Dark Heresy Psykers Are Not D&D Wizards

A surprising amount of my blog traffic comes from search terms like “Dark Heresy powergame psyker.” This is odd, because the one time I wrote on that subject, it was about how to twink out any concept. In D&D, combat is king and everything else is an afterthought (playing an intrigue-heavy game of D&D, while something I certainly recommend just because intrigue is fun, will not solve this problem, because it’s still true that it takes a small fraction of your character resources to become good at social skills, but it takes all of them to be good at combat skills). Dark Heresy 2 is an investigation game, though. Totally kicking ass at any one thing doesn’t automatically sort you into a higher tier than the competition. If you’re awesome at combat, great, but the team still needs to look for clues and talk to nobles, so if you’re going to powergame Dark Heresy 2, you start by figuring out what niche you’re going to fill and then you figure out what character options twink that niche out. There can’t be CoDzilla unless there was a character option so ludicrously overpowered that it let you outclass other archetypes in their own niche. This would make your one character practically a party unto themselves.

That said, those who are familiar with CoDzilla might recognize this as exactly what CoDzilla was. CoDzilla is a reference to the Cleric and Druid, two classes which, used properly, were drastically more powerful than anything else from the core books in D&D’s 3rd edition (Druid is nothing special in 5th edition and while the Cleric can pull off a decently broken bone lord build, a Wizard can do it better). They weren’t just better at killing monsters in general, they were even better at specific class niches unrelated to combat (for what little that’s worth in D&D). The Druid can’t just wreck monsters better than the Rogue, the Druid can sneak around and bypass locked doors better than the Rogue. The Cleric can’t just kill things in general, the Cleric can actually wade into melee and hack monsters to pieces as a frontline beatstick better than the Fighter can. At the point when the Druid is outsneaking the Rogue and the Cleric is outfighting the Fighter, why do we even have Rogues and Fighters?

So it’s not unreasonable to think that Dark Heresy might have a similar problem. And usually it’s some kind of magic-y kind of class or archetype who has these kinds of abilities, because when you sit down to design a magic system, what you’re deciding is not what it can do, but what it can’t. It’s magic, so it can have whatever powers you want, and people who abide by the “throw in everything cool” school of design are going to throw in a list of powers so long and so obviously better than a mundane person doing the same thing that these cast-y types can plausibly be better than every single party member at their own specialties.

So is Dark Heresy 2 actually like that? No, not even slightly.

Part of the issue with being a psyker in DH2 is that every time you try to use your magic superpowers, you risk making your own head explode and possibly TPKing the party with some terrible Warp nonsense. About 10% of all manifested powers result in Warp phenomenon, and there’s a 25% chance that such phenomenon will be a Warp peril, which, as the name implies, can be very bad. There is a chargen option that allows the result of the Warp phenomenon to be adjusted by a couple of points on the d100 table. Being able to adjust the phenomenon by (best case scenario) five or six points can be really helpful if you rolled a 50, which causes the ground to shake and possibly knocks over anyone nearby, when you’d rather have rolled a 55, which causes some spooky ghosts to show up and possibly frightens anyone nearby. If you rolled a 90 and really don’t want to have your face pulled inside Warp perils, you are out of luck, because the Warp perils result goes from 75-100 and you can’t modify it with the Astra Telepathica bonus the way you can the Warp phenomenon roll, so now you roll on the scarier d100 table and can’t do anything except pray you are merely maimed instead of instantly killed. Playing a psyker in Dark Heresy 2 means that approximately once every forty times you use any power for any reason, something unpredictable and bad happens to you and probably also anyone within 10-ish meters of you, which is probably your entire party (if you’re in combat, it probably also includes some bad guys, but if you’re not…).

On top of this, your powers are totally unreliable. You can get higher success rates by casting at a lower psy rating, but since the roll to manifest powers is a characteristic check, not a skill check, you are very nearly incapable of getting your base odds of success higher than about 50-60%, and that’s assuming it’s a Challenging(+0) check, when many powers call for a Difficult(-10) or Hard(-20) check instead. Pushing that up to 100% requires casting at a psy rating of 4-5 points lower than your maximum and you still have a 1% chance of critically failing. While you don’t generally have to care that you’re casting a power at psy rating 1 instead of psy rating 5, since the difference is usually something like a handful of points of damage or a few extra meters on the area of effect, just getting a psy rating of 5 is a mid- or endgame accomplishment. You start with psy rating 2 for being a (sanctioned) psyker at all and can plausibly get up to psy rating 3 at chargen while still having enough XP left over to actually buy some powers, but psy rating gets expensive fast and psykers need to buy a lot of other stuff to be effective. While most characters have a handful of specific talents they need to maximize attacks per round or give them neat investigative tricks, a psyker hoping to be the D&D Batman wizard who’s got a spell for every occasion needs to invest tons of XP into different power trees, needs a psy rating of 5 and maxed out Willpower just to reliably cast them, and needs to push that psy rating up to 7 in order to reliably cast all of them (in order to account for the powers that require Hard(-20) checks to be used).

