The Ardent: A Psionic Character Handbook

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The Ardent: A Psionic Character Handbook

Postby willpell » Fri Aug 25, 2017 6:57 pm

One of my favorite subsystems in 3rd Edition D&D is Psionics; ironically I hated it at first, and I'm still annoyed by some of the default fluff (why is everything studded with crystals exactly?), but after I started trying out the rules in order to accommodate a particular character (still one of the best roleplayers I've ever had the privilege to work with), I grew more and more fond of the way they efficiently handle the necessary mechanics. There are so many things that you can do when building a Psion, so many ways to tinker with the effects of your powers; instead of fiddling with fixed "spell slots", you just decide on the fly how many Power Points you want to expend, and there are all sorts of bells and whistles that you can choose among.

Since the Psion, the Psychic Warrior, and the Wilder (along with the useless Soulknife, and various prestige classes) are in the SRD, I'd imagine that there are plenty of handbooks out there which walk you through the process of creating those characters. So instead, I wanted to talk at excruciating length about probably my favorite psionic class, the Ardent (which doesn't seem to have a handbook floating around; all I could find were for the 4th Edition version, which is basically unrelated as far as I can tell). Introduced in the Complete Psionic supplement (which also contains the Lurk, who I might talk about briefly at some point, but there's simply not as much to say about that relatively simple class), the Ardent is a loose manifesting equivalent to the Cleric, but differs drastically in how it interacts with the psionic version of Domains, called Mantles. While a Cleric selects two Domains and gets one extra spell slot at each "spell level" (henceforth I will use my invented term "grade" in place of this usage of "level", to distinguish the 0-9 scale of power/spell potencies from the 1-20 "character/caster/manifester level" scale), usable only to cast spells from those Domains' lists, an Ardent instead has to choose known powers from his Mantle lists, instead of from the default Psion/Wilder list - but he chooses as many as SIX mantles (a seventh is available only at 21st level, and I won't be discussing epic characters at this time), each of which gives him a minor "granted power" similar to those which clerics gain from their domains. Thusly, an Ardent has many different interests, a variety of special powers, and thusly a greater ability to diversify his unique identity, compared to clerics who derive most of their spells from the same general list.

The Ardent has more hit points than a psion, more power points than a psychic warrior, and knows more powers than a wilder, on top of having full armor proficiency and access to simple weapons (the wilder gets more weapons but less armor, while the PsyWar gets everything, but is much more limited as a manifester). Instead, the Ardent's limitation is on which powers he has access to. Unlike clerical Domains, which always contain exactly nine spells, the psychic Mantles don't have a power at every Grade from 1 through 9; they all have at least one 1st, and there are never fewer than six total powers occupying at least four or five different Grades, but even so, every Mantle list has at least one missing Grade of powers. The upshot of this is difficult to spot at a glance; if you put any two Mantles next to each other, you'll see that most if not all Grades are present at least once, so it might not seem obvious what the problem is. But with a little thought, you'll realize that you need two Powers from each Grade in order to make a fully complete character (up through character level 18; your 19th and 20th levels present a special problem which we'll get to shortly). Combine that with the staggered way that mantles come online (you start with two mantles at level 1, gain a third at level 2, and then add three more at levels divisible by 5, with 20th level being skipped since that's the end of your pre-epic progression), and the restriction to always keep two Mantles "primary" and fill those with more powers than the "secondary" ones, and the process of selecting an Ardent's powers can become very awkward. You may have to skip entire Grades due to having no options, or not more than one, in your Primary mantles if not in all of those yet selected, at least if you're careless...but what will almost certainly happen, even if you do everything right, is that you'll end up with your mandatory Power selections going to Powers that you don't really want, just because that's what the lists you've picked are giving you. The more you make your Mantle selections based on character concept, rather than on the basis of strictly mechanical optimization (and particularly if you select them at the levels they're gained, instead of sitting down at level 1 and planning out your entire progression through 20), the more likely it is that you'll be selecting either a nigh-useless Power or one that's crushingly underleveled, compared to the freedom of selections that a Psion or Wilder can make.

