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The Dread is a psionic class from Dreamscarred Press's Psionics Expanded and Psionics Unleashed products. It gains a series of selectable abilities called Terrors, one of which, Nightmare Form, allows a modified version of Ectoplasmic Form which explicitly allows the Dread to retain use of their supernatural abilities (which that spell otherwise blocks).

The list of Terrors also includes one called "Nightmare Touch", which requires Nightmare Form as a prerequisite, and allows the Dread to "use her devastating touch ability while using the Nightmare Form terror, even though she normally cannot make physical attacks". What is the point of this? Devastating Touch is a Supernatural touch attack fluffed as channeled psionic energy, clearly not a physical attack, so Nightmare Touch seems to exist solely to remove a limitation that never existed in the first place. I have looked for any established game definition of a "physical attack", and been unable to find one, though the term is used pretty consistently elsewhere to describe the three types of attacks associated with physical weapons, Bludgeoning, Piercing and Slashing, and to differentiate those from magical attacks such as Devastating Touch. The rules for DR even use the term in the clause that is well-established by consensus to exclude magical damage such as fire and sonic spells, or Devastating touch, from being reduced via DR.

What am I missing here? Is there some other limitation I'm overlooking that would prevent a Dread without Nightmare Touch from using Devastating Touch in Nightmare Form?

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While Devastating Touch doesn't necessarily involve hitting the enemy with any kind of force, it still requires physical contact - something you can't do in a Nightmare Form as you're a glob of scary mist.

From Ectoplasmic Form:

You cannot physically attack [...]

From Nightmare Form (emphasis mine):

The dread is still able to use her supernatural abilities while in Nightmare Form, although she suffers all normal restrictions on attacks and targeting.

And finally from Nightmare Touch (emphasis mine):

The dread can use her devastating touch ability while using the Nightmare Form terror, even though she normally cannot make physical attacks.

Although "physically attack" may not be well-defined, the intent of the way the abilities interact is clear.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The implication is that the Ectoplasmic Form disalows the use of touch attacks. May be a good question in its own right. \$\endgroup\$ – Magician Jun 18 '15 at 2:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Devastating Touch requires a melee touch attack, something directly prohibited by ectoplasmic form. Thus you need Nightmare touch to remove the restriction. Seems clear to me. \$\endgroup\$ – GreySage Jun 18 '15 at 17:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GreySage It would be, if ectoplasmic form did forbid melee touch attacks. It doesn't. Melee touch attacks are not physical attacks, as established in the DR example: Chilling Touch is a melee touch attack, but DR doesn't reduce the damage from Chilling Touch, and ectoplasmic form doesn't prevent you from using it. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthew Najmon Jun 18 '15 at 21:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MatthewNajmon The spell component of the melee touch attack is not physical, and won't trigger DR (side note: effects that don't do damage ignore DR entirely, physical or not). However, touch attacks still need to physically touch the target, as seen in the combat page under touch attacks, "the aggressor need only touch a foe". This makes it a physical attack, and won't be possible under normal ectoplasmic form rules. Assuming you had a silent still ranged touch attack spell you could cast it, since it isn't a physical action, but a melee touch attack will still be prohibited. \$\endgroup\$ – GreySage Jun 18 '15 at 22:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GreySage Effects that don't do damage? Chilling Touch deals negative energy damage. And, again, aside from obliquely implying it in this one case, the game otherwise consistently holds that things like Chilling Touch are not "physical attacks", and that being melee touch is not sufficient to make it a "physical attack". \$\endgroup\$ – Matthew Najmon Jun 18 '15 at 23:49

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