Prestige Classes in 3.5e & How They Translate to DnD 5e

In the old days of Dungeons and Dragons 3 and 3.5e, multiclassing was the only way to truly customize your character into unique and entertaining combinations.

Multiclassing was so important to the mechanics of the game that a special type of class, called a Prestige Class, was brought in to maximize the player’s ability to make a truly awesome character. 

In this article series, we will first look at the original prestige classes in Dungeons and Dragons 3e and 3.5e and how they were migrated into Dungeons and Dragons 5e.

Then we will scour the internet for homebrew versions of our favorite prestige classes from back in the day as they can be used in Dungeons and Dragons 5e today. 

What Are Prestige Classes?

The original prestige classes were published in the Dungeons Master’s Guide 3rd edition. The list was expanded in the same book for the 3.5 edition. They typically only had 5 or 10 levels, and you were expected to put them into your character’s multiclassing rotation.

A typical character’s build at 7th level would be something like Fighter 2/ Wizard 3/ Eldritch Knight 5.

More than likely, prestige classes were designed as the answer to one or more of several possible questions:

  • My rogue or fighter can cast spells. Shouldn’t they be able to do cool things with their magic that wizards can’t do?
  • My fighter is wicked with a bow, and she is from a magical family of elves. What if she developed magic strictly for her archery?
  • What would happen to my paladin if he fell from grace but kept his powers?
  • I literally just want to be able to cast ALL THE SPELLS. 

The benefit to having a prestige class over simply continuing to level in your core classes was that you could gain unique abilities that not only set you apart but also could drastically change your playing strategy. 

Most often, your prestige class also continued to gain additional abilities that supported your original core classes so that you wouldn’t lose out completely.

Arcane Trickster, for example, gave you limited improvement on your sneak attack but in exchange for more spells and interesting new ways to use those spells. 

Acquiring a Prestige Class

Ostensibly, anyone could start leveling in a prestige class provided they met the requirements.

However, it makes sense that the requirements could only be met by a character of a certain class(es). So, in truth, it benefitted you to plan your character’s growth to meet the prestige class you wanted.

The typical requirements for being able to take a level in a prestige class were 1.) having a certain Base Attack Bonus, 2.) a certain number ranks in one or more skills, and 3.) other class-specific special requirements, such as spell casting or roleplaying objectives. 

What Are Base Attack Bonus and Skill Ranks?

In Dungeons and Dragons 5e, we have something called a proficiency bonus which is applied to attack rolls and several other mechanics.

In Dungeons and Dragons 3 and 3.5e, Base Attack Bonus fulfilled this purpose. 

Yet, there was a difference: Base Attack Bonus was tied to your class, not your overall level.

Each class you took as you multiclassed your character may or may not have given you a boost to your Base Attack Bonus depending on which level you took. 

The martial-oriented classes, such as Fighter, Ranger, and Paladin, got +1 at every level.

Spellcasting classes such as Wizard and Sorcerer only gained a +1 every even numbered level.

The specialty classes, such as Monk, Rogue, and Bard, got started at 0 and got a +1 every 2nd, 3rd, and 4th level, which meant that every 5th level did not. 

It could be confusing to try and understand the algorithm, so it was altogether a good thing it got scrapped in favor of the proficiency bonus. 

Skills worked in a similar way.

Instead of choosing which skills you were proficient in at 1st level and gaining the proficiency bonus, you got a pool of skill points at every level that you could use to buy ranks from among your class’s available skills each level, provided you had no more than your level + 3 ranks in any given skill. 

This also made no sense to the non-mathematicians at the table and was also scrapped in favor of the proficiency bonus. 

While this system had its downsides, it was used as a way to control what level a character could be before taking a prestige class, as you will see below. 

The Originals Sourced From Chapter 6 of DMG 3.5e

In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide 3rd edition, there were only six prestige classes. The idea must have taken off and gotten good reviews because in the retcon for 3.5, they expanded the list to a hefty 16.

Here they are as presented in the Dungeon Master’s Guide 3.5 edition

1. The Arcane Archer

The Arcane Archer was a take on the archetypal fantasy trope of the Elven warrior/spellcaster.

The Most Direct Path to this class was 5 levels of fighter or ranger and 2 levels of Wizard or 3 in Bard or Sorcerer. 