A footnote on non-power related basics: like the Psion and PsyWar, the Ardent gets basically no skill points (as a human with 12 INT or any other race with 14, you can afford to max out the usual suite of Concentration, Psicraft, Knowledge: Psionics and Autohypnosis, all of which synergize with each other, but there won't be any dabbling in other skills unless your INT is phenomenal, or you waste feat picks on Open-Minded); you have d6 hit dice, which again are worse than the PsyWar but better than the Psion. The Mantles that you select will give you a handful of other minor class features, such as energy resistance for the Energy mantle, Wild Empathy from Nature, your choice of low-light vision or darkvision from the mantle of Light & Darkness, or a bonus to power points for Mental Power. Many of these effects require you to either expend or maintain a psionic focus; Freedom gives you +10 feet of land speed while you stay focused, Diplomacy gets easier with a focus on the Communication mantle, and any pair of opposed Alignment mantles (Good and Evil or Law and Chaos) will give you the ability to expend your focus for +1d6 damage to any attack whatsoever (just one such Mantle will deny you the bonus against creatures of the Alignment in question, but if you have a pair, then every creature is either non-good or non-evil, for instance, and thus you no longer need to pay attention to the actual alignments at all). My personal favorite is the Mantle of the Elements; for that one, every time you attain a PsiFocus, you choose one of the elements, and grant yourself a corresponding bonus for as long as you hold that particular focus (air reduces falling damage, earth grants dwarf-like resistance to tripping and shoving attacks, water gives you a swim speed, and fire adds extra damage to your attacks - a 1st-level Good/Elements ardent is a truly terrifying damage engine for his level, since he can aspect himself to fire every time and deal +2d6 damage on every single attack, presuming none of his targets are Good of course - but why is he attacking them if they are?).

As someone who greatly enjoys the puzzle-like aspect of character creation, the Ardent seems tailor-made for me to enjoy it, intellectual masochist that I am; I will attempt to run through the issues associated with building a better Ardent character, but it's not going to be easy, because nearly any generalization attempted about Ardents will fail...you really need to look at particular Mantles, or combinations thereof, in order to draw any particular conclusion. Thus, I'll probably have to meander my way through a lot of wordy examples before I'm able to synthesize any sort of broader principle that can be put succinctly. (I've been thinking this topic through for over a month, prior to actually getting close enough to such an answer that I felt I could so much as write this preamble.)
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Re: The Ardent: A Psionic Character Handbook

Postby willpell » Fri Aug 25, 2017 7:10 pm

As I said a moment ago, it's hard to talk about how you build an Ardent without looking at examples, so here goes with a couple. This is a sample Ardent character which I built very intentionally to show how the process of Ardent power selection can be hamstrung; by picking the most limited mantles of all (all five of the mantles which have only six powers to choose from, and then Light & Darkness the single one of the several 7-power mantles which has the most strained selection IMO), it ended up kind of disproving my point and looking like a basically viable character...perhaps the writers of Complete Psionic actually playtested this combination extensively, specifically because of how disastrously wrong it looked likely to go. By contrast, I will then show you two other Ardents which I built recently, both of which have a drastic malfunction in their power availability, specifically because I built them before I figured out that these "traps" exist in the class.

For our first example, we're using the Light & Darkness mantle as I said before, along with the five shortest mantles: Good, Evil, Consumption, Magic, and Creation. (Those last two, are also on a "danger list" that are especially bad to choose at 1st or 2nd level, because neither Creation nor Magic has a Grade-2 power; choosing both of them as your primary Mantles at level 1 will result in being completely incapable of taking powers above Grade 1 until 5th level, and even if you take only one of the two, you must be especially careful in selecting your second primary mantle, to ensure that it will compensate for this risk. In this particular character's case, those two mantles "come online" late enough not to pose a serious problem, although certainly their limits played a major role in constraining all the possibilities of this six-mantle set down to just a single viable character that I could describe here.) Figuring out what kind of a character is described by this combination is left as an exercise for the reader; for now, we'll just see what the combined list of powers s/he has access to looks like. (But for ease of reference, I will at least have to give him/her a name; I'll go ahead and decide this is a male, and since he's got both Good and Evil among his mantles, while also reliably keeping the Light & Darkness mantle primary, it seems fitting to regard him as a "morally grey" master of "shadows", and so I'll call him Mister Gray. Notice the spelling; I am intentionally avoiding a certain reference which I doubt I need to explain.)

