In last week’s History of the Classes, I looked at the Psionics Handbook and the Expanded Psionics Handbook, the core psionics rules for 3.0 and 3.5, respectively. This week I’m moving on to later developments within 3.x: one official WotC expansion, Complete Psionic; and one third-party alternate vision, The Psychic’s Handbook. (Yes, there’s a lot more psionic content for 3.x than that in circulation. I have to draw the line somewhere, and this arbitrary line is as good as any.)
This book, from April of 2006, adds three new psionic classes into the mix, bringing the total (from official WotC releases, anyway) up to seven. These classes address the major party-role gaps of the four classes seen in the EPH. Specifically, support for a psionic healer is sorely lacking – you can transfer damage from your ally to yourself, and then heal yourself, but that’s too expensive and slow to really work for the party’s main healer. Also, such a character is so vulnerable in the round between the empathic transfer and the body adjustment (having absorbed a pile of damage) that it’s only too likely the party’s healer will keel over right when they need him most. Secondly, there’s no power-using rogue or skirmisher – a conceptual midpoint between the psychic warrior and the soulknife.
Complete Psionic fills those gaps… oddly. The Lurk is a pretty sane vision of a psi-rogue.
- It has the same psionic potential as a psychic warrior (up to 6th-level powers).
- It has a unique class mechanic called Lurk Augments – a per-day currency that activates a list of seventeen options (two at first level, two more at third, and so on up to 20th).
- Some of these are very, very good, but getting them there requires psionic power, and on a miss both the per-day Lurk Augment and the power points are gone. Harsh, though that design was customary in 3.x and only fell out of favor thereafter, I think.
- Broadly, the effects look like damage kickers, debuffs, power drains, and invulnerability workaround. Some of them are strikingly outside of existing psionic theme, such as Stygian weapon.
- A psionic sneak attack, which is to say a sneak attack that also requires psionic focus.
- As a primary source of damage, this is pretty fragile – if you’re hit with a focus-breaking effect (admittedly rare), you should seriously consider spending your next action regaining focus. This puts a much greater weight on psionic focus than it initially seemed intended to bear.
- The rules point out that feats that expend psionic focus are a build trap, though that honestly needs to be shouted from the rooftops for players with lesser levels of system mastery.
- Not a whole lot of skill points, though Int is a primary ability score. Traps-and-locks functionality are off the menu, which makes me sad in roguish types set up to be assassins.
Lurks are skirmishers with a complicated approach to building a pool of damage dice. They partially work around the Rogue’s major weaknesses (things that are immune to sneak attacks), and have some rude things they can do even to things they can’t sneak attack, but they’re rogues that can run out of rogue juice, because just about everything operates on one of their two per-day currency limits. That’s a tough row to hoe, in terms of figuring out good tactical gameplay. On the other hand, a psionic assassin that flits from shadow to shadow and leaves creatively finalized bodies in his wake is a concept that I get behind in a big way.
The “healer” role shows up in the Ardent class, and to a much lesser degree the Divine Mind. The Ardent isn’t as capable of a healer as a cleric, as touch of health is very poor emergency healing, from the brink is even worse, and only their top-end mend wounds power gets into large amounts of healing output.
Let’s unpack this class:
- The Ardent uses Wisdom as its primary stat, and gains the same number of power points as a psion.
- Ardents resemble clerics in other ways as well – tiny number of skill points, tiny list of class skills, simple weapons only, heavy armor and shields proficiency, +3/4 Base Attack Bonus progression.
- In that context, the d6 Hit Die seems stingy.
- The Ardent gains Mantles, which grant a minor ability as well as a power list to learn from. Mantles are very similar to clerical domains in this way, but there is no Ardent “general” power list – their list is strictly whatever their mantles give them, starting with two mantles and eventually building up to six. Each mantle offers a number of different powers, generally around eight or so, with some outliers in each direction.
- The only real problem with the Mantle structure is the forgettable bonuses of the mantle benefits. Their fundamental function is destined to show up again in 5e’s playtest document for Mystics (which is to say psions). Stick with me, it’ll be a few more weeks before I discuss this in depth.
The Mantle format means that two ardents might be quite a lot different, though there’s a good chance that they trend closer together as they advance, because their choice of mantles may have to overlap.
