Content of the article: "[Guide] How to roleplay a knight"
This guide is quite long but it doesn’t have to be, and might contain sections that you may not want to read. I’ve tried to give useful headings and such to make it easy for you to pick and choose the parts you want most to read so just keep that in mind before you see this huge wall of text and decide to just nope out of here.
This guide was also made by a noob. As with all things, please take everything here with a grain of salt and use your own critical thinking. I am always open to criticisms and discussions
A little over a year ago, I had finally found some people willing to take me into a group to learn how to play D&D. I had always understood the idea of tabletop roleplaying and absolutely loved the idea of shared storytelling and this was finally my way in. I created a fairly generic character for the class that was mostly inspired by my Skyrim playstyle and loved him, but creating a character for the first time really (as these things tend to) got my mind racing with the possibilities, one character idea caused me to go down a long rabbithole of of 5e options and mechanics to see in what ways I could bring such a character to light. And the character is, you guessed it: A historical knight.
What was discovered is that there’s two potential paths you could go down to make this happen, differing and having unique implications, so I wanted to write up this guide to display these two paths, that of the Fighter Cavalier and that of the Oath of the Crown Paladin and compare them head to head to discuss their advantages and disadvantages.
That being said, I want it to be known that the aim here is to get the ‘best’ representation of a historical knight in 5e and other assumptions are mostly tossed away, which is why it’s been narrowed down to these two paths anyway.
What is a knight?
Since we’ve established that our aim is to try to create a character that best fits into the role of a historical knight, the first thing we need to do is define what a knight is.
I’ve linked these videos here that do exactly that and are made by prominent historian YouTubers. The rest of this section is my summary and take outs of all of these.
There’s a lot of overlap in the videos (to re-enforce the points) and a lot of things that just aren’t needed by us right now but I wanted to link them as they’re my inspiration for coming up with this idea in the first place, so here you go:
<17:45> (Mainly just some historical context)
<18:31> (If you wanna pick one, this is it)
- Bonus playlist, just for interest:
A knight is defined by two major things and then some smaller things, the two main things are a horse and a set of armour.
A mounted warrior charging into combat is one of the most dangerous and lethal forces that can grace a battlefield. This is because the momentum from riding a horse plus the use of a lance (which is a longer spear designed for horseback) could pierce pretty much anything and made it really hard for the person being attacked to defend themselves or fight back. The drawback of a cavalier is that it’s expensive and downright hard to train someone to be able to fight this way. Keep that in mind for a moment, because it’s a very similar story with armour. A set of heavy full plate armour basically made you a walking tank and contrary to popular belief or intuition, actually does not impact agility very much (which thankfully this is reflected in the 5e system). The point is that like fighting from horseback, it has every advantage to the alternative (at least in combat) except that it’s really expensive.
The implication of this is that nobility needed to find people who could be the best of the best to be chosen to learn how to fight from horseback and to use the greatest, most expensive armours and these people were the ones who were knighted.
Other things knights are associated with is a code of chivalry and squires. The term chivalry just means to do your knightly duties (IE fight from horseback) well and actually is not really a code at all. Knights did swear fealty to their lords though, as it would be the lords and noblemen that bestowed them with their training, horses and equipment and the nobles needed to make sure that investment could pay off.
Full plate armour is very heavy and is immensely difficult to put on and off (and this is also reflected in the PHB actually), which is why knights had squires. Their job was to put on and take off the armour of a knight, something which I understand is pretty much impossible to do to yourself. Usually squires were minors who themselves were training to be knights.
Getting a horse
Out of the two main defining characteristics of a knight, the armour is (kinda) no problem at all while the horse on the other hand is. While full Plate armour is quite expensive, after you’ve purchased it, it’s done and dusted and you have the benefits for the rest of the game. The same is not true of a horse, which can die and probably will without protection.
The only kind of horse you can reliably fight from is a warhorse, which will set you back 423 gold, including the military saddle and the brit and bridle. You probably also want to buy a saddlebag for 4gp.
My limited experience with AL games and official adventures, it seems to me like the amount of gold one might be able to expect is about 100 per session on average, but of course this figure could change wildly depending on your game. But after about 4 or so sessions you can have a nice horse mount to skewer your enemies from and all is good, right? Well no.
You’re going to need barding, because unless your DM is particularly nice (which IMO they shouldn’t be in this case) your horse is quite likely to die in combat. Unless you’re content to just buy a new horse or keep a supply of horses (sounds like a logistical nightmare to me) you’re likely going to want to purchase barding for your horse. In real life, barding was hardly used due to how ridiculously difficult it is to make, therefore making it expensive, and this is reflected in the system as well. Here is a table to help you decide on barding. For reference, a warhorse has a natural AC of 11
|AC||Barding||Cost (GP)||Weight||Value (AC/GP)|
If I was strapped for cash and had to wait up for these, I personally would start off with Ring mail, skip scale mail and then get Chain, Splint and Plate at the time I can afford them.
