Archives of Candlekeep: Psionics: The knowledge everyone hates
This article was first broadcast in Episode Ninety Four on 30th October 2019.
Lennon: Hey Ostron, I have a question
Ostron: No, it is not possible to use Peaches as a ramp for your bicycle if she angles her tail the right way.
Ryu: No abusing my dinosaur! I will allow her to eat you!
Lennon: Okay, that wasn’t the question, though thank you for ruining my fun once again. My actual question is why are we starting this short rest with psionics in 3rd edition? Doesn’t it make more sense to start with 1e?
Ostron: Oh, well, psionics from 1st and 2nd edition had convoluted and problematic rules that make it fairly easy to see how the common complaints of “psionics is pointless” and “psionics is broken” began entering common usage. However as D&D continued to improve, so did psionics…usually.
Mechanical balance was theoretically a more central focus of 3rd edition. That, along with the introduction of the d20 system, resulted in a more comprehensive overhaul of psionics rules.
Lennon: That sounds… familiar… Did we cover that?
Ryu: I’m sure if we did a short rest on it previously, we’d remember
Lennon: Of course
Ostron: Yeeeaaaahhhh, so, here, here’s the rest of the notes, just pick it up from there…
Um, okay. Two classes now provided access to psionic abilities: the psion, who functioned similarly to a spellcaster in terms of battlefield role and general utility, and a psychic warrior who more closely resembled martial spellcasters such as paladins. Casting was done with point pool similar to 2nd edition, and the psionic powers remained subdivided into six disciplines. However, unlike 2nd edition where all the powers were available from the start, 3rd edition introduced limits and prerequisites. No more level 1 casters with disintegrate.
Also, the six disciplines were now tied to one ability score each. If you wanted to be good at using powers from a particular discipline, the associated ability score had to have a good modifier attached.
Things got tricky when dealing with magic, though, which you should keep in mind because it becomes a theme with this edition. Officially, 3rd edition pulled a jilted lover move and said “you know what, psionics is like magic! If it affects magic, it affects psionics!”
So now everyone could dispel and counterspell and detect psionic things with magic spells. But just to really clear things up for everyone, the designers put in a whole subset about how if the DM wanted to, psionics could be completely different from magic and the spells wouldn’t affect it at all.
So in any 3rd edition game with psionics, it was a 50/50 shot over whether the traditional spellcasters could do anything about it. I bet those discussions were calm and orderly with everyone remaining friends after…
Oddly enough, 3rd edition retained the separate psion vs psion combat in a way. Instead of combat, it was meant to simulate a psionic character trying to invade someone’s mind, though it could occur in the middle of combat.
If it was a mundane person, they had a static save they made, but if it was another psionic creature it became a game of rock, paper, scissors. There were a list of up to 6 attacks and defenses that targeted different abilities and each participant chose blind. If the defender chose the right defense, they were much more likely to save.
When attacks succeeded, they temporarily reduced the target’s ability scores. However, that was only for psionic creatures; mundane creatures just ended up stunned.
In general, psionics in 3rd edition reduced complexity but also reduced how well psionics worked overall, possibly as a response to the accusations of overwhelming power in 2nd edition.
Most people felt psionic abilities were objectively weaker than their magical equivalents, and the unique mental attacks that could be launched used up a lot of power points without having a lot of effect on the battlefield. Not to mention any non-psion could take a feat that made it nearly impossible for those attacks to succeed on them, so unless you were fighting another psion you were out of luck.
Also, linking psionic abilities to all of the attributes rather than one or two, as was the case with spellcasters, made a lot of people feel like a character had to have high stats in every ability score or they couldn’t be useful.
If not the final straw, one of the larger burdens on 3rd edition psionics’ back was the structure of powers. Spellcasters in 3rd could use various things to boost the power of their spells similar to how modern ones can upcast, but if psions wanted to hit harder, they had to acquire a totally separate ability to do it. So for example if they had the concussion power, that did 3d6 damage on a hit. To improve on that, they had to take the separate ability Greater Concussion, which did 5d6 damage. Some of those so-called power chains involved up to 9 different abilities. On top of that, they still couldn’t shuffle their abilities around or replace them, so they ended up stuck with low power abilities that stopped being useful 8 levels ago but they have no way to remove them.
On the other hand, there were apparently one or two abilities that a character could bring out and completely overwhelm everyone, such as one ability that allowed a character to spend psionic points and boost their ability scores beyond natural limits.
