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Prestige classes and feats use traditional d20 prerequisites: skill ranks, specific feats, and other game statistics. But the master of the assassins’ guild doesn’t really know whether you have 4 ranks in the Disguise skill. He’d be at least as impressed with your ability to disguise yourself if you had a sky-high Charisma, Skill Focus (Disguise) and 5 ranks in Bluff, a hat of disguise, or the supernatural ability to change shape (possessed by the doppelganger and the rakshasa, among others). Similarly, no one in the game world can tell whether a potential dwarven defender has the Toughness feat or not. Prerequisites that rely on game statistics rather than visible “realities” of the game world can break the verisimilitude of the world in your imagination.
To make prerequisites seem more “real,” this variant changes them to actual tests that would be observable in the game world. The assassins’ guild, for example, might require potential members to sneak past the castle guards (employing Hide and Move Silently), infiltrate the queen’s banquet (using Disguise), and poison the wine of a minor noble (thus killing someone for no other reason than to join the assassins). It certainly helps to have 4 ranks in Disguise and 8 ranks each in Hide and Move Silently, but the observable result is what the assassins judge.
Test-based prerequisites have two big advantages. First, they encourage character variety and player cleverness. Any PC who wants to become an arcane archer can dream up a dozen ways to gain an edge in the “Twelve Arrow Challenge” competition, and maybe he succeeds even if he has a base attack bonus of only +5. It’s entirely arbitrary to keep out a would-be arcane archer who has a Dexterity of 20 but accept an archer with a Dexterity of 13 and the Weapon Focus (longbow) feat. The first character is a much better archer, and the prestige class should recognize that. The second advantage to test-based prerequisites is that they help immerse the player in the game world. It’s more exciting if a would-be hierophant’s goal is “I want to earn a Pact with the Heavens” rather than “I need 15 ranks in Knowledge (religion).”
Because the existence of a test implies that there’s an NPC administering the test, these new prerequisites work best if the prestige classes in your campaign are tied to specific organizations. For feats, test-based prerequisites work best if PCs must train as described in the DMG (and thus find an instructor) to get new feats.
Employing test-based prerequisites means that a character taking a test spends some time at the gaming table trying to earn access to the prestige class or feat. If a test is elaborate or timeconsuming, the other players at the game table might get bored. A short single-player session before or after the main game session is often a good way to take care of a test. Another risk with a test-based prerequisite is that it relies at least to a degree on the fall of the dice. If a player with her heart set on becoming a loremaster has a run of bad luck during the Examination of Ineffable Lore, she might resent the extra obstacle you’ve placed in her character’s way. Conversely, a lucky set of die rolls can potentially give a PC access to prestige class or feat much earlier than would otherwise be possible.
Metagame Analysis: Test-Based Prerequisites
So why don’t all prestige classes employ test-based prerequisites? It’s a matter of control that highlights a fundamental difference between the job of the game designer and the job of the GM. The d20 rules use the prerequisites they do because they’re based on predictable numbers. No character can have a base attack bonus higher than her character level, for example, or more ranks in a skill than her character level + 3. For the game designer, that predictability is an important balancing tool, ensuring that no character gets access to a prestige class or feat so early that it makes the game less fun.
But as the GM, you don’t have to have to worry about millions of possible characters, just the specific ones in your campaign. You can predict your players better than anyone else, both in terms of what appeals to them and what means they use to achieve those ends. And you are the architect of the game world. If a PC becomes an eldritch knight by “cheating” on the entrance test, the knights might kick him out and update their test to close the loophole—just as a real-world organization would.
Prestige Class Tests
The following tests are examples of test-based prerequisites for the standard prestige classes. Because this variant relies heavily on the guiding hand of the GM, these tests won’t be appropriate in all campaigns.
The Test of the Twelve Arrows. The applicant must cast magic weapon on the provided bow, then take twelve +1 arrows into a specially tended part of the forest. Before night falls, she must slay a wild boar, use magic to capture an owl, and bring down the albino stag without hitting any of the other stags in the herd. The applicant fails if the tasks aren’t completed by nightfall or if she runs out of arrows.
Fleece the Police. First, the applicant must intentionally get arrested for unlawful magic use, displaying his flashiest spells while the arcane tricksters watch him surreptitiously. That night in jail, the applicant receives a confusing, seemingly contradictory map, which he must figure out (Decipher Script DC 17). The relevant parts of the map show the layout of the precinct building. If the applicant can escape, he is welcomed into the ranks of the arcane tricksters. This test is made more difficult by the fact that the guards take away all the applicant’s gear.
The Counterspell Test of Kal’thra. An archmage visits the applicant unannounced and proposes a counterspell battle. The archmage casts 5th-, 6th-, and 7th-level spells from all eight schools, and the applicant must successfully identify and counter as many as he can. To be accepted among the archmages, the applicant must have a perfect score on identification and must successfully counter at least one 7th-level spell and one spell from each of at least five different schools.
