What, How, and Why are Prestige Classes in D&D? - D20 Collective - Divinations form the Collective
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What, How, and Why are Prestige Classes in D&D?

A mainstay of 3/3.5e D&D, Prestige Classes can be found in most of its supplemental publications, as well as the Dungeon Master’s Guide. 5e players may not be so familiar with these unique multiclassing-only options (although they are a homebrew go-to for longtime fans) but for anyone looking to try out 3e after 5e, they can be an invaluable resource in keeping a similar feel and play style. 

What are Prestige Classes?

The cover of a supplemental Dungeons and Dragons book, titled "Complete Scoundrel". The cover's central image is of a fair skinned, shaggy haired man with pointed ears, leather armor, and a sword, who is looking over his shoulder and holding a handful of playing cards.

Prestige Classes are supplemental classes for Dungeons and Dragons 3e and 3.5e, as well as Pathfinder, that can be layered on top of the ‘normal’ Player’s Handbook classes. By taking levels in a Prestige Class (as though you are multiclassing), you can more fully customize your character, giving them unique abilities and features that are specific to their backstory, beyond mere feats and skills. 

They come in particularly useful for parties that are slightly unbalanced, or for classes that lag a little in usefulness compared to others. 3e Bards, for instance, are generally agreed to be pretty underpowered in comparison to their arcane spellcasting counterparts. Taking a Prestige Class, such as Virtuoso or Blade Singer, in addition to a few of the normal Bard levels, can help put some of the kick back into the warrior-musician character. 

The use of Prestige Classes can sometimes make characters slightly overpowered or ‘min/max’-ed, especially if you’re more used to 3/3.5e’s toned-down power level and atmosphere. However, for those who are coming from 5e (wherein players are made notable by their creative features rather than customized build), or who are looking to customize some of their PCs and NPCs to the setting, they’re extremely useful to have. 

Players who have tried out Pathfinder may also find the concept and these classes familiar - since the game still uses them. 


Prestige Classes vs. Subclasses (3e/3.5e vs. 5e)

For those who started with 5e D&D (and there’s nothing wrong with that - many have, and it's an excellent edition!), the concept of Prestige Classes can come off a little overcomplicated, since 5e replaced them with the Subclasses, sometimes called Archetypes. For the most part, they serve the same function of providing further customization for players and characters, but there are a few major differences.

 

An illustration of an older, apparently drunken man fighting two others. The older man is stumbling backwards, seemingly accidentally hitting a larger man in the face with a tankard, while the sword of a smaller man is tangled in the strap of his bag.

 

First, you have to meet requirements to take a Prestige Class. 

These vary by the exact class you’re going with, but typical prerequisites include the ability to spellcast, the ability to take fighter-specific feats, or levels and ranks in certain classes and skills. This means that you have to work toward Prestige Classes, rather than building them into your backstory at level 1 (although you can certainly sow the seeds for them there) - you can change your mind on the way there, or base your selection on events in the game and count it as a reward for your progress so far. 

 

Second, you don’t have to take a Prestige Class. 

Subclasses are built into their broader classes, and you take one as part of the leveling process as a matter of course. Prestige Classes are entirely optional - if you’re happy playing a more generic Fighter (who already have a good deal of customizability with feats and play style in 3e, so it's entirely likely that you may be), you can just play around with that. No need to layer in something else if it doesn’t fit, or if you just can’t find a Prestige option that suits you. 

 

Third, you can take multiple Prestige Classes. 

You’d have to check with your DM, of course, and make sure that you meet all of the requirements, but unlike in 5e (where, since Subclasses are built into regular leveling, you cannot multiclass into the same class to have multiple), Prestige Classes can be layered and added on top of each other. You can have as many as you can qualify for. 

 

Finally, when you take Prestige Classes you are mulitclassing

When you level up into a Prestige Class, you don't take any of the disadvantages that are usually associated with the process in 3/3.5e (a slight hit to experience points, for instance), but you do gain only the bonuses of the Prestige Class. If the hit die, for instance, for your base class is higher, you cannot elect to roll that. You must level as though you are taking a level in another class altogether. The skill proficiencies and attack/save bonuses are added similarly. 

 

Selecting and Using a Prestige Class

Choosing a Prestige Class is something that can take a lot of thought, and the selection can come from a variety of places. It’s entirely possible to decide from the start of your campaign that you want to take one, and build your character accordingly. This is especially effective if you’re not starting at level 1. It’s also entirely possible, though, to find inspiration and ideas about taking one as a matter of course through your campaign. 

If you find that your party is frequently investigating and going undercover, for instance, it may make sense for you to become a Sleepless Detective or an Esoteric Investigator. If you’ve located and adventured through a Coatl temple or met a Coatl NPC, you may decide that you want to become a Rainbow Servant. In a campaign that I’m in, a player decided to become a Holy Liberator after meeting and becoming attached to an ex-god, completely surprising our DM. 

