Hello everyone! Today, thanks to a twitter question a few days ago, I decided to write up some thoughts about oath breaking in dungeons and dragons. Currently, in 5th Edition, there are 3 classes that derive their power from an external source or oath they make: Warlocks, Paladins, and Clerics.
In older editions, these classes were much more restrictive in how your character had to be in order to play them. A good example is that Paladins originally could only be Lawful Good, or Clerics had to be within 1 “step” of their Gods alignment. However, in 5th Edition these restrictions no longer exist, and in fact your Cleric and Paladin, despite channeling divine energy, don’t even have to belong to a church or religion! If you wanted, your Paladin could just believe in the power of Justice and channel that raw energy into their powers, or your Cleric could believe in the sheer raw power of Life and use that to channel their power. And Warlocks? Well they make a deal, a direct deal with some entity who gives them power in exchange for “something”.
But beliefs can change. Oath’s broken. Deal’s broken. And what should happen when a Cleric no longer truly believes in the power of Life? What happens when a Paladin and their belief in Justice is challenged to the point where they lose faith? What happens when the Warlock decides to break the terms of their deal?
Currently, in 5th Edition, not a damn thing mechanically. And sometimes these issues do in fact crop up. The question I was asked, for example, was how to handle a Cleric whose god had abandoned them. But all sorts of similar issues and challenges could crop up in a game, and handling them appropriately is not always the easiest thing to do. So I wanted to bring up a few ideas I had on how to handle these, without completely making a character unfun to play but also making their decisions, and choices, matter.
These folks are honestly the easiest and hardest to work with. Easy in the sense that each Warlock has made some sort of deal with an entity in exchange for gifts. These gifts are their Pacts, their Boons, and their Magic. But what happens when that Warlock wants out? Perhaps the Patron has demanded something the Warlock refuses to do? How do you penalize the Warlock in a way that both makes sense and doesn’t make the player feel punished?
It could be as simple as the Patron locking out some of the powers the Warlock has, until the Warlock does what the Patron wants. For example, perhaps they lose access to their Pact feature, or their Spells. I would never take all the Warlock’s power away for doing this, as it makes more sense that some of the power is the Warlocks own awakened abilities, and some of it is granted by their Patron. This is assuming the Warlock didn’t steal their power form the entity, which is always possible. I would discuss with the player out of game the ramifications of their choice, and what their Patron COULD and WOULD do to them. Make sure you are not going to ruin the fun of the player.
You could also offer the choice of the player finding a NEW Patron! No one says that you can’t break one deal to forge another. Perhaps the Warlock has forged a back with one Devil, and that Devil’s rival finds out about the broken deal. It comes along, offering to reinstate the Warlock’s power in exchange for perhaps working against the first Devil. Things like that are always options and could provide entire storylines for the party to follow.
A paladin in fifth edition is not powered by any god, but rather an ideal. A belief in a single thing (the power of Justice, of Vengeance, of Conquest, of the Natural Order, ect) that is so strong it causes them to become a Champion of that ideal. But, at times, a belief can change. If a paladin has lost their faith, and no longer truly believes in the ideal fueling them, I feel there are a couple of ways to deal with this.
First, the paladin should lose access to all but their most basic abilities. All class features unique to their Oath should be removed until they either deal with their internal crisis of faith, or perhaps find a new idea to believe in and thus CHANGE to a new Oath. I would leave them with first level spell slots, and smite, as even having worked with the divine should cause them to be able to access the most basic of powers. Their basic paladin class features that they have earned should also remain intact as well, as I feel those are changes they have gained from BEING infused with Divine Power. Obviously they would not lose their martial training either.
From there, it’s all up to the paladin player. Perhaps after some roleplaying, and some questing, they decide that Justice is no longer their path, but Vengeance is. Perhaps they were betrayed by a friend and it hurt them so much that only getting pure revenge on that person will satiate them. Again, discuss with your player the ramifications of their choice, and work with them to come up with a way for them to either gain a new Oath, or regain what they lost. As this is a vital story change for a character. The power of belief that fuels a Paladin is immense, and losing that faith is a big deal. Further, I would most likely ask them to not take class levels in Paladin until they solve their crisis of Faith.
Now we get to the most interesting case for me. A Cleric is, in effect, a priest of a faith. A herald of a god or ideal. They worship this thing, and if they lose faith in what they worship, what should happen to them? They could also run into the issue where their faith is challenged, either by their god demanding something of them, or a clash of morals in some fashion.
While a Warlock has a one on one deal with an Entity, a Cleric’s power is all one way: From their God or Faith. And because of that, it’s entirely possible to lose all access to their powers. Now, this primarily becomes an issue if the Cleric is part of a Gods Faith. For the Clerics who believe in an ideal, they should be treated similar to Paladins. If a Cleric who believes in the power of Life itself becomes jaded, and no longer has the same belief, they should lose access to all but their First level spells, domain spells, and any unique Domain Features until they either regain the faith, or find a new believe (perhaps the life cleric no longer believes life is sacred, and turns to the dark powers of the Grave in an attempt to decide who lives and dies, for example).
If a Cleric worships a Deity, however, things can get more interesting. If it’s simply a matter of the Cleric no longer believing in their god, you could treat them as above until their faith is restored or until they find a new god to worship. However, it could be that the Cleric has angered their god, or the god simply abandons the Cleric because of the Clerics actions. At this point, the cleric should lose access to all but their first level spells, their domain, and its features. Now, depending on WHY the God has done this, you can have a couple of options. Perhaps the God demands a quest of the Cleric, a mission to prove their worthiness and faith in order to regain what was lost. Perhaps the god demands tribute, or a sacrifice of some kind. Whatever the reason, the Cleric should have to accomplish something in order to regain their Gods trust in order to wield the divine powers the God grants.
Again, work with your Cleric player for the details, as such events should be rare. No God is going to want a Cleric who jumps around from Faith to Faith for instance.
Now obviously these are just some basic ideas on how to handle these classes breaking their sacred oaths and what you could do to represent the loss in game. Always talk to your players before you do such things, as no one should have their fun ruined because they suddenly lose things they didn’t know they COULD lose. And hey, you could always ignore these ideas! They are, after all, just some extra options based on how things used to be done in the older editions.
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