The DnD 5e Paladin Guide

Published on February 27, 2020

, Last modified on June 23rd, 2020

In this post, we will examine the different choices you will be presented with when leveling up your character. Everything from which ability scores to max out to which races will give you the best stats (and everything in-between) will be covered. For the time being, this guide will be focusing primarily on content from the Player’s Handbook and DM’s Guide.

What is this guide?

This guide is meant as a deep dive into the DnD 5e Paladin. For a quick overview on the Paladin Class, see our breakdown of the DnD 5e Classes. You can see the Paladin Class Features here.

The guide will color code each separate item to help you identify, at a glance, how good that option will be for your Paladin. This color coding isn’t a hard and fast rule; there are plenty of sub-optimized options out there that will be viable to your party and will be fun to play.

  • Red isn’t going to contribute to the effectiveness of your character build at all
  • Orange is an OK option
  • Green is a good option
  • Blue is a great option, you should strongly consider this option for your character
  • Sky Blue is an amazing option. If you do not take this option your character would not be optimized

The flow of this article follows the same steps as typical character creation for ease of use. The sections are as follows:

  • Race
  • Background
  • Class/Subclass
  • Spells
  • Feats

Get your smites on deck and let’s get into it!

Did you know?

D&D Beyond can help create your characters by making choices using a step-by-step approach. Full customization and control of your character, none of the flipping through hundreds of pages to reference obscure rules.

Paladin Class Power Spikes

If you are jumping into a campaign at a specific level and you want a character that’s going to be really strong right away, this section of our guide will help you understand the points where the Paladin class is strongest.

As a class, the Paladin tends to perform best at the early stages of the games, especially after gaining access to their Spellcasting and Divine Smite abilities. However, the class remains a powerful damage dealer and tank at most stages of the game, while offering an overall utility that makes it one of the strongest class options in the 5e system.

The best levels to play the Paladin class are between 2nd and 5th Level, when you gain access to the powerful starting abilities and features of the Paladin class. At this stage of the game, your character will quite frankly outshine most other party members. 

Following 5th Level, the Paladin starts to plateau and will dip towards parity with other classes in the game. It has other major power spikes at 9th, 13th, and 17th level as it gains access to high-level spell slots, but nothing will feel quite as broken as that early game domination.

1st Level (Moderate Start)

The Paladin starts off with a moderate power level, since they are missing the Spellcasting and Sacred Oath features that will make this class into such a menace at later stages of the game. Playing a one-shot as a 1st Level Paladin may be underwhelming, although you do have access to the utility of Lay on Hands immediately.

2nd Level (First Power Spike)

2nd Level is the first major power spike for Paladin characters. At this level, you gain access to your 1st Level spells slots and basic class spells. In addition, you get to choose a Fighting Style, which is great for flavour and character direction, and you can start to use Divine Smite. 

3rd – 4th Level (First Plateau)

3rd Level is your second major power spike, when Paladins gain access to their Sacred Oath Feature and their specific Oath Spells. Although this feature does not add as much raw power as 2nd Level, it is a more satisfying threshold from a flavour perspective and another great point to play a Paladin character.

There is a lull on 4th level with no significant improvements, but it still feels very good to play a Paladin at this early stage in the game.

5th – 8th Level (Second Plateau)

5th Level is the third major power spike for Paladin characters, where they get access to their 2nd level Oath Spells and class spells. While this is significant, the biggest bump at 5th Level is the Extra Attack feature, which immediately ramps up a Paladin’s possible damage output.

After the massive spike at 5th Level, the following three levels offer relative small improvements. This is still a decent level threshold to play a Paladin, but it’s mainly the carry-over effects of the massive spike at 5th Level. 

9th -12th Level (Third Plateau)

9th Level is the next major power spike for Paladin characters, when they get access to their 3rd level Oath Spells and class spells. They also receive a nice little increase to their proficiency bonus. It is probably the weakest of the class’s power spikes on the way to 20.

11th Level is a secondary power spike in this plateau that will provide them with the Improved Divine Smite feature and access to a third 3rd Level spell slot. While not as significant as 9th level, it is another strong threshold to hit and a decent level to be playing at.

