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Let's Read PHBR5: The Complete Psionics Handbook


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Welcome to another Let's Read! This time it's The Complete Psionics Handbook, or PHBR5.

This is a 1991 release (so still relatively early to 2nd edition) that tackled the tough job of translating the oddball not-magic of psychic abilities to the 2nd edition rules. It should be noted that I believe this is the first in the PHBR series which is 'origional content' in the sense of presenting a new class instead of providing options and variants for existing classes. The Psionicist is also outside the 2e paradigm of four class families (Warrior, Magic-User, Cleric, and Rogue, I think) used as a method of simplifying things like magic item allowances. I feel like the 2e PHB promised to expand the class 'families' by adding more classes to each, but this really didn't happen so much as we got kits, specialty priests, and specialty wizards.

This is a Steve Winter book. Mr. Winter has a long history with TSR and other companies, and was a big part of D&D through 3e, I believe. Blake Mobley is credited as helping with the monster updates (a chapter at the end provides some new monsters (at least for this edition) and restores psionic abilities to classics like the Mind Flayer.

What Has Come Before
1e Psionics
The below is a lengthy review of 1st edition's psionics rules I wrote over the weekend. It's long, but I feel it's relevant to this discussion, as 2e's psionics rules were certainly an attempt to stay true to these even as massive changes were brought in.

Appendix 1 of the AD&D Player’s Handbook is devoted to psionics(As fits this edition, there’s some additional material in the Dungeon Master’s Guide).

It’s noted as an optional rule, something the DM can decide to use or not. To potentially have Psionic powers a character needs a Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma of 16 or greater, but you can’t choose to have psionics, instead randomly rolling. This is somewhat similar to the ‘Wild Talent’ concept that will be explored further in The Complete Psionics Handbook. it’s notes as a human thing, possibly dwarves and halflings. No psionic elves!

Getting psionic abilities requires a percentile roll. Roll 100+ and you get super cool bonus powers no one else does. This is, of course, modified. Add 2.5 for each point of Intelligence above 16. Add 1.5 for Wisdom above 16. add .5 for Charisma above 16. (So a character with all 18s would have +9 to the roll.)

You either have psionics or you don’t. Most characters won’t, obviously. This is essentially a system where a character either wins the lottery and is awesome or doesn't. There is a chance to make the roll for psionics then roll poorly on the subsequent rolls, which would be frustrating.

The lucky character next rolls percentile again to determine 'psionic strength' adding bonuses for high stats (but the bonus is totally different from he above guidelines, although the same stats are used). This number (d100+bonus) is the character’s psychic strength, but doubled as psychic ability. However, this is halved to attack strength and defense strength. Yes, this is confusing.

Psionic ability is noted as a range from 10 to 344.

The character then gets to roll random percentiles for their attack modes, defense modes and disciplines (described as ‘magic-like power’ or essentially utility abilities). Attack is anywhere from 1-5 attack modes chosen by the character, which will be familiar to those accustomed to the 2nd edition psionic:

Psionic Blast: An expensive, short-ranged attack, but capable of affecting non-pisonics. I think this is the Mind Flayer’s trademark attack. It’s also a code attack, so can target groups.

Mind Thrust is a cheap attack that is described as a ‘stabbing attack.’

Ego Whip makes the target feel inferior and worthless, or perhaps superior and megalomaniacal.

Id Insinuation can affect a small area (2” x 2”) of psychically aware individuals.

Psychic Crush is powerful and expensive, targeting one psychic opponent. It’s unique in that it can only be opposed by one defense (Thought Shield).

That’s the attacks. Next a roll is made for defense modes. Defense has a slight advantage in that a character will always get to choose at least 2 defense modes. Important note: Psychic attack modes are (with the one noted exception) only for attacks on other psychics.

Mind Blank, Thought Shield, and Mental Barrier only protect the individual. Intellect Fortress protects a 10’ radius from the individual, while Tower of Iron Will covers 3’. (Yes, they’ve jumped from ’scale’ measurements to ‘real’ measurements in the same page.) They scale up in point cost in the order shown.

Note that the Attack and Defense modes are all given letter codes (A-E for attacks, F-J for defenses) which are used in notations in the Monster Manuals and such. So a monster in the MM might be noted as having Psionics A,B,E,G,H or sometihng, then the number of attack/defense points, and finally a list of Disciplines. I feel like a lot of monsters ended up will 'all' for these.

