Reimagining Prestige Classes for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons

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From 1st edition through 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons, prestige classes offered players opportunities to deeply customize and specialize their characters. These classes had requirements that needed to be met through gameplay before a character could take levels in the prestige class. This created dynamic opportunities for storytelling and mechanical synergy between a character’s adventures and their progression. However, the extensive use of prestige classes in 3rd edition also led to power creep, min-maxing, and balance issues that many felt limited flexibility rather than enhanced it.

When 5th edition was released in 2014, it included no prestige classes whatsoever, instead relying on subclasses to provide specialization options. This was likely a reaction to the problems with prestige classes in prior editions. However, eight years later, some players yearn for the return of prestige classes as an optional way to take their 5e characters in exciting new directions. But for prestige classes to work in 5e, we need to reimagine what they can be while avoiding the pitfalls of the past.

The Nostalgic Allure of Prestige Classes

For those who grew up playing advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the 80s and 90s or who came into tabletop gaming during the 3rd edition era, prestige classes provoke a distinct sense of nostalgia. The concept taps into the fundamental appeal of unlocking specialized training, forbidden knowledge, and membership in elite organizations. This engenders a sense of growth and progression beyond the base classes that reflects the progression of the characters in the story itself.

In a roleplaying game, progression mechanics and storyline should ideally work in harmony to reinforce one another. Prestige classes allow players to align their characters’ progression around story-based accomplishments. For example, a fighter who slays a dragon and bonds with its hatchling could unlock the dragon knight prestige class. This reflects their in-game achievement and grants them mechanics like a dragon mount.

Likewise, characters who train with ancient masters or secret societies can earn access to signature abilities and mechanical synergies. This helpsheighten the immersive experience at the table by closely connecting what happens in the narrative to opportunities for deeper customization via the prestige class.

While subclass options allow for some degree of specialization, they are available immediately at 1st or 2nd level. Prestige classes differ in being an earned reward unlocked through gameplay. This engenders prestige classes with a greater sense of exclusivity and narrative weight.

Problems With the 3.5 Implementation of Prestige Classes

However, the execution of prestige classes in 3rd edition D&D was far from perfect. As more supplements added more niche prestige classes, the system suffered from extensive power creep and balance issues.

Certain combinations of classes, feats, skills and prestige classes allowed players to utterly eclipse the power curve of baseline classes. At many tables, prestige classes became an expectation rather than an optional reward. This shoehorned characters into extremely rigid progression paths to qualify for coveted prestige classes as early as possible.

Moreover, some prestige classes were just poorly designed or too campaign specific to be useful for players. Yet the allure of unlocking these exclusive classes kept players feeling obligated to warp their character’s progression to try and qualify.

Too often, prestige classes didn’t expand possibilities but rather limited them by punishing players who didn’t meticulously pre-plan every feat and skill selection from 1st level. This undermined the core design philosophy of 5th edition D&D which emphasizes storytelling and flexibility over mechanical optimization.

Many players who enjoyed utilizing prestige classes still saw them removed from 5th edition as a net positive due to the balance issues and min-maxing culture they enabled.

Reintroducing Prestige Classes to 5th Edition

Nonetheless, I believe there remains space for prestige classes to make a comeback as an optional framework for character advancement in 5th edition. However, for them to work, the pitfalls of past implementations must be studiously avoided.

Firstly, maintaining bounded accuracy balance has to be paramount. Prestige classes cannot eclipse the power curve of base classes. They should provide flavorful, low-impact abilities that offer options, not massive power spikes.

Secondly, prestige classes should fill conceptual and mechanical gaps not already covered by a class’s subclasses. There is no need for an “arcane archer” prestige class when the Arcane Archer fighter subclass already handles that fantasy. Instead, prestige classes should enable concepts like mystic lich or dragon knight which can’t be modeled through subclasses alone.

Thirdly, prestige class requirements need to be flexible enough not to demand intense pre-planning and optimization. A good design philosophy is to make prestige classes tempting but not expected. Their requirements should encourage organic character growth rather than forcing players to pre-optimize. And they should be aimed at mid and higher tiers of play rather than low level.

Fourthly, prestige classes work best as short additions to a player's base class levels rather than replacing core progression. 3-5 levels is ideal for most prestige classes. With only a small investment required, they avoid unduly punishing players for taking them.

Fifthly, it’s critical that prestige classes are presented as options, not as expectations or required paths. Players should be completely content playing a single-class character; prestige options simply allow another avenue for growth. But no combination of base class and prestige classes should become the default expectation.

Finally, mechanical prerequisites for entry into prestige classes should be relaxed in favor of richer narrative-based requirements. For example, rather than requiring 8 ranks in Knowledge (arcana), mandate that the character has studied under a master mage or wizard's guild. This reflects their personal journey and is less restrictive.

