Guidance – Gibbering Mouth: Archetypes vs. Prestige Classes

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 archetypes, prestige classes, and the design space of each.

It seems like a week doesn’t go by without someone asking the Pathfinder-Old question, “Should we get rid of prestige classes?” Now, before we begin, I am a big fan of prestige classes. I like them and their heritage in the game a lot, and I like how multiclassing allows builds to become more diverse. What I don’t like is the lack of mechanical support prestige classes have in the game. Some abilities just aren’t worth using if you multiclass, and Pathfinder is TERRIBLE about allowing you expend your resources to make multiclassing less painful.

But when you get right down to it, Prestige Classes and Archetypes occupy very different design spaces in the game, and I’m not talking about the Paizo philosophy of “Prestige Classes should be Prestigious,” because I personally don’t think that should be true.

Philosophy of Representation

When thinking, “What does an archetype represent,” its best to stop thinking of an archetype as “class with modifications,” and more like, “class that is mostly the same as another, more common class.” When you’re a two-weapon warrior fighter, for instance, mechanically you’re still a fighter, but as a person in the world, what are you? You’re a guy who is really good at fighting with two weapons, right? Being a two-weapon warrior is your thing; its your identity as an individual.

This is basically the same with prestige classes; when you pick up your prestige class, you’re basically saying, “This is what I am. This is my class.” A character with the Master Chemyst prestige class, for instance, often thinks of themselves as a Master Chemyst first and an alchemist second. So what’s the big difference? When you take an archetype, you’re directly changing from one character concept to a second character concept. You were a bard that dabbled in knightly ways, but now you’re a BATTLE HERALD. In short, archetypes are all-encompassing class ideas while prestige classes are advancements. The “prestige” from a “prestige class” shouldn’t come from belonging to a specific organization, it should come from gaining abilities from mastering a specific set of skills and abilities. As was true in 3.5. Now, you might be wondering, “Alex, why do you think this? 3.5’s Prestige Classes were broken and uber powerful and unfun! Why subject us to that once more?”

Now, I’m not saying that we should go back to the era where it was Prestige Class or Bust; single classing is simply too good now. Pathfinder is designed where there are serious penalties for multiclassing for every class in the game, and the archetype mechanic emphasizes that problem even more. Rather, I think we should move towards an era where the purpose of prestige classes is to work towards something mechanically, because the game is sorely lacking in that department. Archetypes are cool, but they’re heavily restricted by their base class in what they can give. Building them is a process of delicate balance in which a single misjudgment can render the whole thing either OP or unplayable.

Prestige classes don’t have that problem. They’re their own entity, and entering them is up to you. If they were built around tacking their prerequisites and making the character “prestigious” with them, giving them cool tricks and abilities that represent a mastery in a specific area, they would be pretty freaking cool. That mastery could be as specific as, “I trip things better than anyone,” or as broad as, “I’m an exemplar of X organization or X religion.” They should highly the very best of your skills in a very specific manner, while allowing base classes, even the archetyped ones, to be generalists.

But at least, that’s my philosophy.

So I’m keeping this article pretty short today for two reasons: First, I want to see what everything thinks about prestige classes. Love’em or hate’em? Raise’em or let’em rot? Let me know in the comments below! The second is that this article quickly turned even more ranty than usual, and I didn’t want that. So in the best interest of saving YOU from a garbling mess of words, I’ll see you next time at the Know Direction Network! Take care.

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 also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC. If you like Alex's writing and are interested in supporting him while getting professional-quality material for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game while doing so, check out the Everyman Gaming, LLC catalog, which is listed under Rogue Genius Games at the following locations:


  1. Excellent article, senor. I’m a big fan of the prestige classes. It gives an option for players as they develop their PCs during advancement. I have a cleric of Erastil in RotRL and he is strongly considering taking Evangelist as a prestige class at 7th level.
    I am not a fan of multi-classing as there are plenty of PC options out there that blend multiple classes adequately (the hybrid classes).
    I am hit/miss on archetypes. Some are definitely not worth what you give up when you take one. Others work well, like the empiricist archetype for the investigator.

  2. Nate Wright Reply to Nate

    Yeah, it feels like Pathfinder has mostly transitioned out of the old 3.X idea of having a base class that builds towards a Prestige class as a common practice for players. In my humble opinion, the biggest reason is that classes became more interesting. You’ve got Rage Powers, Rogue Tricks, and even little things like Bravery and Armor Training to cut down on ‘dead levels’ and give you something to look forward to every other level without having to play a 9th level caster. We’ve come a long way from the 3.0 Ranger that has….. 4 levels of spells, the Track feat, and a wonky Favored Enemy. And nothing else.

    And then you have archetypes, which often fulfill the niche that Prestige Classes cover: Specialization in one particular aspect of your class or character concept. Hell, in some cases (looking at you, Eldrich Knight) paizo-made classes help you kick off a character concept from level 1! This has a strong appeal for those who don’t want to sit through 4-6 levels of being ‘kind of’ what they want to be.

    I’d almost call Prestige Classes obsolete. Almost. Still, they serve as a fun tool for building characters. Horizon Walkers are a popular dip. Battle Heralds are a great way to make a nonmagical buffer who uses their voice and personality alone to enhance allies. Evangelist is…. kind of cheating on this front, admittedly.

    At the end of the day, I don’t think putting work into Prestige Classes is worth the development time except when it comes to rare occasions, such as the Hellknights. They have that special combination of exclusivity and setting relevance that gives the prestige class a reason to exist. The “Prestige” portion of a Prestige Class can often be handed out with story benefits. PFS with their Boons and Vanities strikes me as the best example off the top of my head. Other than that, the vast majority of concepts can be created within reason using certain classes, archetypes and feats. Let Bobby the Inquisitor become a Hunter of Heresy because he’s got Bane and all the juicy archery feats, not because he had to leave his class behind to get 10 levels of “Hunter of Heresy”

  3. A nice advantage that Prestige classes have over multi classing into other normal classes is that they don’t force feed you the basics that you probably already bought or don’t need. A Prestige class isn’t going to give you Weapon Finesse or Improved Unarmed Strike as its first level ability. If those abilities were integral to the character, they would expect you to have them already.

    I’ve only played one Prestige class so far, a Duelist, and I have been very happy with the character. He certainly ended up very different than he would have been as a straight Lore Warden.

    I think the Duelist is a good example of what a Prestigue can be. The Core Rulebook suggests it is primarily a way for bards and rogues to become better fighters, but was open enough for me to find my own use for it.

Leave a Reply