Psionics is interesting, isn’t it? I don’t think I’ve ever seen something else so divisive in Dungeons and Dragons. I mean sure, people can argue about racial traits and ranger reworks, but psionics is where the arguments get real. Since the upcoming Tasha’s Guide to Everything looks to have multiple of those topics it should make the D&D social network quite… interesting.
Anyway it’s been a while since the last time I ended up out of my depth, so here we are!
Let’s talk psionics. Just don’t go mental on me, alright?
First off I’ll explain that I know nothing about psionics between 2e and 5e. I did not play 3e, 3.5e, or 4e. I also didn’t play Pathfinder. So who knows how psionics were in those editions. Probably a lot of people actually, just not me.
No, here we’re talking about psionics as a concept. Different implementations have their own ups and downs, which I will address, but the main idea here is why is psionics so hit or miss?
With that out of the way, I will also mention that I will be frequently mocking the old 2e naming traditions of psionic abilities and features. Because obviously adding “psycho-” to a word makes it psionics-y.
Argumentative Ego Whip
As far as I’ve seen the main arguments surrounding psionics can be boiled down to two different variants: “psionics doesn’t fit in D&D” and “psionics is too complicated.”
First off is the question of why either of these are a problem. That’s something that does change significantly from person to person, but none of the arguments seem nonsensical.
Many who claim that “psionics doesn’t fit in D&D” do so because of the narrative/tone disconnect between psionics and traditional D&D. In a world of wizards and knights, there’s no room for Jedi mind tricks. This is basically a personal preference thing – no one can tell you what fantasy means to you, after all. Only you can decide that. Regardless it still has some interesting points.
The other argument, that “psionics is too complicated,” has a few different common forms. One of the more common (and one of the ones I mildly agree with myself) is that the distinction between magic and psionics is needlessly complex and doesn’t make much logical sense. The other main thrust of this argument is that psionic content inevitably requires too many restrictions and rules to make sure it balances out against magic. Again, both forms do have a point.
For now lets begin with tone, and look at why psionics can seem so out-of-place in traditional D&D.
Sciences and Devotions
Sometimes I wonder if a lot of this tone debate simply came from the language psionics was described in early on. In AD&D 2e, psionics had a very “science-fiction” slant to it that was absent in most other D&D products of the time. Except Spelljammer.
In 2e, psionic powers were separated into Disciplines, mostly comparable to the schools of magic. Nothing wrong with that. Then there were two separate types of powers; lesser abilities called Devotions and greater abilities called Sciences.
And there’s the sticking point. The system outright compares psionics to a science. It then doubles down on this by the terminology used in the psionic powers themselves, many of which reference molecules or other modern concepts. I can see why this feels strange; after all, most D&D settings are worlds where reality truly is made up of the four classic elements of earth, air, water, and fire.
That being said, an elementalist wizard of bismuth does sound kind of cool.
The point here is that the language used for psionics strikes many people, myself included, as being very scientific. That, in turn, can lead to it feeling out-of-place in a world of wizards, dragons, knights, and dungeons. But at the same time, that isn’t an innate connection. Nowadays science is much more accepted as a valid part of magical worlds, thanks in large part to the Eberron setting.
Another issue is the flavor of the psion. This differs from setting to setting. Personally I quite like psionics as a connection to the Lovecraftian themes of the Far Realms and aberrations like illithid or aboleths. Other times the psion is more like a hermit mystic spouting poems and philosophy in equal measure. Sometimes it’s a little of both.
The problem here is that these aren’t really themes that everyone wants in their game. For example, my personal group has had a bit of a reluctance for Lovecraftian type stories after doing two campaigns in a row run by DMs who had just played Bloodborne. We were just a bit tired of it (though the campaigns were fun, I had more fun in the one I didn’t DM than I have had in any other game as a player).
Other times people just don’t like those themes at all. I’m not a huge fan of the “poetic mystic” style simply because it often devolves into blatant East Asian stereotypes and uninspired story beats. Some people find Lovecraftian stories disturbing or disgusting (can’t imagine why though), and others just want to have a simple, classic medieval fantasy once in a while.
This is, of course, very subjective. But it does present an interesting problem. Most other classes, even the monk, have gotten to a point now where they can show up in practically any setting and not feel out of place. Want an artificer in a classic medieval setting? That’s fine, they’re just a mad alchemist, or maybe they use clockwork automatons or plain rune-powered golems. Barbarians don’t have to be primitive or savage; a knight with anger issues can be one just as easily.
So what about the psion makes it inherently harder to translate? Maybe its the terminology again. The monk has fancy, mystical-sounding feature names, but the most commonly used abilities are all plain, like Unarmored Defense or Deflect Missile. Meanwhile you have psions over in the corner using Molecular Rearrangement while the goblins just kind of look at one another confusedly.
Psychic Contest of Patience
Another often cited issue with psionics is its complexity. This makes sense to me, being most familiar with its 2e incarnation. After all, the 2e psionics system includes an entire separate system for psion v. psion combat. And before you ask, no it is not worse than THAC0, but the prospect of having to handle both simultaneously gives me chills.
There’s no particular need for psionics to be complex though. The main reason it often ends up that way, at least in my eyes, is because of how hard it has to work to differentiate itself from magic.
If you wanted to, you could easily create a psion class as a normal full-progression spellcaster just by setting their spellcasting ability as Intelligence and giving them a severely limited spell list. If you wanted to take it a bit further, you could just refer to their spells as “powers” and force them to use the spell points system. It’d be balanced and functional by default since it uses already well-established systems.
