Ask Angry: Why Do Psionics Suck? [STET]

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Do you have a question for The Angry GM? E-mail and put Ask Angry. Remember to explicitly tell me how to acknowledge you so that I can make fun of you by your proper appellation.

Anonymous asks:

Hey Angry,

I’ve only been playing tabletop games for a couple years. Mostly as a player, but some time as a GM. I’ve noticed that across editions and game systems, there seems to be a hatred for Psionics.

Why? Were they not balanced whenever they’ve shown up in editions? Do people think they simply don’t belong? So magic belongs, but moving stuff with your mind is outrageously stupid?

And if it is because of balance… So what? Didn’t Monks suck in quite a few editions of various systems? Are Monks condemned before they’re even fully released because of it? People seem so adamant against them and I just don’t get why.

Please shed some light on this for me.

Wow. I love this question. I love this question because (a) it’s an invitation for me to rip on something I hate, (b) it’s in an invitation for me to speak for the entire goddamned world as if I can explain EVERYONE’S opinion and not just my own, and (c) it is so clearly biased and defensive that I just know my answer is going to piss off the writer. I love that little “what, so magic belongs, but moving stuff with your mind is outrageously stupid” line. Because even though the asker doesn’t know WHY people hate psionics, the asker is already ready to tell people why they are WRONG to hate psionics. And then, later, the defensive statement about “well, if it’s about balance, monks suck too!” Yeah, this question is great. I am SO going to piss you off Anonymous.

By the way, I know who sent this question. But the writer wasn’t explicit about how to credit him and his signature was an inside joke of sorts, so I left it off. You’re welcome anonymous. Let’s get into this.

First, let’s talk about the willing suspension of disbelief and why the whole “this is stupid but that is not” argument is a waste of perfectly good characters.

Suspension of disbelief refers to the willingness of people to ignore the impossibility or stupidity of a thing in order to enjoy a good story. Pixar’s Up was absolutely ludicrous. A house suspended by helium balloons? A crazy explorer from the 1920’s stranded in the South American jungle manages to invent a device that lets dogs talk? Dogs have people-level intellect? Come the f$&% on. No one cared though because it was a good story. It was a good movie.

But, suspension of disbelief is a trade-off. It’s a bargain a work of fiction makes with the audience. “You promise not to point out that this is weird or stupid or doesn’t fit, and we promise you’ll enjoy this.” It falls apart when the thing isn’t actually enjoyable. If the thing is bad, people start to notice the dumb, stupid, out of place things. And everyone’s brain is wired differently. Everyone has a different tolerance for accepting the stupid AND everyone enjoys things differently. And, most importantly, it’s beyond anyone’s control. There is literally no objective standard for it. So, when you say “this is no less stupid than that,” it’s only okay because your crazy irrational brain is wired up in different crazy irrational ways than someone else.

But suspension of disbelief alone isn’t sufficient to explain why psionics rub people the wrong way. There’s another bit to it. And that’s a matter of themes and genre conventions.

One of the basic conceits of the fantasy world is that the wonderful is possible and that no explanation is needed for why that wonderful is possible. Magic is this inexplicable, amazing, fantastic thing. It comes from gods and dragons and mysterious magic words and ancient civilizations and magical creatures like elves. But it isn’t comprehensible. We have rules for HOW it works, but we don’t have to worry about WHY it works. And, in the end, D&D treats all magic equally. Sorcerers, wizards, bards, clerics, druids, paladins, rangers, and warlocks all use MAGIC. It might come from ancient mystic formulas or dragon blood or gods or the magic of the natural world or demons and devils, but it’s all basically just MAGIC. In point of fact, MAGIC always comes from something beyond humans. Even wizard magic doesn’t come from inside people. Its a thing wizards channel or manipulate or draw upon. But it’s a property of the world. The world is fantastic and people don’t really understand it, but they don’t have to. In a fantasy world, people are at the mercy of the world. Fate, monsters, capricious deities. Whatever. Fantasy games like D&D are about the struggle of people against a world that is weird and mysterious and wonderful and inexplicable.

Psionics comes from a very different place. And I mean that thematically as much as practically. Psionics appears far more often in science-fiction because psionics is essentially the ultimate expression of the power of the human mind over the world. In fact, psionics is essentially a metaphor for the conquest of science over nature. And that’s why it feels weird to many people when you put it alongside magic. Because, thematically, those things are talking about two very different worlds. Now, not everyone cares. Obviously. That’s why I started with that whole thing about suspension of disbelief. But to people who give a s$&% about themes, consciously or un-, having psionics in the world is like driving a car with a one tire that’s slightly the wrong size. The car goes, sure. But it feels weird and you might do some serious damage to your suspension in the long term.

