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I have always found the concept of prestige classes somewhat strange. The whole point of a prestige class is supposed to be that you "become" that class. The rogue that takes assassin levels is no longer a rogue. He now is an assassin. This idea makes a bit of sense. There are generic classes that specialize into a particular job.
Unfortunately, the mechanics do not work this way. In order to have Jim the rogue actually be an assassin, he would have to take 10 assassin levels. This leaves room for 10 other levels (before he starts taking epic assassin levels). What would he take? Probably another prestige class. And if he wants to be powerful, that may be several prestige classes. All of the sudden, is Jim an invisible blade assassin? What about a shadow dancing invisible blade assassin arcane trickster? Quite the mouthful. It really does sound stupid. And it doesn't make sense. I would assume most characters would stick with an organization, not have an epileptic seizure between the bounty hunters, marksmen, arcane order, and assassin's guild.
Despite its bad rap for being weak, the only prestige class that does its job right is the Dread Necromancer. It has obvious prerequisites that make sense.When you become a dread necromancer, you stay one. You don't become a dread pirate ninjamancer as cool as you might think that may be. If you actually think that idea is cool, you deserve to be removed from the gene pool. Not that we would really have anything to worry from you polluting it in the first place.
Base classes have started filling in the role that prestige classes were supposed to. When I say started, I mean that even though this has been going on for a long while, it definitely changes the way classes are designed and how they work. We get specialized base classes like the warmage, duskblade, beguiler, etc. Each of these classes fills a more specialized role than the basic SRD classes and has the same flavor as a prestige class. You can now start out with your 1st level evil paladin.
I've seen a lot of homebrew that will make a prestige class a base class. It is just cooler to start out as an assassin. Druids can start out taming wolves, why can't you start out stabbing people in their sleep?
The main issue is this: where is the line anymore? What makes something a prestige class and something a base class. The trend I've noticed is that if it is a specific group or organization it is a prestige. People also often make prestiges because they don't require as much work and can have powerful abilities that come at mid levels without some idiot crying "broken".
I like the way the various Frank and K tomes handle classes. Base classes get flavor and have the same power as if you were to go nuts through prestiges. I suppose to some degree this is what 4e was going for.
I think in the end, prestiges might have been a good idea, but they fail with the inclusion of specialized base classes and not enough levels to make it to level 20. If I had designed them, There would have been a main prestige that takes you from levels 6-15, but allows all the way to 20 (just like a base class) and a third tier of prestige that starts at level 16.
- Midnight Murderer
- Shadow Stalker
- Dread Pirate
- Scourge of the Seas
Jim at level 20 could be a rogue, assassin, midnight murderer (which sort of implies assassin), etc. He isn't a wizard/rogue/ur priest/bard/sublime chord/fochlucan lyrist.
And if it had been done right, rogue, assassin, and midnight murderer would all be closely balanced, but specialize at doing different things.
I think for the most part from now on, I will be making base classes that balance well with tome classes. They did the most right thing they could with 3.5e...