The cost of getting psy rating up to 7 alone takes 5,000 XP (assuming you built your character right and got psy rating 1 and 2 for free just for being an Astra Telepathica Mystic) is enough to max out one characteristic with only a single aptitude (i.e. something that isn’t core to your character’s concept, otherwise you would have made sure to get both aptitudes for it at chargen if you know what you’re doing, and since you’re a power gamer, you do) and get the first two or three (out of five) advances on another. Before even looking at the power trees, just looking at what it takes to get the Willpower and psy rating needed to use those powers reliably, psykers are paying as much as most characters need to have end game characteristics in everything they even slightly care about.

Getting the powers needed to infringe on every other character’s role requires another huge dollop of XP. Want to out-heal the medic? You need Endurance, that’s 300 XP to buy it plus 500 XP to buy a bunch of prerequisite powers you don’t care about. Also, you need to cast that at Psy Rating 6 or higher to have any decent chance of healing more than the Chirurgeon would be for a comparable investment into his Medicae skill, and to do that you need to accept having a much lower chance of actually casting the power than the Chirurgeon has of successfully medicae-ing someone. And your power comes with a 12-hour recharge whereas the Chirurgeon’s is limited by 24-hours per patient, which means he can heal as many people as he wants in a day, just no more than once per person, rather than only being able to heal as many people as you can cram into two dozen-ish meters at once. You do at least get to heal multiple people at once (and also Endurancing someone doesn’t stop you from later first aiding them nor vice-versa, so a party looking for lots of healing will obviously want to have a really good Chirurgeon and also as many biomancer Mystics as possible).

Want a good suite of investigatory powers? You want Winding Fate for a total of 1,000 XP, though on the bright side some of those prerequisite powers are things you will actually use to investigate things. In exchange for twinked out Willpower and 6,000 XP in psy rating and powers, you get situational investigative powers that are better than twinked out Perception and 1,000 XP in Awareness…most of the time. If you know what you’re looking for. Because scrying is great, but sometimes you just need to find a clue. Plus, you paid an extra 5,000 XP for the privilege, mostly in psy rating so that you can cast the power right the first time you try it, rather than spamming it three times and risking blowing yourself up every time.

The Telepathy tree can make you good at being a face and at being sneaky for the low, low cost of 1,400 XP to get both Invisibility and Dominate, although Invisibility is one of the powers where getting good use out of it requires a high psy rating and the check is Difficult(-10), so have fun having it either fizzle on you half the time or else provide a bonus slightly lower than what the Desperado paid 300 XP in Stealth skills if he was too dumb to take the Outcast background for a free first rank in Stealth. It’s funny how even though most of the powers don’t require particularly high psy ratings to be helpful, all the really sweet ones seem to have their effects tied directly to what psy rating you cast at.

And there’s almost nothing a psyker can do in combat that’s noticeably more powerful than just having endgame bolters and melta weapons, which doesn’t even cost XP. You can just buy or steal that stuff. You need a high Ballistic Skill characteristic to use it, but that’s cheaper than the high Willpower and psy rating that psykers need to use their stuff.

Psyker powers being potentially fatal to their user but impressive when they go off is much harder to balance for in an RPG where every player controls one character than in a wargame where they each control dozens. Being a psyker means trying to avoid using your class features as much as possible for fear that today is the day the dice kill you with no save (or you just roll a peril that theoretically can be survived but which does happen to do enough damage to kill you and maybe also everyone within ten meters of you), paying lots of XP for powers, and in the end having powers that are usually only slightly better than if you had just bought the skills that do the same thing, and buying the skills would’ve given you a far higher rate of success, something you need to invest thousands more XP into for a good psy rating.

The only point when psykers become overpowered is in extreme late game scenarios when other archetypes run out of characteristic and skill advances to buy and can’t get any better at their schtick, but the psyker can increase their psy rating up to as high as ten and has no restrictions but XP on how many powers they can learn. Given 30+ sessions’ worth of XP to work with, a psyker can start raising their psy rating and getting multiple high-end powers from several different trees and start to become a genuine omni-character, able to shine in any part of the game and having no real weaknesses (except that thing where every time they use a power they have about a 1-in-50 chance of harming or even killing themselves, and that’s after pushing the chance down with a bit of (fairly obvious) min-maxing). Even then, they don’t have CoDzilla’s power to utterly crush other characters in their areas of specialty, just abilities that are comparable or sometimes slightly superior (or not: there’s nothing a psyker can do to be a better healer than the Chirurgeon, and they certainly can’t dominate combat to the point where healing is never necessary even against powerful opposition).

You want to know how to powergame psykers in Dark Heresy 2? Play Mechanicus with good Influence instead. Good and Best quality bionics are flat-out better than the body parts they replace, and their acquisition costs are way easier to mitigate than psyker powers that require tons of XP. The only disadvantage is that the availability of people who know how to actually attach the things is left entirely to the GM (there is no specific talent or background option you can take to have it yourself), but what kind of GM is going to claim that your Mechanicus adept can’t know how to install bionics? The only downside is that you have to roll a lot of Influence checks, and that can cost you a lot of subtlety (and it can also take a while if the GM demands a cooldown period between checks, but still not as long as it takes a psyker to build up the enormous piles of XP they need). If you’re running a low-subtlety build, though, you don’t care.

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