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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Expand your mind with the Psionics Handbook

by Ken Newquist / December 1, 2001

Psionic abilities in previous editions of Dungeons and Dragons were awkward add-ons that only the most zealous individuals were willing to use. D&D3rd Edition's Psionics Handbook changes all that, folding psionics almost seamlessly into the core D&D rules.

The Psionics Handbook was one of the first supplemental rule books released after the three "core" D&D books (the Dungeon Master's Guide, the Player's Handbook, and the Monster Manual).

The 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons Psionics Handbook provides complete rules for psionics. Unlike previous editions, characters do not gain psionic abilities in addition to their traditional classes -- instead they must choose to take levels in two new classes: psion and psionic warrior.

Psions are the traditional masters of psionic energy, similar in principle and strength to the wizard and sorcerer classes. They get a similar amount of hit points as those classes -- a d4 -- and the ability to manifest psionic powers. In addition, they acquire some of the classic psionic "attack" and "defense" modes -- special abilities that are used in psionic combat with other psionic creatures.

Psionic Warriors are a hybrid of a psion and a fighter, gaining some psion abilities -- usually limited to those that affect the body -- as well as feats and attack bonuses similar to fighters.

Both manifest psionic powers in the same way: each has a pool of "power points" which are based on their character level (psions further expand this pool based on their primary attribute score). Each psionic power they know costs a certain number of power points which are spent from their point pool.

If a manifested power requires a saving throw, the "Difficulty Class" for the save is based on a d20 roll, plus the level of the power, plus a bonus (or penalty) based on the psion's attribute for that power (i.e. charisma for the "Charm Person" power).

Some of the skills and feats introduced mimic those from the Player's Handbook, such as the various "craft magic item" feats or the "concentration" skill. Others are new. "Auto-Hypnosis" allows psionic characters to continue to act at 0 hit points, ignore poison effects, or snap out of fear. "Stabilize Self" allows the psion to forcefully stabilize him or herself when dying at -1 to --9 hit points. New feats provide some of the familiar enhancements -- maximizing psionic powers or extending their range. Others provide unique enhancements: "inertial armor" provides psions with an armor bonus as long as they have one power point left, while "Psionic Charge" allows individuals to run at different angles while making a charge (normally characters need to charge in a straight line).

As with skills and feats, some powers replicate traditional spells from the Player's Handbook, but most are wholly original. Some are exceptionally nasty -- "concussion" pummels opponents with telekinetic force, and can deal either normal or subdual damage. The various "claw" spells -- claws of the bear, claws of the vampire, etc. -- transform the psion's hands into weapons, while "baleful teleport" rips molecules from an opponents body. And the truly cool "genesis" allows psions to create their own demiplane within the Astral Plane.

The book offers up a few prestige classes before closing out with a section dedicated to psionic armor, weapons, and miscellaneous magical items.

Psionic Rules Worth Using

Back when D&D 3rd Edition was released in late 2000, my gaming group decided that we'd run a sub-campaign to test out the rules and see if we wanted to convert the main campaign to the new edition. The campaign started in January 2001, and one aspect of the 3E rules that I was eager to try was psionics.

I've always liked the concept behind psionics -- that there are mysteries of the mind waiting to be unleashed and harnessed by a powerful will. And I always thought that psionics should be different from run-of-the-mill magical effects. I also thought, however, that it should complement the core rules, not break them.

Previous editions failed to mesh properly with the core rules, and ended up creating more work for the DM then the concept -- however cool -- was worth. With 3rd edition though, Wizards of the Coast has finally developed psionics rules worth using.

By default, the psionic rules work and play well with magic -- in fact, many have described psionics as being a 3rd magic system for D&D, further liberating spell casters from the restrictions of the classic "wizard" class. Psionic powers can be dispelled by magic, and magic dispelled by psionic powers. This makes incorporating psionics into a campaign far easier than before.

One of my favorite elements of the Psionics rules is the d20 roll for determining the difficulty class of a power. This truly sets psionics apart from the standard "divine" and "arcane" schools of magic, which rely on fixed DCs, and keeps players guessing.

With a normal first level mage or cleric, the maximum DC (excluding attribute-based bonuses for high Intelligence or Wisdom) for their spells is 11 (10 + the spell level of 1). But for a first level psion, that same max is 21! That makes even low-level psions a threat to upper level PCs. ((evil dm grin))

The downside is that the minimum DC for the psion is 2 -- as opposed to the 11 for the normal classes, which can make for some embarrassing moments as PCs easily make saving throws, but it certainly keeps players guessing. And of course, it also allows PC psions to throw those very same curveballs at their DMs.

Calculations can get a bit complicated -- since each power has a primary attribute, with the bonuses or penalties for factored into the DC for that power, players have to keep track of the DC for each power. It's a little bit more paperwork, put it's worth it for the uniqueness of psionics.

The descriptions of the psionic powers have a techno-New-Age feel to them that's reminiscent of Egon's jargon-filled lines from Ghostbusters. Powers have audio and visual "manifestations" while psychic constructs are made from "ectoplasma". The terminology helps to reinforce the idea that psionics is different, but it could be problematic for those who are running an old style Old English type game.

The book spends sometime discussing a "psionics are different' variant in which magic and psionics don't affect one another. It's not recommended, but it is an option. I would like to have seen a third variant -- "psionics are sort of different", in which magic and psionics affect one another, but are less than entirely effective -- for example, when trying to dispel a magical effect using "dispel psionics" the DC would be increased, because they are two alien systems.

The only major flaw in the Psionics Handbook is its size. This book was the first of the hardcovers that wasn't a core book, and is remarkably skimpy at 160 pages, especially when compared to the more substantial Manual of the Planes (222 pages) and the downright encyclopedia-like Forgotten Realms book (320 pages). The extra pages could have been used for campaign ideas, more prestige classes, more psionic items -- heck, pretty much more of everything, As it stands, the book has enough content to introduce psionics to a campaign, but only just. More would have been welcome, and worth the added price.

The Psionics Handbook is a worthwhile buy for those who enjoy the old-school feel that psionics brings to a D&D campaign or who are looking for a new set of rules to shake up their game.

Details

  • Psionics Handbook
  • Wizards of the Coast
  • Hardcover, 160 pages (March 1, 2001)
  • ISBN: 0786918357