On the Archaic Prestige Class

"A neutral cleric of 9th level or greater may choose to study nature instead of remaining among "civilized" areas. This type of cleric is called a druid." - Dungeons & Dragons, Players Companion: Book One

This article discusses prestige classes and unintentionally seeks a goal that turns them into an insidious trap.

I love prestige classes. My standard operating procedure in games is when players hire henchmen, if they survive to level one, they receive a class. Examples of classes that have been acquired by my player's henchmen include Woodsman, Dandy, Incantrix, Thug, Jester, and Deathmaster.

Humans have a lot of flexibility in how they gain levels. But that doesn't negate the ability for them to enter a special prestige class either. In fact, such an idea is awesome!

So what's the trap in Prestige classes?


If you are sitting around with your friends playing a game, you should be actively playing the game now.

"This build doesn't work yet, I'll need to get to level 5 to really make it work."

"I know that feat seems kind of useless, but I have to pick it up so I can get two levels in this prestige class."

"What do you mean, where do I find a member to teach me? It's right here in the book and I qualify for it, so I'm going to take a level in it."

The problem with codifying prestige classes is that players cannot help but focus on what they are going to be instead of what they are. This isn't a problem with prestige classes, this is a problem with codifying them. So we don't need a book of prestige classes, we don't need a book filled with restrictions and limits and builds. We really don't even need rules on how to construct a prestige class.

What do we need?

Simply the idea that perhaps somewhere in the world is someone willing to teach you something you don't
already know.

I am no large fan of worrying a great deal about taking efforts to maintain verisimilitude. Any group of people willing to role-play should in a matter of seconds be able to come up with a reasonable explanation for any event that occurs in game. In this case, I believe the concept of prestige classes is greatly improved when it's approached not from a mechanical angle, but from a fictional one.

Hints should be dropped of strange sorcerous cults. Non-player characters with bizarre powers and abilities not listed in the handbook should be met. Monsters may know ancient techniques that they will only share with those adventurers brave enough to enter their lair unarmed. Strange beings from the void move about in secret in large cities and only by stowing away in their hidden ships may their secrets be uncovered. Ancient texts contain forgotten and hidden-

But that's enough isn't it? You have ideas of your own bait to drop into your campaign at this point, just to see which players bite.

What don't we need?


You don't need rules to stat up a class. Quick, think of four or five powers a pyromancer might have! Think of some restrictions to go with it! BAM. You have a new prestige class. Use any book, any resource to get ideas and drop some hints in your campaign this week.

To his credit, Venger finishes his article with "I thought it was important to sow the seeds of imagination before anything else.  In fact, I would rather have a short paragraph describing each career path than a list of numbers, bonuses, modifiers, and rules." and that does sound like a good idea.

7 comments:

  1. In my opinion, a prestige class should be something specific to your game world. Looting books of "generic" prestige classes for ideas is okay, but any actual one I use will probably be more tailored. That also lets me tailor the entrance requirements a bit depending on who's going for it, helping avoid the "build planning" trap you mention and which annoys the life out of me.

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  2. Very similar to how I run it. Players can pick up extra skills. Like firing from horseback and desert survival, if they spend some time with warrior nomads. Not an extra class, but some extra abilities/powers and knowledge.

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  3. I think that a Prestige Class works best when it is representative of an organization. The perks are specialized training (which takes the form of those cool extra abilities) recognition in the world, and access to equipment and supplies that might be hard to get.

    I don't really see a problem with codifying the organizations, their benefits, or even their requirements so long as those requirements aren't things that can be found on the character sheet. There shouldn't be a focus on specific feats, levels, or skill ranks, but instead gaining the trust of the guild and succeeding in certain trials.

    So, to become an Outrider of the Feyblood March, you might have to befriend another outrider, and then survive riding the Bloodied League without any supplies.

    To become a Knight of the Black Chalice you have to perform a deed of Strength, a deed of Honor, and a deed of Charity and then take a solemn oath on the eponymous Black Chalice.

    To join the Brotherhood of Laughing Shadows you have to find one of the Shadow Parlors, and state your intent. You will then be given a time and place to meet a Laughing Master. He will give you a mask that must be planted in the home of a specific target, and you are encouraged to steal something valuable from the target as well.

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  4. This also might be a way to extend character development beyond a B/X style level limit without the attendent power inflation problems.

    It's almost like the mechanical level progression is there as training wheels to teach players how to imagine the hell out of their characters on their own.

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  5. I couldn't agree more. This is a great follow up to your Artifex post. All of the previous commentators make very valid points. Make it fun for the players. Don't make it about the math and rules and structure and yadda yadda yadda...make it about advancing the story by advancing the characters. Keep an open mind and dialogue with your players outside of the game sessions. If they ask "Can I do this, learn this, etc?" as a good DM you should always be prepared to say "Sure!" They tell you where they're wanting to get to and you work it into the world somehow. If it's outlandish and they're obviously just trying to put a bigger feather in their cap, negotiate something else. Or if they really REALLY want it and will just die if they can't have it.....maybe there ought to be a very good chance that their character will die in trying to earn it.

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  6. I think prestige classes should actually mean something to the character and be worked in to the story. I usually ask my players when starting a campaign if they have an idea for a prestige class for their character. That allows me to begin to think about how to write obtaining the prestige class into the story. Prestige classes which are organizations make this even more important. A character can reasonably achieve a sharpshooter class as through practice but Purple Dragon Knight is rather specific and obtaining the class should mean something to the character and the story. I really thought this article was exceptional. It was a pleasure to spend my time reading it.

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  7. The biggest problem with any customization options are that, if they're ever listed out as an exhaustive list, they beg the player to solve an optimization problem. I've come to the conclusion that "customizations" should mostly be ad-hoc so that they truly feel unique and custom to the player and don't guilt the player for not solving that optimization problem.

    This is not just true of prestige classes, but for feats too. To a lesser extent, class talents, multi-classing, equipment, etc all end up suffering the same drawback of creating optimization puzzles that are fun while they're being solved, but preempt in-game fun.

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