Archives of Candlekeep: Psionics: The knowledge you never knew you forgot

Archives of Candlekeep: Psionics: The knowledge you never knew you forgot

This article was first broadcast in Episode Ninety Three on 23rd October 2019.

Ostron: Really? You guys really want to do this?
Ryu: Look, everyone keeps going on and on about psionics-
Ostron: I don’t. I try to avoid it, actually
Lennon: Yes, but that’s the point; people don’t quite know why. What’s wrong with psionics, why is it such a touchy subject?
Ostron: All right, fine, follow me.
Libby: Book
Ostron: Thanks. Here.
Ryu: …why do you have all of this information summarized for us already?
Ostron: Do you want to ask questions or do you want information?
Lennon: Um…okay.
Like 4th edition, spelljammer, and warlocks-
Ryu: Oh will you give it up about warlocks already?

Psionics is a topic that causes a lot of controversy in D&D. Interestingly enough, this literally goes all the way back to the beginning, as the original staff of TSR (the inventors of D&D) were divided about it. As far as our research beholders have verified, this is a direct quote from 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.

The “Tim” mentioned in the quote is Tim Kask, and his take on Psionics was different:

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…)

Despite Gygax saying they were a mistake and Kask seeming to suggest that they were a wonderful but failed experiment, psionics have appeared in every edition of D&D from the beginning. Unfortunately almost every edition also sparked controversy with the way it was implemented, and looking back at some of the earlier implementations, it’s not hard to see why.

Let’s start with the first, or first two, implementations of psionics, depending on how you look at it. What I mean there is that psionics didn’t change at all from the original edition of D&D to the 1st edition. This is mostly because, if you recall, 1st edition was mostly a simple collation and organization of all the different rules that had come out for original D&D in multiple supplements and magazines. Unfortunately most people agreed this was not because of an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” situation.

In 1st edition, psionics was like the Force or the X-gene; you either had it or you didn’t and the only thing that dictated whether you did was chance.

If your game included psionics, after character creation was done, including race, abilities, and class selection, each character rolled a d100. Sorry, each human character rolled a d100; non-humans need not apply. Oh also, you couldn’t be a monk or a druid. Then when you rolled, there was a whopping 9% chance that you could roll as a psionic character. That roll is never repeated or re-tried.

So let’s say you are one of the lucky psions. Now you have to figure out whether you’re Dark Phoenix or Dazzler. Guess how that works? That’s right, another percentile roll. That roll, again, is never repeated and dictates your overall psionic power level for the rest of the game.

That level mattered, because after each level up, psions would roll randomly to figure out if they learned a new psionic power. Their likelihood of success was directly related to that power level rolled at the beginning. Oh and if you did succeed, you traded off whatever you were supposed to be doing to be a better psion. So if you were a fighter, you spend some of your strength to learn new psionic abilities. Thieves (basically 1st edition rogues) sacrificed Dexterity. Spellcasters gave up spell slots.

But lets say you get through all that and you’re raring to bring all that psychic goodness to bear in combat. Well, there’s a bit of math to do first. First of all, figure out your psychic power level, which several people have said is “a fairly simple calculation.” Here goes:

Your Psionic Attack Strength equals your psychic potential (PP), plus double the powers (P) you know, plus five times your total psionic attack and defense modes (M)

The attack and defense modes were other psionic abilities you gained with random rolling, but it gets complicated fast.

Lennon: “Gets” complicated!?
Ostron: It’s 1st edition, what do you want from me?

Anyway, your psionic attack strength is determined and you’re ready to go. However, you better hope that strength is high or you can’t do anything to non-psionic beings. And if you’re fighting another psionic creature, there’s an entirely separate combat system that involves the both of you (or more) and nobody else. What happens if someone interrupts the mental combat by hitting you in the head? That’s a really great question. Let us know if you find out.

So it was perfectly possible with the rules as written to decide to use psionics and by the end of session 0 end up with no psionic characters. Then, even if you are psionic, you may not even be powerful enough to use any of your abilties unless the DM throws another psionic creature in the mix, at which point you’re playing a mini-game in D&D. There were a few other ambiguities in the rules as you dig down into the specifics but in general it’s not hard to see why people wanted an overhaul of psionics by 2nd edition, assuming they hadn’t just ditched the idea.

