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…).
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.
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.