Why the Mystic is Bad at Eating Cake

So, round 2 of the Mystic finally came out. I never analyzed the mystic’s first appearance on this blog, which serves me just fine. It was five levels, so I didn’t really have much to analyze. And although I think it’s a really ambitious class, I don’t think I lost anything by NOT analyzing it. Especially when there are others who do it on a regular basis, and are, frankly, really good at it.

However, now the second round is out. It’s got ten levels, instead of five, and we now have a whole host of disciplines to look at, instead of just the few that were included in the five-level build.

But I’m still not examining it. Not in a traditional sense, anyway. If you want a point-by-point breakdown of the class, then go ahead and take a gander at Harbinger of Doom’s review. It’s really quite thorough and he has a better head for class balance than I. Instead, I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about a topic that’s definitely related to the Mystic, but is definitively more broad in scope.

I want to talk about incentives. Specifically, mechanical incentives in game design. This isn’t going to be a topic about placing incentives in adventures to get players to do things. Rather, it’s going to be about the various different incentives that are placed in classes, races, and feats that encourage certain styles of play.

Defining Our Terms

Before I dive into all of this nonsense, though, let’s define our terms, because I’m going to be using them throughout this article, and want you to understand what I’m talking about. An Incentive in game design is a feature of the game that reinforces a particular style of play from the player. An incentive is NOT a restriction. A Restriction prevents or forbids a player from accessing another feature of the game. Restrictions can be used to aid with incentives, but generally don’t function well on their own. An incentive is also not a disparate feature. A Disparate Feature is a feature of the game that is disconnected from the other parts of the game. It might be a neat feature that covers an aspect of a class, race, etc. that might otherwise be lacking, but it doesn’t necessarily encourage a particular style of play.

Why the Wizard is Basically Perfect

I want you to take a look at the Wizard. Go ahead and skim over the class. I can wait. You done? Notice how it’s basically perfect in its design? No? Well, let me explain.

One of the most elegant aspects of the wizard is its balance and the way it uses incentives to achieve that balance. Not the mechanical balance, but rather its thematic balance. Taking a look at its table, you might expect that the wizard is entirely defined by its arcane tradition. It only gains three features (not including Ability Score Improvements) that aren’t connected to its subclass, and they’re all fairly generic spell-related features. And yet, when playing the class, the difference between evokers and diviners, while noticeable, isn’t game-changing. A conjurer doesn’t feel like a different class when compared to a transmuter. Why is this? It’s because the wizard’s primary class feature is its spell access. Wizards are only limited in spells known by how many spellbooks they can convince the fighter to carry. And they can prepare different spells every day. And, on top of that, they have the most vast and esoteric spell list in the entire game. And when you take a look at the various arcane traditions, they all tend to recognize that the wizard’s primary feature is its spells, while still allowing themselves to feel unique. How do they do this?

Through incentives, dear reader. Through mechanical incentives.

Let us, for example, take a look at the Evocation tradition, since it’s the one that’s free with the OGL. If you’re unfamiliar, then I encourage you to go HERE and check it out.

Notice how each feature gives you a new tool to use WHEN casting your spells? Sculpt Spell lets you cast area effect spells into melee. Potent Cantrip makes save-based cantrips viable in all situations. Empowered Evocation gives you a general damage boost to all evocation spells. And Overchannel turns your blasting spells into monstrous forces of nature, so long as you’re willing to pay the price.

All of these features incentivize a particular play-style. When you play an evoker, you are encouraged to use area-effect, saving throw-based damaging spells. You’re not required to do so. There are no laws of the game restricting you from casting divination or transmutation spells, but you gain more benefit out of the class by using blasting spells, and particularly those in the evocation school.

As a side note, notice how the evocation tradition also teaches you how to build evocation spells on your own. Each class feature tells you about aspects of evocation spells. They’re damaging, they generally effect an area, they generally require saving throws, etc. It’s not necessary to notice this for the purpose of this article, but I still wanted to share it, since it’s so cool.

But I can hear you all clamoring to know what the hell this has to do with the Mystic? Why are we spending time talking about the wizard when I said at the beginning that this was an article about the Mystic?

It’s because I wanted to provide you with an example of how to create mechanical incentives in the right way, and the wizard is the ur-example of how to create mechanical incentives in your game. There are other good ones, of course. The rogue wouldn’t be a rogue without its sneak attack encouraging stealthy and gang-up tactics. And the paladin is actually a great example of an entire class coming together to incentivize a particular playstyle: nearly everything that goes into the core paladin wants you to be a defender, standing at the front lines and keeping your allies safe.

This is, of course, compared to classes like the Warlock or Druid, or even the Cleric, which end up basically as sacks of disparate features not designed to encourage a particular play-style, but rather to evoke certain archetypical tropes that come together in a class. These classes are defined by WHAT they do, rather than HOW they do it.