As with so many things from 3rd edition, 3.5 fixed most of these problems and added more choices into the mix. Not only did 3.5 allow people to play races such as the Gith, who got innate bonuses if they were psionic, they created six whole classes that used psionics, including a fairly unique one called an ardent, a psion that chose various mantles focused on particular aspects of psionic power.
They also removed the psionic vs psionic attacks and combat, instead taking some of the effects and putting them in the psionic powers.
To resolve the issues with psionic power levels, psionic abilities could now be augmented, generally by simply spending more points when a particular power was used. This addressed most of the issues with spellcasters outpacing psionic characters in terms of performance.
Since 3.5 had cleared up most of the issues with balance and use of psionics, the people still complaining about them were doing so for less concrete reasons.
Some believed that psionics was still underpowered as its performance at high levels was less impressive, but those points were often countered by those who claimed psionics was actually correctly balanced while magic in 3.5 was broken at higher levels.
Others still thought psionics was overpowered, however such claims often rested on a single piece of evidence that many felt highlighted the issue with 3.5’s ridiculous number of feats and classes allowing any character of any class to gain comically powerful abilities as long as they spent enough time looking up feats and cross-referencing classes.
Ironically, psionics is probably one of the things that changed the least in transition from 3.5 to 4th edition and if you look at everything involved it’s not hard to see why. Psionics always worked based on a character having a set list of powers they could use and a limited pool to spend on using them, which is how every character worked in 4th edition.
On top of that, when psionics was introduced the monk was a psionic class, rather than martial, which thoroughly confused most players, particularly anyone who remembered 1st edition.
So for a lot of people, psionics started off by already conforming to the system players mostly didn’t like and then grabbed a class it had no business being involved with. It’s sort of like if you’re at a party and the random playlist brings up a song nobody likes. Then psionics kicks in the door and says, “Hey this is my jam! Oh, have you met my new lover? I think she’s your sister.”
If you can get past the problematic introduction, 4th edition psionics actually did a decent job of remaining unique while conforming to the existing play system. In 4th edition, each class had a set of at will, encounter, and daily powers to use. The psionic classes had no combat-focused encounter powers and instead acquired points they could use to augment the At-Will abilities they had. This allowed them a bit more versatility with how they used their class in combat as compared to many others.
There were some complaints about broken abilities and builds but if pressed most people will agree the examples were nowhere near as egregious as what people could cobble together in 3.5, and also didn’t vastly overshadow abilities other classes in 4th edition had access to.
So it seems like by 3.5 and 4th edition, wizards of the coast had more or less figured out how to put psionics in the game without breaking everything all the time, or at least without psionics being the root cause. If that’s true, what’s everyone complaining about?
The reality is a lot of arguing about psionics is philosophical at this point. Some people have avoided psionics since the more troublesome implementations in earlier editions so they don’t know the more modern versions of psionics actually worked. Other people, however, think psionics don’t belong in D&D, either because of game design or lore.
The game design people are looking at the game probably the way ROSTRO does, and just examining the different mechanics apart from how they’re actually used. Their argument is that psionics, in order to be different, usually introduces a separate system of magic or puts a lot of extra steps on the existing one, which makes things more complex.
They usually follow on by saying 5th edition’s goal is to maintain as simple a game as possible, so adding in another magic system automatically goes against that.
On the complete opposite end of the system, you have the lore people. This group wouldn’t care if psionics was implemented seamlessly in the game and there were no confusion about the rules at all, they don’t like psionics as a concept.
Their arguments often boil down to “Psionics is science fiction, not fantasy.” From there, the discussion usually involves references to literature and movies stretching all the way back to long before D&D was a thing. If you want to get involved, there are probably a few forum posts and reddit threads you can jump into. And by a few, we mean thousands. You just have to find a subreddit or forum where the topic isn’t banned.
So regardless of your feelings about psionics, the reality is it’s been with D&D from the very beginning, albeit not always in the best way.
Ryu: You know… thinking about it some more… that stuff about 1st and 2nd edition *does* sound familiar… like… *really* familiar…
Lennon: Yeah, see I started playing during 4th edition and I got the same feeling.
Ostron: Well psionics does come up in the news a lot. Maybe it was from there, or from someone who wrote in to the show. Speaking of writing into the show…
Ryu: It’s like this itch in my brain and it’s bothering me now.
Ostron: You do have another tenant in there some of the time.
Lennon: He has a point there, I suppose.
Ostron: Speaking of having a point, I mentioned the listeners writing in? It’s about that time?
Ryu: Yeah, fine, let’s go.