Psionics, Part Five

Welcome back to History of the Classes, after a week of ridiculous polling and a week off. We return to the history of psionics in D&D, already in progress. This article discusses psionics in Third Edition D&D. I think I can fairly sum up the approach as making psionic classes as close to pre-existing classes and mechanics as possible – it’s a spell point system with some weird parapsychology mixed in.

(Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Dark Sun)

D&D 3.0

In 3.0’s Psionics Handbook, there are two psionic classes, the Psion and the Psychic Warrior. It’s great to see a more physically-combative application of psionics; I don’t think it’s too far off-base to say that it is to the psion what the paladin is to the cleric, except without the built-in flavor (or baggage, depending on your point of view) of knighthood and codes of behavior. Bruce Cordell and the rest of the team make a valiant effort in this book to build consistent, engaging flavor into psions and psychic warriors, but the archetypes they’re playing with have a tough time becoming recognizable, familiar, and iconic.

The psion works very much like a wizard, if wizards were required to specialize – the psion’s class skills and available powers come from their choice of Discipline. Interestingly, each Discipline also has its own primary ability score, rather than all psionics being about Constitution, Intelligence, and/or Wisdom. The matchup of Discipline to ability score is nicely thematic, too: Telepathy to Charisma, Clairsentience to Wisdom, Metacreativity (a new Discipline that thinks objects and creatures into existence from the Astral, including high-damage powers comparable to Conjuration) to Intelligence, and Psychoportation to Dexterity. I’ve always thought that matching Psychokinesis with Constitution and Psychometabolism with Strength was backward, and wondered if there was something I missed about why that is a good idea. (Savants – psychokinetics – have it particularly nice, given the psion’s d4 Hit Die.)

This puts the psion into just about the most radical multiple-attribute-dependence that WotC ever implemented, since in theory you’re supposed to be grabbing powers from things other than your primary Discipline. The ability score of the primary Discipline also governs your bonus power points for a high ability score – this is comparable to bonus spell slots for high ability scores, if a little more off-putting to read.

So psions have pet rocks. Crystals are closely bound to psionic theme throughout the book. In place of a wizard’s familiar, psions have psi-crystals, on which they imprint a single piece of their personalities, and receive a bonus to a skill related to that personality aspect. As the psion advances, the psi-crystal gains further abilities that are cognate to a wizard’s familiar, though it takes them a lot longer to gain mobility.

As with 2e psionicists, psions have a fixed number of powers known, but 3e does away with sciences and devotions in favor of leveled psionic powers. In addition to a general pool of powers known, one power of each power level must come from the psion’s primary Discipline. Of course, 2e psionics back-doored power levels by attaching psionicist level prerequisites to powers that needed to stay out of reach of first-level characters. (Yes, you could run a game with teleportation from first level, but it’s not the D&D that most DMs want to run.)

The one odd thing about the psion’s learning of powers is a throwaway reference in the rules to learning powers not on the psion power list. I think this is about homebrewed powers, but it’s hard to say from the text what the designer has in mind.

Psions further receive combat modes – five at first level, the other five staged out thereafter. The chart lookup of attack versus defense is back, with additional entries for non-psionic targets and for flat-footed or power-drained psions. Way back in the first article of this series, I mentioned that psionicists really wanted to get the drop on one another, because it represented an overwhelming advantage; that concept comes roaring back here. A 7- or 8-point increase to an attack’s saving throw DC is not a joke.

All of the attack modes deal ability score damage to psionic targets, and stun non-psionic targets. Non-psionic targets may enjoy a big reduction in their saving throw DCs, but boy, if you can land a psychic crush, 2d4 rounds of stun mean that your troubles with that opponent are probably over. Ability score damage has the benefit of weakening a psionic target’s ability to hit you back, which is great; on the other hand, it means there’s a lot of recalculating to do, and a potentially a lot of damage to heal that the party healer can’t spontaneously cast (that is, lesser restoration rather than cure various wounds). Also, there are still just five attack modes… against six Disciplines and ability scores. Congratulations, Psychokinesis, you have much less fear of psionic combat. (And much more fear of poison combat.)

