Back in December, I promised to deliver my rant on prestige classes.
Instead, I ended up designing one.
(Nothing in life goes in a straight line, it seems. Just curves, twists and unexpected opportunities.)
Using the 3.5 variant Pathfinder rules, I submitted and had published the Dawa Defender, which is available as a free download, Wayfinder 4 , over at paizo.com. Thanks to some development from editors Liz Courts, Adam Daigle and Ashavan Doyon, and company, and a particularly kicking illustration  from Eureka contributor Hugo Solis, it turned out pretty good.
So, did the experience temper my position on prestige classes?
A little. But not enough to derail this post entirely.
Oh, get on with it already …
Here is my beef in a nutshell: Prestige classes were presented as a GMing tool in the third edition Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Hear that, GMs? It was intended to be our toy to play with originally. Ours.
And I don’t let go of things easily.
What did those pesky power-gaming players do when they learned about prestige classes? (I say that in jest after all. What’s the fun of being a GM without a few power gamers around the table?) They stole them for their own use. But not only were players latching on to this mechanic with wild enthusiasm, Wizards of the Coast was complicit in the scheme, feeding their desire to build more powerful characters.
Before you could blink, PrCs were showing up in every supplement geared toward players. Masters of the Wild. Check. Defenders of the Faith. Check. Song and Silence. Check.
And what were GMs getting? Books on how to design strongholds and castles. (“Really? Did we really, really need that?”)
Sure, each release came with the standard caveat: Do it only with your GMs approval. Of course, the warning was delivered with all the authority that comes with the “do not remove under penalty of persecution” label on a mattress tag. It’s not like you can send players to PrC jail. Nope. Players just countered with the more powerful rejoinder: It’s official!
As you can see, my ire has been building a long, long time.
Take a deep breath, dude
Time for some perspective. This is D&D. The game was dead. Third edition not only revived it, it rejuvenated the whole rpg scene. If players were staking out new territory by incorporating PrCs wholesale, so what! As a GM, I could be magnanimous. I mean, it’s not like I still couldn’t use PrCs as they were intended, right?
Until 3.5 rolled around. And its Complete series of books. Yes, in many ways it was just a reprinting of the earlier softcover player supplements. But the players, almost as one, started issuing a common complaint: Why are you guys at Wotc wasting space by including stat blocks of an example NPC with each prestige class entry?
Wasting space? The only nod to the original purpose of PrCs as a GMing tool — a sample NPC we could use — and the players are complaining about their inclusion in a gaming book?
By the time the GM series of campaign books came out, the number of prestige classes offered got woefully slim. The player-focused books are loaded with PrCs, and the GMing ones only get a smidgen? The world’s been turned upside down, right?
Righting the ship
This proliferation of prestige classes contributed to the rules bloat that 3.5 sagged under. So, I now appreciate the reluctance that Paizo has had with adding PrCs to the Pathfinder rules. Better yet, Pathfinder introduced the alternate class features , which gives the PCs the tools they they’ve really wanted all along — the means to customize a player’s character class. This solution means there’s less incentive to mine prestige classes with this new mechanic.
It’s interesting, because prestige classes — a template GMs could use to bolster or customize adversaries and NPCs, as well as add flavor to a campaign — got fixed in fourth edition, too. That rules spot is now occupied by monster templates, ways to beef up those encounters with only a little fuss.
True, the campaign flavor mechanic got lost, the bait you could dangle in front of players to acquire levels in a PrC that immersed them in your world was set aside. But experience had already shown it wasn’t immersion the players craved, so much as the cool powers.
Not much of a rant, bud
Yeah, I know. Apparently dipping my toes in design did cool things off. And now players can dip in to my PrC for a few levels of dawa defense …
… but only if their GM says it’s OK.