This table shows all the powers available to the selected six mantles, with Mister Gray's actual choices in bold. Powers whose names are in red text are not available for him to choose, since they are lower-grade powers on the mantles he doesn't choose until 5th, 10th, or 15th level.



You can see here how this character is nowhere near as bad off as he could be; he has three different powers to choose from for Level 1 on the Light & Darkness mantle, and two of them even synergize with each other (albeit none of these powers is incredibly useful, and he can obviate one of them completely just by choosing to be an elf instead of any other race). He could have had even more choices if he'd made Creation a Primary Mantle, although that would be disastrous for reasons I've mentioned already. However, the awkwardness of matters becomes obvious fairly soon as you go down his list, picking the powers you have access to (remember, the powers in red aren't available since the character hasn't gained that mantle yet). The selection of Claws of Darkness as your first Grade-2 power at 3rd level is compulsory, and it's then impossible to take Empathic Transfer as another Grade-2 power, because you only have one power in the primary mantle of Magic; you can't put a second power into any non-primary mantle until such a choice becomes unavoidable. Thusly, you're forced to go back and take another Grade-1 power in Light & Darkness at 4th level. (This could almost be avoided by skipping selection of a 1st-level power from the Good mantle, "saving" that pick for Empathic Transfer at level 4 or even 3, and taking two Grade-1 Light & Darkness powers within your first two levels; unfortunately, the use of Magic as a primary mantle still screws you, and would simply force you to choose the third L&D power at level 4, so this way is better.)

At 5th level you add a new secondary mantle, choosing Evil since Good has disappointed you, but across all four of these Mantles, you have only a single Grade-3 power to choose, Dispel Psionics. Thusly, at level 6, you have to go back and take a second Grade-2 power; now that you have two Magic powers, you're free to take Empathic Transfer as your second Good power, leaving you with seven powers across four mantles.

When level 7 rolls around, we haven't yet taken a power from the Evil mantle, so we're free to make Planar Apotheosis our first power of Grade 4. I belatedly realize that much the same could have been done two levels earlier, making Good a Primary mantle instead of Magic, and taking Dispel Psionics as the first Grade 3 power at level 5; I believe I had reasons related to the later character progression for avoiding this, but it might simply have been a mistake instead, so we'll move on. (Of note, it's unclear in the rules whether it's possible to select the "Good" and "Evil" versions of Planar Apotheosis and its later cousin Planar Embrace, which give the manifester the benefits of the Celestial, Half-Celestial, Fiendish or Half-Fiendish templates; you're restricted to selecting the "appropriate" version for a single Mantle, but it's not clear whether you could then select the same power again for a different Mantle, and thus be able to choose either version when manifesting. Most DMs would probably allow this, but for the purpose of this example I avoided it, and shuffled mantle primacy around enough to ensure that it didn't come up.)

At level 8, there's an interesting class feature which the typographers of CPsi failed to include on the table - for the first of two times, the other of which is concurrent with your final Mantle pick at 15th, you get to switch one of your secondary Mantles to a primary one and vice versa. The reason to do this should already be obvious - if you want a lot of powers from a single Mantle, that Mantle needs to be Primary, so you might want one mantle to be Primary in the early levels when you're taking all your Grade-1 and Grade-2 powers, but then have few powers in the higher grades and thus need to swap out. This is a delicate process, though; if the result is that your new Secondary Mantle has more powers in it than the new Primary one, the result is that you're forced to take exclusively powers from the Primary Mantle, even if they're badly underleveled, until the total number of powers is equalized again. Given where Mister Gray is sitting right now, with two powers in every Mantle other than Evil, he could make any swap with relatively little discomfort, but also has very little incentive to do so. The only switch that would make any sense would be to swap Good in for Magic, and in view of the previously mentioned confusion about whether you can take Planar Apotheosis twice, I'll avoid that for now, and just take Light Beam as a fourth Light & Darkness power.

