When it came to deciding topics, we’ve had a fortuitous conflux this month. In his editorial, Steve Winter announced the return of Unearthed Arcana; for those not familiar, Unearthed Arcana was the 1985 AD&D supplement whose purpose (according to Gary Gygax in the foreword) was to bring new dimensions to the game. Added material included new spells, magic items, and gear; new, formerly monstrous subraces to play: the gray dwarf (duergar), dark elf (drow), and deep gnome (svirfneblin); and new classes: the barbarian, thief-acrobat, and cavalier (all three of which, not coincidentally, were featured in the Saturday morning Dungeons & Dragons cartoon).
Today, Unearthed Arcana would in all likelihood have been called Player’s Handbook 2. Yet much of its material came from Dragon Magazine, and for whatever reason, this material retained an aura of “optional” for many gamers. As Steve wrote, the return of Unearthed Arcana to the magazine means a return of optional rules to include in your game . . . if you wish.
Added to that, this month also sees the release of Player Essentials: Heroes of the Fallen Lands, which brings new builds for core classes to the game. Among them is the knight build for the fighter.
In this installment of D&D Alumni, we wanted to look back at the history of the knight in the game, including its closest precursors: the paladin and cavalier.
The First Knight (Minus Richard Gere)
In the original Men & Magic supplement for the game, classes were limited to fighting-men, magic-users, and clerics—generic terms and without embellishing descriptions except for their mechanics. Fighting-men could rise to the level of “lord” and build castles, and with the game rules themselves formulated by Gygax’s Castle and Crusade Society (along with Rob Kuntz and Dave Arneson), they had all the trappings of the medieval knight, without ever calling it such.
For a game with its roots in historical miniature warfare, as well as for its fantasy tropes, the term “knight” should have made perfect sense. Then again, the designers also wanted sword-and-sorcery elements, so with three main classes to start, “knight” might have been too specific of a choice of medieval terminology for general use (although, it must be noted, knighthood did exist in Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign). “Fighting-man” it would have to be.
With the 1st Edition Player’s Handbook, the fighting-man (now just “fighter”) remained fairly generic, more so than any other class; if the game’s influences included medieval men-at-arms as well as pulp fantasy adventurers, a fighter could be styled easily by his or her player as either.
A fighter/cleric hybrid, the 1st Edition paladin conveyed far more specific flavor in its description and abilities. Although closer to a true knight, the paladin went a step further, becoming something of a mystical, holy warrior (as much Jedi knight as knight). Special to the paladins were their powerful defenses, holy swords, and warhorses—not to mention their code of conduct, including a pseudo-vow of poverty . . . if being limited to ten magic items and retaining enough wealth to construct a small castle could be considered frugal. “Law and good deeds are the meat and drink of paladins,” the Player’s Handbook said, leading to the famous conundrum for the class (and odd calls to Customer Service): If the paladin knowingly committed an evil act, the paladin lost all benefits forever.
But more on that later.
In Rides the Cavalier
An even closer approximation to a historical knight came with the cavalier. Originally introduced by Gygax in Dragon #72 (April 1983), the cavalier reappeared in Unearthed Arcana where it took its noble place, not as subclass of fighter, but as its own class (with the paladin now subclass to the cavalier). The magazine description went so far as to state “. . . the cavalier class . . . is predicated upon knighthood and chivalry.”
Compared to the mere fighter, the cavalier class was superior. Vastly superior. Cavaliers enjoyed combat bonuses with their preferred weapons, accelerated advancement in attacks/round, and immunity to fear plus high defenses against other mental attacks. They remained conscious at negative hit points. They could parry in lieu of attacking (subtracting their bonuses to hit against the attacker’s roll) with their weapon and/or shield. The cavalier simply fought better than the fighter; the fighter was merely the basic foundation.
In keeping with the optional or experimental feel of Unearthed Arcana, the cavaliers also featured new class concepts. Certain cavaliers (of lower rank) started at level 0 and worked their way up to 1st (which made an excellent story hook for hirelings in the party). Each level, cavaliers also naturally progressed in Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution—allowing them to reach the vaunted pinnacle of “18” in those scores, even if otherwise prohibited by racial limitations . . . or by being a woman. Yes, back in 1st Edition, female characters had ceilings to their Strength scores.
