My group consists of two familiar names from the old CO board (Radical Taoist and DisposableHero_) along with three others (Andarious, Sionnis, and Seishi); whenever I showcase a build, I’ll identify its lead author in the immediate preamble (just before the build’s title). By no means should you assume I did all of these on my own – in fact, on some, my only contribution was to write up this post!
All of these builds, unless noted otherwise, assume 28 point buy and fractional base attack / saves (Unearthed Arcana; this dramatically simplifies the math and usually doesn't impact things much otherwise. If a build relies on fractional to work, I'll list a non-fractional variant as well); any expansion books and variant rules involved will be clearly identified, along with variants we've considered. I tend to do snapshots at significant levels, showing the rationale being specific choices and highlighting capabilities at key levels, rather than just presenting a giant table and summary and leaving it to you to figure out how to play them.
With that out of the way, let's get started. This week’s build (a little early since I won't be around for most of tomorrow) is primarily from Andarious – I only suggested two feats and a few substitutions early on, and he pulled out this jewel.
Play that funky music, knight boy!
Required Books: Champions of Valor, Complete Champion, Races of Destiny, Dungeonscape, Eberron Campaign Setting (one feat), Book of Exalted Deeds (one feat), DMG2 (one item), MIC.
Unearthed Arcana used: None!
Background: Let’s not mince words: the paladin isn’t very good. It’s a solid Tier Five class, which – if you’re like most people I’ve met – is a bit below par. (In my experience, most people seem to think Tier Three is the sweet spot.) But bollocks to that, I say – let’s see if we can take a single-classed Paladin 20 and bring out his “A”-game through clever use of substitutions, but without stepping outside what we view the paladin as – a holy knight, a champion of good, a leader of men.
Turns out it’s actually pretty badass. In fact, this Paladin-20 build comes out pretty comparable to a Song of the White Raven Crusader (slightly less tough and moderately lower stamina, but significantly more magical with all the oomph that can provide), which is not a bad benchmark to hit at all, since the two are basically the same thing fluffwise and the latter's known to be very effective at its job (and in the Tier Three sweet spot to boot). And all it takes for the paladin to do this is throwing away Remove Disease (meh), the Special Mount (…okay) and Turn Undead (wtf?). Yes, it does it without divine feats.
Let's get rolling.
- Race: Illumian. Paladins are notoriously MAD, and this is the easiest way to reduce that. You even get a halo of sorts.
- Ability Scores: 14/10/14/14/10/14. Put a point into Intelligence and Charisma at 4 and 8, then put the rest into Strength.
Skill Notes: You’re going to want some (at least 6) ranks in a vocal Perform skill, oddly enough. (3 of those ranks will be cross-class before level 3.) Other than that you’re pretty open, although you might find Concentration to be more worthwhile here than usual for a paladin, and you have reason to max out at least one Knowledge skill (probably Religion; you get Arcana as a class skill, but would have to buy it at cross-class rates most of the time). And while technically you could go all Return of the King with Perform (Oratory) and the build will work without any changes, we’re aiming for a different King (or Queen) for our knight's imagery and using Perform (Singing) in our example. Just trust me here – he will rock you.
Basic Equipment: No specific demands beyond what you’d expect for a warrior, or a paladin for that matter. However, you ditch the Special Mount, so you can more or less ignore mounted gear. Since you have Power Attack, you'll probably want a martial two-hander (and can pretty much freely pick for style), especially at the lower levels; at the higher levels, you'll probably switch to a one-hander and a shield (you will rely less on Power Attack for melee damage, your reasons to hold back grow, and the shield gives you a second slot for a wand chamber plus enough AC to survive being a high-priority target.)
Magical Gear Goals: You’ll want a Badge of Valor (MIC, it's part of the Regalia of the Hero set) as soon as possible (around level 4 or 5 ideally) and a Vest of Legends (DMG2, on your own you can probably afford it at or around level 14, but it can pay off for a party if they pool their money to buy it earlier: you're a party support machine, so investing in your inspiration ability is an investment in themselves. Compare the price of a vest to the price of upgrading everyone's weapons by an extra +1 and you'll see), and you don’t need a Wisdom booster at all. Other than that, just your standard warrior-paladin gear - +Strength, +Constitution, +Charisma, good weapon, good armor, and so on. As usual for most meleeist builds, I also suggest an Eternal Wand of Heroics or two - you've got Power Attack, but not a lot else on the melee front, so this opens up some nice flexibility. Unlike most of the builds showcased to this point, you can actually use Heroics without the wand, so keep that in mind. Finally, consider the Harmonizing enhancement if you're in a high-magic game: this can allow your sword to act as the Melodic Casting or Lingering Song feat depending on how you use it.
