What Do I Know About First Impressions? Weird Wastelands Psion (5e OGL)
Should I launch into a history of psionics in D&D? No, there is too much, let me sum up. I largely ignored psionics in AD&D 1e, so I wasn’t really paying attention until in AD&D 2e. The first pass at dedicated psionics in 2e was The Complete Psionics Handbook, which introduced the Psion as its own core class, and introduced psionics as a skill based set of abilities. While some of the effects were similar to what spellcasters could do, the skill based nature of the powers, as well as some psionic specific limitations gave them their own feel.
For example, area attacks are rarer for psionics. Psionicists got some self-healing ability, but when they healed other people, they had to lend some of their own life force, so while they could heal, they were as efficient at it as, for example, divine casters. For no particular reason, I also wanted to mention my favorite psionic ability, Psychic Surgery, which could, among other effects, let you awaken psionic abilities in others. Many abilities also required the psion to make contact with another mind first, before other powers could be used.
I liked the feel of them. I know some people had issues with this version of the psion, but don’t worry, because by the time the Player’s Option books came out, psionics got revamped, including MTHAC0, so that psionic powers were now attacking against a defence in a manner similar to attack rolls against armor class, presumably so that the math was working the same as other combat options, because the 2e skill system was mainly rolling under an ability score.
The March to Modern Mental Manifestation
D&D 3rd edition continued a tradition, and that tradition was, kind of reworking psionics halfway through the edition. The first version revolved around psions that could cast using an ability score based on the discipline they specialized in. That meant that some psionicists were casting with constitution or dexterity, which was . . . strange to me. Reworking the class, in the 3.5 era, psionics now has parallels between a wizard like psion, sorcerer like wilders, psychic warriors, and soul knives.
This was a power point based system, which allowed for a degree of “upcasting” powers that largely mimicked similar spells already in the game. There was some criticism of the degree to which characters “nova” their power points, which was a little overblown, given that there was an upper limit on how many power points could be pumped into an ability.
The criticism that many people had for all editions of psionics is that it’s a much more science fiction themed powerset in a fantasy game. When Pathfinder introduced abilities that revolved around telepathy, telekinesis, and clairvoyance, they lumped them into the “occult” power source, which kind of skirted along the concept of pulling power from cosmic horror themed origins.
Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition introduced Psionics as a power source, along with the other power sources in the game. The classes associated with this power source were the Ardent (Leader), Battlemind (Defender), Monk (Striker), and Psion (Controller). This played with the structure of 4e classes, so they didn’t have the same At Will/Encounter/Daily structure, and added a power point economy to enhance “encounter” style powers.
Reading the Recent Past
Then, we come to D&D 5th edition. There were several revisions of the mystic, the 5e version of the psion. The first was a 1st through 10th level limited version. Then there were later reworked versions, culminating in a 1st through 20th version with a lot of subclasses. This version of the mystic used a point based system, and had its own set of powers, which could be cast for varying numbers of points to perform different effects, with more powerful effects not available until the mystic was higher level.
This version of the psion tried to roll the soul knife into a subclass, which felt a bit weird, since previous versions were more of a mobile striker type character. All of the powers were affiliated with one of the subclasses, with the exception of the soul knife. That means that broadly, the subclasses had a theme that specialized them, and the power associated with them had to do with the theme. But that got a little weird and fuzzy. One of the subclasses, unfortunately, was an attempt to revise the AD&D 1e Wu Jen class from Oriental Adventures. So the story of the class started to feel like you tap into your mental strength, or maybe your own spirit, but also maybe the natural world and the spirit world.
The Wu Jen, especially, provided some weird powers that allowed for some flashy elemental effects and elemental summoning. This pushed the bounds of what psionicists traditionally did with their abilities. It kind of felt like they were going for something similar to Pathfinder, creating a less science fiction narrative for psionics, but the story never really felt like it came together.
What this finally led to in 5e, at least as of this writing, is subclasses that take on psionic trappings rather than creating a unified system for psionics. Psionic subclasses give characters power and class features that are themed as personal power harnessed by a disciplined mind to do a specific thing related to the primary class. Outside of classes, it means that several monsters that have innate spellcasting are psionic. Their abilities work like spells, can be counterspelled or dispelled, and don’t need components like other innate spellcasting, but that’s pretty much it.
