Here it is, 2013, and I’m still wrapping up 2012. Or rather, wrapping up my thoughts on Mike’s post about wrapping up 2012. The real topic, though, is prestige classes.
Here’s my experience with prestige classes: Jonathan Walton started doing these cool little addon booklets for Apocalypse World playbooks. I told Adam we should use that concept in Dungeon World, like prestige classes. We then had to spend quite some time figuring out what to call these things to avoid the baggage of prestige classes.
Of course that’s all anecdotal but it matches up with Mike’s assumptions: some people have a very strong negative reaction to prestige classes as implemented in 3E D&D.
The Next approach to prestige classes is pretty similar to the Dungeon World approach: make them depend on and reflect the world of the game. This is a bit different from 3E. Sure, some 3E prestige classes were there to represent some important idea in the world, but many of them existed to make an otherwise sub-optimal choice viable. Normally multiclassing wizard and cleric would be a fool’s bet, but a mystic theurge makes it viable. Normally daggers aren’t a very good weapon, but here’s a class that makes them good. Normally it’s hard to make a character who’s proficient in battle and spells, but here’s the eldritch knight. Even for those classes that aren’t just patching a perceived weakness the requirements say nothing about what the class supposedly represents: to be a horizon walker you don’t have to actually travel, just have the right skill and feat.
Mike lays out the problems with this pretty clearly: becoming, say, a horizon walker means planning your skills, feats, and levels from an early point. It doesn’t require any kind of actual play of the game, just character creation. Even when you become one it doesn’t mean much except for a few special abilities.
That’s not to say that hard requirements based on character ability are bad. Burning Wheel characters are built out of lifepaths, which reflect where the character has been before play (you never add them in play). Some lifepaths are better than others (at least for certain character types) so you find yourself planning how to get there—becoming a mage might require careful thought into what your character was before he encountered magic. The different here is that the requirements are all before play, and that meeting those requirements is all about making an interesting character. The requirements to be a horizon walker don’t lead to interesting choices, just planning. The requirements to be a mage in Burning Wheel mean that your past is shaped in interesting ways.
The Next approach though, making prestige classes depend on the action of play, is a great choice. Mike’s example is particularly interesting:
To join the Order of the Wyvern, you might need to survive a night among the dream wraiths of the Slumbering Barrows. The knights of the Black Axe accept only those who have slain a direct descendent of Queen Mazzar Elfslayer, the orc warlord whose invasion sparked the knights’ creation.
The interesting point here for me is that those sound both awesome and entirely unlike D&D Next. Thus far Next is eschewed any kind of stated or implied setting. The Warlock showed some potential for the seeds of a setting, but it’s been cut. The equipment lists in backgrounds show some tiny bits of setting, but only in the most general sense.
These examples on the other hand are very specific. They mention places and organizations that are not just generic standins, but concrete things in the world of the game.
What detail is provided on them will definitely shape the direction these rules take. If the Order of the Wyvern is an existing element of some setting, or if it’s described in some detail in the core text, it’s stated setting. It’s something every DM will have to adapt or ignore, another module that can be added or removed.
If all these are are names, though, things work out differently. Now they’re interesting blank shapes for the DM to doodle in. Just given the name (Order of the Wyvern), how they accept members (survive a night of dreams), and what they do (the class itself), the DM gets to fill in the rest. Why are dreams important to them? Why take the Wyvern as their standard?
Each DM will answer these questions differently, creating a diaspora of worlds built from common touchstones but with decidedly different realities. Your Order of the Wyvern may be sworn to defend the world from the otherworldly things that come from dreams. Mine might be explorers of the dream realms, searching fr the mythic wyvern.
Either way, this is full of new potential for Next, and that’s just from the examples we’ve seen so far. What about prestige classes that aren’t tied to organizations? Or prestige classes that require something quite beyond the players’ control? There’s a lot of potential here.