Since 2015’s Unearthed Arcana (and again in 2017, 2019 and 2020), there have been attempts to develop psionics (telepathy, telekinesis, etc.) for DnD 5e. There have been issues though from playtesters in their feedback. Jeremy Crawford (D&D rules lead) points to the differing versions of psionics in D&D’s history as causing a polarization of expectations.
As I will set out below, these differing expectations are born of a disagreement that has continued in D&D for 45 years. To solve it, the story of psionics must be divided into two parts, the narrative and the mechanics, also known as the fluff and the crunch.
Despite this disagreement, psionic subclasses have already been published in official Wizards of the Coast (WotC) DnD 5e books. If you have those particular 5e books of your own, then the information on how to play a Psychic Warrior or a Psionicist/Psion is already on your bookshelf, although they are hidden in plain sight.
By the end of this article, you will know where to find them.
A History of Psionics
In 1951, ‘The Greatest Invention’, a science fiction novella by Jack Williamson, was published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Therein, Williamson was the first to use the term ‘psionics’, derived from ‘psion’, a fictitious ‘unit of mental energy’. It was later retroactively described as a portmanteau of ‘psychic electronics’.
The word ‘psychic’ is derived from Greek, meaning ‘relative to the soul, spirit, mind’, ultimately from Ancient Greek (via Latin), ‘psukhḗ’, meaning ‘soul, breath’.
The word then summarises the point that psionics is a power from within. From the mind, the soul, or both, depending on your view of where a person’s locus is seated. Modern science’s view of the mind being distributed, not just in the brain, but throughout the central nervous system, pushes out the notion of the head as the secular locus, in favor of the full dorsal cavity (cranial and spinal).
Original Dungeons & Dragons
Psionics came to DnD very early, being introduced in Eldritch Wizardry in 1976. This book also included the Cthulhu mythos-inspired, psionic overlords, the mind flayers, which had featured in the previous year’s The Strategic Review #1 (TSR’s newsletter).
AD&D 2nd Edition
Psionics received particular attention in AD&D 2nd edition; first with the The Complete Psionics Handbook (one of a set of books, each delving into a different character class).
Then came the world of Athas, with the launch of the Dark Sun campaign. On Athas, magic is largely shunned, having caused widespread environmental destruction, with psionics helping to fill the power gap.
More depth into the Athasian use of psionics came with the expansion, The Will and the Way.
And the epic level rules expansion, Dragon Kings.
The AD&D 2E psionicist class had to roll a psionic power check on a d20 against a power score for each psionic power. For example, they may have to roll under their intelligence minus 3 on a d20 to succeed.
If they failed the power check, they still lost half the power’s initial cost from their daily pool of psionic strength points (PSPs). For those powers with higher costs, this could leave the psionicist unable to try the power again until they had regained enough PSPs. Those powers with durations had a further PSP cost per round, per turn (a turn being 10 rounds), or per hour to maintain them.
Bruce R. Cordell’s three psionics books for DnD 3/3.5e renamed the psionicist as the psion and brought it closer to the core spontaneous caster class, the sorcerer, with metapsionic feats used in a similar way to the sorcerer’s metamagic feats. Psionic items were also more closely aligned to magic items.
With the ever closer alignment with magic and the sorcerers class, it raises the question of ‘what are psionics for?’ Back in AD&D 2e, there was an overlap of powers with spells, but there was enough of a difference.
Psionics in 4e
The Player’s Handbook 3: Psionic, Divine and Primal Heroes, brought the Psion to 4th edition, along with the Ardent, Battlemind and Monk classes. The book also included the psionic Githzerai and Shardmind races.
4e used two concepts to define classes; the role and power source. This was very similar to the City of Heroes MMO, with origin (power source) and archetype (role) and was released three years before 4e. The Psion is a psionic power source, controller role, hence specialises in battlefield control of terrain and groups.
Where 4e classes had at-will, encounter, daily and utility powers, the Player’s Handbook 3, which we should note was co-authored by Mike Mearls, introduced power points. These augmented at-will powers in place of encounter powers for psionic classes.
