Psionics, Part Seven

In last week’s article, I discussed some of the peripheral support for psionics in 3.5 D&D. This week, I’m moving on to 4e, which means we’re going to the Player’s Handbook 3 and Psionic Power. 4e nominally has four psionic classes, but if you can find any credible psionic theme in the monk, you’re doing better than I am. I won’t be touching the monk in this article, since it isn’t psionic in any other edition, and it might get its own History of the Classes series someday. The Ardent, Battlemind, and Psion are the Leader, Defender, and Controller for the psionic power source, respectively.

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

(Curious about the image? It’s Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “Psyche Showing Her Sisters Her Gifts from Cupid.” Psyche, y’all.)

Player’s Handbook 3

Psionic powers in 4e share a unique mechanic, setting psionics apart from other power sources that more or less fit into the at-will/encounter/daily/utility structure. 4e also starts from an assumption that psionics are distinguishable from magic mainly in the particle effects that show up in the fiction. The flavor text repeatedly uses the phrase “psionic magic,” as distinct from “arcane magic.” This is another aspect of 4e’s general approach that proved to be a dealbreaker for such a large swath of the gaming audience. Admittedly, if this was going to be an issue for you, the third Player’s Handbook is probably not the straw that broke the camel’s back. Anyway.

The unique mechanic is that psionic characters don’t have encounter powers. Instead, they have additional at-will abilities that can be used in that form, or can be juiced up one grade, or two, for various costs in power points. The lower cost usually results in in a power that is a half-step between an at-will and an encounter power, and the higher cost results in a quite respectable encounter power. Power points return after a short rest. Beyond this, psionic characters have a normal run of daily and utility powers. They start with two at-wills at first level (plus one for humans), gain a third at third level, and from that point forward just cycle out at-wills for higher-level and better ones – a concept entirely foreign to other classes, but if you squint just right you can find a commonality between this concept, the mantles of 3.5’s Ardent and Divine Mind, and the Disciplines of 5e’s playtest Mystic (on which more next week). It gives them a level of fine control over their actions in combat, but with a narrower variety, in a sense.

In comparison to its 3.5 origin, the 4e Ardent still has something called “mantles,” but the word is the only thing they have in common. The 4e mantle is the feature that differentiates the two Ardent builds; Clarity improves the team’s defenses against opportunity attacks, improves Insight and Perception, and gives the ardent a power that lets allies shift or move when he gets bloodied. Elation, on the other hand, improves damage output on opportunity attacks, improves Diplomacy and Intimidate, and grants the ardent a power to inflict combat advantage on all nearby enemies when he gets bloodied. The general through-line is that Clarity is the more defensive mantle and Elation the more aggressive.

The class’s theme here is an empath that splashes positive emotions on allies and negative emotions on enemies, through the medium of a melee weapon strike. Utility effects dip into psychometabolism, psychoportation, clairsentience, and telepathy… and that’s just the ones available at sixth level. In 4e they decisively do away with the parapsychological tone of power names and repurpose several of the traditional power names from earlier editions, such as thought shield and body adjustment. Some powers just get weird and lose the last threads of connection to psionic theme, such as diamond defense assault (a Three Word Attack if there ever were one); the flavor text for the power reads, “The crystalline motes released by your attack shelter your allies and interfere with your enemies’ strikes.” The… motes? I have no idea, is the answer.

There are some pretty cool thematic ideas going on in the ardent’s paragon paths, though – the Talaric Codex is a piece of lore from 3.5, if not earlier, and if the player gave the DM some advance warning this could be the centerpiece of some great stories. I roundly mocked the Stygian powers that showed up in 3.5, but there’s more legwork done (two whole paragraphs!) to establish this concept and its connection to psionics in 4e, so it gets a pass this time. The Psionic Binder is all using psionics to counter aberrations – sure, sounds good, and “psionics are the mortal races’ reactions to aberrations” works for me all right. I am much less sold on the Argent Soul (the Power of Positive Thinking).

Moving on, though: the battlemind. I assume the reason this isn’t called Psychic Warrior is that they were worried about confusion with other classes or something. Anyway, they wear scale armor (like fighters), and use Constitution as their attack stat. I’m not really sure what it looks like, in the narrative, to use Con as an attack stat. Even Cha vs. AC with a weapon attack makes marginally more sense – an elegant style for a more civilized age.

The striking thing about the battlemind (and with every defender in 4e) is its core combat loop – how they handle marks and punishment. My own experience with the battlemind comes down to one session, but the player involved had a hard time understanding how to use her powers to get the job done. Since she was very wise in the ways of 4e at the time, I comfortably place the blame on the rules. Anyway, their mark affects one creature in a close burst, or two if the battlemind spends one power point. The trick of this is that the battlemind’s mark-punishment power, mind spike, is a melee power with a reach of one square, so the battlemind has to do a lot more chasing than other defenders, as they don’t have much in the way of stickiness. Opportunity attacks – and powers that replace the melee basic attack of an OA – are central. Blurred step is the solution here, allowing you to follow enemies as they shift away, but as even the online guides to the class mention, the Battlemind demands more tactical mastery than other defender classes. I would go beyond that to say that the class hangs on a fairly subtle understanding of the action economy – the resolution order and availability of opportunity actions and immediate reactions.

The two builds of the Battlemind both hang on the first round of combat or earlier: one grants increased mitigation the first time you get attacked in a battle (much more useful if you can be sure there will be more attacks incoming before that power expires), and the other allows you some free positioning as part of the initiative-rolling step of starting a combat. The point here is that the battlemind (like all defenders) needs to control the central clash of the battle, and it takes a few actions to establish that control because they have fewer always-on class features to carry that weight.

