D&D General Psionics versus Spellcasting: A Deep-Dive into the Lore Separation Between the Two, and the Rivalry Between Them


5e Freelancer
Hey there, everyone. I've made these two previous lore deep-dives for those that want to read them, about Dragons versus Giants and Vecna versus the Raven Queen earlier in this forum, and will continue the series of lore deep-dives in the future with other topics (the next one will probably cover the separation between Seelie and Unseelie Fey). I've been enjoying making this series so far, and hope everyone enjoys lore-based conflicts in D&D as much as I do. Let's get started!

The Origin of Psionics in D&D History​

To start out, I want to briefly cover the origins of psionics in the history of D&D, because it's fairly important to some of the themes that we'll be covering later on.

The first appearance of Psionics in D&D came in the Eldritch Wizardry book (which I discussed in my Vecna versus the Raven Queen deep-dive as being the first place that we saw Vecna. Suffice it to say, this book is really important to D&D historically), which also included psionic monsters such as the Mind Flayers, Intellect Devourers, and even Thought Eaters (those psionic astral platypuses that eat thoughts). It wasn't a huge part of D&D at the time, but it slowly grew more and more important, especially during AD&D 2e, when Dark Sun was released.

Dark Sun is quite different from most other settings, most notably due to the fact that regular spellcasting on Dark Sun tends to be destructive and harms the world around it, called "Defiling". There is a different type of "Preserving" magic, which does not harm the land. Due to the fact that magic destroyed the ecosystem of Athas (the world of Dark Sun), the more common type of supernatural powers on Athas are Psionics, most commonly used by Thri-Kreen, Athasian Gith, and other races with inherent bends towards psionic powers, but on Dark Sun, anyone can get a "Wild Talent" for gaining psionic powers (basically the equivalent of the Telepathic/Telekinetic feats from Tasha's Cauldron of Everything). Dark Sun became super popular, probably because it was so different from the core assumptions of the base game, and is now the most notable world in all of D&D where Psionics is a big deal.

It was somewhere around this time that Psionics got tied to Aberrations; creatures from the Far Realm that invade the Material Plane and other realms and have extreme mind powers. This likely was inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos, as evidenced by the Illithids being one of the most prominent masters of psionics in the D&D Multiverse, but has become even more important and solidified as the editions went on (notably by the changes to make Flumphs be telepathic and feed off of psychic energy in D&D 5e, and the change of Quori from Eberron into Aberrations from their original Fiend creature type).

The last world worth mentioning about its take on psionics is Eberron, which is a fairly new setting when compared to the history of D&D overall, but was also very influential and remains popular to this day. In Eberron, the continent of Sarlona is ruled by tyrant psions that serve the Dreaming Dark and build and run psionic factories that produce an ectoplasm-like substance made up of different emotions, which can be used as a resource, as well as other psionic innovations (giant Eldritch Machines that enhance telepathic powers, mind-control gemstones, etc). On Eberron's main continent, Khorvaire, magic takes the place of technology, but on Sarlona, Psionics takes the place of technology.

The Origin of Psionics in the Worlds of D&D​

Now, this is where things start to get interesting, because Psionics can come from a bunch of different places throughout the history of D&D. In the earliest editions, it was just a thing that you rolled to see if your character had, and every character had a chance of randomly getting Psionics, no matter what class or race they were. Eventually this evolved, from the random awakening of psychic energies that everyone has the possibility of gaining access to, to something granted by messing around with (or following) Aberrations like Illithids, to even being the source of the Monk's Ki in D&D 4e.

Simply put, psionics are a bit of a mess throughout the history of D&D, because there are a ton of spells that can grant access to different psionic powers (Telepathy, Telekinesis, Detect Thoughts, etc), a diverse swathe of different feats and classes that can grant access to psionics (Psionicists, Psychic Warriors, Soul Knives, Monks, etc), as well as them never really being solidified in the core rules of any of the editions from the get-go, leading to balance issues, poor design, and thematic overlap with other classes. It's hard to make sense of it, and every edition has approached psionics in its own way, and all of them have been controversial amongst the community (the most extreme position probably being the "get this Sci-Fi crap out of my fantasy game!!!" camp that pops up every now and then).

