Prestigious Educations

Eric Lis

If the average level 1 human is about 16-18 years old, then maybe it stands to reason that undergrad is a base class and grad student is a prestige class.

The typical level system that we have in most of our games is meant to approximate how a person’s skills and abilities improve over time. Nobody really expects such rules to accurately reflect something as complex as human learning, but the leveling system is one way of depicting slow, progressive growth. I’ve often contemplated how well these systems really do reflect things. While actual human learning probably happens more like in the World of Darkness, where you gain the occasional experience point and slowly add increase your skills one at a time, the levelling system does actually reflect some aspects, perhaps not of how we develop, but of how we pick our life paths. As I’ve observed before, according to the SRD, the average human adventurer leaves home as a first-level character around the early 20’s, which is roughly analogous to when most young people are starting their lives, at least in societies where people legally have to stay in high school until a certain age. Level one mages and clerics are a few years older when they begin adventuring, which reflects something analogous to their going to post-secondary education first. Obviously it’s a gross oversimplification to say that fighters are the guys who skip college and go right to work, but the rules as written imply something along those lines.

What about those professions which rely on periods of apprenticeship? Naturally, given my biases, my own thoughts ran towards doctors, but the same question would hold true to lawyers, engineers, actors, and anyone else who might graduate from school and then spend years getting extra training from a mentor. Consider the doctor, because it’s the example I personally know best. To get where I am today, I did an undergraduate degree (taking me to the age when I would have started adventuring if I’d been the cleric I imagine myself to be), then four years of medical school, and then finally five years of residency, before finally reaching the point where I could legally practice on my own without supervision. For the bulk of those almost ten years, I was working in the hospital and (ostensibly) healing the sick, but working under the guidance of senior supervisors. Was I gaining experience and levels over that period, or was I as yet an unclassed commoner?

Let’s suppose that I became a level one character the day that I started learning on the job instead of sitting in a lecture hall, in my third year of medical school. I spent two years learning general medicine, got my doctorate, and then, when I entered residency, started studying to be a specialist. Would that be the transition point between class levels and prestige class levels? Two years doesn’t seem like a long time, but then, we all know how in games, characters can go from level one to level twenty seemingly in a few short months if a storyteller doesn’t put much downtime into a game. Looking back at my own skill progression, though, here’s how I sort of feel that it broke down.

At the end of first two years of medical school, I had attained enough niftiness to no longer be a commoner. I was a level-1 doctor (even if I wasn’t technically a “doctor” yet… don’t bother me with details!). I spent two years gaining levels in doctor – probably bringing me to level 4 or 5 -- and then started residency. At this point, I took on a prestige class. This is the part of the narrative that got me thinking about this, because in modern medicine, there’s no such thing as just being a doctor any more. Everyone is a specialist… even the general practitioners are arguably specialists in family medicine, and not expected to have a surgeon’s expertise in surgery or a psychiatrist’s expertise in psychiatry. A modern hospital requires people who have levels in dozens of different prestige classes to function; your rheumatologist doesn’t have the expertise (or class abilities) to treat a cancer with maximum efficiency.

None of this applies solely to doctors, obviously. Many of my friends have graduated from engineering programs, but none of them, to my knowledge, calls themselves an engineer. They might be software engineers, mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, mining engineering, but they’ve all taken levels in one or more prestige classes to get specialized bonuses at the cost of more general abilities.

As I said before, of course, D&D and Pathfinder oversimplify things. Maybe it’s unfair to assume that people only have classes and prestige classes, whereas in real life you take levels in student, then levels in college, then levels in profession, and maybe even levels in parent or football player or panhandler. Even NPCs can gain levels in Commoner and Expert, and a twentieth-level Commoner can potentially beat the heck out of a low-level party of adventurers. Maybe the real difference between gaming and real life is that in real life, we have base classes, prestige classes, and esteem, reputable, prominent, and noteworthy classes, all of which build on each other and have increasingly convoluted pre-requisites.

Or maybe none of us have any classes and we’re all just spending experience as we accumulate it. I don’t have any levels in “person with answers.” 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on June 14, 2015. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system