Saturday, August 28, 2010

How it Works: Pact Magic

This is a unified ‘How it Works’ section for all the pact-making classes from Secrets of Pact Magic (and those who tap into pact magic through other means). This does not include the Tome of Magic’s Binder, though there are similarities.

Getting down to business, spirit binding is pretty much what it sounds like; you barter, haggle, and coerce spirits into lending you their power- usually four or five abilities that tend to be passive, at-will, or have a five-round recharge- through a ten minute ceremony. Fundamentally, this works in a manner similar to the Tome of Magic version. Every spirit has its own legend, persona, quirks, themes, and all that rot. In fact, they all get their own nice, organized two-page spread sorted by spirit level first, then alphabetically within their given level, because that’s how anyone who’s looking for a given spirit is probably going to look through them anyways. Huzzah. Also, there are charts that are actually useful, giving you every spirit’s name, level, the page it’s located on, and a list of its powers. You know, the information that’s actually useful in a chart for all the spirits.

To form a pact, you make a binding check rolling 1d20 plus your binder level plus your charisma modifier (usually) versus a DC set by the spirit; the higher the level of the spirit, the harder it is to bind, and you need a certain minimum level to bind any given spirit at all. Lots of modifiers can tweak it up or down, but generally, regardless of the result, you get the spirit’s power. The results are as follows:

If you succeed, you get the powers with little consequence. You can hide whatever physical sign is associated with the spirit (like, say, horns) at will and it does not influence your personality.

If you succeed by a margin of ten or more, you gain an additional power, a capstone ability, which is generally the most powerful or significant ability (your mileage may vary). This is a nice reward for a good binding check.

If you fail your binding check, you still get all your powers, however you cannot hide the spirit’s physical sign and it has an influence on your personality, so be careful if you’re not fond of eating babies or being an anarchist for the day or… *looks for a good-aligned one* helping people without hesitation. More inconvenient than it sounds. Failing also impacts some specific abilities and is generally more significant than in Tome of Magic.

If you fail your binding check by a margin of ten or more, well, let’s just say you can expect to eat more babies in the future. Your alignment shifts one step towards the spirit’s alignment, and if you fail a will save, the change is permanent.

Save DCs for granted abilities are determined by your constitution modifier, which tends to make most pact magic users pretty tough regardless of their hit dice.

To make these binding checks, annoying requirements for any given spirit make their ‘triumphant’ return. Granted, most of them are just, “dump a few skill points here,” even if the skill requirements tend to be harsher, but a lot of them get oppressive and annoying. One spirit’s requirement is, “Must be in sight of an elf riding a dragon.” Yeah, there’s a reason I don’t enforce those requirements. You can attempt to bind a spirit without meeting its requirements, but that imposes a -6 penalty on your check and if you fail the check, you outright fail to bind the spirit at all. Adding to the annoyance, there’s no chart listing the requirements, so you have to go digging through the spirits themselves to plan ahead and make sure you actually qualify for the spirits you want. Even if that means… gaining the ability to lay eggs? There’s a reason one of my first feats on my binders is usually Ignore Binding Requirements, if they’re being enforced. If I haven’t made this point clear, I consider this an optional rule to be ignored. And one I’ve spent too much time on already, so it’s time to move on.

All spirits also have an associated constellation (similar to spell schools), a favored enemy, and a favored ally. If you are a spirit’s favored enemy, you take a -4 to your binding check, but otherwise, these don’t have much immediate value and are simply referenced for other feats and abilities.

And then, all spirits offer four tactical bonuses. These are little actions and conditions related to the spirit’s persona. For example, for one spirit, you meet criteria if you drink a cup of tea, fight near a hobgoblin ally, successfully use the spirit’s Dazing Strike ability, or move through rocky terrain. When you meet these criteria, you get a +1 bonus on all d20 rolls for three rounds, and these bonuses stack. It’s difficult, but if you meet multiple criteria, the bonuses can get rather large, especially if you’re binding multiple spirits at once. Like getting a +6 on an attack roll with your bow for having sex with a shape-changing chicken while drinking tea brewed from the blood of infants! A silly example, of course. Actually, unless your spirit has a pretty easy bonus (for example, I believe one grants you a +1 for using a bow), they tend to be a bit contrived and more easily met by villains. Like a fire giant binder getting a +2 for sitting on a throne that’s on fire. And anything that encourages thrones that are on fire is a good thing in my book.

On that note, time to mention binding multiple spirits. Classes from SoPM aren’t like the Binder, who can bind, say, three vestiges of up to 6th-level at level 14. Rather, if you can bind 5th-level spirits, you can bind one 5th-level spirit or any combination of spirits that adds up to five; two 1st-levels and a 3rd-level, a 4th-level and a 1st-level, two 2nd-levels and a 1st-level, and so on. Certain abilities can modify this. In general, SoPM spirits don’t scale quite as well as Tome of Magic spirits, but the way binding multiple spirits works this time around as well as the more well-rounded nature of most of the binding classes this time around, it’s for the best.

There are a great many feats that futz with all these aspects. If you don’t like physical signs, binding requirements, alignment shifts, or personality shifts, there are feats to ignore each of them. If you hate all of them, here’s hoping you have a bunch of bonus feats. If you like capstone abilities, there’s a feat to reduce the required margin of success to five (which really helps as some of the higher-level spirits have very high binding DCs). If you want to play up favored allies and enemies, there are a couple feats to grant bonuses related to them. There’s a feat to make tactical bonuses last longer. There are feats rather more fleshed out than Spell Focus to play up constellations. Various classes tend to play with these aspects a little more.

And then, there are anima spirits. Anima are a little different from the unique spirits that are the default. They’re generic. They don’t have a constellation, or favored enemies, or personality/alignment shifts, or tactical bonuses. They don’t even have a level; rather, you can bind them at any given level, and their abilities grow stronger if you bind them as a higher-level spirit. It costs a feat to access these spirits, but their flexibility and lack of baggage can be very useful, even if they do tend to be a mixed bag.

Finally, there are some ways for non-pact magic classes to dip into the pact-making goodness. The first is an optional rule for trying out pact magic in which spellcasters, instead of preparing spells for the day, you bind spirits up to the highest level of spell you can cast. Since spirits are (generally speaking) less powerful than spells for most purposes, this is generally a raw deal for most save, say, folks who only get up to fourth-level spells anyways, but it’s a good way to sample pact magic in an existing campaign. If you’re not using that variant rule, there’s a feat you can take that has the same effect, as well as alternate class features for the Bard, Druid, Ranger, and Paladin that trade spellcasting (and, in the case of the Paladin and Ranger, additional class features… for some strange reason) for spirit binding at the same rate as they’d normally gain spells.