Thematically, ardents are pretty odd – the mantles represent philosophical engagement, a sort of structuring of thought that opens the way to psionic powers. Psions with a crutch of formalized thinking, maybe, that opens up powers you can’t get any other way.
Finally, there’s the divine mind, and if you care about general psionic themes, this class is not for you – it radically violates the essential nature of what psionic power does by equating it with the ability to channel divine energy. If the Ardent is psionics + philosophy, the Divine Mind is (philosophy + entity = worship) + psionics. Which, maybe appropriately, makes them good at other things, but pretty crummy at psionics.
- The Divine Mind uses Wisdom as their psionic ability score, but their psionics are so limited that they should probably focus on Strength.
- d10 Hit Die: a melee combatant shalt thou be.
- If the Ardent looks like a psionic pseudo-cleric in its skills and proficiencies, the Divine Mind is the psionic pseudo-paladin. More class skills, but no more skill points; martial weapon proficiency in addition to heavy armor and shields. Fortitude and Will as good saves. +3/4 BAB progression is a minor hurdle in primary-combatant status.
- Divine Minds also use Mantles, and eventually get three of them. In addition to the functionality that Ardents get from Mantles, Divine Minds gain an aura effect. The radius of the aura scales with level, out to 50 feet at 19th The effects of the auras are minor, fiddly bonuses for the most part, but at least you can eventually run three of your mantle auras simultaneously.
- In addition to the auras of your mantles, you can choose from three other general-use auras – attack, defense, and perception. Attack and defense are better than a lot of the mantle-specific auras, and the attack aura in particular makes up for the shortfall in the divine mind’s BAB.
- Cycling between auras takes time, but the required action becomes smaller as you advance. It looks like a much bigger benefit than it is.
- Divine Minds get Divine Grace, rewarding them for whatever ability score they could spare for Charisma. Since they get no other benefit from Charisma, I’m guessing this isn’t much.
- Divine Minds get their first psionic powers at 5th level, and scale up to a measly 62 power points at 20th level (plus ability score adjustment). They are limited to powers of 6th level or lower, and only ever learn a total of nine powers.
Taken together, Divine Minds are psionic warlords (or marshals, as 3.x calls them). They don’t have a supply of feats to make them great melee brutes, but they can do pretty well for themselves. The divine/psionic blend doesn’t really gel in my imagination, and a brief survey of fan responses on the internet suggests that I am not alone here. It’s not hard to imagine some rework of this class concept showing up as a Mystic subclass in 5e at some point, but I hope they’ll hone the archetype’s thematic point.
The new feats and prestige classes also do weird things with psionic theme. It’s not surprising to see mind flayer references all over the place – but feats that make you part mind flayer, that’s just frickin’ weird. They don’t reproduce like mammals in D&D canon… so even a hint of how this came to be would be nice. (I love the idea that I saw in the Giant in the Playground forum – since mind flayers are actually from the distant future, they should really be called Illithid Progenitor feats.) I like that there are Host Feats to support kalashtar from Eberron, and other psychically-possessed characters, but their effects are markedly underwhelming, and don’t do much to develop a character’s story.
The core theme of psionic characters is that they’re drawing on their own developed power – it’s what sets them apart from other spellcasting types. They don’t rely on any external power or entity to function. Until we get to Complete Psionic, with the Divine Mind and several of the prestige classes. I can turn a blind eye to power creep in a book released just a few years before the official sunset of WotC’s support for 3.5, but I can’t let inconsistency in theme go. I’m fine with everything about the Storm Disciple, for example, except for making it psionic. Illumine Souls are the serious offenders, though – a connection to the Positive Energy Plane is a really weird decision, even for something intended for soulknives. On the other hand, the point of 3.5’s Complete series is character concept blends. Psionics for non-majors, one might say.
The Psychic’s Handbook
Far a completely different vision of an approach to psionic power, we have the Psychic, created by Steve Kenson and published by Green Ronin under the OGL. It nominally shares thematic space with the psion from the EPH, but has next to nothing in common mechanically, and doesn’t have any legacy elements from a previous edition to bring forward (as compared to, say, attack and defense modes that have persisted since the first article in my series). The Psychic seems a lot less like a master of psychic powers than the psion, as the class follows a skill-based structure, and almost everything has another die roll to pass in order to take effect.
