Paladins, Barbarians, and Other Classes Once Balanced by Rules of Behavior

Early in the history of Dungeons & Dragons, the game’s creators made classes that rewarded strict rules of behavior with extra power. For instance, a player taking the challenge of playing a chivalrous cavalier always fought fairly, but also gained a bonus to attack with sword and lance.

Arguably, cleric stands as the first class limited by rules of behavior. Some holy men in history attempted to straddle the gulf between peaceful servant of god and spilling the blood of enemies by opting to bash their foes’ skulls while claiming not to spill blood. Based on that lore, original D&D required clerics to choose not to wield edged weapons or arrows. Back then, all weapons dealt 1d6 damage, so this limit only counted as a disadvantage because the treasure tables made magic swords 20 times more common than non-edged weapons.

Former Wizards of the Coast head Peter Adkison shepherded D&D’s third edition design. He wanted to purge “restrictions that did a good job of reinforcing play balance but still didn’t make sense.” Why would a cleric devoted to Apollo the Archer refuse a bow? For third edition, D&D’s designers replaced the rule that prevented clerics from using swords with a proficiency system that made swords a poor option. Modern D&D follows the same pattern, but it still includes a class that requires characters who choose to limit themselves. More on that at the end.

With D&D’s first Greyhawk supplement, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax started adding classes that clearly balanced extra power with limitations that required certain behavior. Paladins started as a version of fighter who always acted lawfully. (D&D lacked good and evil alignments then.) “Any chaotic act will immediately revoke the status of paladin, and it can never be regained.” The paladin’s generosity required the class to give away inessential magic items and other loot. “Gifts must be to the poor or to charitable or religious institutions, i.e. not to some other character played in the game.”

The first editor of The Dragon, Tim Kask, wrote, “It was so rigid a PC class; that smacks of Gary’s fiendish wit. Make a character truly extraordinary and make it really tough to play in terms of always having to do the ‘right’ thing, ALWAYS.”

By the Unearthed Arcana book for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, many classes offset power with a roleplaying catch. “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it. They will often seek to destroy magic items.”

Gygax knew this created a recipe for party conflict and embraced it. “When I played a barbarian, I would indeed attempt to get at newly discovered magic items and rid the world of their bane, and if some mage was foolish enough to flaunt such an object before the character, and he could lay hands on it, then…” When a monster turned Gygax’s barbarian to stone, it ended the character’s career. “No cleric or mage in the group was much interested in having the poor chap returned to life.”

In most games, players saw such restrictions as problems to solve with ingenuity. Part of the paladin’s reputation for lawful stupid comes from all the do-gooders conned into leaving the room when the thief wanted to question or kill prisoners. And how many barbarian players opted for characters just stupid enough to fail to realize that their +2 sword and cloak of protection happened to be magical? Sample dialog: “Tan-kor, you should wear this cloak we found because it, um, matches your eyes.”

Second edition introduced class kits that made characters more distinctive and powerful, often in exchange for behavior restrictions. For instance, the bladesinger from the Complete Book of Elves ranked as one of the most powerful kits. The catch: Having to protect elves whenever the opportunity comes. Players got a boost for simply committing to bite on a certain sort of adventure hook. A more onerous code weighed cavaliers, who always had to fight fairly and chivalrously. So if a cavalier’s foe slips off a cliff and hangs by the edge, the cavalier must help the foe up before resuming the fight.

Such restrictions only worked in campaigns where every player valued roleplaying. In a mix of actors and power gamers, behavior limits cause friction—even when the code doesn’t require destroying magic items. Players who value immersing into character grow annoyed by the players who just look for loopholes in codes of conduct. Dungeon masters dislike the role of mandating or penalizing behavior that ignores the hindrances built into a character kit.

By third edition, the D&D team mostly dropped roleplaying limits from the class-design toolbox.

Still, one code of conduct remains in the modern druid class. The fifth edition Sage Advice Compendium explains, “Druids don’t lack the ability to wear metal armor. They choose not to wear it. This choice is part of their identity as a mystical order. Think of it in these terms: a vegetarian can eat meat, but chooses not to.” This restriction brings enough teeth for class balance while proving clear enough to defy most players seeking loopholes.

Related: 4 Ways D&D’s Creators Tried and Failed to Balance Classes

9 thoughts on “Paladins, Barbarians, and Other Classes Once Balanced by Rules of Behavior

    1. sapphirecrook

      Restrictions can be empowering to one’s imagination! Also, they come with a mindset. Not only are you, the player, willing to stomach the rules, but your character either believes in them enough to make them law for themselves since a young age (or at least a while before the player starts playing), or tolerates them for the power they bring.

  1. ziffnabb

    Ad&d 2.0 will forever be my favorite of the systems the wealth of material that was built for that rule set combined with the flexibility to use or ignore certain aspects made for a great system. Since wizards of the coast took over they seem more interested in rewriting and reselling the same old players handbooks and dmg’s then actually adding to the diversity of the world as far did through their class and race books or the equipment guide or many expansions of the monster manual.

  2. Randy

    When I joined the Army I swore an oath and became subject to a code of conduct.

    When I became a Nurse I swore an oath and became subject to a code of conduct.

    When I joined a Fraternity I swore an oath and became subject to a code of conduct.

    Four times in my life I have sworn oaths and had to accept following codes of conduct or be disciplined.

    Gary understood the importance and meaning of taking an oath and belonging to organizations and the restrictions that came with the power of those groups. This is something that WoTC fails at badly with their anything goes design philosophy.

    1. Hunter S Thompson

      I like the anything goes cause it puts the emphasis on the DM making the rules for certain orders or certain gods etc. I like the idea that one could have a paladin to a war god and be sworn to kill anyone he draws his weapon on being just as viable as a paladin thats sworn to help the weak. It adds more depth and more to work with in a world building sense.

      If you dont like RAW always homebrew

  3. Pata Hikari

    Literally none of those classes are in any way shape or form are powerful enough to be worthy of such of such obnoxious restrictions on the type of character you want to play and if they were it would still be bad because balancing a game element based off making one player singled out for extra punishment
    Is an awful idea

    1. Kevin L

      As somebody who cut his teeth on AD&D and 2nd Edition, you couldn’t be more wrong. Paladins, Barbarians and the not mentioned monk and Assassin in those editions were immensely powerful.
      Paladins got d10’s like fighters, were immune to diseases, could lay hands to heal, summon a great horse for free, cast up to 4th level clerical spells (when 7th was their top tier), wear any armor, and use any weapon. They were also the only class able to use the Holy Avenger Sword, the strongest non-artifact sword. (I just wish 2nd ed didn’t limit them to LG, my groups homebrewed them back to Lawful alignments, because why wouldn’t evil gods have crusaders too?)
      Barbarians had the most hp (d12’s), could get insanely good ac w/o wearing any armor, had greater movement than any class except the monk, did exceptional damage while raging, and had great ability to soak/avoid damage. (I think they watched Conan the Barbarian one too many times while writing the UA book.) Sure, they weren’t supposed to use magic items, but except for creatures that needed magic to hit them, they really didn’t need it.

      I miss the day of these built in roleplay elements for each class, the later editions have drained some of the flavor from this classes in the interest of making things easier to understand.

  4. Zontoxira

    What was the design reasoning behind a paladin’s high Cha requirement, back in AD&D? Could it have been intended as a trick to not let players use Charisma as a dump stat?

    1. Empty Finger

      I bet it was:

      () A bias that Virtuous heroes had to be pretty-faced.

      () An inspiring pillar of the community has to be likable.


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