Written by Raddu, and first published on 2022-12-04
One of the most flavorful aspects of psionics in Dark Sun is Mindscape Combat. Published novels and short stories written in the Dark Sun setting used a fantastic “mindscape” where psionic combat occurs.
One of the most flavorful aspects of psionics in Dark Sun is Mindscape Combat. Published novels and short stories written in the Dark Sun setting used a fantastic “mindscape” where psionic combat occurs. The mindscape was described as a featureless plane in the minds of the combatants. Within this plane, the attacker and defender manifest attack harbingers and defense constructs to overcome each other. In the fiction, the attacker used harbingers and the defender used constructs manifested as personas within the mindscape to represent psionic powers used in the game. Perhaps an attacker uses the ego whip power and manifests it in the mindscape as the whipping tail of an inix, but the defender uses the mental barrier power that manifests as a stone wall. The defender would then counterattack with a mind thrust that appeared as a kes’trekel to fly over the wall, which the defender countered with a wind storm of thought shield, and so on. During Mindscape Combat when the attacker rolls higher than the defender they create a “tangent”. Three tangents allow the attacker to make “contact” and then proceed to use many psionic powers on the subject, whose mind is laid bare to them.
While this system is very evocative in the fiction and matches The Complete Psionic Handbook and The Will and the Way’s 2nd Edition game mechanics, it slows down game play because Mindscape Combat becomes a completely different combat to run than physical combat. In addition, when you enter psionic combat you are prevented from participating in physical combat, which presents a host of other difficulties. As a result, players participating in mental combat often felt like they were playing a different game.
When Wizards of the Coast released the playtest of the Mystic for 5e, its mechanics were very different from the psionics of prior editions, but many thought it still had a psionic feel to it. The Mystic’s psionics system did away with attack/defense modes for psionic combat and kept with the core D&D 5e combat system of attacks and saving throws. The most recent depiction of psionics as subclasses makes the powers much closer to spells and again keeps the attack and saving throw paradigm. However, to my mind these systems, while streamlined, lack the flavor of Mindscape Combat.
In my 5e Dark Sun games I’ve been using the Mystic with some modifications, but it has never sat well with me. Below I outline a system that can be implemented for any D&D based psionics system that uses the usual attacks and saving throws, but modifies them to make it feel more like 2nd edition Mindscape Combat while still being streamlined. This rules module comes in multiple parts: the core rules and optional variants for adding more complexity.
When a psionic character attacks another character with a telepathic psionic power that does psychic damage or attempts to control the actions of the target, they use these mindscape combat rules regardless of whether the target has psionics or not. Psionic combat in the mindscape is always a set of opposed rolls by both the attacker and the target(defender). Before the roll, each contestant must explain what their mindscape form looks like.
Mindscape Attack: The attacker rolls a D20 + their proficiency (or attack*) bonus + their manifesting ability modifier as usual.
*if using 3rd or 4th edition.
Mindscape Defense: The target rolls a D20 + their proficiency (or Saving Throw/Defense) bonus (if they have psionic powers, not counting Wild Talents)* + an ability modifier. The ability modifier is for the ability associated with the power’s saving throw (if applicable), if the power has no saving throw, use the same ability as the attacker (likely Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma).
*if using 3rd edition: Saving Throw or if using 4th edition: Defense
** for 5th edition a character that doesn’t have psionics would not get their proficiency bonus on defense.
Just as in a standard ability contest whoever rolls higher wins. Ties still go to the defender. The contestant who wins narrates how the attack succeeded or failed and could include a change in forms to better illustrate the result.
Damage, Conditions, and other game effects:
* If the attacker wins and the power requires an attack roll then treat it as if the attack hit.
* If the attacker wins and the power requires a saving throw treat it as if the target failed the saving throw.
* If the target wins and the attack was a standard attack power then treat the attack as having missed.
* If the target wins and the power indicates a saving throw then treat the result as if the target succeeded on the saving throw.
Once a target’s mind is sufficiently battered and their defenses are overcome they become more pliable to psionic powers. If a psionic attacker defeats a target on two separate attacks the defender’s psionic defenses are down, and the attacker has a bonuse on future attacks against the target while the attacker stays in their mind. Once the attacker or defender takes a long rest the bonus dissipates. The bonus could range from +2-5 in 3rd or 4th edition and advantage for 5th edition.
Variant: Attack and Defense Modes
If you’re using the five classic telepathic attack and defense modes in your system, you can utilize this variant. If you’re not, you can assign these bonuses to your telepathic attacks vs defenses in a similar fashion. For 5e you can use the attacks and defensive psionic spells from the Unearthed Arcana - Psychic Soul Psionics document.