And in keeping with the flavor of medieval knights, the cavalier excelled at horsemanship and eschewed lesser protection (regardless of any magic bonuses) in their quest for the best armor: the new “superweapons” known as field and full plate. “Leather, studded leather, and padded armor are the dress of thieves and peasants,” the cavalier felt, his nose in the air, “and as such are beneath the cavalier’s station, such that the cavalier will not wear these armor types.”
The Difficulties of Being a Champion of Virtue
“In my time as a DM,” Roger E. Moore wrote in Dragon #51 (“It’s Not Easy Being Good”), “I’ve removed three or four Paladinhoods, encouraged two to retirement, and even removed one Anti-Paladin from his status for committing a good act.”
If a balancing of the paladins’ and cavaliers’ superior fighting skills was meant to be (aside from the experience points required for them to gain levels, back in the days when different classes advanced at different rates), it came in their strict, proto-chivalric codes of conduct. “There is a custom-made T-shirt in my closet that depicts a Red Dragon, clutching a full stomach and in some distress, with the caption ‘Paladins Cause Heartburn,’” Roger wrote. “This phrase has more meaning for me as a Dungeon Master and as a player in AD&D games than just as a sight gag. In my three years of gaming, it has been a rare thing to see a properly characterized Paladin, or even one that’s done at least reasonably right most of the time. Unlike other character classes in AD&D games, the restrictions on the Paladin class give it a wealth of special problems in play.”
Later in the issue (which also interpreted a paladin’s immunity to disease as proof against green slime—something I’d never considered), Robert J. Bezold contributed a model code of conduct, based on 11th century medieval crusaders. It went like this:
- Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches and shalt obey all her commandments.
- Thou shalt defend the Church.
- Thou shalt respect all weaknesses and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
- Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born.
- Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
- Thou shalt make war against the infidel without cessation and without mercy.
- Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.
- Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.
- Thou shalt be generous and give largesse to everyone.
- Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.
Reimagined for the magazine’s cavalier, the code of chivalry could be summed up as follows:
- Noble service willingly rendered.
- Defense of any charge unto death.
- Courage and enterprise in obedience to rule.
- Respect for all peers.
- Honor to all above your station.
- Military prowess exercised in service to your lord.
- Courtesy to all ladies.
- War is the flowering of chivalry.
- Battle is the test of manhood.
- Combat is glory.
- Personal glory above all in battle.
- Obedience and respect from all beneath your station.
- Scorn for those who are lowly and ignoble.
- Death to all who oppose the cause.
- Death before dishonor.
Expanded in Unearthed Arcana, as a result of the code and desire for battle, cavaliers cannot be controlled in battle situations (don’t even try to control them!). They would charge any enemy in sight, with the following order of preference:
- Powerful monsters (dragons, demons, giants, etc.) serving enemy leaders, then the leaders themselves.
- Opponent cavaliers of great renown, enemy flags and standards.
- Opponent cavalry of noble or elite status.
- Other opponent cavalry.
- Opponent elite footmen.
- Opponent camp and headquarters.
- Opponent melee troops.
- Levies or peasants.
To editorialize briefly, fundamental challenges existed while playing a paladin or cavalier. For starters, a class that can be demoted or fired for not following a subjective code of conduct causes obvious tension between a player and his or her DM. That said, the player and DM can meet this challenge.
However, the benefits of a paladin’s warhorse and the cavalier’s horsemanship have often struck me as more problematic. Dungeons & Dragons, in my experiences, far more often concerns the exploration of, well, dungeons—not to mention temples, towers, ruins, and occasional jaunts around cities. In a game of dungeon exploration, a mounted knight has issues. Is the horse turned away at the entrance, like Bill the Pony outside the Mines of Moria? Is it forced into the dungeon (which calls to mind an old Sage Advice question about how one’s centaur character could possibly climb a ladder)? Aside from bragging rights, what good is having a pegasus or griffon if not all the party also has some means to fly (even the DC Super Friends had the same issue)?
For the cavalier, which excels at riding and the lance, this seemingly limits their full use of powers. How often did they have the opportunity to charge across open ground at opponent cavaliers and at enemy camps or headquarters? I’d guess the answer is rarely—unless the DM was catering his or her adventures to the cavalier. (I take similar issue with the 1st Edition assassin’s spying abilities, as much as I otherwise love the class; how often could it be used without disenfranchising the rest of the table?)
