required. I suspect pizza for the DM was involved more than once.
But now for the part that Lennon’s interested in. Warlocks were a thing by 3.5 and they worked much the same way; all the powers come from a patron the warlock pledged themselves to in a dark, mysterious bargain, making the warlock beholden to their patron. So what happens if they ask for a favor and the Warlock goes “Sod off you daft tree hugging flower girl! I’m my own man, you can take your mound and-” please tell me you didn’t actually send this to your patron?
Lennon: What is it you Americans say? I plead the 8th?
Ryu: No, but I’m pretty sure you are going to need to worry about cruel and unusual punishment.
Whatever, as far as the official rules go, the mechanical penalty for defying the patron was…nothing! It’s not mentioned in the written rules at all, in fact, at least not in the basic resources. It’s possible there were other mechanics in supplemental resources but 3.5’s supplemental resources let you build a literal dwarf paratrooper so that’s not saying much.
The practical reality is that from 3.5 forward, any negative effects and punishments for any of the three classes were largely left up to the DM to handle. By the time you get to 5th edition, Paladins don’t even have to devote themselves to a particular god anymore, and all of the alignment requirements are gone, even before Wizards started the most recent move toward eliminating alignment from player characters all together. If there are any negative repercussions to acting outside of their mandate, they’re created entirely by the DM. So if the DM doesn’t want to deal with it the rules have nothing preventing you from playing a cleric devoted to the lawful good sun god Amaunator who tortures children on the weekends, though one could argue that’s not really following the spirit of the class or the game as a whole.
5th edition does suggest some eternal consequences for the characters in question. Demonic deathlocks are warlocks who defied their patrons and therefore their soul was snatched up by the patron in question after their death, doomed to an eternity of servitude under the one they betrayed. Also, Narzugon devils are formed from the souls of paladins that forsook their original oaths and pledged themselves to a devil. However, both of those fates only take place after death. It could be argued that would be a risk to the character if they die as it would make resurrecting them difficult if not impossible as the patron or devil would not agree to relinquish the soul, but as far as immediate mechanical penalties, there’s still no real guidance on that.
That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, of course. As many players and even Wizards’ staff regularly point out, it’s the DM’s game, they can do what they want, and the mechanics would be fairly simple; any abilities specifically tied to the class, particularly any subclass features, would be inaccessible to the character. Again, they just become a sort of beefed up commoner with a couple of magic items, maybe. However there are some pitfalls to be aware of depending on the class.
As mentioned before, in 5e paladins no longer gain their powers from devotion to a god, but more to an ideal. Vengeance paladins, for example, are so focused on the idea of revenge that they’re able to manifest divine power in response to that. So arguably if a paladin is still committed to a cause, even if that cause changes, they would still have access to that power. The only way to lose it would be if a paladin became apathetic. An Oathbreaker paladin subclass does exist in 5e, but the lore for that specifically states it’s a paladin who abandoned their original cause to serve evil, not a paladin who just gave up on causes entirely.
Cleric behavior is a little easier to nail down as they still have to choose a god their divine powers are coming from, so if they don’t stick with the god’s general outlook they can have their powers drained. But as we mentioned before, even back in 3.5 they had some pretty wide leeway in interpreting the god’s wishes. Also, if their behavior doesn’t match the god they’re devoted to, it’s very likely another one fits better and would be happy to have them; in the 5th edition reference alone there are 37 gods listed for Faerun, usually with 3 or more options for each alignment. If you start folding in Greyhawk you end up with gods covering things as specific as tornadoes, so the cleric has options.
And of course there are the warlocks. As we just mentioned, the lore currently suggests that faithless warlocks are basically left alone until they die. That has led many people to assume warlocks actually can’t lose their powers like clerics or paladins. They liken it to a student loan; all of the money, or in this case power, is provided up front, and then it’s up to the warlock to pay it back over time. If they don’t, whatever patron they were pledged to shows up like a creditor in probate court and demands their due after death, but they may not bother them at all otherwise. Again, DMs don’t always play it out that way; the trope of the warlock trying to defy their patron and then incurring a long-winded quest to escape their arcane debt is well established, but that particular storyline seems to irk a lot of players, so it may be worth exploring other options if you actually want to impose some sort of penalty.
And that really sums up the situation; there are no longer any mechanical penalties in place for Clerics, Paladins, or Warlocks that abandon whatever entity or ideal they’re supposed to be devoted to. It’s possible to look back at legacy implementations and impose some sort of penalty, but that’s likely to put the character in question at a steep disadvantage, so it’s something that should be discussed at the start of a campaign, and probably include all the players.
Lennon: Right, so, this is just like a student loan then. I don’t do anything, nobody really bothers me about it, and after 25 years it just goes away!
Ostron: Yeah, that’s how student loans work in your country. I think they were thinking more of the US model of unpaid student loans.
Lennon: What does that involve?
Ostron: Pretty much constant threats and harassment.
(distressed big cat sound)
Lennon: What happened to Cinder?
Ryu: She was playing in a tree outside.
Lennon: Did she fall?
Ryu (annoyed): No, the tree suddenly tried to eat her!
Lennon (deflecting): Well, that’s just…irresponsible. I mean RaeRae should really learn to keep track of the nature spells she’s casting…
Ryu: Uh huh. Come here, let’s go.
Lennon: Ow, let go! Where are we going?
Ryu: We’re going into the Scrying Pool so you can explain that to RaeRae yourself. Come on Cinder.
Lennon: No, wait, I didn’t mean it! Help!