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Hot Button: Psionics in Fantasy

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On September 17, 2009 @ 8:29 am In Hot Buttons | 20 Comments

Today’s Hot Button is related to a previous article, but I think it is worth debating on its own.

Psionics (or psi powers, or psychic powers, etc) have traditionally had a troubled relationship in fantasy games, especially in Dungeons & Dragons and its various permutations and dirivatives. The first time I’d encountered psionics in RPGs was in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (1e), which relegated psionics to an appendix. Unlike divine or arcane magic, psionics wasn’t attached to a character class and played by different rules.

By 2e, AD&D had completely divorced psionics from the core, but later had a supplement (The Complete Psionisist) that brought them back, now tied to a class. Still, psionics used a different system than other forms of magic. D&D 3e, while also confining psionics to supplements, refined psionics so that psionic powers essentially became “spells fueled by power points”.

I’ve known many players outright refuse to play in games that include them, and I’ve known other players that, if psionics are allowed, want them incorporated into their character.

It always struck me as odd that psionics needed a separate subsystem, as most fantasy RPGs had magic spells that modeled psionics pretty well. While I love the concept of the “psychic” or “mentalist,” should she be any different than the “enchanter,” “necromancer,” or “druid” in terms of her ruleset? Should magic be able to defend against psionics and vice versa?

Oddly enough, D&D has yet to lump psionics in with a monk’s ki powers, although many other systems treat the two as the same (summoning inner energy). Rumors are that may be changing with the Fourth Edition.

What say you? Do you like psionics in your fantasy and, if so, would you rather treat them as separate subsystems or just a new flavor?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




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20 Comments To "Hot Button: Psionics in Fantasy"

#1 Comment By psychopez On September 17, 2009 @ 9:12 am

Actually, in a PHB3 preview for those with D&D Insider subscriptions, they showed how psis will work in 4ed. It will be a seperate class, and they will have a seperate pool of points.

Psis will have the usual at-will powers, and daily powers, but no encounter powers, the point pool replacing daily powers.

The pool resets when ever a short rest happens, and the points allow you to boost an at-will or daily power.

#2 Comment By kenmarable On September 17, 2009 @ 9:13 am

I love psionics and use them whenever possible!

My preference is definitely for psionics to “feel” different both in flavor and in mechanics to some extent. I think 3.5 and 4e have both handled the mechanical differences well with having psionic power points fueling the powers. (I’ve always used the “psionic-magic transparency option or whatever it’s called in 3.x so that magic and psionics interact equally.)

Now some people ask why psionics should be different when arcane and divine magic work the same, and my answer is actually that I agree – but flipped around. Arcane and divine magic should work differently, just as arcane and psionics work differently. Not completely bizarre systems all unto themselves like pre-3e psionics, but some minor, tangible differences in how they are played. I’m stuck being disappointed that arcane and divine magic will probably always be left largely interchangeable in how they operate, but dagnabit, I want my psionics (and elemental and shadow and all other 4e sources) to have some clearly unique characteristics in how they work.

And, yes, Tome of Magic was by leaps and bounds my favorite 3.5 book even considering it’s problems.

#3 Comment By Rafe On September 17, 2009 @ 9:15 am

Only time I’ve ever dealt with psionics was with the Dark Sun setting under AD&D. It seemed to work alright, though it certainly felt like an added complexity.

I don’t, personally, like psionics in traditional fantasy settings, though. There’s no reason not to simply use magic and narrate magic/sorcery as mental powers.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On September 17, 2009 @ 9:42 am

In general, I prefer that my fantasy stick to spells. However, there are several worlds that benefit from a psionics instead of spell focus– Ghatti’s tale, but even more so, Katherine Kurtz’s Deyrni series.

Basically, I like them both, they both have a slightly different flavor– but I rarely want to mix them. 4e will be an interesting challenge to that line of thought!

#5 Comment By HappyFunNorm On September 17, 2009 @ 10:59 am

I like the way they are handled in 1st ed, actually. A rare psychic kind of ability that gives powers largely related to RP (like being able to read an item) but are otherwise largely useless as an attack against non-psionics.