And when you think about it, it’s actually really weird that the world distinguishes between psionics and magic anyway. I mean, everyone in the world of D&D calls everything that wizards and priests and druids and warlocks and sorcerers do, they call it all magic. Arcane magic. Divine magic. Bardic magic. Wizard magic. Whatever. It’s all magic. But then you have this one weird thing that isn’t magic and somehow, everyone knows not to even call it magic. It’s not psychic magic or mind magic. It’s just psionics. Why? How did anyone arrive at the conclusion that THAT is the thing that is so different from every other form of magic that it isn’t even magic.

Which brings us to the second major problem with psionics. It always has it’s own stupid, overly complicated, different rule system. As different as clerics and wizards and bards and warlocks all are, the mechanics they all use are very very similar. Spells, slots, spell levels, and so on. And in most editions, their spells even break down into the same schools of magic. A cleric’s “hold person” is an enchantment spell just a wizard’s “charm person.” Even though one comes from the gods and one comes from mystical formulae, they are part of the same system.

But not psionics. Psionics always gets its own rule system. Its own separate and distinct system because it is not magic. Not in any way. So, it’s based on points and disciplines. And the way it interacts with the rest of the system is always strange and poorly defined. How does psionics interact with magic? With antimagic fields? With magical items? And that usually leads to an entire separate class of psionic items.

Now, that complexity isn’t automatically bad. But when you look at what psionics actually accomplishes in the game, it really doesn’t do anything much different from all the things magic already has covered. Basically, every psionic power already has some sort of analogous spell that SOMEONE can cast already using the preexisting rules. To the point where you start to wonder what the actual difference is between telekinesis and mage hand. From a practical perspective, psionics is just another system of magic that does pretty much exactly the same thing as all the other systems of magic. Psionics doesn’t add anything really new and different to the game.

But it does add a new rules system. And a whole long list of “things that are not spells” that duplicate the whole long list of “things that are spells.” And a new resource management system that still just sort of adds up to “you can only use so many of these things in a day.” And the question is “why is it worth it?”

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.

Now, none of this would be so bad but for the fact that psionics is always an afterthought. It’s always added back into the game as an option later on. The world, the system, the classes aren’t built around it. And that always leads to awkwardness. Remember 4E? 4E had this really great pile of lore hidden away in the core books about the Primordials, the Gods, the Dawn War, and all of that crap. And that, in turn informed the planes, alignments, and even the reason different classes and power sources existed. And then came the PHB3, the one that added psionics. And suddenly they had to add this additional, kludgey story about some sort of mystical psychic gate that Iuon tried to control or something only it broke and crystals and psionics. And this was only after PHB2 added the Primal Spirit thing which sort of fit in okay except maybe they should have called it something else to avoid confusion with the Primordials.

The point is, psionics is always a ret-con. It’s never core. It’s always something that has to be retroactively explained into the world that never had it. The settings that have used psionics well are settings like Dark Sun and Eberron that actually started from the assumption that psionics existed and built a space for them in the world. But also note that those settings are less raw fantasy and more sort-of science-fantasy. Dark Sun is a post-apocalyptic setting that has a lot in common with Jack Vance’s writings. Eberron was very steam-punky magic-as-sciencey to begin with. By the way, that’s why I don’t run those settings. I want my fantasy fantasy.

Now, I am not going to argue that psionics SHOULDN’T be added to the game. Hell, I use psionics in my own settings often. Except, psionics is – in the Angryverse – the exclusive purview of the Far Realm and aberrants. It’s mind twisting, inexplicable non-magic that only alien beings invading our world can do. And it shatters mortal minds because it is anathema to the natural world. But again, I’m building that in the story. And when I use psionics in that way, I don’t need an entire different system of rules. I just need some f$&%ing Will saves or Wisdom saves and a few spell-like abilities. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

Beyond that, some people DO like psionics. They are not the sort of people I want in my game. But I don’t think they should be denied the option. No one needs my permission to run their game any wrong way they want. Hell, I like having psionics as an option just so that I can use it to screen potential players. Anyone who asks to play a psionicist is just wrong for my game. They can’t handle it.