Build Stub: Paladin 20.
Note: This does involve a bit of relaxation on the RP-specific components – it uses two different paladin orders (Mystra’s Order of the Mystic Fire and Melil’s Harmonious Knights). The result isn’t as crazy as that sounds: put them together and you basically transform parts of Paladin into parts of Bard, which would be almost indistinguishable in-world from multiclassing (and you're an illumian, who may as well have "multiclass" as their favored class). Plus it's a logical pairing, even if the actual multiclass is illegal: paladins are supposed to be inspirational, and in D&D, all to often that means bard.
1- Paladin – (Aura of Good, Detect Evil, Smite Evil 1) (Power Attack) (Aesh sigil)
2 – Paladin – (Divine Grace, Lay on Hands) (Krau sigil, Aeshkrau power word)
3 – Paladin – (Aura of Courage, Divine Health) (From Smite To Song) (Inspire Courage +1)
Note that the build does employ Harmonious Knight, but does not employ first substitution level (which, confusingly, also grants Inspire Courage - more frequently, but locked to a mere +1 bonus - in place of Detect Evil). Smite to Song is the better effect, and keeping Detect Evil helps remind you that you're still a paladin first and foremost.
There is an argument that, since From Smite To Song isn't actually "Bardic Music", your Inspire Courage won't work with bardic-music-enhancing effects, of which there are several in this build. The counterargument is that none of the boosts in this build (except for Song of the Heart) actually require "Bardic Music". They don't alter Bardic Music so much as explicitly alter the effects of the Inspire Courage bardic music ability, which is the exact ability you're using, except you're using it through From Smite to Song rather than through Bardic Music. The same logic applies to Inspire Greatness from the Harmonious Knight, for exactly the same reason. If you're in an environment where this distinction matters and you can't learn Song of the Heart at 9th level, exchange it for Extra Smiting or another combat feat, or for Leadership if it's available.
4 – Mystic Fire Knight (Paladin) – (Improved Spellcasting, Bonus Spells) (1st level spells)
5 – Paladin – (Smite Evil 2, Divine Spirit – Healing)
Note that if you'd like, you can grab the second Mystic Fire Knight substitution level here - it has no drawback. However, since it augments a smite attack (and the effect only lasts for a single round!), and you're spending your smites on Bardic Music, its only real advantage to you most of the time is the slightly expanded list of class skills.
6 – Harmonious Knight (Paladin) – (Inspire Competence) (Sword of the Arcane Order)
Thanks to Mystic Fire Knight and Aeshkrau, you have plenty of spell slots for a non-primary caster (slightly behind the bard), and you’ll only get more as you continue to improve your Strength (which you'd do anyway as a warrior). Thanks to Sword of the Arcane Order, those slots can hold wizard spells, such as Enlarge Person (or, later on, Polymorph), and you have a higher-than-usual paladin caster level (6th, at this point) to boot. Put the three together and you’re clearly using a kind of magic that normal paladins wouldn’t even think possible. You also just hit every warrior’s first major breakpoint, base attack +6, so cheer for multiple attacks.
There’s some ambiguity in the Sword of the Arcane Order feat though. It’s not entirely clear if those spells are “paladin” spells or “wizard” spells, even though they clearly use the former’s caster level and, apart from ability scores, appear to use the same overall mechanics. As a result, we assume here that they’re cast as paladin spells. Among other things, this means they avoid arcane spell failure – bring on the heavy metal.
Oh, and why the lame Inspire Competence? First, Remove Disease is even lamer than Inspire Competence, so you're not losing anything by taking it. Second, it's a prerequisite for your next feat.
7 – Paladin – N/A
8 – Paladin – (2nd level spells) (Inspire Courage +2)
9 – Harmonious Knight (Paladin) – (Inspire Greatness 1) (Song of the Heart)
Regarding your main Inspiration, you’re now Inspiring at +3, or +4 if you picked up the Badge of Valor (you really should have by now). Your team also has enough collective funds at this point to pool to cover a Vest of Legends without seriously denting their equipment budgets. This vest can raise that Inspire Courage by another point at almost every level (and, as I noted above, depending on your party size, this is probably cheaper than enhancing everyone's weapons by another +1, so you're usually coming out ahead unless you actually need the enhancement bonus for an augment gem or something). That’s pretty badass. And you do this while keeping up your magical talents (though not quite to the bard’s level; your CL at this point is 8 (Improved Spellcasting + Krau), but you have fewer spell slots) and your full warrior prowess.