Then, there’s Minor Binding, a feat pretty much anyone can take to gain a little bit of binding. It lets you gain one granted ability from one first-level spirit. There are two additional feats that improve upon this, one letting you take two abilities and the other letting you bind up to a third-level spirit in this way. Finally, there’s Supernatural Dabbler from web supplements, which lets you trade out spell-like abilities to bind spirits for granted abilities. Not many classes get enough spell-like abilities for this to be worthwhile, making it more useful for monsters than PCs, but some do, and as a DM, I’m all for any ability that lets a succubus trade Detect Good for a laser that renders the target so overwhelmingly horny that they cannot properly defend themselves. And it’s rather scary when that marilith reveals that she has the power to actually eat spells cast at her (gained for a couple minutes at the expense of her Summon Demon ability).

Secrets of Pact Magic and Villains of Pact Magic are available from Radiance House Publishing. The official site is, which includes information, free samples, and supplemental materials.

Expanded Class Feature 6: Binder

Class: Binder

Source: Tome of Magic

And now, we come to the last of the three classes (and three systems) from Tome of Magic. After the mediocrity that is Shadowcaster and the failure of the Truenamer, this final class, the Binder, is… actually quite good, in most respects. And it actually got some real support. Web supplements, an extra vestige in Dragon Magic, some Dungeon/Dragon articles. There’s a list in the Consolidated Binder Guide, though some of the links are broken.

How it Works:
Roll a charisma check. If you succeed, you get superpowers. If you fail, you still get superpowers.

In more detail, pact magic works by making pacts with vestiges. You spend a minute to perform a ritual that summons some spirit from beyond, haggle with it, and get powers from it for the day. These powers can be things like supernatural abilities, bonus feats, proficiencies, damage reduction, stat/skill boosts, and so on. Most of these effects are continuous or at will, but many of them have a five-round recharge period. For example, Amon (one of the first-level vestiges) grants you 60’ darkvision, fire breath that deals [level]d6 damage (with a five-round recharge period, reflex for half), and a natural gore attack in the form of goat horns.

In general, the abilities that vestiges grant you are supernatural abilities, meaning they have no verbal or somatic components, ignore spell resistance, and depending on the ability, you may be able to use them without anyone notice that you’re the source.

You make a binding check as a part of the ritual, rolling 1d20 plus your charisma modifier plus your binder level, and every vestige has its own binding DC. Regardless of the result, you still get the vestige’s powers, but if you fail, that means you made a poor pact and the vestige also has an influence on you both physically and mentally (actually, the physical influence happens no matter what, but you can usually suppress it if you succeed). Taking Amon as an example again, if you fail your binding check, you become surly and irritable, and because of Amon’s hatred of all things bright and orderly, you’re forced to make a save against any spell from the Fire, Sun, or Law domains, even if they’re beneficial. Also, you grow goat horns and cannot hide them (at level 2, you get the ability to hide the horns if you make a successful binding check). The distinction between a good pact and a poor pact also influences certain other abilities.

And that’s essentially it for pact magic itself; most of the rest is just how specific vestiges and class features work.

However, there is one other annoying aspect worth mentioning. Special requirements. Some vestiges require, say, five ranks in Knowledge: Religion or the ability to speak Giant or having once stolen a candy bar without ever apologizing in order to bind them. Little things, mostly. My problem isn’t so much the mechanical impact, but the fact that you have to go through every vestige you ever intend to use to make sure you’ll actually be able to bind them. And there is not a convenient compilation of special requirements that you can just glance at, nor any other convenient resource organizing vestiges. It’s a general failing of the books; sifting through vestiges sucks. You can take a feat to ignore special requirements, but that’s just a tax to avoid a nuisance.

Fluffy Bits:
Remember the fluff for the Warlock? Gain power through a pact with some eldritch horror. The Binder is similar, but instead of having haggled with Cthulhu once on page two of your character’s backstory in order to gain power for the rest of their career, you’re haggling with the otherworldly horrors on a daily basis to maintain your powers.

This isn’t like signing your soul over to Asmodeus or some fey queen giving you a gift, or even any sort of higher power deigning to deal with those lowly mortals. Rather, you’re dealing with beings that were once great, powerful, or otherwise significant, who are of such cosmic significance that they can never fully fade away, but who have fallen so far from the height of their power that they can no longer directly affect the multiverse proper. Hence, vestiges. They each have their own stories and aspects, but they mostly follow a similar format. Some being (possibly mortal) of considerable power/significance with major character flaw X gets destroyed horribly for said flaw and gets consigned to the void. You’re not sealing deals with the mightiest creatures in the multiverse at the height of their power. You’re making deals with cosmic losers who barely exist and are desperately grasping at any chance to affect reality. And they’re what co-op your brain if you fail your binding check. Sweet.

Also, apparently quite a few of the vestiges are throwbacks that’ll test your D&D lore, like Acererak, the demilich from ye olde Tomb of Horrors. This is what I'm told; I'm not exactly up on all that lore.

So, a Binder is someone who knows the secret knowledge needed to contact these vestiges, at which point the Binder offers them a chance to be relevant again in exchange for borrowing their power for a while.

Oh, and they default to being classified as heretics, which is always fun.

Crunchy Bits:
Okay, as usual, we’ll start with the skeleton, move on to the secondary features, and end at the main course.

Medium BAB, strong fortitude/will, d8 HD, 2+ skill points with a list consisting largely of the scholarly and diplomatic skills, simple weapons, light armor. They gain a few bonus feats that can be used to gain higher armor proficiencies, and some vestiges grant better weapon and armor proficiencies (though relying on vestiges for those proficiencies does rather limit you).

So, we’re basically looking at a Cleric skeleton, which accurately describes how a Binder is expected to run much of the time. They can do self-buffing melee with supernatural support abilities quite well.

At second level, you gain Pact Augmentation; when you make a pact, you select a little perk from a list, like DR 1/- or +5 HP or +1 AB. This bonus applies whether or not you make your binding check, which seems odd to me; this feature seems like it should be a reward for making your binding check, but that’s no big deal. As you level up, you can select more augmentations, to a maximum of five at level 20, and they stack with themselves, so if you select the AB boost, you can get +5 AB from it at level 20.

At the same level, you get Suppress Sign. If you succeed at your binding check, this ability lets you hide or show your vestiges’ physical signs as a swift action. Handy if you don’t want to be burned as a commiemutanttraitor. If you fail your binding check, well… I hope you like that face on your torso.

Bonus feats at levels 4, 11, and 18 are standard fare. You can pick proficiencies, those useless +2/+2 skill feats no one takes unless it’s a prereq, or pact magic feats.

Then comes Soul Guardian at level 6. At this point, your vestiges start protecting your brain (and your generic soul/life force). This starts with immunity to fear, then goes on to Slippery Mind (which is far more useful with strong will saves than it is for a Rogue), immunity to negative levels/energy drain, and full on Mindblank. This functions as long as you’re bound to a vestige, regardless of the outcome of the pact. (Again, it seems like it should be the reward for a good pact. Again, no biggie.)