Besides, psionics is one of those “special snowflake” things like bards and gnomes and pixies. In fact, psionics is sort of the dark, gritty, overly serious version of the pixie. Its something that attracts players who want to play something “special,” something that doesn’t fit the mold, something that makes them feel better because “they are so over playing wizards and clerics and even warlocks.” Players of psionicists are spotlight hogs who think the only way to make a character special or interesting is by playing the most outlandish, bizarre thing they can find.

And that’s another reason why they aren’t welcome at my table.

P.S.: One of the other major reasons why I hate psionics and therefore every should? Is the word “psionics” singular or plural? Should the title of this article be “Why DO Psionics Suck?” or “Why DOES Psionics Suck?” No, don’t bother answering. The answer doesn’t actually matter. Because no matter what answer you give, eventually you type a sentence that feels really awkward and only sounds better if you switch the case from singular to plural or vice versa. Some sentences only sound good if psionics is singular. In others, psionics only sound right if you assume they are plural. It’s a pain in the a$& when someone asks you to write an entire f$&%ing 2,000 word article about it. Them. Whatever. F$&%.

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23 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Why Do Psionics Suck? [STET]

  1. “Ask Angry: Why Do Psionics Suck?
    Psionics sucks. Let me explain.”

    I get it. First singular, then plural. Foreshadowing towards the end and stuff like that.

  2. As always, a great article. I think I just like the tone in which you write and so just about anything you put into an Angry Article will sound awesome to me. Anyway.

    One of the things that resonates with me the most about this article is that Psionics definitely are outside the “typical” themes of “traditional” fantasy. And so they inherently will seem out of place when put alongside swords and sorcery. To put it more plainly, there was nothing in the Lord of the Rings books that resembled psionics. So right out of the gate, any GM that wants to use psionics will have to work hard to integrate them well OR have a group of players that doesn’t mind this “misfit” magic system.

    Another thing that really, really agree with is that Psionics is just another magic system, but for whatever reason, every edition (except 4E) had a completely different set of mechanics for handling them. I excepted 4E D&D because even though Psionics had Power Points instead of Encounter Attack Powers, everything else in the system worked exactly the same. I feel that of all of the editions of D&D, 4E Psionics integrated into the core mechanics more efficiently than anything other edition. But…

    One of the things that always bugged me in D&D (prior to 4E) was that even though Wizards and Clerics got their spells from ENTIRELY DIFFERENT SOURCES, they were just “spells”. There really wasn’t any way for a person observing a caster as they were casting a spell to know whether it was an arcane spell or a divine spell until they saw the result. And even then, there were enough “crossover” effects that really, it could have been either one. Back when I was playing in a 3.5e D&D campaign, the GM was working on making a distinction between arcane magic and divine magic in the game so that both thematically and mechanically it would appear different. The verbal components of casting a divine spell were supplications to deities and chanting and whatnot while the verbal components for an arcane spell would be strange syllables and odd-sounding languages. This was really neat and it paved the way to say, “Okay, Psionics is just another magic system and it looked and felt different from both arcane AND divine magic.”

    It was a pretty good solution, and I’ve done just that within my 4E D&D games. And I go further to make the distinction between the various power sources for the classes. So a character drawing from the divine power source will be noticeably different from a character drawing from the arcane or primal or psionic power source. As for the actual SOURCE of the psionic power source, the 4E “flavor” sucks. So I always write my own, but only if I plan on using/allowing that power source in the particular campaign I am running.

    As for the singular/plural issue. That’s a tough one. Perhaps it follows the rules that other words like “pants” and “scissors” do in that you use the structure of plural words (e.g. “give me those scissors” and “I don’t fit into these pants”) but it is technically singular.

    • The reason there was a Psionics section in the 1st edition DMG, is because when Gary Gygax and his buddies started this whole thing, there was no such thing as “traditional” fantasy. (Arguably, it’s in large part due to D&D that “traditional fantasy” is even a concept.) In his day, “fantasy fiction” meant one of four things:

      1) bedtime stories for children (Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Chronicles of Prydain)
      2) literary fiction written in the style of myth, legend, or premodern epics (Lord of the Rings, The Once and Future King, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, maybe Poul Anderson)
      3) Stuff from or in the style of the 20s and 30s pulp magazines (Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the Elric stories, maybe Poul Anderson), that blurred the lines between horror, fantasy, and SF because those genres weren’t really defined yet.
      4) Stuff that today we’d probably call fantasy, but came up with some kind of pseudo-science explanations because science fiction was a more profitable genre (Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, Andre Norton’s Witch World, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern)

      “Traditional” fantasy, or epic fantasy, doesn’t really begin as a genre until 1977, with the publication of several foundational novels .