Btw, if it wasn’t obvious, you’re taking the Harmonious Knight’s option to replace every weekly use of Remove Disease henceforth with a daily use of Inspire Greatness. (You already swapped the first one for Inspire Competence.) That much should go without saying. I mean, honestly, have you ever seen that Remove Disease at the table?
If, as noted above, your DM decides to block Song of the Heart, it hurts, but it isn't insurmountable. The best alternatives are Leadership (you're a natural at it) or Extra Smiting (so you can inspire more frequently).
10 – Paladin – (Smite Evil 3)
11 – Paladin – (Divine Spirit –Combat) (3rd level spells)
12 – Paladin – (Inspire Greatness 2) (Battle Blessing) (Inspire Courage +3)
Oh, and due to the way Inspire Greatness is worded, you don't just use it twice per day - each use now applies to two targets.
13 – Paladin – N/A
14 – Paladin – (4th level spells) (Inspire Courage +4)
15 – Paladin – (Inspire Greatness 3, Smite Evil 4) (Words of Creation)
Mechanically, your Inspire Courage hit +4 last level, and here it hits an impossibly good +8 once you use the Words. (If you use the Badge of Valor, you’re Inspiring at +10. The Vest of Legends gets that up to +12, and you can afford that by yourself now, but it'll only be effective until level 19.) And your Inspire Greatness' bonus HD (which now hits three targets per use) is also doubled courtesy of the Words, all at the low price of a tiny bit of nonlethal damage on a d10 HD class with healing powers. Interestingly, if you look at Optimization By The Numbers' HP curves, the conclusion is that you need a linear progression of damage with a huge boost around CR 14. Look at what level we get Words.
Also, it's easy to forget this (since no one takes Words for any other reason), but the Words of Creation have more uses than simply boosting Bardic Music. You can use them to Extend any Conjuration (Creation) effect (and you have access to wizard spells, so you've got plenty - interestingly, these are also the same spells Shadow Conjuration can copy (although Shadow Conjuration itself can't get Extended this way), and illumians have a connection to the plane of shadow), boost the caster level of [Good] spells (you have several of these as a paladin, plus many wizard spells can become [good], such as when summoning Good creatures), and perform a number of commanding/binding effects based on the creature's true name (though doing so requires Knowledge skills and two specific spells - this is one area in which you fall behind a Words of Creation bard, but you can still use it against the archetypal lich via Knowledge (Religion). You can have an ally provide one of the spells, but for the one you must cast yourself, courtesy of Sword of the Arcane Order, you can use a scroll - you have enough Intelligence and a high enough CL to pass the check on a natural 1.).
For a high-level illumian paladin, that's a good complement of abilities (adding some much-needed options to the standard paladin), and a surprisingly good match thematically.
16 – Paladin – (Divine Spirit – Heroism)
17 – Paladin – N/A
18 – Paladin – (Inspire Greatness 4) (Practiced Spellcaster - Paladin)
First, you’re now hitting your entire team with a single use of Inspire Greatness. Thanks to Song of the Heart and Words of Creation, it’s now providing 6d10 HD, +6 attack, and +4 Fortitude (the Fort save is the one area that Song of the Heart doesn't boost but Words does), in a bonus form that stacks with Inspire Courage AND your Spirit of Combat. You can also use both of your major Inspire abilities in every encounter you're assumed to have in a single day, which is a very nice improvement in stamina.
Second, Practiced Spellcaster has now raised your CL all the way to 17 (18/2=9 +2 Krau +2 Mystic Fire Knight +4 Practiced Spellcaster), and you can cast wizard spells. If, say, you pick up a 9th level wizard spell on a scroll, you need a caster level check to trigger it, but the DC is only 18, which you'll get on a natural 1. A paladin casting 9th level wizard spells with ease? Inconceivable!
Sure, the CL and DC will be minimized (CL 17 and DC 23, like all 9th-level wizard scrolls), but this lets you double-up on (or spam) effects that just need to be cast, as opposed to need to be cast effectively. (Think UMD rogue here but with a far easier time on the checks.) And it doesn't need to be limited to 9ths - you now have access to the entire library of wizard spells from scrolls without any checks involved. (These include all the spells needed for Words of Creation's True Name abilities if you so wish.)
