Dark Sun Psionics
In today’s History of the Classes article, I’m examining Dark Sun’s use of psionics in AD&D Second Edition. As far as I know, it’s the only 2e setting – out of the glorious variety of 2e settings – that deeply embraces psionics and makes it a centerpiece of the setting. My resources are the revised Dark Sun Campaign Setting (the one reworked to fit Skills and Powers), Dragon Kings, and The Will and the Way. I also have a copy of the 4e Dark Sun Campaign Setting on the shelf, but I plan to fold that into my article on 4e.
(Part One, Part Two, Part Three)
Dark Sun Campaign Setting
Psionics are all-pervasive in Athas, as “almost every human, demi-human, and humanoid in the world is at least a wild talent.” Where other settings make arcane and divine magic the ubiquitous force and the source of fantastic elements, Dark Sun uses psionics. Preservers and defilers – the wizards of the setting – can expect to be hated, hunted, and misunderstood for what they do, but law in the Athasian city-states and tribes recognizes that psionics are a simple extension of the user, and treat them as such, as detailed in The Will and the Way.
Psionics are important to the people of Athas because it is the one extraordinary source of power that does not make them beholden to something outside themselves. Preservers and defilers draw power from the land, druids serve spirits of the land, elemental clerics have a pact with their element, and templars serve their sorcerer-kings. As every part of society in Athas is based in desperation, having something of your own that no one else can take away is a big deal. Since wild talents are random and as common among NPCs as PCs, it also increases threat – anyone, and nearly anything, you meet could have an ace in the hole. I don’t know how many Dark Sun DMs actually plan out NPCs to include wild talents, but the rules certainly support doing so.
The only major rules change between the revised Dark Sun and Skills and Powers is the change in the level caps for demi-humans and the permitted varieties of multi-classing. It’s a good thing, too, because it would be an awfully short campaign to start at third level (as all single-classed Dark Sun PCs do) and stop advancing as early as 7th level. Allowing all races to advance without limit as psionicists, though… it’s downright blasphemous in 2e design theory. I love it.
The Will and the Way
This book is the centerpiece of Dark Sun psionics – obvious once you understand that the people of Athas call psionics “the Way,” and the capacity to use psionics “the Will.” It’s a splatbook solely intended to expand on the Complete Psionics Handbook. It includes additional setting material, psionicist kits, additional powers, a significant expansion of psionic combat, and… wow, look at that, it’s a huge new subsystem for psionic research.
I’m going to keep this relatively light (Editor’s note: this statement is false), but take it as read that The Will and the Way is a deep well of psionic content that goes far beyond the Complete Psionics Handbook. (The Will and the Way pre-dates Skills and Powers, and is compatible only with extensive work.) The setting material establishes psionics as both the tool of the greatest villains of Athas, the sorcerer-kings, and as a militantly-neutral faction in the war for dominion over Athas, in the form of the Order (also discussed at length in Dragon Kings). The Order studies psionics for its own sake, recruits psionicists who advance to a certain point, and eliminates psionicists who would take sides in any conflict over ambitions or ideals. I’m pretty sure the designers see them as antagonists, since I doubt that many PCs get on board with stopping all engagement with the world once they reach 21st level as a Psionicist. As much as anything, the Order is an in-character forced-retirement mechanic, for psionicists only.
There are also write-ups for various psionicists and psionic organizations found in Athas, which should be easy to drop into play as-written.
The Psionicist kits are great and all, I guess, but man do I not miss kits. 5e’s approach handles the concepts here so very cleanly, with Backgrounds and subclasses. The Sensei is especially egregious, as it’s a 2e attempt at a Vow of Poverty, but with extra arrogance. Though it talks a good game about the Sensei being dangerous in combat, the benefits-to-hindrances tradeoff is not remotely worth it.
The additional powers are possibly the best thing in the book. They extrapolate wildly from the baseline of the Complete Psionics Handbook, patching holes in whole Disciplines or offering something that a psionicist would obviously want to do that wasn’t explicitly covered before. Psychoportation gets a lot scarier, that’s for sure. I like what they introduce, but with a limited number of sciences and devotions known, adding 60 new options increases the competition for each slot – a typical content-expansion problem. I find the powers of this book more flavorful and compelling than those of the Complete Psionics Handbook, since they aren’t stuck covering the basics and can get into weirder things. It’s a mother lode for idea mining, even if you’re not specifically dealing with psionics.
Each Discipline also gains a High Science, a single super-powerful science. A character can only learn the High Science of her primary Discipline, and only after reaching 10th level and performing extensive research. It’s also a reminder that even though most people report seldom playing campaigns past 10th level or so, TSR published huge amounts of epic-level content – in fact, that’s the whole point of Dragon Kings.
Psionic combat gets a minor overhaul: a five-by-five grid of attack modes and defense modes was no longer complicated enough! That’s not really fair; the point of this is that the attack and defense modes aren’t all that evocative unless you’ve already brought a lot of your own preconceptions to the table. The overhaul divides each attack mode into four Harbingers and each defense mode into four Constructs. Harbingers and Constructs are specific mental images of attack or defense. For example, the Templar is a Harbinger of ego whip: “Signifying betrayal, the templar can destroy the most powerful mind from within.” Visually evocative! I like this development.