The other levels in this plateau do not offer any significant power spikes and these are not great levels to jump into Paladin play overall.

13th – 16th Level (Fourth Plateau)

13th Level is the second-to-last major power spike for Paladin characters, when they get access to their 4rd level Oath Spells and class spells. Again, they also receive an increase to their proficiency bonus. This is a very similar spike to the 9th Level, although you do get access to more powerful high-level spells.

At this plateau, Paladins begin to access some cool end-games features. This includes Cleansing Touch at 14th, which is a great utility feature, and the penultimate level of their Sacred Oath Feature at 15th Level. Both of these are nice thresholds and this is a better plateau overall for Paladin players.

17th – 20th Level (Final Plateau)

17th Level is the last major power spike for Paladin characters before 20, when they get access to their 5rd level Oath Spells and class spells. These are super powerful, end-game spells and this is a fairly satisfying threshold for Paladins.

The plateau between 17 and 20 is a lull spot for Paladin players, with no significant improvements for the class.

20th Level offers a final power spike to Paladin players, in the form of the ultimate Sacred Oath feature. Almost all of the Oaths offer amazing ultimate abilities that you’ll be excited to try out for the first time, although some are more awesome than others (I’m looking at you, Oath of Devotion). Not all classes offer huge payoff at Level 20, but Paladin is definitely up there with the best of them.

Before You Start

Races

Dwarf: Dwarves are a great choice for all Paladin builds. They get bonuses to CON and a free resistance to poison which is just gravy.

  • Hill: A bonus to WIS isn’t going to help a ton but may be useful if you need to have high Perception, and the bonus hit points are always welcome.
  • Mountain: Paladins builds will take bonuses to STR all day.

Dragonborn: Bonuses to STR are beneficial for Melee Fighters. Breath Weapon is also a nice AoE attack, if a weaker option for Paladins who will want to be hitting with melee weapons as much as possible. At least it scales with character progression.

Elf: You’re likely not going to play an Elf as a Paladin. Elves get a bonus to DEX, free Perception proficiency, and Darkvision, all of which aren’t very important for Paladins.

  • Wood Elf: Wood Elves get bonuses to WIS and some extra movement speed, neither of which are useful for Paladins.
  • High Elf: High Elves get bonuses to INT and a free Cantrip. No help for Paladins.
  • Drow: Bonuses to CHA and Darkvision aren’t going to help a Paladin.

Half-Elf: Half-Elves get a buff to CHA and get two free Ability Score Increases (ASIs). This combined with Dark Vision and two free skills make Half-Elves arguably the best race for Paladins.

Gnome: Gnomes get a bonus to INT and Gnome Cunning. Neither of these are helpful for Paladins.

  • Forest: Forest Gnomes get a DEX bonus and Minor Illusion. Nothing useful for Paladins.
  • Rock: Rock Gnomes get a bonus to CON which is nice but really doesn’t help further than that.

Half-Orc: Half Orc’s get you a STR and CON bonus, both of which are perfect for Paladins. Dark-Vision is nice, proficiency in Intimidation will help you flex on other people, Relentless Endurance is a nice bonus, and Savage Attacks is just plain savage. This option would be on par, if not a slight bit worse than Half-Elf.

Halfling: Halfings get a bonus to DEX which is favorable because you will be able to spend more of your precious ASIs on STR and CON. Lucky is also a very handy feat when you’re swinging as much as Paladins do.

  • Lightfoot: A bonus to CHA and the ability to hide a bit better aren’t helpful traits for Paladins.
  • Stout: Stout Halflings get a bonus to CON which is useful for any Paladin. They also get a resistance to poison which is a nice bonus.

Human: Humans are always a good pick.

  • Vanilla: Getting a bonus point to all of your ability scores is nice, but Paladins usually only need STR, CON, and sometime CHA.
  • Variant: Variant Humans get a bonus to two ability scores of their choice (STR and CON for Paladins) and an extra feat, both of which are wicked for Paladins. See the Feats section for suggestions on what to choose here.

Tiefling: Bonuses to INT and CHA aren’t particularly helpful. Darkvision, resistance to fire damage, and a couple spells are useful.

