Psionics have been with us since the earliest days of the game, though they've occasionally (especially in the earliest editions) been treated a bit like an outsider. They were introduced in the third-ever published supplement for D&D, Eldritch Wizardry, which in the space of 60 pages also introduced such luminary elements as demons, mind flayers, and the druid class.
In today's edition of D&D Alumni, we look back at the history and mechanics of psionics through the editions—ending with a sneak peek at one of the terrors of the Underdark!
With AD&D, psionics officially became part of the core experience with the inclusion of a whopping eight pages (including power descriptions) in Appendix I of the Player’s Handbook, as well as various combat tables in the Dungeon Master's Guide. Under that system any player character had a small percentage chance to gain a "wild talent," granting a suite of potentially powerful abilities on top of the character's normal class abilities. These abilities were limited by a character’s "psionic strength points," which immediately established that psionics would always use a different set of mechanics than the spellcasting that it otherwise resembled.
Is Your Hero Gifted?
How to tell if your character may be psionic? The 1st Edition Player's Handbook offered the following test (no Zener cards required).
Characters with Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma scores of 16 or higher might have psionic ability, determined by a percentile dice roll. Any score of 00 (100%) indicates the ability exists. For each 1 point of Intelligence above 16 add 2 ½ to the dice roll, for each 1 point of Wisdom above 16 add 1 ½ to the dice roll, and for each 1 point of Charisma above 16 add ½ to the dice roll.
Unfortunately, many DMs found wild talents unbalanced, since a character with psionic powers was definitively more powerful than one without. Psionic combat also relied on a series of subsystems not resembling anything else in the game (though this was more common in the earlier editions than in recent times).
Perhaps the most daunting element of the psionics system was that psionic "exchanges" happened once per segment, a unit of game time that we don’t really bother with anymore. This meant that in the time your fighter took to swing his sword once, my psionic character had mentally attacked someone ten times. Aside from issues of balance, this really made the psionic character a headache for everyone at the table, since he had ten results to look up on a matrix every round he wanted to use his powers. To quote the 1st Edition DMG: "when psionic combat is begun, a good DM will usually just stop everything else until it is taken care of."
As was perhaps standard for D&D of the time, there was an odd host of exceptions to the rules. Magic-users couldn’t have the body weaponry power, which was probably fine, since they were unlikely to attack with weapons, even home-grown ones. Clerics and thieves could use body weaponry, but only advancing as far as +1 swords and morning-stars, respectively. More puzzlingly, thieves couldn’t learn the dominate powers, even though they’d be great for running confidence scams. Fighters couldn’t have the empathy power, which seems like an indictment against those insensitive, macho jerks. But my personal favorite one was clerics’ total inability to change their own size with the expansion and reduction powers. Something in those pious vows allowed a cleric to use the power of his mind to reshape his hand into a "sword, long +1," but strictly forbids growing one foot in height per character level. Go figure.
1st Edition psionic powers fell into minor (devotions) and major (sciences). Body weaponry was classified as a devotion. Equivalent transformative powers on the sciences side included such things as molecular rearrangement, shape alteration, and molecular manipulation (allowing the user to make a particular material fragile and easily broken, according to the following chart).
Level of Mastery
Able to Manipulate the Equivalent of
||thick cord, leather thong
||thick rope, leather strap, thin wire
||thick wire, 1/12' thick wooden board
||light iron chain, 1/6' thick wooden board
||heavy iron chain, light steel chain
||stock and shackles, 1' thick board
||iron bar of 1/12' diameter, heavy steel chain
||iron bar of 1/6' diameter, steel bar of 1/12' diameter
||2' thick stone wall (man-sized hole)
||magical chain armor, magical dagger
||magical splint armor, magical mace
||magical shield, magical axe or flail
||magical plate armor, magical sword
2nd Edition removed psionics from the Player’s Handbook, but also expanded those eight pages into the 128-page Complete Psionics Handbook. This sourcebook attempted to solve the balance and complexity issues in a few ways. Psionic combat still depended on the same five attack and defense modes, and psionic strength points (now thankfully officially abbreviated to PSPs), but you could only attack once or twice a round. Each successful psionic attack established a "tangent" with your target, and once you had three of these tangents, you were said to have "contact" with the enemy mind and could use other, more dangerous powers on your opponent (you could automatically make contact with a non-psionic character).
2nd Edition made psionics primarily the purview of a dedicated class, the psionicist, but there was still a roll allowed for any player to check for wild talents, and it was still clearly better to have a wild talent than to not have one.
The other way 2nd Edition tried to mainstream psionics was through the Dark Sun campaign setting, which baked psionics right in. Every character was instructed to roll for a wild talent— which could finally have equalized matters, except that powers were chosen from a rather varied list. The thri-kreen with animate shadow was just not going to do as well as the half-giant with disintegrate.