Ultimately, being able to get and maintain a horse depends on many factors, and if you are going this route you should inform your DM about your prospects and have a chat about how likely it is that you’ll be able to rustle up a noble steed with some barding.
While I’m not going to cover the rules for mounted combat because that is done very well here and a number of other places, I would like to make a quick note about mounted combat and say that the reason why it’s so expensive and the reason why your horse is easily killable and should be targeted by enemies is because it is a very strong and effective fighting style offering many benefits like it does in real life. It does however have some drawbacks such as falling prone when being knocked off the horse and having to leave it at the entrance in dungeons.
The Fighter Cavalier and the Oath of the Crown Paladin
And now we can get to the real meat and bones of this guide, which is deciding what class we’re going to play and how we’re going to build it. I have concluded that there are two appropriate paths to go down and they are the Fighter Cavalier (henceforth, Flightalier) and the Oath of the Crown Paladin (henceforth, Crowladin). Now let us do what I came here to do, which is compare and contrast them.
Getting and fighting from a horse
Given that the knight is essentially an elite soldier trained to fight from horseback, it seems that the fighter class would be a natural thematic fit for this build, and that would be correct. Now this could work as a Champion or even Battle Master since they’re both very flexible martial archetypes but as it happens, Xanathar’s gives us a martial archetype that’s partially made for this exact purpose, and that’s the aptly named Cavalier. It gives a whole bunch of mechanical benefits that can make us feel a lot more like a knight, unlike any other archetype which also won’t be as thematic.
The Cavaliers Born to the Saddle feature is an obvious boost to your overall fighting ability from horseback the diminished the need to get the Mounted combatant feat (more on this later), but the most important Cavalier features are actually the other ones. You see, the Cavalier is primarily a defender class which means most of the abilities are about helping allies stay alive and preventing damage to them… And that includes your horse (gee, it’s almost like 5e is well designed or something…).
So all in all, the class gives some nice mechanical abilities to smooth out of the rougher sides of mounted combat.
While the Cavalier archetype gives us a lot of mechanical benefits to mounted combat, it doesn’t solve the main problem described above about getting a horse in the first place. As it happens, the Paladin class actually does exactly that, albeit at level 5 when 2nd level spell slots are finally unlocked to give access to the Find Steed spell. If you don’t mind the wait until 5th level, this actually solves all of the problems mentioned above at the cost of a 2nd level spell slot initially and every time the horse dies which is a fantastic alternative to having to shell out for one every time, its equipment and barding. While the Paladin doesn’t offer much in the way of being able to protect a mount (unless you’re willing to burn some more spell slots for it) it doesn’t need to since you can always just summon your steed again at least after a long rest.
Waiting until level 5 may seem annoying until you realise that even with the alternative, it will take you probably at least 5 sessions or so in order to make enough to purchase a warhorse and barding which is most probably quicker than reaching level 5 but still you’ll need to wait either way so just consider the difference.
All that being said, apart from Find Steed arguably the Crowladin doesn’t really give any direct benefits to mounted combat. Despite being set up as a defender like the Cavalier sub-class, the features and spells it brings aren’t really that well suited to keeping a horse alive. Champion Challenge stops enemies from being able to move far away from you, and the (IMO wayyyyyy better) spell Compelled Duel eats a spell slot and only works on one enemy at a time which might be great except that if there is only one enemy that enemy is probably not targeting your steed anyway.
The Crowladin does however get Warding Bond which otherwise is a cleric only spell and actually works pretty damn well though eats a second level spell slot.
In summary, the Fightalier is more effective at fighting from a horse and will likely gain one earlier though will need to buy one while the Crowladin won’t have to spend money and will be able to keep summoning new steeds at the cost of a second level spell slot.
Trying to go for a historical anything in D&D can feel like a bad idea from the get-go since D&D wasn't made with historicity in mind and going for a grounded character can feel very limiting.
That said, in this case I think the Fighterlier speaks for itself. It’s super easy to rationalise and to fit into a story. The Fighter class is one that was designed specifically to feel grounded so it only feels natural to have a backstory like: In the army I saved the life of my lord and was knighted for my bravery and was taught to fight from horseback, ETC…
Or even something like: I was born a noble and became a Page when I was very young so I could be groomed into Knighthood. I made my way from Squire to Knight and fought many battles for my lord. If you’d like some IRL inspiration, look into El Cid, who likely earned knighthood by killing an enemy knight in single handed combat. (Though debatably, if you’re going to play El Cid in D&D you’d probably wanna go Battle Master, but I digress)
While the fighter is a worldy class based in skill and training, the Paladin is about drawing power from a magical oath. Now, bare in mind that I’m approaching this from my own thematic standpoint of the paladin (which might be worth making a post about in the future, if people are interested) which is that Paladins aren’t inherently divine (I know this is a popular opinion on this sub) but also that a Paladin power doesn’t come simply from swearing a oath because otherwise everyone would do it.