Selling Your Players on Prestige Classes

As DM, if you want to introduce prestige classes into your 5e campaign, you need to properly pitch the concept to your players to avoid misconceptions. Emphasize that your goal is to offer deeper customization options to reflect their characters' progression in your story.

Entice them with the fantasy of unlocking rare martial training like cavalier orders, secret spell knowledge guarded by ancient societies, or mythic power only bestowed upon legendary heroes. Make clear these options are special boons earned through play, not power they are owed by a certain level.

Remind them prestige classes are an optional Rules Module you are testing out and soliciting feedback on. There is zero obligation or expectation for any player to utilize them. They simply offer exciting possibilities for those interested in further distinguishing their character.

Be transparent that you will rigorously playtest any prestige options at your table and listen to player feedback about balance and enjoyment. Maintain an open dialogue about adjustments that may need to be made during early iterations.

If framed positively as an exciting bonus rather than a min-maxing requirement, a well-executed prestige system can enrich rather than restrict your 5e campaign.

Homebrewing Your Own 5e Prestige Classes

If introducing prestige classes to your 5th edition campaign, taking the time to homebrew your own options tailored to your campaign setting and story is advisable rather than haphazardly importing 3e material. Here are some tips:

First, research if there are any unserved mechanical or character fantasies not sufficiently modeled by current subclasses or feats. Avoid redundancy. Identify gaps a prestige class could smoothly fill.

Next, mine your own campaign lore and worldbuilding for prestige class ideas. Reflect factions, secret societies, famous mentors, unique rituals, etc. Make PCs earning access a story moment.

Be judicious with any mechanical requirements for entry. Keep them focused on lower tier gameplay to avoid pre-planning. And emphasize narrative-based prerequisites over strict mechanical ones when possible.

Maintain a conservative design philosophy prioritizing flavor over power. Classes shouldn’t outdamage or outshine your core martial classes. Avoid massively increasing power curve.

Enhance character options and roleplaying potential rather than raw combat power. Offer utility, expanded spell access, skill bonuses instead of pure damage boosts.

Consider tying your classes to feats or training accessible at lower levels that provide smaller, thematically linked benefits. They prime players for the prestige payoff without forcing prerequisite feats.

By taking your time to craft prestige options that seamlessly integrate into your setting and story arcs, you can create exciting milestones for authentic character progression that harmonizes gameplay and narrative.

Playtesting Your Homebrew Creations

The first time you test out new prestige options, start small with only one or two classes introduced gradually through gameplay. Reserve classes reflecting secret knowledge for NPCs until you’ve refined their balance and integration.

Expect to make tweaks during early playtesting. Be willing to modify or rebalance prestige classes in response to any issues that crop up at your table. Keep an open ear for player feedback on how they feel about prestige options in practice.

Make it clear to your players these first prestige experiments are very much beta versions you intend to update based on their real-world performance. Maintain clear channels for player feedback.

If your goal is to expand into a full prestige class supplement for your setting, roll them out slowly both in your games and publications. Get each iteration right before introducing a multitude more potential problems. Refine your design philosophy and balance framework.

Done thoughtfully, prestige classes can be like spices that enhance and personalize the experience of play in your 5e campaign, creating satisfying layers of customization and progression. But care must be taken not to overseason the dish.

The key is maintaining the core bounded accuracy balance of 5e so that no build eclipses others in power just by virtue of class choice. Prestige classes should entice, not dominate.

By respecting this philosophy and eschewing mandatory optimization, DMs can craft prestige classes that organically reward their players for accomplishments that reflect their characters’ personal journeys. Players can dabble in these exclusive skills and secrets without having to relinquish their core progression path.

For example, a paladin might learn a few levels of an ancient order of dragon slayers after heroically defeating a dragon plaguing the land. But only if this act resonates with their character’s story. There is no obligation to abandon their sacred oath for the mechanical benefits of this prestige class. It is an option, not an expectation.

Neither DM nor players should lose sight of the original goal of prestige classes—to harmonize progression mechanics with narrative progression. When utilized as intended, rather than abused as power exploits, prestige classes can provide satisfying payoffs without pressure.

In closing, prestige classes can absolutely work in 5e as an opt-in framework for customized progression and specialization. But care must be taken to craft prestige options that enhance roleplay and storytelling first, with mechanics secondary. Avoid falling into the trap of making prestige classes feel mandatory. Instead, present them as exciting narrative opportunities to reward your players for leaning into the adventures their characters experience.

By judiciously incorporating prestige classes back into 5e as an optional module, both DMs and players can enjoy deeper moments of progression that meaningfully link their characters’ tales of triumph to new horizons of fantastic possibilities.


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