Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, we have come to the eighth and, for the time being, final article of the series on the history of psionics in D&D. In this case, we’re talking about a class that is still in an early, public-playtest state, but it’s also the first exploration of any particular scale of how 5e will present psionics in its settings. Because things could still change, I’ll also discuss my own thoughts on psionics and how it ought to feel.
(Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Dark Sun, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven)
Well, that’s certainly different… 5e doesn’t call them psions or psionicists, but mystics. I appreciate that 3.5’s and 4e’s psionic classes trended away from modern or science fiction flavor in their names and concepts, and “Mystic” pushes that even further. Mystic sounds like something that could be as common in a setting as wizards and druids, where (at least to my ears) the ardent, battlemind, and psion are all unusual names without a lot of supporting fiction, and thus suggest to me that they are, at most, still quite rare. There have been other class concepts in D&D’s history to take the name “Mystic,” but none of them rose to the level of enduring, popular classes from edition to edition, and I think it’s fine to re-task it.
The second fundamental change is that 5e intends to have only one class, containing all psionic archetypes within it – the subclass structure does the heavy lifting of differentiation. The playtest document only shows us five class levels and two subclass options (called Psionic Orders). Those two pretty handily cover a classic psion and a psychic warrior or battlemind.
Thirdly, we’re back to a vision of psionics that has almost nothing in common with magic, except that some psionic powers duplicate spells, and in fact are spells. This is pretty weird, but the text proposes that the mystic is tapping into the cosmic force of magic and causing a spell to occur. I wonder if the reverse will also prove to be possible – the creation of spells that temporarily grant or imitate psionic ability?
Anyway, let me start with the class’s baseline abilities:
- d8s for Hit Dice
- As with the Cleric and the Warlock, 5e treats the d8 as a center point, signaling enough durability for melee, without being wildly tougher than other back-line caster types.
- Only one proficient saving throw (Wisdom), by default – but wait, there’s a class feature to let you add another of your choice, which you can change out with a short or long rest.
- Danger. This class is an ideal one-level class dip to pick up a variable proficient saving throw. This is a big deal. I feel kind of dirty for really liking character concepts that include psionics as a sideline, such as Count Szurke.
- Since you can choose Dexterity or Constitution, this is only the second time a class has, in itself, granted proficiency in two primary saving throws (the other being the Rogue’s Slippery Mind feature, unless I’m forgetting something). Unlike Slippery Mind, this shows up at first level. On the other hand, Mystic abilities often target Intelligence saving throws, which is a welcome surprise.
- Pro tip: If you are an Awakened mystic, you pretty much always want Constitution so you can maintain Concentration, until you break down and spend a feat to take care of that.
- Two skills from a list that strongly suggest a “thinky” class.
- I’ll be curious to see whether knowledge of psionics falls under Arcana, Nature, Religion, or some new skill.
- Simple weapons, and up to medium armor proficiency; no shields.
- The number of Disciplines you know, the size of your Psi Point pool, and your per-round limit on psi point expenditure are all part of the base class.
- It’s still possible to have a “psychic warrior” archetype that has fewer psi points than a more classic “psion” archetype. (Scare quotes are here because inter-edition terminology is complicated.) You would just create the Battlemind as a subclass of Fighter, as a super-easy reskin of the Eldritch Knight.
- The Psionics ability itself, like the Spellcasting ability of spellcasting classes, is described here. Intelligence is the ability score for all use of psionics, so there’s a second class in the game with Int as a primary stat.
The playtest document shows two subclasses and names two more. The Order of the Awakened are your classic telepaths and clairvoyants, while the Order of the Immortal are psychic warriors or battleminds blending psychometabolic and (presumably) personal-range psychokinetic powers. Also listed are the Order of the Knife, who are clear reworks of the 3.5 Soulknife or Lurk, and probably all about some psychoportation; and the Order of the Invisible Hand, which is about as unsubtle of a telekinesis reference as has ever been penned. I like that they’re sticking to approximately-plausible late-medieval or early Enlightenment-era terminology here.
The Order of the Awakened, and the packet’s explanations of where psionics come from, embrace a particular explanation from 4e. It reads a little differently here, though – I love the hell out of Mage: the Awakening and its explanation that the Wise undergo Awakening when their souls cross the Abyss (which is more like D&D’s Far Realm than D&D’s Abyss) to reach the Supernal Realm. I’m a fan of this explanation of psionics, including its reference to Dark Sun.
