“You have to open your mind to me, Quaid. Open your miiiiind…”
Kuato in Total Recall (1990)
Here’s the beginning of almost any campaign in which I’m invited to play:
DM: So, what kind of character do you want to play?
Me: I’d like to play a Psion.
DM: Sorry, I don’t allow psionics in my game. It’s a whole different set of rules I’ve never learned.
Me: Well, it’s pretty similar to regular magic, but I don’t cast spells. I activate powers.
DM: Yeah, I don’t think so.
Believe it or not, this is a pretty typical state of affairs for me. I’ll be excited to be part of a new gaming group, but I find out that one of my favorite types of characters is completely inaccessible because psionics seem so esoteric. So, please allow me to illuminate while I elucidate and you ruminate on the possibilities.
Give me a break. I couldn’t find an actual Wizard vs. Psion pic on the Interwebs
Psionics vs Arcane and Divine Magics
There are a couple of ways one can look at this conundrum. First, psionics and magic are two completely different things, so if a wizard or sorcerer casts Dispel Magic to counter a psion’s power, nothing happens.
This can present a number of problems. For example, any magical defense is immediately null and void when a psion comes a-blastin’. The reverse is also true. Squishy nukes don’t do well when their defensive spells aren’t a-workin’.
On the other hand, I prefer the opposite way of looking at things. We’re talking about the manipulation of energy, and it really doesn’t matter how the energy gets manipulated.
Bear with me because I’m actually going to speak about metaphysics for a minute. What’s the difference between a .45 caliber bullet fired from a revolver, an automatic pistol, or a Thompson machine gun? The answer is: Absolutely Nothing, and that provides us with a good explanation of the difference between psionics, the arcane, and the divine.
See, it’s all just the manipulation of energy. In the case of magic, energy and its control are done from external sources. Psionics, on the other hand, is purely internal.
All that’s required is a description of the action. Wizard/Sorcerer utters words, smooshes together some components and makes a few choice hand gestures; thus a spell is cast, which will generate some sort of effect. All of these things put together create a resonance in a fantasy setting which causes otherwise impossible events to happen. Cleric takes holy symbol in hand, utters prayerful words; thus is a divine spell cast. In this case, the god(dess) in question creates the aforementioned resonance.
What’s different about psions is they actually manipulate the energies in question in their heads. The challenging question is whether or not where the manipulation of energy is important in relation to its effect.
No, I’m not talking about the band that was backing up Mike for their one quasi-hit: “The Living Years.”
Another method of determining whether or not a different type of manipulation is fair is by looking at what the different character classes can do when they’re compared side by side.
First, let’s assume each of the candidates is working with an 18 in their core ability. In the case of a wizard or a cleric, that amounts to an extra spell at each spell level from 1st to 4th. In the case of a psion, that amounts to 2, 4, 6, and 8 extra power points in levels 1-4.
Uh-oh, now we’re talking about power points vs. spells. It’s at this point that I’m going to have to admit that I didn’t exactly come up with the absolutely best parallel between psions and arcanists, because psions are a little more like sorcerers than wizards in the sense that psions, like sorcerers, have an innate awareness of their powers instead of having a requirement to learn, memorize, or study new spells/powers. However, I’m going to forge on, rather than edit all of the material I’ve already written. I’m lazy. Sue me.
But all is not lost here. We can actually take an objective look at what those power points mean when we’re trying to figure out what a psion can do when compared to an arcane or divine magic user.
A 1st level wizard (with his bonus spells) will be able to memorize two 1st-level spells and three cantrips per day. It doesn’t sound like much, but we’re not talking about taking on the Tarrasque (which should be lightly seared for best flavor), but it’s about five spells total with a maximum damage of 1d6 for a single spell. On the other hand, a cleric is working with 2 1st-level spells with an extra domain spell and three orisons per day. Granted, there are more spells available to the cleric, but one of them is tied up with a deity’s domain. Damage and healing are limited to a one-time shot of 1d8+1, with an additional bonus per level up to 5th. The advantages to being a cleric are better armor and an ability to swap out one spell for another within the cleric’s deity’s bailiwick, but by the same token, the cleric is really more about helping friends and hindering enemies than dealing direct damage. Wizards get to make with a variety of forms of nuclear nastiness. Our psion with the four power points has a maximum of three powers (we’re not dealing with feats right now) known, and can use any one of those three up to four times. The maximum amount of damage the psion can do with any 1st level power (0-level talents in the Paizofied d20 universe are dependent on the psion’s focus) is 1d10. The remaining powers on the list emulate some arcane and divine spells, but are otherwise at a similar level to either arcane or divine magic. Like a sorcerer, a psion has the ability to choose a limited number of powers in comparison to the powers that are available. Like a cleric, a psion has the ability to learn certain powers which aren’t necessarily available to other practitioners who don’t share their school/domain, and a psion can wear armor because there’s no power failure chance for wearing armor.
I’m not talking about variants, like you might see in the Pathfinder books, but the different classes that employ psionics like there are multiple classes which employ arcane and divine magic.
Looking for some sword to go with your sorcery? Throw down with a paladin or magus. Want a little rogue with your incantation? Try a bard or inquisitor on for size. Take a look at psychic warrior or soulknife. Maybe you want to heal without owing allegiance to a deity. Then perhaps a vitalist is more your speed. Wilders are likened to sorcerers while psions are usually paralleled with wizards, but wilders are more like barbarians in the way they are controlled by their emotions. That’s my opinion anyway.
“Paizo hasn’t made any official rules for it.”
True. I’m not sure why that is, and there is a third-party publisher who has done a fairly decent job of Paizo-fying the psionics rules. What’s better, is the books from the third party (Dreamscarred Press) are fairly cheap (about $10). Besides that, based on Paizo’s own website, Pathfinder isn’t designed to replace 3.5, it’s designed to either enhance or improve an already existing system under the OGL. By that rationale, anything that might exist in 3.5 D&D without an enhancement or an improvement can be run directly from the 3.5 book, if it’s available.
“I don’t know the rules for psionics.”
Fair enough. Then again, no DM should ever be expected to know absolutely every rule about every character class in any game system. Granted, a DM should have a general understanding about what a character class can do, but expecting a DM to have an eidetic memory is a little ridiculous. Besides, isn’t that the reason for acquiring the books in the first place?
“Why bother with psionics in the first place?”
Why bother with magic? Why bother with deities? Why bother with a role-playing game? Largely because it’s fantasy, and it allows us to pursue that fantasy in a variety of directions, whether that be “high fantasy,” science fiction, pulp horror, or superheroes. Psionics just adds a different flavor, like the variety of books which create new character classes, feats, spells, variants, etc.
Ok, I’m down from my soapbox, and I’ll admit I’ve been the guy who is always looking for something a little out of the ordinary when it comes to selecting a character class. Inquisitors seem very similar to Rangers, don’t they? Tell me that I can’t play a certain class, and that’s the first one I’m going to want to run, like a gunslinger. However, I do enjoy the different feel psionics provides when compared to magic. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a fan of Professor X and Jean Grey. In either case, don’t knock it because its foreign. Give it a shot like any other kind of class or race. Maybe it can add to the drama of a campaign by actually being different. Could psionics be condemned by a school of wizards or a religion? Maybe psionics is considered a different school of magic in your world. Who knows?