However, in D&D 5e, Psionics are a bit more unified in theme, if not even more confusing than ever before. The most recent sources of psionics in D&D 5e, through 4 subclasses in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, include a multitude of ways to achieve psionics. The most notable is the Aberrant Mind Sorcerer, where your psionics is attached to the Far Realm in some way, quite possibly by breaking free from the domination of an aberration, or being infected by an Illithid Tadpole and surviving without turning into a Mind Flayer, or being exposed to the warping energies of the Far Realm from the lingering energies of it that surround a closed gateway to that alien realm. However, the Soul Knife Rogue and Psi Warrior Fighter both get psionics just by training their bodies and minds to be able to channel it, and the Astral Self Monk channels their psionic-like abilities through their Ki, surprisingly close to the 4e approach to Monks. There are also some other classes that have borderline psionic abilities --- most especially the Bard class and its College of Whispers subclass --- which leads to thematic overlap and confusion over what psionics actually is in this edition.

Simply put, Psionics are mind powers. The ability to manipulate things with your mind. The reason why this has so much overlap with spellcasting and other features in D&D 5e and other editions is because there are already Intelligence-based casters and characters that can make use of their mental abilities without being explicitly psionic, such as the Wizard class or Arcane Trickster Rogue subclass. The question for awhile has been "do we need a class for channeling your mind powers if we have spells that channel mind powers and a casting class that uses Intelligence as its main ability?" And the D&D community has been split about this for awhile now, causing a lot of UA versions of psionics for D&D 5e to fail (the Mystic class, Archivist Artificer subclass, the Psionicist Wizard subclass, etc).

I personally preferred it how 4e approached psionics, as it just being another type of power source. There's Arcane (Wizard, Sorcerer, Warlock, Artificer, Bard), Divine (Cleric, Paladin), and Primal (Druid, Ranger) power sources as the main types of magic in the game, and in 4e there was also the Psionics power source, which included the Battlemind, Ardent, Monk, and Psion classes, while there are no explicitly psionic classes in D&D 5e (and Primal power sources were merged with Divine again, sadly). If there are 5 Arcane spellcasting classes in D&D 5e and 4 Divine, we deserve at least one Psionic class, even if it's just a spellcaster instead of having its own psionic system (like the Mystic did).

The Conflict Between Psionics and Spellcasting​

Okay, this is where things start to get complicated, as this differs heavily from world to world and from edition to edition, especially with the fuzzy line between psionics and spellcasting. To simplify it, in the history of D&D, psionic classes and spellcasting classes often have depended on different systems for how they function. Some systems had spellcasters use Spell Slots while Psions use Psi Points (like the Mystic UA), while 5e has taken a different approach so far, having Psionics be more of a flavor of spellcasting that you can do (as evidenced by the Aberrant Mind Sorcerer and Great Old One Warlock subclasses). Now, it's entirely possible that we could get a Psionic class in 5e, but it's unlikely that it will use any system besides spellcasting, and if it does, it will probably still count as magic for the purposes of Dispel Magic, Counterspell, Antimagic Sphere, and similar features.

Now, in-world, this difference, whether Psionics is just a different flavor of Spellcasting or an entirely different system, can lead to some serious conflicts. Psionics is inherently . . . iffy. The most well-known psionic powers are Telepathy (including mind-reading and mind-control), Telekinesis (moving people/objects with your mind, mind-crushing/choking creatures, etc), and Teleportation. Powers that relate to the mind can be scary in the worlds of D&D, especially if they don't count as magic and cannot be defended against through arcane means. That can lead to discrimination against psionic creatures/peoples (Kalashtar in Eberron's Khorvaire, certain areas of the Forgotten Realms, etc), and even the hunting of these individuals (as Aberrations are typically psionic, so the link between aberrant creatures and the strange mind powers that are Psionics could lead to violence). In Eberron, many see the psionic-authoritarian-dictatorship that rules Sarlona and become scared that the Kalashtar or other psionic peoples will use the same mind powers to take over their home, which can lead to discrimination against the Kalashtar (echoing the discrimination that Jews, Muslims, the Romani people, and other ethnic groups face in the real world, but in a fantasy equivalent).

It can also go the other way, where psionic people/monsters discriminate against non-psionic peoples or people with spellcasting, such as in Dark Sun, where most types of spellcasting damage the world and psionics is extremely common as a means to circumvent the normal restrictions on "magic"/supernatural powers. Defilers on Athas ruin the world by using their powers, so spellcasters are often hunted down and killed for practicing these harmful arts.