The Pros and Cons of this prestige class were a little heavy on the Con side. You didn’t gain any additional spellcasting, although you did gain specific abilities with your arrows that were kind of like very specific spells.

In addition, every arrow you picked up was treated as a magic one that only got stronger with the more levels you took.

The benefits of this class didn’t really kick in until you had at least 5 levels in your spellcasting class so that you could shoot a fireball with your bow. Be honest… is there any other reason to take this class?

2. The Arcane Trickster

The Arcane Trickster was a prestige class with unparalleled mischief making capability. 

The Most Direct Path to this class was 3 levels in rogue and 5 levels in Wizard or 3 levels in Sorcerer.

The Pros and Cons of this prestige class were fairly evenly balanced.

You ended up sacrificing the rogue’s innate combat abilities for more spellcasting and an increase in the versatility of your specific rogue dungeoneering and thievery skills.

Ranged legerdemain is a classic ability that will never get old. 

3. The Archmage

The Archmage was your middle school power fantasy come true. 

The Most Direct Path to this class was 14 straight levels in Wizard or 15 in Sorcerer. 

The Pros and Cons of this class were all pros, no cons. You sacrificed the ability to craft the highest levels of magic items in exchange for raw magical power with no consequences.

If you took that many levels in Wizard and didn’t move into Archmage, you seriously needed to rethink your priorities.

4. The Assassin

The Assassin didn’t mess around. If they wanted something dead, it died.

The Most Direct Path to this prestige class was 5 levels in Rogue, Monk, or Ranger with no multiclassing. 

The Pros and Cons of this prestige class were nothing to worry about so long as you wanted to be a stone-cold precision target killer.

You gained poison use, increased sneak attack, a potent instant-death attack, and access to a unique spell list focused on trickery and damage dealing in exchange for your ability to, I don’t know, talk to the animals or whatever. 

5. The Blackguard

The Blackguard was like a pizza cutter: all edge and no point. 

The Most Direct Path to this prestige class was 6 levels in Ranger; though that was very uncommon. Typically Blackguards had at least 5 levels in Paladin and 2 in Rogue.

The Pros and Cons of this class were highly specific. It brought together the key elements of a Paladin but evil. It also granted a very limited stealth ability and a little bit of evil creature leadership.

But in trying to go broad with the military general of evil archetype while still trying to be a shadow lord, it made those abilities a little too weak to be useful outside of a villainous NPC. 

6. The Dragon Disciple

The Dragon Disciple was, hands down, the coolest way to do a magical kung-fu story.

The Most Direct Path to this prestige class was at least 1 level in Sorcerer and the 4 levels in anything else, though Monk was obviously the best choice (I may be biased).

The Pros and Cons were almost all pros. You gained bonus spells (though no increase in caster level), bonuses to your ability scores, Armor Class, a breath weapon, wings, and eventually the Half-Dragon template. 

7. The Duelist

The Duelist is looking for a man with six fingers…

The Most Direct Path to this prestige class was 6 levels of Fighter. However, if you were willing to wait, 7 levels of Monk or Rogue would make for an effective duelist build, adding to their already heightened movement and defensive capability. 

The Pros and Cons of this class were negligible. If you were a DEX-based Fighter, Duelist was an easy take.

As Monk, however, adding your INT to your already beefy AC meant you could go literally anywhere on the battlefield and not take damage.

8. The Dwarven Defender 

The Dwarven Defender is what you used when you wanted to make a very strong, albeit very short, shield wall. 

The Most Direct Path to this prestige class was 7 levels of Barbarian, Fighter, Paladin, or Ranger. 

The Pros and Cons of this prestige class were very stark. You gained benefits similar to a Barbarian’s rage, however they only worked if you remained immobile.

Paladin was probably the best class for this as you could use your lay on hands ability to keep yourself high on HP while taking all of the hits for your party… assuming the baddies didn’t just… walk… around you. 

9. The Eldritch Knight

The Eldritch Knight is what you take when you realize that sometimes fire is the best weapon for the job and you forgot to pack your oil.

The Most Direct Path to this class was 1 level in Fighter, Ranger, or Paladin and 5 levels in Wizard or 6 in Sorcerer.

The requirement that you needed to be proficient in all martial weapons was somewhat arbitrary as you surely wouldn’t need to use all weapons if you are casting spells and using a weapon.