Essentially, in 5e, psionics are a trapping for how a character manifests class abilities. I’m fine with that, but there are a lot of fans of psionics that want a more robust implementation in D&D 5e. I understand that was well, even though I’m not overly upset if we never see it.
For What It’s Worth
I don’t have overly strong opinions on this matter, but I do have some feelings about what I prefer in psionics. I would rather psionic abilities be formatted in a different manner than spells. Psionics shouldn’t require traditional components, but I’m fine if they can be countered in the same manner as magic spells. Since I pull some of my preferences from my AD&D 2e days, I do like the idea that psions can be less efficient healers, and tend to target a smaller area than spellcasters.
I’m not overly concerned that they feel too much like science fiction. I’m fine with it being supernatural power manifested through force of will, instead of through any kind of procedure, and that being the main difference. Say that they harness the wellspring of excess energy produced by the soul, and that works for me.
Now, with all of that said, let’s look at the preview of Web DM’s Weird Wastelands Psion class.
The Mysteries of the Mind
The first thing to keep in mind (ha!) is that we see the structure of the class, but none of the subclasses. That means this preview isn’t playable, and leaves some questions about how the specializations modify the core psion.
In the context of the Weird Wastelands book, psions are born from cataclysmic events where the supernatural gets turned inside out. Potential psionicist often isolate themselves once they manifest their powers until they can start learning to harness and control their power. I appreciate this in context of the product where they are presented, although I’m not as certain I want to tie psionics only to areas of supernatural cataclysm.
Psions are a d8, light armor, simple weapon class. The class has a set number of known disciplines per level, a set number of power points per level, and a zone of influence. What’s interesting about this is that it kind of establishes a range for the character’s abilities outside of the power descriptions. While they don’t cast spells, their DC and attack modifiers are determined like spellcasters, and they are based on intelligence.
The subclasses for the psion are called Modalities, which are picked at 2nd edition. They gain additional effects at 6th, 14th, and 18th level. That means if the subclasses are going to establish a strong flavor, those initial abilities and the 6th level abilities are going to be doing some heavy lifting. There is a list of modalities mentioned to tease us, since we don’t get to see them:
- Structure Mind
- Emotional Conduit
Those titles get the gears turning.
The psionic disciplines each have different abilities associated with them. For example:
- Psychic Crush
- Telekinetic Hurl
- Dimensional Step
- Balefor Anchor
- Assess Aura
- Sight Beyond Sight
- Forecast Conflict
- Bolster Ally
- Ease Malady
- Siphon Life
- Force Weapon
- Mind Link
- Psychic Probe
- Mind Spike
Each discipline has three powers, and one of those powers in each discipline tree has one power that has a variable cost to perform different levels of effect. Many of the damage effects allow you to add additional power points to do more damage after you hit with an attack, but before rolling any damage. You can spend advancements to learn more disciplines, or to advance a discipline. The benefit to advancing a discipline you already know is that your number of power points spent is limited by your ranks in a discipline (so at 1st level, you know one discipline, and can only spend one power point at a time).
Looking at my personal preferences, this version of the psion hits the following high points for me:
- Different format than spells
- No components required
- Healing, but within special limits
- Target single opponents with abilities
The only thing on my wish list that is missing is that there is nothing that indicates if psionic abilities can be countered with counterspell, or dispelled with dispel magic, or if they fade in an anti-magic zone.
Final Thoughts and First Impressions
For my personal preferences regarding a dedicated psion class, I like this implementation. I really want to see what kind of abilities modalities provide to get a better idea of how those customize the experience. Existing classes can provide a wide range of themes, so I’m curious to see how these subclasses stand apart from one another.
This reminds me of a hybrid of the first version of AD&D 2e psionics with the 3.5 version of psionics, but filtered through 5e “feeling” mechanics.
I’m curious to see if there are implements that can improve psionic attack rolls or the DC of effects, in a manner similar to spellcasters. While I like psions to feel distinct, I also think that some crossover with these kinds of mechanics is fine, as long as the psionic implements feel properly psionic.
I’m glad that this feels like it will be easy to port away from a wasteland setting, and seeing the structure of this class makes me glad that I backed the project. I’m looking forward to seeing more of this class, and more of the book, and baring massive changes or strangeness with the subclasses, I’ll likely be adding this to my expanded list of classes in my campaigns.