Level 9 is fairly self-explanatory, and Mister Grey doesn't run into any real problems here; Power Resistance will be required as a third Magic power eventually, and Psionic Shadow Walk is another cool power which can easily be added to our giant pile of Light & Darkness powers at any time, but we're also free to take our second Evil power with Fiendish Conduit. The process repeats at level 10, except that we get to add another Mantle; if picking one right as we hit this level, we'd likely take one that gave us another Grade-5 power choice, but such a decision would be short-sighted. Consumption gives us nothing at this level or the next two, but it will be crucial thereafter as we'll discuss in a moment, so we have to select it now, even while spending levels 11 and 12 taking Grade-6 powers from pre-existing Mantles. (Some valid choices actually exist in this range, for just about the first time; it would be perfectly legit to skip Psionic Shadow Walk and take Power Resistance as a third Magic, allowing Celestial Conduit as a third Good, after which the fiendish version of Planar Embrace could be picked along with Null Psionics Field. You might also take Power Resistance and Fiendish Conduit as your Grade-5 powers, in preparation for taking both the Good and Evil versions of Planar Embrace, if the DM would allow that - unlike the Apotheosis powers, which only offer different energy resistances, the Embraces give drastically different stat bonuses and thus are both potentially quite useful, if the DM agrees to treat them as separate powers. But since I like Shadow Walk and am already planning on taking NPF, I've chosen to skip Power Resistance, and thus had to take NPF and the Good version of Planar Embrace, in that order.)

Another problem should probably have been glaringly obvious since you first looked at the table; five out of these six mantles lack a Grade 7 power, and only the fact that the final selection contains two such choices makes it possible for us to select the best possible powers at levels 13 and 14. Thusly, whether Mister Gray wants to Decerebrate anyone or not is irrelevant; he either takes that power, as well as Power Thief, or he underlevels. Such inevitabilities are common when you build an Ardent, especially if you choose mantles for reasons other than giving you a more robust power selection.

Level 15 is both the last time you add a mantle (pre-epic) and the last time you can switch mantle primacy (ever, since the section on Epic Ardents fail to mention any further progression of that "invisible" class feature - if I were GMing for an Epic Ardent, I'd probably fix this with a houserule, but in the book as written it's not included). On top of that, it's when you first get access to Grade-8 powers; thusly, it is a watershed moment for every character, but particularly so for one as creaky as Mister Gray. Having no real incentive to switch primacy, and having again to add a new Mantle which doesn't currently do anything (indeed, even its Granted Power goes to waste per RAW if it's selected after level 1, since you don't have the Astral Construct power and thus don't have the prerequisite to legally gain the Ectopic Form feat, even if you plan on learning Astral Construct later; that's another thing I'd probably houserule), I'm going to leave Mister Grey's mantle primacy untouched throughout his entire career, although the same net effect could perhaps have been achieved by starting with Good (or Evil) as primary, switching to Magic at 8th, and then switching back (or to the other alignment) at 15th. Regardless, since I've managed to distribute my powers fairly evenly across mantles, there are few issues with power selection at 15th and 16th levels; the only illegal choice would be taking Greater Glory without first selecting Psionic Protection from Spells, so I'm not even going to fill in a choice for him at this point, and let the reader decide how to finish his progression after the Grade-7 debacle.

Then, when we get to level 17 and above, we run into a problem which I was planning to save for a separate character before discussing, because I misremembered it as not having come up here, but since it does, I'll go ahead and talk about it, while still showing the other character eventually as a more drastic illustration of the problem. Of the 30 different mantles described in Complete Psionic, only 12 of them have a Grade 9 power on the list; if you want your Ardent to have access to as many total Grades of powers as he theoretically could (which isn't the most important thing in the world, but it does help), you need to select four of those 12, while selecting 6 out of the 30 in total. This is one of the most maddening aspects of the carelessness with which CPsi's author seems to have thrown the book together (although it's entirely possible he did it deliberately, specifically to cater to people like me who enjoy being challenged in their character creation process); it seems very likely that nobody in the book's process actually noticed this flaw, or at least didn't think it was important, figuring that it was perfectly okay that you could only build three different Ardent characters before being semi-forced to repeat a mantle pick. In this case, Mister Gray has two of the four that he might have, so he needs to go back and take two lower-level power at some point after reaching 17th, but this isn't utterly crippling - a far bigger problem arises when you manage to pick none of those twelve mantles, which wouldn't be hard if you were just stringing together ones that you liked for fluff reasons, and hadn't formally planned out a career path for the character.
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Re: The Ardent: A Psionic Character Handbook

Postby willpell » Fri Aug 25, 2017 9:46 pm

Okay, having walked through Mister Gray in detail and showed you the process by which an ardent tends to work, let's look at a couple more illustrations. Despite having been intentionally built around the most restrictive Mantles, Mister Gray managed to work out okay...my first-ever Ardent character wasn't so lucky, because I didn't know what I was doing when I built him. Without getting into more details than you need about him, including even his name, let's look at the Mantles I innocently picked out for him, and why those choices were disastrous because I didn't look at the future I was creating.



