Original design goals
- "The original design intention behind them was to allow DMs to create campaign-specific, exclusive roles and positions as classes. These special roles offer abilities and powers otherwise inaccessible to PCs and focus characters in specific, interesting directions.
According to the Dungeon Master's Guide, prestige classes were intended to be highly controlled by the DM:
- "Prestige classes are purely optional and always under the purview of the DM. We encourage you, as the DM, to tightly limit the prestige classes available in your campaign. The example prestige classes are certainly not all encompassing or definitive. They might not even be appropriate for your campaign. The best prestige classes for your campaign are the ones you tailor make yourself."
In 2001, Monte Cook suggested that the primary reasons to create a prestige class are to develop an organization, race or culture, to satisfy players who have specific requests for character development, and to make underpowered character options more feasible.
Use as player tool
Following the inclusion of prestige classes in early player-oriented splatbooks like Tome and Blood (2001) and Sword and Fist (2001), they became a popular player tool for character customization. In 2001, Monte Cook bemoaned this change: 
- The key there -- the one that's now often missing -- is that these are supposed to be DM-created tools, to lend specificity and actual mechanics to the details of your world. In short, you come up with some group, role, or whatever for your campaign (the Rangers of the Northwood, the Thief's Guild of Bandonburg, the Nightstalkers, etc.), and you create a prestige class based around that group. Too many prestige classes are designed like 2nd Edition kits: player-driven PC-creation tools for character customization. That's okay sometimes, but it really overlooks the main reason that prestige classes were invented."
During the entire run of D&D third edition, over 700 prestige classes were published in official Dungeons & Dragons sourcebooks alone.
Several Dungeons & Dragons products use prestige classes in order to resolve design issues or improve suboptimal character options. An example of this is the mystic theurge, a class which exists for the sole purpose of making an arcane/divine multiclass character more feasible.
Unlike a base class, each prestige classe has specific prequisites which must be met before the character qualifies to take the first level. This usually requires a character to take multiple levels in one or more base classes first, then effectively multiclass into the prestige class.
The prerequisites usually restrict entry to a character of at around 5th to 7th level, even with an optimal build. For example, the blackguard requires a character to have a base attack bonus of +6, which limits that class to characters of at least 6th level.
A prestige class can be taken by a monster with no class levels if it already meets the prerequisites.
Many prestige classes require a character to take suboptimal options to meet the prerequisites, with the understanding that the specialist abilities of the class will be worth it. In 2001, Monte Cook endorsed this approach to prestige class design:
- "Overall, my advice is this: Be harsh with requirements, then be generous with abilities. That ends up making players happiest and creates the most interesting characters."
Most prestige classes are ten levels long. Some are shorter, such as the five-level archmage prestige class, intended to be taken at higher level.
A character does not need to take every level of a prestige class, and may freely take more levels of their original base class or a second prestige class.
The primary drawback of prestige classes is that they replace many of the abilities a character would normally receive had they taken those levels in their original base class instead.
Many early prestige classes aimed at spellcasters only gave spellcasting progression on every other level, resulting in characters sacrificing the ability to cast the most powerful spells. For example, a 10th level wizard / 10th level acolyte of the skin would only have the ability to cast 8th level spells.
Prestige classes allowed characters to build both sub-optimal combinations, by taking classes which synergized poorly with the base class, and unreasonably powerful combinations, by carefully cherry-picking levels from multiple prestige classes. The D&D 3.5 FAQ clarifies that unlike base classes, prestige classes do not trigger the XP penalty for multiclassing.
The Epic Level Handbook (2002) introduced epic prestige classes, which usually require the character to be at least 20th level.
Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition replaced prestige classes with the paragon path, gained after 10 levels and gained in addition to the base class rather than replacing it, and the epic destiny after 20 levels.
D&D 5th edition does not use prestige classes in its core rules, instead fulfiling the need for variant classes with archetype subclasses typically chosen at second or third level. As with 4th edition's paragon paths, this ensures that characters can still acquire the core abilities of their class.
In 2015, an Unearthed Arcana article introduced prototype prestige class rules including the rune scribe prestige class. It was generally poorly received, and future products did not include prestige classes.
Reception and influence
- "A lot of the character classes are ridiculous and superfluous, in my opinion. In my opinion, they're garbage. Who needs' em? 'Okay, I'm gonna be Dread Knight from the Third Circle of the Fourth Plane, devoted to the worship of Lebdmum, Devourer of Babies.' You need a name for that? I look at the modern stuff and I look at all these silly character classes."
- "There's way too many classes, and five kinds of knights, and three kinds of paladins, and two crusaders and, good God almighty, they're great big fighting men on a horse that wear lots of armor— that both wear lots of armor. Who they're devoted to, or what order they belong to, or why they're specially different, all those little tiny nuances—that's all just min-maxing."
D&D 3rd edition prestige classes inspired the paragon path mechanic of D&D 4th edition.
- Prestige Class Index at Wizards.com