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My DM is very picky about what materials we're allowed to use, pretty much PHB only, and we can't multiclass until level 6. I really like psionics, and would especially like to play a psionic warrior and possibly use a psionic race, but the DM seems very worried about exploits.

Are the EPH psionics and psionic races overpowered in general? Are they overpowered in comparison to the PHB1 races/classes? Are they more exploitable?

Psionic classes are compared to:

  1. Psion: Wizard/Cleric

  2. Wilder: Sorcerer

  3. Psychic Warrior: Cleric

  4. Soul Knife: Monk

DISCLAIMER: Please keep your answer in mind for this post and read this What makes a character/creature/power/ability/etc. over-powered? Before making your answers.

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Note that this answer addresses only whether or not 3.5’s psionics subsystem is imbalanced in comparison to similar options. It does not address whether or not a given DM should allow the material, only whether or not a DM need be concerned about its balance when deciding whether or not to allow it. On a personal note, I heartily recommend that any and all DMs allow it, since it’s great material, but that is not the purpose of this answer.

Psionics is far better-designed and tightly-balanced than 3.5 Vancian spellcasters

The Expanded Psionics Handbook is one of the best-written books and best-designed subsystems in all of 3.5. The Player’s Handbook is one of the worst on both those scores, as it turns out – they made a lot of mistakes early on in the game.

For the most part, it makes the most sense to compare the psion, psychic warrior, and wilder to the cleric, druid, sorcerer, and wizard. The soulknife does not really use psionics, and is comparable to the monk (and like the monk, is a stunning failure of design).

Some general observations on the differences between psionics and vancian spellcasting:

Psionics makes you pay for scaling

Spells automatically improve as your caster level goes up: fireball’s damage, for example, is 1d6 per level. When caster level goes up, so does the fireball’s damage.

Not so with psionics. Energy ball makes you pay Power Points to improve the damage, gaining 1d6 damage per Power Point. Since the Power Points you can spend are capped at your manifester level, this is equivalent to saying that fireball deals 5d6 damage if cast from a 3rd-level spell slot, 7d6 if cast from a 4th-level spell slot, and so on.

This Augmentation mechanic does occasionally offer things that spells would not automatically get – psionic charm can be Augmented from a charm person analogue all the way up to a charm monster analogue with enough Power Points. This does make some psionic powers a little more flexible than the equivalent spells. Since you always have to pay for it, however, this does not especially add to the power available; it’s just different.

All manifesters are spontanteous

Prepared spellcasting is a huge advantage. It means you can tailor your load-out every day, and no problem takes more than 24 hours to have the perfect tool. It makes it trivial to try different things out, to meet requirements for magic items, feats, and prestige classes, and so on.

But all manifesters are spontaneous, à la the sorcerer. Thus, they have an extremely limited (particularly in the case of psychic warrior and wilder) selection of powers. The flexibility of psionic powers due to Augmentation makes this a little better than it would otherwise be, but then the sorcerer has far more spells known than even the psion.

Metapsionics has a harsh limit that is absent on metamagic

It is very difficult to apply multiple metapsionic feats to a single power manifestation, since you must expend your Psionic Focus in order to use a metapsionic feat. Once expended, you do not have it to expend for a second metapsionic feat. There are a few, fairly-expensive ways to get more than one Psionic Focus, so you can expend two or three on one manifestation, but these are limited, expensive tricks. You might get to do that a once a battle, if you build for it. You will never be able to stack a suite of metamagic feats on every power the way some spellcasters can with their spells.

Thus, psionics is “balanced”

By the definition supplied by the question, psionics is very distinctly balanced:

  • An option is overpowered if, when presented as a choice, it will always be chosen by members of a group.

No. Spellcasting has more options, more of which are overpowered, and has several areas of expertise (e.g. necromancy) that psionics lacks entirely. Cleric or druid can be far more potent “magic warriors” than the psychic warrior, and sorcerer and wizard are much more potent than psion or (especially) wilder.

  • An option is balanced if, when presented as a choice, if will be chosen sometimes, due to its ability to fulfil requirements.

This much is true. Psionics does have a few fortés; it tends to be better at mental manipulation (shocking, no?), teleportation (especially short-range, tactical teleportation), and time-manipulation (at very-high levels). The psychic warrior more gracefully melds powers and martial ability than do the cleric or druid (even though they are much more powerful).

  • An option is underpowered if, when presented as a choice, it will always be ignored by the group.

