98
\$\begingroup\$

I have recently had a conversation with some of my friends about psionics and their place in the D&D universe, both lore-wise and gameplay-wise. We were discussing the psionics as an optional part of the game, discussing the practice of banning psionics altogether as a houserule and pretending they don't exist. Some other people joined in and the conversation quickly devolved into a heated argument about whether psionics are the cancer of the D&D or the best thing since sliced bread.

Intrigued, I searched the web and the question frequently asked is "Why people hate psionics?". The Internet lists some reasons, but due to the nature of forum discussion the claims are often accepted at face value and opinions are conflated with facts, therefore I find it hard to understand all the hate. Below I would like to list several opinions or reasons for why various netizens think psionics are being hated and my reaction/rebuttal to why the argument is insufficient to be reason for alleged controversy (I used GiantITP, Reddit, Paizo, and Myth-Weavers).

  • Psionic rules were broken and unreasonable
    However D&D is known for its lack of balance between systems, even very basic ones
  • Psionics are over/underpowered
    Wizards are known for gamebreaking power and monks for severe gameplay limitations. Banning psionics does not change much.
  • Players don't enjoy Psionic lore
    I find this argument unfounded, with no attempt to explain why is it so, if true.
  • Psionics are often chosen by players who want to build "special unique snowflake Mary-Sue" characters
    But so are dual-wielding Rangers or various spellsword classes, which don't get the hate
  • Psionics are not mentioned in Core Rule Book
    But so are various widely appreciated extensions
  • GMs don't want to learn yet another system
    Which is fairly simple and clear, certainly less taxing than e.g. Tome of Battle Maneuvers and stances
  • Hating or loving Psionics is considered edgy and cool
    But why psionics and not something else?

None of these arguments are unique to psionics. Why are psionics picked on?

What makes psionics so different?

I am looking for factual evidence or a well-grounded argument in absence. I accept that all of the listed reasons are likely to be valid and observed, but what I lack is why these reasons would apply to psionics but not other systems, often with greater flaws. Are psionics made of skub?

For the purpose of this question I'm not trying to establish what are the hate-generating flaws in psionics that make people hate them. Instead, I'm trying to establish why people are eager to pick on those flaws (whatever they are) despite them being present in other material as well.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This happens in the real world also: it's easier to judge something/someone that you don't understand (especially if it contradicts your current perceivable framework) rather than taking the effort to actually understand it. \$\endgroup\$ – Vadruk Dec 1 '18 at 17:55
101
\$\begingroup\$

It boils down to what kind of style you like. Most systems have an inherent style to the way the world works and people tend to pick the game that fits their favorite style.

The style in D&D is medieval (or early renaissance) sword and sorcery, where themes of powerful wizards wielding magic, gods being real and bestowing powers upon their clerics and supernatural beasts ranging from demons to dragons are all part of the storytelling conventions enough that players would expect and readily accept these as part of the game. Note that in all of these cases magic is a regular (one might even say natural) part of the world. Even sorcerers only affect the power of the "weave" of magic that is omnipresent.

Psionics on the other hand are a set of powers that are not tied to the world itself, but rather to the characters and creatures themselves. Some very classic D&D monsters wield psionic powers, such as Illithids, Aboleths and the Gith. However, since these are considered strange, outlandish or downright freaky in the context of the world, they are easily accepted by people liking the sword and sorcery style.

Having characters, which are an integral part of any RPG story, wield powers that go against the assumed ground rules of the fiction's genre is often where the willing suspense of disbelief breaks down. Remember, in sword and sorcery magic is a (somewhat) natural part of the world and mages, etc. just know how to affect this otherwise hidden power.

In different settings more separated from these assumptions, often in a world closer to our modern world rather than a medieval setting, psionics will often be considered as acceptable as (or even more acceptable than) "conventional magic" by most people. The reason is similar to what I described above: in such a modern setting magic that permeates the world seems out of place, while powers bound to individuals and ancient items are imaginable.

In the end, it boils down to what assumptions everyone brings to the table. A genre trope of sword and sorcery is that magic is part of the world and characters only shape what is already there. This is why psionics get so much hate in the standard D&D settings.

