Last Updated on January 22, 2023
There’s no feature more important to players than customization when building a character for a tabletop RPG.
Building the exact character you have in your head is the top focus for most players, and Prestige Classes are a popular way to achieve this end.
What Is a Prestige Class?
Prestige Classes are a feature from 3.5 and Pathfinder. Many players and Dungeon Masters alike wonder if and how they can include this excellent mechanic into their 5e games.
Here’s the scoop on Prestige Classes and how you can bring them into your Fifth Edition games.
Prestige Classes are a further individualization for players’ characters and NPCs. Prestige Classes provide additional levels to their respective base classes while providing level-up bonuses for levels that otherwise wouldn’t have anything new for that character.
There are hundreds of Prestige Classes published for 3.5, but due to the lack of inclusion in Fifth Edition, the only option for players or Dungeon Masters looking to include Prestige Classes in their games is to homebrew the mechanic.
How Did Prestige Classes Work in 3.5?
Prestige Classes were a type of multiclassing feature that allowed players to take more than one class without sacrificing the EXP that would be lost to 3.5’s Multiclass Experience Penalty:
If a multiclass character’s classes are not nearly the same level, he suffers a multiclass penalty of -20% XP for each class that is not within 1 level of his most experienced class. These penalties apply when the character adds a class or raises a class’s level too high.
– Player’s Handbook (3.5), p. 60
Prestige Classes require a player to first reach prerequisites with their base classes before they can spec into the Prestige Class.
Prestige Class Prerequisites usually include Ability Score benchmarks, required feats, and skill levels.
To compensate for their prerequisite requirements, Prestige Classes generally have shorter paths than Base Classes.
Ten levels are about average for a Prestige Class, and they’re intended to be taken at level 10. Though, some, like Archmage, are only five levels and designed to be taken at level 15.
There are almost 300 errata Prestige Classes for D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder. Each of these classes is unique in its requirements and boons.
Some of these classes, such as Swashbuckler, were adapted into 5e as subclasses for the 11 base classes.
Prestige Class Terminology
Before we delve into an example Prestige Class, we’ll want to cover the terminology you’ll see in the Prestige Class information.
Here are some terms you’ll need to understand to get the picture.
Your Base Classes are your 11 regular classes. These classes are the ones that require no prerequisites to take the class. You can take them at any time, and taking more than one of them will incur the multiclass EXP penalty against you.
This is the number of levels you’ve taken in a specific class, base, or prestige. For single class characters, this level and their Character Level will be identical.
Character Level is the total number of levels overall in classes your character has. For single class characters, this is identical to the Class Level. For multiclass characters, the levels will be spread out over multiple classes.
So, a character with four levels in Bard and 1 level in Wizard would still be a level 5 character.
A character’s Caster Level is their class level for a casting class. In 3, 3.5, and 4e, the casters were split into Arcane and Divine groups. This distinction was crucial for Prestige Classes but has fallen out of usage in Fifth Edition.
The number of ranks put into a specific skill. In 3.5, players would put classes into their Skills to determine their rolls for the skills. Proficiency replaced this system in Fifth Edition.
Example Prestige Class: Archmage
Knowledge (Arcana) 15 ranks, Spellcraft 15 ranks
Skill Focus (Spellcraft), Spell Focus in Schools of Magic
Ability to cast 7th level Arcane Spells, Knowledge of 5th-level or higher spells from at least five schools of magic.
Weapon and Armor Proficiency
Archmages gain no proficiency with any weapon or armor.
Spells per Day/Spells Known
When a new archmage level is gained, the character gains new spells per day (and spells known, if applicable) as if he had also gained a level in whatever arcane spellcasting class he could cast 7th-level spells before he added the prestige class level.
He does not, however, gain any other benefit a character of that class would have gained.
If a character had more than one arcane spellcasting class in which he could cast 7th-level spells before he became an archmage, he must decide to which class he adds each level of archmage for the purpose of determining spells per day.
An archmage gains the opportunity to select a special ability from among those described below by permanently eliminating one existing spell slot (she cannot eliminate a spell slot of higher level than the highest-level spell she can cast).
Each special ability has a minimum required spell-slot level, as specified in its description.
An archmage may choose to eliminate a spell slot of a higher level than that required to gain a type of high arcana.
Arcane Fire (Su)
The archmage gains the ability to change arcane spell energy into arcane fire, manifesting it as a bolt of raw magical energy.
The bolt is a ranged touch attack with long range (400 feet + 40 feet/level of archmage) that deals 1d6 points of damage per class level of the archmage plus 1d6 points of damage per level of the spell used to create the effect.
This ability costs one 9th-level spell slot.
Arcane Reach (Su)
The archmage can use spells with a range of touch on a target up to 30 feet away. The archmage must make a ranged-touch attack.
Arcane reach can be selected a second time as a special ability, in which case the range increases to 60 feet. This ability costs one 7th-level spell slot.