Some DMs were content to let you have the Weapon Focus feat instead. 

The Pros and Cons of this prestige class were not evident at first. Other than one bonus feat, you simply gained spells as you did in your spell casting class.

However, with an increase in Base Attack Bonus at every level and good Fortitude save, you were able to shore up your previous weaknesses in combat. 

10. The Hierophant

The Hierophant was the divine version of the Archmage.

The Most Direct Path to this class was 14 levels of either Cleric or Druid as you needed to be able to cast 7th-level divine spells.

The Pros and Cons of this prestige class, like the Archmage, were undebatable. You still gained spells, and you also gained the ability to manipulate your existing spells to a ridiculous degree.

Even in the class description it tells you how to cast create undead six times per day without using a spell slot. 

11. The Horizon Walker

The Horizon Walker was the class everyone wanted to play so they could travel anywhere but no one wanted to play because if you didn’t travel to one specific place you lost all your bonuses.

It was a contradiction of Diskensian proportions. 

The Most Direct Path is obviously the Ranger, as this was a traveling survivor type, but anyone could get there in 5 levels.

Apparently, if you really liked walking around, you take this class so you could walk around some more and get better at it. 

The Pros and Cons of this prestige class were very specific. Your bonuses only applied in certain terrains or planes, but they were all pretty awesome bonuses.

It took quite a bit of negotiating with your DM to make sure this class was right for the game. 

12. The Lore Master

The Lore Master was everyone’s favorite NPC. 

The Most Direct Path to this class was 7 levels in Wizard or Cleric of the Knowledge domain. This was a very specific class that needed a lot of protection from the other PCs, like all Wizards.

The bonuses you gained were not that impressive, but it offered a different type of divination specialist for you to play if you liked being in everyone else’s business. 

The Pros and Cons of this prestige class were better than not taking this class.

There are a lot of different types of wizards out there, but if divination was your thing, you might as well take levels in this class until you are high enough to start taking levels in Archmange.

With Wizard, you gained Item Creation feats for free, but if that wasn’t your thing, then the Lore Master might have been a viable option. 

13. The Mystic Theurge

The Mystic Theurge was your average everyday magic junkie. 

The Most Direct Path to this class was 4 levels in Cleric or Druid and 4 levels in Wizard (5 for Sorcerer). This allowed you to meet the spell casting prerequisites.

With the ability to use either Cleric or Druid to meet the requirements, you could play anything from a nearly Fae magic user use to a Victorian Alchemist. 

The Pros and Cons of this class were heavily weighted toward the spell casting. By ignoring your Base Attack Bonus and non Will saves, you would be able to gain spells in both of your original casting classes.

Your caster level would remain higher than your actual ability to cast spells would suggest, but you wouldn’t need to skip around anymore.

Notably, if you were a druid, your Wild Shape would suffer… but then you’d have fireball, so… meh.

14. The Red Wizard

The Red Wizard was specific to the Forgotten Realms setting of Thay. 

The Most Direct Path to this prestige class was, obviously, 5 levels of Wizard. It’s right there in the name! 

The Pros and Cons of this prestige class were only compared to continuing to level in Wizard.

As a Red Wizard, you chose a school specialization and gained further benefits in that school at the expense of remaining a generalist wizard.

However, you also gained the ability to play nice with others, allowing you to join your magic with other Red Wizards. So if there was more than one in your party, even better. 

15. The Shadowdancer

The Shadowdancer was what happened when you cared more about stealth than sneak attack. 

The Most Direct Path to this prestige class was 7 levels of Rogue, Monk, or Ranger.

Even though this would seem an option for Rogues, as soon as you started in this class you gained no sneak attack bonus, making it more suited for Rangers and Monks. 

The Pros and Cons of this class require some thinking about. How will you capitalize on your stealth ability without using sneak attack?

It was a hard question to tackle, but the ability to jump between shadows almost made up for it. Almost.

16. The Thaumaturgist

The Thaumaturgist is what you did when you wanted your patron to work for you. 

The Most Direct Path to this prestige class was 8 levels in Cleric so that you could cast lesser planar ally.  

The Pros and Cons of this class were, again, relevant to your core class. You would have to decide if the abilities gained as a cleric were worth sacrificing to improve your summoning capabilities.

However, if you went far enough to take the required Spell Focus (conjuration) feat, this decision was easy enough to make.