Background

For this section, due to the sheer number of backgrounds available, I am simply going to list the most useful Paladin Backgrounds.

  • Soldier: Proficiency with Athletics and Intimidation is certainly a good choice, especially because Intimidation can add to your utility for the party. Proficiency with the gaming set and land vehicles isn’t awesome but could be useful in certain circumstances.
  • Sailer/Pirate: Proficiency in Athletics and Perception are two great choices. Proficiency in the water vehicles isn’t awesome but could be useful in certain circumstances.

Pretty much all of the other backgrounds give DEX, WIS, or INT based Skills which aren’t worth it for Paladins. The only WIS based skill that’s worth Proficiency is Perception because of how often it is used.

Ability Scores

Ability Score Increases (ASI) at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th level.

STR: As STR affects your Attack Rolls and Melee Damage, Paladins need STR above anything else.

DEX: DEX is the most important skill to stack because of the sheer number of instances that a DEX save is required (spells, breath weapons, traps, etc)

CONEvery Paladin needs hit points.

INT: This is a big ol’ dump stat for Paladins. You don’t need to be smart if you’re righteous, right?

WIS: WIS is helpful for Perception (the most important skill in the game) but this would be best left up to classes that need WIS for other class features (Rangers, Monks, etc.).

CHA: The Paladin’s CHA score is a hotly debated topic. The arguments mainly revolve around the question, “do you want to max your damage output?”. If the answer to this question is “yes“, you can feel free to make CHA a lesser priority. If the answer to the questions is, “I want to play a well-rounded character that can support my party and also provide help in social situations while being able to output solid damage“, then CHA is going to be really important.

CHA is used as the Paladin’s Spellcasting Modifier, the save DC for Channel Divinity, the bonus to your Aura of Protection, and affects how many spells you can prepare each day. If you want to get by on limited spells and just wade into a battle and smash people with smites then you likely can make CHA a secondary priority, otherwise you will be forgoing a maxed CON or STR for CHA.


Paladin Class Progression

1st Level

Hit Points and Hit Dice: d10 hit points is the second best hit dice around. The only class that gets a higher one is the Barbarian. Combine this with a high CON score, Lay On Hands, and heavy armor, this means your Paladin will be hard to put down.

Saves: WIS and CHA are great saves to have proficiency in. WIS saves happen a fair bit and the failures usually have nasty effects. CHA saves can keep you from getting banished, but not much else.

Proficiencies: All armor, weapons and shields? Yes please. You don’t need to worry too much about utility skills like Stealth or Persuasion as the party’s enforcer.

Skills: Athletics (being the only STR based skill) is a shoo-in for the Paladin’s most important skill. The rest of their skills aren’t going to be stellar for most Paladins as they are mostly INT, WIS or CHA based.

  • Athletics (Str)
  • Insight (Wis)
  • Intimidation (Cha)
  • Medicine (Wis)
  • Persuasion (Cha)
  • Religion (Int)

Divine Sense – Can prevent an ambush in very specific situations.

Lay on Hands – One of the best healing mechanisms in the game. Versatile enough to bring a party member up to full health or just give them enough healing to bring them out of Death Saves. Stacks with leveling up as well.

2nd Level

Fighting Style: One of the Paladin’s iconic abilities, and a great reason to multiclass into a Paladin.

  • Defense: +1 to AC isn’t overly exciting but seeing as AC is hard to scale it can make a difference in the early and long game.
  • Dueling: Being able to wear a shield while dealing close to two-handed weapon damage is a very, very tempting option.
  • Great Weapon Fighting: Not an awesome option, only adds about 1 damage per attack. It would be better to pick up Defense to make up for the fact you aren’t wielding a shield.
  • Protection: Only being useful when within 5ft is a major disadvantage for this skill, especially if you’re the tank of your party as most of your party members will be staying back while you are up in the fray.

Spellcasting – Paladins get an interesting mix of healing and buff spells, as well as their signature smites. Most of these spells slots will be reserved for the good ol’ Divine Smite due to it’s propensity for damage and the ability to cast after hit and stack with crits.

