Seeking The Way: Hopes and Fears for Psionics in Fifth Edition

In 1976, Gary Gygax released an expansion of the original DUNGEONS & DRAGONS rules in the form of Dungeons & Dragons Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry. Among the many new concepts introduced by this 60-page book were demons (including Orcus and Demogorgon), artifacts (including the Rod of Seven Parts and the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords), and a new system for supernatural abilities: psionics. Heralded as “one of the books that started it all”, it is little surprise that the material here formed part of the original Player’s Handbook (1978), including an optional ability for monsters and qualifying (read: lucky rolling) players to use psionic powers.

Ever since then, however, psionics have repeatedly lagged behind other concepts and mechanics in the game. After Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, no subsequent edition incorporated psionics into the core rules, instead releasing rules for them in supplements only after years of playtesting with magic systems. This has also been the case with Fifth Edition, which just got new psionic playtest material in the latest Unearthed Arcana.

These new playtest rules take a different approach to integrating psionics into the game. Unlike all previous psionic playtest material, which involved new psionic classes such as the Mystic, these rules include new archetypes for the core classes. Reception to the new design direction has been mixed, and so we decided to look at what expectations we can reasonably expect or hope for with psionics in Fifth Edition.

A Third Path to Power

As set out in earlier editions of the game, there are three main sources of supernatural abilities in the D&D universe: the Power, the Art, and the Way. The Power is wielded by agents of the gods—mostly paladins and clerics, but also druids after a fashion—and relies on the strength of one’s faith or devotion. The Art is magic in the traditional sense, the kind of thing wizards study in tall towers by candlelight, which taps the power of the planes or otherworldly essences like demons. The Way is the practice of psionics by those who have the innate gift (“the Will”) to wield the power of the mind.

As mentioned above, the Way hasn’t been included in the core rules since AD&D. For second edition, players had to wait until the release of the DARK SUN campaign setting (1991), which was complimented by the two companion books, The Complete Psionics Handbook (1991) by Steve Winter and The Will and the Way (1994) by L. Richard Baker. With the unique nature of Athas, the world of DARK SUN, as a place where the gods are silent and arcane magic defiles the world, psionics offered the only option for ‘magical’ characters, and to this day psionics remains most closely associated with the desert wasteland setting, where “almost every human, demi-human, and humanoid in the world is at least a wild talent”.

It is this incorporation of psionics into the very fabric of the setting that has historically been key to ingratiating players to its use. In a setting like Athas, it makes sense that each character class would have an archetype focusing on enhancing their abilities through psionic power, as seems likely to develop out of the newest Unearthed Arcana playtest material. Rather like some fighters go to the extra effort of bolstering their abilities with arcane magic and become Eldritch Knights (instead of simply taking the Magic Initiate feat for some minor magical power), so too would some fighters in a world like Athas avail themselves of psionics if they had the talent (or, “the Will”), and likewise of other classes. By integrating the Way into the core rules without requiring new classes, the introduction of psionics feels much more organic.

A Distinct System

Of course, some people have made the very fair point that, after years of waiting for the release of a balanced psionics system, it would be an enormous disappointment if it turned out to be simply a matter of flavouring existing mechanics. It’s already possible in a home game to cross out the words ‘magic’ and ‘spells’ and replace them with ‘psionics’ and ‘powers’; there’s no need for any official direction on that. Rather, a new system for psionics should be something else, something more substantial than spell-like psionic abilities that compete with a wide variety of established magical traditions.

We’ve had a new system teased several times through various iterations of the Mystic class in previous Unearthed Arcana material. Many players have already playtested the material and provided comprehensive feedback through Wizards of the Coast’s regular surveys. Of all the possible new classes that could be released, the Mystic is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated.

An Unlikely Dream

Unfortunately for those who believe psionics need to be distinct, there is growing evidence that Fifth Edition will ultimately fall short of this goal. With every psionic creature thus far released, from the mind flayer in the Monster Manual (2014) to the Gith races in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes (2018), their psionic powers have consistently been done as reflavoured spells instead of new powers, and psionics presented as spellcasting without spell components.

We are now almost five years into Fifth Edition, and the farther along we get the less likely it is that a massive revision will be released that officially changes how all psionic creatures use their powers.

And Yet…

The fact that the game designers are still bothering to come up with new playtest rules for psionics, especially archetypes for the core classes, is a sign that there is still hope. In fact, it may be a sign of something else in the works, something that just wouldn’t work without psionics.

New campaign settings like Ravnica and Eberron are proving to generate significant interest (and sales), and it may be that continued work on psionics is in preparation for a return to the one setting where they are integral: DARK SUN! A new campaign setting book along the same lines as the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide would make a fantastic companion to a full DARK SUN adventure, complete with a thick monster appendix that supports a new line of official miniatures. Of all the potential D&D settings Wizards of the Coast could opt to explore, DARK SUN possibly offers the best opportunity for merchandising at this point, being the most unique of all the as-yet-unexplored major settings.

But it will never happen if the psionics aren’t right, and the designers are undoubtedly aware of this fact. So the question is: Do they want this badly enough to do an overhaul?

Only time will tell.

What are your thoughts on the new playtest rules, and do you think the designers could be planning a return to DARK SUN? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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