Save My Game
Prestige Classes
By Jason Nelson-Brown

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Have Prestige Classes Become Too Common?

What's a DM to do when the players give their PCs levels in one or more prestige classes as a matter of course? Shouldn't some limit exist on the prestige class levels a character can have, to keep those classes "special"? This installment of Save My Game examines ways to address the prestige class proliferation issue.

Problem: Should Prestige Classes be Readily Available?

At the beginning, prestige classes were created to introduce a few prestigious kinds of heroes -- often from prestigious organizations -- into D&D v.3.5 campaigns. But when prestige classes began to proliferate, almost every character began to take a prestige class or two -- or even three or four. Furthermore, a lot of characters these days seem to have too many levels in prestige classes. Players don't think about whether to take a prestige class anymore -- they think about which one to take -- and they plan for it when they're first creating the characters!

Personally, I'd like to see prestige classes become -- well -- prestigious again. So I've been thinking of establishing a rule of thumb for how many prestige class levels per standard class level constitutes a reasonable balance in my campaign -- perhaps 10% prestige class to 90% standard class, or even 20%/80%. I don't want to be too restrictive, but I would like these classes to be special. -- Adapted from a post by Emanon on the D&D message boards at the Wizards of the Coast website

It's possible to read entirely too much into the term "prestige class." If these classes were just called secondary classes, this kind of concern might not come up at all. But calling them prestige classes causes some DMs to wonder if they ought to impose some restrictions -- and that's not truly necessary. In a sense, a prestige class is a character's core identity. His base classes then become a sort of prep school for what the character really wants to do -- and that's fine.

However, if you don't care for that model, you can certainly put more emphasis on the base classes for your campaign. If you prefer that option, here are several points you might want to consider.

Solution 1: Keep It Simple

In this model, prestige classes don't exist. They are optional anyway, so just don't use them in your campaign. Players can build a world of diversity with just the base classes, depending on their choices of skills, feats, spells, equipment, and so forth -- and multiclassing expands those options considerably. But game mechanics are only part of the process anyway. Most character customization is based on personality and style. So if the player develops his character's personality and a good backstory that explains why he took up adventuring, he can bring his desired character model to life with just a few thoughtful choices.

If you want to customize your character without muddying the class picture, you can also foster diversity with other rules, such as character races and regions -- including regional feats, languages, and equipment. You might also think about bloodlines and racial levels, as described in Unearthed Arcana.

Solution 2: Think about the Classes

If you're thinking about establishing a restrictive ratio of prestige class levels to base class levels, you need to compress the benefits that a prestige class offers. You can't spread them out over five or ten levels because the characters will never be able to finish the class while adhering to a low percentage of prestige to base class levels. At the ratio suggested above, for example, a character might not be able to take more than one or two prestige class levels in her entire career.

A compressed prestige class system is a perfectly acceptable solution, if that's what you want for your campaign. You could fold each available prestige class into one level, so that a character either has the class or not. If doing so results in too many abilities gained in only one class level, you could let the prestige class modify the character's existing class abilities rather than just add new class features. Perhaps taking a prestige class would let a character "trade in" standard class abilities for special abilities normally offered by the prestige class. Such a system might function the same as the process for a paladin who has turned to evil and become a blackguard.

The system outlined above is ultimately much more complicated than letting prestige classes function as written. Any time a character's advancement depends on retroactively modifying what he's already done, you are asking for headaches -- especially if the character ever gets level-drained and has to sort out what stays and what goes!

Solution 3: Go Ahead, Make Them Prestigious

If you don't want to do away with prestige classes altogether or come up with new mechanics to handle them, you can make them more prestigious just by being more selective. One way to do that is to tie prestige classes to organizations that are important in your campaign world. Just because the new Heroes of Gardening hardbound came out doesn't mean you have to allow the Zakharan Violet Tender prestige class in your campaign. So get rid of the generic prestige classes, as well as all the organization-based prestige classes that aren't relevant. That way, you can focus on the prestige classes that you actually want to make available.

Before a character can get into a prestige class, she must know that it exists. Everyone knows about the prestige class organizations that maintain a high profile in the campaign world, and most characters probably have a good idea how to go about joining their ranks. But information about other organizations might exist only as rumors, legends, or whispers in the night. Actually discovering the requirements for entry into such an organization may require extensive research, or a friendly contact, or some action on the character's part that draws the attention of the group. Some organizations may be so secret that characters can discover their existence only through good (or bad) luck. See the Champions of Ruin and Champions of Valor sourcebooks for some excellent examples of such groups and their associated prestige classes.

Once the character knows that a particular group exists, she must prove herself worthy to join its ranks. Taking the proper skills and feats may satisfy the entry requirements, but you could also rule that anyone wishing to enter a prestige class must actually do something to prove her mettle. In this sort of model, the prerequisites for every prestige class include some sort of action or accomplishment. So you can simply say, "I don't care if you do have 10 ranks in Ride and the Endurance and Iron Will feats. If you haven't scaled Mount Vanhaitsma and brought back the heads of two frost giants slain by your own hand, the Knights of the Iron Glacier aren't interested in your application for membership!" A prestige class may also have a code of conduct to which the character must adhere, or even require further specific actions or accomplishments to continue gaining levels.

Making your prestige classes specific and robustly developed should take care of the "problem" of characters routinely taking multiple prestige classes. Tying each class to an organization places another limit on characters who take more than one prestige class, since organizations typically don't want members of other groups poaching their secrets. By the same token, a character who has been a member of one group might not be welcome in another. Some closely allied organizations might allow simultaneous membership -- or at least tend to be receptive to ex-members of another group who come over to their side (though going back to the previous class would probably be prohibited). Other classes might require exclusive advancement -- that is, a character who stops taking levels in the class has stepped off the path and cannot get back onto it.

Summary

If you want to set up your campaign so that taking levels in prestige classes is a privilege, not a right, go ahead. But make sure your players know the situation up front. Tell them at the start that characters have access only to those prestige classes they know about from their in-game experiences and actions, and that they should not assume that a particular class is available just because they saw it in a book. But since this tactic keeps some of the campaign information hidden from players and forces PCs to jump through roleplaying hoops to gain prestige class opportunities, make sure you don't penalize them with punitive game mechanical requirements at the same time. What makes a class prestigious is what PCs have to do to progress in it, so keep that emphasis in mind when determining entry requirements. Make the prerequisites and other requirements memorable and important, and ensure that your players have to earn access to these classes. This method ensures that the prestige class remains more than just another line on the character sheet class list.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.


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