A few basic Prestige Classes can be found in the Dungeons Master’s Guide, and you can find more in almost any supplemental publication. Supplemental books are often written and divided up by theme or character type - Complete Scoundrel (the cover of which can be seen above), for instance, contains rules and classes for rogues, bards, and rangers who are geared to a more chaotic nature. Others, like Defenders of the Faith (the cover of which can be seen to the left), are concerned with Paladins, Clerics, and other holy characters. Searching through one appropriate for your character concept can help you easily locate a Prestige Class that works for you. 

After you’ve decided that you want to take a Prestige Class, you take a level in it as though you are multiclassing, adding on the features and abilities for the level that you are gaining in it (some Prestige Classes have more levels available than others). Then, get playing!


Some Favorite Prestige Classes

There are dozens of Prestige Classes available out there in official publications alone, added to further by homebrew and custom content. These are, in my opinion, some of the best Prestige Classes, at least in terms of storytelling and character customization. However, if none of these take your interest, there are plenty of others for you to look through. 

Rainbow Servant

An illustration of a tanned woman in Aztec clothing with large, rainbow wings. She is swinging a sword, and at her feet is a semicircle of colorful grass.Rainbow Servants are sworn vassals of Coatls, mythical and magical rainbow birds who originate from Aztec Mythology. 

In Dungeons and Dragons, Coatls are extremely good-aligned, and their servants promise to spread that goodness and kindness everywhere that they go, gaining cleric spells and several divine domains, as well as, eventually, rainbow wings. 

This Prestige Class requires players to have located a Coatl temple in-game, as well as the ability to cast 3rd level arcane spells. This makes it a viable option for Wizards, Sorcerers, and Bards, as well as Paladin multiclass characters. 


Master SpecialistAn illustration of a small woman with curly black hair, wearing a brown dress and apron. A shadowy black dragon curls up her arm and behind her head.

Master Specialists are spellcasters who have perfected a single type of magic, beyond even the usual favored spells and types among wizards. 

These mages have little to no versatility or variety, but are deadly within their own school, casting higher level spells with greater effect. Master Specialists gain various spells, feats, and bonuses depending upon their chosen school, as well as additional levels of arcane spellcasting ability. 

This prestige class requires your character to already be specialized into a specific school of magic, as well as casting at least 3rd level spells, which limits it to Wizard characters, either played straight or multiclassed. 


Uncanny Trickster

An illustration of a red haired man leaping to the right, his legs curled behind him mid-air. He wears yellow clothing underneath a leather breastplate and shin-guards, and points a crossbow to the left.Uncanny Tricksters are the ultimate in terms of unpredictability, with a seemingly endless catalog of underhanded and unexpected tricks that they can pull out in any given situation. 

Certain rule variants allow for the learning of Skill Tricks at the cost of a couple of skill points - pseudo-feats which specify different cinematic maneuvers and abilities that a character can perform. Uncanny Tricksters gain bonus tricks without having to pay any skill points, as well as taking on the features of their primary class without having to wait until they can take another level. 

This Prestige Class has loose requirements - only a minimum number of skill ranks and tricks. This makes it popular with Rogues, Bards, and Rangers. There are other, similar, Prestige Classes that are better geared toward either combat or spellcasting characters. 


Mind BenderA black and white illustration of a man with pointed ears in elaborate armor, holding a hand to his head. A line of energy connects his head and hand to the head of a crouching beast behind him.

Mind Benders are sort of like arcane versions of psionics, focusing on their ability to charm and mind-control. 

These spellcasters bypass the subtle lines of morality and ethics of enchantment magic, and go straight for the manipulation and mind control. Fun abilities like telepathy, increased charm spells, and mental compulsion, eventually going so far as to make their domination of a creature’s mind permanent, make up a Mind Bender’s arsenal. 

This Prestige Class requires the player to have an already-considerable magical ability worked into their character, which must include some ability to charm. It also requires that the character not be good-aligned (for good reason). Warlocks, Wizards, and Sorcerers are mostly likely to become Mind Benders. 


Halfling Outrider

A black and white illustration of a dark haired woman riding a leaping pony. She wears armor, and holds the reigns of the pony in one hand and a sword in another. While most Halflings are peaceable, hearth-loving people, their semi-nomadic culture frequently puts them in some danger. Halfling Outriders are their protectors and guardians, specially trained to ‘ride out’ and watch for such trouble. 

These warriors are almost always mounted, and are highly adept at fighting from the back of their dog or pony. Their features and abilities include several tricks for this, including the ability to stand up straight and fight while riding, alongside alertness and survival feats and abilities. 

As you might expect, this Prestige Class requires the character to be a Halfling, as well as have the Mounted Combat and Mounted Archery feats, and several survival-oriented skills. Fighters, Rangers, and Druids make excellent Halfling Outriders. 

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