And of course, there’s Soul Binding. You start out with the ability to bind one first-level vestige at level 1, and advance to the ability to bind four vestiges up to 8th level at level 20. Now, how to tackle this beast…

Remember that old tagline for Othello (the game)? A minute to learn, a lifetime to master. Yeah, that sums up the way soul binding works. At its core, it’s very simple, but the Binder is quite possibly the most complicated class in the game to put to use. This is not because it only functions if you’re using some esoteric and exacting build- far from it. However, the Binder’s abilities come almost entirely from the vestiges, which are extremely diverse, and you can swap them out every day, so you really have to be on your A game and really have to know which vestige does what and pick the right one for any given situation. This is even more important than for a Wizard preparing spells. A Wizard might pick twenty spells, all of which are pretty powerful and general-purpose. You’re probably picking two vestiges with a fairly specialized role that you’ll be spamming all day. If you choose poorly, you’re useless. And unfortunately, a lot of vestiges tend to fall into this pattern where they’re more of a side dish than a main course, which can leave you with all kinds of awesome secondary abilities but no central features to take advantage of.

Also, a lot of your best abilities (especially your save-or-be-beaten abilities) are only usable once every five rounds, so if you haven’t planned out something useful to do those other four rounds and don’t secure the battle in one round, you’re useless again.

That said, the vestiges are immensely flexible covering melee to area damage to scouting to diplomacy to healing (Buer is an infinite healing pool; Cure Minor Wounds at will). If you can master your vestiges and- more importantly- your combinations of vestiges, you can adapt to nearly any circumstance and shore up the party in nearly any weak area (though 2+ skill points per level from a decent but not spectacular list limits your skill monkeying).

And unfortunately, that’s not something you can get a lot of help with, just as Batman-caliber Wizard spell preparation isn’t something you can really help someone learn. However, since you can bind a vestige within two minutes (one minute to draw the seal, one to make the pact), you can leave a vestige slot blank for later, or take the Expel Vestige feat so that you can swap a vestige out once as the day goes on, as needed.

There is, of course, the alternate option of building around a specific combination of vestiges and specifically binding that combination at every opportunity, but that largely misses the point of the class. (Except when you’re the DM making NPCs, in which case it’s the way to go and makes it considerably easier to make memorable and effective opponents.)

It seems like a lot of these usage sections can begin and end with “Know your X,” but it’s critically important to know your vestiges. Unfortunately, slipshod organization and editing don’t help. There’s not a single chart on the vestiges that’s actually any good. Expect to make your own lists. And do look into some of the vestiges from outside Tome of Magic; their inclusion makes you a lot more effective. Zceryll’ summoning ability is extremely useful, for example.

It becomes far more important to know your vestiges at higher levels, when you can bind multiple vestiges simultaneously and instead of being worried about how a single vestige works on its own, you’re worried about how multiple vestiges work together, how they complement each other. If you can’t manage combinations, you’re liable to lag. Also, keep in mind that just because a vestige is lower-level doesn’t mean it’s necessarily worse; they tend to scale fairly well (Naberius may be a first-level vestige, but he’s still the go-to social vestige for pretty much your whole career). Yes, if you can bind three vestiges of up to fifth-level, you can bind three fifth-level vestiges if you want, but odds are there’re lower-level vestiges that are more appropriate and more effective.

Now, then. Stats. Charisma determines your binding check and the DC to save against your myriad supernatural abilities. This, of course, makes charisma… entirely optional. This is pretty much your first big, stylistic choice. The two main approaches to a Binder are to either pump charisma through the roof to ramp up those save DCs and rely on save-or abilities as your bread and butter, pretty much abandoning all hope of being remotely decent at melee, or to go with a more modest charisma (possibly even dumping it outright) in favor of stronger melee stats. After all, even if you fail your binding check, that really only means you suffer the physical/personality influences; you still get full powers and class features.

There are vestiges that work for both routes, but in general, the high-charisma route is stronger at higher levels where you get the really shiny vestiges and the melee route is better at lower levels (where melee’s more effective anyways).

In either case, intelligence is fairly important; you don’t get many skill points, and some of them will be tied up in meeting your spirits’ prerequisites. Also, your skill list is pretty good, including all the social skills, making you a good face. Especially if you bind Naberius. Just resist the temptation to use his Persuasive Words power to order folks to kneel before Zod.

And then, you have feats/skills. The hard part is, as a Binder, you have two sets of elements working in tandem; your vestige abilities, which are modular and can be swapped out, then your standard feats and skills, which are fixed. This becomes a challenge in that you need a permanent array of feats to support a dynamic array of vestige abilities, which goes right back to “know your vestiges.”

And as a final note on usage, remember how earlier I mentioned that a lot of vestiges tend to bring great secondary abilities but lack a solid main course? Well, that lends itself quite well to one of my favorite variants; gestalt. For those not familiar with it, gestalt is a variant rule from Unearthed Arcana that essentially lets you take full features from two classes simultaneously. I could go on about gestalt for quite a while (and it’s good fodder for another post), but suffice it to say, Binders are a great class in gestalt. They go with pretty much anything, since there are vestiges for every occasion.

Tremendous flexibility
Nigh at-will abilities
Fundamentally simple
Solid skill list with all the social skills

Jack of all trades, master of none
If you bind the wrong vestige, you’re liable to be useless
Complicated to make work well
A failed binding check can mean you go around for the day with your skin turned inside out and an intense craving for fried baby.

Now, I’m gonna do something I’m not planning on doing often. Pass judgment on Tome of Magic.

So, is Tome of Magic worth it? Honestly, not really unless you’re a completionist. There are three things in ToM. Pact magic, shadow magic, and truenaming. Truenaming is an abysmal flop. Shadow magic is barely salvageable despite having some decent ideas. And pact magic? Pact magic is awesome. Awesome enough to warrant ToM’s existence and then some, and normally I’d say it’s reason enough to justify it, except… there’s Secrets of Pact Magic.

I pimp the Hell out of this book, but that's only because it is awesome, easily rating among the best 3.5 sourcebooks ever. Imagine Tome of Magic if it were three hundred pages on pact magic, but awesomer. That’s Secrets of Pact Magic. Honestly, as much as I like the class, I only really used the Binder a couple times before I got Secrets of Pact Magic. I haven’t used the Binder since.

Remember how earlier I mentioned that Binders tended to get great secondary abilities but lack a solid main course? Yeah, Secrets of Pact Magic fix that. Remember how I said binding goes with everything? Secrets of Pact Magic runs with that. It has eight base classes (plus an extra in a web enhancement and four more from Villains of Pact Magic, for a total of thirteen), two of which are variants of, “I bind spirits and I do it better than anyone,” and the rest have more limited binding ability alongside more solid class features that serve as a base (well… plus the Exorcist and Templar from Villains of Pact Magic, which are rather anti-binding). The first class in the book? A Monk that doesn’t suck. Pugilism with supernatural spirit-binding action. There’s the roguelike Foe Hunter, the self-explanatory Pact Warrior, and that’s just the classes.

More spirits (rather than vestiges), more interesting spirits, much better organization (hallelujah), loads of pact magic feats, organizations a la Complete Champion (something I like, but probably wouldn’t use prominently) complete with scorecards- one of the organizations’ll even promote you for disintegrating people! Yay! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; this is one dense tome.

