I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, October 09, 2015

D&D Unleashed, part III: Ditch the Prerequisites (on prestige classes)

In part I, I talked about wizards using swords and thieves turning undead. In part 2, I suggested you ignore limits to abilities. Today, it seems like a good time to talk about ability prerequisites and prestige classes.

Using abilities to limit character options is not a new idea. Supplement I required Charisma 17 for paladins, Supplement II had impossible standards for monks, and so on. The reasoning seems to be that some of those classes are “elite” classes, somewhat above the mundane ones, which is why you don’t get to play with them unless you get very lucky... or cheat.

This has made a lot of people very angry and, from D&D 3e on, has been widely regarded as a bad move¹. Paladins and monks are cool, at least to some people, and now you can play them from level one, without getting lucky on character creation.

I know some people prefer rolling 3d6 in order and getting whatever class your abilities will allow – maybe thinking the “modern” method isn’t old school enough. I could argue that even Holmes (not an epitome of “new school”) says you should be able to choose whatever class you like despite what your abilities may suggest.

In any case, I reckon this is a matter of taste. If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll probably guess that creating obstacles to stop the players from getting the characters they want isn’t my cup of tea.

The reason I got back to this subject now is that, apparently, prestige classes are coming for 5e.

Take a look at the first sentence in the article: “Many of the character concepts that were once prestige classes or paragon paths in earlier editions of D&D are now options available to 1st-level characters”.

Choosing your class early on (source). 
This is, in my opinion, one of the strong suits of fifth edition, and a evolution over past editions. So why change it?

It is hard to ignore the circular nature of this stuff. First, you come up with “super classes”, somewhat rare, like monks and paladins, that require special prerequisites to play. Then, they get popular, and people want to play then from level one. A new edition comes, and now you can! But wait, there is a new “prestige class”, like the arcane fighter or what-have-you, that you cannot play if you don’t fulfill certain criteria. In 3e, luck has been somewhat replaced by “character build planning”, so instead of rolling well you must plan your character from level one to become a “super class” on level 7 (guess I miss level titles… but I digress).

Then fifth edition comes along²! If you want an arcane fighter, just pick the fighter class, and sooner or later – usually sooner! – you’ll have just the character you want! Archetypes and paragon paths instead of prestige classes! What a cool idea!

But wait! Now they came up with a new, special class, which you can add to any starting class… provided you meet the prerequisites. See the pattern?

There are two problems with prerequisites.

The first one is that they often add complexity for no purpose at all, with “balance” sometimes thrown in as a misguided excuse. I’m not saying that balance is a bad thing, just that prestige classes are not a good way to enforce it.

Take the d20 SRD, for example: did someone really think the game would break if you allow an assassin that isn’t a specialist in hiding and moving silently? Or an arcane archer with a bad attack bonus? On the contrary; most of the times, such suboptimal character builds wouldn’t harm anyone but the characters themselves. Feats often suffer from the same problems, but that deserves a different post.

Same thing happened with the 5e rune scribe, which requires intelligence, dexterity and proficiency in arcana, making it a class fit for wizards but not really for sorcerers, or to DEX fighters but not for STR fighters. But, again, why? Would a dwarf rune scribe with medium armor be any more powerful than any other character?

The second problem is even worse: prerequisites prevent you from using lots of interesting character concepts and dramatic situations.

I can’t build my a Dwarven Runepriest with a war hammer and armor, an archetype that could appeal to anyone who enjoys Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and some who don’t. The prerequisites effectively make this build unworkable.

But that’s not all (well, it is, for now, because that is the only prestige class for 5e).

Take a look at the d20 version of A Game of Thrones. It has prerequisites for commanders, knights, members of the Kingsguard and rangers of the Night's Watch³. It makes sense; these should be elite warriors or, at least, they should at least be competent with a sword. But when you enforce prerequisites, you end up excluding many interesting characters: the quixotic knight, the smart but clumsy commander, the incompetent ranger, the boy that got lucky and now faces impossible expectations, and so on.

Worse, you lose valuable plot devices. Nepotism, favoritism, tradition, despair, bribery, deceit, manipulation: all reasonable explanations for someone to be in a certain “elite” group even when they don’t “belong” there. In fact, the decadence of such groups is a recurring theme in the original books by George R. R. Martin.

Even “story” prerequisites are too restrictive. Why not allow for multiple character stories? For example, to be in the King’s Honor Guard you must be chosen by him, and he usually chooses the best warriors... But not always. One of them defeated a legendary knight in a tournament, one is just overrated. One is silent and loyal, and one is the king’s secret lover.

To sum it up: what the title says. Ditch the prerequisites. Use them as suggestions if you want, or use story prerequisites as inspiration.

Just don’t let them limit your game.

Note: I am quite sure I read about a similar idea (characters should be able to suck at their jobs) in Grognardia, a long time ago, but I cannot find it. If you can, let me know!

¹ To paraphrase the great Douglas Adams.
² And fourth, to a certain extent, although fifth is the subject of this post.
³ Granted, the prerequisites are quite modest.


  1. If you're looking to play an assassin that's not the archetypal assassin play a rogue and call him an assassin. You don't NEED to be a prestige class to be a whatever, for the most part. If you are clever and creative then you can get around the RAW.

    1. That is a good point, and I agree that you can avoid RAW.

      What I dislike is the additional rules without any benefit that I can see (other than, maybe, protecting players from themselves).

    2. I feel like some prerequisites should be attached to prestige classes as they serve at least three purposes:

      1) they represent a basic level fundamental skills, abilities, or knowledge a character must possess in order to pursue their advanced class. It's the same reason advanced colleges courses have prerequisites - if you don't have the basics down, you can't hope to understand the more complicated subject matter. Why should we assume I've taken the time to gain the breadth of knowledge granted by the Lore ability in the Loremaster prestige class if I can't be bothered to spend any time learning the knowledge basic to a couple of Knowledge skills?

      2) They prevent characters from gaining abilities earlier than may be appropriate to them; and saying you need 8 skill ranks in Stealth is less meta than saying you must be 8th level before you can take this class. Now, if the abilities you start gaining from a prestige classes are not on par with the earliest level you can gain that class, then that's an issue with either the class, not prerequisites in general.

      That said, 3.x went way overboard on the prerequisites they started imposing on prestige classes, to the point where a player had to deliberately map out each and every class, skill, and feat they took if they were going to have any hope of taking levels in their desired prestige class. Two or three flavorful prerequisites should be enough for any "super' class.

      And of course, there's nothing stopping a GM from making an exception to the rules to create an NPC or allow a PC that plays to a genre of character that wouldn't normally be permitted.

    3. B.A., I agree with your points in theory. In practice, I agree that 3.x went way overboard and I fell 5e is risking this as well. For example, why does the Rune Priest requires DEX 13? Doesn't represent any fundamentals to the skills (of course one could accept the rationalization that you must be dexterous to do calligraphy...) nor does it prevent characters from gaining abilities earlier than may be appropriate.

      I haven't analysed all of 3x classes in detail, but I fell the same could be said about most of them. For example, why should you be able to disguise before messing with poison (assassin), and so on? Why can't I make a RAW ninja assassin that isn't interested in social deception, but just in attacking from the shadows? And so on.

      So, basically, I agree that prerequisites could be useful in theory, but in practice I am not seeing the downsides of just ignoring them in most circumstances.

  2. Perhaps what is being said is that a master wouldn't train someone who lacks those prerequisites. That said, I agree with the gist of your post. If someone in my campaign wanted to add that prestige class without the int, let them.

    1. Yes, that makes sense. Doing some quest or trial for a master could be cool as well.