Inq. of the Week: You Got Science in my Fantasy

psionicsLast week, my colleague asked about your caffeine of choice to keep you going through those long gaming sessions. The battle was heated, and so was the eventual winner of Coffee (which is appropriate since that’s what I’m drinking right now) taking 34% of the vote. Speeding closely behind it (and overtaking the lead several times) was the old favorite Soda, with iced tea coming in third as a refreshing alternative. I was glad to see last place was the pill-popping option… there are too many other tasty alternatives to turn to drugs to stay awake for your marathon sessions of Twilight Imperium.

Danny brought you his view of the mechanics behind the new Psion class last week, and when the Monk came out, I gave you my views on why I’m biased towards psionic characters. In response to those articles and on other blogs, we heard a lot of complaints that psionics just don’t fit with the D&D milieu. Even for a die hard fan such as myself, it can be hard to justify mental powers (that in other media are often linked to “the next stage of evolution” and other scientific/pseudo-scientific concepts) as part of the D&D world. Dark Sun was a world custom built for psionics, as all the other alternatives for fantastic powers had some issues. I myself have attempted to run campaigns that heavily focused on psionic characters (and try to get some use out of the weird healing and utility powers that were never taken when you had Wizards and Clerics around). In other campaigns, however, there would be one psionic character, and in terms of flavor, they just ended up being a different kind of Wizard.

However, as reminded I’m reminded in the new Design & Development article (sub required):

Psionics have been a part of D&D since the ancient days of the Eldritch Wizardry supplement to the original Dungeons & Dragons game. They also appeared in an infamous appendix in the 1st Edition Player’s Handbook, allowing any character to get lucky by randomly manifesting psionic powers.

So let’s try our best to settle this issue right here and now. As far as your preference in all things psionic in your D&D games…

[poll id="132"]

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, the Geek's Dream Girl.


  1. I voted “Maybe…” I like psionic’s and have had them used in my games before. However, I’ve also had them abused (like the player in my Eberron campaign who kept visiting the folks in Sharn who could use the power that completely changes your character). So when someone wants to use psionics in a campaign, I am hesitant to just say “yes,” which is unfortunate.
    .-= Tony Law´s last blog ..Presenting the nominees for the 2009 ENnie Awards =-.

  2. Psionics is just another type of “magic” to me.

    Now if Psions needed some sort of brain chip implanted in them to work, then I would have a problem with them in Fantasy.
    .-= Milambus´s last blog ..Forget the Kindle, here is the future of RPG =-.

  3. Thanks for the pingback.

    I voted no. While my opinion isn’t as extreme as Ameron’s, Psionics have never been a part of D&D that I’ve used for various reasons. The primary reason being that psionics were always in a supplementary book and not considered core. I suppose I never even gave them a chance. With the delivery model of 4e and the DDI I will be paying for the psionic content even if I don’t buy the PHB3. So I’ll give it a fair look over, who knows maybe I’ll find it influences me to change my opinion.
    .-= Wimwick´s last blog ..What’s a +1 Sword? =-.

  4. In my campaign setting there is no reason for Psionics to exist since Wizard spells can alter the mind just as well. I’ve written Wizard spells that do just that, and nothing in the world flavor really justifies Psionics existing as something separate from magic and having its own class. Though the same thing I said with Primal. Both do their own things that work in Wizard’s settings and that don’t in mine.

    As far as outside my own campaign setting, well, in the past Psionics always had to do something weird and different with the distribution and acquisition of powers. Therefore it was rarely ever used by my groups during our gaming career except in the one instance where we decided to play a “Psionic game.” We always saw it as a separate sort of system, that you could base a game around, but that, for reasons unspoken, none of us ever really just went into any ol’ game with a psionic character.

    So I don’t really care about Psionics, but I answered No.
    .-= Wyatt´s last blog ..Alternative Multiclass Feats =-.

  5. Hi –

    I voted “No”. I’m not against psionics as a concept, just the way they’re usually presented in most fantasy games. I tend to fall into the “psionics are another form of magic” side of the debate. I’d rather work with a player to fit their idea into the magic rules of a game, rather than invoke a separate set of mechanics.

    Which doesn’t mean I don’t like psionics. I love them in SF games and Trinity is one of my all-time favorite roleplaying games. I think I’d probably enjoy a game focus around psionics; it’s just been my experience that psionics in fantasy tend to have a “tacked on” feeling to them.

    Cheri Arbuckle
    Evil Machinations
    .-= Jade´s last blog ..Gaming with Ghosts: When Good Players Can’t Be There =-.