Now, admittedly, there are a few balance issues to keep your eyes on; the odd no-save daze effect and the like (the author really underestimated how debilitating daze is), a few things that could stack to ridiculous extremes, but just slap a save on it, toss in a, “That doesn’t stack with itself,” and tweak a bit here and there and it’s some awesome stuff.

So, in what’s liable to be a move no one else is interested in, we add the Secrets of Pact Magic classes to the list, plus one from web enhancements and four from Villains of Pact Magic. That’s Empyrean Monk, Exorcist, Foe Hunter, Muse, Occult Priest, Pact Warrior, Ravaged Soul, Rookblade, Soul Weaver, Spirit Binder, Templar, Unbound Witch, and Warbinder. So, let’s start with my least favorite pact-making class (possibly until I give Villains of Pact Magic a better once-over). Least favorite, and I still like it. Next week, we’ll start with the Foe Hunter. Guess what they do. (Don’t worry, we’ll get back to WotC classes for at least a week afterward.)

Note, I would start with the Spirit Binder as a direct analogue to the Binder, but there's not exactly a whole lot to talk about; they can bind more spirits than anyone and get a lot of bonus feats, but that's about it, so I'm not gonna make them the first class feature.

Remaining classes: Ardent, Artificer, Crusader, Divine Mind, Dread Necromancer, Empyrean Monk, Erudite, Exorcist, Foe Hunter, Incarnate, Lurk, Muse, Occult Priest, Pact Warrior, Psychic Rogue, Psychic Warrior, Ravaged Soul, Rookblade, Soulborn, Swordsage, Soul Weaver, Spirit Binder, Templar, Totemist, Unbound Witch, Warblade, Warbinder.

Next Week: Foe Hunter

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Expanded Class Feature 5: Wilder

Class: Wilder
Source: Expanded Psionics Handbook

How it Works:
I’ve worked up an all-purpose ‘How it Works’ article for psionics as a whole, which can be found here.

Last week was the Wizard of the psionic world, so it’s only appropriate that this week be the Sorcerer. Relatively rarely used and not as popular, the Wilder is still more than worth the look. So, look we shall.

Fluffy Bits:
I described the Psion as a synthesis of Sorcerer and Wizard; they’re born to natural power like a Sorcerer, then hone it with Wizard-like discipline. A Wilder is like a synthesis of Sorcerer and more Sorcerer. They’re born to natural power, and then go nuts. If the definitive Psion is Dr. Strange, then the definitive Wilder is Carrie.

A stock Psion is very calm, very controlled and very methodical in her art. A Wilder gets angry and blows your head off. They’re driven by raw, untamed emotion. The concept is simple and iconic, and you can go a lot of ways with it. When making a Wilder, it’s important to give careful consideration to how their emotions relate to their powers, rather than simply cranking out another stock personality since for a character who draws power from their anger or hope or courage or greed or sexual frustrations, their emotional state is very important.

Crunchy Bits:
Wilders get full 9th-level charisma-based manifesting and the highest power point pool along with a d6 hit die, medium BAB, strong will, simple weapons, light armor, shields, and 4+ skill points from an odd mix of skills, with both the stock caster skills and some physical skills, plus Spot, Listen, Bluff, Intimidate, and Sense Motive.

Oh, and they get eleven powers known. Spread across nine spell levels. I’m gonna come back to that. A lot. Also, being the Sorcerer analogue, the class gets their power progression delayed by one level like the Sorcerer for no adequate reason; the Sorcerer’s progression is delayed as a counterbalance for being able to cast spontaneous (whether you agree with that logic or not), but all psionic characters are spontaneous anyways, making it a moot point.

Looking at the frame, the class seems like it’s meant to be a gish, using their full manifesting to back up the rather squishy d6 HD and medium BAB. However, their main class feature suggests a full-on dedicated caster.

At level 1, you get Wild Surge +1. This scales to +6 at level 19. This ability is an emotional supercharge, granting an effective +N power points to the effect of a power, and the points are supplied by the surge itself rather than your own pool. This power is usable at will, any time you manifest a power, and can take you above your normal limit for power points spent on a single power. So, if you’re an 11th-level Wilder, you can effectively spend 15 points on Astral Construct for no extra cost, which is similar to being able to cast Summon Monster VIII instead of Summon Monster VI.

Why, this is an incredible class feature, gamebreaking even, and every Wilder should use it all the time… except… it isn’t and you shouldn’t. You see, it comes with Psychic Enervation. Whenever you actually use your Wild Surge, you roll a percentile die and have a 5% chance per power point added to suffer psychic enervation, which means you’re dazed for a round and lose a number of power points equal to your manifester level. So, that 11th-level Wilder getting four points from the void to beef up Astral Construct then has a 20% chance of losing eleven power points and losing a round, which is a huge deal in combat. Wild Surge is definitely nice, but you must use it carefully.

But here’s the rub. That’s your main class feature, on a gishy skeleton. If you’re a hardcore caster, that tougher skeleton is going to waste and you’re hobbled by your limited power selection. If you’re a gish, then being dazed on the front line is a death sentence and you can’t afford to use your main class feature, giving the class a lack of focus that ultimately hurts it. But, let’s go over its other class features.

Surging Euphoria is the third wheel of the Wild Surge array. When you Wild Surge without suffering enervation, you get a bonus to attack, damage, and saves equal to the Wild Surge boost. This bonus is +1 at level 4, +2 at level 12, and +3 at level 20. A nice boost to melee Wilders, but the daze effect is still a huge risk.

And then, there are two more features. At level two, they gain Elude Touch. It applies your charisma to AC, but only against touch attacks, and it cannot take your touch AC above your normal AC. It’s an odd ability, but it’s… handy. Mainly, it’s a minor defense against spellcasters’ touch attacks, but it guards you from a lot of dangerous stuff. Particularly since a lot of touch attack users simply bank on touch attacks being easy to land, without really emphasizing AB.

And then, you have Volatile Mind. Whenever someone targets a Wilder of 5th level or higher with a telepathy power, it costs an additional 1-4 power points (depending on level). That is all kinds of meh. It only works against psionic characters using a specific subschool of powers? Blah. One should think a spellcaster using Detect Thoughts to peek in on the heart of your magical superangst should leave a spellcaster at least a little perturbed, doncha think? After all, the ability is described as your raging magic emotions being so immensely overwhelming that telepaths trying to break your brain suffer for the effort.

Also, your eleven powers? They don’t include the best powers available. You don’t have access to any Psion disciplines. This is a big blow to a class teetering on the brink, but… read on.

First of all, in their Mind’s Eye series, WotC has released some alternate class features for the Wilder. One of them is called Educated Wilder. If you are making a Wilder, TAKE IT. It replaces that useless Volatile Mind with Expanded Knowledge at each step. That’s four instances of Expanded Knowledge, a feat that lets you learn any power up to one lower than the highest level you can cast. So, you just went from 11 powers known by level 20 to 15 powers known by level 20 (less if you PrC out, but you come out ahead no matter what. That is huge. These additional powers can be chosen from any discipline or class, as well, meaning you get access to a lot of the cool stuff you normally couldn’t use.