I also like decoupling classes from powers in the case of psionics. There’s no particular reason a standard farmer, merchant or blacksmith couldn’t also be a renound Edgar Casye type person without requiring hims to be a high level Psion, which often makes little narrative sense.

So, yeah… I view Psionics and magic very differently, don’t allow them to normally interact (except at the high levels of either) and expect a different mechanic. Though, I hate power points/spell points and their ilk.

#6 Comment By Rechan On September 17, 2009 @ 11:56 am

I think one reason that other systems treat Psionics like anything else is because other systems don’t have the divisions that D&D does. Namely, D&D is one of the few systems that splits Arcane and Divine magic into their own little camps. Since Psionics don’t fit in either camp, it’s set aside.

Also, bare in mind that D&D likes its subsystems. Turning undead, different casting progressions, different class progressions, multi-classing, etc.

I like psionics. I consider them fantasy. A lot of what “mentalists” can do, wizards in fantasy have been able to do, so it’s not that far a stretch. Not to mention mystical Yogi and other Eastern things.

The line I draw with psionics is more whether the tone of them are mystical in nature, or pseudoscience. That’s the problem I find; psionics straddles this line between Another Form of Magic, and Science.

Since I don’t like genes, germs, or atoms in my Fantasy, I don’t like pseudoscience.

#7 Comment By Lee Hanna On September 17, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

I don’t mind it (in theory) as another form of magic. I did mind having to learn another batch of rules, attacks and defenses and so on. It was easier to ban it in our 1e AD&D games, and move on from there.

#8 Comment By DarknessLord On September 17, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

Well, I personally see psionics and magic to have too very different flavors, that in general really do not mix well, magic belongs in the fantasy setting and psychics belong in the settings that want people with special powers but need something more “realistic”.

Not to mention, DnD’s espers are too much like the magic system in that they give the player too much choice in the powers that they get. It makes for a better game, but doesn’t really fit in with my idea of how psychic powers work, which is more along the lines of you get what you get.

That said, I have seen a few settings (both role-playing and not) that have worked both of them together, but they are rare enough that I’d have to be really confidant in either myself or the other GM to do it properly to want to play it.

#9 Comment By Sarlax On September 17, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

As for D&D, the game actually has tied psionicists with monks – in 4E, monk powers are/will be psionic.

I think part of the animosity some people feel towards psionics comes from the name (it sounds too sci-fi) and the artificial distinction that’s been drawn between psionics and magic.

Think of what psionics describes: knowing thoughts, seeing the future or distant locations, moving objects, creating fire by force of will, etc. All of these effects fit perfectly well under traditional fantasy! People who could do such things exist already in mythology, except they weren’t called psions, they were seers, mystics, etc.

About the only thing in the modern conception of psionics that doesn’t seem to have a strong basis in old mythology is telepathy, in the direct mind-to-mind sense of communication.

So really, what’s the difference anyway?

#10 Comment By Sektor On September 17, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

Psionics is something I have come to love deeply, so I feel I had to answer this one.

I used to think psionics didn’t really fit in my D&D games, so I kind of shunned it (without actually getting to know it). But at the time of D&D3.5, I picked up a book out of curiosity and the rest is history.

I prefer the psionics system of D&D being a completely separate mechanic than spells. In fact, I love it that way (just like the differently ruled positive and negative energies, ki’s, …), and its lack in 4E is one of the beefs I have with that system. Everything in the new edition is so streamlined and so off-the-construction-line-with-a-different-paint-slapped-on that the powers of 4E really don’t excite me much.

I love the freedom of spending power points on whatever power you choose at that moment, and getting a chance to even improve or alter it at the cost of some extra points. It makes it all the more unique.

#11 Comment By AWizardInDallas On September 17, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

I just blogged about this topic about a week ago and you pretty much cover my stance on psionics too.

I did mention in my blog though that I do like psi systems in science fiction, though offhand I can’t think of a good sci-fi game with a good psi system. If I ever find a system that plays like Babylon 5, I’m probably “in.”

#12 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 17, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

Count me in the group that doesn’t like to burden my game with additional subsystems for every group of powers.

There is no reason why arcane magic, divine miracles, and psychic powers have to be entirely different subsystems. With a few tweaks, it’s possible to differentiate effects without relying on separate mechanics.