The fact that game designers often want to separate psionics from magic in terms of rules only adds another layer to which people can refer for their criticisms. As you wrote, there usually are plenty of badly balanced parts in D&D anyway. In my experience, nitpicking about the rules for psionics often is a surrogate discussion. Maybe one is not comfortable with defining the boundaries of the campaign's genre, possibly afraid of being considered close-minded or adhering to clichés. Maybe one can not even put into words what is the actual issue and then starts to argue about rules just from a bad gut feeling.

I myself have belonged to the latter group of people for a long time, trying to argue why psionics is bad rule-wise, without realizing that it just is not a regular part of medieval fantasy worlds that I can or want to imagine.

In the end, if you find yourself in such a discussion, it might help redirecting the focus to what themes are considered part of the canon of the game. The people arguing against psionics would most probably just as much hate a gnome tinkerer "inventing" modern weaponry.

As with most matters of opinions, there are no actually wrong ways of thinking about it. Still, it helps the game a lot if everyone at the table has the same (or at least compatible) angles on the subject.

\$\endgroup\$
67
\$\begingroup\$

Added complexity versus added value

The core objection to Psionics in a Swords and Sorcery / Fantasy RPG (for those who do find it a problem) is rooted in two issues:

  1. Damage done to the suspension of disbelief due to genre overlap
  2. Additional mechanics with no added value

    In my experience as both player and DM, it is the second factor that puts a burden on a DM in a psionic using campaign and tends to be the basis for resistance.

A detailed treatment of the root problems presented by The Angry GM match my own experience with attempts to fold psionics (a Sci Fi literary trope) into the Swords and Sorcery genre that originally inspired the game.

  • Experience as a grognard:

    Our early attempts to use psionics in D&D1 (Eldritch Wizardry Supplement in OD&D, 1976, TSR) exposed the problems of "psionics only encounters" and the clunkiness of the additional set of mechanics and rules. We didn't sweat the trope overlap at that table. At subsequent tables the "feel" factor arose with some frequency, but most DM's I played with in the first 10 years in the hobby didn't want to be bothered with the added complexity without added value. Angry GM points this out.

    Remember, complexity is the currency with which you buy depth. Complexity isn’t inherently bad, but complexity that doesn’t add depth is bad. And psionics doesn’t really add any depth to the game in return for all the extra systems and classes and rules.
    When you combine that fact with the thematic mismatch, psionics rubs a lot of people the wrong way.

    (You could argue that it would be better said that "complexity is a coin with which you can buy depth," but that's criticism rather than answering this question).

**Psionics' generic problems were structural as far back as their origin (OD&D) and the carry over into AD&D 1e (an optional rule set). (1e PHB p. 110-117).

  • It was acknowledged during 1st edition AD&D that psionics is different. An extended treatment in Dragon Magazine #78 was entitled -- Psionics is different ... And that's putting it rather mildly.

  • The difference was summarized as Magic being external to the character, and Psionics being internal to the character, but there was more to it than that. To illustrate the added complexity, Dragon 78's article had three pages of "Sage Advice" and over 20 FAQ's (before the Internet; Oct 1983). While original limitations on Monks and Druids were lifted (neither class were originally allowed psionics in OD&D Supp 3), the rarity of the talent and its "add on power" nature was a problem.

  • The complaint that only special (Mary Sue/Marty Stu) characters get psionics came from its accession. The player had to roll near to 00 (100%) on percentile dice in order to qualify. KISS was not the principle in question. With six players around a table, how often will one be able to roll 00, or roll just the right stats and then roll 90+ to 00? (No psionics for you!)

    (1e PHB, p 110) Characters with one or more unmodified Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma ability scores of 16 or higher might have psionic ability ... determined by a dice roll using percentile dice ... score of 00 (100%) indicates the ability exists. For each 1 point of Intelligence above 16 add 2% to the dice roll, for each 1 point of wisdom above 16 add 1% to the dice roll, and for each 1 point of charisma above 16 add 1/2 to the dice roll (drop all fractions). Example: A character has Intelligence of 17, Wisdom of 12, and Charisma of 17. There are 2 1/2 points to be added to the psionic potential roll because intelligence is 1 above 16, and 1/2 point for charisma above 16, total = +3 ... score of 97 or greater indicates psionic ability exists in the character.