The character then randomly rolls for disciplines. They’re broken into Major and Minor and it’s a weird table… In general higher rolls are better, but there’s a strange ‘spike’ in the 91-95 range (5 minor, 1 Major disciplines) while higher rolls give out 4 and 2 respectively. It's presumably there to give an option for a character with a lot of lesser powers. Disciplines are noted as taking a number of points from both the Attack and Defense pools as stated in the descriptions.

There’s 22 Minor disciplines, padded to 24 for a table noted as "(d12, d6)”. I assume this means roll a d12 and a d6, doubling if the d6 is 4+, but that’s just my guess.The two padding results are “Roll again (or select one)*” with the asterisk prompting to discuss how this si handled with the referee.

Minor Disciplines include:
Animal Telepathy (with complex rules making it expand ins cope with the level of the caster. A low-level psionic can only talk to mammals, but adds marsupials, then other creatures as they level. At 12 they add “monsters” (The quotation marks are in the book!) and 14th level psionicists can talk to plants!

Body Equilibrium: We’ll see some powers titled like this in PHBR5, but in this case it’s some sort of personal density control, allowing the user to walk on water and similar. Also replicates the Feather Fall spell.

Body Weaponry: Armor and weapons when unarmed. Starts as AC9 and a club-equivalent, but scales with level. The AC uses three columns for Cleric, Fighter, and Thief respectively: no idea what a Wizard would do, or of course the later classes added to AD&D 1e. The fighter gets the best armor, followed by the cleric and the thief. The weapon scales as well, topping out at a Morning Star and Sword, long +1 for the Thief and Cleric, although there’s an asterisk missing to identify which gets the better option. A fighter-psionicst can get the equivalent of a Long Sword +4 at 12th level!

Cell Adjustment: Psychic healing of others.

Clairaudience and Clairvoyance: as the spell.

Detection of Good/Evil: Not quite as the spell: It has a percentage chance of failure, actually.

Detection of Magic: Interesting as the 2e rules really reinforce that magic is ‘different’ from psionic. Determines type of magic on a 5%/level chance.

Domination: Taking over someone’s mind.

Empathy: Sensing emotional states.

ESP: Reading ‘unshielded’ thoughts. Requires understanding the target’s language to get meaningful thoughts.

Expansion: The psionic gets bigger. Really. 1’/level of growth, maxing out at 12. It also grants strength (using absolute scores: a 3’ tall psionic halfling would hit 4’ and get a 17 Strength unless theirs was higher.) and damage (+1 per level). Includes spot rules for worse equipment (enlarges, but magical items have a 5% chance of being destroyed if enlarged).

Hypnosis: A weak charm effect.

Invisibility: Invisibility the spell, but with some special exceptions to make it more “wiping the image from people’s minds” than truly becoming see-through to light.

Levitation: Much like the spell.

Mind over Body: Used to temporarily negate the need for food, water, and sleep.

Molecular Agitation: Vibrating real fast. Effects are different based on the material targeted, but basically heats stuff up.

Object Reading: Determine the history of an item handled. I think this becomes an interesting 'thing' in the 2e rules.

Precognition: Predicting the future. There’s a system (of sorts) based around the idea of ‘unknown factors’ which is not really defined. There’s also a note that might as well say the DM needs to make something up.

Reduction. Let’s get small!

Suspend Animation: Kind of like Mind over Body, but more drastic. The user goes into a state of unconsciousness for a specified time period with no need for air and temperature resistance (35 fahrenheit).

Sensitivity to Psychic Impressions: Vaguely defined ability to sense “psychic residue” like a million voices crying out in agony or something.

Major Sciences are rolls for as well. The ‘filler’ option may allow choosing Minor Disciplines at DM’s option.

Astral Projection: A self-only version of the cleric’s astral spell.

Aura Alteration: Can be used to hide or misrepresent alignment and to see messed up alignments.

Body Control: Withstand extreme environments. Water breathing is possible at 1st level.

Dimension Door: As the spell.

Dimension Walk: More a sort of ‘slow teleport’ that doesn’t allow moving to other dimensions, but does allow rapid movement in a dimension. Like teleport from this era, there’s a chance of getting lost.

Energy Control: Immunity to energy-based attacks, essentially.

Etherealness: Shifting to the Ethereal plane.

Mass Domination:Mind controlling several people at the same time.

Mind Bar: Protection from magic and psionic mind-affecting spells. Not a perfect defense, and different from the Defense Modes. Also, costs only 5 points a day to maintain!

