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

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