Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What is a Paladin to you?

Artist Unknown

"Justice and retribution are but trifling things.

There are victories of greater worth.

Someday you will know them."

The paladin is many things to many people.  To some it's a holy warrior, whose main mission is to strike down evil.  Others are paragons of law, caring just as much about tradition and authority as serving the greater good.  Unfortunately many Dungeon Masters take a narrow restriction on the paladin, insisting on placing them in situations where they're bound to fail or applying Judeo-Christian ethos of sin on an already-restrictive code of conduct.  All too often we have DMs willing to strip a paladin of their powers for small reasons which wouldn't land other Lawful Good players in hot water, as demonstrated in this RPGnet thread.  A lot of times this stems from DM and player not being on the same page, having different ideas of what a paladin is supposed to be in the game.

After reading an interesting post over on Bat in the Attic of what a paladin means to him, I figured that it would be a fun idea to get some discussion rolling about not just your imagining of the Paladin, but what existing pieces of media best encapsulate the archetype.  In my view, the protagonist of Final Fantasy IV is one of the best examples of a fantasy Paladin.  Below I'll detail why.

Spoiler Warning: Although this game was made back in the early 90s, to truly get a sense of appreciation for Cecil's trials, I'd suggest playing it yourself or watching a good Let's Play (HCBailly's starting a run on this game right now on YouTube).  I'm also still in the process of playing the game, so it's possible I didn't cover some future character development.  If you have FFIV on your gaming radar, return to this blog post when you've reached that point.

Final Fantasy IV: Cecil's Redemption

Cecil Harvey was a loyal soldier of the kingdom of Baron.  Trained in the ways of the Dark Knight, he draws upon fell powers to strengthen his battle prowess.  In spite of this, Cecil is not a wicked soul at heart.  The game starts out with him leading the Red Wings airship legion to attack and steal magical Crystals from the holy shrines of other nations, ordered to by his King to ensure the safety and security of Baron and its people.  Although he loyally carries out his orders, a seed of doubt spreads in his mind when the people of Mysidia beg him not to take away their Water Crystal and put up hardly any resistance.  Combined with the King's recent strange behavior, Cecil raises his doubts to his lord, which results in his demotion and being sent on a mission to Mist, a remote village of mystical summoners.

His King betrayed him, for the ring he was entrusted with to deliver conjured an army of living monsters of fire.  They slaughtered the people of Mist nearly to the last person, whose magical powers were long seen as a threat to Baron's King.  Horrified at his unwitting accessory to ethnic cleansing, Cecil saves a village girl named Rydia and sets off to the nearby kingdom to spread word of Baron's atrocities and hopefully rally enough support against the crown he once served.

Cecil is genuinely repentant and acts altruistically, but he is still a Dark Knight.  Eventually he arrives alone at Mysidia, the land he once invaded at Baron's behest.  The locals stare venomously at him, but the village's elder believes his words and change of heart and tells him of a trial at Mt. Ordeals.  Those who pass the test can become a paladin, a holy warrior sworn to the cause of good.

The above scene is very powerful.  To become a paladin is a true test; you do not simply begin play as one, but it comes along as the result of the story.  The battle with his evil self is unorthodox because to truly pass the test, Cecil must not strike his alter ego.  It's a way of telling one who did wrong to face what they did to transform into a better person, not condemn and deny it like a foreign entity to destroy.

Cecil is a paladin, but he did not start out as an icon of righteousness.  Even after his class change he still must atone for his past by stopping Golbez from wreaking havoc on the world.  It's all too easy to imagine a paladin as less of a person and more of an archetype.  Before the slaughter at Mist, Cecil was not so much a willing accomplice to evil so much as a good man who did nothing and let his trust in his lord stay his hand for too long.  By resolving to courageously do what's right in spite of one's own fears and doubts, that's what turned him into a hero, long before he took up the title of paladin.

Cecil is my ideal paladin.  He's not an archon of Law forced to respect those in power, nor a crusader motivated to convert others under the banner of one religion.  All that matters is to do good in the world and stop the spread of tyranny and misery.  That's what a paladin should be to me.  All the other aspects of the Code in Editions, such as never lying, upholding Law as well as Good, is unnecessary window dressing to a class which can easily stand on its own feat as a warrior of virtue.

After all, justice is not the only right in this world.