Molecular Manipulation: Weakening materials. Scales with level, including magical arms and armor at high levels.

Molecular Rearrangement: Transmutation of metals. At high levels, can even turn metals into Mithral or Adamantite.

Probability Travel: Another way to travel the planes via psionics. Note that it brings the body along (unlike many such abilities) and can bring others at high levels.

Telekinesis: Much like the spell.

Telempathic Projection: Empathy, but with sending enabled.

Telepathy: Mental communication, not requiring shared languages.

Telepathic Projection: Telepathic communication, but only to those with telepathy or ESP. Or the ability to plant a suggestion (as the spell) or even possess a creature.

Shape Alteration: Similar to Polymorph Self.

Teleportation: Like the spell, with an option to spend additional points to reduce the chance of an error.

That’s the powers: there’s also Psionic Combat (which is detailed in the DMG) and some other special rules.

These psionics are a point based system, which will remain true in every incarnation, and recovery uses a simple table based on a activity that will seem familiar to what we will discuss in PHBR5.

Hard Exertion: No recovery
Walking and the like: 3 points/hour
Sitting and talking and reading: 6 points/hour
resting and meditating: 12 points/hour
sleeping: 24 points/hour.

And that’s it.

What Follows
Anyone willing to comment on psionics in 3.0+? My group never used this material as the concept never really fit our DM's world.

I feel like 3.0 refined and simplified the system more, keeping it as essentially 'spell point magic' while adding a wealth of 'magic items' for psionicists and such, possibly based of material for Dark Sun and such.

4th edition had a psionicist 'power source' (essentially, a set of common design concepts shared by several classes covering different roles) that I understand was not well received. I've seen the core mechanics for psionic powers described as 'boring' and 'repetitive.' The Monk was a psionicst in this edition, apparently because there weren't enough good ideas to make a complete 'Ki' power source with nearly identical rules to the psionics power source. It is apparently considered the best of the psionic classes.

5e doesn't have psionics (yet) and several classic creatures that normally have psionics in the Monster Manual use 'spell-like abilities' instead, essentially. It'll be interesting to see if they do get a system in time, possibly with a 5e Dark Sun release.
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Yay, psionics! I can't wait until you get to the psychic elephant at the end of the book.
The psychic monsters are a real mix of weird and awesome with weird and just strange.

This is another weird book. I'll post some pics soon, but it's definitely an experiment in art style for 2e. Much of the art was actually licensed from stock photo libraries! They went for a sort of 'new age' look, far different from what I think of as the 2e 'D&D style' that had a heavy celtic/heavy metal wizards style going.


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Then why not just let marsupials be part of the "mammal" group? Seems like a really superfluous decision. Is there some weird overuse of kangaroos in 2e?
1e. No world wide web for easy research back in 1978. Though at least Gygax used "marsupials, et. al.", which at least alluded to the monotremes (and triconodonts and multituberculates, since being extinct never stopped a monster).


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Then why not just let marsupials be part of the "mammal" group? Seems like a really superfluous decision. Is there some weird overuse of kangaroos in 2e?
That was from the 1e rules, to be picky: I included that review to show the weird, arbitrary system of psionics that 1e had, before we get to the weird, arbitrary system of psionics that 2e introduced.

The 2e incarnation was more implicitly 'optional' I feel, as it was in a supplement instead of the core books. The 1e material was noted as optional, but I feel like to many gamers there was a certain amount of "It's in the book, so we have to use it."

Distinguishing Marsupials from Mammals was a Gygax thing, I guess. The intent is that the ability gets broader, covering more 'alien' minds as you level-up.

Also, to make it clear: In 1e, these abilities level with the character's normal class. This is definitely one of the 'gamist' concepts of early D&D: You need great stats already to have a chance of being psionic, so you're already awesome. Then if you get a luck roll you just get more awesome as you get all your normal class bits plus special psychic bits on top. I don't think you can really ever learn more powers in these rules, though. The 2e version amde it more interesting by making it a class, definitely.


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1e. No world wide web for easy research back in 1978. Though at least Gygax used "marsupials, et. al.", which at least alluded to the monotremes (and triconodonts and multituberculates, since being extinct never stopped a monster).
I do feel like Gygax was pretty literate and well-read, though, and probably didn't find a library trip too scary. It is interesting, though, that it wasn't until maybe 3e that we had any sort of actual firm classification of 'animal' and such as a distinction from magical monsters.
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