The Case for Prestige Classes in 5e
I DM a D&D 5e game at home. It started off as a Lost Mines of Phandelver campaign with some Yawning Portal thrown in. But when Phandelver finished, I started them in on the Tomb of Annihilation. We finished that and the group is on the road to hunting down the rest of Acererak’s phylactories. The group has now two multiclass characters and one person that changed out a character for another. One went multiclass for story reasons while the other two did it because they were bored with the class as it was. Even then, I suspect the story provided the excuse for the player to multiclass because he was bored with his choices.
This brings me back to the days of 3rd edition where prestige classes abounded. Many remember prestige classes with hatred because WotC just published book after book filled with PrCs, but I remember them fondly and I think 5e could really benefit from them for many reasons. Here are my top 3.
1. They Provide High-Level Options Later in the Game
Fifth edition can be described as many things: approachable, easy to learn, a good mix of old school and modern. But the one thing it cannot be described as is having a significant number of character options beyond 3rd level. Sure you can choose to raise an ability score or choose a feat, choose a new warlock invocation, a new spell for casters, or a new subclass option if you selected a subclass with options at 3rd level, but that is literally it. There aren’t other class choices. So a 10th-level fighter wanting some different options adds a level of bard, for example, and gets a few cantrips, 1st-level spells, and an extra skill proficiency. Hideous laughter does not appear very helpful when the single-classed wizard can cast dominate person. A prestige class designed for higher level characters can add options that multiclassing with a base class at level 1 simply cannot.
2) They Can Be a Reward for the Story
Did your group slay a dragon? Being able to take a prestige class called Dragon Slayer would be a nice way to distinguish a character. Did you die and come back? A Deathwalker prestige class might be fun. Were you reduced to 0 hit points with fire? Why not take the Pyrowielder prestige class. This can make the actions in game have mechanical impacts at your table.
3) They Let Games Be More Flexible
According to the book, you gain your proficiencies at 1st level and that’s it. Some subclasses give extra proficiencies when you take them, but there are no other way according to the PHB to gain proficiencies beyond that. I have a houserule where every 4 levels, the players gain an extra proficiency with either a toolset, skill, or language. Multi-classing in bard or a few other classes give an extra proficiency, but that is about the only way to change things up at higher levels. So if no one is proficient in thieves tools, and you want to put a trap in your next dungeon, you’re either guaranteed for them to fail at disarming it or you have to remove it. So a prestige class could offer additional proficiencies. So when no one took Acrobatics and you want to make the group face off against ninja assassins, someone in the group will not be outclassed after taking the Roofrunner prestige class. Someone wants to own a tavern, they can take the Brewmaster prestige class and become proficient with brewing toolset as well as get better at fighting after repeatedly quelling a drunken mob.