Meanwhile, Mantled Wilder pretty much just sucks. It locks a lot of your very limited power selections into what’s pretty much doomed to be mediocre power choices you can’t afford to make.

After that, there’s one big choice. Do you want to be a gish, combining melee (or archery, if you can swing the proficiency), or do you want to be a dedicated caster? In either case, the most important part of making a Wilder is power selection. Every power you take needs to be useful all the time. If a power is remotely incidental, get a power stone of it and hold out for something that will always be useful. You’re not gonna have very many options available to you by full caster standards, so those options have to be damn good.

If you’re going the full caster route, pump charisma through the roof as you would any dedicated caster. Constitution and dexterity are next in line. If you intend to use metapsionic feats regularly, or the Psionic Endowment line (which is the psionic equivalent of Spell Focus, instead increasing DCs by expending focus), then you may want to invest in 13 wisdom to qualify for Psionic Meditation. Otherwise, you can safely dump wisdom. Strength and intelligence are your dump stats, but you may be able to bump them up a bit. Because of the way augmentation works, your Wild Surge can boost save DCs for your powers, so Psionic Endowment and vast amounts of charisma, possibly along with Ability Focus in your favorite save-or power can be a very good thing.

Use your Wild Surge sparingly, as if you suffer enervation, you lose a turn and lose a painful stack of power points. For that reason, you have to be even more cautious than a Psion when it comes to managing your power point reserves. That said, Wild Surge is pretty much the only reason to make a dedicated caster Wilder instead of a Psion, so when picking powers, keep an eye out for powers that benefit from the caster level boost, like Astral Construct. Also, remember that even if you do suffer enervation, you still successfully manifest your power, so if that boost is the last little bit you need to clinch a win against the big bad, go for it.

For a melee Wilder, your main stats are strength and constitution. You may not even need much dexterity, but you need lots of constitution to make up for that d6 hit die. Even charisma doesn’t need to be very high. You only need 14 or 15, maybe even as little as 13. Charisma-boosting magic items can get you the stats you need to cast higher-level powers when the time comes. You should be able to easily afford them by the time you need them. Also, you may want 13 wisdom for Psionic Meditation as well. The Deep Impact feat lets you expend psionic focus to make a single melee attack as a touch attack. With Psionic Meditation, you can still get off one attack every round, and it can always be a touch attack. Pairing that with things like Power Attack (the penalty means little when you’re making a touch attack) and damage boosting powers (hello, Expansion) means that, while you’re only making one attack per round, that attack HURTS. If you do it right. Of course, this also means you care about every single stat except intelligence, which you’re pretty much forced to dump.

Most likely, you’re going into the Illithid Slayer prestige class, since it gets full BAB, almost full manifesting, and both martial weapons and heavy armor (which is part of the reason you don’t need dexterity as much, but even if you’re aiming for mithral heavy plate, you’ll probably want 14 dexterity one way or another). This costs you a lot of Wild Surge, but you can’t afford to use that much anyways unless you’re some sort of archer; being dazed is pretty much death on the front lines.

For your powers, you mainly want buffs, especially swift action buffs, but a few powers outside that range can be useful, so long as you’re not going with the save-or powers. Astral Construct (through Expanded Knowledge), Dispel Psionics, things that are always useful. Vigor is a solid power, giving you huge piles of temporary hit points for its duration, really helping to shore up your hit die problems, even if it does take a standard action and only lasts a minute per level. Heck, it’s nice enough to consider on a dedicated casting Wilder.

And of course, low charisma means few bonus power points, meaning you have to be even more careful when manifesting your powers. But, since your main shtick is ultimately hitting people with a pointy stick, you shouldn’t need to use powers quite as often.

Full manifesting is always good.
Stronger skeleton than ye olde squishy Wizard
Wild Surge can clean house.

Limited access to discipline powers
Cripplingly few powers known
Lack of focus

Remaining classes: Ardent, Artificer, Binder, Crusader, Divine Mind, Dread Necromancer, Erudite, Incarnate, Lurk, Psychic Rogue, Psychic Warrior, Soulborn, Swordsage, Totemist, Warblade.

Next Week: Binder

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Expanded Class Feature 4: Psion

Class: Psion
Source: Expanded Psionics Handbook

How it Works:
I’ve worked up an all-purpose ‘How it Works’ article for psionics as a whole, which can be found here.

This week, we start looking at psionics proper (since Soulknife really isn’t a psionic class) with the most definitive class of the entire subsystem: The Psion. So, let’s get down to business.

And remember, folks, you don’t have to use the psionic vocabulary in-character.

Fluffy Bits:
The Psion class is very much a blank slate that can be used to suit pretty much any mage-type character with greater ease than Wizard or Sorcerer. You can even easily use the class to represent a sorcerer or wizard character quite effectively, depending on fine details (for example, psionics really don’t do necromancy).

That said, the class does have its own default fluff that seems like it’s trying very hard to be different from magic, but… it isn’t. Psionics is magic, after all, and the class fits within the grand array of magic-using classes. Psions are mages who cast spells. Heck, the picture of the definitive Psion, Ialdabode, is a point-by-point on a lot of fantasy’s depictions of mages. Magic staff? Check. Magic runes inscribed on his person? Check. Glowing magic crystal? Check. Magic glowing eyes of ominousness? Check. Mages usually aren’t quite that ripped, but I suppose you’re not allowed to wear an open vest like that in a D&D sourcebook without having killer abs.

A few pages later, we have Mitra the shaper with her glowing eyes and pendant, wearing heavy, practical traveling clothes (yet apparently she didn’t have time to button her shirt before the photo op, giving us the completely necessary double boob window) , bringing some strange, ethereal, implike creature into being, and the picture does something the Wizard never did. It actually conveys magic as a mysterious part of the world, worthy of awe. The core Wizard really conveys the notion that magic is a bunch of discrete boxes sitting off to the side. Also, Mialee is an abomination and whoever inflicted her upon the world deserves a swift kick in the head. Not only is she uglier than sin, you can’t say, looking at her, that you look at her standing there looking bored and holding a stick and say, “Why yes, this is what I think of when I hear the word ‘wizard.’” At least Hennet is visibly magicking.

This notion that magic is actually mysterious and unusual and hard bleeds over into the class fluff and mechanics. The way the class is described is, essentially, a synthesis of Wizard and Sorcerer. They are born to their talents like Sorcerers, but hone those powers through intense study, reflection, and discipline like the Wizard. You can also frame them as a mystical monk or an eastern yogi, which is where a lot of the inspiration for the class seems to come from.

Crunchy Bits:
Low BAB, low fortitude and reflex, strong will, 2+ skill points per level from mainly geek skills, proficiency in a slim selection of simple weapons but no armor or shields, bonus feats at levels 1, 5, 10, 15, and 20 from psionic and item creation feats, and full manifesting. If this frame makes you think Wizard, that’s because that’s pretty much what it is, so it’s no surprise.