The Three Challenges to Psionics.
Having looked through some of the history, with more later, we now review three areas, which are often raised as issues, or challenges in discussions about psionics.
Is Psionics the Same as Magic?
In 2015’s Unearthed Arcana Awakened Mystic playtest document, it notes of psionics and magic that they ‘are two distinct forces’. It adds though that a ‘psionic effect that reproduces a spell is treated as magic’, that, in this case, the ‘psionic energy taps into magic and manipulates it to cast the spell.’ This is to balance the rarity of a psionic wielder by allowing a magic user to counter them.
You strike a match. There is a small flame. You drop that flame into a barrel of oil, which ignites with heat, light and force. The unlit match dipped in oil does nothing. The lit match alone does very little. When the lit match is directed to the oil, it becomes the key to unlock the energy held within that oil.
In the same way, the fireball spell a wizard has memorised is like the match, it does nothing until it is ‘lit’. Even then it must be directed to the source of energy that will power the fireball, evoking magical power. Evoke and invoke are from the Latin, ‘vocō’, ‘to call’, related to ‘vox’, meaning ‘voice’.
When a psionicist creates a similar effect, what sits in their mind? Is it the oil, or only the unlit match? Bruce R. Cordell noted in the introduction to 3e’s Psionics Handbook, that ‘psionics is the art of tapping the mind’s potential… [the] mind is an infinite metaphorical plane, on which all things are possible… Knowing the path, the psionic character walks it. Like a flare thrown off a star, a psionic power is manifested from the psionic character’s energy of consciousness.’ By this definition then the psionicist’s mind holds not only the means of ignition but, unlike the wizard, they also hold the whole barrel of oil.
AD&D 2e’s The Complete Psionics Handbook agrees, noting that ‘[m]agic is the ability to shape, control, harness, and utilize natural forces that infuse the game world and surround the characters. It is based on the principle that, through the use of words, gestures, and catalyzing materials of unique power, these external energies can be controlled… Psionics is the complete opposite of this. The psionicist shapes, controls, harnesses, and utilizes natural forces that infuse his own being.’
Not just the match, but all of the energy that powers an effect, in the barrel of oil/fireball analogy, sits within the psionicist. Although later versions of D&D blurred the lines in the name of game balance and simplicity, psionics is not magic.
This, however, is only one part of the question. This answers only the narrative element.
In Alarums and Excursions (the D&D magazine) 1975, Lee Gold introduced a magic-user system using ‘spell points’ to power spells. This reflected the common Los Angeles area view of the Vancian (spell slot) system. In Lee’s article, the caster receives points equal to half the sum of their Intelligence and Constitution. A fireball, for example, cost 2 points to cast. Gary Gygax noted, in his letter to Lee, which was published in Alarums and Excursions #2, that his view (and he would not ‘play god’ telling people how they should run their own games), was that the point based system was better than the Vancian spell slot system (named for Dying Earth author, Jack Vance).
Gary added though that the spell point system, based on a magic-user’s abilities and their level and where spell cost was a ‘function of the spell and the circumstances in which it is cast and possibly how much force is put into the spell’ would take up ‘a great deal of space and been far more complex to handle’, so he opted for the simple spell slot solution.
The inclusion then, of a psionics system in the following year’s Eldritch Wizardry, was the answer to the spell slot criticism. As Jon Peterson notes in his epic history of D&D, Playing at the World, this showed Gary’s ‘willingness to skin the same cat multiple ways’.
This idea of home brew/alternative options has carried through since D&D’s inception. In 2004, in 3e’s new and alternative rules book, Unearthed Arcana, spell points returned. Two tables showed how many points each magical caster class would have at each level and how many bonus points they would receive for a high key ability score.
The information in these tables (with the same or near identical numbers) had been published before though. In 2000, in 3e’s Psionics Handbook. These were the tables that showed how many psionic strength points the psion class had.
This is therefore not a question of a ‘magic system’ versus a ‘psionics system’. It is simply spell slots versus spell points, as it has been since 1975.
