What Do I Know About First Impressions? Unearthed Arcana 2020 Psionic Options Revisited (D&D 5e)
Psionics continue to evolve in Unearthed Arcana. If you haven’t been keeping track, WOTC’s first playtest of psionic material was the Mystic, the dedicated psionic “caster” class. That disappeared for a while, and last year, WOTC introduced several psionic subclasses, flavors of existing classes with psionic themed abilities.
Online, many voices cried out that anything psionic must have a unifying mechanic to brand the subclass as authentically psionic feeling. There was also some buzz that a wizard that studied psionics was muddying the perceived lines between what people wanted in psionics. I didn’t mind, even though, yes, psionics does feel more like a sorcerer thing. That said, today’s Unearthed Arcana release is a response.
The Psionic Primer
There is a little more information upfront discussing where the designers’ heads are at with this design strategy, outlining how psionics have been used in past editions, how psionics have been referenced in 5e, and the overall concept behind them. The concept is rooted in powers that are generated internally, and manifest externally as telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, etc.
There is a further clarification that sometimes psionics take the form of spells when they are manifested, which means they are affected like spells, and sometimes they are manifested as an effect, which are not spells unless so referenced. That’s the page we’re all on at this point.
A Note on Flavor Text
So I don’t end up repeating this with each subclass, it might be worth looking at what flavor text is used to introduce these options, as an idea of what is informing this information. These subclasses, when giving examples, mention elves, githyanki, githzerai, and kalashtar ancestries, and Eberron and Dark Sun for settings repeatedly. I’m not saying this is a solid promise, but of all of those things mentioned in the flavor text, only one of them isn’t currently represented in current D&D 5e products.
The Unifying Mechanic
Just to get this straight upfront, I was definitely not one of the voices saying that you need a mechanical overlay as a unifying feature for all psionics. I was just happy to see abilities that played up telepathic, telekinetic, or precognitive abilities.
The unifying mechanic that we have in this document is the psionic die. If you are psionic, you get a psionic die (unless you got powers mentioned as being psionic before this point, like from some Warlock patrons . . . ah well).
Each psionic subclass gets a d6 die that they can use to augment different abilities based on the subclass. If you roll a 1 on the d6, the die size goes up. If you roll a 6, the die size goes down, and if it goes down below a d4, you have exhausted your psionic die until you rest.
As a concept, I kind of like that as a replacement for power points to create a unifying mechanic. It doesn’t look like anything else in D&D currently, but it also doesn’t add a fiddly currency to track, and leaves classes that manifest their abilities as spells still using the same resources as other classes. The die type goes up in size at 5thlevel, 11th level, and 17th level, and you know what that means: we have another use for the d12!
Everybody that gets a psionic die also gets the ability to use a bonus action to reset their die to its starting value, usable once per long rest.
I’ll touch on something I think is a the downside to this later, but as a unifying mechanic for something I’m not sure needed a unifying mechanic, I like it. It does create a constrained box within which all psionic subclass design must reside, which in general is good, but may mean that early attempts are a shot in the dark.
Psi Knight (Fighter)
The Psi Knight is a replacement for the previous Psychic Warrior subclass. Since there were some rumblings of making this the vaguely “Jedi” like subclass, I’m not sure if the renaming happened to play into that theme, or if it’s to tie it more closely to the role it plays in Githyanki society, but we’re drifting from the established 3rdedition naming conventions.
The Psionic Die
The Psi Knight can use their die to use a reaction to reduce damage by the die type, add distance to their jumps, or to add force damage to their attacks within 30 feet. That makes this a potentially more mobile fighter, and allows them to use their die to boost their (to use 4e terms) striker or defender abilities.
7th level—Gain the ability to knockdown opponents when adding force damage, gain telekinetic movement if your psionic die is available (downgrading it after the usage)
10th level—Resistance to poison and psychic damage
15th level—Create telekinetic cover for several characters (once per long rest, unless you downgrade your psionic die)
18th level—Minor telekinesis is now the full telekinesis spell
First off . . . other than the levels where they get extra benefits from their subclass, fighters are REALLY different depending on their subclasses. That said, while none of these abilities feel too far off, most fighter subclasses don’t have to worry about a mental stat, except for the Arcane Archer. Even the Echo Knight leans into Constitution as a secondary means of establishing powers.