They gain the highest power point progression and the highest number of powers known (save the Erudite, but that doesn’t really exist); 36 by level 20. For comparison, Sorcerers get 43 spells by level 20, but because of how powers scalein relation to spells, those 36 powers can go a lot farther; you’re not taking Burning Hands, then Fireball, then Cone of Cold just so you can keep dealing Nd6 damage to an area.

However, one the best ideas for the Psion? Disciplines. These are like Wizards’ spell schools, except- don’t freak out when I say this- they actually matter. What a concept!

With the Wizard, a necromancer isn’t really any better at necromancy than any other Wizard, and isn’t really defined by being a necromancer. Rather, he’s defined by not being able to use, say, Enchantment and Illusion spells, because that’s the part that’s actually meaningful. That necromancer can spend a Sunday afternoon in the library with a nice, hot cup of tea and learn to Polymorph as well as the focused specialist transmuter (who can, in turn, animate dead as well as the necromancer). Sure, there are prestige classes and alternate class features that can make specialization a little more relevant, but at its base, specialization means approximately jack. This is one part of why the core casters do not remotely convey magic as mysterious or difficult; magical texts are readily available at any market and you can learn any spell from them in an afternoon with a fairly easy skill check.

What disciplines do is different. Imagine if any Wizard could cast Crushing Despair or Mind Fog, but only an enchanter could cast Geas or Dominate Person. Yes, every Wizard can use enchantment, but only the enchanter gets the most world shaking of enchantment effects. Also, imagine if the enchanter added Bluff, Diplomacy, and Sense Motive to her skill list, and a diviner added Listen and Spot.

That’s what disciplines do. The Psion class has its unified power list that has some nice, solid, reliable powers, but each discipline has a short list of powers (usually only a couple per level) that only they can use. So, any Psion can learn Conceal Thoughts or Cloud Mind, but only a telepath can take Suggestion or Crisis of Breath (which has the oh-so-stylish effect of making the victim forget to breathe). The exception to this is taking the feat Expanded Knowledge, which lets you gain a single additional power known, including discipline-specific powers. If you want, you can have, say, an Egoist to uses Expanded Knowledge to pick up Astral Construct and Dominate and Teleport, but at that point you’re spending so many feats that this versatility is the crux of your build.

The disciplines are as follows.

Egoists specialize in Psychometabolism. These include a lot of self buffs that could be useful on a gish if you take the Illithid Slayer prestige class, though otherwise a lot of them are likely to be a bit wasted. They include the Metamorphosis spells, which are basically Polymorph and Shapechange, and they get some of the few psionic healing powers (which tend to be underwhelming, but that’s really not what psionics does).

Kineticists specialize in Psychokinesis. They blow stuff up, mainly. They start off getting some of the better shapes for explosions, like Energy Ball (20’ burst at range), but also get abilities like Control Body (the telekinetic version of Dominate Person), Control Air, the psionic Antimagic Field, and other handy incidentals.

Nomads specialize in psychoportation. They get teleportation/movement powers like Teleport and Fly. Moving is useful, but it is somewhat one-dimensional. They do get things like Detect Teleportation, Banishment, and one of their 9th-level powers lets them blow XP to actually redo an entire round, but overall, it’s pretty boring.

Seers specialize in clairsentience. They’re exactly what you expect seers to be. Scrying and divination-y buffs.

Shapers specialize in metacreativity, which is most comparable to conjuration. And much like conjuration, it’s the most versatile of the bunch; Astral Construct is the equivalent of the Summon X series (and my favorite power), creation spells, some damage spells (though not on the same level as Kineticists), making new universes, lots of fun.

Telepaths specialize in (dramatic pause) telepathy. Surprise, surprise. They break your brain. Telepaths have the biggest list of additional powers, but they’re ultimately very similar. Control brains, read brains. It’s less one-dimensional than enchantment, including such fun things as making a target to forget their heart needs to beat (one of psionics’ few literal save-or-dies). Then, there’s Mind Switch. It’s exactly what it sounds like, and always fun. Then, the most stylish of all possible powers, Mind Seed; the target’s mind is slowly overridden until they become you. In other words, something that’s actually interesting and scary rather than just “control the target again.”

Also, WotC released a series of alternate class features for each of the specializations, letting you trade away bonus feats (after all, you don’t have much else to trade) for various perks, like a Bardic Knowledge analogue for Seers or Minor Shapechange for Egoists (basically Disguise Self at will, but it’s not an illusion). Most of them aren't huge or world-shaking, but they're nice.

One thing to keep in mind when running a Psion is that just because you can fire off your powers at full blast every round, always using the maximum allowed power points doesn’t necessarily mean you should. If you’re always going full blast, you’ll run out of power points very quickly, so you must exercise self-control.

This feeds into the most important choice you have to make; power selection. You need powers that are reliable, age well, and at least some of them need to stay useful even with lower power point expenditure; even if you’re fifth level, a one-point astral construct is still a useful and worthwhile contributor, even if only as a one-square wall, a speed bump, or a flanking buddy. You should also consider flexibility; a power that can be used for a great many things in a great many circumstances is a powerful asset. Again, talking about Astral Construct, you can have it do many things, scout around corners, run down a hallway to trigger traps, fetch a key from a wall, possibly even ride it as a flying mount, or any number of things in a broad array of circumstances. Meanwhile Catfall… um… decreases falling damage.

Also, be careful not to get too many redundant powers. You don’t need Energy Ray and Energy Cone and Energy Ball and Energy Wave and Energy Missiles and Energy Bolt and whatever other energy shape variants happen to be out there. You can probably get by with just Energy Ray and either Energy Bolt or Energy Ball (depending on if you’re a kineticist).

Do not spread yourself too thin. I’ve seen a lot of folks stock up on the situational powers that they “need” to the point where they don’t have any bread and butter abilities to use in normal situations. If you need incidentals, carry power stones of them (which are just reskinned scrolls).

Now, all that said, your party role is probably going to be similar to that of a Wizard or Sorcerer, unless you go for a spellsword route. That is to say, not dealing damage. Granted, you can do damage, and you’re not horrible at it, but most other classes are better at it and don’t have to spend power points to do it. Rather, you’re there for utility, control, buffing, and debuffing (though psionic powers tend to be a bit greedier than magic, and thus a bit lighter on buffs you can actually share with the party). You’re probably going to be the Knowledge monkey, though if you choose the right discipline and a decent charisma score (or the powers to replace a charisma score), you can manage as party face; and since powers are effectively still and silent by default, with a fairly easy Concentration check, the diplomatic powers and mind reading become far more useful.

As for stats, just like the Wizard, you want your intelligence as high as possible, and everything else is a distant second. Constitution is important for hit points and Concentration checks. Dexterity is for AC and that all-important initiative. Season with wisdom, charisma, and strength to taste, but you can dump all three if you really want.