Mastery of Counterspelling
When the archmage counterspells a spell, it is turned back upon the caster as if it were fully affected by a spell-turning spell. If the spell cannot be affected by spell turning, then it is merely counterspelled. This ability costs one 7th-level spell slot.
Mastery of Elements
The archmage can alter an arcane spell when cast so that it utilizes a different element from the one it normally uses. This ability can only alter a spell with the acid, cold, fire, electricity, or sonic descriptor.
The spell’s casting time is unaffected. The caster decides whether to alter the spell’s energy type and chooses the new energy type when he begins casting. This ability costs one 8th-level spell slot.
Mastery of Shaping
The archmage can alter area and effect spells that use one of the following shapes: burst, cone, cylinder, emanation, or spread.
The alteration consists of creating spaces within the spell’s area or effect that are not subject to the spell. The minimum dimension for these spaces is a 5-foot cube.
Furthermore, any shapeable spells have a minimum dimension of 5 feet instead of 10 feet. This ability costs one 6th-level spell slot.
This ability increases the archmage’s effective caster level by +1 (for purposes of determining level-dependent spell variables such as damage dice or range and caster-level checks only). This ability costs one 5th-level spell slot.
An archmage who selects this type of high arcana can use one of her arcane spell slots (other than a slot expended to learn this or any other type of high arcana) to permanently prepare one of her arcane spells as a spell-like ability that can be used twice per day.
The archmage does not use any components when casting the spell, although a spell that costs XP to cast still does so, and a spell with a costly material component instead costs her 10 times that amount in XP.
This ability costs one 5th-level spell slot.
The spell-like ability normally uses a spell slot of the spell’s level, although the archmage can choose to make a spell modified by a metamagic feat into a spell-like ability at the appropriate spell level.
The archmage may use an available higher-level spell slot in order to use the spell-like ability more often.
Using a slot three levels higher than the chosen spell allows her to use the spell-like ability four times per day, and a slot six levels higher lets her use it six times per day.
If spell-like ability is selected more than one time as a high arcana choice, this ability can apply to the same spell chosen the first time (increasing the number of times per day it can be used) or to a different spell.
How To Homebrew Prestige Classes in 5e
Including Prestige Classes in 5e games is a hot topic because many 3.5 players saw the removal of Prestige Classes as a positive thing for the game’s overall health.
Despite that, many people yearn for the reintroduction of high customization of your character’s class features like that of Prestige Classes.
Step 1: Determine What Prestige Classes You Want To Include
The first step to including Prestige Classes in your 5e game is to determine which classes you want to include.
There have been a handful of modules from Onyx Path Publishing which included Prestige Classes for 5e, but no official Wizards sourcebooks have included any.
It’s important to remember that Prestige Classes were intended to be under the purview of the individual Dungeon Masters as stated by Monte Cook, co-author of the Dungeon Master’s Guide (3.0).
“The original design intention behind them was to allow DMs to create campaign-specific, exclusive roles and positions as classes. These special roles offer abilities and powers otherwise inaccessible to PCs and focus characters in specific, interesting directions.”
Thus, making up your own Prestige Classes is an essential mechanic function. As a DM, it is entirely your prerogative to include Prestige Classes or not.
If you decide to have Prestige Classes, you’ll want to determine which classes you include and how to incorporate them.
It’s possible to have your players hand select your Prestige Classes based on the ones they want to incorporate for their character backstories.
Allowing your players to join in the world-building process can help them feel included and essential to their own story.
Remember that as the DM, it’s your job to help them tell the story of their characters. It’s not your story. So, consider your players’ input!
Step 2: Determine Prerequisites for Your Prestige Classes
Once you’ve determined which Classes you want in your game, you’ll need to start designating new prerequisites that allow the players to spec into their desired Prestige Classes.
Since 5e has different skill mechanics than 3.5, you’ll need to effectively figure out how to work those prerequisites into the game.
Onyx Path Publishing’s 5e Prestige Classes are an excellent place to start because they help give you a basis for designing your Prestige System.
In essence, they’ve done the work already, and you need to figure out how to apply their system to the classes you want to include.
Once you’ve determined what the prerequisites need to be for your Prestige Classes, you’re all set to have your players start working toward them!
Including mechanics from previous editions of tabletop games can be an excellent way for players and DMs to create the experience they crave.
The Dungeon Master is responsible for doing the more challenging parts of thinking for the game, which can be a daunting task. Luckily, many people are working together to adapt beloved mechanics from older editions.
Prestige Classes likely aren’t going to make a comeback for Fifth Edition, though Sixth Edition may see more innovation on the mechanic. We’ll have to wait and see!
As always, the most important thing about any game of Dungeons and Dragons is that all the players and the Dungeon Master are having fun!
So, good luck, have fun, and happy questing!
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When I’m not writing about RPGs, I’m playing Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh!, X-Wing miniatures, and many other lovingly-crafted tabletop games with the people I love.