Divine Smite – When playing a Paladin, you will notice that you often will be holding on to your meager spell slots for these sweet, sweet smites. Being able to activate the smite on hit, not taking up a bonus action like the other smites, allows for this to be a significant burst of damage when you want it.

3rd Level

Divine Health – Very situational. Diseases can also be cured by expending 5hp from your Lay on Hands.

Sacred Oath

Oath of Devotion

Channel Divinity

  • Sacred Weapon – Could be an alright buff but most of the time CHA is a dump stat for Paladins. Turning your weapon into a magic weapon may actually be a better benefit at level 3 so you can hit monsters with resistance to non-magical weaponry.
  • Turn the Unholy – Paladins don’t have a ton of ways to deal with crowds, they are usually best in 1-on-1 combat. This gives a nice, if seldom used utility feature against swarms of undead.

Oath Spells

  • 3rd Level
    • Protection from Evil and Good – Fantastic defensive buff. Requires concentration but you’ll be so hard to hit it doesn’t matter. One of the few spells you would conceivably use in place of Divine Smite.
    • Sanctuary – Likely won’t see much use unless you are escorting a non-combatant NPC or somebody from your party has gone down.
  • 5th Level
    • Lesser Restoration – Situational, but could be a real life saver as the conditions it heals are particularly nasty.
    • Zone of Truth – Again, situational. Can be very effective in social situations if used at the right time.
  • 9th Level
    • Beacon of Hope – Could be a solid buff going into a real tough fight, especially if you have another healer in the party that doesn’t use Lay on Hands.
    • Dispel Magic – Hopefully by 9th level you have somebody else in the party that can use Dispel Magic, not something you want your Paladin using spells on.
  • 13th Level
    • Freedom of Movement – Again, very situational but useful to have in your back pocket.
    • Guardian of Faith – Great area control spell, especially for a Paladin where they are far and few between.
  • 17th Level
    • Commune – Great for RP and story progression, not so great for combat.
    • Flame Strike  – Not quite as good of a radius as Fireball, but similar damage. One of the only Paladin spells that can affect more than one creature at a time.

Aura of Devotion – Probably the worst Aura for the PHB subclasses. Not being able to be charmed is certainly a good effect, but it will come up a lot less than the Ancients and Vengeance Aura effects.

Increases from 10ft to 30ft at 18th level.

Holy Nimbus – Again, not as good as the other PHB subclasses. It is a nice AoE but the advantage on saving throws cast by fiends and undead is situational.

Oath of the Ancients

Channel Divinity

  • Nature’s Wrath – Great way to take a single enemy out of combat for a turn or two.
  • Turn the Faithless– Paladins don’t have a ton of ways to deal with crowds, they are usually best in 1-on-1 combat. This gives a nice, if seldom used utility feature against swarms of Fey or Fiends.

Oath Spells

  • 3rd Level
    • Ensnaring Strike – Great 1st level spell to do some damage and restrain a creature. Dumped CHA might not matter as much at lower levels.
    • Speak With Animal – Likely won’t see much use but it has some fun RP purposes.
  • 5th Level
    • Misty Step  – One of the best movement options in the game, especially around this level.
    • Moonbeam – Moonbeam is a tough spell to justify. Only hitting one target and having to use your action each turn to move it makes it a clunky spell that might as well be spent on a Smite.
  • 9th Level
    • Plant Growth  – Good spell if you are being ambushed and need to slow some incoming enemies down while you deal with other ones.
    • Protection from Energy – Solid defensive buff option.
  • 13th Level
    • Ice Storm – Great spell for a Paladin’s lacking arsenal of AoE and Ranged attacks.
    • Stone Skin – Another great defensive buff for those slugfest combats.
  • 17th Level
    • Commune with Nature – Great for RP and story progression, not so great for combat.
    • Tree Stride – A fun spell with a multitude of uses if you can get a bit creative. Without trees nearby you won’t be striding anywhere though.

Aura of  Warding – This is a solid area buff for parties. This will come in handy less often then you may think because a lot of monsters have Abilities that cause AoE damage or use spells that don’t necessarily do damage.

Increases from 10ft to 30ft at 18th level.

Undying Sentinel – Pretty solid mechanic, especially with the Paladin’s ability to self heal with Lay On Hands. Stack with the Half Orc’s Relentless Endurance feat and you will be hilariously hard to put down.