  6. Magic by any other name…

    It is a fairly boring kind of magic, however, requiring no sacrificial maidens or poring over ancient scrolls or other interesting content. I find it more appealing in sci-fi games, where the stealth and shadows are a major part of the feel.
    .-= Tommi´s last blog ..… but I’d rather be roleplaying =-.

  7. highbulp says:

    I vote ‘yes’. In my current 3.5 game, Psionics have replaced arcane magic (no wizards, only psions). This is both due to mechanical aspects (I think 3.5 psionics is a better system than 3.5 arcane spells), and as a way of shifting the world around a bit. But mechanics aside, I see no reason for the Psionic flavoring to be not D&D. Psionics (particularly in 4e it seems) are one of two abilities: telepathy and telekinesis. Both are pretty catch-all for most whatever you want to do–if it’s internal, it’s telepathic and if it’s external, it’s telekinesis. And so this works fine in any setting. I also actually really like using crystals as primary magic items, rather than sticks of wood.

    Of course, a lot of my fantasy inspiration comes from David Eddings books, which are best represented by psionics (and are why I first picked up the Psionics Handbook back in AD&D). I don’t see how it fall apart as a fantasy trope–it seems to hold up just as well as arcane magic, and easily fills the same niche. And I can flavor one to be the other easily, really, if the game mechanics requires it.

  8. DNAmers says:

    That’s a ‘yes’ from me.

    The most important part of all this is that the psionics rules present another balanced [magic] system within 4E’s domain, and as such allow individual groups and campaigns to flavour their own interpretation of the game to taste. Whether each group uses them or not is up to individual preference, but the important part is that they have the option. And too many options is better than not enough.

    Cries of ‘but psionics ain’t classic fantasy’ is just rampant grognardation. Who’s to say that ‘classic’ magic use isn’t more in harmony with the Psion than the Wizard? Personally, I prefer wizardry to be augmentable, with magic-users — be they Wizards, Sorcerers or Psions — having access to an array of ‘spells’ that they can scale to need, as opposed to one spell giving a smaller affect, and another generating a larger, more intense display.

    Psionics is just the title given to a new interpretation of magic in the 4E bubble, and as such is a boon to any group wanting to incorporate an alternate ‘sense’ of magic in their milieu. If the title feels a little too ‘Syfy’ (sic.), change it to something more Gandalfy; I’m sure the grognards will be appeased then.

  9. I voted maybe. It depends upon the player, and the fluff of the setting, but I don’t think psionics have no place in D&D.

  10. I’m not a fan of psionics and don’t have it in the D&D games I run. However I am with many people here, depending on the fluff in your campaign, I think psionics is a perfectly valid source of power.

    Who is to say some people in your world are touched by the gods of the far regions? How do you define wielding magic? It may be possible that a select few do not need to tap into the powers of outside forces, but rather they serve as vessels for such power themselves.

    I think with enough molding of the background of your world, you can easily fit psionics into a fantasy campaign. And I expect by the release of PHB3, there will be a long list of suggestions from WOTC for just that.
    .-= Geek Ken´s last blog ..Expeditions of Amazing Adventure: The Secluded Sanctum =-.

  11. Tonester says:

    I voted “no” but I fall into the “maybe” category sometimes. I just feel it is better suited for some sort of alien/sci-fi setting than a fantasy setting. To me, fantasy settings are all about pacts with demons, favor of the gods, tapping into the natural arcane power of the world, mixing herbs, sacrificing virgins, glyphs, runes, wands, and/or chanting words from a forgotten language through some ageless scroll.

    To me, it just seems like mindless fluff (pun not intended) in D&D – mechanics that could just as easily be created using other power sources and just changing the way they are manifested.

    I’m not saying they never belong in D&D, but I’d only be okay with it under very scrutinized conditions or story and it would definitely have to be an exception for me and not the rule.
    .-= Tonester´s last blog ..WS: Trip to FeilongShan =-.

  12. I voted “yes,” as the D&D world is big enough that you can have just about anything in it and make it work. Seriously, if Eberron can have robots, fantasy can have psionics. It may not feel the same, but that’s not always a bad thing. The only prerequisite is a bit of extra work on the DM and player’s parts to make it fit together.
    .-= Teppesh´s last blog ..Vicious Purity =-.

  13. I voted Maybe. I have generally not included Psionics when thinking about my fantasy settings, but in my current campaign I have an NPC that I was thinking of as a sorcerer, but who I think is a really good fit as a Psion. We will see how it goes.