But that generally isn’t seen as good enough. Why? Because then psionics is just magic with a different name. And that isn’t what people want.
So how do you differentiate psionics and magic? Well first you’ll need a different system of usage. This is where psi-points generally come in, since they feel sufficiently different from spell slots… unless you use the spell points variant. And the actual powers themselves will just end up as re-written copies of existing spells in many cases.
Okay, well what if we make the method of casting different? This is where things start getting complex. Instead of powers just being spells by another name, lets have them be something you can either use immediately or concentrate on for a passive benefit. But now you’ve gone and doubled your work for making psionic powers – that’s no good. Alright, what if you use a special die that fluctuates in power to reflect your expenditure of energy? Well now that’s too random for a class about mental discipline, isn’t it?
Just as a note, I actually quite liked the psionics die system. This is because in 2e, which I’m most familiar with, psionics was without a doubt the more “random” and “inconsistent” option. Any character could theoretically learn a spell with enough study and time. Meanwhile, in order to manifest any psionic power you had to make a Wild Talent check where you had, at base, a 1% chance of having access to a single, randomly determined lesser psionic power. You could increase that chance, but only to around 4% or so (and even that required you to have absolutely broken ability scores to start with). So I don’t see a problem with the psionics die being a bit random. But I digress.
The point here is that psionics often ends up being overly complicated due to its need to be different from magic. And even should you make a simple, easy-to-use psionics system it would still be complicated by the mere fact that it isn’t magic. Explaining the differences between psionics and magic, and how they interact with one another, takes half a page minimum. So even if your system is easy, you’ll still get confusion on the basic classification of the ability set.
Metapsionic Problem Re-Adjustment
How do you fix psionics?
It’s a tough question with a lot of different answers, many of which rely on sheer personal preference. Any solution would have to address these issues:
- Psionics does not have a universally applicable tone or narrative.
- Psionics does not have inherent differences from magic.
- Psionics does not have a user-friendly and easily understood system.
While it isn’t a long list, it isn’t simple by any means. After all, if it was we wouldn’t have to talk so much about it!
My own solution, though, would try to stay simple. It’d go a little like this.
- Psionics would adopt the monk’s tradition of plainly named features without inherent assumptions.
Instead of having “Psychokinesis” and “Psychometabolism” you would have Force and Body. The school of Force uses force to move things. The school of Body infuses your body with power.
This would apply to powers too. Instead of “Molecular Re-Arrangement” you would have something like mold object. And there would be no psionic “sciences” – just leveled powers like spellcasting.
- Psionic effects would be affected by dispel magic and differ only in casting method.
So yes, psionic mind control would be cancelled by remove curse, and psions would be unable to telekinetically move objects within an antimagic field. In this case, “magic” is just a catchall for supernatural effects; dispel magic simply takes supernatural energy and nullifies it, no matter the source.
But would psionics be affected by counterspell? No, because its lack of components would mean spellcasters wouldn’t be able to know when to cast it. Psions would also retain access to all their powers even when tied up, silenced, or stripped of their belongings.
- Psionic effects would be split in two. Powers are discrete effects that are cast with psi-points (spell points). The class can then spend psi-points on things that passively enhance their abilities (ki points).
Instead of stealing only from magic, we’d also take from ki. If you’re mind-controlling a guard, that’s a power that you use an action to expend psi-points on each time you use it. If you’re using psionics to enhance your Persuasion, that’s a passive effect that you can expend psi-points on as part of the original action to enhance it.
As an example, lets take two forms of “expanded sight” – a clairvoyance power and a Third Eye passive.
The clairvoyance power allows you to expend 3 psi-points as an action to scry on a named location. Your view of this area lasts for 1 minute.
The Third Eye passive allows you to expend 1 psi point whenever you make a Perception, Investigation, or Insight skill check to add your Intelligence modifier as a bonus to your roll.
So a power is something you actively do – your action in this case is spent to use that power. A passive something you use to enhance an activity – your action is spent on the actual activity itself and the psionic passive improves it.
This solution still falls short in some areas of course. To many diehard psionics fans it likely smells a bit too much like plain old magic, and thus isn’t different enough. I’m not terribly worried about that. After all, as long as we make sure all of the powers have distinct differences from their nearest spell counterparts it’ll be an empty argument.
It also doesn’t inherently fix the complexity issue. The system itself should be easy to use, but by having a unified points system combining the use cases of both spell points and ki/sorcery points you’re making the balance quite difficult. If psions get as many psi-points as a full spellcaster would have spell points then you’ve effectively neutered their non-power passive effects. And if you give them extra psi-points to make sure they can manifest powers and utilize their passives, then they might be able to manifest too many powers per day compared to a traditional spellcaster.
Psychopompous? Is that Psi-Funny?
Ultimately the first thing you have to do when creating a psionics system is acknowledge, up front, that many people will despise both your design and you personally for “ruining” their favorite class.
But then again, you can get pretty much the same reaction by Tweeting about how much better Pop Tarts are compared to Toaster Strudels. (This is the hill I will die on, just by the way. Toaster Strudels suck.)
I look forward to seeing if the upcoming Tasha’s book will include a full psionics system, or just hints of one through various psionic subclasses. Personally I doubt it. Psionics is a tough issue and might just not be the kind of thing Wizards of the Coast wants to wade into right now, and I don’t blame them. They’re having to deal with enough from the (completely necessary) racial trait changes.
But who knows? Maybe we’ll get a surprise psion class!
Or, slightly more likely, an announcement that Spelljammer is back.
Thanks for reading!