That’s pretty much psions for you. There are new feats (surprise!) and skills, generally just paralleling the feat and skill functions of magic-using classes. It strongly emphasizes a separate-but-equal, same-but-different conception of psionics in a fantasy setting. I, for one, am not convinced that Scrying and Remote Viewing both needed to be skills. (For that matter, did either of them need to be?) The powers have one foot in the parapsychological terminology of earlier editions (catapsi, reddopsi) and the other in more fantastical nomenclature, including powers that share the names of spells like freedom of movement.

As usual, I’m not doing a deep study of each individual feat, but at least one needs special mention, because it is subtle game-changer. In 3.x, defenders rely on attacks of opportunity to control the area within their reach, punishing enemies with damage for taking a variety of actions. Maybe you spend feats to trip, disarm, or grapple instead, and maybe you go in for Combat Reflexes to pick up more reactions in a round. With Stand Still (nominally open to psions; really for psychic warriors), your AoO precedes the triggering foe’s movement, and forces a Fortitude save that scales with damage if it hits; on a failed saving throw, the target doesn’t move. This is a stickiness mechanic – that is, it improves the character’s control over adjacent squares and stops fleeing enemies much more firmly. It has no additional feat prerequisite, a nearly automatic ability score requirement, and deals damage in addition to stopping movement. If you want to play a psychic warrior as a primary defender, Stand Still is for you, even if it’s a bit buried in the book’s 50+ new feats.

We also get a new class concept, the psychic warrior. About like you’d expect, they stab things and use psionic power to be better at stabbing things. They only advance to 6th-level psionic powers, learn fewer at each level, and have a smaller pool of psi points, but they have a cleric’s attack bonus progression and Hit Die, proficiency in all weapons, armor, and shields, Weapon Specialization at 6th level, and eight bonus feats over the course of twenty levels. It’s a pretty sweet gig. The list of powers they choose from is much shorter, but it’s pretty phenomenal for what the psychic warrior cares about doing – none of the information-gathering, mind-control, travel powers, or the like, but AC bonuses, damage reduction, damage output, and so on.

One other weird thing: psionic powers have Displays where spells have Components. A Display isn’t something you have to do. It’s something that just happens when you use the power. It means you can’t stand in a crowd and use your powers unnoticed, at least without paying a feat and 2 power points. As far as I can tell, you can’t be silenced, restrained, or otherwise prevented from manifesting a power.

The default state of 3.0 psionics is that they interact fluidly with magic – dispel magic works on psionic effects, and so forth. There’s a variant rule for the opposite assumption, and some discussion of the ramifications of each choice. A lot of powers wind up imitating existing spells, because the spell is a necessary piece of functionality for certain class roles. For example, one way or another, psions need to be able to fly, and packaging that as psionic fly seemed like the most practical thing, apparently. In terms of gameplay, the psion is a sorcerer with a slightly adjusted set of strengths and weaknesses, while the psychic warrior is a fighter that trades a little survivability and some attack progression for a phenomenal increase in versatility.

Psionic theme remains one of primary conflicts of D&D fans discussing psionics, so let’s see what Bruce Cordell and company do in 3.0. There are a lot of references to crystals, suggesting New Age-ness; ectoplasm, pointing again to parapsychology; dorjes, suggesting Tibetan Buddhism (or other religions); and so on. It’s a melting pot of thematic concepts, without a lot of clear source fiction as a binding agent. It’s hard to fit all of this into any D&D setting but the truly gonzo, like Planescape or Spelljammer – even Dark Sun is a bit of an odd fit, to say nothing of the more mainstream settings.


D&D 3.5

The Expanded Psionics Handbook adds two new base classes and a bunch of races to the mix. The soulknife moves from prestige class to base class, while the wilder is to the sorcerer as the psion is to the wizard. (Since the psion already plays more like a sorcerer than a wizard, the wilder is at an extreme point on that spectrum.) The races have some really interesting additions – bug people (dromites), half-giants and thri-kreen (Dark Sun fans, you have only mostly been abandoned!), duergar (I am so sorry about that +1 LA that means no one wants to play you!), githyanki and githzerai, and three different almost-indistinguishable-from-human races, all the more interesting because you could just have your setting treat them like different human ethnicities, or even more subtle variations within humanity.