  14. I voted No. I am just not a fan of Psionics. I don’t mean to be close minded about it. It does feel like you are mixing SciFi and Fantasy, and that makes me queezy in my tummy. I have played in and lead games that had psions involved. But usually I just try to dodge that aspect of the game altogether. I do know this,”kill the man with the fingers at his temples first!” :)

  15. ‘Yes.’ Very ‘yes.’ I actually ran an entire 2-year long 3.5e campaign in Eberron based around fighting the Riedran Empire, where the arcane was outlawed. The psionics merged flawlessly with the game setting; it was instantly easy to tell when a strange device or an NPC was using psi. It was actually magic that felt mundane, familiar, comfortable, and utilitarian; magic has always been around Khorvaire, it was built on magic, and creating magic items is becoming a matter of industry. Well-trained mages now resemble engin(s)eers. Psi felt mystic, esoteric, and strange. The contrast worked really well to bring out tons of flavor.

  16. I voted yes, mostly because I’ve just never had a problem with psionics being in any D&D game that I’ve run or been a part of. I always felt like it was a nice contrast to magic users, plus the Illithid has always been one of my favorite monsters and it just doesn’t make sense to me that they either “use magic of their mind” or they have powers that the PCs can’t get access to.

    @Wyatt: I love that you’ve modded magic to be more mind-based, but to me that’s effectively just what I would call magi-psionics. :D

  17. Jayj: Very cool sounding campaign.

  18. It’s funny; I don’t consider Psionics all that related to Science and Sci-Fi.

    To me, Science involves Gravity, Atoms/Molecules, Genes, complex chemistry and physics. Something that I don’t want to see mentioned at all.

    Psionics is just another flavor of magic, like healing, summoning or necromancy. It’s in fantasy literature, as it is in myth. I look at a lot at the Yogi mystics and Chinese mythical heroes, and a lot of that stuff falls into the Psionics category. Besides, Wizards have been able to play with telepathy and mental control for a while, so it’s not been something a wizard couldn’t do before.

    The only thing I think that makes Psionics get associated with Sci-Fi are two things:

    1) That it just happens to pop up in Sci-Fi materials more often than Fantasy. Mainly because magic is hard to explain in science jargon.

    2) The modern-ish words. Biofeedback, False Sensory Input, Fission, Fiery Discorporation. ‘False Sensory Input’ just sounds far too modern, and rather alien coming out of the mouth of a guy in robes and tattoos standing in front of a dragon. Certainly, these words have their proper latin roots and all, but it’s as mood breaking for some as ‘Dragon Tail Cut’ and ‘Golden Wyvern Adept’ is for others.

    Ultimately, Sci-Fi and Fantasy are the same thing described in genre-specific jargon. Moving from one place to another is a teleportation spell, or a teleportation machine. A melee weapon composed of light is either physical light and fire in the shape of a sword, or crystals projecting heat and light or a piece of steel with a tazer attached that with an on/off switch. Things we have today would be described in superstitious terms if they were dropped 500 years in the past, and things experienced in the past would be explained in scientific terms if they were encountered today.

    I personally just want to look through the superstitious lens, rather than the science-related one. Flying vessels are fine – as long as it’s an airship, and not a jet plane. Psions are just mind mages.

  19. I voted YES,
    In the games I have ran in the past, someone in my group has always wanted to play a psionicist or at least wanted to roll for wild powers at 1st level (2E D&D). I was always cool with that because if the player isn’t playing a class they like, they are probably not going to have fun.

    It can be a little difficult as a DM to have a psionisist in a 2E game because the character can just bust into the baddest NPC enemies mind and render them unconcious…if you let them. The thing is, as a DM, you know that the character has the capability to do that. So, you have to prepare for that inevitability.

    Now, that was 2E (I never really got into 3E Psionics), but 4E is a different animal. 2E Psionics had all sorts of different rules for psionic combat and using powers (the original way in the handbook, the way presented in the second edition of the Dark Sun setting, and the way presented in the Skills and Powers book). 4E Psionics will go with the established flow and will work just like any other power source works.

    4E is the simplest version of D I have ever played and I am loving it!

  20. The Game: Thanks. :) That wasn’t the half of it, the whole game was based around a stone ring in the Eldeen Reaches act like terrestrial Stargate, zipping the characters to remote corners of Xen’drik or to Inspired-controlled Riedran towns.

    Anyway, lessons I learned to make psi feel unique: Psi and magic interact with each other, but someone with Detect Magic can only detect the presence of psi, not what it’s doing, and vice versa. If there’s a crystal or a Siberys shard involved, it’s psi. I also played up the mystic end, as I mentioned, and the clincher was that any psionic character had a sixth sense; they could tell when another psi character was nearby, sensing their presence. That enabled some great moments, like when the Big Bad approached, and the seer started to go pale as she -felt- his approach long before other evidence showed.