The 20 x 20 chart lookup has individual modifiers for each Harbinger/Construct intersection. There may be more to this than I’m grasping, but it seems to me that it serves to dilute the potential to make good or bad decisions, since any choice could be good, bad, or in-between depending on the unknown-until-too-late action of the opponent. There are some great ideas getting tossed around here, but I think the system needs each player to present some information to the other, as a basis for at least narrowing down some options. I might introduce the local environment as a third-party condition influencing both attacker and defender, in a sense comparable to the community cards of Texas hold ‘em. Anyway, design thoughts for some other day.
Research! Man, would I love to see a meaty research system in a tabletop game, especially if it achieved meaty without being fiddly. The system presented here has a good variety of things the psionicist can attempt. The nature of the effort leaves something to be desired, as it amounts to many months of enforced downtime once you begin, and if the DM forces encounters upon you for two days in a row, that’s that – all time spent so far is wasted. As long as you have another character in your character tree (remember, Dark Sun players create four characters at the start of play and can cycle them in for adventures), an extended downtime isn’t a dealbreaker.
Each research action has a base time commitment, generally in tens of days. After each ten-day period of meditation, the psionicist rolls a modified saving throw versus spells (why spells? No obvious reason), and really needs to not fail three times in a row, until they’ve completed the time commitment of the research, in ten-day spans that end in successful saving throws. This is basically fine, though the rules for avoiding encounters raise some questions as to what the Dark Sun creators see as best-practices DMing.
With these rules, psionicists can train for level advancement, boost an ability score (but only for psionic stat purposes), permanently modify an existing power they know, create a new power, or learn a High Science. Training for level advancement is only a useful option if finding a faster means of training is not available, but it’s good to include it. Boosting an ability score is remarkably difficult, but… well, there aren’t a lot of other ways to do something like that in 2e, short of magic items that probably don’t exist in Athas in the first place. If you’re serious about being a high-level psionicist, think of this as a time obligation that lets you spend some time playing your alts.
Being allowed to permanently modify a power is a frankly shocking proposition, if you’re used to thinking in rigid game balance. This relies heavily on DM adjudication, but there are a few standard modification options as well: reducing PSP cost, increasing range or effect area, increasing effect values (i.e., damage dice), or improving the power score. I kind of wish there were some explicit limit on the number of modifications one can apply to a single power, but the rules decide to trust the DM to scale up difficulty in an unspecified way for additional modifications. Improving the power score is one of the big winners of this system, as it expands the “crit” range as well as boosting the chance of success.
Creating a new power is cool, but having to leave a science or devotion slot open because you plan to create a new power is not great – it asks players to plan ahead for the whole of the level at the time they gain their current level. It’s much easier if you’re 21st level or higher, of course, as your available power slots escalate wildly.
If you can afford the base time commitment of 200 days and can reasonably expect to pass your saving throws versus spells after a -4 penalty, you should hasten to learn your primary Discipline’s High Science. That is all.
Okay, this is a lot more detail than I intended to write, but the research system is an interesting window into the designers’ thoughts. I can only imagine this system is for 9th level and higher psionicists – at the same levels, fighters are gathering the first of their eventually vast armies, wizards are presumably making magic items and researching spells, rogues of all kinds are establishing their perfectly legitimate business enterprises, and so on. Considering how little psionics otherwise scales by level compared to other kinds of magic and other class abilities, it sort of patches a hole there, too.
This book’s title absolutely could have been “Epic Level Handbook: Dark Sun Edition.” It more or less treats the first seventeen levels of play as the admissions exam for the big leagues. It has two things to contribute on psionics: the Order that I mentioned above first saw print here, and there’s a huge list of additional powers. The powers of Dragon Kings are often clever ideas that it’s hard to imagining needing to use often, but once you’re trying to figure out how to spend another 3-5 devotions per level… who cares?
Also, if you’re a defiler/psionicist, you can cast dragon metamorphosis and, well, metamorphose into a dragon. I mean, yes, it makes you an unredeemable villain and also a creature of bestial intelligence for an extended time, but… dragon!
In the bitter and desperate world of Dark Sun, psionics alone offer power without deep moral ramifications. Psionics – and every other decision the setting’s designers made – set Athas apart from all of D&D’s other settings, but psionics do a lot to sell that. Dark Sun doesn’t change the essence of what psionics is, but it adds depth to how people interact with it, once it’s a fact of life. It is a shorthand for spiritual presence, as many groups look to powerful psionicists as leadership figures. Or maybe telepaths decided they were going to be in charge today and forever after, and made everyone else decide that too – hard to say.
If you’re playing a non-Dark Sun 2e campaign with psionics, you owe it to yourself to pick up The Will and the Way for the ideas it offers. The rest of the material is safe to skip – but Dragon Kings should go back on your list if you’re DMing an epic-level 2e campaign, because its expansion of campaign scope is worth imitating.
Next time in History of the Classes: Third Edition Psionics!