So let’s check out these subclasses. Thus far, Orders grant features at first and third level; naturally we should expect to see another feature somewhere between 6th and 9th, a third between 9th and 14th, and a final feature at 14th or higher. We also see three Disciplines of each class, with a note that these are far from all that they intend to include in the final work.
A Discipline is a bundle of powers, one passive and three activated by spending psi points (Intellect Fortress is an exception to this structure). It almost feels like toggling over into a different subclass; especially for the Immortal, the impact on combat style is profound. It takes only a bonus action to switch between Disciplines – so they’ll have to be very careful about setting any other powers as bonus actions, or they’ll cause issues with the mystic’s action economy.
Order of the Awakened
Like I said, the Awakened are classic telepaths, with a side order of clairvoyance. Their core abilities are:
- Mind Thrust – which is a nice job of storing a cantrip and a currency-expending power in the same “slot,” because you can commit psi points before you roll to inflate the damage from 1d8 (free, basically a cantrip) all the way up to 6d8 (for five psi points; since you have to be fifth level to do that, we can compare that to a third-level spell).
- The number of psi points you can spend scales with mystic level, and I assume that it will keep scaling up to 9th level, with some alternate mechanic for the psionic equivalent of 6th-9th level spells, just as warlocks have Mystic Arcana.
- I can’t imagine they’d let mystics “go nova” and spend all of their psi points on a smaller number of top-end effects. It looks like player freedom, but it damages the flow of play for everyone else, as the mystic starts pushing for a long rest…
- Yeah, um, Mind Thrust doesn’t attack AC. It doesn’t force a saving throw. It attacks the target’s Intelligence score. That’s… really interesting, but what the hell just happened to the carefully tuned math? Almost nothing in the game (Empyreans may be about it?) has an Intelligence over 20, and a lot of things have an 8 or less. I can’t seriously believe that this will survive to final release.
- This is also one of the only cases in the game where you set your currency expenditure before you know anything about the attack roll or saving throw outcome, and all currency is lost on a bad outcome, and there is no effect on a miss. It’s one of the odd consequences of making a cantrip that inflates to be a per-long-rest or slot-like effect. In this it resembles the augmented at-wills of 4e, but psi points are per-long-rest rather than per-short-rest in 5e, so it changes matters.
- The note that you only need to perceive the creature, not see it, is important, as we’ll see in one of the Disciplines.
- The number of psi points you can spend scales with mystic level, and I assume that it will keep scaling up to 9th level, with some alternate mechanic for the psionic equivalent of 6th-9th level spells, just as warlocks have Mystic Arcana.
- Psychic Mind, or “Did we mention all the telepathy?” Interestingly, this does require sight, and has a shorter range than Mind Thrust.
- Basically all of the Conquering Mind Discipline hangs on this feature. Between Psychic Mind and Conquering Mind, social challenges are a walk in the park. I’ll come back to this.
- Object Reading is a very powerful mystery-solving tool. Got a murder weapon? Find me a mystic and we’ll learn who last held the bloody knife. (Whether the mystic’s word on it is sufficient varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, I am sure.) If you get six seconds of access to an object, you can spy on anyone around it for the next 24 hours. I’m sure no wacky hijinks will come out of this! This probably needs a psi point cost at minimum, or will at my table.
The three Disciplines currently available for the Awakened are Conquering Mind, Intellect Fortress, and Third Eye. I appreciate Mind Thrust and Intellect Fortress, as re-used names from previous editions that still work pretty well in the new naming aesthetic.
Conquering Mind is custom-designed to clean house in any social encounter. Advantage on Charisma checks starts them off right, followed by the ability to extract truthful answers to questions (it is incredibly hard to preserve mysteries with this power in the game, as it is currently written), utterly convince someone of a single statement for five minutes, and take control of someone’s actions for a round. All of these force Intelligence saves, and a failure stops the mystic from reusing that power on that person until the mystic takes a long rest. The Int save is the only thing that might keep a social encounter challenging; the cost on Exacting Query is so low that by 5th level, the mystic can work a whole room. Playing a mystic courtier who pulls all the strings with Conquering Mind sounds like fun to me, and is thematically consonant with what I’d expect for a telepath, but based on one session of seeing it in the hands of a second-level mystic, it leaves no room for NPCs that lie to the PCs, even with lies of omission.
One solution would be to give psionic powers some kind of manifestation signature, as they had in 3.5, so that you can’t use your powers in public while remaining completely unknown. Restricting the questions that the mystic can ask is another – Spout Lore and Discern Realities in Dungeon World are great examples of how to offer information-gathering without granting carte blanche. Even better is the Bard’s Charming and Open move, because the questions resemble things that a psychic surface scan might learn.