I also want to reiterate that incentives are not restrictions or triggers. The barbarian, for example, is a class based around restricting certain features behind a trigger: Rage. The barbarian is neat when it’s just fighting the good fight. But it becomes AWESOME when it triggers its rage. Similarly, the Monk is a class built around restrictions. Many of its class features only function when wearing no armor and wielding specific monk-flavored weapons. These restrictions are specifically designed to convey the flavor of an ascetic warrior who has focused on pure discipline over their body and mind. These classes are shaped by their restrictions, not by incentives (though the monk’s subclasses do incentivize certain tactical decisions in a rather minor way).

Why is the Mystic Bad at Eating Cake?

First of all, read or download the Mystic HERE.

The problem with the mystic is that it wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Why? Because the core aspect of the mystic is based around creating this semi-restrictive, order-based discipline system. But it also wants to allow total and complete freedom to choose whatever disciplines you want. Now, that’s not an impossible goal. As we’ve established, it’s possible to create interesting, unique, and flavorful classes based around incentivizing particular play-styles. The wizard does exactly this by providing a semi-restrictive arcane school system, and then allowing you to choose any spells you want. It simply encourages you to choose spells associated with your chosen tradition by convincing you that you’ll get the most bang for your buck by choosing them. And on the most basic level, the Mystic technically does this.

But it is quite terrible at it.

Let’s take a look at a few of the core aspects of the class. First, its Mystic Order. The intent of the mystic order is to determine which class you’ll be playing when you choose to play the mystic. What do I mean by this? Well, for anyone familiar with D&D 3.5, you’ll probably remember that psionics were divided up into four classes: the Psion, Wilder, Psychic Warrior, and Soulknife. The mystic is, in its current incarnation, trying to take the place of both the Psion (or at least the Telepath), and the Psychic Warrior. It does this by essentially assigning each class to one of its Mystic Orders. The Order of the Awakened is quite obviously intended to be a telepathic psion, while the Order of the Immortal wants you to be a rough-and-tumble psychic warrior.

They do this by offering class features that appear, on the surface, to incentivize a particular style of play. However, let’s take a closer look, shall we? The Awakened Mystic gives you a couple of free talents, which is nice. And they even fit the telepath theme. It also gives you some free skill proficiencies, Psychic Investigation: which lets you use psychometry to read objects, Psychic Surge: the ability to throw off an enemy’s psychic defenses, and finally it gives you Potent Psionics: AKA Empowered Evocation, but with all damaging discipline powers and talents.

The problem is that these aren’t really incentives. Or, at least most of them aren’t. Giving away free talents and skills isn’t incentivizing you to play a certain way, regardless of what those talents and skills are. They’re simply adding tools to your toolbox. And while Psychic investigation is super cool and definitely fits with the flavor of the class, it isn’t incentivizing you to play in any particular style. It’s just giving you a powerful tool to use in a particular situation. The only incentives, in fact, are Psychic Surge and Potent Psionics.

Why are they incentives while the rest of the features are not? It’s because of the overarching design of the mystic. Essentially, when you get down to it, the mystic is just a really complex spellcaster. It uses psi points instead of spell slots, learns its spells in pre-packaged booster packs via disciplines instead of a la carte like wizards or sorcerers, and has an extra trick up its sleeve due to the disciplines’ Psychic Focus allowing the mystic to get a passive benefit from each discipline. But it’s still, in essence, a spellcaster. Its main class features are its disciplines (AKA spells). And, like spells, these disciplines have a school. Each discipline belongs to a psychic order: either Awakened or Immortal. And that’s fine. However, by having the disciplines connected to the orders, you’re making a tacit acknowledgement that the Mystic is going to function bit like a psychic wizard. Awakened mystics will gain benefit from using Awakened disciplines. And the same goes for Immortals and their disciplines. But that’s not how it plays out.

For the first five levels, an Awakened Mystic gains zero real benefit from choosing Awakened disciplines. In fact, an awakened mystic can function quite well for its first five levels using exclusively immortal disciplines. They become quick, agile, and resistant to damage. They don’t gain any benefit from having an offensive, save-based discipline or talent until they gain Psychic Surge. There’s really no down side. And the immortal mystic? The immortal NEVER gains a single power tying it to any of its disciplines. Sure, you can argue that they naturally enhance its super-fighty prowess, and act as incentives in that way. But then again, nobody said that an immortal mystic has to swing a sword. As-designed, there is nothing at all discouraging the immortal mystic from just becoming a beefy, heavily-armored telepath that focuses on breaking minds rather than bodies…or rather, there’s nothing incentivizing the use of the more fighty-dodgy-smashy disciplines other than player choice and flavor.

Comparing these again to the Wizard (which, as established, is a strong analog for the mystic), each and every arcane tradition offers incentives and benefits for using the spells associated with it, and therefore encouraging a style of play.

Simply put, the two psionic orders do a very good job at CONVEYING the idea behind their respective themes, but do a very poor job at INCENTIVIZING the play-style associated with that order.