The Test of Corvu u Khalai—“Eliminate, then replace.” Contacted by an anonymous letter, the applicant is given the name of a well-known functionary in the noble court, often the chamberlain, troubadour, or court wizard. The applicant must sneak into the castle on the night of the full moon, kill the target, and then impersonate him. The test is a success if the applicant walks out of the castle disguised as the target when the gates open in the morning, carrying the target’s head in a satchel.
Break the Weapon, Bind the Contract. Below the palace is a chamber forgotten by most: the prison of Vulthex, a bearded devil of unsurpassed evil. A would-be applicant must slip past the clay golem that wanders the prison complex and convince Vulthex to agree to a nonlethal duel. Vulthex is fascinated with questions of mortal faith, so even a basic understanding of religion (Knowledge [religion] DC 12) impresses him greatly. Vulthex wields a glaive, and anyone who can break it has earned the right to call himself a blackguard.
Ritual of Essence Distillation. Fundamentally, becoming a dragon disciple is a question of heritage. But a ritual exists that, when performed properly, can awaken the blood of one’s draconic heritage. Performing the 12-hour ritual requires the ability to speak Draconic and a successful DC 18 Knowledge (arcana) check. At three points during the ritual, the applicant must release some of his stored magical energy (expend a spell slot, in other words).
Crossed Swords at Noon. This one’s simple—to become a duelist, you have to beat an existing duelist in a fair duel before a crowd in the town square. But the duelists are in on a secret that the applicant usually isn’t: The battle may be won with blades, but the duelists are judging the applicant’s worthiness based on the acclaim of the crowd. The battle is to surrender, not death, and the NPC duelist surrenders when reduced to one-third of her hit points or less.
The Tunnel of Implacable Stone. The dwarven defenders take the applicant deep into the bowels of the earth, give him his weapon of choice (but no other gear), and order him to start a timed run up a steeply sloping tunnel to the surface. Along the way, he faces a series of fights with progressively larger earth elementals, but after each fight, he earns a piece of equipment: first armor, then a shield, then perhaps a healing potion, and so on. Between fights, the applicant must run uphill, striving for the surface. If he survives the fights with the elementals and makes it out of the tunnel in time, he becomes a dwarven defender.
Tourney of the Grand Eagle. Every year, the eldritch knights have a two-day tournament in a tent city they magically create outside the city walls. On the first day, applicants go through an archery contest, a duel with swords, and another duel using a melee weapon of each applicant’s choosing. (The duels are to unconsciousness, and clerics are on hand to heal the gravely wounded.) On the second day, applicants engage in a series of spellcasting duels—everything from fights between summoned monsters to games of counter spelling one-upsmanship. Using a complex scoring system, the eldritch knights select two applicants to join their order at sunset of the second day.
Pact with the Heavens (or Depths). First, the would-be hierophant calls an outsider allied with his faith (traditionally by means of an extended lesser planar ally spell). The ally tests the applicant’s knowledge of his religion (Knowledge [religion] DC 25) and asks for a demonstration of the applicant’s spellcasting potency. If the ally is impressed, it intercedes on the applicant’s behalf, and the new hierophant receives an indisputable sign of his deity’s favor.
The Red Lodge. The test for entrance to the horizon walkers is simple: find the door to the clubhouse. The Red Lodge isn’t exactly secret—clues to its location are scattered across dozens of maps—but it’s located in a remote wilderness location and magically protected against divinations and teleport spells. The applicant has to learn where the Red Lodge is, then get there under her own power.
Examination of Ineffable Lore. To become a loremaster, an applicant must first impress the existing loremasters by giving them either a magic item or an original spell that the applicant created herself. Then the loremasters pose a question or riddle of unsurpassed difficulty, which the applicant has one game month to solve. It’s an open-book, open-magic test—without restrictions on the means the applicant may use to solve the riddle posed by the loremasters. When the applicant returns with the correct answer, the loremasters reveal that they didn’t know the answer themselves, then congratulate the applicant on her original contribution to their accumulated store of knowledge.
Journey of the Two Tests. The applicant must travel to a far-off city to study at a particular arcanists’ college, passing their examination with a DC 16 Knowledge (arcana) check. Then the applicant goes to the mountain-top Citadel of the Theurges, where he meditates and learns from the priests there. Finally, he receives a divine vision in which a representative of his deity or alignment questions him about matters of faith (answering correctly requires a DC 16 Knowledge [religion] check).
Audition in Darkness. On a dimly lit stage in an abandoned theater, the applicant must dance well enough to impress the judges sitting unseen in the audience (a DC 15 Perform [dance] check). Even if she passes the dance audition, she hears a cry of “Get her!” and dozens of guards rush the stage. She must escape the labyrinthine theater any way she can, employing stealth and combat prowess. She isn’t allowed to attack the guards directly, but she can make ripostes (attack of opportunity, in other words) if she gets the chance. If she gets out of the theater, she’s welcomed into the troupe of shadowdancers with a great revel.
