I’m working on an Oath of Vengeance Paladin, Roland, for my D&D 5e campaign. One of the trickiest parts of this is how to role-play this oath. So I thought it might be useful to share my thoughts on this with all of you (and I’m happy to hear any of your thoughts).
First, what is the Oath of Vengeance Paladin? Well, in D&D the Paladin has usually been played as a stereotype. Paladins had to be Lawful Good, they had strict codes of behavior. This could lead to interesting, conflicted characters, but it often caused every Paladin to be an even more annoying Sturm Brightblade (from the excellent Dragonlance novels).
The 5th edition, however, changed that. Now Paladins can choose an oath to follow. The classic paladin was there in the Oath of Devotion. But players also had a choice of the Oath of Vengeance and Oath of the Ancients (see my post on the latter).
Here’s what the Players’ Handbook–on page 87–says about the Oath of Vengeance: ‘The Oath of Vengeance is a solemn commitment to punish those who have committed a grievous sin.” It later states these paladins are known as “avengers or dark knights.” It then presents the tenets of this oath (88): “fight the greater evil,” “no mercy for the wicked,” “by any means necessary,” “restitution.” Compare this to the Oath of Devotion’s tenets: “honesty,” “courage,” “compassion,” “honor,” and “duty.”
Players were intrigued. Some argued they should be either Lawful Neutral or Chaotic Good. Others even suggested they should be evil. Many described them as being something like the Dark Knight incarnation of Batman or the Punisher.
I struggled with the idea of an Oath of Vengeance Paladin. First, the suggested alignments are not at all compatible. Second, there’s nothing in that Oath that precludes a specific alignment outside of evil (as they defeat the wicked). I can see the Oath of Vengeance tenets being compatible with anything from Lawful Neutral to Chaotic Good.
Where it does differs from Oath of Devotion is the intensity of acting out the alignment. Indeed, the Sword Coast Adventurers’ Guide section on paladins refers to Oath of Vengeance holders as “zealots.” An Oath of Devotion paladin and Oath of Vengeance could both be Lawful Good, but differ in whether or not they show their foes mercy and whether they stop to help the random villagers or ignore their cries in order to catch up to the evil villain.
Unfortunately, there’s no parameters in character creation for “intensity,” or “attitude.” So I thought I’d come up with a few examples to illustrate the difference.
The first is the Punisher. In Season 2, Episode 3 of Netflix’s Daredevil series, the two heroes have a great conversation about the use of force. Daredevil doesn’t like to kill bad guys; he just uses enough force to stop their evil-doing and give them a chance to change their ways. Punisher, of course, does kill; he wants to save innocents from future threats. I think that’s a good distinction between Oath of Devotion and Oath of Vengeance (I should note that the Punisher’s use of torture is not in line with Good alignments in D&D).
The second example comes from “Curb your enthusiasm,” Larry David’s HBO series. David is frequently sabotaging personal and professional opportunities by enforcing his own set of rules regarding various–arguably trivial–slights. In Season 2, Episode 5, Larry gets the wrong take-out Chinese food and finds out the person who got his food is an HBO executive to whom he was pitching a show. After Larry got his food, he found out the executive ate the shrimp from his food. Larry, of course, confronted him, leading the pitch to be rejected. This is the Oath of Vengeance: pursue the evil-doer even if it causes harm to yourself or your reputation. An Oath of Devotion Larry David, in contrast, may have forgiven the slight and focused on bigger issues.
The final example involves me. At one point in my career, I discovered some malfeasance by a colleague. It was nothing criminal, and didn’t harm anyone else. But it was unethical. If I raised it, the perpetrator may have been disciplined and probably would never do it again. But they were more powerful than me, so it was a risky move for my career. An Oath of Vengeance me would have pursued the issue until it was impossible for the injustice to ever occur again, regardless of the costs or likelihood of success. An Oath of Devotion me would have quietly raised it to make sure the problem was corrected, but avoid forcing any serious consequences onto the perpetrator. (I won’t tell you what I did).
I think these examples can help, as a series of questions to ask when deciding between Vengeance and Devotion. Or you can apply them in a general sense to a situation, and follow the Oath of Vengeance path:
- when fighting enemies, is your goal to stop the immediate threat and allow them to be redeemed, or ensure they never threaten anyone again? If the latter, you’re Oath of Vengeance.
- If you’re definitely Oath of Vengeance, your goal in combat is the latter (although not to a ridiculous extent)
- if your paladin could ensure an evil-doer was unmasked and shamed, but it’s not clear this would actually defeat them (and it would probably take you down in the process), what would they do? If they’d go full Larry David, then you’re Oath of Vengeance.
- If you’re playing Oath of Vengeance, you never stop pursuing your sworn foe, with no regard to personal cost
- if your paladin could let an evil-doer off the hook with assurance they’d change their behavior, would they? If not, you’re Oath of Vengeance.
- Oath of Vengeance paladins would laugh at such an offer. They wouldn’t kill the prisoner, but they would prevent them from going free.
Any thoughts? Agree, disagree?
UPDATED FOR TYPOS