So  by the time psionics came out for 2nd edition, it was a lot easier to actually be psionic. First of all, it was a class now (Psionicist), but it was still a semi-exclusive club. Only humans, halflings, dwarf gnomes (one race), elves, and half-elves could choose the class. If you wanted to select the class, you had to meet prerequisites in your Constitution, Intelligence, and Wisdom scores. Also, none of the non-human races could level beyond 10 as a psionicist, with several being capped down at 7. Oh, and you couldn’t be a chaotic alignment. 2nd edition had a lot of restrictions.

Fear not, though; random chance had not been totally abandoned. If psionics were in the mix, at each level up every character, regardless of class, rolled a d100 and had a 1% chance to acquire a random psionic power. These were called Wild Talents. We’ll come back to them in a second.

2nd edition had 150 psionic powers, up from a mere 50 in 1st edition. Those powers were divided into 6 disciplines and psionicists could only select from disciplines they knew. They initially only knew 1, but could eventually get access to all 6 (if they were human). Oh, and once you chose a power, you were stuck with it; you couldn’t swap out abilities the way modern casters can rearrange what spells they know.

The powers activated essentially the way modern skill checks work. Each power was tied to either Wisdom or Constitution. The psion made a check and if they succeeded, the power activated. Each psion had a pool of Psionic Strength or PSP points they spent when casting and regained slowly during rests. 3 points were regained per hour of rest, and most psionic abilities cost between 5 and 10 points, with some powerful abilities going even higher. Note that the points were spent on the ability before the check was made to see if they succeeded.

This all sounds fairly regular, if a bit atypical for D&D, but where things broke down were the powers themselves. There were no restrictions or limits on psionic powers other than the discipline they were in and the number of PSPs they cost. That means that a level 1 character can grab Disintegrate as a power, and yes it had the same power level as the Disintegrate spell does in 5th edition. They might not get enough PSPs to cast it until level 3, but still that’s a level 3 character with Disintegrate, so I hope your dungeon is interesting because the boss at the end has just become a non-factor.

This problem got even worse with the Wild Talents, where the psionic power received as a result of rolling a Talent was selected completely at random and again with no respect to the level of the ability or character. So it was possible not only for Disintegrate to be in play at level 3, it would be coming from the fighter.

Psionic vs psionic combat was still handled differently from regular combat but it had been greatly simplified…at least as it compared to 1st edition. There were multiple stats involved and some special abilities but it essentially boiled down to a roll-off. Later on it was revised so psions got a “mental AC” and “mental THAC0” after a revision with the release of 2nd edition’s Dark Sun campaign guide.

Apart from the actual characters, 2nd edition went into more detail about how psionics fit into the D&D worlds that existed at the time. It was obviously integral to Dark Sun, and it was considered a known if not common aspect of Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and Spelljammer. Psionics was present in the Ravenloft demiplane, but some aspects of it didn’t work. Krynn, the Dragonlance setting, had no psionics at all. IT HAD KENDER THOUGH SO BLEEP THAT.

Also, in 2nd edition, psionics was considered a completely separate system from magic. Anything that affected magic, such as dispel magic or counterspell, did not have any effect on psionic effects or abilities. Oh and 2nd ed Tarrasques are totally immune to psionics, just FYI.

Apart from the issues with crazy power spikes at early levels, a lot of the other complaints from players of 2nd edition were that psionics seemed better than magic in all respects. Part of this may have stemmed from misinterpretations of the rules, as many people believed a number of psionic abilities did not allow saves where their magical equivalents did. Supporters argue that saves were described in the rules, though they admitted said rules were not in an intuitive location.

A whole host of different problems cropped up when 3rd edition gave it a try, but…we’re not … going to talk … about it?


Ostron: Really? You guys really want to do this?
Ryu: Look, everyone keeps going on and on about psionics-
Ostron: I don’t. I try to avoid it, actually. And we don’t have time right now; we have to get over to the scrying pool?
Lennon: Really? Already? We’re not having a Short Rest?
Ostron (hurrying them on): No, we’ve just had one. Now come on, this way!
Lennon: Man where does the time go? Well, can’t disappoint the listeners!