Mental Combat Rules for 3ed/PFRPG

I’ve recently compiled rules for mental combat for 3ed/PFRPG psionics. I am currently running a PFRPG Dark Sun campaign and really wanted a way to recreate the rich mental combat as detailed by Troy Denning in the Prism Pentad novels.

Here’s a link to the latest version:

Please let me know if there are any issues or updates required.


Prior to reading your pdf, I’d like to share some generalized observations (obviously not intended in any way as criticisms as I haven’t read it yet!), then read your idea and afterwards comment on the pdf.

One of the main differences and problems between 2nd ed psionics and 3rd ed versions of the same, is the timescale in which combat was supposed to take place. If I recall correctly, 2nd ed psionic combat took place practically instantaneously, in the span of a mere glance, and had little to no observable side effects. Thus they were also invisible, untraceable, and effectively unavoidable.

These were among the reasons 2nd ed psionics was decried as overpowered and unbalanced, thus being ignored by so many DMs, an attitude which has been carried over into 3rd ed by many without much reservation, sadly.

In 3rd edition, psionics was firmly tied down to the same timescale as spells. Everything took an immediate action, swift action, move action, standard action, full round action, or 1 round (or more) action to manifest. Attacks of Opportunity would provoke in most cases, same as spellcasting. They were also given “displays” which meant that they were no longer “invisible” or “untraceable”. Gone were the days of having a completely separate combat system for psionics. Combat modes were now powers and fit in with the same combat system as melee, ranged, and spellcasting. These four things were very important aspects to making psionics fit with the rest of the game.

The mindscape based combat is a narrative mode which makes for great storytelling, but is very difficult to pin down to mechanics which still allow non-psionic types to participate meaningfully during the rounds of psionic combat in a game session - which is part of the reasoning behind the 3rd ed changes to psionic rules. Previously in non-Dark Sun 2nd ed, everybody had to stop and wait for the psionic types to get it over with before they could take their turns.

Now, in a Dark Sun campaign, that was be less of a big deal in 2nd ed, as everyone is psionic, explicitly as per the campaign setting. However, for various reasons, writers made the decision to nix that part from the 3rd ed campaign setting. Everyone is NOT psionic, not everyone has a psionic power, and in fact a very large chunk of’s products are filled with spells and spellcasting and magic-based prestige/classes instead of powers and psionics and psionic-based prestige/classes - something which I’m known for complaining about.

As such, does your psionic combat system require a return to the 2nd ed assumption that everyone is psionic, or does it gracefully handle non-psionicists as well? Furthermore, it is important to note that narrative combat is always an option, no matter what ruleset one is using, however most groups don’t bother to translate the miniatures-based mechanical combat of 3rd ed into a narrative mode. Also, the stealth-combat that is occasionally described in the novels is considered too difficult to pull off by most groups, despite the fact that it is entirely possible with existing 3rd ed psionics rules.

In any case, there are two main aspects for consideration in any revised 3rd ed narrative psionic combat system: one, does it recreate the look-and-feel of Dark Sun psionic narrative combat? And two, does it fit in with the existing 3rd ed psionic rules, and by extension, does it work in a setting which no longer requires everyone to be psionic as per’s revised setting rules?

Having made all of these pre-read comments, I’ll now go and read over the pdf. ^^

Okay, my initial emotional response is as follows:

  • I’m wondering how far this ruleset is intended to replace the default 3rd ed psionic rules? Pathfinder has no psionics, so this would simply be a drop-in on that side, unless you are using the 3rd party Dreamscarred material. How does this interact with the existing powers? If someone manifested the power empty mind or ego whip, do they also get the benefits described in the EPH combined with your rules, or does one take precedence over the other?
  • I get the impression that these rules will add a layer of complexity to combat, and thus would not yield a greater degree of support for narrative based combat or narrative descriptions of combat.
  • I see a distinction made between “psionic characters” and “all characters” in the text, but if that latter “all” is intended to include non-psionic characters, it might be best to specifically address that either in-line or as a separate section.
  • I see that most options are full-round options. This is much slower than either 2nd ed or 3rd ed psionic combat. It also doesn’t seem to match up with the sample text taken from the novels at the top of the pdf. In 3rd ed, if I recall correctly off the top of my head, most defensive psionic powers (formerly combat modes) are immediate actions - which are capable of interrupting an attack, thus allowing the defender to take advantage of the power’s effect in time to actually defend against an attack. The order of actions and initiative when combined with your combat system seems to result in the defender always being one step behind any attacker.
  • Where is the narrative support? One of the goals of this combat system was stated to be a desire to replicate the cool narrative dialogues of psionic combat in the novels - I’m not really seeing anything that would encourage narrative dialogues, there also don’t seem to be any rules describing how one can present themselves in a mindscape; attacking or defending.

