Psionics, Part Three

Last time in History of the Classes, I talked about AD&D First Edition’s psionics, including a psionicist class introduced in Dragon. Especially from the other articles in that issue, it was clear that psionics in D&D were divisive at the time, even on a level of basic mechanical resolution. Second Edition’s Complete Psionics Handbook sets out to address the messy mechanics of OD&D and 1e psionics, bringing them into a new and more streamlined age. (Relatively speaking.) This is also the era of the legendary Dark Sun setting, but I expect I’ll push Dark Sun off to a future article.

(Part One, Part Two)

Complete Psionics Handbook

There are some differences between OD&D and 1e psionics – then 2e comes along and overturns the applecart. For one thing, the Psionicist class is the “default” psion of 2e, though there are rules for Wild Talents. For another, the difference between the worst possible psionicist and the best is much narrower; likewise for wild talents. The basic resolution mechanic of a psionic power changes as well – now it is a roll-under system, but that needs a little more unpacking.

Each psionic power requires a roll to activate. You roll an unmodified d20; all modifiers apply to your target number. Your target number starts with your Constitution, Intelligence, or Wisdom score, depending on the power, and modifies it by -0 to -7 or more, based on difficulty. Your target number might be anywhere from 5 or 6 up to 18 or so. You want to roll as close to your target number as possible, and many powers grant a “critical success” effect if you roll the number exactly. This kind of resolution mechanic is very popular with the OSR crowd, but I’ve never seen the appeal – I feel like it creates a pause between seeing the roll and reacting that dampens the excitement, as you have to figure out if your roll was great or tipped over the edge into awfulness. Also, a natural 20 is a critical failure – most powers have a unique 20 result, and many of them are as good as being out of the fight entirely.

Other than the critical effects, this is identical to the function of 2e’s nonweapon proficiency system, including the ability to spend additional slots on an existing science or devotion to boost the target number by a point. A psionicist gets more science (greater powers) slots and devotion (lesser powers) slots than anyone gets of nonweapon proficiencies, but still a very small number compared to the total range of psionic powers in this book alone. Ten sciences, twenty-five devotions, and five defense modes at 20th level… out of “over 150” advertised on the book’s back-cover copy. It’s a tough sell to spend any of those slots improving things you can already do.

Psionic strength points, or PSPs, are much more tightly restricted in 2e than in 1e, and you gain a very reasonable number of them at every level. If what you liked about 1e psionics was that anything could happen!, 2e is a terrible disappointment; if you like rules to be sane and balanced so that everyone at the table can contribute a roughly-equal amount, 2e is pretty solid. With a Wisdom score of 16 and everything else 15 or below, a psionicist scales from 22 PSPs at 1st level to 231 at 20th.

This book also divides powers into separate Disciplines for the first time – a change that reflects much of the fiction, and will carry forward in one form or another into all future editions of D&D. 2e has six Disciplines:

  • Clairsentience is all about sensing things other than thoughts (since that goes to Telepathy). Alternate modes of perception, perceiving things at a great distance, psychometry, and pre/post-cognition.
    • Clairsentience one of the best second Disciplines in the game, but a terrible first Discipline, since in 2e it won’t help you deal damage.
  • Psychokinesis is about the action of physical objects outside the body and the projection of force. It’s a general class that includes telekinesis, pyrokinesis (molecular agitation, a pretty inefficient way to hurt someone), and ex nihilo creation of objects.
    • Psychokinesis doesn’t have as many varied ways of dealing damage as you would expect based on subsequent design and related fiction, but if you really need to do much better than disintegrate, I don’t know what to tell you.
      • This is true across all of 2e psionics as compared to 2e spellcasting – most damaging effects stop at one or two dice, as compared to the overwhelming power of fireball (1d6/level, up to 10d6). This is consistent enough that it’s got to be a deliberate decision, but given some of the powers the psionicists are tossing around, it’s kind of tone-deaf.
    • It’s strong on defense, inertial barrier in particular – sources of damage reduction aren’t common in 2e! This power seriously should have been a science rather than a devotion.
  • Psychometabolism is about the action of living bodies: altering, restoring, destroying, or afflicting them.
    • It’s a pretty well-rounded Discipline, but just about everything you really want to use is horrifyingly expensive, so it might be a particularly hard road at low levels.
    • There are also some real “will the need for this ever come up?” kinds of powers. This is true of every Discipline, but there are some head-scratchers here. You’ve got to really hate an NPC in just the right way to use aging, for example. There’s nothing wrong with having powers like that in a Discipline; it’s just that it gives a first-time player the impression that a Discipline (or other broad class of rules) is less useful than it is. Don’t make people work to find the good stuff.
  • Psychoportation is a psionic way to get people and things from point A to point B.
    • It’s an incredibly narrow Discipline, not unlike Clairsentience – awesome second Discipline, but there’s almost nothing here you need at first level. Many of the powers are slightly different ways to accomplish roughly the same thing, with various tradeoffs, and the overall list of powers is very short.
  • Telepathy is about minds, thoughts, psychic combat, and ruthlessly exerting your will over others.
    • For variety of powers and access to psionic attack modes, Telepathy is king. For information-gathering, it is second only to Clairsentience, but without fading into uselessness during combat. The cut-and-thrust of psionic combat is very different in 2e, and I’ll come back to it in a second.
    • With the longest power list, it also has the largest number of powers you will probably never use. I cannot think of one time in the twenty-two years I’ve been gaming that I’ve wished I could establish a taste link between my character and a target.
    • Other powers are useful in corner cases, but another power would be more consistently useful. Why bother with telempathic projection when the trifecta of attraction, aversion, and repugnance are all out there? (Said trifecta would have been better boiled down to a single devotion, or maybe a science, with the three states as internal options.)
    • Okay, but seriously. Dat domination, amirite? Expensive as all hell, both in the up-front cost and the maintenance cost, but it’s probably the best single reason (mechanically and thematically) to chase psionics in the first place.
  • Metapsionics closes out the pack. It does… stuff. It’s all over the place, and is designed to be useless by itself. There are attack powers here, but for the most part metapsionics is to psionics as 3.x’s metamagic and item creation feats are to magic, though formatted and attained differently.
    • You could go deep on metapsionics, though I’d make it my third or fourth Discipline at the earliest – a lot of these powers carry explicit level requirements. There’s some fascinating, potentially overpowered-like-whoa stuff here. It’s all complex and indirect in its application, so this is only for people who are completely comfortable with the rest of their powers and creative applications.

Overall, this is pretty good stuff. The Disciplines aren’t balanced against one another, in part because you eventually gain access to all of them. It’s probably okay that half of the Disciplines are for later levels (“later” here is “sixth level”), unless you’re really sure you know what you’re doing with your character or the rest of the party is prepared to carry you for a good while. The limits on your powers known give you a good long list, but you’ll still have to make hard choices as you go.

So about psionic combat. I didn’t go into too much detail on this in OD&D and 1e, though I mentioned that there was a complicated chart lookup. In 2e, there’s a very simple chart lookup, but you don’t do anything to your opponent on the first successful attack, or the second. Instead, you establish tangents – a foot in the door. When you would establish the third tangent, you gain contact, a state that lets you do various horrible telepathic things to the target. The target still gets saving throws against whatever you’re doing, so in a lot of ways they’ve solved for the problem of save-or-die too much. To dominate a target, you have to establish contact, which might take lots of attempts, and each attempt requires a power check (that roll-under thing I explained earlier). Once you have contact, you use domination, which requires another power check and grants a saving throw. Honestly, it’s a miracle if you use a Telepathic power through contact successfully. (Psionic combat with non-psionicists is trivial, of course.) It makes me wish they had used a similar multiple-points-of-failure model for 2e’s top-end spells two years earlier.

Psionic combat pits attack modes against defense modes, and the character who rolls higher while still rolling under-or-equal-to their power score succeeds; the defender wins ties. The chart lookup applies modifiers to the attacker’s power score. It seems like it would be pretty easy to burn through all of your PSPs in psionic combat and have nothing left to use once you establish contact – an intentional danger, but also a sign that the system assumes you won’t run into too much psionic combat at the lowest levels, or if you do, the psionicist’s allies are spending their actions murdering the target while the psionicist just tries to survive.

I mentioned Wild Talents earlier. This is what 2e calls the default psion of OD&D and 1e. 2e also tones this character down in a big way. Being a wild talent is still a power boost compared to not being one, and it’s still a d100 roll at character creation, so you have an edge over any other character of your class and ability score mix. To mitigate this, you get a boost to your wild talent roll for high Constitution, Intelligence, and Wisdom scores, but lose half of that bonus if you are a mage. Priest, or race other than human. This is a way to encourage warriors and rogues not to dump Intelligence and Wisdom, and to choose human as their race (the penalty doesn’t apply twice, so it’s no inducement to mages and priests to be human). The problem, of course, is that it’s a one-time roll unless you increase your Wisdom score in the course of play or undergo psychic surgery. Also, attempting this roll can be very bad for you, resulting in permanent ability score loss on a failed saving throw. Asking low-level characters to pass a save vs. death is a bit of a sick joke, and honestly, this risk should probably not be here; if it must remain, let it apply only in the case of psychic surgery.

