I remember when I first started reading the rules for d&d 3e, and pretige classes were introduced into the game. There had been special classes you had to “qualify” for before, but nothing quite so modular and free-form. I remember a friend of mine and I sitting down and realizing that the prestige classes were a great opportunity to flesh out our own campaign. As the campaign progressed, each player’s character discovered some kind of organization or style that lead to the creation of entirely custom prestige classes for each one, and truth be told it felt epic.
That was a long time ago now, but I can’t shake a certain fondness for the prestige classes. Not the ones you researched out of a splat book and plotted out your advancement to be sure you hit all the feat and skill requirements, but the ones that encouraged exploration and interaction with the world. Ensuring we have the second type of prestige classes seems pretty easy to handle informally, but the designer in me wants to have a solution for it.
The first solution seems to be that you could simply scratch all of the mechanical requirements for the prestige classes. Although I’m not sure that’s quite the right approach since I could see wanting to limit a prestige class to at least a certain level character due to the balance of the class powers. I could also see the need to say a player needs to be able to cast arcane spells in order to advance to a prestige spellcaster, and other similar requirements for other classes.
Another option is to make these prestige classes hook into something else, like an “affiliation” that works alongside class to grant some powers and features. Maybe everyone starts the game with some kind of basic affiliation that grants everyone some standard advancement features, but they can change their affiliation and start gaining the features of their “prestige class” that way.
Since I’d like to encourage the creation of custom content, I want the game to pretty easily handle custom classes from the beginning. I think if a player has a strong concept they want to play, why make them wait several levels and play a class they didn’t want in order to get there. However, I see the potential for these prestige classes or affiliations to act as a story award in a way that vanilla experience points can’t accomplish. Mechanically, prestige classes, if they are complete classes unto themselves, could simply have the requirement that the organization, or at least a skilled trainer, accepts the character and is willing to train them. Then it would be up to the GM’s discretion whether the Cabal of Shadow Weavers is willing to accept non-thief characters into their ranks and train the character, granting powers related to the Shadow Weaver class. Another thing that prestige classes can do, if the game basically offers none of them out of the gate, is to encourage a GM to offer custom prestige classes to players based on the campaign they’re about to run. You can foreshadow and introduce culture and factions in a way that is truely engaging to the players.
The question of multi-classing comes into play here. That’ll be the subject of another post, but suffice to say that I haven’t figured out the ramifications of allowing multi-classing yet, so right now I’m assuming that I’ll allow it and that the Prestige Classes will be just that (rather than an affiliation mechanic), but I’ll hold off on that decision until I’ve had a chance to think a bit more through it.