Runes and Things: A few thoughts on Prestige Classes

Mike Mearls had a surprise for me (and lots of other D&D players) this morning: his latest Unearthed Arcana column presented the 5E take on one of the more popular concepts of 3E: Prestige Classes. It also introduced a new type of magic item, so for a six-page PDF, there’s quite a lot of content.

I really like the idea and implementation of runes, and I might get around to talking about them later, but – for now – let’s have a look at the Prestige Class.

What’s a Prestige Class? Basically, it’s a package of abilities that you can only get by sacrificing your advancement in your regular classes. It’s a mini-class that you can only enter with the multiclassing rules. It’s also one of the most fiendishly difficult things in all of D&D to balance.

The reason for this comes from its very structure: for a few levels (typically 5 or 10) you don’t get the regular progression of a level 1-20 class. Instead, by using the multiclassing rules, you take a few other features. And then you go back to your original class. Or possibly go to another prestige class. So, you might get to level 5 as a Wizard, then your next five levels advance in the Rune Scribe, then return to Wizard for the next ten levels. Which means that you end up with the abilities of a Wizard 15/Rune Scribe 5.

A typical class provides new abilities to the character with each new level gained, and we expect those abilities to be scaled, so that an ability gained at 20th level is more powerful than one gained at 1st level. When you multiclass, you give up those higher-level abilities in exchange for a set of lower-level abilities. With a normal class, you gain lower-level powers. With a prestige class, because there’s a minimum level required to enter them, those powers can be more powerful. The Rune Scribe requires you to be level 5 before taking it, so its abilities should (in theory) correspond to those gained by a level 6 to 10 character.

The Rune Scribe is a full-casting class, which means that when you multi-class with a Cleric or Wizard you maintain your regular spell-slot progression table based on your total character level; however, you don’t get access to the highest level spells. A Wizard 5/Rune Scribe 5 has access to 3rd level spells but has the slots of a 10th-level caster (including 5th level slots). So, they could cast a fireball with a 5th level slot (for 12d6 damage), but they can’t cast cloudkill. They can also use the slots to activate their runes, with the effectiveness of the activation scaling with the level of the slot.

Some of the problems inherent in balancing 3E Prestige Classes are gone in the new system. The erratic progressions of attacks and saving throws in 3E is gone due to the new unified proficiency bonus system, and it handles spell-use (slightly) better.

Nor is there the problem caused by the old Sorcerer class, which gave you very few powers apart from spell progression. As a result, if you gained full spell advancement from a prestige class, it was far better to choose the prestige class rather than staying in the base class. (And if you sacrificed spell advancement, typically you lost more power than the prestige class granted). So those things aren’t an issue.

However, you still have the challenge of determining whether the abilities a prestige class gives are worth sacrificing the high-level abilities for the class. And, perhaps more importantly, Prestige Classes increase the number of unexpected combinations of abilities. Sure, you have to be 5th level to take the Rune Scribe, but potentially you could take three separate prestige classes each for a level or two, and combine their abilities. It’s from that combination of abilities that most of the broken characters in D&D are possible. When you start cherry-picking abilities from various classes, trouble lies ahead.

After all, the abilities you get for taking these levels in a prestige class have to be worth giving up your higher level abilities for! (And delaying the access to your other abilities).

It’s an interesting point to look at what you actually lose as a Wizard or a Cleric:

Wizard: Ability score improvement (x2), Spell Mastery, Signature Spell, 9th level spell access, ability to prepare 5 spells.

Cleric: Ability score improvement (x2), Destroy Undead for CR 4, one use of Channel Divinity, a Divine Domain feature (e.g. maximised healing), and Divine Intervention improvement (auto-success).

So, you’ll gain power from the prestige class, but lose access to those abilities. (This is assuming your campaign goes to level 20, which is rare. You’ll actually lose access to abilities at lower levels…)

So, the main balancing issues are:

  • The powers you gain have to be on a par with those you’d gain from your old class for the equivalent levels
  • The powers you gain have to be worth giving up your access to higher-level powers
  • The powers you gain need to be balanced when combined with other powers from classes and prestige classes

Yes, there are lots of tricky issues to work through!

The original concept of prestige classes was as a method of adding flavour to your game world, and of providing mechanical benefits for members of organisations. That lasted all of about 5 minutes before designers (official and third-party) realised they were Really, Really Popular, and started churning them out just as fast as they could. There were some great prestige classes released, and some that were… not so great. Along the way, the part of them being unique, special and designed to add flavour vanished and they became (mostly) ways of providing mechanical benefits to PCs.

And, with 3.5E, the use of using Prestige Classes as a patch to fix the multiclass system with regard to spellcasters, who lost so much power when they multiclassed. Thus, we got the Mystic Theurge that allowed Cleric/Wizards to function. At least, to function better than what came before. Thus, prestige moved to being more of tool for giving characters abilities devoid of context, rather than a tool for expressing a distinctive game world through interesting mechanics.

Prestige classes are somewhat superseded in Pathfinder by archetypes, where class abilities could be replaced by other abilities without otherwise altering the advancement path of the class. D&D 4E used Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies. D&D 5E uses a form of these archetypes with the paths your character chooses – generally at third level – type of wizard speciality, cleric domain, thief or assassin, etc. This is why the sudden appearance of Prestige Classes is such a surprise to me: I thought they were part of the past that we’d abandoned.

However, there are reasons to use Prestige Classes. The primary one is because they can be entered by (potentially) any class. You could play a fighter/rune scribe. You could play a wizard/rune scribe. You could play a sorcerer/rune scribe. Paths are unique to individual classes; to open up these concepts, the prestige class is one way of doing it.

Why not implement the Rune Scribe using feats? That’s a very good question; indeed, with the greater power of feats in 5E, it would be a consideration, especially if you put a level restriction on taking the feat. The answer is probably down to the complexity of what the class wants to do. Feats can be powerful, but there is a limit to the complexity they can handle.  Note that this implementation of the Rune Scribe uses spell slots to power its rune magic. How do you design a fighter/rune scribe using feats? It may not be so easy.

There are a lot of challenges inherent in using Prestige classes, not least a significant amount of design complexity. The Unearthed Arcana article just gives a playtest version of the rules and the prestige class, so this isn’t set in stone yet. I’m not averse to seeing how things work, but many of the problems with Prestige Classes were only apparent when there were a lot of them available, and the best could be combined. One prestige class on its own? That’s not so much of an issue.

7 comments

  1. Yan

    Why would they loose their ability advancement while taking prestige class levels? Ability advancement are based on total level…

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    • trystero11

      Nope; ability advancement is a class feature, listed on the individual class tables. Character level only increases your proficiency bonus, IIRC.

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  2. trystero11

    Prestige Classes are one of my most-disliked features from 3E/v.3.5, and my immediate reaction to their re-appearance is one of dread. But I’ll wait and see how the playtest shakes out and try not to pre-judge based purely on those older editions; I have confidence that the 5E design team will do a better job.

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