Wednesday, January 3, 2024

(D&D 3.5) Expanded Psionics Handbook

It was a mistake to read the Expanded Psionics Handbook (Bruce R. Cordell) so close to the Psionics Handbook. I guess, in the back regions of my brain, I'd let the fact that it's better fool me into thinking that it was different. I mean, it is different, but also there's a lot of overlap. Things got added that needed to be added and taken away that needed to be taken away, but the stuff that was already fine was allowed to say more or less the same.

I really appreciate that both books have the exact same author. WotC did me a real solid, there. I shudder to think how awkward this post would be otherwise. "Well, you see, it's a strict improvement. There's nothing in the first book I like more than the second. It is better in every particular, and it's not even that close." Yikes, that would be a rough thing to say if I weren't just observing that the author had gained knowledge and experience in the intervening years. I'm pretty sure "it's a strict improvement" is exactly what you want to hear if you go through the trouble of making a second version of your previous work. So, good job Mr. Cordell. I think you made a lot of good choices with the update.

Although, if I were in the mood to be petty, I could point out the Expanded Psionics Handbooks one objective mistake - Blue goblins get a +1 level adjustment when you play one as a PC. I think it's a matter of wires getting crossed in the changeover between (semi) editions. In the first version of the book, blues got a suite of psi-like abilities, but no level adjustment because that mechanic hadn't been invented yet. In the second version, those psi-like abilities were replaced with psion class levels, making a blue maybe a little bit better than a regular goblin (because, like all psionic creatures, they start with 1 power point), but not as good as, say, a gnome. I figure that there must have been a stopgap set of rules where, for a time, you could play as a 3.0 blue with a relatively sensible level adjustment (putting aside how bad a mechanic it was in general) and a full set of psi-like abilities, but then the new version came around and the abilities were removed while the level adjustment was carelessly ported over.

And now that I have that all written out, I see it was even more petty than I thought it was going to be. But what can I say, aside from that one flaw, Expanded Psionics Handbook is my second favorite 3.5 book, right behind Book of Nine Swords.

I believe I have now seen the last of D&D 3.5's alternate magic systems, and I think, out of all of them, this is my overall favorite. Incarnum had some really bold ideas, and its fashion-based magic was certainly distinctive, but it had a real problem with flavor. The Tome of Magic systems were interesting, but I think they were hurt by the space constraints of putting three in one book. The Expanded Psionics Handbook feels like it could anchor both a game and a world. A spellpoints based system where you can charge your abilities with extra points is a fun way to depict casters. Wilders, the emotion-based psychics with fewer known powers but more ability to boost their strength, are probably the best caster class in the game (not the strongest, but certainly, the ones I'd be least hesitant to put alongside non-casters as equals in the same party). Likewise, the bug-people and crystals aesthetic is just so different from the corebook's usual vibe. It's exactly what I love to see in fantasy - somebody showing me something new.

I can remember creating at least two distinct campaign worlds based on this exact book, and though I never got to play them and the notes have been lost for years, they rank among my favorite unused roleplaying ideas. . .

Oh, it's going to bug me trying to remember them. I think the first was relatively low concept. It was just a fantasy world where I made some different choices, but those particular choices all revolved around psionics as a theme. The available demihumans were the Dromites (small eusocial insect people) and the Thri-kreen (aggressive hunter mantis folk) and in place of the standard D&D psuedo-monotheism, religion in this world revolved around these transhumanist cults that would crystalize around these charismatic high-level psions, who promised to share esoteric spiritual practices that would unlock the power of the mind. If I recall, each one was far along in the process of abandoning their physical form and they all had these themed monasteries/fortresses that reflected their favored discipline. Losing that one hurt, because I remember having a really detailed map with all sorts of weird crystal fantasy bullshit on it.

The other one didn't get much farther than a concept phase. It was about three interconnected worlds. The prototype world that was fading into nothingness, the current material world, and a new and improved world that was currently under construction. I used xephs, humans, and maenads to represent the population of each world, though in-setting they were basically the prototype, the beta version, and the newest build of humanity, respectively. I'm not entirely sure where I was going with it, back in the mid 2000s, but it feels like an idea I might like to revisit, now that I'm older, wiser, and funnier than I was in my early 20s.

And that's not even getting into the inchoate idea I've been having recently of combing the EPH with the Book of Nine Swords. That's something I've only really been contemplating from a game-balance perspective, but I'm thinking of basing it off of Jianghu . . . just as soon as I get enough free time to do the necessary research. 

I know psionics is a controversial subject in D&D. It's weird for the sake of weird, and its connection to the vanilla fantasy genre is . . . tenuous. But the Expanded Psionics Handbook is my favorite kind of rpg supplement - one that gives me a big heaping plate full of options, divorced enough from a predetermined canon that I feel like I have the freedom to explore all the possible combinations.

Ukss Contribution: Usually, I go with something super specific, because there's nothing that delights me more than a small, but inspired idea. Sometimes, though, I need to remind myself to zig as well as zag, so this time I'm going as broad as possible - crystals as a magical aesthetic. It won't necessarily dominate Ukss's overall presentation of magic, but there's going to be at least one location where they go all-in on the vibe.

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