Elder Champion – This is some good ol’ busted level 20 shenanigans. Being able to cast banishment while the target has disadvantage on a bonus action will make you a true force of nature.

Oath of Vengeance

Channel Divinity

  • Abjure Enemy – The Frightened condition is a very strong mechanic. Great for boss fights and crowd control.
  • Vow of Enmity – Getting advantage on each attack roll is just nasty with a Paladin, not only will you be hitting more but you will be critting more. This allows you to double your smite damage with regularity.

Oath Spells

  • 3rd Level
    • Bane – Bless is considered a better spell, but Bane can certainly help make your friendlies harder to hit.
    •  Hunter’s Mark – Just a great spell. Extra damage and can target multiple creatures over a long period of time (especially if it is upcast).
  • 5th Level
    • Misty Step  – One of the best movement options in the game, especially around this level.
    • Hold Person – One of the strongest spells in the game against Humanoids. Could be hard to cast if you dump CHA.
  • 9th Level
    • Protection from Energy – Solid defensive buff option.
    • Haste – Very strong option of Paladins that could potentially be attacking with Advantage.
  • 13th Level
    • Banishment – Extremely good spell against single opponents. Could be hard to cast if you dump CHA.
    • Dimension Door  – Another great movement options to get you and a teammate out of a sticky situation.
  • 17th Level
    • Hold Monster – Better version Hold Person. Could be hard to cast if you dump CHA.
    • Scrying  – Pretty good RP ability.

Relentless Avenger – Great movement option. Paired with Sentinel and Polearm Master it is insanely good.

Increases from 10ft to 30ft at 18th level.

Soul of Vengeance – Great opportunity for extra attacks. Extra attacks = more crits which means double smite damage baby!

Avenging Angel – Very good ability. Flight speed and an aura that can cause fear will make a great battlefield control.

5th Level

Extra Attack: The bread and butter of martial classes.

6th Level

Aura of Protection – Giving team members a buff to ALL SAVING THROWS is just straight up great.

Aura increases to 30ft at 18th level.

10th Level

Aura of Courage – Situational but a great effect nonetheless.

Aura increases to 30ft at 18th level.

11th Level

Improved Divine Smite – Helps level out the damage output between Paladins and Fighters as Paladins don’t get as many attacks.

14th Level

Cleansing Touch – There are some nasty spell effects when you get up to 14th level. An at-will, pseudo Dispel Magic is an extremely good tool to keep in the pocket.

Feats

In this section, we will be focusing on feats that are applicable to the typical Paladin builds.

  • Crossbow Expert: You will likely not be a ranged build with Paladins.
  • Defensive Duelist: It is very unlikely that you will be wielding a finesse weapon as a Paladin.
  • Dual Wielder: Without access to Two-Weapon Fighting, the ceiling for this feat is quite low.
  • Durable: The amount of healing this provides in conjunction with an already high CON stat is an alright way to keep your Paladin on their feet throughout the day. Plus, it gives a +1 to CON. Great choice.
  • Grappler: I get that a Grapple build is a thing, but it is not a very strong option.
  • Great Weapon Master: This paired with a Vengeance Paladin for advantage on attacks would be amazing.
  • Heavy Armor Master: Damage reduction like this is a massive boost to being able to stay alive through fights, especially good on builds not looking to use a shield.
  • Inspiring Leader – Great feat if you can find time before a fight.
  • Lucky: Just a straight up, damn good feat.
  • Martial Adept: Don’t bother.
  • Mounted Combat: Decent option because Paladins have exclusive access to the Find Steed spell.
  • Polearm Master: This is definitely one of the more busted feats. The amount of attacks this will net you in a single encounter will be substantive. Pair with Defense Fighting Style, Sentinel, and the Relentless Avenger Oath of Vengeance Feature for pure insanity.
  • Resilient: This is an alright option for becoming proficient in DEX saves.
  • Sentinel: Great feat all on it’s own to control the battlefield. Combine with Polearm Master for an insane combo.
  • Sharpshooter: Don’t bother with a Paladin.
  • Shield Master: This is a great option to use your bonus action, if you don’t already have a use for it. Knocking a creature prone gives the rest of your party advantage, but keep in mind that this is only available after you have taken an attack action.
  • Tavern Brawler: Useful for grappler builds, otherwise you can do without it.
  • Tough: Good option to boost your HP max if you are going for a super tank.
  • War Caster: Lots of the Paladin buffs require concentration and they are usually in the fray. This would be worth it for most Paladin builds.