As the one setting to fully embrace psionics, Dark Sun supplements regularly introduced new psionic powers, though one supplement deserves special mention, The Will and the Way. To backtrack for a moment, the psionics rules had always featured mental combat, conceptualized for the game with "attack modes" and "defense modes" with names like ego whip and tower of iron will. Each of the attacks had bonuses against some defenses and penalties against others, which were summarized on a table that you'd consult whenever you made a mental attack. The Will and the Way, trying to bring more flavor to the experience, added "harbingers" and "constructs" to the mix, so you'd choose psychic crush for your attack, with the Dragon harbinger, which would have a different set of bonuses or penalties depending on what construct and defense mode your opponent used. Noble in intent, this system required consulting a full-page table in rather small type every time you made or suffered a mental attack, and it started to feel like doing your taxes instead of having a thrilling battle of wills.
The Skills & Powers book revised psionics yet again, trying to bring it a little more into the mainstream of the game, now featuring MTHAC0 and MAC, mental parallels to the system used in standard combat.
3rd Edition finally made a genuine attempt to make psionics a completely balanced subsystem within the game. Perhaps most significantly, it removed the idea of wild talents. If you wanted psionic powers, you chose to play one of the psionic classes—and not all of these classes were squishy wizards who used psionic instead of arcane energy. The Psionics Handbook's psychic warrior, for example, provided a psionic character that wasn’t afraid to stand next to the monster, and also accessed the new psionic feats, which let you do things like run up walls or resolve your attacks without having to pay attention to petty details like the enemy’s armor.
There were two other major balancing factors:
First, psionics would no longer be completely distinct from magic, and therefore able to circumvent several standard mechanics of the game such as a monster’s magic resistance (in those days, particularly powerful monsters could shrug off a certain percentage of the spells thrown at them, but practically no one had any intrinsic resistance to psionics).
Second, the new rules for mental combat meant that there was finally a downside to having psionic powers. Under previous editions, if I used ego whip on you and you didn't have any psionic defense modes to stop me—well, your ego was extremely likely to get whipped. 3rd Edition introduced the "non-psionic buffer," which was essentially the defense mode that everyone had if they hadn't trained their brains to channel psionic energy. Unlike the other defense modes, this one was good against all attack modes. With the non-psionic buffer, DMs no longer had to feel like every monster in the game had left the back door of its brain open whenever a player was interested in using a psionic character.
Edition 3.5 gave us the Expanded Psionics Handbook and Complete Psionic, adding several more psionic classes (enough to build an entire, balanced party out of psionic characters). It also removed the somewhat bizarre mechanic of having each psionic discipline requiring a different ability score—a vestige of sorts which had been around in one form or another for some time.
The Expanded Psionics Handbook also added the idea of psionic focus, a new mechanic mostly to help balance some of the psionic feats (which tended to have some truly impressive effects) by restricting how frequently they could be used. The idea was that you could "gain focus" with a full-round action and a skill check, and could keep it more or less until you chose to use it for something. Several of the more powerful psionic feats could only be used if you "expended your focus" on them, ensuring that you couldn’t ignore enemy armor or do maximum damage with your power any time you felt like it. Making the equation more interesting, though, were other feats that only worked while you still had your focus, sometimes necessitating hard tactical choices to make about whether you wanted to give up a minor, ongoing benefit in order to gain a more dramatic, one-time benefit.
4th Edition has now unveiled its take on psionics, starting with the new psion class previewed in D&D Insider. Given 4E’s inherent mechanics regarding power sources, the psion seems perfectly balanced with other controllers, while the new version of power points retains some of the flexibility that has always been psionics' hallmark in the game. A deeper look at psionics followed in the Player's Handbook 3, with its larger suite of classes (including the monk, now an adherent to the psionic keyword).
Of course, psionics still has that "outsider" sensibility, but now it’s baked into the story of the game: psionic powers originate in the Far Realm, and that place’s creeping influence on the world is responsible for their manifestation in mortals.
Certain powers have also returned in 4th Edition, such as tower of iron will (now a defensive feat), and psychic crush in the PH3. In addition, the 1st Edition Player's Handbook also stated that: "Use of psionic powers, or related magic spells (such as clairaudience, clairvoyance, ESP, detection, levitation, etc.) does not attract the attention of creatures (or monsters) with psionic powers unless they are within range and attuned to such activity."
With the Monster Manual 3, at least one of these psionic creatures returns to the game, perhaps waiting to pick up on such expended psionic energy:
Of all the terrors of the Underdark, intellect devourers are among the most feared. These hideous creatures carry the taint of the Far Realm, roaming deep tunnels and dank caverns in search of sentient prey. When it attacks, an intellect devourer consumes a foe’s psychic energy, drinking deep until only an empty husk remains.
Attack: Melee 1 (one stunned creature); +17 vs. Will
Hit: 2d6 + 6 psychic damage, and the target is dominated (save ends; the target takes a –2 penalty to the saving throw). While the target is dominated by the predator, the predator occupies the target’s space and cannot be targeted or take damage. The predator cannot use claw while the target is dominated. When the target saves, the predator appears in the unoccupied space nearest to the target.
Aftereffect: The target is dazed (save ends).
Mockery of Life
(charm, healing) Recharge
when no creature is dominated by this power
Effect: One dead creature regains 20 hit points and is dominated until the end of the encounter or until it drops to 0 hit points or fewer.