In this series, I’ll go through classes and subclasses in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition and apply them to their real-world associates in history and sometimes contemporary culture and suggest how you can flavor them in a way that feels more dynamic or realistic.
The plates and rings of your armor clink against the stone floor and echo through the nave of the humble chapel. The cold and glimmering steel of an heirloom sword touches your shoulder, and the Lady of your House bids you to say your oath. Your voice resonates with humility and devotion into the ears of those who came to bear witness. You are now Knighted and bound in loyalty… you knelt as a soldier, now rise a knight.
Whether a Knight of England and France, a Rajput Warrior of Rajasthan, or a Samurai of Feudal Japan, the idea of devotion and service to Lord, land, and laypeople has inspired these warriors and their legends for centuries. Even though the legends of such highly-trained and revered soldiers have been the groundwork inspiration for the Paladin Class in D&D, the framework of their mythos can be applied to the likes of Fighters and Clerics as well.
As 5th Edition becomes more popular, more philosophy and thought have been put into how to characterize a Paladin’s Oath, so despite these knightly virtues and tales of chivalry being potentially transferable to other classes, we will focus on how the themes can carry over across these three, featuring the Paladin as the central class.
From East to West, knightly orders in a general sense manifested largely as a mounted-and-armed law-keeping force for Clans, Lordships, and Kingdoms at large. Because heavy equipment, horse, and arms were expensive, a portion of a newly-appointed knights’ kit was provided by their liege upon their oath of allegiance in trust of their loyalty. This is somewhat different between cultures but the intent is pretty consistent.
Most oaths in Europe were religiously motivated and laced with political loyalty. Oaths often tied in moralities of the culture involved, many involving protecting the weak (usually specific to the peasantry of the liege they served). Some oaths involved an intense honor ruleset, such as dying with one’s Lord or never being taken prisoner. Some of these involved heavy consequences if they were not followed such as shunning or banishment. In the legend of Ivanhoe, the book’s namesake goes in disguise with a cryptic set of armor to the iconic Tournament of Ashby under the guise of the title Desdichado or The Disinherited since he went against his Saxon father’s wishes by joining the Crusades with a Norman King. Although this title is self-given, Ivanhoe owns up to his disloyalty to his family and redeems himself in spades upon his return.
Bending The knee, But At What Cost?
It’s important to note that the idea of a chivalric code and/or oath is not exclusive to a single type of militant division in the world. I’m sure whether your game takes place in Faerun or a Homebrew setting there are likely orders and royals to which Paladin players can swear or pledge an oath of allegiance to. Too often Paladins in D&D just exist in an island unto themselves, this is great if you’re the edgelord Oathbreaker or Vengeance subclass but there’s so much more dynamic and moral quandary one can have when a Paladin, who took an ethical which is also bound to a political power who isn’t necessarily always following these tenets. The call to adventure/action basically writes itself from there for a backstory and blooming character development. So next time you build a Paladin, think of the in-world person or organization they serve, not just the God or oath they’ve self-proclaimed.
Knights With Other Talents
In early days, Knights may have been a specific military role, but as the centuries moved on, they took a more politically ceremonial role as their deeds were turned to legends and ideals of etiquette were formed from their station. Since D&D is so vast in its flavor, and forever unlimited due to the power of imagination, a Knight could technically be any class. For the sake of keeping it somewhere in the realm of Knighthood around and between 1050-1450 ACE, we will focus on the Fighter and Cleric.
In medieval Europe, it was not uncommon for captains of different small divisions of soldiers to be knighted after long years of service to the crown. Doing this before or after a large battle was commonplace and inspired the troops. Therefore, it’s not a complete stretch for your bow-wielding fighter to have such titles or oaths given. Around the world, we find many religions had militant orders of warriors. Not all were known as knights but most cleric subclasses at their core fit in perfectly with subscribing to a Holy Order of Knights beholden to specific practices and aspects of a religion. Popular orders like the Templars and Hospitallers are just a couple of examples but other types of religious warriors could inspire Cleric-like builds such as Sikhs and their peaceful devotions laced in their defense of the weak and courage against oppression.
When it comes to inspiration from the entire medieval world there are numerous examples of devout warriors of different cultures, lifestyles, religions, and loyalties. One rule I always keep when researching for inspiration is “Blend but never imitate” in order to keep a respectful removal from directly referencing the real world too flagrantly. Other than that, it’s time to mount your steed as the portcullis creaks open and ride out into a world that needs your help.
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