The book also includes a brief chapter on psionics in a campaign and how to make them blend thematically. Unfortunately, the writer’s (Steve Winter) hands are tied by not being able to make meaningful changes to any existing setting, and not having enough space to present any of the campaign models for psionics in depth. The themes of psionics come down to “like magic, but not, and people definitely hate and fear you for it.” I wish there had been something more here, even some odd-but-evocative restrictions as in OD&D.


Skills and Powers

The Psionicist appears in Skills and Powers, of course. In contrast to the other classes I’ve traced through Skills and Powers, the psionicist has a large number of new point-buy options, though they can’t afford to dump much from their core functionality. As with every class that attracts followers, there are five easy points to recoup, but… well, you really want 10 or so.

The book also presents a ground-up revamp of psionics:

  • flipping the math on power checks to be a roll-high system like normal D&D combat,
  • severely curtailing the progression of PSPs above 9th level,
  • reshuffling the Metapsionic powers into the other five Disciplines,
  • dropping the power score/natural 20 feature of each power,
  • raising the level limits on non-human psionicists,
  • opening psionics to additional races, and
  • streamlining psionic combat.
    • I get that the original psionic combat is complicated, but Skills and Powers psionic combat is just mathematically dead on arrival. Spending 10 PSPs to deal 1d12 damage to your opponent’s PSP pool (and you can inflate that as far as you want, lucky you) is just… incorrect, I don’t know how else to put it. It’s Russian roulette with too many bullets. Psychic crush is the only power for which the cost is more than half a point lower than the average value of the damage die.

For psionic purposes, all characters now have an MTHAC0 (Mental To Hit Armor Class 0) and MAC (Mental Armor Class), and psionicists get multiple psionic attacks per round, as per a non-specialized fighter. Attack modes are now free as part of character progression, just like defense modes. There are also nonweapon proficiencies to improve MAC, which is just not a good idea, because combat functionality trumps other options so thoroughly and you can just spend more and more NWP slots this way.

Putting psionics on the same dice-rolling paradigm as the rest of the system is a good thing, and I’m happy to say that later editions do this. The rest of the revamp is mangled, reducing the psionicist’s overall power (and increasing the wild talent’s power, incidentally) and ignoring the more serious problems with psionics, such as the inability to deal adequate damage past about fifth level, without going straight to disintegrate. From the lofty vantage of 2015, I can say that if you’re running 2e with psionics, it’s probably easiest to flip the math yourself, but otherwise stick with the Complete Psionics Handbook.



I’m sure there were Dragon Magazine articles with more powers and such for 2e that I don’t know about – if you have issue numbers, just mention them in the comments and I’ll see if they make up enough for another article. Next week, I’ll tackle Dark Sun and the additional powers offered in The Will and the Way and Dragon Kings. It promises to be a wild ride – but whatever else one might say about Dark Sun, you can’t say it lacks thematic richness, so I’m looking forward to exploring its psionics.

For me, the psionics of the Complete Psionics Handbook is the model that I look back to with any nostalgia at all, out of all the presentations. When I was a kid reading it for the first time, much of what it offered eluded me, though I could have gotten sufficient use from it if anyone had really been interested in playing a psionicist. (I was the DM and the one who owned all the books in my gaming group, so I would have had to really push it as an option for it to see much use.) That feeling that it eluded me made me work harder to understand it; looking back on it now, I see that I was looking for what makes Power A balanced, or at least interesting, alongside Power B; for example sound link and inflict pain. I was searching for a comprehensive view of a playstyle and character mentality that connected these dots, and at the ripe old age of twelve, I couldn’t achieve this. From the lofty heights of thirty-four (as of today), I see that there isn’t a clear picture to emerge from any one Discipline, just a lot of disparate tricks that it’s up to the player to find a way to use. Denied a direct-damage solution in 2e, the psionicist – even the psychokineticist – becomes a master of misdirection, causing enemies to waste their turns. Still more ideally, the psionicist (with support from the DM) exploits the environment to avoid combat entirely. It is a playstyle at right angles from the fighter, mage, and cleric, but perfectly in line with the thief. That’s interesting, but ultimately it’s for the best that later editions push the Psionicist more toward the traditional gameplay of D&D (as they likewise do to the Rogue). The more evasive gameplay of the 2e Psionicist remains an option, of course, but as we’ll see when we get to 3.0, they gain serious damage-dealing powers as well.


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Brandes Stoddard enjoys games of many kinds: video, tabletop, board, card, and live-action games. He runs Dust to Dust, a fantasy LARP in Georgia, and works in freelance game design and writing. He blogs about games at