A powerful but limited role, the cavalier made better sense in a campaign where players kept a stable of characters (or character trees, from our Dark Sun Alumni article), then were brought out in their full, shining glory whenever the mission called for their expertise.
But again, that’s just me editorializing.
By 2nd Edition, the warrior classes encompassed the fighter (described as an “an expert in weapons and, if he is clever, tactics and strategy,” with examples including Hercules, Perseus, Beowulf, and Sinbad) and the paladin (“a noble and heroic warrior, the symbol of all that is right and true in the world,” with examples being Roland and Sir Lancelot).
Again, neither was outright described as a knight, and the 2nd Edition cavalier would have to wait until the Complete Fighter’s Handbook (along with the barbarian, as well as gladiators, pirates, and samurai). Even then, the cavalier was now no longer a class or a subclass, but it was relegated to a kit for “. . . a paladin who wants to look every inch the shining knight.” At least the kit started with a free horse; later supplements on the crusades, fortresses, and even Charlemagne would add further material.
With 3rd Edition, the game literally exploded with officially named knights. Starting in the Player’s Handbook, a fighter came to be described as “. . . the questing knight, the conquering overlord, the king’s champion, the elite foot soldier, the hardened mercenary, and the bandit king—all are fighters.” The term had at last entered the fighter’s description; a knight was a fighter, but not all fighters were knights.
The 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook 2 then brought the official knight class, which could issue a knight’s challenge (a precursor to marking). When it came to prestige classes, a good several dozen also had “knight” in the name: platinum knights, Purple Dragon knights, knights of the Silverymoon; not to mention knights of the lily, the rose, the skull, the crown, the chalice . . . the list goes on.
Although the game did not use the term “knight” early on, whether reticence for its historical context or simply because the paladin and cavalier already occupied that role, knights clearly returned later in force. And why not? As questing adventurers, good in purpose, and donned in armor—could there be any better word?
Of course there remain still other expressions of knights in the game we haven’t even mentioned, such as Fiend Folio’s death knights—and as long as there have been knights, there have also been black knights, blackguards, and anti-paladins to oppose them.
We’ll end with one final code of conduct, this one from the Complete Fighter’s Handbook for the cavalier:
- He must cheerfully perform any noble service or quest asked of him;
- he must defend, to the death, any person or item placed in his charge;
- he must show courage and enterprise when obeying his rulers;
- he must show respect for all peers and equals;
- he must honor all those above his station (his social class): he must demand respect and obedience from those below his station;
- he must scorn those who are lowly and ignoble (he will not help the ill-mannered, the coarse, the crude; he will not use equipment which is badly-made or inferior; he will fight on foot before riding a nag; etc.);
- he must perform military service to his lord whenever asked; he must show courtesy to all ladies (if the cavalier is male);
- he must regard war as the flowering of chivalry, and a noble enterprise;
- he must regard battle as the test of manhood, and combat as glory;
- he must achieve personal glory in battle;
- he must slay all those who oppose his cause;
- and he must choose death before dishonor.
When I wrote about pirates of the Astral Sea, I wondered about alternative pirate codes. I suppose that in the game’s arenas (especially with Dark Sun released), a D&D-tailored version of the Marquess of Queensberry rules for boxing and sport might exist. So we’ve seen various codes of conduct and chivalry throughout the editions, but it strikes me as odd that there should be one assumed code for all “knights” (including paladins and cavaliers) for the entire game world(s).
My challenge to you, the reader, is to come up with alternative codes of conduct for the latest inception of the knight. How might such a code look, depending on the knight’s race? His or her alignment? Deity? Campaign world? A combination of these factors?
If you were to play a knight, what code of conduct would you write for your hero to follow?
I’m interested in publishing some of the more outstanding codes of conduct. Send them to me at email@example.com. Be sure to have “Knight’s Code” somewhere in the subject line.
I look forward to your codes. And feel free to lambast me for criticizing the utility of a mounted cavalier in the game!
Bart Carroll has been a part of Wizards of the Coast since 2004, and a D&D player since 1980 (and has fond memories of coloring the illustrations in his 1st Edition Monster Manual). He currently works as producer for the D&D website. You can find him on Twitter (@bart_carroll).