So, whether it's the Spellcasters that do the discriminating, or the Psions, or even both sides having a mutual animosity for each other, it is very common in many D&D worlds to have some sort of conflict between Spellcasters and the Psions of the world. It's true for Dark Sun, it's true for Eberron, it's true for many areas of the Forgotten Realms, and it's true for quite a few other official (and homebrew) D&D worlds. It's a common trope, for reasons explained above, and this brings us to the last section of this post. . .

How to Use the Conflict in Your World/Campaigns​

Now, I've already listed some examples of how this works in existing D&D worlds, so I'll list some examples of how you can do it in D&D 5e campaigns (and campaign settings) using the tools that 5e has officially provided so far, as well as list how my world approaches this conflict.

In D&D 5e, we already have plenty of magical/spellcasting options. There's the Artificer, Bard, Sorcerer, Warlock, and Wizard for Arcane casters, Clerics, Druids, Paladins, and Rangers as the divine (and primal) spellcasters. While we don't have an officially Psionic class, the Monk class can be reflavored as a psionic martial class, and we do have quite a few psionic subclasses for D&D 5e, like the Psi Warrior Fighter, Astral Self Monk, Soulknife Rogue, and the Great Old One Warlock. We also have some psionic races, like the Ghostwise Halfling, Gem Dragonborn, Kalashtar, Verdan, the UA Thri-Kreen, and a couple others. With Fizban's Treasury of Dragons and Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, there are also some psionic feats that you can take, like Telepathic, Telekinetic, and the Gift of the Gem Dragon. You can even take Fey/Shadow Touched or Magic Initiate and reflavor it as psionic powers if you take the appropriate spells with it (Mind Sliver, for example).

When designing a psionic culture in D&D, you could have the culture be based off of races that are psionic as the base culture, or make a non-psionic culture that encourages its peoples to take class levels in the classes/subclasses that grant psionic powers. Here's my example:

In my world, Tor-eal, the there is an artificial, fleshy, psionic race known as the Felshen. They have vibrant, colorful skin (magenta, turquoise, cream orange, etc), and are telepathic. They're relatively new to the world, and only discovered their psionic potential about a century after they were created by fleshmancers and artificers. The Felshen, using these powers, founded an international faction of psions that build settlements all across the world that depend on and are connected by psionic powers (this faction known as the "Sheiohn Foulen", which roughly translates to the "One-Mind Foundation"). They've even developed magical psionic innovations (mainly using Psi Crystals) to enhance their psionic powers, like psychic "telephone poles" that extend the range of your telepathy, headbands that let you telepathically lift heavier objects, psychic libraries, and dream hubs that let them be mentally active while sleeping. Their society mainly contains Felshen, but it also has Gem Dragonborn (and the occasional gem dragon), Verdan, Ghostwise Halflings, Gnome Ceremorphs, Flumphs, and similar creatures/species, and their armies are composed of low level Psi Warriors (they also have Soul Knife assassins, and the occasional Aberrant Mind Sorcerer War-Psion).

However, my world also has a religion of Goblinoids that worship magic, known as the Yikkan Goblinoids (Goblins practice divine magic, Hobgoblins practice arcane magic, Bugbears practice primal magic, but there is some crossover). They have their own international society, called the Yikkan Contingent, but are more of a religious institution than the Sheiohn Foulen are, and believe that aberrations and, by extent, psionics is an abomination that is actively preventing the world from becoming perfect. They've systematically discriminated against the Felshen, have gone to war with the Sheiohn Foulen dozens of times, and don't believe that the Felshen have souls and are absolutely A-OK with genocide against them and other psionic peoples. They were recently forced into a peace treaty with the Sheiohn Foulen by outside interference, but many members of the Yikkan Contingent still discriminate against the Felshen and other psychic peoples, and they have a huge rivalry with each other.

The point of having this kind of conflict in your world is mainly to inspire characters in your party's PCs that can relate to and be connected with the lore of the world and impact the plot of the game, but it also can craft realistic relationships between races/cultures in your world that can echo certain examples in the real world, as well as relating the mechanics of the game (psionics and spellcasting) to the world that it take place in.

tl;dr - Psionics and Spellcasting have a long and complicated history, both in-world and in the history of the game, but it can be used to craft nuanced and engaging stories for both your world and campaigns.

What are your thoughts? What's your take on "Psionics Versus Spellcasting" in your D&D worlds? Do you have any examples like the one that I provided? If you were to use this conflict in your world/campaign, how would you do it?

