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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$&%ing 2,000 word article about it. Them. Whatever. F$&%.