Okay, again, this is just my initial emotional reaction, not a well-thought out or analyzed response. ^^ I am honestly curious about what answers will be made to my questions.

I hope it is taken in that spirit, and I hope there is no offense offered in my comments, for none was intended! =D

Hi nijineko, thanks for the comments. Hopefully my response will add some clarity to my decisions.

  1. Yes, this is intended to be a supplement to the Dreamscarred Press psionic rules for Pathfinder (as that is what we are using in my campaign). The attack and defense modes are somewhat taken from tradition 2ed names. So they unfortunately also share names with psionic powers, however, they are completely separate entities in this case. Powers have no bearing on attack/defense modes and vice versa.

  2. Much like normal combat rules, I present a set of mechanics to make it possible. It is up to the players and GM to add imagination and narrative descriptions to their actions. For some player’s it’s “I attack the dwarf”, for others it’s “I leap at the dwarf and slash my obsidian sword in a wide arc at his flank.” Same is true for these rules.

  3. Yes, there is support for non-psionic characters. It is up to the GM how they want to handle “non-psionic” classes in a Dark Sun campaign. Since all DS characters start with the Wild Talent or Psionic Talent feat, thus making them effectively psionic. We are currently basing MCL’s on class alone in our DS campaign to keep a balance between trained mindbenders and everyone else.

  4. In the presented rules, attacks are full-round actions, but the defender (if aware of the attack) always gets to choose a defense mode for that attack. So when mindbenders are engaged in mental combat, they are concentrating on their foe, eyes locked on their opponent, taking full-round actions to maintain contact. They might also be slowly moving away from dangerous opponents on the battlefield (with 5-ft steps), but their mind is elsewhere. This idea was taken from the Prism Pentad novels where mindbenders are described as such “eyes locked on their opponent and engaged in the Way”.

  5. See 2.

That’s an interesting analysis of the differences in timescale between 2e and 3e, however I believe you actually refer to 1e which, while I’m not quite versed at, had very complex mechanics regarding psionics and psionic combat. Such a messy system was extensively detailed here, and you can find the rules about psionic combat in paragraph 6.

Psionics in 2e worked like wizard spells in that you began “casting” your power and were susceptible of being interrupted by an attack (with the relevant Concentration check - if you had the appropriate proficiency, that is). In The Complete Psionics Handbook it is stated that “[c]ombat featuring psionicists is no more complicated than a fight between one or more wizards. In fact, it’s similar” and “[p]sionic powers require a certain amount of concentration. A character […] can be disrupted like a mage casting a spell” (pp 22-24). The main difference that made them faster than the rest of the group was that a psionic power had no initiative modifier, since they were simply using their minds.

So basically, 2e psionics functioned like spells. The revised rules for psionics in the Revised edition (reproduced later in Skills and Powers for a wider audience, I assume) did away with the clunky psionic attack and defence modes and the power checks, in favour of a more streamlined psionic combat along the lines of a nonpsionic one, introducing mAC and mTHAC0. But still, psionics were more complicated than spells, requiring an extra “attack roll” to manifest a power and, in some instances, even after succeeding at using a power, the opponent had the potential to evade its harmful effects with the roll of a saving throw.

I don’t know much about 3e psionics, only that it was made to feel like psionic counterparts of existing classes (psychic warrior, wizard, cleric, rogue etc.) and that it blurred the lines between psionics and arcane magic. Powers were used much like spells (as they were intended to back in 2e), a mechanic I find more than welcome. Later iterations made psionics quite user-friendly to players, a refreshing change (albeit, with minor nuisances) from AD&D’s clunky system.

My question to psionics, however, is how to implement them in initiative. Your Dex modifier represents your quickness and reflexes to respond to an immediate threat. Psionicists/psions/mystics use their minds, instead. Substituting Int modifier for Dex isn’t quite logical, since you don’t always restrict yourself in using psionics, but may do other actions, too. The problem here I believe stems from the fact that you first roll initiative then determine your actions, so you may wish to use a psionic power only to change it to an ability check when it’s your turn.