Converting to 5e

In the transition to Dungeons and Dragons 5e, some of these prestige classes were so cool they had to come along. They became the basis for subclasses. 

As we all know, subclasses are what allow us to customize our characters now. Below, we will look at what was migrated successfully and what was left behind.

For the most part, these classes all lost some of their abilities; however, you gained the ability to continue getting your core-class abilities, which is a fair trade-off. 

Arcane Archer

Where did it go? This prestige class went to the Fighter options, which makes perfect sense.

The difficulty here was that since Rangers already get spells, if you give a ranger a bow, they pretty much already are spellcasting archers. Therefore, their abilities are now all unique to the subclass.

What did it gain and what did it lose? Arcane Archers have lost the ability to make any arrow they pick up have magical bonus, which tracks with 5e’s treatment of all magic items.

Furthermore, instead of gaining all of the different types of magical shots, you choose from a list.

Arcane Trickster

Where did it go? To the Rogue subclass options. If it had gone to the Wizard, the focus would have been on the arcane instead of the trickster.

Furthermore, this would have put you at a disadvantage with the skills associated with ranged legerdemain

What did it gain and what did it lose? It gained 5e spellcasting, which everyone can agree is a vast improvement over 3 and 3.5e.

The impromptu sneak attack feature was replaced with versatile trickster, which grants you advantage on your next attack, and now you can steal spells too. 

Assassin

Where did it go? Straight to the Rogue, where it belongs. 

What did it gain and what did it lose? This version of the class puts more emphasis on the infiltration and escape aspects of the class and less on the cold-blooded killer capability.

You do not gain a death strike until 17th level, but you do gain the ability to get the drop on your targets more effectively with the disguise abilities and the automatic critical hits. 

Blackguard

Where did it go? This prestige class became the Oathbreaker Paladin subclass available in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for 5e. It is the same basic idea as the Blackguard without that mysterious focus on stealth. 

What did it gain and what did it lose? You gain more spells and a channel divinity that turns you into a fell leader over the undead.

Your Intimidation skill becomes important, allowing you to frighten your enemies and keep your subordinates in line while also increasing your Paladin-based combat abilities. 

Eldritch Knight

Where did it go? To the Fighter class. If it had gone to the Wizard, you would have ended up with something more akin to the War Mage or Bladesinger subclass.

What did it gain and what did it lose?  As the Arcane Trickster, you gained 5e spellcasting, which is much improved over 3 and 3.5e.

In addition, you gain a small arsenal of weapons that you can summon from anywhere on your plane of existence.

Furthermore, you can mix your spellcasting and weapon attack freely to gain effective combinations as you gain more attacks per round.  

Horizon Walker

Where did it go? This prestige class now belongs to the Ranger subclass options, although there was no mechanical reason to do so outside of the flavor of a traveling warrior. 

What did it keep and what did it lose? The class is almost completely different with no terrain- and plane-specific abilities. However, the Ranger can still access the planar energies to deal extra damage and travel quickly. 

Mystic Theurge 

Where did it go? This prestige class is now securely in the Sorcerer options as the Divine Soul, which is amazing! We all love the cleric spell list and the sorcerer spell slots. With this option, you can cast almost anything. 

What did it keep and what did it lose? It lost nothing. This was a simple prestige class concept that fits nicely into its new niche. As a sorcerer subclass, you can still gain all the abilities of your core class. 

Shadowdancer 

Where did it go? This prestige class is now hidden in the Monk subclasses as The Way of Shadow, which means you won’t have to sacrifice sneak attack.

What did it keep and what did it lose? You gain more spells that you can cast with your ki points, and you get your shadow-jump ability earlier.

The advantage that being hidden grants you on your attacks means you can feel free to spend those ki points on extra attacks without fear of missing.

*Note, Dragon Disciple is too dissimilar from Way of Ascendant Dragon to be on this list. It lacks the transformation aspect of the class as well as the inherent spellcasting. 

From Prestigious to Subordinate: Homebrew

Lastly, because Dungeons and Dragons 5e is so open to homebrew, you can take any of your favorite prestige classes from 3 and 3.5e and make them work into your character and campaign. 

In future installments, we will look deeply into old prestige classes that have made the jump to 5e through the public homebrew offerings found online and from the rulesmiths here at Black Citadel RPG.