Intellect Fortress is an oddity in that it is only its passive power. It’s possible that this is an error, but more likely that this is the intended Discipline for any Awakened mystic who is tossing off Mind Thrusts in combat. At the cost of a reaction, it imposes disadvantage on ranged or melee attacks when the mystic sees the attacker – which means this is a great defense against another mystic’s Mind Thrust. If you get hit anyway, you splash some damage back on the attacker. On the other hand… you’ve now spent your reaction, so any further attacks in the course of the round are unhindered; it also isn’t a very convincing amount of damage. This probably needs a little more oomph if it has to stand alone throughout the mystic’s career. I’ll be surprised, though, if there’s not a power within this Discipline, or a freestanding Discipline, called Tower of Iron Will that lets you do the same thing, but for all of your allies in a radius, at some kind of cost.
Third Eye looks so frickin’ innocuous, but… dayum, dat Tremorsense. As has been pointed out elsewhere (thanks, Facebook folks!), the mystic can stand on one side of a closed door, activate tremorsense, and use Mind Thrust to kill things on the other side of the door, and those things have no particular indication of where the attacks are coming from. Truesight at fifth level is also pretty boss, and means that with a mystic in the party, mysteries involving disguised rakshasas or whatever are non-starters even quite early in the game. In principle, it’s good to give players the tools to gather lots of information. In practice, it sucks when there are almost no available ways to keep secrets, and it places a much greater writing burden on the DM.
The Awakened mystic promises to be pretty good in a fight, but completely unstoppable in a city. I’m seeing a lot of folks online already declaring that they’ll never allow a mystic at their table, which is a shame, but I shudder in dread at the thought of writing a mystery with enough layers of misdirection that it thwarts a mystic for long. (Before arguing this point, please remember that a trick that works once is tedious the second time you use it, if its sole story purpose is to de-fang information-gathering powers.)
Order of the Immortal
The Immortal is what 3.x calls the Psychic Warrior, and 4e calls the Battlemind. Like every student of military history, my first thought was of the Persian Immortals and the various units named in reference to them, up to and including the Unsullied of A Song of Ice and Fire fame. I think it is entirely fair to be terrified of an army of 10,000 of these guys. The Immortal mystic has almost no use for Intelligence, and can focus on Strength and Constitution.
- Durable Mind keeps them from having to make Con saves for Concentration every time they take damage. This would be a good call if all it did was speed up play, since this is a subclass intended to get punched in the face for a living.
- Martial Order covers for the absence of martial weapon and shield proficiency in the base mystic class. All good here. It does slightly sweeten the pot for multi-classing, as you still gain this ability even if Mystic isn’t your first class level.
- Psionic Regeneration is a doozy. As written, Immortal mystics are remarkably well named, because they can’t bleed to death unless you can take them from zero failed death saves to three failed death saves between any two of their actions. Whenever they are at or below 50% hit points, they regenerate hit points equal to half their level. I’m predicting a nerf to this ability, even something as simple as “this does not work if you are unconscious.”
- Beyond that, it’s also a lot of extra bookkeeping load on the mystic’s player to add hit points at the end of every turn, as an always-active ability when at or below their bloodied value.
- The point of this ability is a good one – mystics have d8s for Hit Dice, but Immortals are supposed to be competitive with d10 and d12 HD classes on front-line durability.
- What they don’t have is Extra Attack as a fifth-level feature, which you might expect if you’re thinking of them as cognates of the ranger or paladin; I assume Extra Attack will show up as a class feature later on, and they won’t just rely on their Disciplines to tinker with their action economy.
The three Disciplines open to the Immortal are Celerity, Iron Durability, and Psionic Weapon. I know they’ve used “celerity” as a super-speed power in previous editions, but in combination with “Immortal,” I wondered for a moment if they were chasing a Vampire: the Masquerade reference here.
Celerity is battlefield-scale super-speed. While we wait for the Order of the Knife, Celerity is a good way to play a mystic as a melee skirmisher. The awkward part – which is also the only thing that keeps it balanced – is that all of the things that would blow this wide open are in other Disciplines. There is some horrifyingly good multi-class synergy here – getting to turn your bonus action into a regular action up to five times a day might be enough to make almost anyone think about a five-level class dip into Immortal Mystic. Mystic 5/Fighter X, though… three actions in one round, and by Fighter 11, three attacks per round become nine. When it comes to “how do I want to spend my psi points?”, it’s hard to take Seize the Initiative seriously once Surge of Action is on the table.
