Save My Game
Psionics
By Jason Nelson-Brown

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

What Changes with Psionics?

What's a DM to do when considering major changes to the campaign? This installment of Save My Game examines ways to integrate psionics into an ongoing game.

Problem: Introducing Psionics

I was wondering about Psionics. I presently don't have them in my campaign, and probably won't add them, but I was wondering how much of my campaign would have to adjust for psionics? How does the world around them adjust to psions and psionic classes? -- High Octane, from the Wizards message boards

Our recent Sibling Rivalry article approached this topic, of introducing a new system--such as psionics--to the game. And for more information on psionics, be sure to consult the Mind's Eye, the website column dealing with this topic and discussing ways to integrate psionics with recent sourcebooks (such as the Weapons of Legacy, part 1 and part 2 . And of course, this March will see the release of Complete Psionic!

Psionics are a tricky beast in D&D. Always have been. The biggest problem is that they are not now and never have been a really core-integrated part of the rules. The psionics rules are integral within themselves, and they are connected to the core rules in ways that are not hard to understand if you choose to study them. But you don't have to. Because of this, you end up with a situation in which only players interested in psionics will choose to learn about psionics. Others will not. If the 'not' group includes the DM, you have a problem, because how is the DM supposed to administer the rules fairly in an area where he is not an expert? To whom in the group can the DM appeal for rules clarification on psionics if the psionic-player is the only one with a firm grasp of them?

Besides, even if the psionic-player is doing everything perfectly by the book, it may still feel to others that the player is cheating. Further, the higher frequency of strange rules, unexpected results, and the need for rules clarifications and explanations (which often are just different enough from standard rules to confuse or annoy) is bound to make that player's turn take longer than others in combat, with the added frustration of the psionic-player's actions being harder to understand and figure out for those who are not experts on the psionic system.

I state all the above as someone who has always liked psionics and used them in my campaigns, but also has someone who has driven DMs and even other players to distraction when playing a psionic character (to the point where two DMs gave up and outlawed psionics mid-campaign rather than dealing any further with the issue).

Many people feel like psionics is more a sci-fi or superhero element that doesn't fit with fantasy, so you have to decide if psionics are even to your taste as part of D&D. You can run classic psionic monsters like mind flayers and intellect devourers using spell-like or supernatural abilities instead, so do you really need to have psionics as a rule set to incorporate mind-warping horrors into the campaign? No, you don't. But since you asked what to adjust if you do want to put psionics in the campaign, your options are these:

1. Go All the Way

The most dominant implementation of psionics in the history of D&D was in the 2nd EditionDark Sun setting. Why? Because every character was psionic, at least with wild talents, so every player had to have at least a passing familiarity with the basics of the psionic system. Most monsters were psionic, so the DM also had to be familiar with the system. Treasure tables included both magical and psionic items. On top of that, the campaign setting had certain social restrictions on the use of arcane magic that made psionics a comparatively attractive option rather than just being a wizard (or a sorcerer in 3rd Edition, the most comparable class to the psion, if you were to use a similar world with the current version of D&D). Psionics were always right there in front of you as you went through the rule system, so you didn't have to go looking for them.

2. Psionics, What the Heck is That?

At the opposite end of the spectrum is a world where psionics exist, but they are very rare. Most people have never heard of them and wouldn't know what to make of them if they saw them, other than to assume it was just some different type of magic. Psionic items are almost never found as treasure, and psionic monsters are rarely encountered because there simply are not many around. Perhaps they cluster in certain enclaves, deep in the Underdark or on remote islands or mountain ranges or monasteries. Perhaps most (if not all) psionics-wielders belong to secret societies that teach their art hidden from view of the masses.

For the learned arcane and divine wielders of magic, their reaction to encounters with psionics users will depend radically on whether you use the 'psionics are different' option, in which psionics operate on a different 'frequency' from other forms of supernatural powers. As a result, they cannot be detected, dispelled, or suppressed by things that affect magic. An antimagic field holds no terror for a psionics user because he is not using magic. At the same time, a null psionics field would do nothing against a wizard's power. Knowledge (psionics) and Knowledge (arcana) are very different skills, as are Use Psionic vs. Magic Device, or Psicraft vs. Spellcraft.

Because of the potential for psionics users to break the rules of arcane and divine magic, it is likely that wielders of magic view psionics users with suspicion at best and more likely outright enmity. Psions would be hunted as dangerous and uncontrollable renegades against the natural order of the universe who are probably in league with unspeakable aberrations from beyond the stars. Psionic characters must either become very good at hiding their craft or disguising it as ordinary magic when they use their art publicly (the inverse of what arcane spellcasters had to do in Dark Sun campaigns).

'Psionics are different' is an idea that is very attractive on the surface. It clearly marks out psionics as distinct from arcane and divine magic, but it creates enormous in-game problems in my experience, as well as exacerbating all of the problems noted at the beginning of this column. You could cobble together rules that allow psionics and magic to interact in a restricted way (like ordinary magic and Shadow Weave magic from Forgotten Realms) in order to moderate some of the game-breaking effects, but my advice is: That way lies madness!

If you rule that psionics operate in the same way as magic, psionics are apt to be viewed as an exotic nonesuch but are unlikely to elicit outright hostility any more than any other profession, unless you choose to create cultural or societal issues for them.

3. Psionics? Yeah, Whatever ...

In the middle, you have the typical approach -- partial integration of psionics. Psionic characters, monsters, and items are freely available just as magical ones are, though the finding of psionic items is likely to be less than the finding of magical ones if only because of DM inertia -- it's one less book to look through when selecting treasure or encounters. By ruling that psionics are simply uncommon (rather than very rare), you still position them as less common than ordinary magic and monsters. Psionic characters are just like every other kind of character, attracting no more or less attention than people with other career paths and sources of power.

While this resolves in-game complications, sitting around the table, you will still face the problems I described at the beginning. At the very least, you should have a group discussion about what people at the table think about psionics. If you have a player who really wants to do it, consider their request, but you as the DM are the decision maker. If you are not willing to put in the time to learn the psionic system, then, like any rules subset you're unfamiliar or uncomfortable with, you probably shouldn't allow psionics use in your campaign.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.


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