  3. I really don’t agree that the core concept psionics is outside of D&D with it’s primitive barbarians, shaolin monks, robots, firearms, and brain eating aliens. The game as a whole is pretty anachronistic, and it’s up to a good DM to pick and choose to pull the setting into an acceptable stew.

    That said, it does drive me up the wall that it has to have all sorts of separate but same rules instead of just being psychic magic, which it kind of is. It tries too hard to break from the cast. If you want to have separate effects specifically for it, you might as well have separate rules for how arcane magic, divine magic, and bardic magic affects things too.

  4. I’ve actually found that divine magic rubs me the wrong way for similar thematic reasons. Magic is the thing that wizards do, and priests can do it but only if they ask daddy first and he says it’s okay. Takes away from the whole “adventurers striking off on their own and living by their skills and wits” bit. The terrible wilderness is somewhat less terrifying when you literally have someone watching over you with a vested interest in your survival.

    • Not to mention the whole: Very powerful transcendent being devoted to goodness and life lends you his healing protection – twice a day. “Oh, your whole adventuring party is near death and you need healing? Too bad, you already used up your 2 spell slots. I’m just a deity of goodness and healing, what could I do about it?”

      • That’s one thing I liked about 3E – specifically, the fluff for paladins, which stated that, sure, paladins can get their spells from a god, but they could also get supernatural abilities from their sheer belief in justice as a virtue. Maybe it’s a case of “the gods help those who help themselves”. The gods might provide the juju, but you’ve got to believe hard enough to give yourself some spell slots first. And maybe some clerics might eschew a relationship with a deity altogether and simply get spells as a natural consequence of being dedicated to a principle.

  5. I did like the point-spending system of Psionics in 3.5 though. It always just made sense to me that I could cast a bunch of weaker “spells” in lieu of a stronger one, rather than being limited to spell slots for each level. Or boosting a lower level psionic power by spending extra points, but not necessarily giving up a higher-level spell use to do so. Or using all the points I would have used on several weaker powers to use an extra high-level power.

    Other than that, when I played as a psionic, we pretty much treated it as magic.

  6. I have psionics in my campaign setting, but they are built in. My setting has futuristic technology, it has gods, it has magic. They all work together. Psionics were created by the Ki-rin, arcane magic by the Theians, and divine magic by the gods (and nature spirits/kami for druids). Psionics are almost never found outside of the Holy Empire, the Ki-rins’ appointed caretakers of the world.

    Players have magic, divine or arcane. When they find psionics, it will be a surprise, something they have to research and adapt to.

    If the campaign setting is designed with psionics in mind, there are no problems with it.

  7. I have always viewed Psionics as just another way of doing magic and have always ruled that it worked just like magic in regards to anti magic fields ect. The only distinction I have ever made on it was that “power points” where your own body’s natural magical reserves. Naturally the body will never let you spend so much that you would die from it. As you leveled up you learned how to harness more of it and manage what you had better. To me anyway it makes sense to do it that way. As a GM its not something I have ever really had to deal with as most of my players would rather play a mage or what have you as the stuff is more flashy.

    As a player I never choose a class based on the class. I choose what class I am going to play based on how it fits the concept that I developed. Some classes frankly lend themselves better to certain concepts than other classes simply due to the abilities, spells, powers, or what have you that the class has access to.

  8. In 1984 I looked at v1 core books saw Psionics for the first time, and immediately noticed it was a massive pain and out of step with the other rules. Yeah.

    Then over time this just solidified in my mind as I got enough enough experience and smarts to know why I was right. Playing 3.5 shortly, no monks allowed. Was so happy to see this article and know I wasn’t alone when I took one look at the Monk class and thought – oh, here’s the class for the player who wants to arrogantly be special.

  9. I use psionics and I allow my players to use psionics too. The games I run all occur in my homebrew setting which is a bit steampunkish but still firmly rooted in fantasy (think Final Fantasy 6) so it doesn’t really act as a disbelief breaker.

    I treat magic/psionics as having three main types, each that act very differently from each other. Arcane magic is fueled by glyphs and scrolls and ancient tomes of lost words of power or forbidden knowledge, people channel it through arduous academic training and mastery of spellforms. Divine magic is fueled by the gods and the characters faith in the concepts that those gods oversee, people channel it by acting as divine conduits that allow them to tap into the power of their god to achieve the characters ends. Psionic “magic” is fueled by a persons ability to manifest their force of will into something tangible which requires training but not book learning or faith, a person channels it by bringing their force of will to bear against the very laws of nature which seek to suppress it.