Apparently people like the name Soulknife more than Psychic Warrior, I guess?
The Psionic Die
The Soulknife can use their psionic die to add to a failed ability check to see if it actually succeeded, and they can form a telepathic communication link to their allies, the number of which depends on the number rolled on the die.
3rd—Psychic blades, the revised text of which mentions the blade manifesting when you attack, rather than spending a bonus action to create them (your off-hand blade is one die less when you dual wield)
9th—Homing Strikes and Psychic Teleportation, you get to roll your die and add it to your attack roll if you miss, and if you throw your knife, you can teleport to where it lands (both abilities decrease die size)
13th—Invisibility once per long rest, unless you downgrade your die
17th—Once per long rest, force a save on sneak attack damage or stun opponent, unless you downgrade your die
The Soulknife gets to use dexterity for its save DC, so it’s doing a little better than the fighter. They get an accuracy enhancement over a damage enhancement, which kind of makes sense given how often they will likely be dealing sneak attack damage. I’m happy they retain the “teleport to where your knife hits” ability, because I love that imagery for this subclass.
Psionic Soul (Sorcerer)
Congratulations, you have some kind of Feywild or Far Realms influence that awakened your mind! Nice work. There is an origin table for this subclass (I’m really liking these, by the way), this time with 10 separate entries to flavor your origin. Interestingly, one of the entries mentions the sapphire dragon, which to date has only appeared with the limited edition commemorative dice set, or as a purchase on D&D Beyond.
The Psionic Die
Psionic Souls can use their die to get spells not on their spell list for up to their roll in hours (divination or enchantment spells), cast spells without components (if you roll over the level of the spell), or form a direct telepathic link for a number of hours equal to the number rolled.
It feels weird to have two different telepathic communication features work differently. Also, unless you roll 1s on the die, you could potentially have multiple links going, with different timers, to the whole party, and that feels like it could be a pain.
By itself, I’m not a fan of “I get an extra spell I didn’t know before” as an ongoing effect, but coupled with tracking another set of variable hours, I’m even less thrilled with this application. Other than risking rolling a 1, there isn’t really a limiter to this either, meaning you could just have someone get lucky and add a bunch to their spell list. Since you can do this after 10 minutes, and it can be done as part of a rest, you could do this six times during a short rest.
6th—You can replace one of your damage dice with a spell with the number rolled on your psionic die
14th—Spend a sorcery point to gain special senses or movement abilities, with the psychic die determining the number of hours
18th—If you have your psionic die available, you create a damage field around you
I like the potential to cast without components, but I almost wish that was a default mode, and that you only needed to roll if the component has a listed cost. I actually wish instead of the potential extra spell added to the spell list, the sorcerer could use their psionic die for concentration. I’m not thrilled with the damage boost, because it feels like a very limited story. “I’m psychic, so I’m more dangerous” is certainly a theme, although it’s usually a theme for an uncontrolled ability.
Ego Whip, Id Insinuation, Mental Barrier, Psionic Blast, Psychic Crush, and Thought Shield, which previously appeared as spells, aren’t around anymore. Mind Sliver, Mind Thrust, and Intellect Fortress have been included in this document.
Last time around, we got some simple feats that let you flavor your character as telekinetic or telepathic without taking a subclass. The abilities weren’t quite as impressive as the class features, but they could represent someone with a minor natural psychic gift.