Gear is… a bit of a blank slate. You don’t have a spellbook to pad out, so you won’t be pouring half your wealth there. There are the standard stat boosters, and you can expect to dole out a hefty sum for those expendables that make you more flexible, but overall, there’s not a whole lot you need. However, because powers do not suffer from arcane spell failure, you can wear armor despite lack of proficiency. Leather armor and masterwork studded leather would have no penalty, nor would a mithral chain shirt or a feycraft (DMG2) mithral breastplate. Since the only penalty for wearing armor you aren’t proficient in is that the armor check penalty applies to attack rolls, you may not even care about the penalties and you could go around in mountain plate with a tower shield if you really wanted, though I wouldn’t recommend it; you’re not likely to have the strength to carry it, and the loss of mobility hurts.

Strongest (real) true manifester
Low reliance on gear

Psionics do tend to be weaker than magic (a good thing, but still a weakness)
Even having the most powers of any (real) psionic class, it’s a limited selection
Has the squishy Wizard skeleton

Remaining classes: Ardent, Artificer, Binder, Crusader, Divine Mind, Dread Necromancer, Erudite, Incarnate, Lurk, Psychic Rogue, Psychic Warrior, Soulborn, Swordsage, Totemist, Warblade, Wilder.

Next Week: Wilder

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Expanded Class Feature 3: Soulknife

Class: Soulknife
Source: Expanded Psionics Handbook

This is the first class I’m going through from the Expanded Psionics Handbook, but it’s not really a psionic class. It gets a couple power points, but no powers, which is about like saying a class gets one spell slot, but no spells. So, it's usable with about zero knowledge of psionics.

Fluffy Bits:
You have a knife. It’s made of your soul/mind/chakra/generic metaphysical component of self. It’s for stabbing people.

And, that’s about it. Like the Fighter or the Rogue, this class isn’t really tied to any strong fluff baggage. It’s really whatever you make of it. The class is mainly a way of giving a character a magical bent in combat without making them a spellcaster.

Cruncy Bits:
You have a knife. It’s made of your soul. And that’s about it, but I get ahead of myself.

The class has a d10 hit die, medium BAB, strong will and reflex saves, 4+in skill points per level with a list comparable to the Monk’s, along with proficiency in simple weapons, light armor, shields, and their own mindblades.

Right off the bat, we run into one of the class’s biggest problems. What is it? Is it supposed to be a frontline combat class? Is it supposed to be a secondary skirmisher? The d10 hit die suggests one, the medium BAB and skills suggest the other, and the class features themselves are similarly indecisive.

Your primary class feature is your mindblade, a weapon made of generic magicness that you can summon and dismiss at will. We’ll get back to it shortly.

Other than that, you get Weapon Focus and Greater Weapon Focus for free. You get two power points, mainly to let you use psionic feats. You get Psychic Strike, which lets you spend a move action to charge your mind blade with bonus damage for your next attack; this scales from 1d8 at level 3 to 5d8 at level 19. The problem there is that if you spend that move action, you can’t make a full attack, so most likely it’s really just a bonus to your first attack’s damage, and not a very impressive one at that when compared to something like Sneak Attack, which is much greater and can be applied to an entire full attack. Also, creatures that aren’t alive or are immune to mind-affecting abilities are immune to Psychic Strike, for some reason.

Later, they get Speed of Thoughs- a bonus feat that amounts to +10’ to their movement speed- the equivalent of Whirlwind Attack, and at level 13, they get a feature called Knife to the Soul, perhaps their most unique and dangerous feature. It allows them to swap out those mediocre damage die from Psychic Strike for ability damage to mental stats, so they can deal 3-5 damage to intelligence, wisdom, or charisma. Remember, any stat reduced to zero renders the subject dead, comatose, or paralyzed, so this is a way to bypass some enemies’ hit points entirely. Still, three points of mental damage at level 13 isn’t earthshaking.

And then, there’s the mindblade. It starts out as a shortsword, and later you can change it into either a bastard sword or a longsword, or you can split it into two mindblades, reducing the enhancement bonus on each by one. You can throw your mindblade starting at level 2, but can’t make a full attack throwing it until level 17, nearly making it a capstone, and perhaps the lamest capstone ever.

The weapon scales from being a +1 weapon at level 4 to being a +5 weapon at level 20. You can start applying weapon enhancements to it as early as level six, ranging from +1 to +4 in enhancements (for a total of +9-equivalent weapon by level 20) and you can change the enhancements through eight hours of meditation, but you have to pick them from a fairly short list, and that list isn’t very good.

This is probably the class’s biggest failing. Their primary ability is that they have a free magic weapon, but every melee character is going to have a magic weapon. If that weapon is going to be their primary ability, it had better be one awesome weapon. However, at level 4, wealth by level is 5400 gold. A +1 weapon costs about 2300 g. A Fighter probably has a +1 sword already, along with armor and shield. At level 20, wealth by level is a whopping 760,000 gold, which makes that 81,000g-equivalent +9 mindblade less than spectacular since the Fighter’s probably walking around with a +10 sword or close to it. What’s more, at that level, the +10 sword probably has +9 from various enchantments making it a +1 lotsofstoff sword, then the party Cleric or Wizard casts Greater Magic Weapon to bring its enhancement up to +5. Meanwhile, the Mindblade’s enhancement is already +5 meaning it can’t benefit, so effectively, you may as well be getting a +5-equivalent weapon. You could say that the big benefit of the class is the ability to change the enhancements on that weapon, but the list of available enhancements is pretty crummy.

And that’s the class in its entirety. Really, all it gets is a sword, but without the combat chops to really back it up or any secondary perks like Sneak Attack or Skirmish to back up its lighter frame.

Really, just build like nearly any melee character. Physical stats are important. Mental stats really aren’t. Dexterity’s more important than it is for a Fighter since you only get light armor and both stealth and detection skills appear on your list, but don’t think you can go full-on skill monkey.

The problem with multiclassing is, your main feature is your mindblade and you slow progression if you multiclass, so it’s something you’ll have to keep to a minimum.

Some of your strongest enhancements, like Soulbreaker, only trigger on a critical hit, so even though you don’t get any 18-20 crit weapons, it may be worth your while to invest in a critical hit build, possibly splitting your mindblade in order to dual-wield for more attacks (and thus more chances to crit) and using the usually underwhelming Power Critical for a bonus on confirmation rolls.

Your list of available enhancements is short, so know them well and use them as best you can. Wounding’s constitution damage is always welcome, since the more hit die an enemy has, the bigger the impact of constitution loss. This also goes well with a dual-wielder, for more attacks, more hits, and more constitution damage, and Mindcrusher can really sap psionic characters dry by inflicting power point damage.