But there is, of course, a counterpoint. And I would be remiss if I didn’t bring it up. And that counterpoint is Mystical Recovery. Verbatim:

“Starting at 2nd level, you draw vigor from the psi energy you use to power psionic disciplines associated with your Mystic Order. Whenever you spend psi points on a psionic discipline of your order, you regain hit points equal to your Intelligence modifier if your current hit point total equals half your hit point maximum or less.”

This means that whenever you spend psi points on a discipline that matches your order, you heal 0 to 5 hit points IF AND ONLY IF you are already below half HP.

Really?

Honestly, that is the sloppiest attempt at incentivizing play that I have ever seen. “Oh no! I’m at 5 hit points! I guess I’d better SPEND MY SINGLE ACTION THIS TURN to spend 2 of my remaining psi points (keeping in mind that I’m at 5 hit points, suggesting I’ve been in combat for a while and probably have a limited supply of psi points left) to use Occluded Mind in order to heal four hit points and potentially convince the enemy of a particular statement for five minutes.”

That isn’t incentivizing play. That is forcing the player to gaze at their spell list and decide if it’s worth potentially wasting their action to heal such a miniscule amount. It’s a feature only worth using if your healer (assuming you have one) is already out of commission or out of spells, and even then only if you’re desperate. The intent is to give you a benefit for playing toward type. But instead of that, it simply gives you a trigger that you can pull for a minor benefit if things start to look bad. And yes, I do understand that you can also benefit coincidentally from the feature. After all, if you mostly chose Immortal disciplines and you’re an immortal mystic, then you’ll gain that benefit practically every time you spend psi points once below half health. But at that point you’re not doing it for a reason, and I foresee a lot of players forgetting that the feature exists until someone reminds them.

The point of all of this is that the Mystic is TRYING to be an incentive-based class. That’s what it wants to be, at its core. It wants to be a wizard, giving you a vast choice of powers, but encouraging you to choose a particular few. The problem is in its execution. While the wizard offers a range of real, tangible benefits for selecting and casting spells of a particular order, the mystic simply doesn’t. It has a few weak incentives that kind of encourage a particular play style, but not enough for me to DESIRE that play style over any other. In other words: the mystic CAN have its cake and eat it, too. But it’s basically shoving its face into the center of the cake and rubbing frosting into its hair.

Recognizing the Playtest

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this class is still obviously in its infancy. It’s a playtest. More than that, it’s Round 2 of a playtest, and it is decidedly a better incarnation than its predecessor. The first version of the mystic used not incentives, but restrictions as its primary feature. Orders were restricted to disciplines that were associated with it. This would have required, in a final version, a HUGE number of disciplines to keep any real sense of choice within the class. By letting go of that aspect and creating a more free-form class build, the designers can focus on fine-tuning other class features and balancing the class as a whole, rather than balancing each individual subclass against its intended analog. This more a la carte method of class design does come with some sacrifices. The orders are going to likely feel more and more homogenous as we get closer to the final version, as widening the discipline pool can lead to unintended combinations and unforeseen consequences.

This may also encourage the designers to consider multiple psionic classes, rather than one catch-all class. I wouldn’t mind seeing a Mystic that covers telepathy and psychokinesis, and then also a Psychic Warrior of some kind that uses Psychometabolism and Soulknife-styled powers.

How Can We Fix It?

Before I propose a solution to the problem, I want to say something. This is a PLAYTEST version of the class, and if you’re going to participate in the playtest, you should begin by using the class AS WRITTEN! If you give feedback for a house-ruled version of the class, then you’re essentially providing useless information.

If, however, you’ve already playtested the class in its intended form, and you think you’ve gathered enough data to contribute, OR if you have no intention of giving feedback, and just want to use the class in your home games, then these solutions are for you.

I also want to note that these features are simply patches. In order to truly fix the class, you would have to re-work a number of class features.

Mystical Recovery. Instead of the current version of the class feature, which is useless to an Awakened mystic that avoids combat, and is redundant on an Immortal mystic that is already gaining temporary hit points each round, use the following text:

“You have learned to regain some of your psychic energy through rest and meditation. When you finish a short rest, you can choose to recover a number of psi points equal to your psi limit. You must complete a long rest to use this feature again.”

Mystic Order Incentives. The following two features are gained in addition to the features normally gained by mystics at level one. Each one is associated with one of its orders.

Third Eye (Order of the Awakened). At 1st level, as long as you maintain psychic focus with an Awakened discipline, you have advantage on all Wisdom (Perception) and Wisdom (Insight) checks, and you may spend 1 psi point as a bonus action to see all magical and psionic auras within 60 feet for 1 minute.”

Psychic Defense (Order of the Immortal). At 1st level, as long as you maintain psychic focus with an Immortal discipline, you gain a +2 bonus to you Armor Class, and you may spend 1 psi point as a reaction to gain advantage on any Constitution saving throw made to maintain concentration.”

These might be a little powerful for level 1, but I’d rather they go overboard than be underwhelming.

Until next time, folks. It’s good to be back.

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