One thing that I never noticed when originally creating this character was that a lot of powers appear on two different mantles; in selecting those mantles for him, I unintentionally restricted the choices I would have access to at a lot of later levels. I didn't really notice at the time, since by happenstance I had given myself plenty of other choices with these Mantles; only when I looked at his long-term forecast did the problem really become evident. Interestingly, it also became apparent here that some Mantles grant an "upgraded" version of their power; it's not clear whether a character who selects that Mantle, but is forced to take the power on a different Mantle because of primacy restrictions, still gets the upgrade as essentially a part of their granted power, or if the upgrade is effectively a different power which can only be learned by selecting it from that Mantle specifically. True Metabolism is the example which this character stumbled upon, but there are a couple of others scattered around the Ardent class.

Note that Oak Body is normally a Grade 7 power (including on the Physical Power mantle), so its presence at Grade 5 on the Natural World mantle might be a mistake that the publishers failed to catch; I opted not to give this character that power at such an early level, just because it seemed too easy, but perhaps the more militant nature of Ardents as compared to Psions justifies it (although that rationale seems flimsy, given that a Mantle named "Physical Power" keeps it at the normal level). Similar "mistakes" appear on the Freedom Mantle, where Freedom of Movement, Psionic shows up one grade too high, while Hustle shows up at Grade 2 when Psions have to get it at Grade 3. However, in this case, I chose to explicitly assume these were misprints and have corrected the book's version of them here; Hustle is Grade 2 for Psychic Warriors, which the Ardent resembles at least as much as it does the Psion, while Freedom of Movement has reliably always been a Grade 4 effect for all psions and spellcasters, so I see no reason why Ardents alone would be required to get it late.

Another problem that Mister Natural here stumbles upon is the duplication of Powers between a lot of his Mantles (as mentioned above, but there's a different context for its mention here, so forgive my awkward grammar); Animal Affinity is present on both Natural World and Physical Power, and in fact I originally selected it as part of the former, but ran into trouble when I chose to swap primacy at 8th, putting Physical Power over Life, since I was now obligated to fill up Physical Power until it had as many Powers as all my other Mantles. I ended up having to rule that Animal Affinity could count toward any mantle that it could have been selected for, instead of the one it actually did, in order to avoid torpedoing his entire design with this somewhat-impulsive primary-mantle switch (which I did mostly because I could, not realizing what consequences it would have). Without that ruling, he would have 3 powers in Natural World but only 2 in Physical Power, and that's a big problem given that he also had 3 powers in Life at the time; to be allowed to select Freedom of Movement (or, if a DM had vetoed my interpretation of that power's intended level, Psionic Fly) at level 8, he needs to count Animal Affinity toward BOTH of his now-Primary mantles, despite the fact that he couldn't have legally taken it in the one which was Secondary at the time. That, combined with a much larger and more obvious issue which I'll discuss last, is why I regard him as a failed character...you never want to have to give your own NPCs a permissive GM ruling in order to make them work.

It was when I went back and looked at this character, leveling him up a couple times for practice, that I first recognized the problem of only a few Mantles having a Grade 9 power; he's actually not as bad off as Mister Grey is in truth, having already gotten access to two such powers by 10th level and still being able to pick one more Mantle that will give him a third choice, but when I first noticed this, I was shattered by the realization that he would absolutely never have all four of the 9s he would have been entitled to, if I'd not managed to make three consecutive Mantle picks without noticing this deficiency.

So that's "Mister Natural", my first Ardent and my first introduction to the problems of making an Ardent. He gets to select any one power at level 20 (subject to primacy restrictions, which I believe would prohibit a fifth Life power since he has only four Physical Power ones, although he could conceivably switch them back at level 15 to fix that issue), but other than that, this table shows him as he is and must be, given my managing to accidentally select what are probably the three most redundant-with-each-other Mantles which exist as the core of his build.
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