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The word 'psionics' is a neologism derived from the words "psi-electronics". In any setting without, or before, the development of electronics, it makes no sense to use that word. If you want to have psychic powers in your fantasy setting, go ahead. But don't just throw it in, and learn a a bit about the subject.


5e Freelancer
The word 'psionics' is a neologism derived from the words "psi-electronics". In any setting without, or before, the development of electronics, it makes no sense to use that word.
Every word in every language on Earth has an origin that wouldn't make sense to be used in a fantasy world, so I don't get this complaint at all. And, this thread is about the conflict between psionic and spellcasting powers/characters in D&D worlds, not about the semantics of which words to use in the world.
If you want to have psychic powers in your fantasy setting, go ahead. But don't just throw it in, and learn a a bit about the subject.
I mean, the whole OP is about how to add psychic powers into your games without "just throwing it in", and associating the abilities with the lore of the worlds, so if this complaint is about the OP, I don't get it. If you feel that I got something wrong in the post, feel free to correct me.
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I like having psionics as a distinct power source from magic, not sure how to do it in 5e just yet, I do like the way they've done the psionic subclasses for fighter and rogue though. I don't tend to link psionics to aberrations as the source of the power though they do have a focus on psionics over magic.

Having conflict between the two power sources is a good idea, they had this in dark sun as mentioned and I can also definitely see psions being hunted down due to everyone associating psionics with aberrations.

I also like blending the two sources or combining psionics with warrior classes. A 2e fighter/psionicist adds some cool powers to their combat abilities, a wizard/psionicist combines both power sources supplementing their magic with psionic strength.

I'm thinking of creating a psion for 5e where their psionics are a number of largely passive or at will abilities, kind of like a warlock's invocations.

The word 'psionics' is a neologism derived from the words "psi-electronics". In any setting without, or before, the development of electronics, it makes no sense to use that word. If you want to have psychic powers in your fantasy setting, go ahead. But don't just throw it in, and learn a a bit about the subject.
This is true with so many words in the English language that have a historical context.

If we are cutting out words due to their etymology not making sense in a fantasy word then we wouldn't be able to communicate.


As a DM, your stance on psionics will probably all come down to your position and definition of "magic".

If you define "magic" as the stuff spellcasters do using spells... then psionics cannot and should not be "magic". However, if you define "magic" as any so-called "supernatural" effect (by what we players understand to be what could have actually occurred during the time of medieval society based on its scientific level of understanding and design)... then psionics are another type of magic. One whose "power source" is different than the magic that Wizards use, Druids use, Clerics use etc.

I happen to fall into the latter camp myself... which is why I have never felt a real need for psionics to be an important thing in my games. We have so many ways of accessing magic in D&D that adding another to me is not necessary. I especially don't care and need psionics to use a different mechanical system for it... although I think if I was going to bother with it, I'd probably at the very least use the Spell Point variant rule for it just because.

But really... to my way of thinking at least as far as 5E is concerned... the fact that they didn't make the Monk class a "psionics" class to begin with... saying straight away that Ki is essentially psychic power (because it pretty much is as far as I'm concerned)... then they lost the chance to have psionics be an actual integrated thing in the game. 4E did it the right way (by saving the Monk's introduction for the psionics power source in PHB3)... but my only real issue with that is that the name and the fluff of the Monk is rather disparate from the other names and fluff of the other psionic classes. Those all tend to have the scientific-y names like Empath, Battlemind, Psi-Warrior, and not words that evoke a more swords & sorcery feel (I am one of the people who liked the name Mystic much more than Psion.)


I don't mind the idea of psionics as a form of magic. Where I take issue is when people take this to mean that therefore psionics or psionic-focused classes are unnecessary. But this is also the problem of the existing classes not being built with a possible space for psionics in mind. Consider that psionics is a form of "occult" magic in Pathfinder 2, but it still has a space conceptually and class-wise for its archetypes.

Every word in every language on Earth has an origin that wouldn't make sense to be used in a fantasy world, so I don't get this complaint at all. And, this thread is about the conflict between psionic and spellcasting powers/characters in D&D worlds, not about the semantics of which words to use in the world.

I mean, the whole OP is about how to add psychic powers into your games without "just throwing it in", and associating the abilities with the lore of the worlds, so if this complaint is about the OP, I don't get it. If you feel that I got something wrong in the post, feel free to correct me.
Complaints on this message board are supposedly common I guess. Even if sometimes they make no sense at times. Shrugs.

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