Prestige Classes, Epic Levels, Character Development and Literature

More drunken mastery resulting from the decision to basically write off Sunday (so hot… so dull…) and spend it drinking wine and thinking about D&D.  Thoughts on what to do with a character when their basic class is no longer enough to represent them.

First, Prestige Classes.  I”m never sure what to make of Prestige Classes.  Some of them seem to represent membership in a social organisation of some sort – the Blackclad Druids or the Red Wizards.  Some seem to model transformative events that change not just who a character is but how they relate to the metaphysical forces of faith, fate and magic – the Warcaster or Blackguard.  Some are purely mechanical and largely superfluous to requirements – the Rifleman or Assassin (what’s wrong with a ranged Fighter or combat Rogue?).  Some seem to represent a kind of transcendence, a movement beyond the twenty levels of basic class into the realms of the epic, the legendary, the godlike – the Loremaster or Dwarven Defender.  Yes, really.  The Dwarven Defender is in my eyes the figure as solid as the rock he stands on, eroding but a little over a vigil of years or even decades; not yielding, not resting, not leaving his post until his task is done.  All these things fit into the same basic mechanics but I’m not sure they serve the same purpose (or, in some cases, whether they serve any…).

Badass as she is, does she really need a prestige class all to herself?

Some time ago I watched Thor and was quite taken with the Warriors Three.  Not recognising them from the Norse mythos with which I’m passingly familiar (I should point out at this stage that I neither know nor, for purposes of this discussion, care what or who the Warriors Three are supposed to be in Marvel’s canon), I took them as transcendent heroes who walked among the gods, adventured in their company, quested back and forth across the planes of existence and had generally left the mortal planes behind as suitably legendary figures always did in those myth cycles and the more modern fantasies that imitate them.   Conan and Sigmar do not die – they walk off over the horizon to adventure, east of the sun or west of the moon, beyond the fields we know.

That, to me, is what happens beyond Level 20; the character’s adventures may continue and it might be fun to go with them but the shift into the Epic levels is always accompanied by a movement between worlds, into a place and paradigm where the adventure befits the stature of the adventurer and where their status as adventurer can be restored.  An epic level character who does not transcend either becomes like a god made flesh – jaded and potent, curdled with entropy and the sort of thing that adventurers are normally working to destroy or overthrow, and that would make a story I’d be interested in telling but I doubt it would be an interesting character to play – or falls from that high and lofty place and begins again.  Something I’ve always liked about Earthsea, incidentally; that LeGuin returned to Ged after his task was done and his power spent, and watched he and Tenar live out their lives after the fact of their brief heroics, is a mark of the humanity she invests in her characters.  They outlive their legends and have to go on living despite.

People are still people when the adventure ends.

There seems to be some overlap between that and some of the prestige classes, and with my hand on my heart I feel that some sort of division between the different kinds of prestige class might be in order.  No prestige class should be wide open for the taking based on a set of mechanical prerequisites alone; they should represent a pledge or oath to something greater than oneself, the awakening or loss of potential following some transformative event of the mortal kind, or transcendence of a kind better represented by this new status in a new hierarchy of adventures, class, and level than by a mere extension of a basic class that indicates no transcendence, no shift – just more of the same, forever.  Maybe a split between Basic, Epic and Prestige Classes?

For instance, I’ve long felt that the Paladin should in any right-thinking world be an epic class, something to be striven towards and dedicated to from a mundane origin.  The soul who comes into this world a Paladin is something else; the sort of thing that, like Galahad, arises once in a generation and is born to be a martyr, an example to the interestingly flawed characters that surround them – but not something that’s necessarily for play, as Galahad is more a symbol and plot device than he is an adventuring Knight of the Table.  After twenty levels’ toil as a fighter or cleric and constant moral vigilance besides, one is maybe ready to take one’s first steps on that high and noble path.  Maybe.  And one is walking among angels by that stage, a junior member of their celestial hierarchy with a long way still to go before Golconda, as it were.

Mind you, I also liked T. H. White’s touch; nobody who meets White’s Galahad likes the insufferable, predestined little prig.

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

5 thoughts on “Prestige Classes, Epic Levels, Character Development and Literature”

  1. Prestige classes have an odd place in D&D I think. On the one hand they seem to be over-developed filler for selling sourcebooks, but then again, the Bard in 1st Edition AD&D was nothing if not a prestige class – to become a Bard you had to advance in several other classes first. So the idea has a long history.

    I agree with you, I think some of the base classes (like Paladin, maybe Bard) should be prestige classes. But for most of them, I can’t see why they shouldn’t just be some organization that rewards PCs who pass some sort of in-game test with a small bonus or item.

    Towards the end, 3x had so many prestige classes it was just ridiculous. They may as well have just built some sort of point-based “build your own class” mechanic like Rolemaster used to have and be done with it.

    I’m starting to notice this trend in modern culture in general for over-classification. Like Zak said in the post you mentioned above about feats, making a separate little box for everything we can think of eventually just kills creativity by making it feel like there’s nothing outside the boxes.

    1. I have seen some social organisations treated as feats – take the feat, meet an in-game prerequisite, gain membership in the organisation affording X and Y benefits at a cost of Z% of income or something like that. That strikes me as another good way to approach them, as does Pathfinder’s approach whereby, if you’re a Wizard, you must have learned to be a Wizard, so you have a school classification defining what sort of Wizard you’ve been taught to be – pretty easy to add or remove those if necessary, which is the approach I probably ought to take with things like the Greylord or Gun Mage from the ol’ Iron Kingdoms. The only thing I can see as an absolute Prestige Class in that setting is the Warcaster – Warcasters are by definition something else that just happens to have warcaster potential that changes what they can do in a very fundamental way.

      We do have a mania for taxonomy, don’t we? Something to do with the development of the scientific method as investigation of and into things, identification of relationships between them – once you’ve started approaching the world like that and built an understanding of it, it’s very difficult to stop without having to redo your intellectual system from scratch. I think Foucault wrote something about that but I don’t want to misquote him at this time in the morning.

  2. Yeah the continental tradition is big on undermining and deconstructing our attempts to make truth-claims about things in the world, and quite rightly I think.

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