Spells

For a full list of Paladin Spells click here.

1st-Level Spells

  • Bless: Solid first level spell.
  • Compelled Duel: This can definitely turn the tides of the battle. Focusing on the party member with the most HP and highest AC will give squishier party members a chance to work their magic or sneak attack damage. Could be hard to cast if you dump CHA.
  • Cure Wounds: Probably don’t need this because of Lay on Hands.
  • Divine Favor: Honestly, save it for a smite.
  • Heroism: Unable to be frightened is good and the temp hit points at the beginning of each turn is pretty solid.
  • Protection from Evil and Good: Imposing disadvantage on every attack is an amazing defensive buff.
  • Searing Smite: Could provide better damage than a Divine Smite but it’s a gamble.
  • Shield of Faith: +2 AC in a game where AC does not scale is a solid defensive buff.
  • Thunderous Smite: On average does slightly less damage than Divine Smite. Knocking an opponent prone could certainly be worth it depending on the battlefield and initiative.
  • Wrathful Smite: Good choice for some battlefield control.

2nd-Level Spells

  • Aid: Not anything groundbreaking but doesn’t require concentration so it’s a good spell to cast before going into Initiative.
  • Branding Smite: You need to be able to hit an invisible creature for this spell to be worth it.
  • Find Steed: Great for action economy because it provides another friendly in the Initiative.
  • Lesser Restoration: Not something you need but something you will wish you had when it comes up.
  • Magic Weapon: There is a strong chance you will get a magical weapon by level 5. If you don’t and are going to be fighting Ghosts, this is a take for sure.

3rd-Level Spells

  • Aura of Vitality: Great source of healing if a short rest isn’t available.
  • Blinding Smite: Bit of a gamble. If they save after only one round then Thunderous Smite is definitely the stronger option. If the creature you are attacking has low CON go for it.
  • Crusader’s Mantle: Decent option, gets better if you have a Fighter in the party that will be getting extra attacks and will also be in combat range.
  • Daylight: Situational but useful in certain circumstances. Stock before going into the Underdark.
  • Dispel Magic: Great spell but hopefully your party will have somebody else who can cast it.
  • Elemental Weapon: This would be a lot better if specific damage type vulnerabilities were more of a thing.
  • Revivify: You need to take this.

4th-Level Spells

  • Aura of Life: Not a great spell.
  • Aura of Purity: Very niche spell. Could be worth it under the right circumstances.
  • Banishment: Insanely good spell for battlefield management. Be careful with concentration. Could be hard to cast if you dump CHA.
  • Death Ward: This is a solid option if you are going into a day that will be particularly dangerous.
  • Find Greater Steed: Being able to summon a griffin or pegasus for a mount is an amazing tactical advantage. Great spell to cast at the end of an adventuring day if you have spells left over.
  • Staggering Smite: Decent damage but the effect is only really useful if you are retreating from combat.

5th-Level Spells

  • Banishing Smite: No save to the banishment (as long as their HP is low enough) and, on average, similar damage to a level 5 smite. This is the best smite in the game.
  • Circle of Power: This could completely break an encounter against a spellcaster. Don’t take this if you are an Oath of Ancients Paladin and have access to Aura of Warding.
  • Destructive Wave: Great AoE spell from a class that doesn’t get many.
  • Dispel Evil and Good: This could break encounters with a number of common enemy types.
  • Geas: Mainly useful as an RP spell because of the long casting time. Could be hard to cast if you dump CHA.
  • Holy Weapon: Doing a 1st levels worth of smite damage every time you hit is pretty great. Being able to do AoE damage and Blind as a bonus action at the end of the spell is gravy.
  • Raise Dead: Hopefully you have access to this through other spellcasters already. Even so, it is worth it to take.

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