The psion has a few options that aren’t available to vancian spellcasters, as discussed above.

The wilder might be this, but because of the psion. There is almost no reason to choose the wilder over the psion, since the wilder gets only some of the psion’s powers, not all, and Wild Surge is mostly too dangerous to actually use, and the Overchannel feat is conceptually similar but far more bearable. For the flavor, a psion with the Overchannel feat is far superior and nigh-identical in the narrative.

And the psychic warrior, because of his psionic powers, is much more versatile and capable than mundane warriors.

Which brings us to my salient point:

3.5 is not a balanced system, particularly its core

The magic classes absolutely dominate the mundane classes.

Even with every supplement in the game available, the cleric, druid, and wizard are three of the five most powerful classes in the game (along with the archivist, which is just a divine wizard using the cleric spell list anyway, and the artificer, which makes magic items primarily from the cleric, druid, and sor/wiz spell lists).

Even with all the supplement support they get, the fighter, monk, paladin, and ranger are generally four of the weakest classes in the game; they do share that distinction with more classes since most mundane classes land in the same level.

No other book in the system has such an extreme dichotomy, with all but 4 classes being in the absolute best or absolute worst tiers of power available.

But Expanded Psionics Handbook is one of the best-balanced books

By contrast, Expanded Psionics Handbook has three classes that are all fairly close in power to one another. The psion is much better than the wilder, which is probably a bit better than psychic warrior, but all three are weaker than cleric, druid, sorcerer, or wizard, but also all three are stronger than barbarian, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, or rogue.

Thus, the psion, psychic warrior, and wilder are

  1. Relatively tight in power amongst themselves.

  2. Fit right in the middle of the power levels found in Player’s Handbook.

The soulknife, I have left out. It does not use psionics at all (merely gaining a single pair of Power Points from its Wild Talent bonus feat), and it is miserably poor, quite possibly weaker even than the monk. Psychic Strike is unable to damage an enormous number of creatures, and is severely limited by its action requirements, making it all-but-impossible to land more than once per turn. Beyond that, its class features amount to “I have a magic sword,” which is a statement that can be said by just about anyone in the game who wants to. The soulknife is a black mark on an otherwise outstanding book. Only Tome of Battle has a higher proportion of balanced classes (since all three base classes are very competitive to one another, and also fit neatly in the middle of 3.5 power levels).

Also, this is 3.5: everything is exploitable.

There are exploits for psionics. At the high end (and abusing the far less-well-designed material in Complete Psionics), some of the exploits are comparable to the worst that spellcasting has available. Psychic reformation and quintessence show up in a fair few theoretical-optimization exercises for their unique properties (even though neither one is particularly overpowered in most practical situations). Synchronicity, Metapsionic Power, and Linked Power from Complete Psionics are all pretty much just broken. But then, so are contingency, gate (has no psionic equivalent), shapechange (psionic equivalent costs 200 XP every time it’s used), and time stop.

So I will not claim that psionics is free of exploit; nothing in 3.5 is. A kobold ex-paladin 1 can have every feature of every race, class, or monster he likes, with scores in every single thing as high as he likes. This is not a balanced game.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Excellent analysis! I'm keeping this one for quoting to others. \$\endgroup\$ – nijineko Oct 22 '17 at 0:32
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Are they more exploitable?

Generally speaking, rules that only a few people at the gaming table know are more exploitable, simply because there are less people who could object.

For example the player will be very outspoken how great his character is, but will likely not mention his drawbacks. It would be the DMs job to balance this by including situations where the disadvantages come into play. For this to work out, the DM has to know the disadvantages and how to create such situations.

Personally speaking, at my gaming table, psionics are overpowered (or would be, if allowed). Not because of any rule itself, but rather because the DM does not know the rules and a knowledgeable player would rule supreme.

So if your DM is worried that it might be overpowered, then your DM is probably correct. Because if he thinks something might be, he clearly does not know enough to keep it from happening.

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When I think about psionics, I think about the "nova" problem.

Vancian spellcasting produces this weird mechanic where spellcasters get a small number of daily powers, whereas weapon users get at-will powers. If the party does one fight per day, the spellcasters will use all their best daily powers in that fight and be very effective. If the party does ten fights per day, the spellcasters will use one-tenth of their daily powers per fight, and they won't be very effective at all. It's intended that the DM control the number of fights per day to make sure that this is balanced.