The psion and psychic warrior get some retuning. The psion:

  • Universally uses Intelligence as the primary ability score, rather than each Discipline having its own ability score. Fixing multiple-attribute-dependency is a good thing. I wish there were a parallel support for Wisdom psions.
    • Because all psions have high Int, they felt it necessary to shave off two skill points per level.
  • No longer has spells known per power level, and instead has a total number of powers known. From the vantage of 5e, this looks like a cool change.
  • Receives a lot more power points. Almost twice as many, before adjustment for high ability scores.
  • Receives bonus feats every five levels. As you’d expect, these are restricted to psionic-related feats.
  • Receives a psi-crystal only with the Psicrystal Affinity feat, rather than by default. To be fair, your pet rock also turns useful and interesting a lot The psi-crystal’s skill bonus also increases from +2 to +3.
  • Does not receive combat modes by default anymore – those powers are now standard powers that any psion can choose, or not, and there’s no attack vs. defense mode chart anymore.
  • Does not receive one power per power level from her Discipline. Instead, the psion’s Discipline grants the right to choose powers from a list restricted to that Discipline – generally the most iconic powers of each Discipline, such as psionic charm, psionic suggestion, and psionic dominate for Telepathy. You probably want most of your Discipline’s powers.
  • No longer has 0th-level psionic powers, as those have gone away.

Psionic powers now have an Augment feature, which lets you overload them with power points for additional throughput. From the vantage of 5e, this looks extremely familiar. Before writing this article, I had not realized that 5e’s fundamentals of magic come from the Expanded Psionics Handbook. I love that piece of 5e design so much that I’m a little more favorably disposed toward the EPH now than I was at the start of this paragraph.

Psychic warriors are much less changed than psions; most of their changes take place in individual powers, including a slightly expanded list. They don’t almost-double their power points. They don’t receive anything new in place of the combat modes they lost.

Soulknives are only incidentally psionic. Mostly they are skirmishers with the ability to manifest lightsabers. Okay, not lightsabers, but pretty much lightsabers. They’re… a really strange “I promise we’re not Jedi Knights, which would be a gross IP violation” class.

I mentioned that wilders occupy an odd place in class design: extremely few psionic powers (only 11 at 20th level), but with a big psionic power pool and the ability to go nova even bigger than psions of the same level. Basically, these guys are here to be blasters, and when they blast something really good, they are going to blast the next round’s target even better.

There’s a new rules element called Psionic Focus, which a character either has or does not have at any given time. Gaining psionic focus requires a full-round action of meditation and at least one unspent power point. There are a number of different things you can expend psionic focus to do, from taking 15 on a Concentration check (a near-guaranteed success), to any number of different feat-granted applications. Essentially, psionic focus is a transient currency. You probably don’t want to reacquire it in the midst of a combat: you’re probably better off taking a full round of attacks than dealing +2d6 damage with one of them next round. If there’s even a one-round interruption in a fight, you can seize the moment to regain your psionic focus.

This is an interesting piece of rules, but the game already incentivizes alpha-striking with every bit of juice you can muster in the opening round of any combat. Since it’s so hard to regain mid-fight and possible to lose to a devious opponent, you really want to expend your psionic focus at the first reasonable opportunity. A mechanic that kicked in later in a fight – sort of like 13th Age’s famous Escalation Die – would create a more interesting tactical question.

Since I called out Stand Still before, I’ll mention briefly that it got shifted over to a General feat (that is, no longer requires psionic ability), and is much, much weaker. It no longer deals damage as part of its stickiness, and targets Reflex rather than Fortitude – so the skirmishers you most want to prevent from reaching your back ranks are now best suited to avoid it.

There are new prestige classes, monsters, and magic items thrown into the thematic mix of the EPH, but the overall statement is that psionic content is exotic even by the standards of a fantasy setting: more garish colors, more wuxia-like action, and more things made out of crystal. It wants to be its own setting, with maybe a smattering of non-psionic classes for contrast, in the same way that smugglers, bounty hunters, and troopers are part of Star Wars. One of my favorite pieces of the EPH is a two-page section on how to fit psionics into a campaign setting, and how to make psionics a story element and not just magic by another name. It’s a series of options and suggestions rather than a definite statement about psionic themes, but it’s a good reminder for DMs looking to create a more compelling experience.

Finally – I am aware of Complete Psionic, among other sources of still more psychic or psionic classes. Tune in next week to see how those later works influence the conceptual development of psionics in D&D!


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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