I will return to the narrative and the system shortly. First, I look at the two other areas that are sometimes raised as a concern regarding psionics.
Is Psionics Overpowered?
In AD&D 2e, psionic powers are divided into devotions, sciences and (with The Will and the Way expansion for Dark Sun) high sciences. Respectively their level of effect were low to medium (devotion), high (science) and very high (high science).
A psionicist in 2e would begin with access to one discipline. These can be thought of as akin to spell schools, categorising powers by the nature of their effect. The disciples are:
- clairsentience (gaining knowledge)
- psychokinesis (moving molecules or objects)
- pyschometabolism (affecting the body)
- psychoportation (moving to another location without crossing space)
- telepathy (direct contact between minds)
- metapsionics (improving other psionic abilities).
The character would also begin with three devotions and one science, all chosen from the one discipline they could access at 1st level. This made the character quite narrow in their specialism.
To prevent access to powers that could imbalance the game at lower levels, some powers had one or more prerequisites; devotions or sciences the player had to spend their allotment on first.
For example, to access disintegrate, the character would first have to gain the telekinesis science and the soften devotion; soften itself has telekinesis as a prerequisite. A psionicist may therefore take disintegrate as its second science at 3rd level.
The complaint is that a wizard would need to be 12th level to cast disintegrate, which is a 6th level magic spell. A 12th level wizard, however, would have 20 other spells they could cast the same day.
The psionicist would be able to use disintegrate once, with a 40 PSP cost and then be limited to one or two low cost devotions until they regained enough PSPs. This would take 400 minutes of rest (or 800 minutes if they continued walking or riding, none if they exerted themselves).
If they failed their power check when attempting to trigger the power, they would lose 20 PSPs (half the 40 point cost) and need to rest for 200 minutes before they could try again. A successful power check would still give the enemy a save vs death magic to fully resist the effect.
Although a psionicist could access serious fire power at a low character level, it is balanced off against the size of risk that expending such a relatively high PSP cost in one go would create and the risk of failing to trigger the power, or the target saving against it, leaving the enemy unscathed. This is without even including psionic resistance that some monsters would have.
Where the risk of unbalancing does occur is with wild talents. Any character, irrespective of class, in AD&D 2e can check to see if they have access to a psionic power. The chance is low and is based on their mental ability scores and other elements. Rolling also risks a 4% chance of permanent reductions to one of their mental ability scores. The chance of a negative and positive result are roughly equal. The greater likelihood, around 90% chance, is they get nothing.
If the character gets a lucky roll and gains a power and then another lucky roll, to determine which they receive, resulting in a power with prerequisites, they receive those other prerequisite powers too. The chances of that happening are roughly 1 in 250 to 1 in 1000, dependant on their ability scores and class. Rare, but it could happen and if it does, then your game could be unbalanced for several levels at least.
In the Dark Sun campaign world, which is psionics heavy, every character starts with a wild talent, which adds to the balance amongst the party. The monsters of Athas are also more dangerous, culminating with the 40 feet tall, psionic sorcerer king, Borys of Ebe, The Dragon of Tyr, seen below on the cover of Valley of Dust and Fire.
In 3e, as noted above, psionics functions almost the same as magic in the hands of a sorcerer. Disintegrate, for example, is a 6th level psionic power that requires a 12th level psion to cast, the same level as the sorcerer, casting the disintegrate spell.
As a further point of comparison, psions and sorcerers in 3e are delayed by one level in accessing powers/spells, compared to wizards. After 1st level, the wizard gains further spell levels on odd numbered levels; the psions and sorcerers on even numbered levels starting at 4th.
By pinning their build to the sorcerer, it removes any suggestion of the psionicist being overpowered. They still have access to some powers that magical casters cannot use, however, these are balanced against similarly powered spells. The disciplines and power source also offer a good thematic difference.
Returning to the spell slots versus spell levels discussion, the spontaneous caster is a half-way concession between the two systems. A narrower selection of powers/spells available is the offset against removing the ‘use it and lose it’ disadvantage of the wizard’s casting.