However, mainly, I’d suggest talking with your DM about implementing some Soulknife fix or another. Google should reveal many. My ad hoc version would be to grant the Soulknife full BAB, scale the mindblade from +1 to +10 from level 2 to level 20, working like normal weapons in that you get a +X equivalent weapon, so at level 4 when you’d get a +2 mindblade, you can have a +2 enhancement bonus or convert it to a +1 flaming mindblade. Then, for the whole nine yards, grant martial weapon proficiency, let you turn the mindblade into any weapon you’re proficient with (possibly including ranged weapons), and remove the restriction on the enhancements that can be placed on it, then maybe something to change weapon materials (though that may be worth a feat). So, if you know you’re gonna be fighting an undead horde, you can turn your sword from a +1 keen, wounding falchion into a +1 undead bane disruption maul, and that’s entirely appropriate. A class built around the notion of, “I have an awesome weapon,” and that’s all they get, then that had better be the most awesome weapon in the group most of the time.

Stealth and detection skills
Gets a free weapon
Can inflict ability damage with no save

That weapon is pretty crummy
Limited weapon enhancements
Poor focus keeps it from doing anything particularly well

No, I didn’t say much about this class, simply because there’s not a whole lot to say.

Remaining classes: Ardent, Artificer, Binder, Crusader, Divine Mind, Dread Necromancer, Erudite, Incarnate, Lurk, Psion, Psychic Rogue, Psychic Warrior, Soulborn, Swordsage, Totemist, Warblade, Wilder.

Next Week: Psion

Sunday, August 1, 2010

How it Works: Psionics

This is just a unified “how it works” section for all the psionic classes, so I’m not reposting the same thing for every psionic class. That’s Ardent, Divine Mind, Erudite, Lurk, Psion, Psychic Rogue, Psychic Warrior, and Wilder.

As D&D’s redheaded stepchild, there’s not a great deal of psionic material. There are only two dedicated psionic books in the 3.5 library; Expanded Psionics Handbook and Complete Psionic, which is generally regarded as the worst of the Complete series (though it is still decent for extra content). Also, there’s the Mind’s Eye, which is a series of WotC web enhancements that amounts to a third psionic sourcebook. Other than that, bits and pieces of psionic material have cropped up randomly throughout the library whenever WotC remembered they exist and probably needed to pad a book a bit. Sandstorm and Races of Stone have psionic material. Eberron has significant psionic material as well.

So, first, what is psionics? Quite simply, it’s a magic system designed specifically for spontaneous casting. Nothing more, nothing less. Some people decry psionics for the very word, yet overall, it’s far truer to most classical depictions of magi in fantasy than Vancian. In fact, other than in Vance’s own works, Vancian is fairly rare, and it’s fairly silly to boot.

Psionics are not science fiction. This is a myth, and it is baseless. If you don’t like the words “psionic” or “manifest,” that’s fine, but they need ever come up in-character. When describing my psionic characters in-character, they’re not “psions who manifest powers,” they’re “mages who cast spells.” That’s not refluffing. That’s what they are. The effects are magic, and unless you want to houserule it, “Psionics are magic,” is an explicitly stated rule. The variant, “Psionics is different,” is basically prefaced with, “This is a bad idea.”

I know this has little to do with how psionics work, but it’s a necessary preface to any discussion of psionics as a whole, so it goes here in the primer. There are far too many people who write psionics off with, “Bester has no place in D&D,” without ever actually looking at the material (or worse, just looking at the pictures of creepy bald dudes with crystal fetishes). Hell, I used to hold that position, and it was blatant idiocy on my part. (And the standard disclaimer: This does not mean anyone who doesn’t have psionics in their games is Doing It Wrong.)

Of equal importance, 3.5 psionics are not 1e psionics. 3.5 psionics aren’t 2e psionics. 3.5 psionics aren’t even 3e psionics. Yes, in the older editions, psionics were totally broken. 3.5 is not the older editions, and 3.5 psionics are not the older editions’ psionics. In another case of “all too often,” people accuse psionics of being broken based on older editions. Or based on someone in their group who ignored a lot of the rules that balance it. Or call it “too complicated” when psionics are vastly simpler than Vancian, and they’re just less familiar with psionics, which is a completely separate issue, and one that’s completely temporary.

Anyways, on to the actual mechanics. First, the vocabulary. “Manifest” is another word for “cast.” “Power” is another word for “spells. “Power points” are the currency that replaces spell slots. “Disciplines” replace “schools” for magic spell, and psionics have their own divisions.

With Vancian, you generally keep track of up to ten pools of points- the spell slots from cantrips to 9th level spells- and every spell costs one point. With psionics, you have only one pool of points, your power points, but powers have a variable cost. Each level of powers has a minimum cost (1 for 1st-level, 3 for 2nd, 5 for 3rd, and so on through 17 for 9th). Thus, five power points are roughly comparable to a third level spell slot. You get so many points per level, and there is a table for determining bonus power points from high ability scores, much like with magic. You can spend your points to cast any of your limited powers known, so long as you have the points.

Manifesting a power works mostly like casting a spell, however powers do not have verbal components, nor do they have somatic components, nor are they subject to arcane spell failure, so psionic characters can legally use armor with little penalty and they’re capable of manifesting powers in a number of situations where magic-users can’t. Like when polymorphed into a housecat. Oddly, the circumstances that force Concentration checks are the same, so you need to make a Concentration check to manifest while entangled, but you can manifest without penalty when completely paralyzed.

For the most part, other than effects like range and duration, powers do not scale naturally. A Psion spending one point to manifest Energy Ray (which is, unsurprisingly, a ray attack that deals energy damage) can only deal one die of damage, whether they’re 1st-level or 20th. What psionics does have, however, is an augmentation system. A one-point Energy Ray deals one point of damage, but a two-point Energy Ray deals two die of damage and a twenty-point Energy Ray deals twenty die of damage. Depending on the power, there can be various augmentations like increased saves, affecting additional creature types, increased duration, and so on. This lets powers age much better than spells, and stay useful for much longer. Even though you’ll have fewer powers than, say, a Sorcerer, it’s not a huge deal since your powers stay useful longer.

This does not mean that a 10th-level Psion with a hundred power points can blow them all on a hundred-die Energy Ray. One of the most important rules in psionics is that you cannot spend more points on a power than your manifester level (translation: caster level), save through a scant few abilities that let you reach a little higher than normal. So no blowing a hundred points on a power unless you’re level 100.

Also, XPH introduces psionic focus. In short? Make a Concentration check as a full-round action. If it’s 20+, you’re focused. It doesn’t really do much on its own, though you can expend focus to take 15 on a single Concentration check (making you not-focused). Mostly, it’s another form of currency that numerous other abilities rely on. Some bonuses are only available while focused, some abilities require you to expend focus. For example, metapsionic feats increase the power point cost of a power (still subject to standard limits) and require you to expend psionic focus, so don’t expect to ever pile on three or four metapsionic feats on the same power, even if you can spend the points.

And that covers the bulk of it. The rest are the details of the powers, classes, and feats themselves.

On the whole, psionics is more streamlined and intuitive than Vancian (and more balanced, to boot), and the way the powers and augmentations work, powers are far more a part of the character that can stick with you from beginning to end than something you just use for a little while only to toss it out for something completely different a couple levels later.