That is a good point. I struggled with how to make mental scores factor into initiative counts for mental combat, but I really wanted to minimize complexity. So I opted to just use current Initiative scores. In my experience, the die roll (d20) has much more influence on actual initiative ordering than the bonus (unless its a high Dex character with Improved Initiative), so I don’t feel its a major loss by keeping things simpler.

I agree with you. It’s better to stick to normal rules, for the sake of simplicity.
Having said that, 5e has a variant initiative mechanic, which resembles 2e’s initiative system. If one were to use the variant system, swapping Dex with Int for psionics would be neat.

I think you are right about me referring to 1e. I’ve been playing for so long, that I get my older version’s details mixed up.

In any case, 3.x psionics is now my area of expertise, so I’ll try to avoid further 1e or 2e references. ^^ When they first released 3e psionics, they tried to hold on to the psionic combat system, but it was ditched (and gratefully so) in 3.5.

I appreciate the answers and replies, but one of my points are still, I feel, unanswered.

As is stated in the OP, the desire is to recreate the rich mental combat described in the novels. However, while these rules have their points, they don’t actually seem to accomplish that goal. As such, I don’t see any real reason to use these rules as currently presented as they don’t enhance the game play in the direction of the novels, in my view.

The purpose of ‘rich detailed mindscape combat like it is described in the novels’ should be explicitly supported by the rules mechanics in order to accomplish the purpose. Rules which don’t support or enhance the purpose should be culled, I think.

Perhaps this is just my own mental picture, but I was expecting some rules describing the interaction of two mindscapes fighting for dominance, and what happens next when one combatant crosses over into another’s mindscape for the ensuing combat. The existing 3.x rules already suffice if one is simply going to rely on the DM and players to come up with all the descriptive text.

Just a thought, but did everyone happen to take a look at the mental stats that already exist, and some companion rules which might support the idea of a mindscape battle?

  • INT - Intelligence determines how well your character learns and reasons, also associated with memory and knowledge.
  • WIS - Wisdom describes a character’s willpower, common sense, perception, and intuition. While Intelligence represents one’s ability to analyze information, Wisdom represents being in tune with and aware of one’s surroundings.
  • CHA - Charisma measures a character’s force of personality, persuasiveness, personal magnetism, ability to lead, and physical attractiveness (since no one used the COM stat). This ability represents actual strength of personality, not merely how one is perceived by others in a social setting.
  • EGO - a lesser known mental stat, it is nonetheless one that still exists in 3.x. In previous editions characters also had the Ego stat, but in 3.x it is restricted to intelligent items and it represents the total mental power of an intelligent item for purposes of determining who dominates the character-item relationship.
  • Deceptive Spell feat (Cityscape) - have spells appear to originate from a source other than the actual spellcaster.
  • Plane/Demiplane/Region of Dreams (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Eberron) - many of the descriptions of dreamscapes and how people interact with them could directly apply to the idea of mindscape battles.
  • Spellduel rules (Complete Arcane) - useful framework for any sort of duel, including a mindscape combat.
  • Iajutsu focus feat (Oriental Adventures) - another useful framework for a duel.

There are more possible useful references, but I’ll stop there for now.

In my mind, a set of rules which support mindscape combat would contain the following points:

  • A mindscape combat is the psionic equivalent of a spellduel, but has unique aspects.
  • It can be subtle or overt. I imagine an overt combat would look something like this ( starting from 1:24.), whereas a subtle combat would have no obvious visible external indicators.
  • First, the mindscapes conflict, the winner gains some advantage and/or the loser gains some penalty in the overall combat.
  • the loser has to fight in the winner’s mindscape.
  • Conceptually speaking, I think a mindscape duel should go something like this: or maybe this:
  • Insofar as rules go, perhaps the winner of the mindscape conflict stage gets control over themself and the environment, and the loser can only control themself. Each round, they can make one action (offensive) and one reaction (defensive). The mindscape defender gets to make one change to themself or to the environment, and the attacker gets to respond to it. Then the attacker can make one change to themself as an attack, and the defender can respond. Perhaps set a time limit for coming up with an idea. In any case, this could be a purely dialogue exchange, with rolls only for the close calls.
  • I see INT as equating CON, CHA to STR, and WIS to DEX insofar as mental “combat” stats go, if it is even needed.

Anyway, I don’t have any ready made solution for this sort of thing, but I hope that my sharing some brainstorming ideas is seen as helpful and of some use.

In any case, I agree on one point - the rich descriptives from the novel certainly make the mindscape combat idea compelling and interesting!! I certainly would want to play in a group that used such fun and interactive descriptive combats!

If you don’t like the presented rules, don’t use them.