When I’m prepping, I’ve got far better ways to spend my time than poring over pages and pages of spells, miracles, and powers, looking for something to challenge the party with.

Sorry if I sound bitter, but I got frustrated with D&D 3.5 when I discovered that I was avoiding spell-casters as opposition for my group, simply because I didn’t want to spend hours of research coming up with a caster whose ‘screen time’ was under an hour.

#13 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 17, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

Forgot to make explicit… I don’t mind psionics as another flavor of magic; I just don’t want another set of mechanics to worry about.

#14 Comment By Rechan On September 17, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

As a side note.

I felt that the Psionics system in 3.5 was *better* than the spellcasting system.

The fluff I could leave in a ditch. But the *balance*, the way it worked, the way it scaled so well, was delicious.

I would rather use the 3.5 system in PLACE of the Vancian magic system.

#15 Comment By Knight of Roses On September 18, 2009 @ 7:08 am

Well, I am of the opinion since psionics were created to allow pseudo-magic in science fiction settings, why do you need them in a game that already has magic?

That being said, I have allowed ‘psionic’ characters in my D&D 3.x campaign with the understanding that as far as the world is concerned, it is just another form of magic (although one that uses a different set of mechanics).

#16 Comment By cooperflood On September 18, 2009 @ 10:42 am

I like psionics in my fantasy games. Psionic abilities don’t belong to Science Fiction exclusively. The Farseer Trilogy by Hobb is a classic example of psionics in Fantasy.

But I don’t need a different mechanic to differentiate them from magic. That being said I greatly prefered the 3.5 psionic system to vancian spellcasting. You can also put me in the group that wished 3.5 had done more to make divine and arcane spellcasters unique.

#17 Comment By Rhamphoryncus On September 24, 2009 @ 11:00 am

@Sarlax – I think you’re on to something here. “Psionic”, as a word, is a very modern concept. It brings about the idea of aliens, mutations, and space ships, not dragons and elves. Swap it for something like mystic and you bring in the right associations.

Despite the standard complaint of psionics not fitting in, the effects really do fit into fantasy worlds. Often, psionics fits the fiction *better* than vancian magic. People get so distracted by the associations of the name that they don’t realize how well it fits.

Of course, convincing a publisher (such as Dreamscarred Press) to rename their entire product line is pretty unlikely…

#18 Comment By outrider11 On October 5, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

I have allowed psionics since 2nd but they are more of an outlaw or not accepted style of magic. I use the psionics as magic rule so they can be dispelled etc. Players who choose the psych powers know that they are not trusted by the general populace and are not friendly with either the divine or arcane spellcasters.

#19 Comment By Roxysteve On April 22, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

I know that the perception with White Box D&D was quickly arrived at that Psionics == Game Over in double quick time. They were extraordinarily out-of-balance with the rest of the game, which with 20-20 rear view mirrors was a no-brainer in such a rapidly evolving game system.

#20 Comment By SaTaN On May 19, 2010 @ 11:38 pm

I feel really different from most of the posters on regards of Psionics vs Fantasy.

You should not think of psionics as some kind of “magic”.
Mages studies magic for many yrs, most of them have powefull intelects.
They are not dumb. They classify their magics, they have ways to saying if a sword is +1 or +3. ( They may call it Magic Enhancement level or whatever you think they will call it…)

They know what is magic, and what not.
They classify different ways to acess the “weave”, Magic, Divine, Psionic, Elemental, Shadow…

But there is no problem in a setting that have so many different powers…
Some enemys receive power from negative or shadow plane, others have non-magical elemental powers.
Some characters use weird powers like some prestige classes.

Psionics are just “some guys” that have powerful minds, and train their will to create effects on the “weave” to alter the reallity.
Since all special, magical, divine, elemental or psionic powers in fantasy settings are normally expained as “the weave” being used to alter the reallity, in the end they are all different ways to achive same goal.

Most of D&d settings ( Forgotten Realms, Dark Suns…) have some psionics.

For exemple, illithids, classical d&d monsters, are much for fitting with psionic powers them with magic.
They dont seems as a race that study from tomes, and research magical powers, and use magic words and
gestures.

Sorry by my bad english. ( Not main language =/ )
And for the long block of text.


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