During the 3.5 iteration of the ancestral system that birthed the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, prestige classes entered a golden age. Dozens of specialists and hybrids, niche powers or divine inspirations flooded our games. And shortly thereafter, perhaps, things moved beyond that age into a murkier time of oft times exploitation. And while they managed to appear in the Core Rulebook, the prestige classes rapidly were eclipsed by the rising star of archetypes. And yet a large portion of the community still desires the prestige classes that remain largely unsupported. Why?
Today we are going to take a look at …
10 Reasons Why Prestige Classes Still Matter
- Multi-class Character Support – A surprising amount of characters that multi-class away from the 1-20 dash of the core classes and base classes of later games end up in a strange limbo of half-unlocked semi-playable abilities that forces people into Alpha mindsets to try to remain valid in supporting their party.
- Story Support – A rogue finds a gift for sorcery doesn’t remain a rogue. She didn’t start the game off an archetyped alchemist or magus. She was a rogue. Her sorcery came on late and slow… it wasn’t an a part of her character she just ignored in her archetype for 3 levels. And when she became comfortable with sorcery she didn’t simply abandon her rogue background, she blended old trick with new spell. Arcane trickster is the natural curve of a story. Yes it ALSO validates her multi-classing but above all it is what she is now.
- Alphas are Alphas – If you believe a powergamer ignores class combo-ing and level dips just because archetypes are used instead of prestige classes, boy do I have swashbuckling barbarian for you. Even “Core only” games don’t stop an Alpha, they just save time looking through the un-allowed books and get to their pouncing druid barbarian that much faster.
- Worldbuilding Support – Unique requisites and unique abilities already go a long way setting a GM’s world’s organizations apart from “standard” groups. The Griffon Guard of Kadlamus and their uncanny mounted maneuvers become more impressive and more engaging if any PC couldn’t simulate them with a feat and skill check.
- Character Generation & Advancement Simplicity – A lot of players, GMs and designers praise the simplicity of the design of the archetype. Visually this is over the case but consider the replacement feature mechanic and its full implications. A warlock vigilante needs Ultimate Intrigue, Ultimate Magic and the Core Rulebook just to assemble the base features of its class. New players can have extremely stressful experiences dealing with these nested book references. A prestige class presents its unlock requirements and the entirety of its abilities in one or a few short pages that becomes a principle source of guidance for newer players or those wanting to simplify.
- Variations in Play – A prestige class with a spellcasting requirement of 2nd level arcane spells, a Sneak Attack requirement of 2d6 and a skill requirement of 10 ranks supports a rogue 3/wizard 7, a rogue 6/sorcerer 4, a fighter 4/wizard 3/rogue 3, and dozens more. This allows multiple members of the same organization wider ranges of abilities in games and present less predictability and maintain a higher replay value on either side of the screen.
- Design Control – Prestige classes allow designers select control over what is and is not available at what levels. For instance, a prestige class could offer teleport at as a spell-like ability but require access to the darkness domain or a BAB of +4 with 6 ranks in Knowledge Planes. We have set up a faster than usual power-tier ability (teleport is generally a 9-10 level ability at this PrC could get it at 7th) but our requisites make certain that only a cleric of the God of Darkness could get the advantage of the class and then only at non-class skill (Planes) penalty. We have extended a very specific piece of power with a specific price tag. Price tags like this could be further adjusted by denying casting increases and the like creating more design space to balance options.
- Character Concept Ideation – Players who are given requirements for a potential future prestige class tend to think more about the character they are playing to get there. They may arrived at non-type class selections or favor choices a GM has made part of their campaign setting. More consideration during character creation will yield higher investments in character and stronger play experiences in general.
- Player Accomplishment – Working to and advancing a prestige class can be a trying experience. Lower BABs or spellcasting from multi-classing can cause a player to feel lagging and behind in regards to their peers. The pay of of dual-progressions or unique class features is sweeter for the effort. Characters in prestige classes tend to yield a high sense of reward and people display high character ownership after having unlocked one. Comparatively, archetypes are handed to a player as early as first level and if they are journeyed into without understanding may yield dissatisfying play experiences when key abilities turn out to be replaced by less-understood new options.
- High Level Play – Prestige classes present new places to go at higher levels that are not 1st level. This is particularly important to games that intend to go past 20th level. Prestige classes present one of the few healthy bodies of new options available to characters in these level ranges, offering new unique powers and options.
Archetypes present wonderful alternative progressions to represent specialties and traditions with unique abilities in a campaign but can’t address every character story need alone. Prestige classes retain a valid footing in the current metagame, and neither concept is mutually exclusive. Remember the power of yes and don’t discount the power of either option at the table.
Archetypes or Prestige Classes? Why not both! You can some of each in the upcoming release of Book of Beyond: Liminal Power or you can pre-order it as part the Book of Beyond WIP subcription or see our other products at: d20pfsrd.com, drivethruRPG, paizo and RPGNow.