Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about prestige classes.
Two things happened that sparked my writing of this article.
First, as you might know, Anthony and I recently did a podcast on the magus despite the fact that Ryan and Cathy already talked about it. Oops. In order to make sure it didn’t happen again, I started combing through the older Private Sanctuary Podcast achieves to check and see what “we’ve” done already. I stumbled on this old 3.5 Podcast that Ryan recorded with his pre-Cathy co-host, Jay. In this podcast, they discuss prestige classes with a refreshing vigor. They talk about Prestige Classes that they’ve played, ones they’ve liked, ones they haven’t liked, and all about where you can find Prestige Classes in 3.5. (Hint: everywhere.)
Second, Pathfinder’s Designers announced they were revoking a specific, controversial ruling: the “spell-like abilities are spells for all prerequisites” ruling. Sides on whether this was a good thing or a bad thing are largely split down what you might as well call “bi-partisan” lines, with some people praising the Purple Golem for removing “an obvious error” in the errata and with others mourning the loss of a number of interesting character builds. Considering that I’ve used this errata several times in my builds, you can probably guess where I stand on this topic. Regardless, the biggest point to come out of this discussion focuses on prestige classes, their entry requirements, and whether or not they’re worth it.
I felt that this topic deserved an article. I’m thinking that I’m ultimately going to ring true to many of the points that I made in my multiclassing article, but when it comes to multiclassing, you can never show too much support for new material in that vein. So that’s exactly what I aim to do in today’s installment of Guidance!
What Is a Prestige Class?
Two aspects define a prestige class: first, they expand upon multiclassing and second, they aren’t available to 1st level characters. Prestige classes are specifically meant to be multiclasses into from core or base classes. In order to prevent 1st-level accessibility, all prestige classes possess a short list of prerequisites that must be met in order for a character to take levels in that class. These prerequisites are most often character building options, but in some cases (especially in 3rd Edition) prerequisites require more abstract things like being a member of a particular organization.
Although the term “prestige class” didn’t appear in Dungeons and Dragons until 3rd Edition, some 1st Edition classes had a similar concept to Prestige Classes, namely the bard or the thief-acrobat. (Yes. Thief-acrobat was the name of a class.) In this sense, the core idea of, “class that you can’t access until you’ve earned some experience” is a fundamental part of the mechanical history of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.
What Do Prestige Classes Do?
At their core, a prestige class is supposed to provide abilities for multiclass characters. In many cases, they advance certain class features while leaving others untouched. They often provide new abilities that follow a specific train of thought or thematic style. For instance, the Master of Chains prestige class allows you to play a character that specializes in the spiked chain. In Pathfinder, the Pathfinder Chronicler gives your character some nifty Knowledge-based options to choose from. Like archetypes or feats, prestige classes exist to give characters new ways to interact with the world.
Where Are Prestige Classes Now?
In tradition 3.5 gameplay, a Prestige Class’s role was to provide a means of specialization for characters. For instance, a single-class fighter was a generalist, but by taking specific options and taking the Supreme Archer prestige class, he could specialize in something; in this case, archery.
This had some problems in 3.5, especially as the edition rolled onward. Because prestige classes are designed for multiclassing, they tend to favor specific classes over others. Got a lot of feat prerequisites? You’re probably favoring the fighter because fighters have more feats than other classes (even more true in 3.5, where characters only received a feat every three levels). And since many classes sported a large number of “dead levels,” or advancement levels where no new class features were earned, it became something of a no-brainer to take one, perhaps multiple, prestige classes in 3.5. And as I mentioned, relative balance was NOT a designer concern in 3.5; new classes and options were regularly produced that completely invalidated existing ones. Many people claim that this has happened to the rogue in the wake of the Advanced Class Guide, but even the rogue maintains some special abilities that only he has access to. In 3.5, rogues didn’t even have rogue talents (they got the slippery mind and improved evasion rogue talents as part of their character progression, though). Imagine having a rogue without talents in the Core Rules, then several years later introducing the Pathfinder Rogue to the game. One clearly invalidates the other. This happened frequently in 3.5, and it was even more intrusive with Prestige classes, where the sentiment often was, “I’ll stick to my boring old base classes until 7th level when my character TRULY comes together and gains the powers that I want him to have when he gains this base class.”