    "Clunky" from the get go, particularly when seen in hindsight after a few decades of effort devoted to cleaning up and improving on a host of things in the game.

    Here ends the history. Later editions addressed some of the structural issues that came with the original package. By 3.5, and the Expanded Psionics Handbook, significant improvement was made (props to @KRyan for the analysis at the link).

Is the core objection justified?

At a given table, yes it can be, but in general, no it isn't, because neither of these problems is impossible to overcome. I've seen it done successfully.

  • The first problem is mitigated by how a GM folds the system into the campaign. While this takes work up front, it can be done.
    • One of the best ways to do that was by doing away with the separate encounter table for those "special" psionics encounters. All psionic encounters were planned / hand picked / timed / selected by the DM. (No random psionic encounters). Later editions' supplements improved psionics enough to reduce that problem.
  • The second was best mitigated by a cooperative relationship between the player and the GM in getting the mechanics to play without delay or emphasis on how special this character is.
    • Each PC is special in his/her own way: that's a core conceit of the adventuring party model around which the game is built.

When psionics got an overhaul in Second Edition, the authors admitted that it was not everyone's cup of tea2, and spelled out that these were optional rules: not core rules.

Bottom line

Psionics are only controversial if:

  • you let them be, or,

  • at a given table, a DM doesn't want to be bothered with them and a player wants to use them.

    A "Session Zero" or "Same Page Tool" kind of conversation should sort that out before play begins.

That kind of conflict -- can I use this feature or not? -- was bound to arise in the bloatier editions (AD&D 2.0 and later) whose avalanche of supplements and features (What is core, anyway?) won't appeal to every DM.

It is fair to say that psionics isn't alone in being a table-by-table feature in the game.
- Example: In our current campaign (5e) the DM did not approve Variant Human for our table.

Since DM's don't DM for the pay, that isn't a bad thing: it's either available at a DM's table, or it isn't. No controversy.


1 Psionics was initially added as a feature in a monster before it was available to PC's in Eldritch Wizardry. The Mind Flayer showed up first in Strategic Review (Issue #1, page 2) with a power that formed the core of later psionic attacks: Mind Blast. Over a year later that psionics arrived in supplement III.

  • From this web interview, we find that Kask and Gygax did not like psionics with equal vigor Tim Kask:

    I LOVED psionic combat and had great fun devising it with all of its tables and charts. Apparently I was in the tiny minority. I guess mental combat was too esoteric for most D&Ders; not enough of them shared my fondness for the Dr. Strange Marvel comics and Mindflayers. God, I loved Mindflayers; they were all over my dungeons. I just loved the idea of turning an annoying PC into a gibbering idiot.. Oh well, live and learn...)

  • Gary Gygax:

    As for the psionics, that can of worms was my doing. I had created the mind flayer as a fine monster, and I should have left well enough alone; but no! I had to add mental powers, send the initial draft around. I soon hated the whole business, but Len Lakofka and his group in Chicago loved the concept, and Tim was enthused about the addition as well. So, as said Pilate, I washed my hands of the matter."

2 From the Second Edition p. 1-3, Complete Psionics Handbook:

Psionics was not included in the AD&D 2nd Edition game. Now psionics is back by popular demand ... completely optional addition to the AD&D 2nd Edition rules.

So it is not unreasonable to ask, "Does the game need a third type of magic?" The answer is no, the game probably does not need a third kind of magic. But the question is misinformed because psionics is not magic. Magic is the ability to shape, control, harness, and utilize natural forces that infuse the game world and surround the characters. The key element ... is external energy. The power does not come from inside the wizard or priest but from somewhere else. Psionics is the complete opposite of this. The psionicist shapes, controls, harnesses, and utilizes natural > forces that infuse his own being ... more than a character of any other class, the psionicist is self-contained.

\$\endgroup\$
14
\$\begingroup\$

There are three kinds of gaming tables in regards to psionics:

  • Those who do not use it and are happy with it.