How Can Psionic Attacks Be Countered?
3e’s default stance is that psionics, although different, can counter and be countered by comparable magics. Dispel magic, mind protecting magic and spell resistance, for example, work the same on psionics.
The 3e Psionics Handbook, includes an alternative rule where psionics and magic cannot, by default, counter each other. In such cases, a psion player character is as vulnerable to the magic user NPC as the magic user is to the psion. The alternative rule gives powerful creatures with spell resistance (SR) the benefit of some amount of psionic resistance, though not fully equal to their SR. The rules also note that in such a world, magic users would have created spells such as Dispel Psionics, to address the psionics threat.
Depending on a DM and their group, the likelihood would then be that in a low-psionics campaign, psionics and magic would counter each other and in a high-psionics campaign, like Dark Sun, the alternate rule would be used.
Psionics is Already in DnD 5e
Then DnD Franchise Director, Mike Mearls, on his Happy Fun Hour Twitch stream, said one of his favourite character builds was a Gish. This is essentially a Fighter/Mage with the name being derived from the Gith, the psionic former slaves of the mind flayers.
Mike proceeded to build a 5e form of Psychic Warrior. A blade that could be summoned to the wielder’s hand with a thought (like the Soulknife). Skilled with weapons and powers alike. Abilities not limited by spell slots, that could be used often, such as the psionic leap. It tested well, got approved and was included in the official WotC 5e book, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Mike said that of all the builds he did for the Happy Fun Hour and Unearthed Arcana, that this was his favourite, ‘crunch wise’. The subclass does not use the Psychic Warrior name though. As noted at the start, it is hidden in plain sight. It is called the Hexblade Warlock.
Similarly, the Psion is already in 5e. It has abilities including telepathy, psychic defense and reflexive attack and the ability to enthrall others, just as the mind flayer can. It is included in the Player’s Handbook under the name The Great Old One Warlock. Jeremy Crawford has noted this has a psionic flavor to it, both in the recent DnD Live streams and Unearthed Arcana conversations with DnD Beyond’s Todd Kenrek, a warlock fan himself.
If you want to add more psionic flavor, you can also play as the psionic gith, which were added as a player race in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. Their racial abilities of telekinesis, detect thoughts and shield, function as magic spells, with an invisible variant of mage hand (like the Arcane Trickster subclass) subbing for telekinesis.
Why Go Further?
If psionic classes and ancestries are already included, what more needs to be achieved? Why push for a full psionic points system?
The answer is probably the same reason why the Unearthed Arcana playtests went through iterations of the Artificer class, a core part of the Eberron campaign world and required for that to be launched.
With every recent launch of a new campaign world, the fans of the Dark Sun setting have hoped it would be their turn and been disappointed when it is a Magic: The Gathering inspired world or Critical Role’s Wildemount, which are all decent books, but I can see the pull to wanting Dark Sun for 5e.
One of the core requirements for Dark Sun to be released for the current D&D edition is psionics, so intrinsically is it linked to the world. Solve the psionics system for 5e and Athas will not be far behind.
The [Awakened] Mystic (2015/16)
The Awakened Mystic, featured in 2015’s Unearthed Arcana playtest and was updated as The Mystic the following year. In addition to psi points, it adds more thematics through subclass abilities that are either always on, or limited per short/long rest.
Which subclass you select also limits your access to certain talents and disciplines. This is marginally confusing, as disciplines were the name in 2e and 3e for the psionic categories, as noted above, akin to spell schools. Here they refer to what were previously called powers. Talents are essentially psionic cantrips, giving a psionic version of Eldritch Blast, or granting improved speed, dark vision or light, for example.
Two separate throttles are imposed for game balance, in addition to the point cost. Disciplines (i.e. known previously as powers) are split into lesser and greater. Greater disciplines can only be learnt from 5th level. There is also a maximum point cost you can spend per activation, based on your character level, limiting you from using some disciplines, or options within disciplines until later levels.