    All of this is fairly well explained in-game but I definitely see what you mean about psionics being the outlier that doesn’t actually do much that is specifically new. In my setting psionics is taught by the half-giants and some of the yuan ti.

    While thematically different, this does lead to certain classes feeling very similar to each other (Psion and Sorceror as an obvious example). I also treat each of these types of magic as completely different for the purposes of damage reduction and spell/power resistance, there exists areas where one type of magic doesn’t work but the other two do. It’s more work for me as the GM but I like the depth that this can offer.

    ALSO (@ Syd):
    In regards to psionics having no basis for existence in LotR and thus having no place in a traditional fantasy setting, that’s seriously debatable. Think of the battle between Saruman and Gandalf as an example, from the movies anyways that looked like a battle of willpower more than anything else. Gandalf did a number of things that didn’t require words, glyphs, or intricate gestures; what he does could be described as psionics in many instances. If the gist of that argument is that psionics doesn’t/don’t fit in because it/they looks wrong that’s not a very solid reason to kick the concept to the curb entirely. Besides, correct me if I’m wrong but as an Istari didn’t Gandalf pull his magic from a divine source, making his “spells” a bad example of arcane magic? “Traditional” fantasy may not be as clear cut as it initially seems is all I’m saying.

  10. I think most of your singular/plural issues could be cleared up by adding the word “the” here and there. Take for example:

    “because psionics is essentially the ultimate expression of the power of the human mind…”

    That could be changed to:

    “because the psionic is essentially the ultimate expression of the power of the human mind…”

    Thus the singular is “psionic”, the plural “psionics”, as is logical in English. In my opinion, that reads much better.

    (However, this could all just be a manner of writing the British use, and not the Americans. If that is the case, then our version is clearly far superior to your (oximoronic) “American English” version. Only joking, we love you really.)

  11. The addition of psionics into D&D is symptomatic of their “kitchen sink” design policy. D&D includes something from every mythology it can get its hands on (Sphinxes, Genies, Medusas, Dragons, Pixies, Valkyries, Tengu…), as well as aliens, Cthulhu mythos, Asian monks, European knights, celtic druids…. And they also include psychic powers.

    You see, D&D isn’t really a game; it is a generic fantasy toolbox. It includes rules for how you can do just about anything you could possibly want or need in a fantasy game, so that you can build any fantasy setting you can imagine. You shouldn’t use it all: that would lead to a mess of a setting that lacks any real cohesion. (Of course, the published D&D settings don’t understand this, and they DO try to find a place for everything. But that’s a separate rant.) But this “toolbox” approach breaks down where psionics is involved.

    You can’t simply choose to just use psionics instead of magic.

    Magic is nearly impossible to remove from D&D. The vast majority of the core classes use magic in some way, as do some of the races. If you want to use psionics instead of magic, you’re looking at a massive overhaul of the very core of the game, so much so that you’re no longer really playing D&D. Magic is too baked-in.

    Therefore, including a potential replacement for magic, in psionics, is a trap. You can’t really replace magic with psionics, so your choices are to either use both, or not use psionics. And using both puts a heavy strain on your setting’s cohesion. It can be done, but you’re probably better off not bothering; after all, magic can do anything psionics can.

    And that is why psionics doesn’t belong in D&D. As well as everything Angry said, of course, but that goes without saying; Angry is always right.

  12. I really like the Classic Rolemaster system because what amounts to Psionics in that system are Mentalism Spells that are the third kind of magic along side of arcane (Essence) and divine (Channeling). All three used the same rules which totally eliminated most of the problems mentioned above.

  13. Regarding 4e lore, what I find more strange about both Primal and Psionic sources feeling like a patch is because since 4e inception they already knew they would add those power sources to the game (PHB pg 54), so there is absolutely no excuse to not think about them until they were on the verge of release.

    I mean, both Shadow and Elemental got into the basic lore. Why not Psionic?

    “How did anyone arrive at the conclusion that THAT is the thing that is so different from every other form of magic that it isn’t even magic.”

    From the same place where people are ok with the Human Torch being a human with fire superpowers that can ignite himself, but act all weird around Firestar because she is a mutant, despite having the exactly same powers.

  14. Interestingly, the 5e psionics unearthed arcana posted 02/01/2016 calls it a strange magic from the far realm and “when its influence extends to a world, the Far Realm invariably spawns horrific monsters and madness as it bends reality to its own rules.

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