I wasn’t in the habit of commenting on every Unearthed Arcana that came down the pike, especially since Brandes Stoddard does a much better job of it than I can, but WOTC has been putting out such juicy options, and I’ve got a special reason to dive into this particular Unearthed Arcana.
The most recent article details Psionic versions of three subclasses, one each for Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard. I feel particularly compelled to comment on this one, because I had just mentioned on social media recently that my gaming group had a discussion about how the best way to model psionics in 5e would likely be with psionically flavored subclasses, and here we are.
Time to reuse a name from 3rd edition!
Psychic Warriors are fighters that learn to use their mental abilities to augment their combat abilities. In broad strokes, this allows them to do things like reducing damage, adding psychic damage to their attacks, doing bursts of force damage that can move opponents closer or further away, providing psychic cover, and a subclass capstone of regeneration, fast movement, and a reduced amount of movement to stand up from prone.
What’s interesting is that the Psychic Warrior is getting tools to defend their companions, but not always in the 4th edition way of being a defender. Reducing damage to allies and boosting their AC is kind of cool, but it doesn’t necessarily redirect opponents to taking on your fighter.
The most “defender-y” tool the Psychic Warrior gets, they don’t get until 7th level. You get the ability to lessen damage to your friends, but that doesn’t really convince the bad guys to come after you instead of the squishy casters, or penalize them for ignoring you, which is peak defender behavior.
Since we’re already playing with telekinesis with this character, I think I would have almost rather had some kind of “gravity well” ability to pull opponents to the psychic warrior, instead of just the general augmented defenses ability, but that may be because I’ve got a Max Press Warden in my current D&D game, so I’m already seeing a lot of “pulls” and “rough terrain to get away” moves going off.
Another 3rd edition class name takes the stage. Also, this class is pretty much Psylocke, and always has been.
Soulknives get to manifest a psychic blade that is the focused totality of their psychic ability. Essentially it’s a mentally produced psychic short sword, and it takes a bonus action to conjure. You can manifest one for each hand, and they can be thrown, so it seems like it would make sense to manifest both at once even if you don’t plan on throwing one, just in case.
Soulknives can also pick from a list of three abilities once per long rest. Because you are Psylocke, one of those is being able to telepathically communicate with others, but your other, non-Psylocke options are an increased movement speed, and a bonus to your hit point maximum. I’m not sure 5 extra feet per movement feels quite as flashy as the other two options.
Eventually, Soulknives can scare people when they hit them with their weapons (it’s amazing how few opponents are scared of PCs when they get hit with weapons). They can also become invisible at 13th level, and the capstone subclass ability is a big psychic boom that can do a lot of damage as well as stun your opponent, at the cost of one of your manifested blades (manifest them both when you can!)
The Arcane Tradition of Psionics also shows up for wizards. I have favored the notion of modifying how someone casts their spells because they are using psychic abilities, ever since I saw it with the Psychic Expert Path in Shadow of the Demon Lord.
Wizards that study psionics get a Psionic Focus, which counts as a spellcasting focus, and also lets you reroll 1s when you roll for damage with spells that do psychic or force damage. That’s a neat, simple reinforcement of a theme.
The tradition also allows access to an extra “psychic themed” cantrip, which you can cast without components, and might have a bit of a kicker past the normal cantrip ability.
At 6th level, you can take on “Thought Form,” which gives you resistance to certain damage types, and lets you cast your spells without components, as long as the base spell doesn’t require a component with a base gold piece cost.
At higher levels, you gain a new bonus “psychic themed” spell to your spellbook, and eventually you add your Intelligence modifier to spells that deal psychic or force damage. Your subclass capstone is the ability to fly and phase through objects in your “thought form.”
The next section adds a few spell lists that are “Psionic Spells,” which are lists of spells that reinforce the idea of using psychic abilities, but what is interesting is that these lists aren’t really for anything except as an example. Nobody is really restricted to only using these spells by the document, it’s mainly just an example of spells that are more “psychic feeling” than other spells.
There are new spells, in the form of the old school psionic attack and defense modes. In addition, the mind sliver cantrip that showed up back when we got the squishy, creepy sorcerer/warlock Unearthed Arcana is reprinted here as well.
If you use feats in your campaign, the article also presents new feats to represent, well, wild talents for lack of a better term (in this edition). Telekinetic lets you use mage hand and you can also use a bonus action to mentally shove creatures near your mage hand. Telepathic gives you proficiency in a skill were reading someone’s mind might be helpful, and also lets you mentally communicate with people within 30 feet of you.
The State of Psionics
I’ll be honest, this is, for the most part, what I want from psionics in my D&D game. A way to nod towards characters that are more psychic than flashy and pyrotechnic, without having a subsystem that does something very similar to other aspects of the game, but using more complicated mechanics to achieve that same result.
I watched the D&D Beyond video where Jeremy Crawford discussed this design philosophy, and he mentioned that the problem with a robust subsystem for psionics is that many people then chose not to engage with it. I would argue there is another consequence, and that is, the people that do engage with it become very attached to how that corner of the game works, which makes them less than satisfied when the concept is reintegrated into the mainstream assumptions of the game.
I’m not sure I have a good answer for this. I want to be respectful of people that want a robust, delineated system for psionics, but I also want what’s going to mesh the best with the overall game. Just like I’ve come to accept that maybe a Forgotten Realms that is just one corner of Dungeons and Dragons Land, instead of having the same level of detail invested in it as a distinct setting, maybe psionics being mainstreamed is a sacrifice at the altar of overall brand coherence.
I like the psychic warrior, although I wish they had a little bit more stickiness to them. I want to see a soul knife in action, but in general, I like the overall theme and how the abilities support them. I like wizard as a psion, but I’m not sure the “casting without components” should be linked only to the Thought Form ability to reinforce the psychic theme. The concept works for me, but I feel like some of the details could be a little more . . . flavorful?
But overall, I’m pretty excited about the plug and play nature of psionic subclasses, because I’m almost certain that means they are more likely to see use at the table than if we got new classes and a new casting subsystem.