Of course, to do this you need enough Intelligence to actually cast the spell, so without help, you've only got 1st-5th level spells open. To save money getting the 19 Intelligence needed to get the 9ths (since another ability score booster cuts pretty heavily into your arms and armor budget, particularly since you aren't likely to do this every battle), you can simply prepare Fox's Cunning in one of your second-level slots, cast that from a cheap scroll beforehand (using the same idea but a lower-level spell), or chug a (less efficiently priced) potion.
However, it’s not entirely clear if this works, due to the way that spell lists and Sword of the Arcane Order operate. The feat doesn’t say the wizard spells appear on your list, but if they don’t appear on your list you can’t cast them in the first place. Check with your DM first.
19 – Paladin – N/A
20 – Paladin – (Smite Evil 5, Divine Spirit – Fallen) (Inspire Courage +5)
Snapshot: With +6 items on Strength, Con, and Charisma, and a +5 Strength tome – pricey, but certainly workable, and that’s lesser MAD than usual – you have +20 base attack (with +34 melee with Greater Magic Weapon - which you can cast, although you can only get it to +4 without CL-improving gear), Inspire Courage at +10 (which means each swing of the sword is dealing half as much damage as your smites usually would, and is as accurate as a smite made with 30 Charisma, and your equipment can raise that even higher!), a paladin caster level of 18, spells per day of 7/6/6/6 (more than most bards' 1st-4th level slots, on par with a wizard), and the ability to fill those slots with wizard spells, using your Intelligence for the DC (normally a dump, but you needed 15 Int for Words of Creation, so you’ve got no problem casting 4th level spells, or Fox's Cunning it up to 19 for the biggest scrolls). Most of those spells will be best set up as buffs if you choose to fight (Polymorph, anyone?), and, since they’re cast as paladin spells, they bypass ASF by default and inherit the amazing super-speed-casting found in Battle Blessing. (Why, yes, I do feel like casting wizard spells as swift actions and then beating face like a boss. Just be advised that you do not have Melodic Casting, so cast first, then sing). As you’d expect for a paladin, you have a lot of hit points (214 on average, with 100 points of Lay on Hands and effects that grant an expanded LoH pool, temporary HP, or damage reduction) and good saves (+22/+11/+11) – the saves could be higher, I admit, but unlike most paladins this is a Strength character, not a Charisma character, and this snapshot doesn’t include Cloaks of Resistance or similar defensive gear.
Oh, for those keeping track at home? With Inspire Courage (using the Badge of Valor; the Vest of Legends isn’t useful at 20th but helps you reach this point sooner), Inspire Greatness (4 targets at once), Words of Creation, and the Spirit of Combat all active, your entire team is looking at +6d10 HD, +23 attack, +17 damage per attack, +4 Fortitude, and +12 on saves vs Fear (not counting your Aura of Courage if the spirit and your team happen to be near you) for 5 rounds (before either the Greatness or the Courage or both wears off; the spirit lasts 2 minutes). And instead of a (somewhat fragile) bard on the other end of that inspirational anthem, you find a fully armed and armored paladin, capable of power attacking for a full -20 and still coming out ahead on the attack rolls with this, and backing it up with amazing wizard support spells at almost full CL; he can freely cast those on the first and final round as swift actions without interrupting his song. (If one of them’s pyrotechnics, the crowd will go wild.) As I said at the outset, he will rock you.
Overall Strengths: Hi there. I am a paladin. I also Inspire Courage like the most optimized bard, and cast wizard spells in place of paladin spells if I want, at virtually full caster level. Oh, and it looks like I can use 9th level Wizard spells via a scroll, as simple as a vestigial d20 roll with a trivial buff. And, when push comes to shove, I have revival and healing abilities that keep the whole party standing – in your face, Crusader!