Because we have a unifying mechanic, we’ve now got a feat tree in order to have telepathic or telekinetic abilities. Before I go too deep into that, let’s look at what feats are included this time around:
Metabolic Control (boost physical ability, decrease psionic die to not need food or water, decrease psionic die to take a short rest by resting for 1 minute, which you can only do once per long rest)
Telekinetic (similar to the previous version, mage hand with a shove function, but now the distance is determined by psionic die)
Telepathic (boost mental ability, talk to anyone telepathically within 30 feet, send only, not receive thoughts, detect thoughts by decreasing your psionic die
Tower of Iron Will (use a reaction to add psionic die to you or someone nearby that just failed a save to add to that save)
Wild Talent—let’s dig into this one a little bit more, because it’s the prerequisite for all of these if you don’t already have a psionic subclass that grants you a psionic die.
You can increase any ability score by 1, then you gain a psionic die (you don’t get more than one if you pick up a psionic subclass as well). You can add your psionic die to ability checks, but only before you know if you succeeded or failed (so slightly less useful than the rogue ability). You can also replace a damage die with the psionic die’s number when making an attack with the ability score you increased with this feat. You also gain the ability to reset your die once per long rest like all of the subclasses with a psionic die.
Two questions spring to mind:
How does Psi-Boosted Ability interact with the Soulknife’s ability?
How does the Psi-Guided Strike interact with the Psionic Soul’s ability?
None of the psionic abilities say that the die has a limit per character turn for application, so would a Soulknife, under the right circumstances, roll before they know if they failed, and then after as well? Would the Psionic Soul making a Charisma attack, having boosted Charisma, roll to replace damage on one die, then another?
Both of those are corner cases, but potentially a pain to deal with. My biggest complaint is that, if I just want to burn a feat to say my character is psychic, taking Wild Talent as the first available feat isn’t that much fun. I can’t say that I’m telepathic. I can’t say that I can move something with my mind. I can just say that I can invisibly manipulate the numbers underlying the probabilities of the universe.
I know not everyone thinks like me, but I’ll burn a feat for flavor once, but I’m not sure the chain is worth burning more than one unless it really plays into a concept. I liked it when these were kind of fun feats that didn’t need to be focused on playing into a theme. I get that the general complaint was that psionics didn’t have a unifying mechanics, but I think adding this extra level of qualification to unify the feats with the subclasses makes them way less flexible for me, as far as a character’s story goes.
A Copper for My Thoughts
I like the unifying concept of the psionic die, for all of the subclasses, but it messes with what I liked about the feats. Is it necessary for “flavor” feats as well as subclasses? That’s hard for me to answer, since I’m not one that was overly concerned about having a unifying mechanic. I would almost just kill Wild Talent and give the feats with once per long rest abilities the kicker that IF you have a psionic die, you can downgrade the die one step to use the ability again. That way there is an interaction with a psionic die, but not the requirement to add one before you gain the “flavor” psychic feats.
Looking at some of the similar abilities granted at the levels where the psionic die is added, I am less enamored of the die increasing in size. Many abilities introduced at that level are (ability score bonus) per rest, and it’s hard to judge how much more versatile an ability might be if someone manages to not only not roll a 1, but rolls the maximum on the die several times. It’s weird, because its an ability that could be really off-kilter, or fizzle fast. At the very least, since the psionic dice have the replenishment ability once per long rest, I think they should only go down in size. Again, that’s a hard call, because this is the first “variable” ability we’ve really seen in a D&D subclass, versus X per rest abilities.
Speaking of story over balance, I get why the Arcane Archer has its intelligence based abilities, although I think that makes it a harder sell for a lot of players, but given the fact that part of the story of psionics is “internal generation,” I really think the Psi Knight could base its abilities on constitution.
It’s actually pretty fascinating to see a design initiative that not only attempts to design across other subclasses of the same class, but also across other subclasses with the same theme, of other classes. Since that wasn’t the way other class designs were built, this is, if nothing else, an interesting thought experiment that should be fun to watch.
Note: When I first published this article, I misstated that the die types changed in the opposite directions, i.e. a 1 caused the die type to go down, versus a 6. While it is kind of innocuous as a misstatement, given the “story” of why the die is going up and down, it’s kind of important, because it means when you do something bigger and more substantial, you are draining your reserves, and when you are barely using your power, you are saving up in your psionic batteries. Flavor matters in this instance, so I wanted to correct that mistake. Sorry!