Given the limit on the number of disciplines known, it is a good feature that they scale, not just in damage done, but in variations on the effects. For example, the Psionic Weapon discipline will let you focus on it for free to get a continuous +1 attack and damage bonus. Spend 1 point and your weapon will be ethereal for your next attack. Spend 1 to 5 points to get a smite-style bonus, adding psychic damage dealt of 1 to 5 d10s. The maximum psi point per activation, therefore limits adding more than 2d10 damage at 1st level.
The Mystic (2017)
Changes since the 2016 version:
- Several new orders (subclasses) are added
- Telepathy, which was part of Mind Meld and a bonus talent for the Awakened Mystic order, now moves to a standard 2nd level feature for all Mystic orders
- The starting number of disciplines drops from 2 to 1 and reaches 5 known at 10th level, instead of 6.
- The Mystical Recovery class ability, which gives hit points back as a bonus action, after using a psionic discipline, was simplified.
- The class table now runs up to 20th level (it was 10th level before)
Thoughts on the Mystic (2015/16/17)
The Mystic elegantly emphasises a focus on a theme and, at the cost of a narrow set of powers, brings a lot of flexibility within that niche, something that harks back to the AD&D 2e version of psionics. The Order of the Nomad, particularly stands out for its battle field control/utility role.
The Mystical Recovery class ability, similar in effect to the Lesser Body Adjustment psychometabolism power from 3e, is interesting. Initially it felt perhaps a little overpowered, however, considering again the psi point limit, this scales quite nicely with the damage being dealt.
The 10th level class ability, Consumptive Power allows the character to trade in hit points to gain psi points. It is similar to the Cannibalize metapsionic devotion from 2e, and the Body Fuel psionic feat from 3e. Those earlier options, however, traded ability point damage for psionic power. Like ability damage, in this playtest the hit points cannot be quickly healed as the character’s hit point maximum is also reduced until a long rest.
The 20th level capstone of Psionic Body has an echo of the Avangion, the epic level capstone for the good-aligned Dark Sun psionic/wizard.
Feedback on the Mystic Playtests
In late 2017, Mike (in his Reddit AMA) and Jeremy (on the Dragon Talk podcast) noted the Mystic had been well received, however, was not sufficiently conceptualised. It needed a better identity and Jeremy, as the game balancer, said the psionics ‘magic’ system was “frankly kind of bonka-zonks broken”.
Jeremy also noted that it was more straight forward to bring new subclasses into the game than a whole new class, and a whole lot easier than a new magic system.
Psionic Subclasses (2020)
Three subclasses, with psionic abilities, were introduced for playtest in early 2020. The Psi Knight, Soulknife and Psionic Soul. These are essentially psionic versions of the Eldritch Knight, the Arcane Trickster (with a touch of Assassin) and Divine Soul Sorcerer.
The document introduces the Psionic Talent die. Players roll a d6 when using some of their psionic class abilities, which governs what level something functions at, or for how long, for example.
The Talent die is an interesting attempt to simplify the psionic power points system, with the chance of a 6 draining the character so they use a d4 the next time until they roll a 1 and can move back to a d6. Ultimately though it nullifies most of the abilities included in the playtest. Would the player of a Psi Knight want to perform a Psi-Powered Leap across a chasm, when a low roll could mean a shorter distance jumped and hence death? Would the Soulknife, planning an infiltration, rely on their Psychic Whispers to telepathically coordinate amongst their group when a low roll means they can only connect to one other person, the remainder cut out of the psychic chat?
The document does add in some brief narrative text for the various campaign settings, including Dark Sun’s Athas. This was the same for the Artificer class playtest, which referenced Eberron before that campaign setting was launched for 5e.
I noted in the introduction that the issue of psionics is one of two halves. The narrative and the mechanics. The narrative is within reach.
Where We Are Now: The Warlock Chassis
Where other spellcasters are limited by a Vancian spell slot system, the Warlock, has much more flexibility. Although they only have two spell slots, these operate at the caster’s highest spell level and can be renewed every short rest, rather than once per day. The flexible range of invocations already available feature many at-will abilities that allow for very different builds.