Iron Durability is the mitigation aspect of the Immortal. It offers one point of AC all the time, to make up for sticking a tank-type with medium armor, and a self-healing action that means short rests are useless to the Immortal. On top of that, there’s also a shield-like (the spell, that is) AC-boosting reaction, which is missing any signifier of how long the AC boost lasts. “Beginning of your next turn” is the likely answer. They can also spend 5 psi points to gain one elemental resistance for an hour with Iron Resilience. It’s good that this power lasts, because a dedicated tank mystic is going to be dumping lots of psi points on the AC booster. I wonder if Iron Resilience automatically ends when you switch Disciplines, or if you’re intended to activate it and let it run as part of your stance-dancing ways?
Psionic Weapon is here just in case you were playing a fighter and thinking of not picking up five levels of Mystic. Sure, it’s nice that the Discipline’s passive power is a magic weapon, even though it is yet another case in which monsters having immunity to nonmagical weapons is meaningless. You can also turn your weapon attack into a saving throw for half damage with 1 psi point. This is basically fine, since very few NPCs have Evasion, and even Dex save proficiency is rare-ish for them.
No, Lethal Strike is the big kahuna of Psionic Weapon. Lethal Strike is functionally the same as Divine Smite, but it scales faster – base weapon damage + 5d10 takes the mystic five levels, as compared to the paladin’s thirteen levels to reach base weapon damage + 5d8. It would probably be worth taking five levels of Mystic for any fighter, ranger, paladin, barbarian, or melee cleric just to have five chances a day to deal massive damage. Like a divine smite – and unlike Mind Thrust – the expenditure for Lethal Strike is declared after the successful attack roll. I certainly hope to see a nerf to this power in the next playtest document. The game absolutely does not need someone outclassing the paladin for spike damage.
Finally, there’s Augmented Weapon, which boosts the passively-granted magic weapon up to +3 for a minute. It’s fine, but you shouldn’t spent psi points on this unless you know you’re going to spend the rest of that minute in a different Discipline.
Let’s be honest, the Immortal is an egregious example of power creep, but then that was true for a lot of iterations in the original playtest packet cycle. That’s just numbers, though – the more important part is that the themes are compelling and the subclass’s gameplay loop looks like a fun puzzle to solve, round by round. It’s ideal for players who like to manage a lot of information in gameplay and analyze many different possibilities – all the more so as they release more Disciplines and higher-level powers. It may be the most 4e-friendly thing I’ve seen in the game so far.
My Ideal Psionics
I like a whole lot of the underlying ideas of the Mystic. I think they’re on a good track. However, now that I’ve spent two months or so thinking about psionics for at least 2,000 words each week, I have some further items on my personal acceptance-criteria list.
Unlike magical mind control, where I’ve accepted some of the Vancian conceits of spells that do exactly this one thing and don’t vary from that, telepathy needs to feel like you’re really getting into your target’s thoughts, navigating their neural net (pardon this piece of aggressively modern lingo), and looking for weak points. 2e’s three-fingers-of-contact system had all kinds of problems; taking three rounds to do the first useful thing to your target is just not okay. On the other hand, it created a sense of dueling that would be hard to regain for two Awakened mystics, or any other psion since the Complete Psionics Handbook.
Mitigating this somewhat, I think there are basically three separate use-cases that matter, and making them more separate might help. 5e acknowledges that social and combat gameplay are separate pillars, and therefore flow differently. I’m drawing on a broad impression of the supporting fiction of psychic characters.
- In social scenes, telepaths often care deeply about going unnoticed and gathering information from their targets. If things go badly here, one of the other two use-cases may be an immediate result. On the other hand, six-second action rounds aren’t important; if it takes three or more actions to infiltrate a target’s mind, that’s fine as long as it’s not jamming up other players’ participation.
- In combat scenes against non-psychic characters, telepaths care about quick-and-dirty, brute-force control or misdirection. Most of the time, you are planning the opponent’s timely demise, so going unnoticed is awfully low priority. It’s okay for attacks to fail outright, but you don’t really want a successful action to be pure setup for your next action. If there’s neither damage nor condition inflicted upon the enemy, it’s only too likely that an ally will finish that target before the mystic does the Cool Thing they’ve been working toward.
- This is alternately known as the Earthdawn “I weave a thread” problem.