You can play D&D completely without psionics and have a good and healthy gaming experience. There are no psionic powers in the world and the players do not possess any either. The standard campaigns most of the time do this, because psionics are not in the standard books. Standard to me means the holy trinity of PHB, DMG and MM. If psionics aren't used, there is no problem of them being under- or overpowered obviously. No controversy here.

  • Those who embrace it and are happy with it.

Some campaign worlds make heavy use of it. A good example was the Dark Sun setting back in 2e. Psionics was a big part of that world. The players had psionic powers and the world had lots of psionics, too. Everyone at the gaming table knew the psionic rules as a basic part of the campaign settings. You can probably do a lot of theorycrafting about it, but from my experience, psionics were ok. There were not more or less powerful than other features. I mean it's D&D, you can do all kinds of cheese, but psionics as a rule system was pretty solid if you put it in the context the other subsystems of D&D. It wasn't any more exploitable than the rest. There was little controversy there.

  • Those where only a few players actually use the rules.

This is something I have witnesses a few times and this is were the controversy starts. Someone bought the book and wants to play a psionic whatever in the standard campaign. This is where the system breaks. Actually, the system is fine, as seen above. But in those groups, it's not implemented entirely. Most players don't want to learn the additional set of rules, sometimes even the DM does not want to and the adventure, if bought or thought out previously, is woefully unprepared to handle the new subsystem. That's not the fault of the psionic subsystem. Just imagine magic was not in the PHB. All characters and the whole world just consists of fighters and rogues. And all of a sudden someone bought a book where he can play a cleric. But nobody but him reads that book. The adventure never anticipated magic. Boy, would that be broken. Not because magic is broken, but because a system where only a few actors know all the rules will fail. This is were the controversy starts, because it seems broken. Suddenly someone is pulling a power from a book nobody has heard before. It seems overpowered or game breaking or what not. Matter of fact it's neither, as the second group of gaming tables can attest to. But everybody at the table (or at least the DM) has to know the rules by heart. If you don't know the rules and they are some secret arcane mysteries of the guy that owns the book, then yes, it's broken. But it's not psionics that's broken, it's the gaming style at the table. You cannot play a game where not everyone is on the same page and that includes the basic rules.

What makes psionics so different?

So to make a long post short: psionics is so different because the rules are not readily available like other subsystems. It costs additional money and time to get to know them. Those who agree to spent this money and time seem to have fun. Those who don't are quite happy, too. But those where a few are ready to spent time and money and a few are not, have problems and controversies. That's a social/group problem and has little to do with the actual psionics rules. Therefor nobody found an easy fix yet. No amount of house-ruling or hand-waving or next-edition-this-will-be-better will repair the basic problem of group mismatch.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ It's entirely possible to play a game where not all the players know all the rules by heart. I have witnessed it. Repeatedly. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Dec 21 '15 at 23:22
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe Yes, but as I said, at least the DM should. I have played games where even the DM didn't know the rules, but those groups were exceptional and I would not expect this level of maturity and constructive teamplay (from the players at the table, not the characters) from the average group of D&D players. \$\endgroup\$ – nvoigt Dec 21 '15 at 23:27
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Your third part needs revision, or you need a fourth part. Parts one and two are SPOT ON!. I've seen psionics from the early days, and even then it COULD work but it didn't work effortlessly. With some effort it fit in. PS props for the point on Dark Sun as it made psionics work nicely. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 21 '15 at 23:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Can you explain what you mean with revision or a fourth part? I get that you are not entirely happy with the third part, but I could not find out what exactly you feel is missing. \$\endgroup\$ – nvoigt Dec 22 '15 at 12:01
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @nvoigt sorry for the delay. "Those where only a few players actually use the rules." I think the way you introduced that in terms of players using rules, rather than the whole table and the DM being involved in using the rules or not, and even getting familiar enough with the rules is a good start. It seems to me that what you explain and how you labeled the category diverge, though I get the general idea. My guess at the bottom line: if you don't become familiar with the rules and how they work, how can there be valid criticism? Am I close? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 22 '15 at 14:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.