On top of this, your priority in selecting wizard spells is unusual – no-save spells of up to 4th level – but there’s a surprisingly large subset of those which fit you quite well even if you step outside the obvious buff areas areas, and thanks to Battle Blessing, they're not really made at any action cost to you as a warrior, leader, scroll-user or spirit summoner (all of which rely on your standard action, not your swift action). Feel like facing off in melee? Unlike most gishes, you pack the exclusive-to-paladins Bless Weapon spell and the wizard Keen Edge spell (which does not actually add the keen ability to the weapon, so these two spells actually seem to work together even though that probably isn't the intent), along with Haste and a host of wizard gish spells that trigger on a hit or on being hit. You want a “special” mount? Cast Phantom Steed; at CL 18 those are pretty badass transportation (albeit fragile; you might want to cast (or Eternal Wand) the Heroics spell first to get Mounted Combat.). You want to use spells offensively? Touch spells (some of which allow multiple touches via base attack, of which you're unmatched) tend to allow no save, and your CL to bypass SR is 18, nearly as good as full caster (and if you’re desperate, you can prepare Assay Resistance). Think Duskblade here. Oh, and despite having low Dexterity, you’re not too shabby on ray spells either – wizards tend to have no trouble hitting touch ACs with rays, and they have low base attack and a lowish Dexterity modifier (typical ranged touch +13 or so), and even the best ray gishes tend to peak at +16 base attack. The paladin’s full base attack allows it to easily exceed this (max ranged touch +20, with the ability to have Inspire Courage linger to boost that up to +30 or more). So yes, you can in fact bring the thunderbolts and lightning via Orb of Sound or Seeking Ray if you want – why not?
Overall Weaknesses: Oddly for a paladin, his Will save isn’t as high as it could be (decent for a warrior, but not up to usual paladin standards). Pumping Charisma even higher would help with this, but I didn’t want to over-invest in melee character gold taxes ability score boosters; you might want to get basic Resistance items sooner rather than later. Likewise, his save DCs for his spells are kind of weak, and are keyed to an unusual ability score now (Intelligence – your paladin spells still use Wisdom for the DC, but very few of those actually rely on DCs), so you're probably going to pick support spells, buffs, or binary effects rather than most offensive or battlefield control spells. Finally, it takes a relatively high level before the investment in inspiration abilities begins to pay off (8-10 or so, slightly earlier with gear), but it really picks up steam after that. (And, realistically, any full-base-attack class with decent equipment and Power Attack can hold his own pre-8 or so depending on the level of optimization in your team mages; warriors just tend to have trouble keeping up with Quadratic Wizards as levels increase. Here, you just shift gears from warrior to warlord, in effect taking a third option. So, I suppose, this isn't that much of a weakness.) Other than this, he’s got the usual melee-strategy weaknesses, but if you’re playing melee, you were prepared for that and are budgeting for it accordingly (flight, teleports, illusions, etc). Furthermore, it’s possible to shore up these to some extent (okay, a good extent) with wizard spells.
Variants: I’m not really sure what you’d want to exchange on this build. If you’re forced into sticking to just one paladin order, Harmonious Knight is probably the better choice – you’d need a replacement feat for Sword of the Arcane Order and perhaps Practiced Spellcaster, but that’s doable. Extra Smiting gives you more Inspire Courages (less efficient than Extra Music, but still helpful), Lingering Song (if you qualify, see the note at level 3) extends your Inspire Courage or Inspire Greatnesses (good if you need to stop singing to cast a spell – or sing the other song), and - since you dropped Mystic Fire Knight and thus retain Turn Undead - you could even consider divine feats that fit the theme (you have 21 Charisma and 8 turns/day. Since your inspiration already does the same sort of job as Divine Might, I'm not sure that's as effective a choice here as it usually is, so consider some non-typical divine feats. For instance, Divine Vigor (+speed and scaling temporary HP) mixes very well with the Heroism divine spirit (DR, Diehard, fast Lay on Hands) when you want to lead by example or hold off an impossible foe - and praying for a blessing from the gods to turn you from warrior into champion still fits the theme quite well). If you don’t want Words of Creation at your table – and it’s from the BoED, so I don’t blame you – I’d suggest working in a combat feat of your choice: it’s a pretty substantial loss, but not one you can’t go without, and if you aren't using Words, you may as well improve your personal combat prowess.
There you have it. Andarious managed to make something single-classed with an under-used class that, I think, would be both fun to play AND a blast to fight alongside. Who knew the paladin could bring an "A"-Game that useful?
As always, commentary is welcome. Suggestions to improve this, play experiences, or even just groaning at me for some of those link puns along the way are all fair game.
I've decided to mix things up a bit this time by presenting a selection of builds for next week; pick one and it'll go up. (This makes more sense than just soliciting archetypes in a vacuum.) However, to preserve the air of suspense, the names will be all we'll work with. Next week is going to be either RadicalTaoist's Uncanny Trapsmith, my Storm Knight, or Andarious' Wizsassin. Let me know which one seems most interesting to you and we'll have it up next week.
…You think that’s enough Queen references? Sorry, Andarious, Fat Bottomed Girls was just too much of a stretch.