Imagine a Dungeons and Dragons prestige class (PrC) with a fighter's base attack bonus progression and saves. From level one to five, this PrC grants a free feat. From level six to ten, the PrC grants either two free feats or a supernatural ability. Sounds pretty sweet -- in fact, it sounds outright bogus. Probably from some outrageous splat book. But -- surprise -- it's not! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the core DMG prestige class, the Horizon Walker.
The Horizon Walker is not bogus because the powers granted by the PrC are not combat related. They generally give a bonus to a movement skill or to sensation. Even at upper levels, none of the more powerful specials grant massive combat advantages. Yes, you get a +1 bonus vs creatures native to a particular terrain, but that's hardly a game breaker.
So although the Horizon Waker offers feat-like bonuses with every level, the PrC is not out of control because these bonuses do not stack with existing combat powers.
Contrast that with the Dragon Disciple. Every level grants a combat boost, except for the levels that add Blindsense and Wings. It is altogether bogus. And I think it is fair to say that the Dragon Disciple is more popular and more commonly used by power players.
Want proof? On the DnD ListServ archives, a search for "Dragon Disciple" turns up 70 hits. Horizon Walker, 0. In a search of Google Groups: "Dragon Disciple," 227 hits; Horizon Walker, 45. I rest my case.
It is natural that players want to increase the power of their characters. If they run fighters, they want PrCs that stack with fighting skill. If they are magic-users, they want PrCs that stack with their current caster levels. But it is up to game masters to ensure that things do not get out of control.
I think it is revealing to compare the 3.0 DMG with the 3.5 DMG. The earlier edition included just six PrCs. Of those, two had a seperate spell progression and list, the Assassin and the Blackguard. There was only one that boosted existing casting ability, the Loremaster.
In the more recent book, there are 15 prestige classes. Of these, only two have seperate spell progressions -- the same Assassin and Blackguard. But now the Loremaster is joined by five more that boost prior spell casting, from the Arcane Trickster to the Thaumaturgist. The Hierophant and the Dragon Disciple boost pre-existing casting ability too, in different ways.
You see the power inflation at work. The straight sorcerer is in almost every way made more potent by taking one of these PrCs. (The Wizard loses a few bonus feats.)
And this is in the core DMG, a tome that exemplifies restraint in holding back inflation. A look at the many splat books turns up a slew of PrCs that are as bad or worse than the Dragon Disciple. Take the Battlerager from Races of Faerun, for example, which gives a dwarf barbarian combat bonuses at the cost of skills he won't be using in a fight.
Why can't there be more prestige classes like the Horizon Walker, that add nifty powers but do not stack with combat abilities? Why not more PrCs with their own spell lists and progressions, instead of stacking levels with prior spell casting? Looks like I have some prestige classes to create!
Another opinion [9 October 05] Here is another take on the Horizon Walker -- with an eye for making best use of this potent PrC.
Reader Feedback [10 October 05] The always thoughtful Mr. Nexx has this to say:
When playing a spellcaster, separate
progressions are a pain in the butt. The spells are very weak (since
they're based on a PrC for caster level), and your core competency
doesn't improve. That's why, I think, they went with giving PrCs
intended for casters level increases, instead of their own separate
progressions (though a Nar Demonbinder does it interestingly, since its
caster level stacks with 1 other, and its separate list is of 4-8th or
9th level spells).
And of course Nexx is right. But what if the spells for a PrC with an independent spell progression (like the assassin) were chosen to be quite potent, thus compensating for a smaller selection and lower caster level? And what if the PrC offered other compensatory special abilities and a fair BAB progression? That's the idea behind my Spellspinner PrC.
To see the difference, compare a 3e Bladesinger from RoF with the new
version from Complete Arcane... the Bladesinger makes a heck of a lot
more sense with the character improving, rather than remaining static.
The trick is, IMO, to balance these new abilities with the increases in
caster level... since, for most core spellcasters, their per-level
IS an increase in caster level, and not much else.