The Battlemind has a bit stronger of a relationship with “traditional” psionic theme than the Ardent, though it’s a scattershot of telekinetic, telepathic, psychometabolic, and psychoportative powers, plus some powers that don’t have anything overt to do with psionics, like brutal barrage and steel unity strike. There’s something nice about including some powers that are about being a fighter-plus-psionics, though. (That brings us back around to the oddity of a 98-pound-weakling who is, nonetheless, the picture of health making a great Battlemind.) I don’t have as much good to say about the themes of the Battlemind’s Paragon Path options, though – there’s not much implied story or new hooks that come with any of the ones presented here.

The Psion, at last! Matching up the Psion with the Controller role is about as hand-in-glove of a pairing as making the Rogue a Striker. A psion chooses between telekinesis and telepathy as their primary functions (and builds), but really they choose between Wisdom (for telekinetic powers) or Charisma (for telepathic powers) as their secondary stat. Beyond that, they are Ritual Casters, and that’s it for class abilities. Telekinetic psions have a bit of extra forced movement up their sleeves – a once-per-encounter free action – while telepathic psions cause enemies to grant combat advantage (that is, rogue-bait, and for everyone else a nice accuracy boost) once per encounter as a minor action. These are nice but not really gameplay-defining. On the other hand, most powers, and nearly all at-wills, get part of their effect from your secondary stat. You could try to support Intelligence and two other stats, but it’s 4e – you’re probably not going to do that.

The Psion’s powers name-drop parapsychological terms a bit more, with things like psychofeedback and the classic id insinuation. Their arsenal is full of interesting, stylish tricks, though some of them feel like things you might do once, at a climactic moment, but the time is never right to use them again (if you were a character in a novel or TV series, that is). Anyway, the Paragon Paths here are pretty cool – I’ve never really warmed to the Uncarnate, but the Cerulean Adept is a psychic who investigates and fights Lovecraftian phenomena, the Dreamwalker pretty much sells itself as far as I’m concerned, and for that matter so does the Time Bender. The only problem with the Time Bender is that it hangs on small temporal manipulations, not the big and dangerous stuff that you use to build time-travel stories.

Taken together, 4e doesn’t have that much room for psionics to feel like something really different in their mechanics, but they tried. Making good use of highly granular options requires more care and awareness than most classes. As a development from 3.5, only three of the seven psionic classes made the cut, and one of those was renamed in the process. The 4e Ardent has only a combat role in common with its predecessor, while the 4e Psion mostly drops Disciplines other than Psychokinesis and Telepathy (but see below). The Battlemind is a bit closer to the Psychic Warrior than the Divine Mind, as there are no explicit religious overtones in 4e. The writers continue to increase the focus on psionics as a cosmic response to or result of Far Realm intrusion, as mentioned. Let’s see what happens when they have a whole book to do nothing but deepen the story of psionics in D&D.


Psionic Power

Naturally, Psionic Power offers a new build for the Ardent, Battlemind, and Psion. The Psion brings back the Metacreativity Discipline with the Shaper build, much like the Conjuration build of the Wizard in Arcane Power. It’s not a freestanding build, but there’s also improved support for psychoportative powers, such as things that both teleport the psion and deal damage, or rearrange enemies to the psion’s liking. In general, the powers of this book are more complex than those of the PH3.

The Ardent’s new build is the Impetuous Ardent, which grants a bonus to damage rolls of opportunity attacks, a bonus to Endurance and Intimidate checks, and a power that grants a bonus to the team’s damage when the ardent becomes bloodied. The empathic theme of the PH3 Ardent continues here; the Ardent of 3.5 that gained insight from the tension between philosophies is no longer in evidence. It’s hard to avoid a comparison to the Bravura Warlord, leading by heedless courage. On the other hand, I love that the roleplaying notes suggest exploring some of the deeper drawbacks of playing an adventuring empath… such as feeling a lot of things die. (Right now, I’m well-disposed toward anything that makes me think of Sense8.)

The Battlemind adds the Harrier build, which is psychoportation plain and simple. It’s a fantastic solution for enemies that open the battle with ranged attacks, as it teleports the party’s defender into the midst of their ranks. There’s the obvious danger that this will separate the battlemind from the rest of the party too much to do them any good, but most enemies are probably thrown into chaos by a warrior showing up and locking down their ranged attackers.

The book has tons of sidebars with advice for roleplaying each psionic class and including psionic individuals and organizations in the setting. I love that there’s a chapter on how to fit psionics into Athas, Eberron, and Abeir-Toril, and write-ups for a ton of different psionic organizations. The only problem is that to do any of them justice, the DM needs to make them the centerpiece of a story or two. Even for something as secretive as a psionic order, retrofitting them into a campaign already in progress needs some thought. Still, if I had patience and need for such a thing, I’d pull up this text even for a non-4e campaign, because there are names and relationships here that I wouldn’t have to create for myself.

The thematic exploration of psionics in every possible context continues: further theories on why psionics exists, how each race interacts with psionics, and so on. It’s overwhelming in a kitchen-sink model, but for a setting with limited race and class options, Psionic Power winds up providing an edition-agnostic palette for a psionics-heavy campaign.

As you probably know, there is no final published version of the psion in 5e as of this writing. Instead, we have the first public-playtest draft of the Mystic, a framework class that will theoretically include all of the character archetypes we’ve come to expect for psionic characters.


More Tribality Articles You Might Enjoy


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