- In combat scenes against psychic characters, you’re engaging in a duel against a potential equal. The opponent is trained in defense against the dark arts your powers, and this should feel like a duel where no one else on the field matters for the time being – ideally each side’s non-psychic members are duking it out while the psychic combatants do their own thing. There should be a heavy use of reactions that start with “when you come under psychic attack…”
Given the structure of Disciplines, as long as you have a decent passive defense against unexpected attack, there’s no reason that each of these use-cases couldn’t be separate Disciplines, though making someone wait until fifth level just to cover these three bases is a bit much.
I think that psionics – and especially telekinesis – needs something resembling a stunt system for creative implementation more than other D&D supernatural powers do. As mentioned above, Vancian magic presupposes that a spell is a discrete object that does exactly what it does, and that’s it. It’s not a style you see in a lot of other source fiction, though it has become common since Gygax adopted it. The structure of Disciplines in 5e – suites of powers with augmentable throughput – is a step in the right direction, but I’d like to see continuing emphasis on keeping psionic abilities flexible – in much the way that a Battlemaster fighter’s Superiority is flexible, maybe. Avoiding option overload is tough, but some broad guidance for stunt (that is, one-off, not likely to be repeated) applications of abilities goes a long way – as WotC did in the 4e DMG’s excellent Page 42.
The default story of mystics should give them reasons to be in conflict with one another. I’ve mentioned psychic dueling repeatedly, because I think it’s one of the most compelling parts of the concept – as with dueling wizards and, you know, actual dueling. One-on-one fights, especially while the rest of the party looks on, are not where D&D shines, because each individual action is usually simple and only becomes interesting in the context of each opposing party’s collective actions. Beyond dueling, though, I want easy story-based reasons for mystics to be in conflict, just as wizards have their desire to seize one another’s grimoires. This was one of the more compelling elements of OD&D psionics, and I’d like to see it emphasized.
I’ve also been playing a bit of Apocalypse World lately, and the psychic maelstrom that is one of AW’s default setting features fascinates me. I’d like to see various classes have threats they are best suited to contend with – and in some cases, they are the only ones even aware of the threat. Memetic viruses, psychic maelstroms… these kinds of things could add a lot to a campaign as long as either they take up very little table time (only the mystic cares, and it informs the mystic’s gameplay without blocking any of it) or everyone at the table has a way to contribute to success.
The most important item: if I’m going to allow psionics into a game, it must not ruin mysteries. Ruin is a pretty loaded word, though, and always draws argument. What I mean by that is that if psionics, especially at low to mid-levels, lets you:
- Skip multiple investigation scenes
- Negate tension (by automatically succeeding something that would otherwise be challenging, or by having no consequences for failure where otherwise there would be some)
- Become immune to something that should be a threat (another form of negating tension)
…then there’s a bad problem, especially if the cost to the mystic is minimal. What the game needs is an alternate challenge, not an avoided challenge. For example, if you can either have a mystic use psychometry to analyze something, or you can go to a library to learn about it, that’s fine; the more the mystic avoids a cost of time, the more the mystic should face a risk or pay a cost in some other way (such as blowback from the psychic maelstrom, maybe). A lot of the problems are mitigated if the characters need to provide proof that can stand up in a medieval court (whatever that might require), and a mystic’s testimony about what they have plucked from the mind of the accused is not valid evidence. I realize most people don’t find the least bit of interest in evidentiary procedure in their adventure gaming, but I’m the other type.
Also, a random idea – I was watching Crocodile Dundee the other day. The movie spends a lot of time building up the mystique of the Aborigines and strongly implies that they are psychic (a point that it also undercuts for comedy). Psionics coming from the self rather than other cosmic forces fits really well with the ranger’s theme of total self-reliance, and combines into a theme of self-discovery. Now, as every schoolchild knows, OD&D rangers were slightly psychic for some reason, so I wouldn’t mind seeing that theme brought back and clarified into a coherent part of the class’s story. Um, without being super racist or otherwise offensive.
This brings me to the end of my series on psionics in D&D. There are other books, especially third-party material, that are worth picking up as fodder, and Eberron did some very cool things to fit psionics into the setting (psionics as pseudo-dream magic). WotC is trying more than ever to make psionics palatable for standard settings, while maintaining its own flavor and connection to its past. They certainly won’t succeed to everyone’s satisfaction, but they’ve made the best effort yet in forty years of D&D psionics. (Even if the mechanics aren’t rock-solid yet.)
I’ll be taking a break from the History of the Classes, though I will still have a new article for you every Thursday. I deeply appreciate the support I’ve gotten from readers! Next week’s article will be an introduction to live-action roleplaying for the tabletop gamer. Remember, if you have questions for my Tribal Knowledge column, I’d love to hear them!