In Pathfinder, Prestige Classes have regained a bit of their former focus; they’re options that grant specific options for multiclass characters. But moreover, Pathfinder (especially the Campaign Setting line) has given Prestige Classes a new role: prestige classes often represent membership in a specific group, order, or organization. Winter witches, shieldmarshals, riftwardens, and all of the prestige classes in Inner Sea Gods all support this stance that Paizo seems to have taken.
Are Prestige Classes Viable?
This is a tricky question, and its often an incredibly loaded one. Its almost a matter of perspective, specifically in how you define the word, “viable.”
If one is asking, “Am I able to play the game while being a member of a prestige class?” then the answer is obviously, “Yes.” No one is stopping you from taking a Prestige Class, just like no one is stopping you from dipping levels of Commoner if you REALLY want to.
But when most people say, “viable,” they’re not asking for possibility, nor are they asking for a build that is ridiculously overpowered and totally going to destroy all of the GM’s encounters. Usually, they’re asking something along the lines of, “Can I take this option and feel as though I’m contributing to the group,” and sadly that’s where things get a little bit hazy.
Prestige classes have some problems in Pathfinder. Most of Paizo’s new base classes have a strong focus on character level, and without a way to improve character level many Prestige Class character builds don’t end up equaling the sum of their parts until late game, where games are more likely to fall apart from GM fatigue and frustration (more on that another day). For this reason, many players feel like their characters only really “get good” when the game is in danger of ending. You can see this with prestige classes such as the eldritch knight, which in theory can balance out a wizard so his base attack bonus is pretty much equal to a medium BAB character. The problem, however, is that the character is below medium until he gains the Eldritch Knight prestige class, and he stays below medium for three or four levels after gaining eldritch knight. In short, the class can’t really deliver on its role until 10th level, maybe 11th or 12th depending on the build. That’s a LONG time to wait for a build to come together; I know that when I played my swashbuckler, it was frustrating waiting until Level 4 when my build “turned on;” I can’t imagine waiting until Level 10. Especially for spellcasters, whose spells (particularly the low-level ones) don’t scale well into the high levels.
Although this first problem is more of a design problem, the second problem is more of a vision problem. For several years, the developers at Paizo’s main stance on Prestige Classes is that they should be tied to setting flavor. That’s all well and good, but its sort of adding a dimension to prestige classes that traditionally wasn’t there before. Prestige classes are supposed to be multiclassing tools first and foremost, and more and more we’ve begun to see archetypes that flat-out encroach on that design goal for various reasons. (In part, the previous problem doesn’t happen when you use an archetype over a prestige class.) This strong tie to organizations leads to a relatively strange occurrence where players incorrectly assume that they can’t belong to a given organization unless they possess a specific prestige class. Given that high level characters make up an extremely small percent of the world’s overall population, this can’t be true but I can see why many players and GMs assume that it is. But then again, archetypes don’t particularly work well for this type of design because then you’re insinuating that all members of your organization must belong to a specific class in order to join. It’s a tricky design conundrum, to be sure.
Ultimately, I think that Prestige Classes have a legacy place in Pathfinder, and they’re woefully under represented in the game currently. Recent products have been working hard at reincorporating Prestige Classes into the game, but what we’re really missing right now is that sense of multiclass support. Single class builds are stronger then they’ve ever been in 3.5, and personally I think that its high-time that we started to see some more multiclass character options in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, be they synergistic prestige classes, feats, or other options.
Well, that’s all that I have to say about Prestige Classes for now. What do you think? Do prestige classes still have a place in the game? How about your table? I’m looking forward to seeing some anecdotes about prestige classes in the comments below. Make sure to come back on Friday for a new Iconic Design, and tune in next Monday for another new Guidance.
Also, don’t forget that I’m still running a Kickstarter until March 28th. I’d appreciate all the help that I can get! (And if the funding gets high enough, Dario and I will be adding some Prestige Classes to the book for everyone to enjoy.)
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex’s favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race is kitsune, and his favorite prestige classes are daggerspell mage (3.5) and golden legionnaire (Pathfinder). Although horizon walker is a close second for its sheer utility.