    Basically, make it feel like the Force from Star Wars, not like Akira or Starcraft’s Protoss. Mysterious, meditative, almost coy, while being straightforward and focused in its own ethereal way. Not like magic, which is bright, chaotic, flashy, eccentric in its versatility yet codified by the experiences of ages of mages.

  21. No.
    For the same reason that others have mentioned, but with an opposite result. I already have mentalist spells and players accessing the collective ID as a form of magic. It’s just another form of magic for my setting.

    Now, for a more mainstream game that does not have a lot of different sources of ‘magic’ in terms of what powers spells, I can see it being something different. I guess I am in the same dragonship as Wyatt.
    .-= LordVreeg´s last blog ..edited What to Drink =-.

  22. Tonester says:

    I don’t know if I fully understand that campaign, but how does a society discern magic from psionics? I mean – to the Ewoks, both Luke Skywalker and Gandolf would be a wizard/god and they wouldn’t really care how or why they differ… many of the “powers” were unexplainable.

    Maybe I’m just misunderstanding it, but it sounds like magic was outlawed but psionics was allowed somehow? Or is it that psionics came about because magic was outlawed?

    I just hope it wasn’t the case where magic was outlawed out of a fear or lack of understanding but psionics were somehow given the green light. That just seems completely unbelievable to me, personally.
    .-= Tonester´s last blog ..WS: Trip to FeilongShan =-.

  23. GiacomoArt says:

    I don’t like psionics in D&D for the same reasons I don’t like monks in D&D: they bring a “designed by committee” feel to the game. Divine and arcane magic are woven like threads into the very fabric of every assumption about the D&D game, but psionic power is an afterthought that gets tacked on later, arbitrarily held distinct from “psychic magic” just because. Likewise, the monk class. Last time I bothered looking (which was, admittedly, a very long time ago indeed), their disciplined and deadly martial arts existed alone in a world where no else gave even the most basic fundamentals of unarmed combat a second thought. By coming out of nowhere, psionics strain the suspension of disbelief, which is bad business in any make believe world.

  24. Giacomo: The new rules and story try to address this, at least for Psionics in general. The Far Realm (Cthuloid plane of madness where Mind Flayers come from) is invading, so people have started to manifest powers in reaction to this. They at least have a catalyst now.

  25. In my campaign, psi was always around, but it never took off because it takes talent and discipline, whereas almost anyone can do a little magic if they practice, and magic is more versatile and potent.

    In Eberron lore, the continent of Sarlona got torn up something like 3,000 years ago by the Sundering. Arcane war got out of hand and ripped holes in reality, killed significant percentages of the population, etc. In come the Inspired (in my campaign, led by the Emperor, in a blatant theft of WH40K fluff), who are intensely psionic, who lead the continent to unification and everlasting peace (at least until my PCs ruined everything). Propaganda started to twist “arcane magic” (recognizable by somatic & verbal components, books & runes, and flashy elemental effects) into madness-inducing muckery with the fabric of the universe. It didn’t help that reality storms keep tearing the place up and letting planar beasties in as after-effects of the arcane Sundering.

    The Inspired are naturally psychic, but they don’t have a good handle on the arcane. For them, outlawing and demonizing the arcane gives them an unending scapegoat to keep people afraid of the strange, an excuse to go on witchhunts for ‘heresy’ (read: dissidents), and a convenient way to keep those who use a power they can’t really use well under control.

    Psi, on the other hand, is easy to distinguish because it’s almost not flashy at all. Someone concentrates, and someone else gets their brain fried or an object starts to move. Because one can ‘sense’ a psionic mind (per my house-ruled flavor), the Inspired also pick up early on wild talents and take them away to be trained… and brainwashed, so they can build their power and minimize sources of raw power that aren’t under their control.

    On a side note, I love the new 4e psions because the 3.5e psions’ elemental blast powers and such overt effects always felt awkward. When it comes down to it, psi really should be subtle, I feel. Telekinesis and telepathy feels right.

  26. jukebokz says:

    Personally i was never one to link psionics with magic i always saw it closer to martial. Martial was strength of body and psionics was strength of mind. you didn’t tap into arcane energy or anything like that just pulled your own mental strength to do something amazing the same was a warrior would draw out his physical strength. So for me it was an easy yes

  27. @Jayj -

    Man, this is why I love Eberron fluff!
    .-= Graham´s last blog ..Damn you, Dave! You and your… logic… =-.


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