Tower of Iron Will
AA : Attacker has Advantage (roll 2d20 and take the higher roll)
TD : Target has Disadvantage (roll 2d20 and take the lower roll)
AD : Attacker has Disadvantage (roll 2d20 and take the lower roll)
TA : Target has Advantage (roll 2d20 and take the higher roll)
- : No modifier
Variant: Harbingers and Constructs
The original explanation of harbingers and constructs appear in The Will and The Way and in Dragon Magazine #222. The article in Dragon #222 goes into more detail and I highly recommend reading it for two reasons. First is that there’s a great example of Mindscape Combat and secondly because it includes great examples of harbingers and constructs and gives a more detailed explanation of what each Psionic Attack and Defense mode/form represents.
Below is an excerpt of that article below modified to include the harbingers and constructs from The Will and the Way (listed after an asterisk). As above in Mindscape Combat, the winner of the contested roll decides what happens in the mindscape for that turn.
The Role-Playing Dimension by Bill Slavicsek (Dragon #222, October 1995)
Players can simply select psionic attacks and defenses and roll dice to determine the outcome of psionic combat involving their characters. DMs and players, however, will increase the fun of a game session by concentrating on role-playing. Picture the black expanse of the mindscape, the howling mental winds, and the distant glow of thoughts and memories.
Players should start by describing their character’s psionic bodies, glowing platforms, and mental armor. Each should then select an attack and defense form (without rolling any dice). Then, in initiative order, the players should describe the imagined form that the psionic attacks and defenses take on.
All imagined attack and defense forms - forms that are very real in the mindscape - are called harbingers and constructs. Harbingers are the visual representations of the attack forms; constructs are those of the defense forms. Sample harbingers and constructs for the DARK SUN campaign are given below, though players and DMs are encouraged to add to these common forms to match particular psionicists and their personalities.
Sample Harbingers and Constructs
The following harbingers and constructs are the most common ones used by the psionicists of Athas. They add nothing to game mechanics, but they can add a wealth of entertainment to the role-playing aspects of psionic combat.
Harbingers (Psionic Attack Forms)
* Mind Thrust: This piercing attack stabs at thoughts and memories, so it takes the form of piercing weapons. Glowing swords of light, swift and graceful chatkachas, flaming spears, and scorpion stingers all fall into this category. *Sword, Chatkcha, Incantation, Flame
* Ego Whip: This psionic assault on a target’s self-esteem can be visualized as a glowing whip, a belligerent templar, an arrogant noble, the terrifying Dragon, or the buffeting winds of a Tyr storm. *Templar, Noble, Slave, Dragon
* Id Insinuation: This assault on the subconscious mind can take the shape of a glowing battering ram, a charging mekillot, a shimmering war hammer, or a deadly silk wyrm that slithers past defenses instead of smashing them. *Wyvern, Scorpion, Crystal Spider, Silk Wyrm
* Psychic Crush: This is a mental weight that slowly crushes defenses. As such, it can be visualized as a huge boulder slowly rolling forward, the crushing tentacles of a silt horror (of a color of the psionicist’s choice), the punishing rain of a Tyr storm, or the plodding, steady attack of a moun- tainous earth elemental. *Sand, Mekillot, Silt Horror, Boulder
* Psionic Blast: This attack sends a wave of mental energy racing toward the target. As such, most psionicists imagine it as light- ning strikes from a Tyr storm, the swift, slashing claws of a kirre, the flaming shafts of a rain of arrows, or a relentless, stampeding herd of carru. *So-Ut, Athasian Sloth, Kirre, Tembo
Constructs (Psionic Defense Modes/Forms)
* Mind Blank: This defense hides the psionicist. It can appear as a thick fog, a raging sand storm, a featureless void, a dark forest, labyrinthine ruins, a vast desert, or a bottomless crevasse that lies between the attacker and defender. Void, Forest, Mudflat, Ruins
* Thought Shield: This is a glowing shield that turns away psionic attacks. It can be visualized as a shield, armor, a mystic rune, or any monster that appears to protect the defender from attacks. *Shield, Rune, Armor, Wall
* Mental Barrier: This is a wall of thought that blocks psionic attacks. It appears as a wall of worked stone, light, or even metal, as a shimmering globe that surrounds the psionicist, or as a lightning-filled cloud that zaps incoming attacks before they reach the defender. *Truth, Will, Acceptance, Denial
* Intellect Fortress: This defense encases the mind in a powerful keep of mental energy. It may take the form of a field of brambles, the chitinous, spiky shell of a cha’thrang, the rock-hard carapace of a giant beetle, or glowing suits of metal armor from the most ancient of days.Cha’thrang, Beetle, Elemental Drake, Bramble
* Tower of Iron Will: This unassailable haven takes the form of a tall tower, a stout gate, an impossibly high cliff, or a jagged, lonely crag.*Tower, Rampart, Gate, Crag