In 3rd edition D&D, you started with a class. Then, in the DMG, they introduce the idea that as you level up, you could get access to a ‘prestige’ class, this idea of a special kind of class that let you create a different, interesting permutation of the base class. Based on the prestige classes in the DMG, it was pretty easy to see that these were meant to be interesting forks for the way a character’s life could change, as a way to ‘pick up’ a class in the middle of a game that didn’t lock you into starting something from scratch.
This interesting idea quickly fell by the wayside as instead of alternative classes you could introduce into the game in a later space that players could graduate into when their story became specific, prestige classes became the natural progression a whole bunch of players expected to graduate into, and they were the main reason to buy new splatbooks.
The problem, of course, is capitalism, but let’s look at the problem anyway.
Prestige classes wound up breaking into four not-quite distinct and sometimes-overlapping forms.
- The ‘similar but different’ type of design the original DMG presented. These are classes that wanted to be a spin on the mechanics of a class, but not strictly better than any class you got into them from. Typically, these classes would have pretty easy requirements – things you’d just normally pick up if this class had the right vibe.
- The ‘upgraded’ type of design, where difficult requirements were used as a way to enable a really powerful design. Often these were hard to get into, but the requirements might be things you wanted to do anyway.
- The ‘patch’ type of design, where the requirements were often things that did actually demand two different, competing axes of development, like a fighter and a mage, and ostensibly the design was meant to help those two things work together when they wouldn’t otherwise. We’ve talked about these before, with the supermount and aeshkrau builds.
- The ‘flavour first’ type of design where someone had an idea for something that in the setting was meant to be important, and stuck some pieces together to be a prestige class, then made the requirements things that made narrative sense. Overwhelmingly, these designs were awful, because they were made to serve a narrative space and not a player’s interest.
These different ways for a prestige class to work resulted in a very uneven application of the design technology. There wasn’t a single distinct philosophical position about what prestige classes were even doing, which meant that as with so many things in 3e, the idea of making things fair or functional compared to one another was an exercise Left To The Reader.
What’s more, because prestige classes were designed so that the prerequisites for getting into them weren’t strictly class limited, it wasn’t uncommon for a prestige class that was interesting and weird in one place got to do something really bloody weird in some other place. The Rainbow Serpent interacted with the Warmage in a really exciting way (that happened way too late to do anything). The Eldritch Knight and the Militia Background feat interact in a way that’s pretty exciting for what it’s doing.
But then there were some classes that were just so easy to get into, it didn’t really matter what they were meant to imply or what flavour they brought, because the power they brought was something that let you do other things. And since these options were so present and so common it was kind of easier for a DM to just ask you to bring them what you wanted to use, see if it worked for what they were doing – usually only checking power level rather than flavour – and just accepting it. This meant that prestige classes were essentially a research project for your character – is this the best way to do this, is this the only way to do this, what more can I squeeze out of this, is this class worth knowing about for some unique combination of traits, etcetera.
There’s a lot of useless knowledge rattling around in my head about the different kinds of classes, the specific niches that each opens up, that kinda thing. Examples of the kinds of prestige classes that are available in each of these categories aren’t great to point to, especially when mostly, I just remember the really powerful spellcaster ones that I had to nerf for my own campaign. There’s a real tragedy of the wizard, mind you, where by making all the prestige classes give up exactly one, first, level of spellcasting, every single wizard prestige class suddenly became unplayable, which should have been a sign of another problem.
Anyway, in the start of the Complete Warrior prestige class section, it opens with a little table that divided up the prestige classes into general vibes. Good guys, bad guys, literally, along with things like ‘magical’ or ‘mystical’ types. This was a really good idea, and like so many good ideas that were based around the fighter in 3rd edition, they didn’t folllow up on it or do it again.
But the most interesting thing they offered was a fantasy. The idea that a prestige class wasn’t a set of mechanical opportunities, but instead a set of character inspirations that you could build around. The problem that flowed from that is that in many cases, the fantasy was sometihng the system couldn’t follow up on. Just as an example, in that book, there was the Hulking Hurler, which was a thrown weapon character who could instead of looking at the weapon’s stats, throw things and deal damage based on their weight. If you’re not familiar with the math of this kind of particular thing in D&D, or the way that weight scaled up fast, you might not be aware that this is the kind of mechanical direction that results in a character doing phone book number kinds of damage. On the other end, there’s the Exotic Weapon Master, who needs to be good at a bunch of different weapons, a novel idea that neglects that a player character can only ever attack with one weapon at a time, so all the exotic proficiencies are usually doing dick nothing.
And there’s no real middle ground on this kind of thing. The system’s fundamental imbalance meant that when you picked up a prestige class you couldn’t be sure what it got you without a great degree of system mastery, and few of them ever really offered you a meaningful fantasy that did a good job of representing what the class did. Those that did were rare, and then those that did a good job of that were further divided up into the ones that were good, or a waste of time.
Turns out when you build on sand, you get some lopsided towers.