I briefly mentioned chivalry before, but I want to expand on that and say that an oath was chivalry was a bond between a knight and their lord. Unfortunately, it wasn't so formal and noble as people generally make it out to be, but perhaps for the purpose of our Crowladin, it can be.
In fact, what if chivalry was a magical power that could be given to someone? Were you a royal, you would want control of that yourself and wouldn’t want to give it out to just anyone… Only a select few who you know would use it in your best interest, so you made them swear an oath to act in that interest and in return they get the power to divinely smite someone.
I personally really like this (if I may say so myself). Somehow it feels really grounded and practical but still has a fantasy/mystical element that makes it feel right at home with D&D.
In either path you decide to go down, add a lot of extra detail to make it personalised and talk with your DM to make it fit with your world of course. Both of these can make for really interesting circumstances for a knight’s upbringing.
This section is about options when creating and building your knight
Go either soldier or noble.
I’m sure you already know that there’s a specific knight variant for the noble background which gives you access to your own squire. I have mixed feelings about this since it does in theory seem really cool and appropriate for you to have your own little NPC that dresses and undresses your armour for you, but in practice this may feel a bit out of place in an adventuring party. Proceed with caution.
One little note I would like to put about a noble background is that if I’m not mistaken, nobility doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a title. In fact, your nobility could start and end with you your knighthood and that’s it. You could also pick some inconsequential form of nobility such as being the third born to a lord so while you’ll never be a lord yourself, you were raised as a noble, for example.
Soldier is better if you’d prefer to have your background focused more on the valor side than that bureaucratic side of being a knight. I also like the idea that your background feature lets you be respected by potentially other knights, or that it implies that maybe you personally led soldiers into battle.
Unless you want to go variant human, I might suggest staying clear of feats as a Crowladin. It ultimately depends on how much you want the bonuses they grant you but I’m under the impression that it’s much more important for you to max out your str, cha and con. Unfortunately the Paladin is naturally a very MAD class.
If you do want to go variant human or apply Tasha's custom lineage, it might be worth grabbing Mountant Combatant as a means of keeping your magical steed alive since this path is otherwise pressed for those kinds of options.
On the other hand, unless you know you're going to get a horse at level 1, the cavalier doesn't really need this feat. It's mostly about keeping the horse alive which the cavalier can do fine without. I wouldn’t say the extra advantage is worth it (maybe if you were somehow a rogue knight…).
You may or may not want to take Sentinel as a fightalier. It’s a fun feat for sure but between Unwavering Mark and Hold the Line, the class has you covered pretty well in this regard and it’s just a matter of whether you wanna wait or jump the gun on this one.
Whether you’ll want to take Polearm Master or Great Weapon Master depends entirely on whether you want to use a polearm or not. I’ll cover this in the next section.
In regular unmounted combat the main weapon of a knight would have been a pollaxe (not to be confused with the pole axe, which is a different weapon). Unfortunately it doesn’t exist in 5e.
The main weapon which would have been used by knights from horseback is a lance, which while do exist in 5e, are kind of terrible and don’t really make any sense (possibly another post for another time if there’s interest).
Furthermore, as a fightalier, many of your abilities such as Unwavering Mark rely on you being within 5 feet of a target, which kind of sucks. I guess you can use mounted combatant to sometimes negate the disadvantage. Up to you.
Crowladin might get some nice use out of a lance though if you don’t mind sacrificing some of your defenderness for it. 1d12 of damage + a shield is an awesome combo so it might be worth it.
In terms of theme and mechanical practicality, sword + shield combo is your best bet, mounted or otherwise. A knight wouldn't have used a greatsword since it would be difficult from horseback (it’s not too difficult to hold a shield and control the reins).
A polearm might be tempting for reasons which should be very obvious to you, however historically a knight would have never used a halberd, glaive, pike or spear (the latter two being peasant weapons). Though in reality, a pike isn’t too different from a lance so if you want a nice compromise at the expense of your blunt end attack it might be worth it.
Just remember that using a two handed weapon as a Paladin means if I’m not mistaken you won’t be able to provide both verbal and material components for a single spell but you can still pick one and somatic isn’t affected.
Honestly, any lawful alignment works. Contrary to popular belief, knights were not bound to be good people, just effective warriors.
So there you have the result of my little pondering about how we can apply historical properties of a knight of a 5e character build. Of course the character traits and personality are still yours to decide and knights were varied in personality IRL.
The flightalier and the crowladin are the two potential paths that could best fit the role of a historical knight, but I have close to doubt there’s things that I’ve missed so please let me have it (I know you will even if I don’t say so but still…)
Edit: multiclassing is a thing. I was definitely gonna put a paragraph on that. Don't know how it slipped my mind. Might edit one in later
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