The "nova" problem comes when the DM loses control of how many fights per day the party will do. For example, perhaps a spellcaster enters the first fight of the day and immediately uses all their daily powers to win the fight handily. Then the spellcaster says: "Welp, guys, I'm out of juice! I think we'd better rest for the day." The next day they do the same thing.

Psionic classes are better than wizards/clerics at using all their best powers in a small number of rounds. So, in a scenario where the party does a small number of fights per day, we should expect psionic classes to be overpowered.

In my experience, most campaigns, especially homebrew campaigns, do not have the proper element of time pressure to force five or six encounters per day.

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Psionics is far less dangerous as a whole when compared to some of the greater levels of wizard-cheese out there.

As far as breaking Psionics is concerned, the four best abilities that the psion has access to are Psicrystal affinity and Share Pain when combined with Vigor, Schism, Linked Power/Synchronicity, and Mindsight, from Lords of Madness.

Psicrystal affinity lets you get a Psicrystal with hardness with which you can share spells, similar to a wizards familiar, and Vigor nets you 5 hp per power point up to your character level. When shared between your psicrystal you get 10hp per level and share pain splits that up between you and your psicrystals bonus hitpoints. At level 10 you can get 100 points of damage soak before actually even dipping into your actual hit-points, and vigor/share pain have long durations. You can also utilize the Control Body power along with the Psicrystal to turn yourself into a living weapon using Solicit Psicrystal.

Schism splits and gives you a second mind to use powers with, at six manifester levels lower than whatever your highest manifesting class sits at. It may not sound too great but it can completely break the action economy if you use it with Linked Power / Synchronicity.

Not to mention that Synchronicity, and Linked power are probably two of the most ridiculous abilities a psion gets access to on their own. Psychic Reformation can get broken if you overuse it, but its utility is unprecedented in the fact that the Psion gets a "Free Out" if he needs a specific feat, power, or ability that he doesn't have. He can also use it to get rid of a feat he no longer needs and swap it out for one he does.

The other ability, Mindsight, allows you to pinpoint any creature within range of your telepathy and immediately know what type of creature you're dealing with as well as its intelligence score. If you're a Psion(Telepath) you get telepathy as an ACF at level 5.

Due to the limited amount of powers that a Psion gets access to, it makes them about as strong as a Sorcerer balance-wise, but Psionics itself is a versatile and well-balanced system that allows for customization based on how many power points you'd like to spend on a specific power, and gives you a lot of options as to what powers you can take and what exactly you can do with said powers.

Other than that, Psions get teleport much earlier than Wizards do, and can use Expanded Knowledge to get powers outside of their own class list which can be pretty great if you're making a Psion-Gish and you need Psionic Lion's Charge, and they have a wide array of powers they can use to get out of a lot of situations, just not as many situations as a Wizard, Cleric, or Druid can.

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Yes, they kind of are.

Power Creep
For example compare Wall of Fire to Energy Wall.
Pretty much same spell, but lower level for psionics and choice of damage type too (huge thing)!
Another easy example of Power Creep is Vigor
You get it at level 1, but a level 10 character can easily get 50 temporary hitpoints. If he loses it, he can just cast it again at max augment. Compare with other spells that give temp hitpoints and there's just no comparison. There's tons of stuff Psions can do that is way above the level of other spellcasters and they can do it with ease because they have no somatic/verbal components and no memorization or limits to high level spells.

Enhanced Nova effect
Also consider that (unless you use houserules for either) Psionic casters can use all their spell points to cast high level spells, while Wizards are limited, they can only cast a few high level, and their other spell slots are locked to lower level.

Less Hassle
Finally also consider the ease of casting for psionics, no need for verbal or somatic or material components often.

Caveat
A lot of people mentioned that there are unbalanced stuff in Core. Well in my opinion a good DM will reign in the abuses possible with all that first, then leave in only the mostly balanced stuff (or however he balances some things). Before you scream Oberoni Fallacy at me, consider that the DM has already put the work in to "balance" Core. In order to balance Psionics he has to do extra work, a lot of it. It's not that Core is way more balanced to start with, but that it's been dealt with already (assuming competent DM).
The problem is psionics is inherently power-creepy, you have to balance the whole thing. I still allow it in my games and let the players see for themselves if they feel too overshadowed [by the psion] or whatever. Usually a few magic items and other boons can balance these "feelings" too. I also had a player once who felt Soul Knife was too weak (thanks internet...) and I placated him by (mostly) allowing the Pathfinder variant in a 3.5 game. There's always a way.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Aug 11 '16 at 4:05

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