- The Psychic receives a hearty six skill points per level, but those skill points also have to cover all of her psychic skills, of which there are forty-five.
- Twenty psychic skills use Wisdom, twelve use Intelligence, eleven use Charisma, and two do not use an ability score. Your ability score assignments at character creation are as important, or more important, than anything else you’ll do.
- To be fair, I guess a really good Int partially covers every other sin, because skill points. It definitely means that an Int build is more forgiving than a Wis or Cha build.
- They receive the Psychic Ability feat as a bonus feat at first level.
- Over the course of twenty levels, they receive eight additional bonus feat slots that may only be spent on psychic feats.
- Many psychic feats grant in-class access to a psychic skill, but you could pick up just one feat worth of psychic skills and (if you chose well) have plenty to do in combat, and plenty of other things worth spending skill points on.
- Simple weapon proficiency; no armor or shields. (Since leather armor carries no non-proficiency penalty whatsoever, the sample 1st-level psychic wears leather – there’s no Arcane Spell Failure to worry about.)
- d6 Hit Die. You’ll need those hit points, and a decent Con, because you have to soak up nonlethal damage as Strain to use psychic abilities.
- +3/4 BAB. That’s a surprising move, considering how little else the class has going on combat-side.
As you see, the class itself has no “features” other than providing more picks from the rest of the book. There’s nothing wrong with a stripped-down chassis approach, but it does put more emphasis on system mastery. It contrasts notably with the prestige classes, which are all features and no new choice points. (It’s fair to say that all fire-starter psychics have more in common than all psychics.)
The throughput available from psychic skills and psychic feats is pretty cool, though it’s hard to compare any of this to the performance of any other D&D classes. (The mechanical similarity to the Fighter notwithstanding.) Don’t play a psychic for raw damage; it’s possible to get your every-round damage output up to 6d6 or so at high levels, but that is not an efficient lifestyle choice. Even fire-starters – their damage output is okay, but their other abilities are why you’re here.
The skills cover the minimum acceptance criteria of parapsychology-style psychics really well. There aren’t a ton of new ideas rolling around there, but that’s another way to say that this text has a death-grip on its supporting fiction, and I can respect that. The book’s guidance for running storylines about psychics, building psychic stuff into your setting, and paranormal phenomena tosses out some nice spins on traditional horror and paranormal-thriller tropes.
The comparative unreliability and lesser output of psychic powers – and the adaptability of psychic powers to basically all caster-like tasks – suggests that the best place for this class is a campaign where it’s not in competition with clerics, wizards, and so on. It belongs instead in a campaign where it is the only class with paranormal powers – there might be fighters, rogues, and barbarians, but the psychic covers for everyone else, including the monk. In that campaign model, I’d add in skill points, additional class skills, and bonus feats as occasional rewards for adventures, because they’re such a useful currency to all of those classes.
Well… these two works have nothing in common. One is a development on the foundation of an earlier book, and the other is intended as a total replacement of said foundation. Complete Psionic is a colorful mess: evocative words, but more flash than substance, and burdened with the 3.x rules-crunch model. To me, it represents everything I hope the 5e Mystic won’t be, and the best thing it achieves is introducing the Ardent and Lurk archetypes – the Ardent makes another appearance as the 4e psionic leader, and the Lurk is the ideal class for brooding in the shadows… psionically, and murdering people while you’re there.
There’s nothing wrong with the Psychic that being a little more generous on overall power wouldn’t fix. Its core approach of treating everything as a freestanding skill doesn’t play nice with a stingy skill point limit, but it’s the closest known descendant of the 2e Psionicist. It feels more like Weird Stuff chapter of a ground-up hack of 3.x than a book with a class in it.
Almost literally true: the book also contains rules for a d20 Modern Psychic. So run d20 Modern rules, using the Past supplement. Congratulations, you just went around your elbow to get to your nose… except that that’s a valid low-powered 3.x retroclone.
Image: The Astral Sculptor’s Academy, by William O’Connor, from Complete Psionic