Added to this, the extra adaptability and thematics of the patron and the pact allow for a broad range of characters, applicable to the different styles of psionic roles. The Arch Fey enchanter, the Demon pact psychokineticist, the Hexblade psi-fighter and finally the Great Old One telepath, the patron of which links back to Gary Gygax’s source of inspiration for the mind flayer, The Burrowers Beneath.
The external Warlock patron can easily be substituted with an internal source of power appropriate to psionics. Subclasses, like the Soul Knife, recently featured in Unearthed Arcana playtesting, can be added on to the Warlock chassis, instead of to the Rogue. Access to Rogue-like invocations could give a limited sneak attack. Mike’s abilities from the earlier first pass at the Soul Knife, such as successful strikes granting temporary hit points or causing fear, could also be available as invocations.
With the Warlock providing at-will, per short rest and per long rest options, mechanics for psionics are already available in the game. As with 3e, run psionics as if it is another branch of magic, while thematically treating it as something different.
If you rule that powers do not have verbal, somatic or material components (as spells do have), it could give an advantage to a psion seeking to hide what they are doing. The 3e rules, however, include a display element to triggering the power, that could be added for balance. There might be a ‘bass-pitched hum’, or an ‘ephemeral translucent goo’ that is evident while the power is in effect, that helps point others to the psionic character as the source, so they can target them with counter attacks.
For those who want a system that highlights the differences between magic and psionics, Bruce R. Cordell’s optional rules, as above, can apply.
The Future: Spell Points, Athas, Time and Money
This leaves us with the 45 year old contention between spell slots and spell points. The gap in 5e is not quite so great, as the prepared caster’s ‘use it and lose it’ has been replaced with a slightly more flexible system.
The 2017 Mystic comes close to fitting psionics into 5e. Jeremy’s note though that the system proposed is “bonka-zonks broken” and with Mike having moved to another role within WotC, psionics may yet fall prey to ‘time is money’, and be pushed further back for easier releases. Certainly it seems we might now be getting a new Magic: The Gathering campaign setting each year.
These and the Critical Role Wildemount settings are already narratively fleshed out to a large extent and mechanics-wise fit into established precedents, including a mix of new subclasses, races and subraces and content already released in previous WotC books, hence require less development and testing time and so are cheaper to produce.
More importantly, these settings are intended to reach out to new players who watch DnD streams or play the Magic card game, but do not own DnD material. Simplifying entry into the hobby, or luring back some of the (estimated by WotC) 40 million who have at some time played DnD since 1974 is an overlapping aim, for example, with the release of the DnD Essentials Set.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is likely to drive further interest in the Forgotten Realms setting, which has become the 5e core world. This will bring over PC and console gamers to ‘pen and paper’, particularly when pen and paper is being replaced by virtual table tops, that have seen an increase during the lockdown.
Dark Sun is so different to the Forgotten Realms-type settings that are the subject of the WotC 5e adventures and expansions to date that it presents both an opportunity and a challenge. The challenge is that it might not be as easy to apply an Athas adventure to other settings. The opportunity is that it can serve as the hook for a new line of very different adventures and supplements, at a time when WotC and other RPG publishers are looking to break away from orcs and 16th Century tropes.
Psionics, dating all the way back to 1976 and, in fiction, even predating D&D, is, as the Mystic playtest feedback showed, still popular with existing players.
The AD&D 2e Dark Sun boxed set is available on the DMsGuild.com website in PDF format, currently a Platinum Best Seller.
Marvel showed a ready market with the release of Blade, reassuring movie execs. Ryan Reynold’s ‘mother’ leaking the Deadpool test footage showed a market for adult humor superhero films.
Keith Baker, Eberron creator, co-authored The Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron e-book, released mid-2018, demonstrating the market for a physical campaign guide, which arrived November 2019.
Dark Sun and psionics might not be that far away, especially if the market is proven to be already there waiting. In the meantime, maybe roll up a warlock.