The Roleplay of Prestige Classes

My games normally enforce the roleplay (non-game-mechanics) requirements for Prestige Classes (and, where relevant, feats and level progressions). It’s not enough for the character (PC or NPC) to simply meet the prerequisites, they usually have to DO something.

Pages 204-205 of DMG II, in discussing the design of new prestige classes, calls them character requirements. If a character takes a Feat, their personality and play style should reflect the attributes described by the feat. So far as I’m concerned, the flavour text is rules just as much as the game mechanics requirements are.

Taking a Prestige Class usually involves making a commitment to an organisation of like-minded individuals, or to a cause, or to a particular world-view. Sometimes this requirement makes no difference at all, and sometimes it requires a PC to go to a certain place and perform certain actions, or even roleplay an appropriate scenario, before they can take their first level in a character class. It is my belief that this adds a great deal of plausibility and realism to what is otherwise purely an issue of game mechanics but one of immense significance in terms of character development.

The problem with this requirement is that many of my campaign scenarios stretch over several character levels, especially at the lower end of the XP scale. A not-atypical example might comprise:

  • An extended road trip with encounters;
  • a subplot setting up or developing a broader campaign theme or plotline;
  • a dungeon which propels the characters in an unexpected direction;
  • more travel and more encounters;
  • devopments within the subplot, which will often link it to other subplots already in existance;
  • a location (possibly another dungeon) which resolves the events from the first dungeon;
  • still more travel (and still more encounters);
  • a conclusion to the subplot that establishes or develops the background to future scenarios, and may directly connect with one or more.

All of which take place before the characters get somewhere that provides the opportunity to filfill the requirements that permit a PC to adopt the character class that he wants, and has planned for some time. This isn’t a real problem if the level is gained at the end of that string of events, but if it falls somewhere in the middle or, heaven forbid, at the start, it can be serious issue. Characters have earned 3, 4, 5, 7, and even 13 levels on such minor quests!

Shadow Levels

To solve this problem, I came up with an idea I called “Shadow Levels” for my Shards Of Divinity campaign as a way of giving characters their levels on the spot, and yet deferring the actual choice of character class level for a more opportune time.

The House Rules

Here’s how this particular set of house rules work:

1. If you gain levels beyond what is needed to qualify for a particular prestige class, those levels can be taken as one or more “shadow” levels. A “Shadow” level means that you progress in BAB, HD, Saves, and Stat Increases as usual but all other benefits of gaining the level are put on hold. Feats can either be taken with the Shadow level or deferred until the level is converted into an actual character level.

2. Shadow Levels must be committed to a class at the time they are earned, and only one character class can have shadow levels committed to it at a time. Up to half the skill points that would be earned if the character actually gained a level in the class to which the shadow level is committed may be spent at the time the Shadow level is earned, the rest have to wait until the shadow level is converted. This means that if points are going to be needed to represent specific training that comes with the actual character level, the points are reserved for doing so, but the character can put up his other skills right away.

3. Conversion of a Shadow level to a complete character level requires the character to earn between 1 xp and 1% of the requirement for achieving the level. This just means that you actually have to do something in the way of PLAY to convert a shadow level to a real level – WHAT that something is will depend on the class in question, and its flavour text/roleplaying requirements. When all shadow levels have been converted to actual levels, the character receives this xp (which may be enough to gain another level, depending on how much was earned and how much the character needs to gain his next level)!

4. Shadow levels can ONLY be taken with the GM’s express permission and only when the character qualifies for the Prestige Class in question but cannot actually take levels in it right away for campaign continuity reasons.

5. Shadow Levels cannot be used to qualify for feats and other classes until converted.

6. All the other ‘normal’ rules of character advancement apply, eg if you earn too much xp from a single encounter you can still only gain 1 level and stop 1 point short of the next, just as though the shadow levels were levels in a character class.

That means that if your character progression calls for you to be in the capital in order to be inducted into the Prestige Class at a certain character level, you don’t have to be held hostage to the timetable of character advancement, and can continue to adventure with the group for a period of time.

The ‘commitment’ restrictions simply mean that you can’t put these things off indefinitely, so returning to the capital (or whatever) remains a priority.

The extra experience “earned” by performing whatever is required in terms of roleplay in order to qualify is both a thinly-disguised bribe to put up with the delay, and a reward for enhancing the game, and the campaign world, by doing so.

The Application Of Templates

It’s a funny thing: solve one problem, and you can often turn the solution to other problems. I had a player who was considering buying the Lich template (Shards Of Divinity is an evil campaign, so there was nothing wrong with doing so in principle). The question was how to handle the level adjustment in-play? It seemed unfair to the other players to simply permit him to add a couple of unearned levels, but there was no rules mechanism for taking templates in the course of play. It also seemed unfair to simply take away a number of earned character levels and replace them with the template’s level adjustment.

It wasn’t long before the obvious occurred to me: Why not take Shadow Levels to represent the conversion process from mortal to Lich? Since the Lich template didn’t confer additional skills, the character would forgo additional skill points for a couple of levels, but in every other way, it would work perfectly. And they’d get the xp benefits to compensate for the skill point loss.

Since then, the player has found a Prestige Class that confers Lichdom and then Demi-Lichdom over a span of multiple levels, so the technique was ultimately unneccessary, but it remains in my toolbox for future use. The downside of his choice is that it takes twenty levels of advancement, while the Template took about eight.

Shadow Feats

I was describing the Shadow Levels concept to a friend of mine, some time later, and he raised the suggestion of empoying a similar technique for characters who did not meet the roleplaying requirements of a feat, even though the game mechanics requirements (the prerequisites) were satisfied. A character could take a “Shadow Feat” that conferred half the bonus, or conferred the advantage half the time, until they completed the requirements. Again, you could only have one “Shadow Feat” at a time, so there was a deadline that had eventually to be met.

Although this proposal has not yet been introduced to the campaign, there seems no reason not to at least float the notion to the players. The objective, after all, is to enable characters to undertake the progression path they want, without interfering with the roleplay of doing so.

Or, to phrase it another way, to liberate the roleplay from the tyranny of game mechanics. After all, which is the more important?

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