Duel of the Servants. After calling a planar ally, the would-be thaumaturgist visits the vine-covered ruins of an ancient temple. A high-level thaumaturgist meets the applicant and his ally there, then begins casting his own lesser planar ally spell. During the 10 minutes it takes the thaumaturgist to cast his spell, the applicant can cast whatever spells he wishes on his own planar ally. Then the allies of the thaumaturgist and the applicant battle. The thaumaturgist’s ally yields when reduced to 20% or less of its full normal hit points. If the applicant’s ally wins, he’s eligible to join the ranks of the thaumaturgists.
The tests described below are examples of what an instructor might demand from a PC before teaching a particular feat. As with the prestige class tests above, they won’t be appropriate for all campaigns.
Not every feat with a prerequisite has a test associated with it, because many of the requirements are either very simple (base attack bonus of +1, for example), or they are tied to a specific tree of feats (Power Attack is a prerequisite for Cleave, for example). The best candidates for feat tests are feats at the top of their respective feat trees (those that have other feats as prerequisites but are not themselves prerequisites) and feats available only to higher-level characters, because those feats represent specialized training that only the most accomplished can hope to complete.
Test of the Death-Dealer. The applicant must run headlong into battle against a numerically superior foe (often goblins, kobolds, or low-level soldiers), using his Cleave feat in 3 consecutive rounds and dropping a second foe on at least two of those occasions. That performance sufficiently impresses the instructor, who offers to teach the applicant Great Cleave.
Seek the Master. The applicant must find a reputed master of her chosen weapon, then survive for 5 rounds in a duel against the master. The master sets the conditions of the duel, which can be safe or deadly, depending on the alignment and inclination of the master.
Anatomists’ Examination. The trainer sets up an array of cadavers or butcher’s meat swinging from ropes. The applicant must strike each one a single time, aiming for a particularly vulnerable point (AC 20). The trainer accepts any applicants who can hit at least six of the targets over the course of 4 rounds. Magic weapons aren’t allowed.
Test of the Shield Maiden. The applicant must hit an elusive, armored target (AC 24 because it’s using the total defense action) without hitting the shield-wielding assistant who stands between the applicant and the target. The applicant gets three chances and must hit with two. Magic weapons and ammunition aren’t allowed.
Attack the Caravan. The applicant must hit seven out of nine bullseye targets (AC 18) mounted on the back of wagons 30 feet away, and she has only 3 rounds to do so. Any sort of magical assistance is acceptable, except for haste spells and weapons with the speed special ability.
Gauntlet of Cudgels. The applicant must move down the middle of a 120-foot long path lined on both sides with cudgel-wielding soldiers. At the end of the path is a target (AC 10), which the applicant must hit with four arrows or other projectiles before 30 seconds pass. Magic weapons and ammunition aren’t allowed.
Become the Bullseye. The applicant must stand in one spot as an archer shoots ten arrows at him, one per round. He must successfully deflect at least half of the arrows (and survive the damage from the rest).
Warrior Unscathed. The instructor surrounds herself with four assistants in the center of the dojo. The applicant must successfully hit the instructor three times with spring attacks without suffering so much as a scratch from the instructor or her assistants. (Most applicants opt to fight defensively and use Combat Expertise to improve their Armor Class.)
Designing Your Own Tests
The tests described above tend to reward the same feats, ability scores, and other character aspects that standard prerequisites do. That’s a useful starting point for tests you might design based on published prestige classes or high-level feats: Imagine what kinds of activities would be significantly easier for characters who possess the relevant feat or other attribute defined as a prerequisite.
For prestige classes based on organizations you’ve designed yourself, you have a lot more freedom. Answer this question: What would impress the leader of the organization enough to offer membership? Then construct a test just as the leader would, making it hard enough to keep membership fairly exclusive. Consider how applicants might bend or break the rules of the test—both as the leader and as the GM. Anything the leader would reasonably anticipate works its way into the rules of the test. If you see a potential “cheat” that the leader of the organization wouldn’t anticipate, then either design a completely different test or leave the loophole open—whichever is more likely to lead to an interesting story.
Try to keep tests fairly simple, because they’re essentially solo affairs. You don’t want to leave the rest of the PCs waiting impatiently while one character works his way through a test. As an exception, you can design a test so complex or difficult that the relevant PC can’t complete it alone—the rest of the PCs must help, and completing the test becomes a full-fledged adventure. This technique works best when partnered with other rewards (usually treasure or the chance to do a good deed or settle an old score) for the PCs who aren’t taking a test.
For example, you could design a multiple-part riddle for a would-be loremaster that takes the PCs from the city to an ancient, ruined temple, then to the City of Brass where they must bargain with an efreeti lord. The wizard PC gets the chance to become a loremaster, the cleric PC can reclaim the temple for his deity, the rogue gets a chance to sneak into the treasure vaults of the efreet, and the fighter gets out of the city, where he’s wanted for a murder he didn’t commit. Everyone has a motivation to help the wizard with her riddle.